A brief tale of Pakistani hospitality

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I got to see a total of six foreigners on my week-long trip to Lahore. I don’t know whether that is a good average for July, but it seemed low. Five of the individuals I caught a mere glimpse of at the Wahga border. I was in a line with one hundred men jostling for position to enter the gate for ensuing border festivities; they were in a Mercedes with tinted windows pulled down momentarily to take in the ‘local flavor’ before proceeding inside with their protocol.

The sixth was a young woman, perhaps twenty five whom I ran into with the family and a small circle of local tourists when we visited Wazir Khan Mosque on a quiet Sunday afternoon. The mosque itself was a wonder and surprisingly empty that day, but everyone in the group was captivated, incredibly intrigued, indeed thoroughly surprised to see a ‘gori’ with short-cropped, copper blonde hair, non-descript t-shirt and jeans and a small backpack slung over her shoulders seated calmly at the entrance of the mosque. She also had a token shawl wrapped over her head, and that got our group whispering all the more.

“Is she Muslim do you think?”

“Is she an authentic gori or someone from Central Asia?”

“Could she possibly be an American?!”

While the more dignified members of our group tried to ignore the unexpected sideshow, curiosity got the better of two of the elders, who sat down next to the girl (Whom I will refer to as ‘K’) and began their casual interrogation.

Who was she? Where was she from? What did she do? How old was she? Was she Muslim? Why was she in Pakistan? Why was she in a mosque? Why was she in this specific mosque? Where had she travelled and where would she go? Was she afraid of terrorists? What was her opinion of Islam? What was her opinion of Pakistan? Why was she alone? Where was her family? Did she have a family?

The interrogation continued laced with wide smiles and incredible warmth. K was enjoying herself; she was obviously a loner but had the travel-savvy sense to make the most of interactions with locals.

She was from the United States, Chicago in fact. She was in some kind of global humanitarian relief organization and was stationed in Kyrgyzstan. Yes, she was Muslim, just recently converted. She was in Pakistan for vacation and she enjoyed visiting mosques and other tourist sites; she had just been to see the famed polo tournament of Shandur, Gilgit. And yes, she travelled alone and preferred it that way. It wasn’t so lonely when one could always interact with the locals who had all greeted her and treated her well.

Yes, yes, Pakistanis are all warm, friendly, sincere and well known for their hospitality said the two elders with ever-increasing warmth. They blessed K for converting to Islam and further pleasantries were exchanged. Caught up in the moment, K mentioned that it was the 4th of July and no one had congratulated her on her country’s independence day. The two elders apologized profusely and congratulated the young woman and wished her and the US success in the future. And with that, K was gone, presumably forever.

We all regrouped, less to exit to the cars and more to find out what had been exchanged with the gori.

“So she is a Muslim, Mashallah!”

“And she has come all the way from America, how brave!”

“Bless her soul, shes doing such good work helping out in Kyrgyzstan.”

“Did you hear her mention Taqwa? How odd that a foreigner would know anything about Islam.”

“Well, we can only assume she is a Muslim based on what she says, and how much can we trust that?”

With this first momentary expression of suspicion, the conversation shifted gears completely – this time statements flew with far greater gusto.

“Yes yes, she might have just said she is Muslim and covered her hair to avoid suspicion, to blend in.”

“But to what end? Do you think…”

“A spy.”

“An agent.”

“CIA?”

“Could even be RAW. They hire people from all over.”

“Yes RAW would make more sense, and it’s so easy for her to travel throughout Pakistan in this guise. No one would believe she was anyone special, see how easily she conversed with us? And how casually she slipped in 4th of July.”

And so it continued till, feeling that the conversation had veered too far off course, one of the elders shushed the enthusiastic conspiracy theorists and pontificated on where the group was going wrong.

“We are no one to judge the gori,” he began in a sage-like manner. “Perhaps she is who she says she is, perhaps she isn’t, but that is for Allah to determine. At best, we can take her at her word and hope that she does not bring our nation any harm. Yes, there are many agents in Pakistan and they come in many guises, most of them claiming to be Muslim. So there is no trusting a gori… but leave the judgment to Allah.”

The sermon was over. We made our way back to the cars with parts of the group still chatting casually about the encounter with the American spy. The mosque’s minarets were silhouetted against approaching clouds and a high wind raced through the walled city. But despite the pleasant weather, I felt unnaturally sick.

Published in Tribune Blogs.

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