AIDF Pakistan Diary – Jan/Feb

February 18, 2016

karachi bus.JPG

30/01/16  Arrival

I’m in Pakistan!  It’s thanks to the Arts Council / British Council’s Artists International Development Fund, that I’m here to research the transgender character in my play, The Jasmine Terrace, and to explore the possibility of future collaborations with local artists and theatre-makers.  I’m joined by the artist Aisha Khan who will be documenting this trip through various media including photographic portraits of the transgender community.  Although this is our plan, it’s become clear that we can’t predict how it will develop.  I have a lot of names, several phone numbers and no meetings set up, because that’s not how it’s done.   I’m keeping a diary to share our experience.

Day 1 – We emerge into the arrival hall of Karachi airport to blinding light, a mass of people, midday heat and an intense scent of roses.  We’re greeted with garlands of jasmine and roses, and it’s the most beautiful homecoming.  It’s 18 years since I was last in Pakistan, though I lived here for the first 10 years of my life, and it’s exotic and familiar at once: the heat, the smells, the sounds.

roof terrace flowers

5 hours later we are sitting on the roof terrace lightheaded with Murree beer, jet lag and excitement.  The terrace is full of birds: over a dozen sparrows, crows which are smaller than the crows in London and elegant with grey necks, and mynahs which move like flocks of starlings in the sky.

We decide to go to the beach before sunset to ride a camel decorated in bright Rajasthani dress.  As soon as we dismount, a man appears with a white horse.  And a little boy clutching 2 red roses to sell.

white horse.jpg

Day 3 – Outside the anti-terrorist courthouse there are paparazzi and a TV crew waiting for the ex petroleum minister up on corruption charges.

We go shopping for suitable clothes in Dolman Mall, bypassing Debenham’s, Next and Cinnabon.  We learn that you can buy most drugs over-the-counter in the pharmacy including valium.    Tempting but no.   My 3-day headache continues, none of the phone numbers i have seem to work, I struggle to stay awake past 8 and Aisha can’t get to sleep before 2.  Tomorrow we start in earnest.


04/02/16  Indus Earth Trust

Since I last posted, I caught up with family on my father’s side, bought our plane tickets to Lahore and visited the Karachi museum where I was looking out for depictions of women around 200-300 BC when my play is set.   I needed to be here in Pakistan to get closer to the reality of my female characters in a particular time and place.  I can’t go back 2,000 years to the courtesans quarter in Karniputra (the Punjab area of India and Pakistan today), but getting some insight into the lives of of cisgender and transgender women in Pakistan today brings me closer.   The question at the heart of my play is ‘what does it mean to be a woman’?  and it seems that enquiry is also at the heart of this trip.

On Wednesday we visit 3 villages in Sindh province with Indus Earth Trust an NGO working to alleviate poverty through integrated development.   The whole village – men, women, children, goats – attends the meetings to discuss how, when IET brings them electricity by means of solar power, they might best use it to improve life in a sustainable way.   I’m told the women are the most important in this, and 70% of the money given to start businesses is in women’s names, because when women control the money, the benefit is soon felt by the whole community.  There is much discussion in these meetings, and much laughter.


The children giggle at my pigeon Urdu and sing happy birthday with me, looking with interest at the photos we take of them.   It’s difficult to explain how I felt, being with them – perhaps it doesn’t make sense to say that i feel love for them, but I do.


In Humzo Shamoo, the poorest of the 3 villages, my uncle (CEO of Indus Earth) tells me that one of the things they really want is furniture for their school.  He asks if I can help with that, and I say yes!  We go to look at the school where part of the wall has fallen in, and see the building has become so unsafe that the villagers have begun to build another, smaller building, using their own scarce resources. The building is half the size of my son’s classroom.  When the children are asked ‘who wants to go to school?’, all of them raise their hands.  I’m told more girls than boys attend school in these areas: girls are much more interested and motivated; boys would rather play.


Some encounters change you.  I promise them I will raise the money for school furniture (they sit 2 to a desk), a desk for the teacher, 2 table fans and repairs to the school building.  All that will cost about £1,200.  I can do that.  I will.


