Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Tea With the Wife of Muhammad

(There are no photos with this post because the family asked that we not publish photos of them. Photos of Quetta will be added as soon as I scan them!)

"All Eyes are Hungry"
     The first time we experienced the warmth and generosity of Muslims was during a trip to Quetta Pakistan in 1995. Quetta is very traditional in the Islamic sense, including manner of dress. Even though I was covered head to toe in a loose fitting dress, leggings, a long sleeved shirt and scarf for my head the day we arrived, men stared at me and circled me on their bicycles. The next day, we purchased a traditional shalwar kameez so I that I would be attired the same as the women in Pakistan.

     As we walked through the town we realized there were hardly any woman in the streets or working in the shops. The few women we did see were escorted by a male family member who did the negotiating and carried all the packages. It turned out I too couldn’t shop alone. It wasn’t that I wasn’t allowed to walk into shops and try to purchase something. But when I did enter a shop I couldn’t get any service. I went into one store to buy sandals and the proprietor would not speak or look at me. He wasn’t rude. He simply didn’t know what to do with me. My husband had to do all the talking.

     At first we didn’t see women in the restaurants. We learned that the caf├ęs were segregated by gender; the men were in the front and the women in a room in the back. Some restaurants had a “family room” where families could eat together.

     I was irritated. It was an inconvenience to both of us that my husband had to do everything for me. “Why don’t the women rise up so they can work, shop and eat where they want?” I said to my husband as we walked around town, all eyes upon us.

     Later that week, fully covered in the local attire, I stood by my husband as he got a shave in a barber chair under a tree. The barber, after barely a glance at me said to my husband, “It is very good that your wife dresses this way,” he paused before adding, “because in Pakistan, all eyes are hungry.”

     While it was difficult to fully understand the culture, we were struck by the constant generosity and kindness of the people of Quetta. Everywhere we went people were curious about us and made an effort to talk to us. They always seemed to end up giving us more than we asked for, be it a meal or a service. And every conversation, meal or visit to a shop always came with a cup of tea.

     We walked the streets of Quetta for a week becoming more comfortable each day. Most of our prior knowledge of Muslim culture came from watching a few public television specials. Being there and experiencing it was nothing like what we had read or heard.

A License to Drink Beer

     Pakistan is dry and by that I don’t mean arid. Muslims are not allowed to drink alcohol. In Quetta maybe all eyes are hungry but we were thirsty! As hard as we tried to respect the customs of the Muslim culture we really missed Happy Hour. We hadn’t had a beer in two weeks and, while we aren’t heavy drinkers, it is a tradition of ours to toast the end of a travel day with a sundowner of some sort. The happiest of Happy Hours takes place when traveling.

     Acquiring alcohol in Pakistan is not an easy task, but it is not impossible. First, we would have to go to the police and apply for a “permit as a non-Muslim” which we would then present at an unmarked building where we could purchase a case of beer. Not really that difficult and since traditions must be honored, my husband turned to me one morning and said, “I’m going to get one of those beer drinking permits. Be back in an hour!”

     An hour went by, then two then four and I was more than a little worried about what might have happened. I started thinking things like “If he gets back alive I’m going to kill him!” as people do when they are worried about a loved one.

