Luck has smiled on us this trip. 2 days after we booked our flights to Lahore on Air Blue (Pakistani EasyJet), PIA went on strike. Well, they tried to go on strike but weren’t allowed to, so instead there was a riot at the airport where 2 people were tragically killed. Because there were no PIA interior flights, the price of other flights tripled. At the boarding gate, I notice that ahead of us is Shahid Nadeem, the playwright and founder of Ajoka Theatre who I kept missing at KLF. I introduce myself and we arrange to arrange a meeting in Lahore by phone. The air crew is all Ukranian – they go through choreographed safety instructions given in Urdu by a Pakistani stewardess, and there is a prayer before takeoff. Which is reassuring or worrying depending on how you look at it.
Landing in Lahore, this is the first time Aisha and I have been on our own in Pakistan, without family, friend or driver and with limited Urdu. My Urdu is definitely improving though, graduating from pigeon to mynah, as I keep repeating new phrases to add to my limited childhood arsenal:
me jana chaati hu(nh)! -I want to go! [heard repeatedly on a soap opera]
zeroorut nahi heh – there’s no need
aap meri zindigi heh – you are my life [said through tears, in most soap operas, films – I don’t say this]
Aisha’s favourite words are shabash! – well done! – and putchás – 50. She uses the first a lot, to drivers, shop-keepers and new friends to their surprise and delight. My favourite word is bidgli [electricity] which we use a lot. Is there electricity? There is no electricity! The latter is common due to load-shedding, when the public electrical supply is turned on and off at prescribed hours. People who can afford it have generators.
A lot of English words are also used in Urdu. It’s common for english-speaking Pakistanis to switch between the two, and also there is sometimes no Urdu word. We try this a lot and it usually works, but not always.
Bank/ATM/wifi/fries/Rajasthani camel decorations heh? – Is there a bank/ATM/wifi/fries/Rajasthani camel decorations?
Bohot cute heh! – he/she is very cute!
The staff at Hotel A, which I booked hurriedly when other accommodation fell through, are very helpful and try their best but… We try 3 rooms before we settle on one which is a vast improvement. 3rd time lucky! we say before we discover that we will find a cockroach on or near the bed each night, the bathroom door handle comes off in your hand if you turn it the wrong way, the shower has stains that dissuade us from showering and our french windows don’t lock although there is a walkway just outside. We try not to mind that an order of porridge takes 20 minutes and Aisha had asked for conflakes. ‘It smells like horses, straw’ she says, as she plops some apricot jam into it – asking for honey may take another 20 minutes though we are the only guests. The traditional Lahori breakfast is parathas, chana, chilli omelette, halva-puri, but we/our stomachs are not always up to the challenge. We’re in Lahore! After much deliberation, and despite the fact that it’s now dark, we decide to have a little wander to explore. The hotel staff don’t understand why we insist on walking when there are rickshaws, but they tell us of Food Street, across the road on a parallel street.
The ‘road’ is a motorway with a flyover, and after the ordeal of crossing the motorway and starting down an unlit street which is meant to lead to Food Street, we come to our senses. Retreating to the hotel, we get rid of the roach (it’s smallish), order room service – club sandwich and fries – and watch Netflix on my laptop. I promptly book us into Hotel B who unfortunately don’t have a room until day after tomorrow.
Lahore is green and beautiful – full of incredible Mughal and Colonial buildings. We spend most of the next day looking for a charity I contacted through Facebook – The Khawaja-Sara Rehabilitation Programme – which should in theory be across the road from us, but isn’t. After asking at a bank and a high-security place with barbed wire, a traffic cop offers to help. He doesn’t know it so asks his colleague who is ‘re-parking’ a car from a no-parking zone onto the sidewalk.
‘I love UK people, I respect women, I love humanity’ he tells us. And he has white gloves, which are very reassuring. He’s discovered – by asking a variety of passers-by and people on the phone – that it’s a little distance away (which is very likely) so commandeers a rickshaw and we all pile in. 45 minutes later, after a bumpy and circuitous rickshaw ride with direction from various people on the street, we find ourselves in a rather dingy office down a small, dusty road. Ye kya heh? – what is this? – i try asking the man behind the desk, but his response is in Urdu. During the rickshaw ride, the traffic cop took a real shine to Aisha, and is now her Facebook friend (but not for long!). We eventually call it quits in the dingy office, to the relief of all 3 of us – no doubt he will be in trouble for going AWOL for 2 hours – and get a rickshaw to Pakistan’s First Sightseeing Bus! Our rickshaw is clearly struggling, and soon breaks down, but the driver is so keen to make it work we stick with him and he manages to get it started before a policeman moves us on.
