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When I was a child the season of Advent seemed magical to me.  A time of anticipation, largely of the food and presents that would come my way when the Advent candle finally burned down to 25.  A time of joyous expectation.  It tied in with the decorations in the town centre, with the Christmas music on the radio, with all of the trappings of Christmas in a Western country.

The older I became, the more the glitter and magic of Advent wore off.  As I thought about the birth of Jesus it struck me that this was a rescue mission, a final and stunning act of lavish and proactive generosity on the part of a God who could not bear to be separated from his people.  My rejoicing was replaced with wonder as I realised just how much humanity needed God, just how much God longed to be reunited with humanity, just how extreme and astonishing the rescue mission was.

And now in Pakistan Advent seems more miraculous, more bizarre, more incredible than ever.  Most people here simply cannot believe that God would stoop to enter the world as a human: it would be beneath him, unworthy of his majesty.  I can understand the objection.  The incarnation of God in the person of Jesus Christ is a phenomenon not seen in any other religion, at any other time, anywhere else in the world.  How could a divinity lower himself to such a level?  It is unthinkable that God would require food, would stub his toe, would cry.  I understand the objection, though I do not agree with it.  The aspect of God’s nature which makes the incarnation possible is the unthinkable depth and breadth of his love.  He would do anything, anything, to be with his children.  What father would do less?

Apart from Pakistani Christians, nobody here marks Christmas.  Save for the gaudily-decorated lobbies of the expensive Western hotels there are no decorations, no Christmas songs, no Christmas adverts on TV.  We celebrate it quietly.  I enjoy this very much.  It is in keeping with the season of Advent: a secret rescue mission, a tiny baby delivered in a humble room in an irrelevant backwater of the Roman Empire, welcomed by lowly shepherds.  The baby who would go on to turn the world upside down after three decades in isolation.  Jesus, the ultimate sleeper cell.  Not many here know of him, but he is there, and his love is as broad and deep as it ever was.

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The man plucked a clucking, flapping chicken from a cage, held it firmly by the neck, and held it over a large blue bucket.  He reached for a knife, held it to the throat of the bird, and cut it with one smooth motion before dropping the bird, furiously flapping in its death throes, into the bucket.

My daughter, three years old turned to me in tearful bewilderment.

“Why are they killing the chickens?”.

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I hadn’t intended for her to see this.  We had come to buy coal for a barbecue and in this small mountain town it is only obtainable from the “murghi wallah”, the chicken seller.  In Pakistan life is not as sanitised as it is in the West, where meat is purchased in sterilised, plastic-wrapped containers and the messy business of slaughtering is done in distant and anonymous warehouses.  Here animals are killed in front of you – during the festival of Eid goats, sheep and even cows are slaughtered in driveways and in the streets – and I have come back from the bazaar several times clutching a bag of chicken pieces, still warm, with blood oozing out.

I would prefer to shield my kids from the harsh realities of life.  All of the books we read to our kids are unfailingly upbeat, with happy endings.  Babies get lost and are returned, safe and sound, to their parents.  Strangers are friendly and kind.  Trains do not crash, the sun always shines, cats are cuddly and never scratch or bite.  We present our kids with a vision of the world which is, frankly, unrealistic.

And yet as responsible parents we also have an obligation to tell our children, as they grow older, that the world is not as safe as they might like to think.  We teach them to be careful when crossing the road, to be cautious of strangers, to watch out for “bad men with guns” (that last one may be unique to Pakistan, of course).  A few months ago I had to tell my son about “good touching” and “bad touching”, making him aware of the perils of child abuse.  It is heartbreaking, yet apparently it is also responsible parenting.

I can think of no stronger evidence for the brokenness of the world than the fact that as loving parents we need to teach our children to be suspicious, to a certain extent at least, of strangers.  They grow up with a soft and fluffy worldview, living in a world of sunshine and smiles, only to be confronted with the fact that in order to eat meat for dinner, a chicken has to be butchered and die messily in a blue bucket.  Christians, of course, look past this world to another one, a place of renewed perfection, which we await eagerly.

I bet the chickens do, too.

christians-in-pakistan-youhanabad

Youhanabad means “City of John”.  I have visited it a number of times over the last few years; it is probably the biggest Christian population centre in the whole of Pakistan.  The level of Christian dominance seems strange.  Shops and pharmacies are usually given Islamic names – “Mashallah Pharmacy”, “Bismillah Cold Drinks”, that kind of thing – but when I was walking through the packed streets of Youhanabad a few years ago I noticed a shop with “Jesus Christ Pharmacy” written in large type over its door.

“Isn’t this strange?” I asked the owner when I went in to buy some Calpol for a sick child.

“Why?” he replied.  “Everyone here is a Christian”.

This explains why, on Sunday 15th March, two suicide bombers decided to attack it.  They approached the gates of two churches – one Catholic, one Protestant – and detonated their devices.  17 people are dead.  Far more would have died, except that security guards wrestled with the attackers and prevented them from entering the compound; in doing so they gave their lives for the protection of those within, thereby providing an illustration, in the city of John, of the words of Jesus in the gospel of John: “Greater love has no man than this, than to lay down his life for his friends”.

Christian anger spilled over into the streets as Christian blood spilled over into the gutters.  A mob formed, and two passers-by, wrongly accused of being part of the terrorist team, were lynched, and their bodies burned.  Cars were smashed, rocks thrown, roads and motorways blocked as hate spilled out into the streets.  In doing so the protestors in the city of John failed to heed the words of the apostle John: “Whoever loves his brother abides in the light…but whoever hates his brother is in the darkness and walks in the darkness”.

