Tuesday, June 30, 2015



Abrar Shahin is a Muslim student of Palestinian descent who recently graduated from this school. PHOTO: TWITTER (@AbrarShahin)

There is a school named The Clifton High School which is not in Karachi but in New Jersey, USA, and Abrar Shahin is a Muslim student of Palestinian descent who recently graduated from this school. Sincere congratulations and best wishes in her subsequent career to the young lady who appears to possess a strong sense of identity since her photograph shows her wearing a hijab, and who is about to present us with what I hope, a healthy debate.
In the hormone-charged atmosphere of high schools, where girls dress quite revealingly, it takes conviction to cover your head with a scarf at all times. In her year book, Ms Shahin was seen wearing skinny jeans, ankle-high boots and a cropped white blazer in her yearbook photo, and if you look at her photograph, you will find that she is also meticulously made up with eyeliner, mascara, the works, the cosmetics, as a reporter for NorthJersey.com puts it perfectly,
“Capped with plum-toned lip stick.”
It is interesting but not unusual. My children also went to a high school in the US where there were other girls similarly dressed in tight jeans, fully made up, but also wearing a hijab. My own daughter, whose mother did not agree with hijabs, did not wear one, and her jeans and tops were relaxed and not as fitted. I cannot recall her ever wearing make up to high school.
So tell me, not because I wish to be judgmental, heaven forbid, but because being human I am tired of some people flaunting a halo in addition to a hijab and I need this outburst, what is the purpose of a hijab?
Is it not worn to prevent men paying attention to a woman’s charms?  And is that all there is to be modest about in a woman’s body, the hair on her head? Is there not, if one must be obsessed with the subject, the face, the figure, and a lot else that constitutes female charm? I knew someone, my father in fact, who never considered a woman beautiful unless her feet were clean and well kept. And someone else who felt that there was nothing more attractive than a woman who wore a light perfume and nothing more off putting than one who wore something strong ‘like Charlie’ is what he said to be exact.
I suppose from some quarters the response will be that this is why women should be (according to them) covered from head to toe – incarcerated.
I know a very nice lady. She is covered from head to toe in what she tells me are mostly French chiffons. That, in my book, encapsulates the matter quite neatly. There is nothing more elitist, nothing that contributes more to the ‘great divide’ than such ‘pardah’. Only the rich, the very rich can afford to be quite so ‘religious’ which should make us question if that, after all, is what was intended by the religious requirement of modesty, to question the definition of ‘pardah’.
The rest of us who have to earn a living, who have to live with the curse of power load-shedding and who cannot afford fabric that drapes and breathes as well as chiffon either die under such incarcerating conditions (Karachi heat wave) or live a bit less encumbered if modestly, and rely on our own lungs not the abaya to do the breathing.
As an aside, please allow me to tell you that the fully incarcerated lady cannot exercise in her driveway as she used to in her pre-incarcerated days because of the chowkidar (security guard), so she must now do so in a gym. Also that she carries a spare set of slippers in her car in case they visit a home where she must sit in the same room as the men. In that case she wears the stodgy pair; otherwise she wears the prettier ones.  It is mind-boggling, is it not, how much thought in addition to cash goes into incarceration?
I am struck by the sentiment and the utter dedication to the subject of sexuality. But think for a moment. The world has come to a stage now where people eat breakfast on the hoof. While I do not agree with this other extreme of lifestyle, it gives some idea of how busy a world it now is. How much there is to achieve, and how much one has to adapt to get out of this rut we have fallen into. Our country is perilously short of water, power, education, justice, funds, political stability, women and children’s rights, health facilities, nearly everything. And we are stuck, mired, up to our heads in abayas, hijabs, trailing dupattas (the mind boggles in what all these trail in) and nothing but.
I am a woman. I dress well, and modestly enough. My son would never, ever treat a woman with disrespect much less hoot and whistle at one. I think this is the real pardah. Sometimes the route to self-respect and dignity is via both sexes, with the aid of nothing more than a bit of decency and common sense. A shroud is not required.