During an hour-long, interesting but painfully slow journey, we discover that pollution is a vital ingredient of Lahore life.
We are so relieved to be deposited at Gadaffi Stadium for our tour that Aisha tips the driver extra in the hopes it might help to fix his vehicle. The tour is in a double-decker bus to the thumping music of popular Pakistani music and we eat a large bag of crisps (lunch) until we are told no eating on the bus. Afterwards, with no taxis around, rickshaw it is, once again. We tell the driver the name of our hotel and he looks uncertain but we have a map from the hotel to clarify things. 90 minutes later, after seeking the help of a dozen people via some unusual areas, the driver begs help from a soldier who has stopped us to see our passports (i don’t have mine on me, oops). ‘Lower Mall’, we repeat again and again, pointing at the map and the driver finally drops us at Lahore Mall, a fancy shopping mall on the other side of town! We are cross but relieved to be out of this rickshaw, and fancy malls have access to taxis. It has been a fairly fruitless day work-wise, spent on 3 rickshaws, a bus and a cab. Lady Luck has looked away. Back in our hotel which feels almost like home sweet home, we flush the roach-of-the-day down the loo and order room service – coke, club sandwiches and fries. I am aware that for most people here, the hotel is very nice and far out of their reach.
The next morning we tell our very nice hotel manager that we are leaving the hotel. Why? Is something wrong? Oh no, we say (though we have complained about half a dozen things), we have decided to leave Lahore, to visit other places. He calls us his best taxi driver – for special guests, and we re-direct the driver, Aqbal, to the Best Western rather than the airport. A is a real gem, so after we have checked into our wonderful new hotel, we ask him to take us to Lahore Fort and Badshahi Mosque.
Outside the fort we meet a guide, Q, who turns out to be another gem. His english and historical knowledge are excellent (he’s written 3 books).
As well as being professional and an obviously good guy, Q is unfazed when, with half an hour left before we are due to meet Aqbal, we ask if, by any chance, he knows where we might be able to meet some Khawaja-seras. I explain our project. Of course, he says, I will take you to find them, and he leads us through a banned gate [only 50p for the privilege] of the mosque which leads directly onto Old Lahore, where we will meet… but that’s another story.
16/02/16 New Friends in Old Lahore
We walk less than a block in Old Lahore when we meet Sharmeeli, sitting with her goats. She tells me her name means ‘shy girl’.
They’re like my children, she tells me, and her mouth is stained red from chewing betel nut. When Aisha asks if she can photograph her, S asks how/where we want her. ‘However you would like to be photographed!’ Although S says she is not ready, she is generous enough to pose for us there and then. Yey natural beauty heh [this is natural beauty] i say.
Leaving Sharmeeli, we walk a little further. I notice Aisha has kept her shawl around her head (we covered our heads in the mosque) and she tells me she feels protected like this. I think perhaps women who wear the hijab out of choice, feel this way. After conferring with a shopkeeper Q turns into a doorway and motions for us to follow.
I’m not one for unnecessary risks and neither is Aisha and the hall is dark and nobody knows where we are, but experience and instinct tells us no harm will come to us here. Turning a corner, Q knocks on a door, and says we are guests who would like to talk to them. Salaam aleikum, mera naam Shazea heh / mera naam Aisha heh.
Fayal welcomes us warmly, although we have barged into their house unannounced – 2 foreign women and an unknown man – and invites us into a room which is in complete darkness. Bidgli nehi heh, load-shedding! She invites us to sit down but we can’t see the bed so Q uses the light from his phone to direct us. Aisha and I are giggling as we sit down and others are laughing with us but we can’t see who. Q keeps flashing the light of his phone around the room, and we our eyes acclimatise as some light spills from the hallway, perhaps through a skylight? We are told the electricity will come on in another 1 or 2 hours, but meanwhile they want to show us some photos in the room – glamorous photos of themselves dressed up. Q uses his phone like a wand. Then Guria enters – she is the guru (mother/head of this family) – welcomes us warmly, and offers us a drink. Undaunted by the near darkness, Aisha asks if she can take some photos and trying to get a better angle, bumps onto something which topples over. Much laughter. G tells us that Fayal, Reshum and Sana are her daughters (apprentices) – they learn from her about dance, clothes etc. Altogether there are 7 of them living here. I tell her I want to understand how it is to be khawaja-sara, how it feels inside, and she says aurut which I know means ‘woman’, and lurki which means ‘girl’. ‘We are afraid of men, just as a woman is‘, she says. I ask her if she identifies as a woman or third gender and she replies that her heart is like a woman. ‘Can you go out like this, dressed like a woman, or is it dangerous, if other people don’t accept it?’ I ask. Q has been translating back and forth, sometimes referring to her as ‘he’. I keep correcting him though I don’t know if he is confusing english pronouns or using the masculine. I ask whether it’s dangerous for them to go out dressed as women. Q translates: ‘outside, not safe, because naughty child, and strange, and claps… hoodings…’ Hoodlums, I ask? ‘Hoodings’.
