Leaving London for Lahore, our flight to Abu Dhabi was superb. The disorganised transition at the airport along with a drop in behaviour amongst passengers became the first sign that we were entering Pakistan. I’m not a fan of stereotypes but some things become apparent, including a drop in manners and standards when heading to some parts of the world. Imagine then my surprise when exiting into the arrivals hall, a porter stood with a sign for our hotel. Quickly gathering our luggage we were whisked away in an air conditioned van, to an air conditioned hotel, The Avari, our home for the next few days. Something was different.
Eid had just passed and one of my cousins who lives almost ten hours away happened to be visiting his parents. He, along with his brother, came to greet us at the hotel, insisting on taking us to our first meal in Lahore, at Freddy’s. I looked, and looked again. They had ordered Pina Coladas. Is it safe to drink I wondered; after all, Shagufta and I both had ‘Western’ stomachs. After questioning the waiter on every ingredient, I did what any ‘believer’ would do, said ‘bismillah’ (in the name of God), and took a sip. Boy was it good!
Of course the drinks came with good food, and entertainment. Just 6 hours into the country and opposite us sat a family where the womenfolk wore face veils. I have to say it was quite interesting to watch them try to eat. Covered head to toe, lifting the facial flap, just enough to sneak a bite to eat. All the while the men in the family sat with the comfort of their jeans and t-shirts, eating freely. It’s as if, apparently, these women feel nothing for men. I mean, why else would they dress in this way? To protect themselves from the glances of men? What about the glances of women towards their menfolk? Do women have no desires? – It’s ok I told myself, it’s not really my business. So I returned to watching the man on the adjacent table drink down his fourth pina colada…
The next two days I had hijacked one of my female cousins, she became our shopping guide to the city. In and out of department stores, tailors and the like. We were there as mutual friends to a groom who was about to marry. He had invited many from abroad but we were the only two able to make it.
It’s a strange story. The groom is a genuinely decent man. A professional who worked in the city of London – but is now working in the Middle East. He, like me, and a few others, is a networker. He knows people. Lots of people. Despite his best and repeated efforts, he was unable to find a wife in England.
I had remembered an excellent article authored by a friend of mine, Dr Farah Kausar, in which she observed how so many men in their 30s had unrealistic expectations for marriage, etc. For some it is certainly true. However an equal truth is also the flip opposite, that some women in their 30s also have equally unrealistic expectations – why else would someone like the groom be ‘forced’ to look elsewhere, abroad, for a bride?
Many joke that when a man in his 30s goes to Pakistan, he does so to find a wife. For some this is true. Usually a much younger woman in her early 20s, often someone attracted to his passport, willing to live a subservient life. And sadly many girls – and they are girls – do just that.
Prior to meeting his bride I did wonder… But after meeting her and her family, I found comfort discovering that they did not meet that stereotype. Professional, educated, decent, are just a handful of words I’d use to describe them; and I said a prayer of thanks to God. The groom, a decent man, looked everywhere, and God had blessed him with a decent bride. This was something to celebrate indeed!
As the wedding festivities took place a number of modern cultural norms shone. Men with beards who would look one way on the street, were dancing, often to tunes from popular culture. Women followed true to the selfie syndrome. In fact, every stereotype I had of a traditional Pakistani weddings went out the window. It was less to do with any form of superior upper class culture, and more an acknowledgment that irrespective of the negative impression of Pakistanis, the guests represented a broad spectrum of everyday people; and that is normal in every society.
Of course our days were not without adventure. We spent hours at the Tariq Amin salon attached to our hotel as Shagufta had her hair and make-up done. We then found ourselves at Afzal studios in Lahore where the bride and groom had various photoshoots – and being the two guests from England, we often found ourselves in the midst of their shoot! For three days on the trot, we were in and out of salons, studios, wedding halls; both as guests and photographers. In the midst of it all, as part of our press trip we had to create some content around our hotel. It was exhausting but fun.
The second part of our press trip was organised by the government of Pakistan, on the subject of, would you believe, mangoes! Who marries in Lahore in July, one government official asked me. After this trip, my response is that everyone should marry in July! What better time than in the heart of the mango season; as attested to by the groom sending us photos nightly of him devouring mangoes.
On to an excursion, a day trip to Multan, five hours away, where we were the guests of Farid, a mango farmer. His business is one of the few that has adopted higher standards so delivering export grade mangoes for the UK market. Along with a tour around his property, we were blessed to sit with him at his table and enjoy perfectly ripe mangoes picked from his orchard. Sitting here back in England, my mouth still salivates as I remember the flavour!
This was, without doubt, perhaps one of the more interesting press trips we had been on. From covering a wedding in Pakistan to discovering aspects of the mango supply chain, much of which would not have been possible without support from AusAID. – The Australians are everywhere!
And so I revert back to the lady at Freddy’s who tried to eat from behind her face veil. It is not that I care for the way she dresses, that’s between her, God, and presumably all of the men who have convinced her that such behaviour is somehow religious – despite the holiest place in Islam actually going out of its way to prohibit such dress. The real issue is a parallel. The perception of Pakistan by the outside world which generally isn’t very good.
Does the country have problems? With 180 million citizens, it is bound to. Does the nation churn out misogynist bigots such as Junaid Jamshed on TV, sure it does. But whether it’s gun crime in the US, or bigots on TV here in the UK (e.g. Katie Hopkins) we also have our fair share of problems outside of Pakistan. This isn’t an attempt to gloss over anyone’s problems, simply an acknowledgement to approach matters with an open mind.
Managing to meet one of my aunts just before we flew out, meant that this trip to Pakistan was one of the best I have ever had.
It was the discovery of a wider diverse culture, an experience of good, decent company by way of the groom, his bride, their families; and a learning that in a nation of over 180 million, there is so much diversity in terms of thought, so much opportunity in terms of economic potential, that it’s time we lifted the veil and discovered something beautiful.