Friday, November 09, 2007

Remembering Pakistan

I've been following the news coverage of Benazir Bhutto's return and the chaos consuming Pakistan with interest. You see, I lived in Pakistan from 1988 to January 1991, leaving on a 747 packed with American and Canadian evacuees the day George Bush the Elder started the first Gulf War.

Growing up in the Foreign Service, I heard a lot of talk about how "home" is where your family is, it's a feeling of belonging, not a town where you put down roots.

But I never felt like Islamabad was home.

I was a boy-crazy middle schooler when we arrived in the country, and the first week we were there the U.S. Ambassador and the President of Pakistan, Zia, were killed in a suspicious helicopter crash. We couldn't tell anyone we were Jewish. I turned 13 without having a bat mitzvah. We had a chowkidar, an armed guard who was stationed at the end of our driveway. The skinny guy in a shalwar kameez may have made us safer, but I hated him for throwing rocks at our dog.

Occasionally my sister and I would venture to the local market alone, but even dressed in modest local clothing, we were always gawked at, leered at, hissed at.

Outside of Islamabad, it was even worse. I was overwhelmed by the poverty and disease that surrounded us. There were so many people with so little, and it was always a crowd, a crush of humanity. I still remember the smell, ripe with the scent of rotting mangos, chicken blood, slaughtered sheep, unwashed bodies and open sewers. And everywhere, the smell and haze of burning trash. Even the more inviting smells of fresh chapatis, fried snacks and curry couldn't compete. I began to think women wore shawls to cover their noses when they went outside.

Just outside the capital, children with wide, kohl-lined eyes and filthy, tattered clothes would bang on our car, crying baksheesh, baksheeh, begging for rupees. Flea-ridden dogs dug through open piles of trash, but even the open sores on their backs and bellies couldn't keep us from scratching their heads.

There are good memories too. I loved seeing the elaborately decorated buses and trucks along the otherwise terrifying highways. I remember the blare of music that invited me into yet another stall of pirated cassette tapes. I recall glimpsing Pakistani women at an in-home hair salon, dressed to the nines, gilded with gold jewelry and elaborately made up.

But mostly I remember a country teetering on the edge of chaos. A crowded place where the young male policemen held hands and demanded bribes. And where being born a girl is a curse.