Guria tells me there is a lot of love between her and her 6 daughters – bohot pyar heh – and that they are very nice, and they respect and honour her as a teacher. ‘Like a mother’, I say. Someone tells us that Sana is a wonderful artist, a dancer, and would we like to see? We move out into the hallway where there is natural light and Sana dances for us to a song on someone’s phone (click on the link to see) . We soon forget we are in a dismal hallway with low-hanging cables, because she is enchanting.
It is traditional to throw money at dancers, but I don’t have much on me so we promise to return. We hug them and I am filled with love for these women.
Since before I came to Pakistan I have been wondering how I can show my appreciation and support for this community. With Bindiya, it was clear that money was unhelpful, so I will help through support and enabling links with organisations in the UK. Also, I get the feeling B earns well, contrary to most members of the community who are unable to get regular work. Guria seemed to be saying (though much was lost in translation – actually just about everything was lost) that people come from abroad to see them/meet them and don’t help in any way, and that she struggles to pay the bills and to earn the minimum for her family. It is clear by where they live, that the majority of these women, despite their grace, struggle to make a living. It would be disingenuous for me to behave as though offering some money would be unhelpful or insulting. I have the utmost respect for these women i have met – how gracious would i be in the same circumstances? How loving and welcoming and open?
The next day, we return shortly after 10am and nobody is awake at Guria’s house although she’d assured us it wasn’t too early. It is. We try Sharmeeli and she welcomes us like old friends. The weather is colder today and the smaller goat sports a sweater. S invites us inside her house – she wants to introduce us to her daughter, Sahiba and son, Hasan. Sahiba is a good student and her brother’s daughter – Hasan is her brother’s son – and S looks after them. They live in this room with a younger woman and an older woman.
We watch a video on their TV, of Sahiba at what appears to be a wedding but is actually her birthday party. We try to ignore the smell of the toilet area which is open to the room, and it is not so difficult. Sharmeeli offers us refreshment and returns shortly with 3 large pack of Lays chips – 1 for each of us. We appreciatively drink our soft drinks and eat as much of the chips as we can. Not wanting to offend their sense of hospitality, we put the rest in our bags. They are obviously poor and so generous. When we leave, I ask if she would accept some money, to help with Sahiba’s books, but she refuses. Q tries to press it on her, but I stop him. I give her the brooch I am wearing, as a token of friendship. She ask me to come back with my children, and I hope I can.
As it’s still early-ish, we walk on until Q indicates a 3rd floor window, where a transgender woman is leaning, smoking at a balcony. We wave at her, ‘Salaam aleikum, can we talk with you?’ Bunto comes down, and takes us across the street to her friend’s house. We go up several flights of stairs to Baano’s room, where we are invited to sit on the bed and offered drinks. [note: it’s a fine line between drinking enough to show appreciation for the hospitality and not to waste something they can’t really afford, and willingness to use the toilet. Although the hole-in-the-ground is hygienic, it requires a knack and suitable clothing. Aisha and I wear what we call ‘toilet trousers’ on these outings – nothing too long or wide, which will dangle in the wet, but we can’t wear short trousers either so…]
As we admire her photos, Baano tells us she has just returned from a village outside Lahore where she danced last night in a Wall of Death. I am horrified. Yeh bohot dangerous heh! ‘Dangerous, motorcycles, car, bohot juldi [very fast]’ I say and she looks puzzled, then laughs as she explains that she dances before the cars and motorcycles begin. Bunto accompanies her on her engagements for safety, as these women are very vulnerable to attacks and rape.
Baano poses for us, but tells her this is morning dress. She shows us her evening outfits and they are colourful and sparkly as any dancer’s. She then dances for us, to a song on her phone, and her style is more modern than Sana’s – she has some great moves I must remember. Traditionally, people (men) throw money at dancers, so I offer some money for both of them which she appreciates. [click on the link above to see Baano dancing]
We say goodbye to Baano and Bunto, as we have only a little time to try Guria again. Q wants to avoid the red light area, Heera Mandi, but I don’t. The area is quiet, we are not allowed to take photos, but there is little to see anyway other than some incongruously heavy steel doors set in ancient buildings, and dogs looking for food. We soon emerge back into the old city.
At Guria’s quarters, we are greeted by Fayal, Reshum and Sana, who they tell us Guria is still asleep. After a short detour to meet his family (5 lovely children, Shabash!) we say goodbye to Q and head back to the hotel where the staff welcome us warmly.