     At dusk he returned. Here’s the story he told after I demanded, “What took you so long?” and, “Did you at least get some beer?”
     “Why do you look so angry?” he replied managing to actually look puzzled as to why I would be upset that he went missing in a city where almost all the men walk around carrying guns. He continued. “OK. So you saw me drive off in the auto rickshaw right? Well the driver didn’t know the exact office to go to get the permit so we had to pick up a friend of his who said he knew where to go. Then they took me to the place where I would ultimately get to buy some beer if I was able to get a permit but I was told I had to go to the police station first. Then the beer agent invited me to have some tea so we all sat and had tea and talked. Then the driver, his friend, the beer agent and I crammed into the rickshaw and drove to the police station where I was invited to have tea with the police officers while we waited for the man who supposedly knew about beer permits. After tea and the usual questions: Where are you from, how many children do you have… the man in charge of non Muslim beer drinking licenses arrived and told me that the police station wasn’t the place to get a permit but that he knew where to go. He led the way in an army vehicle, which for some reason made my rickshaw driver very nervous, and we drove in convoy to an office where, low and behold, a woman was working behind a desk! She looked at me with curiosity as the police officer, the auto rickshaw driver, his friend and I sat down to have tea with the other men in the office. Then the woman at the desk began speaking to me in Urdu. One of the men translated. “She wants to know how many children you have.” I told her none, but I took out your passport, which I had with me and showed her your picture for, you know, potential. Pointing at your picture, and at me she asked through the translator if we would do her the honor of coming to her home for tea! I didn’t know what to make of the whole thing but she wrote a bunch of stuff down in Urdu, which turns out to be directions to her home, and here it is!” he finished while proudly producing the piece of paper.

     I took it from him saying, “So it wasn’t your fault you were gone all day. It was the tea.”

     “Exactly! Anyway, what do you think about going to this lady’s house?” he asked excitedly. I took his extreme, definitely not Scott-like, animation to be due to his excessive caffeine consumption that day.

     “You’re Red Bulling on me. Calm down.” I said as I looked down at the scrap of paper. I couldn’t tell if I was holding it right side up. “What does it say?”

     “I told you. It’s her address and all we have to do is hand it to an auto rickshaw driver and he will be able to read it and will know where to take us. We are invited there for tea!” He said pointing at the squiggles on the paper for emphasis.

     “How do we know this doesn’t say “Take these two infidels up to the hills and sacrifice them to Allah?” I replied.

     “C’mon, Tris. It’s tea.”
     “Well…did you at least get some beer?” I asked, softening some.
     “Of course! After the woman gave me her address the paperwork was a slam-dunk. We all drove back to the beer vendor in the unmarked building and I was presented with a cup of tea and a case of warm beer. Want one?”
     “Why not?” I said, “It could be my last.”

     The next afternoon we handed the scrap of paper to an auto rickshaw driver and saw places in Quetta we never would have had my husband not been thirsty for a beer the day before.

     The driver spoke a little English. He told us the note had a street name and number and “The House of Muhammad” written on it. After many wrong turns and stops to ask for directions we finally arrived at Muhammad’s house.

     The eldest son, Muhammad Jr., greeted us at the door and invited us in. His English was excellent which was a good thing because I was wondering how we were going to be able to communicate. Muhammad introduced his father, his two brothers, his sister, and the woman my husband met in the office.

     In the sparsely furnished but tidy house there was a sewing machine, a dowry trunk, a few pillows on the floor and photographs of ancestors hanging on the wall. A small one burner stove with pots stacked nearby sat on a tiled area in a small courtyard in front of the house. In the largest room we were offered pillows to sit on and the family sat around us on the floor in a semi circle. Rather, everyone in the family but the 12-year-old girl who sat behind the family. Tea and several plates of pretty cakes and sweets were set down in front of us. It must have cost a small fortune.

     That tea party was and still is one of the most memorable encounters I have had with a local family in all our travels. The eldest son asked about our lives and we asked about theirs. My husband commented to Muhammad how surprised he had been to see his mother behind the desk the day before. The son explained that the family was not happy that his mother had to work. Several years prior his father had become very ill making it impossible for him to work. As I looked at the father I could see that something had affected his motor skills. We were told that the most he could do now was sweep floors at a clinic. So the mother had to go to work to support the family of six. Muhammad Jr. said that he was eager for the day when he could do his duty and support the family so that his mother would not have to work.

     We asked how his mother and father met. The mother told the story to us in Urdu and the son translated.
She began, “It was very long ago! My parents and the parents of a distant cousin arranged our marriage while I was outside playing. I was five years old,” she said with a smile. When she got to the part about playing in the street, she threw back the veil from her face to take us back to the time when she was just a girl and not yet covered. She had a beautiful smiling face and it struck me that she and I were about the same age. She continued, “When I came in from outside I met the little boy who was to become my husband.”
She was enchanting as she told the story. Despite not having many choices in her life, she seemed to be a very happy woman. As she adjusted her veils I asked Muhammad, “What is the role of Muslim women in Pakistani society today?”

