Despatch No 4 from Rosanne in the NWFP, Pakistan

Eid Wed 25th Oct 2006
Today the police visited us in our guest house. 'Just checking how many foreigners we have in Abbottabad because it is Eid today. There will be big crowds but we hope there will be no trouble.' At least they didn't tell us to stay indoors.

We had wondered how they knew where we were and what we had done wrong until we remembered that the guard on our guest house is a police guard. The government provides police guards for all minority organisations and NGOs, especially since visitors come to help these organisations due to the relief work still going on in the country. A Christian Pakistani relief worker said the government is good in this way, for a gathering of a minority group eg a church or NGO could be an easy target for terrorist activity.  

This Eid holiday marks the end of the month of Ramazan and fasting. Everyone thought Eid would be yesterday but the moon wasn't sighted and so there was another day to wait and re-arrangements to be made. It must be disappointing for the children. At least Government schools have a whole week's holiday for Eid so it doesn't matter so much to those students on which day it falls. But non-Muslim schools only have the one holiday. There was a fight between two Muslim groups in Peshawar over one Mullah giving the wrong time for Eid. Peshawar thus celebrated Eid a day earlier than the rest of Pakistan.

It was fun to see little children on Eid morning in their new shiny refinery, off to visit relatives. Everyone receives new clothes on Eid but one poor boy committed suicide because there was no one to buy him new clothes. A writer in the paper asked why some organisation couldn't have bought clothes for the boy, but perhaps his people did not know who to ask. Beggars don't mind asking and were out in full force as Eid approached. But I gave the money to children who needed it, not ones who are part of a Dickensian syndicate.
The paper ran an article about how Eid is not like it used to be. Years ago everyone received new clothes only at special times like this and ate special foods only at Eid. Children planned for months what they would spend their Eid money on. Now in modern times some children can always eat these foods and have new clothes so the writer suggested that Eid is losing its uniqueness. I suppose the West could say the same about Christmas and yet children in the West still enjoy the festivities.  

Freedom of Religion
So now I have Eid henna patterns on my hand and we can eat in public again. Many times we too kept the roza (fast) when we were out as there were no restaurants open. It is frowned upon to eat in public when others are fasting. This is just one of the reasons why minority groups believe there is not the freedom of religion here that Islam boasts of in the West. A Pakistani Christian minister said to me that the West needs to know that the freedom of religion that Western Muslims speak of is not played out at grassroots level in countries like Pakistan. There is certainly freedom to be Muslim, so most Muslims will say there is freedom of religion and respect for others here. And the government seems to be trying to promote this tolerance. There is freedom to practise a different religion if you were born into that religion. But the freedom of religion is tested when a Muslim would like to change to another religion he will be persecuted, and that, said the minister, is not freedom of religion in the true sense of the phrase.

Perceptions of Muslims in the West are not helped by websites such as the UK one I found when searching for Muslim names for my characters. Stated there is this: 'Do not choose names for your baby from our enemies the Jews and the Christians.' It seems peace in Islam depends on who you talk to. Some students in a bus asked my husband about perceptions of Muslims in Australia. Gary had to say that some Australians believe many Muslims are terrorists. The young men were sad to hear that. And yet we have found that even some Pakistanis believe there are terrorist training camps in the mountains, and just yesterday (30th October) a madrassah (religious school) in Bajour was raided by the army for this reason. It has caused much debate in the papers.

Azad Kashmir
Azad Kashmir is said by poets to be heaven on earth. Because of the earthquake relief work going on there, the border is down and we were able to enter. We visited Muzaffarabad, the capital. We saw schools still being held in tents. The evidence of buildings being cleared away and rubble lying around did not show the beauty that the city obviously had had with its protecting mountains in the background. Even they were eaten away by the force of the quake. Yet when we visited the bazaar to buy a Kashmiri shawl, I asked directions and in Pakistani hospitality a lady took me to her favourite shawl shop. 'I'm sorry about the earthquake,' I said. 'Did you have much damage?' 'My house is still standing,' she replied, 'but many are not.'  

In Kashmir I was given another idea for a book and have switched to writing that one since it is begging to be written. But I am afraid the car we hired had fleas in the back seat where I sat. It took a few puritan tablets and much anti flea-bite cream for the welts to fade.

Yesterday (October 30th) we hired a man called Noorani with his jeep and visited Balakot, the heaviest hit place by the earthquake. It was heart breaking to see the damage still evident a year later the makeshift shops, the new graves, the children in tent schools. I stood on an area that once held a four storey hotel. I could only find a fragment of china. There I took a picture of a serious boy. 'Did you lose your house?' I asked. He nodded. I didn't dare ask him what else he lost. While I stood there thinking, he said, 'Come to our place for tea.' I respectfully declined but I was amazed at the hospitality which is ingrained in this culture and still holds up in a disaster.

