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Technique B: Sincerity

The taxi pulled up outside our front door and the children and I piled in.  We were going to school by cab as our own car was having one of its regular trips to the mechanic.  The driver was a young man, perhaps in his mid-twenties, with gentle eyes and a luxuriant beard.  He watched as the children misted the windows with their breath and drew pictures in it.

“Praise God, your children are wonderful” he said kindly.  He enquired where we were from and expressed surprise at our Urdu.

“I can’t believe you would come to live in Pakistan” he said in amazement.  I told him that I loved Pakistan and felt very privileged to live there, which made him smile with gratitude.

We spoke about faith.  Most conversations in Pakistan head in this direction sooner or later.  I told him that I followed Jesus and he nodded with pleasure and admiration.  He loved Jesus too, he said.

He said that he drove the taxi only in the mornings, since he had a full-time job which started later in the day, but since he always went to the mosque for the first prayer of the day he had several hours to fill and would rather spend it working than sleeping.  He was humble but devout.  I liked him very much.

He wanted me to know more about Islam.  It was not everything the media portrayed it to be, a point which I certainly agreed with.  I should take the opportunity of being in Pakistan to learn more about it.

He was happy to listen to me in return and seemed to appreciate discussion.  Having dropped the kids at school we arrived back home and I found myself wishing that I had more time to spend chatting to him.  We exchanged contact details and shook hands kindly.

As a Christian living in Pakistan I am regularly invited to convert to Islam.  I have no problem with this in the slightest.  Why should Muslims who feel strongly about their faith not invite me to be part of it?  Surely this is part of religious freedom.  And when the invitation is presented in such humble and sincere terms, by people who clearly take their faith seriously, it is much more appealing than when the topic is presented aggressively and arrogantly.

I imagine Muslims feel the same way about Christians…

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We were stuck in traffic in Abbottabad.  We had turned off the main road onto a side street barely wide enough for two cars to pass.  A van was parked on the left hand side and when we pulled out to pass it, another van headed straight for us.  He screeched to a halt in front of us.  As I prepared to back up, another van pulled up behind us, and another behind him.  The van in front of us attempted to back up, but two more vans pulled up behind him.  We gazed at each other through our respective windscreens.  The engine idled away.  In the car seat behind me our infant son started to whimper.

It had been a bad week.  The attack in Lahore had shocked us deeply, dragging us into a familiar mood of anger, sorrow, and desperation.  The same evening there was a riot in Islamabad.  Schools were shut, the buses were cancelled, and the city ground to a halt.  We needed a holiday, so we loaded up the car and drove north through the green hills of Hazara District.  And now, a few metres after turning off the Karakoram Highway, we were stuck.

The crucial thing, I knew, was not to lose my temper.  But this is easier said than done when there are four small children in your car who have already driven for four hours, and when your nerves are frayed to breaking point from the stress of driving up one of the most stressful stretches of road in the country.  Pedestrians were filtering through the traffic jam, glaring at us as they squeezed past our car as though we were personally responsible.

There is something about being glared at by a succession of bearded Pakistani men which makes one reconsider one’s life options.  What a peculiar circumstance to find oneself in!  Stuck in traffic in a town four thousand miles away from my own country, eight thousand miles from my wife’s own country, in the town famous for being the final dwelling place of Osama bin Laden.  The men passing our car looked fierce, warlike, with turbans, straggly beards, and default facial expressions of profound grumpiness, as though I had wronged them in a past life.

Surrounded by seemingly hostile people I was struck with a profound sense of not wanting to be there.  Of not wanting to be in Pakistan at all, really.  A sincere desire to be somewhere, anywhere, else, preferably somewhere with a beach and a succession of cold drinks with little umbrellas in.  I couldn’t take it any more.  The heat, the traffic, the unrelenting stream of bombs and protests and overwhelming public anger, the caustic and abrasive daily grind of Pakistani life.

Suddenly the driver of the van in front of us clambered out of his vehicle and came to my window.  He looked angry.  The crowd paused to see what would happen.  I took a deep breath, prayed briefly, and opened the window.

He thrust his hand into our car and shook mine warmly.

“I am most sorry for inconvenience” he said, smiling gently.  “Perhaps if you move car back just a little bit, we will be able to make progress”.

He moved to the back of our car and encouraged the vans behind us to shuffle backwards.  One by one they did, opening up space for us to reverse into.  Once his path was clear he got back into his van and drove off.  As he passed our car he stopped, held his hand out to shake mine, and thanked me warmly.

“Thank you so much, sir” he said with a simple smile.  “Welcome to Pakistan”.

We were visiting friends for “High Tea”.  They live in a house on the outskirts of Islamabad, which served to remind me that it’s possible to drive for ten minutes out of the city and be in the countryside, surrounded by fields and farms and birdsong.  There can’t be that many other capital cities in the world so closely embraced by nature.

“High Tea” sounded like a somewhat unappetising idea – in England it would probably consist of tea and sandwiches, not exactly the kind of thing you’d drive a long distance for, but Pakistani hospitality being what it is, we were served with kebabs, samosas, pakoras, salad, and a dish of haleem, a kind of stew of lentils, chicken, and roughly eighty-four spices.  Everything was delicious.

