Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Syrup Diplomacy 2

Teacher Sherry Whitley, whose son is a fifth grader in the class in Florida that became my friends because of pancake syrup, told her first grade class about the emails and showed them the photograph of me with the syrup. "But she's all out of syrup!" her students said, when they saw it...

Then, the children got so curious about Pakistan that they asked her lots of questions: Do they have McDonalds? do they have swimming pools? How long would it take to go to Pakistan? Does the mail go by plane or boat?

Sherry took the opportunity to Google the country and they looked at pictures of the flag, the map, and schoolchildren in Pakistan. She wrote to me about it and sent me photographs, and thanked me for dropping into their lives via a mistaken email.

And now I'm crying because this tale just gets sweeter by the day.

The Tweet That Went Around The World

I wrote a tweet yesterday about the Australian ‪#‎illridewithyou‬ reaction to the Sydney cafe siege. It has since been retweeted nearly 1700 times, favorited by 900 people, been read out loud on ABC news, plagiarised by an Australian human rights activist, quoted in several online news stories. Responses: "Islam is not a race", "not beautiful. Stupid, offensive, not necessary", "who's going to ride with the victims of Islamist terrorism", etc. etc.

Why I note this is not to pat myself on the back for a tweet, but to observe how our discourse affects and is affected by technology and social media. This is a change I've seen in the last two years, even though I've been on Twitter since 2008. Now, journalists and news editors turn to Twitter to find and report the news, disseminate information, and keep track of what people are talking about. Every major news channel and broadcaster includes viewer tweets in their programs, and seeks feedback on Twitter. This has resulted in a blurring of boundaries between the reporter and the reported, the news and the newsmakers.

You could say this is more democratic or you could say it is more anarchic. But definitely social media has driven changes in journalism. Instead of newspapers and television and radio, we have "vertically driven digital media." Because of this change we see the profusion of sites like BuzzFeed, Vox, Politico, and the implosion of a traditional news stalwart like the New Republic. The New York Times experimented with an iPad application to push their opinion pieces, but it failed because nobody wanted to pay for that specific content.

These are exciting times for news and journalism and writing, but they are also scary times because we have a beast that nobody quite knows how to control.

In other news, I had to tell my 23 month old nephew that if he didn't behave himself, I would have to take off his new shoes and give them to the cat.

Does anyone want a selfie?

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Syrup Diplomacy

Sometimes life is pretty sweet...

When I woke up on Friday morning I saw about fifteen emails in my inbox from a mailing group of parents whose kids are in first fifth grade in Tampa, Florida. I got included on the list by mistake as there's a Shah child in the class. The class teacher was planning a pancake party for Friday as part of a science class on "chemical changes" and was looking for parents to bring in pancake mix, syrup, paper plates, forks and knives and napkins.

I wrote to them to ask to be removed from the mailing list because I lived in Karachi. and it had to be a case of mistaken identity.

Within the hour I got a bunch of replies from the parents, telling me that just because I lived in Karachi didn't mean I could get out of bringing the syrup!

I responded that the only way I could get the syrup to them in time would be if this was Star Trek and I had a teleportation device.

"I wonder if syrup tastes the same in Pakistan as it does in the US," mused one parent. "You could just do something easy, like paper plates!" said another.

The class teacher found this whole exchange so amusing that she told her kids about me, and they sent me a photo to say hello. Of course, I had to respond.

And this is how a writer in Karachi ends up being friends with an entire classroom full of fifth-graders in Florida.

Monday, December 8, 2014

On Sindh Culture Day

Yesterday the province of Sindh celebrated Sindh Culture Day, a relatively new commemoration of the rich history and culture of this province. It's also known as Topi-Ajrak day, but this is only the most superficial aspect of our civilisation (link goes to a previous article I wrote last year, "Sindh: Beyond Symbols"). Sindh's history goes all the way back to the Indus Valley, encompasses Sufi saints, warriors, the Seven Queens, the poetry of the maligns, resistance to British occupation, and the movement for the creation of Pakistan.

The most obvious symbol of Sindhi culture is the Sindhi topi (cap) and ajrak, a multipurpose block-printed cotton cloth with a distinctive red, black, indigo and white colour scheme. We give gifts of topi and ajrak to our guests to honour them, and to tell them that they are welcome in Sindh, hospitality being one of our foremost values.

When you travel to the interior, you'll see men everywhere wearing topi and ajrak -- it's normal, everyday wear for them, while women don't traditionally wear ajrak, but have other types of dress to mark their Sindhi identity. However, in the city, especially Karachi, many people will see a man wearing ajrak and topi and immediately dismiss him as rural, backwards, possibly a feudal, and almost certainly uneducated and barbaric.