It’s late now as I’m writing this, almost midnight.  The wifi is intermittent because of our proximity to a VIP house which employs signal jammers as a security measure, and now that I’ve got a decent signal, I want to make the most of it.  Tomorrow we have a meeting with Bindiya, the head of the transgender community in Karachi.  Aisha has been practising with different camera lenses to prepare for possible light conditions and I’ve found someone to be our interpreter and driver – he’s a student friend of the daughter of the wife of my mother’s cousin.  I don’t know what to expect tomorrow, or who or where we will meet, but after 2 very brief conversations with B (my urdu and her english don’t allow for more) I already like her.


05/02/16  Looking for Bindiya

Trying to meet with Bindiya, the head of the khawaja sara (transgender) community in Karachi is the beginning of the adventure.  As arranged, I call B who speaks with Usman (our translator/ lawyer-philosopher / all-round perfect guy with a car) and arranges for us to meet at Jinnah Hospital, which provides free medical care.   Two minutes away from the hospital we come up against a diversion, and it’s not a surprise because this whole trip is  full of interesting diversions and unexpected encounters.   I’m very interested in the bustling community outside the hospital – on the pavement outside, there is a small screened marquee where meals are provided for anyone who’s hungry. Usman tells us about the time he went with his father to give food to people living in poverty, and how his father explained the importance of sitting down to eat with them.

Speaking of eating, in the past 2 days I’ve surpassed my grease quotient for the next 2 months, eating a green chilli omelette with paratha and tea at a roadside café on the way to the villages on Wednesday.   You dip the paratha in the sweet tea and it’s the most delicious thing! But first we use tissues to mop up some of the grease from the paratha, so much so, that the waiter brings us a new box of tissues.

Back at Jinnah Hospital, B calls to say someone will meet us at the water filter/pump. We find it by the main entrance and Aisha and I wait there while Usman checks that the car won’t be towed.   We soon see a tall and glamorous khwaja-sara coming towards us and Aisha greets her like an old friend, which pleases her enormously.

Aisha: (hands held out, delighted) Ahh….

X: Salam Aleikum, (something something in Urdu, her hand held out)

Me: Salam Aleikum

X: (something something in Urdu)

Me: (not sure this is our contact) (in pigeon Urdu) I’m Shazea and this is Aisha

X: (in Urdu) I’m Shazea

Me: No, my name is Shazea

X: Yes, I’m Shazea

(all 3 of us are confused)

Me: (in pigeon Urdu) I don’t understand… (then) we are waiting for our friend. (to Aisha) I don’t think this is our contact.   (we feel slightly awkward as we don’t want to offend her).

(Usman appears)

Usman: (to her, in Urdu, respectfully) Hello, We’re actually here to meet with Bindya.

Shazia / not me: (in Urdu) Oh, why didn’t you say! well, go there, turn left etc etc… Bye!

Aisha and I collapse in giggles – her name is Shazia, what are the chances! – and we get in the car, call B, and follow directions to another water filter pump. We find one on a patch of waste ground behind the hospital, which seems a surprising place to meet, but anything is possible. Could our contact be behind it, staying out of the sun?   The phone rings again and it seems we are at the wrong water pump.  We follow more directions which lead us back to the pump we started from, which can’t be right. This time Abbas (B’s secretary) answers the phone and says B’s directions are terrible so he will meet us by the hospital gates and take us to B.   We drive and Usman somehow knows that the man standing smiling in a green t-shirt is A.  He gets in the car and directs us down some twisting streets to the correct water pump which we would never have found without him.


This is the colony by the hospital where B has her base, in a house down some alleyways. The area is poor but clean and well-kept.

And finally we have arrived. We go through a doorway where B waits for us.

chappals B's house.JPG

13/02/2016  Meeting Bindiya

It’s taken almost a week to write this post because of the importance of representing Bindiya and her organization accurately.   Ideally this would be in her words, but my Urdu is not up to that. Once she starts speaking – she is eloquent and passionate, a true orator – we don’t want to interrupt her, so Usman has to paraphrase 3-5 minutes of speech at a time which he does with remarkable recall of specific quotes and details. We record the interview, and my transcription of Usman’s translation/explanation in english forms the basis for this post.   It will have to do until I get a translation of Bindiya’s words from Urdu and Sindhi.