People are still in tents. Noorani lost his house and one daughter in the earthquake. He said much money has come from the West but the Government ekes it out slowly. He estimates only 10% have their houses built. The government posts in the paper or at post offices the names of people who are eligible for the house construction relief. A Pakistani head of an NGO told us that it could be done more simply and quickly, but others higher up say the government has done the best job it could. Another winter is impending and this was brought home when Noorani took us up the mountains behind Balakot to see villages also hit by the earthquake. Snow covered mountains lined the horizon. Such beauty, yet it is tempered by the suffering of those living on the mountains. There would not be one family in the area unaffected in some way by the earthquake that killed 50,000 in this one town alone.

Everyone has an earthquake story. The Pakistan hospitality is incredible and we have eaten in many homes. It is not long before the conversation comes round to the earthquake and what that person was doing when it struck. There have been over 1000 aftershocks, even up to 7 months later. Some of the aftershocks were as strong as 6 on the Richter scale and many people were too frightened to re-enter their homes, so they slept outside for 3 months. There are many stories. One man lost his wife, son and house in the earthquake. He had 2 small children, an 18 daughter and a 15 year daughter called Saber still living. Dazed, and in an effort to look after his family he decided to marry again but before doing so he quickly married off his 2 older daughters the eldest went to Karachi. The 15 year old who was in school when the earthquake hit now has a baby and lives with her in-laws. At least she is cared for, but the grief and changes in that girl's life must be an incredible burden to bear.  

Prince Charles and his wife are being shown new buildings near Balakot that have been funded by UK. We found people are appreciative of the help from the West but I wonder if the NGOs realise what is said at ground level. Because the NGOs can pay so much money for rent and do so, it has pushed up rent for houses beyond the means of many local people. All commodities have risen in price since the earthquake. Building supplies are understandable, but food and clothing also have risen. Local people say it is because the NGOs can pay. Unfortunately, the poorer Pakistani can't.

I have enjoyed the 'rules of the house' posted on the door of our hotel room in Abbottabad. Here are a few:
1.   Precious items, cash and ammunition are to be deposited at reception. The hotel will not be responsible for loss.
2.   The hotel holds no responsibility for incidental death on the premises.
3.   No visitors after 11.30 pm, especially the ladies visitors.
4.   Drugs, drink, and other immoral activities are strongly prohibited.
The final one said: Finally, obey the above rules.

2nd November Islamabad
We have just spent an enjoyable time at the Australian High Commission. Relations between Australia and Pakistan seem good and we hope they continue to be so, although in the paper there was an article about how Australian officials are beginning to treat visitors from Pakistan.  

There is also a lot of talk in the papers about whether women should wear the veil. Many scholars believe it is a tradition only and that the Koran doesn't prescribe the veil at all. One scholar said that Muslim priests in the West are encouraging girls to wear the veil when they don't need to. In the mountain towns of Pakistan I saw less women wearing burqas but more women were covering their faces with their shawls. In more remote areas I never saw women on the street at all.

'The Bride' by Pakistani author, Bapsi Sidhwa
I have just finished reading 'The Bride'. Structurally it is all over the shop, though this may be echoing a Pakistani storytelling style. However, it is a gripping and genuine story of a Punjabi girl, Zaitoon, who is taken to be married to a Pukhtoon tribal man whom she has never met. At first she has romantic ideas of marrying into a mountain tribe but these are soon dispelled by the reality of the harshness of tribal life. A good read.

'My Khyber Marriage' by Morag Murray Abdullah.
This is the true story of a Scotswoman who marries a Pukhtoon boy while in university between the Great Wars. She later lives with him in the Khyber area. The descriptions of certain rituals eg of her Khyber marriage are very interesting. She supports marriage across cultures but of course she lived in relative luxury in a fort married to the educated son of a Khan. She may have had a different story to tell if she had had the experiences of poor Zaitoon in Sidhwa's 'The Bride'.

Thank you
I have spent a successful time during my residency in Pakistan, this land of 160 plus million people in research, collecting folktales, beginning a draft, seeing places that will appear in my stories, visiting schools, being writer-in residence at Murree Christian School, meeting with local people, endeavouring to bridge cultural divides. I even saw some Gujjar nomadic people as they headed south for the winter.

We have found that cricket spans political and cultural differences. Gary has spent many enjoyable hours with Pakistanis watching and discussing cricket. Pakistanis genuinely admire the Australian team.

I am very thankful to Asialink and to ARTSA who have made this fruitful research trip to Pakistan possible.
Some helpful things I have learnt:
1.   If a grenade is thrown near you, keep your mouth open or the explosion will burst your ear drums.
2.   How to be truly hospitable to your guests.
3.   Everyone here has a need.
4.   How to negotiate the 'wash room' with no toilet paper.
5.   How to cover my face in public places.
6.   Not to say someone's scarf is beautiful or it will be given to me.
7.   That bargaining in the bazaar is a game and you are expected to play the game.
8.   How to make parathas.
9. That it is safer to walk at night in Pakistan than in suburban Australia.

Some questions we have been asked:
1.   What is Australia saying about Muslims?
2.   Is John Howard a nice man or will he go the way of Bush?
3.   Why does the West think we are  terrorists?
4.   Can you get me a visa to Australia? I can wash dishes very well.
5.   Why can't you take home all this food I want to give you?
6.   Do you still have Christmas in December since it is hot?