Perhaps it's this negative stereotype of Sindhis that made people wear their topis and ajraks with even more pride yesterday, as I saw when I attended a musical event held by the US Consulate General and the All Pakistan Music Conference. The male guests wore ajraks and topis, the performers (including the American pianist Kimball Gallagher) also wore ajraks, and I had to show my Sindhi pride with a modern take on the ajrak embroidered into my shirt.
It gave me a frisson of joy to see this beautiful cloth, as much a flag representing this province as anything else, thrown around the men's necks, and the mirror work of the caps sending glints of light everywhere in the room.

Instead of barbarity and backwardness, the ajrak and topi represent, to me, my childhood. I grew up with the men I loved most wearing this combination on Eid days, along with a stiff white starched "sootharn kamiz" to go to the mosque early in the morning for Eid prayers. My father would give me my Eidee and kiss me, so that the cap scratched my forehead. I would beg him to take it off and I would try it on, laughing at the silliness of it all, crumpling the crisp notes of money between my fingers. My father put his arms around me and hugged me, and I felt safe and secure knowing that I was his "niarni" (daughter), precious to the heart of all Sindhi men, at least the way we are when we are small and vulnerable girls that need protection and love.

I remember the chill of mornings in the interior, alleviated by the warmth of the rili, the traditional patchwork quilt, piled onto my bed. I used to love playing with it, pushing my fingers into the leaves and pressing it against my cheek. It always had a particular smell, and a weight and stiffness that even the softest blankets and goosedown comforters could never match.

The sound of the Sindhi language also reminds me of my childhood, of aunts and uncles and great-uncles and great-aunts who tried to get me to speak it back to them, and would grow exasperated when I would just clamp my mouth shut and shake my head when they asked me if I could speak Sindhi, or if I recognised them. I remember my father asking me to repeat certain sounds to him, phonics that don't exist in Urdu or English, but are vital to being able to say the Sindhi words for frog and tongue. I can say those words perfectly today, even though my Sindhi is far from perfect. But it will always be the sweetest language to me, the language of Shah Abdul Latif Bhitai and Shaikh Ayaz and countless other saints and poets and people who I love more than anyone on earth.

I feel as though the intolerance against Sindh and Sindhis is rising every year. The racism grows stronger, with people in our own province railing against us and our ways and traditions. We have been told in recent years that Sindh should be divided into Sindh 1 and Sindh 2, a schism that goes against everything Sindh stands for.  Only in this month have several Sindhi nationalists been kidnapped, their fates unknown. People still try to raise the spectre of the Kalabagh Dam, an issue that strikes at the integrity of the province every time it's considered a solution to problems that Sindh had no hand in creating.

Yet our culture survives. It continues to hold secular principles, while maintaining its mysticism and its spirituality. It unites Muslim with Hindu, immigrant with native, wanderer with resident. Sindh is about tolerance and respect for all. Sindh is peace. Sindh is love. More than a place, Sindh is a state of mind. I can think of no other place I would rather call my home.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

The Sound of Dublin

The Sound of Dublin

The sound of Dublin is seagulls calling over the streets in the evenings as the crowds walk along Grafton Street, unexpected summer sunshine leaving the buildings like a slowly cooling oven. The colour of Dublin is green, green everywhere, above head, trees nodding wisely along the boulevards and grass underfoot softer than spongecake. The smell of Dublin is fresh air, tinged with salt from the sea and coolth from the mountains. And the taste of Dublin is sweetened cream, light as clouds, and clotted cream, thick as secrets, and pints of Guinness that taste like cream when it runs from the taps in the brewery.

But Dublin is confusion, with its language that doesn't sound anything like it's written, and people who when they talk you can't tell if they're singing or speaking. There should be mermaids everywhere, singing of the past but there aren't; there are children instead, skin soft as pudding and round blue eyes taking in the world, big heads covered in fine blonde and red hair and strong legs carrying them along the duck ponds and laughing laughing laughing because the ducks are so funny, Mammy, and look at the swans!

Yet the feeling of Dublin is time in all its ages because like Picasso said, youth has no age, and Dublin feels old and young at the same time, containing all its people in all their multitudes. And Dublin is a beautiful thing in all its ages.


There’s no place sadder in Dublin than Kilmainham Gaol, where children and adults alike were jailed during the Famine for stealing a crust of bread. Thousands were transported to Australia or Van Diemen’s Land, where penal servitude and hard labor waited for them on the other side of a grueling three month journey by ship.

In the museum you learn that people would often steal on purpose because they were assured of three meals a day; each meal weighed four ounces more than what they’d get in the poorhouse. You walk around the museum, the Irish breakfast you had that morning sloshing around in your stomach: eggs cooked four different ways, soda bread, almond croissants, baked beans, muesli with yogurt, orange juice, tea and honey.