The protests will fade away; they always do.  The politicians will make speeches; they always do.  The grieving Christians will continue with life; they always do.  The words of Jesus in the gospel of John will continue to be true – true for the Christians, even those who mobbed innocent men to death; true for the terrorists, even those who consider Christians mere fodder for their suicide vests; true for everyone who tramps the dusty streets of the city of John:

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life”.

  1. Get a good teacher. A good teacher ought to encourage you, praise your faltering efforts to master the language, and not laugh at you too much when you confuse the word for “stomach” with the word for “buttocks”.
  2. Set aside two years of your life, at a minimum, to study it full-time.
  3. Move to Pakistan. It makes sense to learn Urdu in the country where it is spoken. On the downside, you will find yourself studying in 40 degree heat with frequent power cuts.  On the upside, you get to eat parathas.
  4. Try not to be put off by the fact that Urdu script has three different characters for “s”, four for “z”, three for “t” (two of which are minutely different), and a special character which doesn’t make a sound but which tells you to exhale slightly as you say it. When you first try to do so, you will be laughed at (see above).
  5. Also try not to be put off by the fact that when you use the wrong kind of “s” when spelling a word, people will laugh at you. It doesn’t matter that it’s pronounced the same, nor that the two letters are effectively interchangeable, you are still wrong.

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 If you can deal with all of these, you will reach the majestic point at which you can easily navigate the bazaar, chat to all and sundry, and be met with the glorious compliment: “Mashallah, you speak Urdu very well!”.

When people hear that we live in Pakistan they tend to take a deep breath and roll their eyes.

“That must be stressful” they often say.

They’re often right.  Everyday life in Pakistan, as in many other developing countries, features a pretty high level of stress.  More or less everything is more difficult than it is in the West.  Things that are done online in the West – paying bills, ordering groceries, changing car registrations – is done in person in Pakistan, which means a trip to the bank and a good half hour (minimum) of your time.  Then there’s the stress and expense of renewing visas (meaning that permission to stay in Pakistan is conditional on the whims of the government and can be withdrawn at any time), and the power cuts (sometimes for up to 20 hours), and the heat, and a permanent level of anxiety about security – especially since a group of foreign tourists were recently killed in the mountains north of here.

And then there’s the additional stress.  Recently, for example, we have faced:

– Our daughter being sent for a CT scan to check for suspected hydrocephalus (false alarm, thankfully).

– Our son catching a virus which gave him a high temperature, which meant that he couldn’t sleep and we had to stay awake fanning him with a piece of cardboard all night.

– My wife slipping on wet tiles and pulling several muscles, which incapacitated her for two days.

– Me sleeping awkwardly on my right arm which effectively paralysed it for a day.

– One 20hr power cut and another 15hr one, which meant no fans and no water to take showers as we couldn’t run the water pump, and…

– …temperatures topping 40 degrees Celsius.

I write this not in an attempt to gain any kind of kudos or respect for the things we have to put up with.  I write this because there may be people who are thinking of coming to Pakistan to work for an NGO and I’d like them to know in advance some of the things they might have to deal with…

How to eat in Pakistan

Pakistani food is fantastic.  I mean that. 

Before moving here I was mildly concerned about what we would be eating.  Once, in the UK, a Pakistani friend fed me their favourite dish, a delicacy known as “brains masala”, and the thought of subsisting on a diet of curried sheep brains filled me, perhaps understandably, with a certain amount of dread.

I needn’t have worried.  Not only is brains masala a food reserved only for special occasions, but our diet is mostly vegetarian, mostly healthy, and always delicious.  Far from becoming fat on copious quantities of curried meat I’ve actually lost weight.

Normal Pakistani food is subzi (vegetables), cooked in garlic and ginger and onions, with chilli powder added to taste.  “Aloo pullak” (potatoes and spinach), for example, or “aloo gobi” (potatoes and cauliflower), or “aloo bengan” (potatoes and aubergine), or “kudoo” (courgettes), or pretty much any permutation of vegetables that you can get from the subzi-wallahBindi (okra) is a particular favourite, as is daal (curried lentils, a South Asian staple).  When the cooking process is finished you’re left with a pan full of sloppy, slimy deliciousness, bursting with ginger, garlic, and quite possibly enough spice to strip the lining from your mouth.

 But “wait”, I hear you cry, “how is one to consume this undoubtedly delicious food without the aid of cutlery?”.

 Fear not, gentle reader, for in south Asia, as in many other parts of the world, bread serves as cutlery.  You take your roti in one hand, tear off a piece large enough to serve as a utensil, and scoop up some of the food.  Master all of these skills and you’ll never be at risk of starving to death.

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One night in June I started to feel pain in my stomach.  This is common around here, what with the tap water containing more bacteria than a microbiologist’s petri dish, so I thought little of it.  When the pain got worse, and then even worse, I started to wonder if I should do something about it.  And when it became unbearably painful I asked a friend to drive me to a hospital in the mountains, some three hours away.  That journey, over bumpy mountain roads in the middle of the night with me vomiting into a bucket every fifteen minutes, is a story in its own right.

                 To cut a long story short it ended up being a very serious problem indeed which required some particularly invasive and unpleasant surgery on my intestines.  This required a two-month period of convalescence in the UK, as it was 45 degrees in our home city in Pakistan, a temperature not exactly conducive to recovery from a major illness.  We flew home and spent two months resting, eating good food, visiting family and friends, and trying to persuade people that we couldn’t wait to return to Pakistan again.

And now we’re back.  It’s great to be home.  Normal service, whatever that means, will shortly resume on this blog…