Eeeeeuuuuu / Pathani Hospitality / An Ear Itch
I’m on my way to Islamabad from Dubai, sitting next to a British / Pakistani teenager, who is attracting a lot of amused attention from our fellow passengers, especially the menfolk. Almost all men, even the ones returning from Umrah, give her curvy and hugging attire a second or multiple looks. But she creates a near hungama when she studies the menu.
Eeeeeuuuuu, she exclaims aloud, they are serving bheja kheema, (animal offal mush). Ooooo, but that’s disgusting! Ugh, that’s so revolting! Uncle, she looks at me in terror, some of her mascara gone awry, please don’t order that? Pleeeeese? I’ll be sick, sick, sick…
I feel like ordering the very thing, just to punish her for the rude title she used to address me, but I also feel nauseated. For different reasons. I’ve been traveling the whole night from Dar-es-Salaam without much sleep and chewing on masala-spiced animal brains at this hour would be repulsive indeed. Fortunately, the young woman is asleep when breakfast is served.
Islamabad airport is fairly new but already shows signs of neglect, with peeling paint and littered floors as I leave the facility. Sohail Abdullah has proceeded me from New York and is now waiting at the airport. We drive to Kohat, a four-hour drive where we will spend the night before driving to Parachinar. Kohat is very warm, with temperatures hovering around 100F when we arrive. We are comfortable at the impressive Al-Asar Institute, ably run by Ahmad Raza, a retired banker, who has single-handedly founded an impressive community cluster of a secular school, an orphanage, a technical college, and a hostel for the poor of the vicinity. Women in full burqa, head to toe, some in white, look like gigantic shuttlecocks, The stifling heat and sight of these women make me want to suffocate for them. They must be boiling inside, and I feel so hot and bothered for them.
The Pashtuns of this region believe in absolute comfort for their guests. Nothing we want is too big or small or trivial for them. It’s like koon-faya-koon. If we are audible with a wish for something, even in passing, it is granted. So, both Sohail and I are careful not to orally praise or admire anything; a kilo each of locally grown soopa-sweet, soopa-crunchy walnuts we both down in delight and relish earlier end up in our luggage.
Our next stop early next morning is Parachinar, an area bordering wretched Afghanistan. Minority communities in Parachinar have suffered tragic oppression for ages and were recently besieged and cut off from the world for 4 years. CAI donors helped complete the Haidri Welfare Hospital for the community and we are now going to hand it over for operations. The landscape leading to Parachinar is pretty dreary until we arrive in the city, which is even drearier; the litter pollution from plastic is so pathetic, it all seems a despairing lost cause. The hospital opening is a low-key affair; Parachinar is a sensitive place and grand scale gatherings are best avoided for everybody’s safety.
It is after we are done with the opening of the hospital and compliance formalities and move to the outskirts of the town that the beauty of Parachinar manifests itself. Sandwiched in a valley and ringed by the Tora Bora mountains of Afghanistan that were bombed to rubbles by the American Air Force, Parachinar is very picturesque and green. There are fruit trees everywhere. Apricots, plums, cherries, peaches, walnuts, olives, anaars, almonds, figs… I think I am in heaven and have gotten lucky! Then it begins raining mulberries, of all types, and colors, and delicious. The purple ones stain my T-shirt, but I care not and both Sohail and I throw caution to the wind and gorge on the shahtoots (mulberries) without washing them. Sohail pays the price the next morning with a mild case of Montezuma’s revenge from which he recovers easily.
Our return drive to Islamabad is long, and the onward flight to Karachi is uneventful. Our next stop is Saleh Pat, a village in Sindh where CAI has constructed a handsome school for the poor children, especially girls, who are currently deprived of quality education. Saleh Pat, in Sindh, is a scorcher, with the temperature on our arrival of about 116F. I must have had something bad to eat somewhere because it is my turn to get (violently) sick with food poisoning. The womenfolk reading this Blog will not agree, but I swear I experience the same pain they do giving childbirth; the feeling is of someone twisting my entrails over and over. I am so exhausted pooping and vomiting all night, I am in no shape to travel another hour or so for the school opening – Sohail gets that honor.
Alhamd’Allah, I recover as quickly after medication and a bag of drip in my body. We return to Karachi to rest for a day before Sohail heads back to New York and me to Dar es Salaam.
An Ear Itch
The immigration line exiting Pakistan in Karachi is long and I am bothered by the time I make it to the officer. I do not mind it it’s fair play but the rich and powerful in Pakistan have even less patience than me. The officer must have stopped at least a dozen times to facilitate the exit formalities of other Sahebs beating the queue. The officer, his eyes red with fatigue, does not look at me. He shoves my passport back and tells me, in Urdu, that my visa has expired and for me to get it renewed at the immigration office in the city. Like bloody hell!
Excuse me, I say with a loud American twang and hold up the visa extension exit permit on my iPhone. It’s been renewed. If you’ll only look at it. Sir.
Startled, he looks at me, peers at the cellphone, and exhales garlic fumes my way. He shakes his head. He points towards a glass office with a well-chewed pen and asks me to get the exit authorized from there. I try and tell him it’s already authorized; it says so in the email from the Immigration Department. He is already helping the guy behind me who had shoved me aside.
The name tag on his shirt pocket identifies the Officer in Charge as Owais. He is a burly man in his forties with sharp facial features. His ample hair is parted in the middle of the scalp which exposes flakes of wayward dandruff. The ends of his mustache are curved up, pointing to the heavens. He is busy talking on his cellphone while trying to extract gems from a free ear canal with a pinkie. He gestures at me to sit on a sofa that has seen many better years. I gingerly park myself and watch him. He speaks in Sindhi, screwing his eyes as he intensifies his treasure hunt. He must be talking to a female because I can hear a cantankerous feminine voice whine from the other end. While Owais speaks, I look around. The small office is overflowing with dusty folders; on his desk, on shelves, on the floor, and on other chairs meant for visitors. I follow a cockroach brave enough to leave the safe confines of the folders and crawl close to my chappal. I want to crush it because I am so frustrated but spare its life in the next instinct.
People come in and leave when they see Owais on the phone. Other junior officers come in, salute smartly and thump a heavy boot on the concrete floor. They wait on their boss, who pays them no heed except continue the hunt with his pinkie. They eventually salute again – up goes a foot that comes down in a thwack, turn and leave.
Owais strikes gold and his eyes light up in delight. He abandons his complaining cellphone mate and extracts a tiny ball of earwax which he examines triumphantly for a few seconds and then flicks it towards me; it lands a few feet away. Had it landed on me, I would have whacked him and surely gone to jail. Gladly
He hears my complaint, gestures for and then grabs my cellphone with his tainted hand, takes a photo of the exit permit, thumps my passport, and waves me away. I quickly head to the nearest bathroom and carefully clean my cellphone before heading to the departure gate; I am almost late.