Yesterday, the sweetest thing happened to me around mid-day.
I was up in my house, doing laundry, when my door buzzer rang. As usual, I went to my studio window, which overlooks the front gate, to see who it was. There was a man I did not recognize down below, holding a clipboard in his hand. I opened the window and asked who he was.
The gentleman informed me that he had come from the gas company to read the meter outside, but was also verifying billing numbers against meter numbers. He asked if I had my most recent bill and if he could see it to complete his chart. Calling down, I asked him to wait a moment while I retrieved the bill from my desk.
Once downstairs, we greeted each other at the gate with a handshake and then for a brief few moments we chatted ~me in my broken Urdu and he in very limited English.
In Abbottabad, there are very few people like myself from other countries. Most folks here are of various local northern tribes, primarily of the Hazara region. There are also many Pathans, including some recent Afghani refugees who’ve made their way down to this region from the Afghan border over the past decade or more.
Many Pathans are very fair skinned, often with light hair, and as their native tongue is Pashto, when they attempt to speak Urdu or Hindco they often make grammatical errors similar to those made by people like me who speak English as their first language. So, when I am out in the market place or meeting people for the first time, I am usually mistaken as being a Pathan before anyone ever guesses that I am a Canadian/American of British/Scottish descent. In fact, when people hear me say that I am Canadian, they often look very skeptical and confused. Many many times I have been asked “Where are you from?” and replied, “Canada.” only to get the response “Kandahar?”
“Nay, nay…Can-a-da.” I must clarify, and usually to great surprise.
My gas man was no different. When he asked where I was from and I told him Canada, his face was first confused, as if thinking “But you look Pathan.” When it sunk in to him that I was from abroad, his face lit up and he expressed great joy that I had chosen his country of Pakistan, of all places in the world, to settle with my family.
He rambled on quickly in Urdu, confusing my comprehension in the process. I laughed and asked him to repeat himself. He joined me in laughter, realizing that, in his excitement, he had lost me in the conversation. When he repeated himself in broken English, he was most kind, saying, “You are my brother! You are my brother!” Then he extended his hand and when I went to shake it, he pulled me close and hugged me.
Now, some skeptics might say – had I been of a different faith community, or had I been a US military officer, the man may not have been so keen to celebrate my being in his homeland. However, he didn’t ask me my religion, he didn’t ask me my career…he didn’t suspiciously quiz me about any affiliations to foreign NGOs, media conglomerates or political agencies… he just said that I was his brother and hugged me unconditionally with welcome, then went on his way.
One might think that such displays of welcome and affection are rare or uncommon, but since I moved here to Pakistan almost three years ago, these types of shared moments with strangers have become very regular in my life. Naturally, I have met some weirdos here who do have issues with foreign culture and aren’t shy to voice their sometimes twisted ideas ~ which can indeed be racist and are most often ignorant ~ but that hot air is nothing compared to the absolute love and warmth I usually get when locals discover I have settled here.
About a year and a half ago, when stresses were at a higher point than usual between the USA and Pakistan, my family and I happened to be heading abroad for our annual vacation to Canada. That particular month, there had also been several US drone attacks in Northern Pakistan, as well as heavy vigilante uprisings by loony locals in places like Peshawar and Lahore. Each day the news papers reported of hundreds of deaths from both causes. Women, children, the elderly, “collateral damage” ~ deaths and terrorism which, if they had occurred in countries like England or the USA, would have literally consumed people with grief and outrage en mass! Yet here, when they occur almost daily in Pakistan, there is little global compassion or even global awareness! In any event, you can well imagine that security was tight at the Islamabad airport as my family and I passed through…and tension was in the air.
While going through the X-ray scanner ~ the only “foreigner” in the hoards of people ~ I was pulled aside for additional inspection due to the strange percussion instruments and recording electronics I had in my carry on. The security officer looked up at me several times as he inspected my bag, and began questioning me.
“What is your work?” He asked.
“I’m a musician.” I replied.
“Why were you here?”
“I live here.”
“My wife is Pakistani. We’re here to be close to her grandparents.”
He looked over my shoulder to see my wife behind me. He quickly stopped his search, zipped up my suitcase and told me in Urdu, “Your wife is Pakistani? She is my sister…you are my brother.” and he bid me peace and farewell.
Let me be frank ~ and please understand that I mean the following with no disrespect whatsoever: a day after 9-11, with the US mourning the losses of thousands of lives taken in an act of terror on their soil, would a Pakistani foreigner passing through LaGuardia have been treated the same by a US security agent? I like to hope so and naturally won’t generalize all US security agents at X ray machines across the USA, but sadly my many interrogations at US entry and exit points over the past several years have not made a very good case for the US customs and boarder control’s gracious demeanor. For me, re-entry to my own homelands are always overshadowed with stress about how I will be treated, how long I will be detained and what sorts of two hour discussions officers will want to engage in before I can get home to my folk’s house for Christmas eggnog. To be told by a Canadian or US customs officer that “I am their brother?” Heck~I’ll settle for just being treated with dignity and like a citizen of my own homeland!
Dear friends and family abroad in places like North America and England often email me with concern ~ wondering how I am here with my family living in Northern Pakistan. They watch the news and hear stories about the political and economic chaos here…they imagine that locals hate Americans and that wherever I go I am treated like a second class citizen… taunted, ripped off, hassled. The fact is – I am fine! Indeed there are huge problems here – primarily stemming from economic apartheid, greed and political corruption. But on a human level ~ a community level and a day-to-day basis ~ I literally hug my gas man!
Given what is happening lately in the UK – I wonder how many British subjects have hugged their gas or water meter readers lately?
Which reminds me ~ I better send some emails over to my friends in the UK to see if they are safe!
…and who knows, maybe the North American customs officer will smile at me this year when I go back for my vacation abroad…maybe they’ll even say “Welcome Home! Happy Holidays!” ….Maybe they’ll even hug me! Well…in any event ~ I’ll keep hopeful.