Monday, June 29, 2015



Up to 75 per cent of oral cancer patients in hospitals disclose that they used betel nuts, paan or gutka.

off8When the Mughal emperor Akbar’s regular paan maker fell sick Akbar asked the son to prepare paan (betel leaf) for him. The young man put too much chuna (slaked lime) on Akbar’s paan which ‘burnt’ the royal tongue. Furious, Akbar decreed the son must drink a seer of raw lime in punishment. Scared, since he knew chuna’s potential for causing wounds, the young man consulted the wise man Birbal who made him drink a seer of ghee before consuming the lime to offset its harmful effect. The young man did become ill after eating the large quantity of ghee, but he lived to tell the tale.
off6Paan, is eaten with slaked lime, and katha (catechu, which like the ghee serves to offset the effect of lime), crushed chalia (also known as areca or betel nut), cardamom, and very often tobacco, making the preparation known as betel quid.  If a sweet paan is preferred coconut, aniseed and sweet syrup are also added.  In India and Pakistan paan is customarily offered at auspicious occasions such as diwali and weddings. It is considered to be a fine way to round off a good meal, and is a successful item of commerce.  A childhood memory of paan consists of a shop somewhere in ‘Pindi that sold ‘gudda guddi’ (a paan for children with lots of sweet red syrup), ‘aye bhi woh, gaye bhi woh’ (a soft kapuri paan that melted immediately when placed in the mouth), and ‘falak ki sair’ a paan laden with tobacco as the name suggests that probably made the one who ate it very dizzy.
off5Paan (betel leaf) goes back a long way across the region. In his writings two hundred years before Akbar, Ibn e Batuta mentioned that paan and chalia were served with barley water after meals at the Mongol court. In the Far East paan has been used for more than four thousand years, and is still an integral part of the food culture of Nepal, the Philipines, Taiwan, Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Vietnam, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh.  It is eaten not by itself but prepared with katha (katechu), chuna (lime), chalia (areca or betel nut) and tobacco.
Combining all these harmful things, chalia, katha, tobacco and chuna along with sweet or savoury fillings is also ‘gutka’, a highly addictive stimulant also popular in the region.  Gutka is ‘stored’ in the cheek and consumed gradually over time.
off4There are other lesser known ways of eating paan. It makes a refreshing drink by blending the bitter sweet leaves with gulkhand (rose petal preserve) or Rooh Afza as a sweetener, and tukh malanga (chia or basil) seeds. It makes chaat with crisp fried paan, with the chaat ingredients served on the leaves. It can be made into a shake with milk or cream, or ice cream, or into kulfi with full cream milk, sugar, cardamom, pistachios and rose water. It is a pity that these other ways of eating paan are not popular because the prepared paan is implicated in the thousands of cases of oral cancer every year amongst habitual eaters.
Up to 75 per cent of oral cancer patients in hospitals disclose that they used betel nuts, paan or gutka. Prolonged contact of chuna with oral mucosa causes tiny ‘cuts’ on the tongue and cheek when the paan is ‘stored’ in the cheek. The cuts fester and allow harmful chemicals to penetrate the lining of the mouth, causing cancer over time.  Katha is similarly harmful. Taiwan, where the practice of chewing paan with fresh betel nuts is very common has one of the highest rates of oral cancer in the world. As for the tobacco, it is dangerous whether inhaled in cigarettes or chewed with paan, because it increases the risk of oral (mouth) and oesophageal (food pipe) cancer. According to a BBC report, chalia is right up there with nicotine, alcohol and caffeine as an addictive substance, and is ‘one of the most popular mind-altering substances in the world.’
off7Paan is a seasoned traveller.   As is so commonly seen in­­ Pakistan, the sidewalks of Chicago, the cobbled streets of Europe and the souks of the Middle East have all been splattered by paan and gutka spittle. As a result in Dubai in 2012 a week long campaign was conducted in several languages, targeting the various paan chewing groups among the population. The import of betel leaf is banned in Dubai and there is a fine of Dh500 for chewing and spitting it in a public place.   In England, several local councils have launched education campaigns to combat the habit, and they impose fines on anyone caught spitting paan in a public space. One local authority disclosed that ‘even special teams equipped with high powered water jets are unable to remove the stains from the pavements’, and that it costs them over £20,000 a year to clean the mess.
In September 2013 two young men became the first to be successfully prosecuted by a council in England“http://www.walthamforest.gov.uk/pages/news/council-wins-landmark-case-for-spitting.aspx” for spitting in public, when a Thames magistrates court endorsed Waltham Forest council’s view that spitting was a sub-genre of litter.
off3The Guardian quotes Ross Goomber, professor of sociology at Plymouth University, who conducted an international spitting survey and spent the summer travelling in Mumbai, Kuala Lumpur, Jakarta, Tokyo, Seoul and Shanghai. Prof Goomber compared the spitting habits of different nations and found it to be a many-faceted thing. He said that “the three most significant spitting nations are India, South Korea and China”. For those interested in the subject, the spitting in Mumbai was mainly connected to the chewing of betel nut, in South Korea it was closely linked to smoking, and in China to an outright distaste for swallowing.
In Europe and Singapore where the penalty for littering is heavy in any case the mind boggles at the penalty red spittle would invoke.
There appears to be a link between smoking and the paan habit. According to a study, 34% of betel chewers smoke, while 3% of non-smokers chew.  Many countries have their own anti betel nut and leaf campaigns. Yet there are few public awareness campaigns in Pakistan to point out the danger associated with paan.  As with cigarettes it is a common sight to see people in Pakistan with paan tucked into the cheek, their lips, teeth and tongue stained red with betel juice.  It is an ugly sight, but a culturally accepted one. And that is what makes it so hard to dislodge.