No talk of ghosts in Kilmainham Gaol but you could swear they’re there, running around the corners, staring at you with wide, starving eyes, hands outstretched for a few coins or a crust of bread. You can hear their footsteps echoing off the stone walls if you listen with the ears God gave you.

This is the cell where Joseph Plunkett and Grace Gifford are allowed to spend ten minutes together after their chapel wedding and before his execution. They thought they’d be alone, get to exchange a kiss and a few caresses, but instead they’re surrounded by soldiers watching their every move. So they sit on the bed and look at each other, unspeaking. Tell me you love me, implores Grace with her tearful eyes. Leave the talking, Joseph doesn’t say. We’ve no need for words. And now here’s Grace’s own cell, where she was jailed for three months during the Civil War. If you peer in through the peep hole, you can see the Madonna and Child painted on the back wall, and the sight of it makes all the words fly out of your head like seagulls in the Dublin sky.


You’re in the front seat of a Dublin taxi, sitting next to a Nigerian cab driver who’s got the stereo on so loud the car windows vibrate as you drive on the long road hemming the River Liffey. Children are diving into it on the corners of the bridges, screaming and splashing in a ritual they’ve been warned not to do but they do it any way because this is summertime in Dublin and they’re the kings of Dublin in the summertime.

If you talk to any of those kids they’ll tell you We hate the English because they know their history. And because you don’t want to hear the history of hate, you turn to the cab driver and ask him, What are you listening to?

He responds, Fela! Do you know him?

And you say, Do I know him? Turn it up. Let’s listen to it loud.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Confessionts of an Anti-Fashionista

I am invited to one of the shows at the FPWAW 14, which is one of the Fashion Weeks that takes place in Pakistan. I'm one of the most unglamorous women in Karachi, but I still enjoy the spectacle of the shows, the buzz is exciting, and where else could you find styles and trends from New York, London and Paris being sported by our own fashionistas? I'll just throw on some black clothes, try to brush my hair, put on some red lipstick, and hope I get mistaken for a journalist. Oh, wait. I am a journalist. Okay then. Off we go.

8 PM
The show's meant to start "on time" at eight. We somehow decide that 8:03 is the perfect time to get into the car and leave the house for the venue, the Pearl Continental Hotel. Where else should you arrive fashionably late, but at a fashion show?

8:15 PM
We are stuck in traffic outside the PC, the management having decided to inexplicably switch the entrance and the exit since the last time I was here. We desperately text our friend inside the venue who informs us the show hasn't started as yet. Breathe a sigh of relief.

8:30 PM
Still stuck in traffic. Flop sweat time.

8:40 PM
We finally enter the PC parking lot. Our car is checked for bombs by guards and a very attractive yellow Labrador. Why isn't he wearing a Swarovski-encrusted coat that says FPWAW14?  He should be.

8:50 PM
Shove and push our way into the venue. Man with four month old baby in carriage is doing the most pushing - with the carriage.

8:55 PM
Now this is more like it! Get into the lounge, which has a swanky red carpet, a Toni & Guy hospitality bar, and lots of paparazzi. Not to mention all the fashionistas, tottering about in platform heels and blow dried hair. So this is where all the tall people in Pakistan have been hiding!

9:00 PM
Arrive at the entrance of the main stage, but turned back by bouncers who tell us the show is full and to come back in forty minutes, when it's over. I spot the abandoned baby carriage by the entrance. Must remember to bring a baby with me next year.

9:02 PM
Get inside the main stage. I cannot see anything for the crush of people in front of me. First time in my life I've actually wished to be taller, not so I can be a model but so that I can actually see something.

9:03 PM
The girl in front of me in a scarlet red jumpsuit is so thin I could break her with one hand. Spot the man carrying his baby everywhere, grinning. Resist trying to grab baby and make a run for it.

9:05 PM
Back in the Toni & Guy hospitality lounge, watching the people go by. There's some hot fashion here. This girl looks fabulous.

9:07 PM
Announcer says the show is finally about to start. I eye the entrance sadly. The bouncers shake their heads sadly back at me. I slump back in my seat and pretend I am someone too important to actually be at the show.

9:10 PM
More fashionistas trip by, posing for selfies on red carpet. A group of three girls standing together, each trying to look thinner than the other.

9:12 PM
What am I doing here? Everyone sporting latest trendy styles and fashions. Footwear: ankle boots and Louboutins. I look down at my feet in sandals. I need a new wardrobe. New handbags. New shoes. New hairstyle. And plastic surgery.