Bindiya leads us into her room and introduces us to Munnee and Sabna who have a bedroom upstairs. Aisha & I sit on the sofa and Usman, Munnee, Sabna and Abbas sit on the bed with her.  Luckily it’s a double bed.  B offers us juice, water, chai, checks the fan is not too much or too little for us.


This room is the Gender Interactive Alliance‘s base for the hospital – they are always on call, and if a member is injured or in an accident, they’ll go and help them.

B tells us she’s extremely angry with people and organisations who come promising to tell their story – they don’t represent what is shown to them, but present their own script and angle. She’s also angry with organisations that come from America and England and throw money around, making them act in a certain way, to illustrate a particular aspect that interests them. She says it undermines her position as the president of the association because when she actually wants to protest over something or she wants to get transgenders to come together, they ask ‘how much are you going to pay us?’  It’s a bad habit that’s developed because of these documentary makers.


Bindiya  Rana

She asks the reason for this inter view. I explain about my play and that one of my aims for this trip is to gain insight into the experience of being transgender in Pakistan today, in order to more authentically represent my transgender character of 2,000 years ago.   I also say that I want to help her in any way I can, to promote her organization and raise awareness of the transgender experience in Pakistan.   I am also hoping that my play, whose main character happens to be transgender, might in some small way help to promote understanding and acceptance of khawaja-serás in Pakistan and abroad.   Aisha also explains her role: a audio-visual documenting of our trip and an artistic response in photographing transgender women and their lives.

Throughout our meeting, B’s phone goes off regularly, and she checks it and passes it to Abbas or answers it herself if it’s urgent. We are at the heart of the association, and she is sought after for advice and action.  She wants to know what questions I have for her.

Do you identify as a woman or a khawaja-será? I ask.

Look, inside, we are women…  But before I express that, of course I feel like a woman inside but there are limits. There are limits that I live in because I come from Pakistan.  She says that as a Muslim and because she lives in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, there are a lot of things she can’t express, can’t do. If she was living in America or England, where it’s OK for 2 men to be married, it would be different.   But for her, even when she was with her guru (mentor/teacher), the only place where they were allowed to be themselves and to express themselves was when they would go to give blessings in a house where there was a newborn or where there was a marriage – that’s the only time. Otherwise, if she tried to express herself as a woman, her family won’t be supportive, and even the people around her wouldn’t be supportive of that.

I tell her my play is set at a time when courtesans lived in grand residences and my character, a transgender courtesan, had a love relationship with a nobleman. ‘If you could do as you liked, with no limits, what would you wish for yourself, for love?’

 I can’t relate to this situation 2,000 years ago, I can only say my life. First and foremost the biggest problem is growing up you don’t get the support you want, you don’t get the support from your siblings. I wanted my brothers to treat me like a sister, but the way they treated me was like I was a hooligan… And then when it comes to love, or when it comes to someone having the choice of girls and expressing his love to her, I haven’t experienced that. There are people who are out here, even at this age, who would love to showcase their love to me, but can only do it within 4 walls. But if I want someone to hold my hand when I go for a conference, that’s not possible. 


She says that for a young transgender of 14 or 15, they won’t really have much say in the matter of love, or expressing that love.   You won’t be able to think ‘I am in love’, it’s more that when someone else says they love you, it’s just so powerful and empowering that you will go with it.

We are offered soft drinks and delicious Peak Frean biscuits with cumin seeds (I remember these from my last visit 20 years ago).  I ask about importance of pronouns – in the West most transgenders want to be addressed as ‘she’ but others prefer a neutral pronoun like ‘hen’ in Sweden.  B is much more comfortable with being called third gender – she doesn’t want to be termed a woman.

I mention Miley Cyrus and how some people identify as gender fluid – neither male or female – and how others consider themselves to be agender, choosing the pronouns they/them.  B hasn’t heard of MC but Usman has.   [I discover later that YouTube was banned in Pakistan in 2012, and though the ban was reversed in January of this year, the Pakistan Television Authority enforces a block on ‘specific offending material’ – which would undoubtedly include twerking and MC].