Monday, June 22, 2015


De-colonise yourself. That is the strongest message I came away with from the Rising Dust writing workshop held by Desi Writers in Lahore some months ago. Unlike the other messages which I know will return to bite me when I write, this message has not ceased to niggle at me.
De-colonise yourself. Am I colonised? The answer came back as pat as the slap of chapati on a tawa: yes I am. All right then, I'm colonised. We all are, and we always were. The list of invaders and colonisers of India is long and florid starting with the Greek, Arab and Turkish invasions. After them the Mamluks, the Khiljis and the Tughluqs and we haven't even come to the Moghuls yet. When the Mughals did arrive, the Portugese arrived after them and then the British, and of course the Americans most recently on air-wave steeds and broadband warships. All these people left bits of themselves behind. There is no such thing as a purely subcontinental culture. If I cast around for an example of something essentially 'here' I alight on the humble tandoor. But the Persians, Armenians, Turks, Hebrews, Uzbeks and Kurds all possess close variants of the word and the item to which all their words refer is the same tandoor we're familiar with in Pakistan. The question is, is there anything wrong with being 'colonised', per se?
I left Pakistan kicking and screaming in the early '90s and returned the same way twenty years later. I had never expected to come back. After years of waiting at my postbox stifling the urge to bite the postman or woman if there was nothing for me, I had accepted my isolation and realised I was not isolated at all. I had not only a new life but I had been allowed to retain my old one to a great extent. Yes my family was not there, but hey, there was email.
I got religion there. Or perhaps I simply got older. One seems to follow the other. But the fact is I find other countries more Islamic than Pakistan has ever been, at least that was and is my brand of Islam. I have little patience with our bean counting religiosity and find it hard to believe that God listens to your prayer when the one lac and fiftieth prayed over khajoor ka beej leaves your hand, and not before. I have no patience at all with our wedding rasams and rituals and attend each function kicking as hard and screaming as loudly as I did when I returned to this country.
I say my prayers now, and my Iblees damns me with faint praise when I do, and my Gabriels high five each other, and if I don't my angels do not tempt me with deserts under which streams of milk flow because they know I am lactose intolerant.
I wish I was like Kamila Shamsie where my writing was concerned, but as much as her I cannot relate to the woman behind the veil or the one squatting above a desi toilet. I am not alone in not being versed let alone well versed in Urdu literature, and have always realised that deficit in my education, but as a result of the workshop I have resolved to try and read more Urdu.  It is true that some of the best informed most intellectual persons I know are as well versed in Urdu literature as in any other. At the same time I defy anyone to say there is no 'Made in Pakistan' plastered right across my face, because this is what Pakistan made of me. I have never shrunk from who I am nor has my colour faded when someone introduced me as their Pakistani friend. I am Pakistani, and happy to be so (except at certain generally explosive moments), although what Pakistani is is something that has yet to be defined. Perhaps that is what is meant by 'de-colonisation', the ability to be aware of one's strati-graphic composition, to understand it, and in the context of a writer convey the layers in a way that enables the reader to feel the grains of sand, and each individual stone and shard of pottery.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015