Our kids ran up to the roof to look at the view, back down again, up again, and then down once more.  Then they proceeded to eat every single crisp in the house, drink Coke, and ask for more.  Pakistanis can never refuse a child’s request, so more came, and were duly despatched.  I stepped in to sort out some of their more boisterous behaviour but our host stopped me.

“It’s ok” he said, smiling indulgently as one of my offspring crawled through a gap in their screen door, laughing uproariously.

“In Pakistan we say that when you meet a child, you are in the presence of God”.

Recently we travelled to another city in Pakistan and returned to our home late in the evening.  While we were unpacking and getting the kids ready for bed there was a knock at the door.  My wife opened it to find our landlord’s wife standing there with a tray of food – rice, kebabs, and sweet custard – in her hands.  She bowed, handed it over, and quietly left.  We never asked for it – she just knew that we had been travelling, had not had any time to make food, and were therefore in need.  This kind of instinctive, unassuming hospitality is entirely typical of Pakistani people.

The thing is, handing back an empty plate is considered rude in this culture (as it is in other Muslim cultures, I believe).  So once we had eaten the kebabs and rice (which were predictably delicious) and washed the plate, my wife put some chocolate brownies on it and sent it back down.

Unwittingly, we had started a game of hospitality tennis.  Our landlord’s wife felt obliged to send food back up – rice and lentil curry – so my wife returned the plate with a cake on it.  Pizza came up next, wrapped in clingfilm, and home-made cookies went back down again.  Hospitality was bouncing back and forth like a tennis ball at Wimbledon.  One day our landlord’s son got his exam results so my wife baked him a cake and sent it down, along with another plate of brownies – the hospitality equivalent of an overhead smash – and we thought that was the end of it…

…that is, until rice, chicken wings and salad came back up the stairs again, followed by a plate of samosas.

I don’t know when this match of hospitality will be over, but this I do know: I’m getting fat.

chai

I sat in the property office chatting to the dealer who had just found us a new house.  I had to drop off some documents so that he could draw up our rental agreement.  This was a task that could have taken all of fifteen seconds, but this being Pakistan, it was taking significantly longer.

Bureaucratic inefficiency, maybe?  No.

Bad traffic causing me to arrive late?  No.

Pakistani hospitality?  Yes.

“Before you go, have chai with us” said the dealer politely.  His co-workers nodded eagerly.

“It’s kind, sir, but really, I must go” I said.  Perhaps strangely, it’s actually polite to refuse at least once.

“No really, you must drink chai with us.  Just a small cup” he insisted.

“Dear brother, you are so kind, but I have many tasks to do.  I’m afraid I really must go”.

“Dear sir, you are our guest!  Please, do us the honour of drinking chai with us”.

I hesitated, my resolve weakening by the second.  He smiled and played his trump card.

“Besides, I have already ordered it.  Look, here it is now”.

A tall Pashtun man from the frontier walked in and placed a steaming cup of chai in front of me as though it were some kind of votive offering.

The property dealer smiled.

“And now, we drink”.

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People make generalisations about Pakistan all the time.  I don’t like it when they do, because they tend to be negative – “it’s dangerous”, “Pakistani people hate the West”, “it’s a failed state”.  But here I am making another one: Pakistan is a remarkably hospitable country.

It really is.  I used to post updates on Facebook of all the times people treated me differently because I was a guest: taxi drivers who refused to take my money, vegetable sellers who were so charmed by my stuttering Urdu that they gave me free tomatoes, shop-keepers who invited me to drink tea with them after an acquaintance of, oh, two minutes.  After a while I stopped because there were just too many stories, and people were getting bored of them.

Perhaps in stopping these updates I did a great disservice to the people of Pakistan because hospitality is the salient characteristic of the people here, by a long way.  When you watch the news you may get the impression that people here are angry and hostile.  When I walk through the bazaar, on the other hand, my impression has been unremittingly positive.  People here are instinctively and unfailingly polite, charming, helpful, and welcoming.

I have so many anecdotes I hardly know where to start.  A week ago I went to a different bazaar to buy vegetables and had to insist four times before the stall-holder would accept my money.  A taxi-driver a month or two earlier was slightly easier; I only had to insist three times.  Once I was driving with a friend when his car broke down.  Two passers-by dashed over to help us push it to a nearby gas station to get it fixed and steadfastly refused payment afterwards.  Buying bread from a tandoor (clay oven) a while back was tricky in that the roti-wallah refused payment on the grounds that we had been away from Pakistan for a month and he wanted to welcome us back.  Another time, on a trip to a city in the Punjab, some desperately poor people invited us into their home and insisted that we drink Pepsi, even though the price of a single bottle could have fed their family for a day.

I can’t promise that this hospitality is innate among every single person in Pakistan; I imagine there are some who are so hostile to the West that, were they to meet me, hospitality would be the last thing on their minds.  What I can say is that after two years and several hundred personal meetings with Pakistani people every single one has been polite and hospitable.

Here’s a final thought.  If a Pakistani were to travel to the UK, or Canada, or the USA, or somewhere else in the West, and met two hundred or so individuals, would every single one be hospitable and polite to them?  How about you – if you met a Pakistani on the streets of London or Toronto wearing shalwar kameez and a prayer cap, what would your initial thoughts be?

Next time, why not try being polite?  Saying “salaam aleikum” and smiling goes a long way, you know.  It might be the most Pakistani thing you do all day…