B tells us about a girl who is a beautician – she’s a girl but she likes to hang out with them and go to their meetings, and she likes to be termed as a khawaja-será – she doesn’t want to be called a girl. I’m like her grandmother, Bindiya says.

In our way of life we can’t have any family ties in this country – we can’t get married, we can’t have kids – so when someone comes as an apprentice in our society, we call them our children, and their apprentice would be our grand-children, and their apprentice would be my great-grand-children, and that’s the only way we can make family bonds. 

 Although the government recognizes transgender, although on paper they have given them more rights than the gay community or the lesbian community, what ends up happening, she says, is that you can’t really have a friend, being a transgender woman here.   I want someone I can talk to, who I can share my problems with, my companion.   B is a known name in the transgender community, so if she’s walking around with someone and says ‘this guy is my friend’, then people will accept it, because they know she’s part of an association. But if any other regular khawaja-será is walking around, even with her brother or father or uncle, the cops will stop them and ask ‘what are you doing? Are you soliciting?’ They can’t accept the fact that a khawaja-será has a friend, or has a platonic relationship with another man, just as a friend to talk to and share ideas.

I can do it because I have built a name for myself, but if it wasn’t for that, then there are no human rights and instances like this make you feel that you’re not even a human. You can’t even have a friend with you without being questioned. 

She looks tired. So many people have come and promised things, and they’ve gone away and never been in touch, she says. They’ve told things with their agenda.

I tell her I’m different – I will be in touch, I will make great efforts for her group, try to link them with groups in the UK and promote them, raise awareness and tell their story so people can understand and accept them.  I have no agenda except to understand and tell their story their way.

She begins to tell me about her association, Gender Interactive Alliance. The main work they plan to do right now, the funds they need, is to spread awareness in different provinces in the interior, where the transgender community has no idea about the Supreme Court ruling.

They have no idea of what rights they have at present. They have no connections with healthcare facilities, they have no connections with human rights organisations, so what she wants to do is go around and spread awareness. For example, in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (formerly NWFT), khawaja-serás cannot even dress up and go out – they will be shot down, right there and right then. We would have to meet up with people over there, she says. Only they can convince – this is how it works in villages as well – the person who is of influence, if he says they can walk around like this, or that there’s nothing wrong with it, then they will be accepted.

Right now the movement is still in a nascent age, so they want to spread awareness more than anything else. And she wants to offer the sort of training that if someone takes a 3-hour workshop, they should know that they can get a job, so they don’t go out and start indulging in activities they were trying to get out of to begin with.

It looks bad on us when we go out looking for funds, when we go out looking for donations, she saysWhen a poor person does it, they call it begging. But when the leaders of the country are going out and asking for the exact same donations to get their policies implemented, then it’s perfectly fine.

Her organisation is limited when it comes to helping transgenders in this community when it comes to healthcare, because when they go to government hospitals, they get their appointment at one place, and they have to travel somewhere else to get free medication. Transgenders can rarely travel by bus –because in some buses they would be asked to go and stand with the boys, and in some buses they would be asked to go in the ladies section. There is a lot of harassment on both ends

Also, if someone is sick and they show up and say ‘this is the medication I need and I have no money on me’ it’s difficult. They have to link themselves to different organisations. There are fair people everywhere, she says, so there will be someone who will help us out, but at the end of the day, that’s not a sustainable model, to have to depend on someone else’s kindness. Their association needs to be more empowered, so that they don’t have to go to different organisations.

Without the funds, without any financial support, it’s a toothless organisation, it can’t really do much. Because B is the voice of GIA, she can walk around with people, she’s not afraid of anything. But the transgender standing on the road who gets raped, or who gets arrested, or has to lodge an FIR (complaint), gets hassled by the cops, by the person who’s the aggressor, and there’s no way to resolve it. So after a while they stop talking about it, because nothing will be done.

It’s strange, she says, because people will do a protest for anyone else, any other organization, they’ll go and protest, but when it happens to us, people feel embarrassed to come and protest with us, for our cause.