(this is an unpublished post)

My daughter who lives in the US has a 16 oz measuring jug (473 ml for the rest of the world) in each washroom, and after spotting one in the powder room the following conversation occurred between two much loved American relatives:

American relative: 'Why is there a measuring jug in the washroom?'
Wife of American relative, warningly: 'Harry! We've been through this before!'

At my son's house there are bottles of Trader Joe's (cold pressed) green juices in the washroom cabinets (without the juice), except for the half bath downstairs where its organic carrot.

A sister has some innocuous plastic mugs that cunningly conceal their fell purpose behind a diminutive size, while a cousin sports plastic watering cans with a long spout like a lethally curved scimitar that must give rise to unpleasant conjecture amongst the uninitiated.

You'll understand my reaction therefore when in a niece's washroom in Ann Arbour I came upon a 'muslim shower'...but I'm getting ahead of myself. Before Anne Arbour our grandchild arrived, born in Virginia. The room next door at the birthing centre sounded like a stadium following a football touchdown, with about fifteen people screaming 'Push! Push! Push!' at intervals until a lusty cry signalled cheers and celebrations. It was an entirely different experience to the birth of a child in Pakistan where even fathers are on the periphery and other members of the family weep into their respective handkerchiefs (or Rose Petal Tissues these days) in the next room. The Americans have devised an elaborate support system that includes both parents, with prenatal classes, advice and support groups for young fathers and mothers before and after a baby is born. It functions as feverishly to foster breast feeding as it had once worked to discourage it, and nurses, doctors, lactation specialists, an entire industry occupies itself with doing everything in its power to promote the practice, while supplements containing fenugreek and aniseed are very popular for increasing lactation. We come full circle, yes.

Insurance plans under Obamacare also cover the cost of a breast pump per child, as well as support and counselling for the period required. The US still lacks a decent official maternity/paternity leave policy for young parents in which respect it lacks far behind those countries held to be civilised in such matters.

Baby showers are an integral part of the process of having a baby and the practice is catching on among the Pakistani 'elite'. But while here people vie with each other in giving more and more costly gifts, in the US people order gifts according to their ability selected from an online list drawn up by the young parents. The list consists of things the parents require for the child, and may include inexpensive plastic spoons and boxes of nappies. It is also common practice for parents whose children have grown out of their clothes and other things to loan these things to friends expecting a child. The reaction of a begum living in DHA or Gulberg being offered used clothing for her precious new child would be entertaining if it weren't so sad.

Let us therefore go back to that far more entertaining subject, the 'muslim shower'. We had reached that point earlier as a result of orderly progression from measuring jugs to Trader Joe's bottles, camouflaged and scmitar wielding lotas to washrooms in Ann Arbour.

It had been a wonderful trip, but I had been away for more than two months. That fact came home to me in that washroom in Ann Arbor where I stifled the odd but understandable urge to hug the muslim shower, pondering instead on the tremendous impact unexpected things have on people, and how that impact can be used in constructive ways. Can militant extremists be persuaded, for example, to print their fiery speeches on toilet paper and export the rolls? Imagine the impact, a rather less physical one in certain ways, of a roll of tissue that says, 'You uncircumcised infidel! I'll dry you!' I doubt this would ever replace the fire and brimstone issuing from the the mosques, but it may help by being somewhat less scorching. You see, different things could be noted on each unwary square of paper, providing writers with a relief similar to that obtained by the user, a catharsis otherwise provided by bombs, guns and bullets. It is a potentially win win situation, and the mind boggles at the possibilities. The impression that extremists wouldn't think in terms of toilet paper because they all belong to the uneducated mullah class has been recently overset, at least apparently, by men charged with violence in Karachi so I shall leave the idea out there and wait for suggestions. Any takers?