One of the things that really hits you when you are in Pakistan is the awful contrast between the haves and the have-nots. While the middle class live in large houses, the poor live in what can only be called hovels. Large houses are often full of extended family members, so there are more people than you might imagine living behind the high walls and the security guards. The security guards are armed because there is always the threat of kidnapping. This is more imminent if the family head is an officer in the armed forces. I worked with women who were, on a daily basis, scared about the safety of their children, themselves, and their husbands.
As a Westerner in Pakistan, I was stared at, asked if men could take my photograph (or rather my male partner was asked if they could take my photo) and once or twice physically accosted because I was holding my partner’s arm as we walked down a main street in Rawalpindi, which is almost a part of Islamabad. In fact, the only way you can tell you have crossed from ‘Pindi into Islamabad is that there are more road blocks and security checks.
I wore the traditional clothing and even wore the dupatta (scarf) over my head in the street, so that my white-blonde hair wasn’t immediately obvious. However, people still stared and children were terrified as I was the first white person they had come across if they were from the poor or under-class. I was constantly approached by beggars for money and even neighbours would come to ask to borrow money.
I lived in a cul-de-sac in a one-roomed house. The bathroom consisted of the squat toilet (which middle-class Pakistanis referred to as “Indian toilets”) and a shower. Of course, all people of the Indian sub-continent were classed as Indians before Partition and Independence in 1947, so the distinction seemed pointless to me. There was an open drain opposite the room and its only saving grace was that it had a roof, although neighbours would openly stare at me if I sat there on warmer winter days.
We made the roof into a garden, with jasmine, roses, coriander, cacti and a variety of other plants. We also decorated the room so that it looked like a home. When we first looked at it the floor was crawling with bugs, not only cockroaches, but small bugs that were a little like crickets which made a racket during the night. We got rid of them rapidly although I am not sure other people bothered to buy the necessary bug killing spray.
The area I lived in was busy, and there was a long road full of shops which was known as the bazaar. There were shops which had goats heads and bulls testicles hanging outside them and chickens could be purchased and then killed in front of you. I balked at these shops as the level of hygiene (flies and so on) did not seem to be of the highest standard and having had dysentery, I was picky about what I ate.
I survived, and although it was hard, I don’t regret the experiences I had during the four years I lived in Pakistan. I met some very good people and others, of course who were not so good. One of the good ones has died recently, and I would like to dedicate this post to Shahjee, who befriended us when we first arrived in Chur Har Pal, Rawalpindi.