We talk more about her work with GIA and it’s clear this is her life’s work.   A charismatic orator, in 2013 she was one of Pakistan’s first transgender candidates to stand for election.  She continued despite death threats and the difficulties of campaigning with negligible funds.  She hadn’t expected to win the election, and considered standing for election a win in itself.

Our meeting comes to an end – Bindiya has already delayed another meeting she was meant to be at. We say goodbye – she gives me her card, and we become facebook friends.  I feel I am saying goodbye to a real friend, but I know this is the beginning of something rather than the end.


Me, Usman, Aisha, Bindiya & Abbas


15/02/16 Karachi Literature Festival


Everyone we had hoped to meet on this trip is magically on the programme at Karachi Literature Festival, a free 3-day event.   At the Beach Luxury Hotel security is tight, starting outside with a metal rod checking under the car (divining for bombs?) and continuing within.  It feels like airport security without the frisking or restrictions on liquids.  I’m getting used to this, as it’s the same on entering fancy shopping malls or banks, and quite relaxed despite the guns.


The first talk we attend is The Dilemmas of the Transgender, with Laxmi Narayan Tripathi, author of Me Laxmi, Me Hijra.  Laxmi is charming, intelligent and witty – she has the audience eating out of her hand.   She and the moderator speak excellent English but most of the talk is in Urdu.  My Urdu is improving every day (it was obviously dormant) but I can only understand perhaps 20% of what’s said.  Luckily, Laxmi keeps lapsing into English.  I may enjoy nature’s femininity, but I’m not a woman and I’m not a man, she says.  Hijra means that I leave my own tribe in search of my own true self.  And later, We are not taught to be ourselves, and we don’t love ourselves.  But if we learn to love ourselves, womanhood is so powerful that man will bend to it...  I have to say ‘I love myself’.  Then I can ask somebody else to love me.   Later, I read a print interview in which she says, “If I were a woman biologically, then I would have loved to be a courtesan”.  When I get her to sign her book, we chat and she is interested to hear about the Sanskrit manuscript of 300BC which inspired my poem sequence and play, and which mentions a transgender courtesan.

Laxmi stage.JPG

Aisha and I attend a talk on Fiction, Memory and Colonialism with HM Naqvi, Sadia Shepard, Kamila Shamsie and Christoph Peters.  The talk is in English, which is a bonus.   Afterwards in the food tent, I get samosas and a cup of Kashmiri chai [a deliciously spiced, pink, milky tea topped with pistachio slivers] and Aisha is delighted to find Dominos pizza, as her stomach is tired of being challenged.   I recognise Kami, from the BBC documentary How Gay is Pakistanand go and talk to her, trying not to feel like a groupie-fan, although there are groupie-fans hovering near her.  Kami is lovely and friendly after some initial wariness.  She tells us she found things somewhat difficult after the documentary came out: she’s had some backlash from it as it showed a very particular angle (a recurring theme) rather than exploring a more balanced view of the transgender experience in Pakistan.   My story of wanting to marry my partner of 5 years is not typical, she says, it’s only my story.  She talks passionately and eloquently of her work as a young activist and what she wants to achieve for LGBTQI awareness and rights: she is a focal person from Pakistan at The Asia and Pacific Transgender Network and Naz Male Health Alliance.  I ask how she feels about the young male groupie-fans buzzing around her, and she doesn’t much like their interest but accepts it.  I feel protective of her, and would like to shoo them away, as it’s clear their interest is sexual.  Kami is much in demand, so we leave reluctantly and with a huge crush on her (OK, I speak for myself – she is magnetic!) and we become Facebook friends.

Kami and me.JPG

Kami & Sid

Day 2 of KLF includes the talk I’m most interested in, Transgender Rights: Are there Any?, with our new friends Bindiya Rana, Kami and Laxmi.  The talk is in Urdu and Bindiya’s presence is understated beside Laxmi’s colourful personality, until she gets up to speak.  Pacing the stage and speaking with fire and conviction, B has the presence of a gifted and inspiring politician.  I’m proud to know her and full of respect for her determination to fight for the transgender community.

