Tag Archives: culture


One of the challenging aspects of having a baby in Pakistan is that it is culturally inappropriate for a woman to be obviously pregnant.  Pakistan is a conservative society and it is generally held that pregnant women should remain indoors.  I’m not sure whether this is because the sight of a pregnant belly is considered somehow shameful or because women considered to be in such a fragile condition are expected to remain at home in order to be protected – but whatever the reason, pregnancies are generally concealed from public view as soon as they become obvious.

This is rather odd, of course, since Pakistan as a nation deeply welcomes and treasures children in a way that Western countries have stopped doing.  When eating at restaurants the waiters are more than happy to take care of our kids while we finish our food at a more leisurely pace, while the sight of one of our blonde-haired children is enough to make passing ladies stop and pinch their cheeks admiringly.  Yet this aspect of Pakistani culture is entrenched, and when I announced to our landlord that we would soon be welcoming our fourth child, I did so in hushed tones, as though quietly informing him that I had a bottle of whiskey hidden in my car.

“Our fourth child will soon be joining us” I said quietly one morning.  “So please forgive us if there is more noise than usual”.

“Ah” he said, gravely but kindly.  “I quite understand”.

We exchanged knowing nods and shook hands as though engaging in some dodgy business transaction, and went our separate ways.

The thing is, we can’t afford for my wife to retreat into the house and become a hermit for the last trimester of her pregnancy.  We have jobs to do, children to take to school, shopping to manage, and nobody to support us – no nearby relatives, no mother-in-law to move in and take charge for three months as a Pakistani mother-in-law would do.  So we were forced to disregard this aspect of Pakistani culture – regretfully, of course, since we do everything we can to respect local customs, but what else could we do?

So for the final three months of the pregnancy we went about our business as though guilty of some weird secret, covering up the increasingly conspicuous physical evidence of our child’s imminent arrival with baggy clothing and hurried shopping trips.  I doubt we fooled anyone.  It’s astonishing how perceptive Pakistani people are, particularly women.  I’m not too concerned, though.  Our child’s quickening in the womb was made evident not just by my wife’s swelling belly, but in our smiles, and in our trepidation, and in a quiet and private sense of joy.

A high-quality indigenous literary scene of genuine merit is one of those things that you don’t necessarily expect to find in Pakistan.  In this respect it fits into a category containing other surprising aspects of life here, such as “Friendly People”, “Stunning Landscapes”, and “The Best Fruit In The World”, and just goes to show that you shouldn’t believe everything that you read in the media.

The list of Pakistani authors who have reached global acclaim in the last few years is getting longer by the day.  Rather than list all of them, it would probably be a better use of our time if I listed some of the books by Pakistani authors which have made a significant impact on me.  All of them are set, at least partly, in Pakistan.  Some are by men and some by women.  Most are fiction; one is not.  Yet all of them provide genuine insight into Pakistani life in all of its complexity.

So without further ado, here is my list of Books By Pakistani Authors That Are Surprisingly Excellent:

Mohsin Hamid, “The Reluctant Fundamentalist”.


A short but powerful story of a chance meeting at a restaurant in Lahore, with a sinister twist in the tale.  This book explores themes such as honour and shame, the emotions felt by expatriate Pakistanis in the USA, 9/11, and also contains a love story of genuine power.

Mohsin Hamid, “How To Get Filthy Rich In Rising Asia”.

A self-described self-help novel which is both genuinely hilarious and incisive, also containing a love story which moved me more than anything since “Love in the time of Cholera” by Garcia Marquez.

Mohammed Hanif, “A Case of Exploding Mangoes”.

Perhaps one of the best examples of black humour in recent years, this fictional account of President Zia-ul-Haq’s last days is darkly hilarious.

Kamila Shamsie, “Burnt Shadows”.


This novel completely astonished me.  Shamsie’s narrative goes from the atomic attack on Nagasaki in 1945 to the end of the Raj to modern Karachi and ends up in Guantánamo Bay.  How she manages to fit all of this in and yet make it a compelling and believable story is a testament to her skill as a story-teller.  It’s utterly beautiful.

Kamila Shamsie, “Offence: The Muslim Case”.

This tiny little book contains the best analysis of the current tensions between East and West, including the War on Terror and its implications for Pakistan.  It’s a work of non-fiction and seems not to have attracted much attention, despite the fact that it sheds more light on contemporary Pakistan than anything else I’ve ever read.