     I could tell that he knew what he wanted to say but was struggling with how to make it understandable to us. Finally he said, “Are you familiar with computers and how they operate?”

     Coming from the capital of Silicon Valley we answered, “A little.”

     “Well,” he continued, “here women are like the motherboard on a computer. They are so important! Without them, nothing works. Nothing succeeds. Women are what give order to our world. They are also the moral backbone of society.”

     It was a pivotal moment for me. I had been walking around Quetta not getting it. The woman weren’t being held down. They were held high up, on a pedestal.

     As we sat talking with Muhammad Jr., I tried to bring his young sister into the circle and in on the conversation. “Your sister is very quiet. Won’t she sit next to me?” I said while indicating there was space to my right. Muhammad looked a little annoyed and didn’t answer.

     “Her clothes are very beautiful.” I said still feeling that she was being excluded.
     “She makes all the clothes for the family.” He replied dismissively.
     “Wow! They are very lovely and very well made. When she is older maybe she will be able to sell the clothes she makes,” I said naively. Men were the tailors, not women. And it would not be respectable for her to have to make an income.
     Tiring of me talking about something as unimportant as his sister, Muhammad said with some impatience, “When she is 14 she will be married and that is all.”

     It would have been beyond rudeness for me to say it, but I couldn’t help think that respect for women must only start when their backbone is fully formed, at marriage.

     We brought with us photos of our families. My husband and I with our mothers, a Christmas celebration, all 23 of us playing charades together as we often did…. Muhammad spoke to his family in Urdu translating my descriptions of the photos. As they looked at the pictures I could see they were puzzled about something. Muhammad finally turned to us saying, “Your family seems very close. We thought that all American families do not spend time together and that children barely speak to their parents.”

     “I think my family is a pretty typical American family,” I replied. “We get together often and we respect our parents very much. We have a lot of fun together.” I could tell that I had changed their opinions of Americans, at least a little. So much conflict in the world seems to be based on misconceptions so I was glad to give them a different way to think about American families.

     As we left The House of Muhammad that evening we had a new appreciation for Muslim society and the place of women in it. The mother gave me a headscarf, which she took from the dowry trunk, and demonstrated how to wear it properly. I was overwhelmed by her gift. Muhammad Jr. told us that we were the only foreigners who had ever been invited into their home.

     “Who would have thought that your desire for a beer yesterday would have turned into this wonderful experience today?” I asked my husband as we rode back to our guesthouse.

     The next day we scoured the few shops in Quetta wanting to buy something to give to the family in return for their hospitality. Finding nothing suitable we remembered that we had a large and well-designed daypack that we had never used so we gave it to Muhammad to use at computer school. He was very pleased and said that after he was finished with schooling it would be passed down to his brother and that brother would pass it on to the next.

     The following morning Muhammad Jr. brought us a special meal. He said his mother had stayed up all night preparing it and that it was a meal prepared once a year to honor their ancestors. What a gesture! My heart ached from that act of kindness.

     Later, we needed some stitching done on my tired old backpack. We took it to a tailor on the main road but instead of receiving a bill for service we were given tea. When we insisted on paying, the proprietor excused himself and came back with a gift for us.

     Whenever we went to a bank to cash travelers checks in Pakistan we were always taken to the office of the bank manager and given tea and engaged in conversation. It seemed impossible to give without getting something in return in Pakistan. It was very frustrating! -And very inspiring.

     Later we learned that the Urdu word for “guest” is “blessing from God”.

     I thought about the Muslim women in Iraq struggling for their right to work and attend school. Maybe a young Muslim girl in Pakistan will some day soon be able to design and sell the clothes she makes and not get married at fourteen. But the older generations will not have an easy time accepting change. A Muslim woman we know who immigrated to our city from Bosnia over fifteen years ago still refers to me as “Woman of Scott.”

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