I have noticed that there is a real interest here in transgender, but many of the young men are clearly not here for the talks – their interest is less… honourable.

Bindya stage.JPG

I’m disappointed to miss From Life to Reel with Shahid Nadeem, playwright and co-founder of Ajoka Theatre, who I have arranged to meet in Lahore, but his event clashes with Bindiya’s.  I have wanted to meet him since I saw an adaptation of his play Dara, at the National Theatre last year and was inspired by his talk at the Q&A afterwards, when he said there was no subject that couldn’t be in a play.  I hope our paths cross over the course of the festival.

Next is The Oscar Lady with Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy of SOC films.  Sharmeen is one of the reasons I am here – she is my host partner and without her introduction, I would not have been able to meet with Bindiya.   However, like most successful, famous award-winning people, Sharmeen is incredibly busy promoting 3 films around the world (I’ve seen a recent photo of her with Meryl Streep and Thandie Newton at the US premiere of Song of Lahore), and the festival is the only time our paths cross.  She talks about her 3 current films: Song of Lahore is about Sachal Studios, a classical Pakistani and jazz fusion project; A Journey of a Thousand Miles, about a unit of Bangladeshi women peacekeepers; and A Girl in the River, her latest film about honour killings, has been nominated for an Oscar.  After the talk she is swamped by fans.

SOC talk.JPG

Later in the evening is a screening of Manto, the Movie which is based on a TV series by Shahid Nadeem on the life of the celebrated Pakistani writer.   I am gutted to miss his talk again, but our ride is leaving, too much Biryani and Dominos has been eaten, and we have another day of the festival to go.   The day after tomorrow, we leave for Lahore.


See some of Aisha’s photos on Tumblr and Instagram


Pakistan Diary: Lahore

February 17, 2016

sightseeing Lahore


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].

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.

The staff at Hotel A, which I booked hurriedly when other accommodation fell through, are very helpful and try their best.  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  [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, 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 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.  With a forklift truck.

traffic pepple.jpg

‘I love UK people, I respect women, I love humanity’ traffic cop tells us.  And he has white gloves, which are very reassuring.   45 minutes later, after a bumpy, circuitous and cosy 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 I don’t understand his response in Urdu.   During the rickshaw ride, the traffic cop took a 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. During an hour-long, interesting but painfully slow journey, we  discover pollution to be a vital ingredient of Lahore life.

rickshaw ladies

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.  Much of the tour, in a double-decker bus, is accompanied by the thumping music of Pakistani pop music.  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, 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 taxis.  It has been a 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.

Mughal @ L fort

Mughal Guard @ Lahore Fort

Lfrt with BM

Lahore Fort & Badshahi Mosque in distance

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 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.

Old Lahore.JPG

Old Lahore from Banned Gate

16/02/16  New Friends in Old Lahore

shy girl with goats, Lahore

Sharmeeli with goats

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.

shy girl2

Sharmeeli with goats

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.

outside door

Sharmeeli’s doorway

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’.

me and G.JPG

Guria & me (by flash and phone light)

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.

Sana Bhutt dancing 2

Guria, Reshum & Fayal (in doorway) watch Sana dancing

sb dancing3.JPG

Sana Bhutt dancing

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.


Hasan, Sharmeeli and Sahiba with photos

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…]


Baano in evening dress

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’s natural beauty

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.



Poetry and Beauty

November 28, 2013

Aldeburgh sunrisePoetry and Beauty was the theme of talks at The 25th International Aldeburgh Poetry Festival earlier this month: there were variations on the theme through discussions and short talks with Terrence Hayes, Ian McMillan, Vera Pavlova, Katha Pollitt, Karen Solie, Salena Godden, D Nurkse and me.

Is poetry still concerned with beauty?
I begin (as always when I don’t know where to start) with a definition of beauty, and find what I’m looking for in Wikipedia where beauty is defined as a characteristic of a person, animal, place, object or idea that provides a perceptual experience of pleasure or satisfaction.

When I think of the poems I love, they give me pleasure and satisfaction, so I’d say beauty is involved.