9:15 PM
Spotting lots of women in jumpsuits. If I wore a floral jumpsuit would I look enviably chic or like an overgrown toddler in a romper suit?

9:20 PM
Realize I am in the Pakistani version of The Devil Wears Prada. With brown people.

9:30 PM
Women in shalwar kameezes running out of the hall in shame, mocked by girls in leggings and boys in jeggings.

9:40 PM
The paparazzi take one look at me and turn their backs. It figures. They're all prettier and better dressed than I am.

9:45 PM
I spot the only person wearing glasses besides me. It's a Bohra man, dressed in full Bohra regalia, with his wife next to him. She's wearing a yellow Bohra dress and headscarf.

9:50 PM
Looking down at my feet when the Bohra man comes up to me and says hello. He turns out to be Hatim Dabawalla, my old friend from the Dawn and Web site designer to the stars, including Deepak Perwani and Aamir Adnan. His wife is in the beautiful sunflower yellow Bohra dress. "How do you like it?" I ask him. "It's a bit much for us," he replies honestly. "I came because Deepak-bhai and Aamir-bhai invited me." We say our goodbyes and I watch them leave, thinking that somehow they look like the best dressed couple here.

9:55 PM
The show is over and it's time to leave. I pause for a selfie. This is as fashionable as I get, folks. Try not to be too disappointed. See you next year!!

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Disobedient Women

There are many stories going around in the news right now, but three have emerged with a theme that keeps repeating itself. This theme is the struggle between men who want women to obey them, and women who want to be free to decide for themselves what they are going to do.

The first story is about Turkish Prime Minister Recip Erdogan's remarks about women. In a recent speech, he said that women were not equal to men, and it was a woman's job to be a mother. Refusing to be a mother, as feminists did, was tantamount to rejecting nature. The backlash to Erdogan's remarks was swift and angry from Turkey's women. They recognise that it's a special patriarchal trick to dangle motherhood over the head of all women and declare that mothers are more worthy than others.

Do we tell men they're worthy if they're fathers but going against nature if they don't have children? No, we do not. In most conservative, patriarchal societies, men are recognised as being more than their reproductive organs while women are reduced to uteruses with legs and arms attached. But for Erdogan to come up with a ridiculous statement like "Equality turns victims into the oppressor" either indicates his stupidity, or his deep-seated desire to keep women in an inferior position, with men maintaining authority and control over them (perhaps they're both the same thing, really).

The second story, two years old but posted by an Iranian friend on Facebook recently, is an amusing one: a cleric in Iran told a "badly veiled" woman to cover up and she responded by pushing him to the ground and giving him a beating. Women in Iran have reached breaking point with the control exercised over their clothes. Prescribing a dress code that is enforced using threats, intimidation, harassment and physical force strikes me as the very opposite of Islamic. What it really is, is misogynistic: men dictating to women how they must present themselves in the world.

You see this in Saudi Arabia, too, with the religious police chastising women if they aren't covered enough. I also saw a story from earlier this month in which Saudi religious police can make women with attractive eyes cover their entire faces in order to remove the temptation that those eyes present for men.  As illogical as this may seem to the rest of the world, it makes sense in Saudi Arabia because men have always been able to force women to obey their whims.

But what doesn't make sense to me is if men are so eager to proclaim themselves the stronger, superior sex, why then do the faces and bodies and very existence of women present such a grave threat to their strength? It's like they're proclaiming strength and weakness at the same time. If you're such a strong, powerful man, surely something as inferior and wretched as a woman would be no danger to your morals and willpower. Instead, men place women on the same level as Satan, tempting them with their eyes, offending them with their hair, going against nature with their childless bodies. This does not speak to me of a man's masculinity, but of his insecurity that women must be controlled and covered, or else a woman will overwhelm him. And if this is true, then who really is the superior sex?

Which leads me to the last story, a tragic and maddening one coming from Pakistan, where a man shot his sixteen year old niece dead because she wouldn't turn down the music in her house when he came to visit. Anyone who lives intimately with patriarchy knows that this wasn't about the music, but about the girl's refusal to obey her uncle, about her daring to argue with him, to raise her voice.

Men devise many strategies to make women obey them. This is because they feel weak inside, and controlling women gives them a false sense of strength. Knowing this, they must shore up a wealth of resources and regimes to make them feel self-righteous in their crude desire for power over the opposite sex. They quote the Quran. They quote the Sunnah. They form Committees to Promote Virtue and Prevent Vice and religious police. They come up with formulas for how long and thick the stick must be when it is used to beat a woman. They twist science to claim that a woman who wants to control her reproductive system goes against nature and God.

But in the end, if a woman refuses to obey a man, he picks up a gun, a knife, a rock, his fist, and kills her.

This post was edited with Grammarly.com