There are lots more out there, but this reading list will give you a good beginning.  Of course, if you want to know more, you could always come to the annual Lahore Literary Festival with me…

If you spend any amount of time in Pakistan you will be invited to a wedding.  In fact this goes for most Muslim countries.

I remember arriving in Jordan to spend a fascinating couple of weeks visiting Petra, the desert at Wadi Rum, and Roman ruins in Amman and Jerash; on our first day we were invited to a wedding by friends of the people with whom we were staying.  They put us on a bus to a town two hours away with the memorable instruction to “Get off when the bus stops and look for a guy called Mohammed.  He has a beard”.  As you can imagine, that really didn’t narrow it down very much.  We turned up at the wedding, we were warmly welcomed, we were fed roast lamb with rice and yoghurt, and halfway through an elderly relative pulled out a pistol and started firing it into the air before his family wrestled him to the ground.


Anyway, I digress.  Getting invited to a wedding in Pakistan probably sounds like a wonderful way to learn more about the culture of the country, but in reality they are monumentally tedious and an almost complete waste of time.  Here’s what will happen:

  1. You will arrive early. Doesn’t matter what time you leave or however late you think you are, you will still be early. Probably very early.  You will therefore sit around in a near-deserted wedding hall or marquee while waiters walk around wondering who the heck you are, and what you’re doing.  If the wedding invitation says 8pm and you arrive at any time before midnight, you will be too early.  Trust me on this.
  2. Nothing will happen. In Western weddings there is usually a basic pattern: arrival, church service, food, dancing, etc. Over here you arrive, sit at a table, and…do nothing.  People mill around a bit.  People chat a bit.  People drink Pepsi a bit.  But that’s about it.
  3. Eventually, after several hours of pointless awkwardness, food will come out. This will be a highlight, because it’s Pakistan, and Pakistani food is sensational. Everyone will rush for the buffet and start stuffing biryani down like it’s going out of fashion.  If you politely stand aside to let the more senior people go first, you will not eat anything, as I have learned to my cost.
  4. After stuffing yourself with rice and chicken, desserts may be brought out. People here get inordinately excited about this, but Pakistani desserts are basically variations on a theme of Sweet Liquid In A Glass Bowl.  Everyone goes crazy for them, for reasons I have never been able to ascertain.
  5. Following the dessert course you return to stage 2 for as long a period of time as you think you can handle. Feel free to find the bride and groom and give them some money, but otherwise, just drift away.  You’ll easily be able to locate the bride and groom because they will be the ones looking utterly ludicrous.  The bride will probably look wonderful, but the groom won’t.  He’ll be the one wearing a jewelled coat, a completely idiotic turban with a crest, and a look of sheepish embarrassment stemming from the fact that he knows full well that he looks ridiculous, but his mother insisted.

I don’t know why South Asian weddings have come to be regarded as such vibrant explosions of colour and dancing and jollity.  For all I know that’s true in India or Sri Lanka, but around here weddings are just an exercise in tedium.  Of course you can’t ignore the invitation, though, as that would be disrespectful.  My advice?  Bring a Kindle.


It’s currently 15 degrees Centigrade.  In Britain, people would be out wearing shirts and thin trousers.  In Canada they would be wearing shorts and sandals.  In Pakistan, people are wearing just about anything and everything they can lay their hands on.

I’m not joking.  They are wearing woolly hats, padded jackets, scarves, shawls, and gloves.  And they’re been wearing them for over a month.  Ever since the temperature dropped below 25 centigrade (and that was some time ago, believe me) the good people of Pakistan have been wandering around dressed up like Ernest Shackleton about to set out on a voyage to the South Pole.

Because Pakistan is so hot for so much of the year any change in temperature has to be adjusted to.  We spend much of the year sweating like crazy and doing anything we can to cool down, so when the temperature drops our bodies struggle to adjust.  I find myself urinating all the time, because I’m not losing any water through sweating and my body adjusts accordingly (bet you wanted to know that).

The real challenge comes when it’s cold AND rainy.  That’s when people start to get sick, the gas pressure drops (because everyone is running heaters), and people publicly scold us for letting our kids run around without seven layers of clothing on.

Goodness knows how Pakistanis cope when they emigrate to Canada…