The Lake Isle of Innisfree by WB Yeats, which I carry in my head, is blatantly beautiful – it’s about beauty of place, and beauty is also in the sound of the words, the music of the poem, the images and feelings it invokes.

Another favourite poem is this one by Chris Beckett:

A Daughter and Two Diseases

The woman in the next bed
has a daughter and two diseases:
malaria, like me, and elephantiasis.
Her huge distorted legs lie
beached and bloated on the sheets,
as if they’d been fished out of a lake.
When a fever comes, she shakes
the bed, rattles it on the pipes
until the whole room is ringing.
The skin around her ankles is thick
and pebbled – sometimes it opens
as if cut with a knife from the inside,
and puss bubbles out of the cracks.
Nurses rush to dab and dress her.
She looks at me apologetically,
says something in Amharic, moans.
Her hands are long and delicate,
soft as ostrich feathers – sometimes
she spreads her fingers in a veil
and covers her face as she cries.
In the afternoon her daughter comes,
when the light is starting to fade.
She speaks gently and holds
one of her mother’s beautiful hands.

Perhaps it doesn’t fit everyone’s idea of beauty, but it does mine: a perceptual experience of pleasure and satisfaction. Pleasure in the language and the arrangements of the words on the page. Also sadness is a pleasure for me in a strange way – not because I like to be sad (I’d rather be happy), but perhaps because it’s in the fabric of life, so it’s truthful. And I find satisfaction in the logic and arrangement of the words, but most of all, in the kindness and humaneness of the poet’s gaze.

Anne Carson’s book, The Beauty of the Husband, is described as a fictional essay in 29 tangoes.
Even if I wasn’t a huge fan of Anne Carson, I’d have bought the book for the title alone, for the idea of it.
In tango 25 the speaker – the wife – invites us to

…sharpen our eyes and circle closer to the beauty of the husband-
creafully, for he was on fire.
Under him the floor was on fire,
the world was on fire,
truth was on fire.

Earlier, she describes him as

Loyal to nothing
my husband. So why did I love him from early girlhood to late middle age
and the divorce decree came in the mail?
Beauty. No great secret. Not ashamed to say I loved him for his beauty.
As I would again
if he came near. Beauty convinces. You know beauty makes sex possible.
Beauty makes sex sex.

Sex brings me to my book, The Courtesans Reply, and the role of beauty in it. Like The Caturbhani which inspired it, TCR is set in the courtesans’ quarter. But instead of the male gaze turned on the beauty of the beloved, as is the case in the Caturbhani, my poems are written from the beloved, the beautiful.
One of the things that drew me to Ghosh’s translation of the Caturbhani, was the women’s delight in their sensuality and sexuality, and also the idea of beauty 2,000 years ago.
Here the narrator, Vita, describes the attending maids of courtesans

…who are like so many standards of victory of the god of love. Their side-long glances are like missiles ready to be released; their broad smiles are revealing their well-set rows of teeth; they speak with an undisguised movement of their eye-brows; their short front-covers are sometimes slipping off due to the plumpness of their breasts…

He then describes the special beauty of the courtesans’ daughters

….who are the store-house of coquetry, whose faces are always adorned with smiles, whose astonished looks are without any pride, whose glossy dark hairs are fine, long and wavy; whose (graceful) gait is slow due to (heavy) round buttocks, and excels that of a maddened elephant in rut…

The brackets are Ghosh’s, not mine, and the image of a rutting elephant recurs often in the text, seeming to be the highest form of praise for beauty.

In my poem, Ramadasi attempts to entice back a lover who has been absent, reminding him of her beauty:

…Undo my braid,
stiff as buffalo horn

and draw your
fingers through my hair.

Untie my belt, open
the silk cloth
covering my waist,

let my oiled limbs, my
perfumed skin
envelop you

as the rose
the bee.

Another courtesan, Sukumarika, is also trying to win back the man she loves, who has gone to another. But as a hijra or mtf transgender courtesan, she doesn’t have beauty to fall back on. So she reminds him of what she, and only she, can offer him:

My dearest, my life,
moon to my night,
remember our happiness?

Recall, if you can,
the equal kiss, Sama,
and the pressed kiss, Pidito.
Aschita, the devouring kiss
and Mridu, the delicate kiss…
Also the inflamer,
the kiss of encouragement,
the awakening kiss,
the vagabond, the joyful
kiss, the vibrant one,
the bowed kiss, the twisted kiss and
the satisfied kiss.

She then moves lower down his body (and if you want to know what exactly she does, you’ll have to read the book).
As well as her art, she offers him herself, her love, which he will not find anywhere else.

Those we love are beautiful to us.
Isn’t it perfect, how that works?

p.s. If there is anyone reading this, what are your favourite poems about beauty, or which encompass beauty for you?

The three aims of life

January 10, 2013

In the beginning of Ararat, Louise Gluck’s 1990 poetry collection, there is a quote by Plato:

“…human nature was originally one and we were a whole and the desire and pursuit of the whole is called love.”

I’ve also been rereading The Complete Kama Sutra, which began as research for my courtesans story, to answer the question ‘what did they do exactly?’. In the introduction, the translator, Alain Danielou (also a French historian, intellectual, musicologist and Indologist) writes:

Eroticism is firstly a search for pleasure, and the goal of the techniques of love is to attain… infinite delight. The refinements of love and the pleasures that include music and other arts are only possible in a prosperous civilization, which is why the Kama Shastra, the Art of Love, is linked to the Artha Shastra, the Rules of Prosperity and the Art of Making Money.

And if love doesn’t last? I’m thinking aloud… wondering how often a woman without husband or children can feel confident of her place in the world. Perhaps if she’s fortunate and determined.

According to the Vedas the three aims of life are Virtue (dharma), Wealth (artha) and Love (kama). These were meant for men, but let’s include women.

So I’m going to think about pursuing virtue and wealth. And perhaps love – not infinite delight, not at the moment (I’m in the library) – but the other side of love: the thing which is always shifting and changing colour.

The Next Big Thing

December 5, 2012

My poet/writer friend Seni Seneviratne has introduced me to The Next Big Thing where I write about my new poetry book – The Courtesans Reply

Where did the idea come from for the book?
It was inspired by a translation of The Caturbhani, four monologue plays written in Sanskrit and set in the courtesans quarter in India around 300 BC.

What genre does your book fall under?

What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition? 

Actually, I’ve thought about this because I’m adapting the book as a play, and I can see it as a film… perhaps directed by someone like Samira Makhmalbaf.
I would love for the actress Manjinder Virk to play one of the courtesans. The characters are all Indian/from the Indian subcontinent, and all women, apart from Sukumarika, who is a MtF transgender character and would be played by a man.

What is the one sentence synopsis of your book?
The Courtesans Reply is a long poem sequence imagined in the voices of Indian courtesans: women who were known for their skills in 64 arts including music, storytelling, dancing and the art of love.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?
I began working on the first poem in about 2005/2006, but didn’t know it would be a sequence until about 2008. I redrafted a lot, working on individual poems, so I didn’t really have a full first draft for another three or four years.

Who or what inspired you to write this book? 

My biggest inspiration was Glimpses of Sexual Life in Nanda Maurya India: an english translation of The Carturbhani by Manomohan Ghosh.
I was captivated by the courtesans glimpsed through the narrow gaze of the male narrator, and as I began to imagine their lives, I found myself straying further and further from the original text. Given a voice, the courtesans had their own stories to tell.
I also drew inspiration from The Complete Kama Sutra and other historical texts, and although I believed my characters were real, that they were once living, it is fiction.

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest? 

What drew me to The Caturbhani was the erotic charge of the writing, and the way this was married to a subtlety and modesty that is characteristic of the culture of the Indian subcontinent. That the courtesans enjoyed their sexuality and took pleasure unapologetically was important to me… even in light of their situation in life and lack of choices.
I hope readers will fall under the courtesans’ spell as I did.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency? 

My pamphlet is published by flipped eye, an innovative press I admire for its ethos and for the quality and range of the work they publish.

Interviews coming up on The Next Big Thing:

Anna Stearman:
Meryl Pugh: