Sunday, July 31, 2011

My apologies that this entry is not in verse

Last week was the first PD event I conceived of and executed by myself -- or at least in so far as that can be true given the many local partners and staff who were required to handle the logistics. It was a poetry book launch for a translation exchange between the Pakistan Academy of Letters and the U.S. National Endowment for the Arts. We gave away books of American poetry translated into Urdu and arranged readings from a compilation of Pakistani poetry that had been translated into English. The CG read a translation of Faiz Ahmad Faiz's poem "Don't Ask Me, Dear, for that First Love Again." So many people attended, we had to scramble for extra chairs.

I admit to having thought as we were planning the evening, 'Huh, poetry -- perhaps not the edgy subject matter with which I'd hoped to start my PD tour'. The imagined eye-rolls of my POL section friends were almost audible. Two days before the event, however, I read in the papers about a bombing of the shrine of a Sufi poet, apparently by religious extremists. A quick check revealed that his poetry had been included in the translation as well. It turned out that what we were doing was not only edgy, but even a little dangerous.

Here's hoping RSO doesn't catch on.

Today the papers reported that the Pakistani poetry book had been used for readings at an unaffiliated open mic night elsewhere in Lahore. I've noticed selections from it on various blogs and websites as well. I'm curious as to how far it will spread -- I suppose there's no real way to know.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Bad Sign

"Where in America are you from?"

"I'm not from any one place; we move around a lot because my dad is in the Navy."

"Oh? Is he a SEAL?"

"No, he's a Taurus."

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Buying Time

It's not fair to compare India to Pakistan -- or at least not fair for me to compare India to Pakistan. My experience in one is vastly more circumscribed than my experience in the other. How strange, though, that I can step across a line not even 20 miles from my house and suddenly be allowed to go pretty much wherever I want, however I want. Today it happened to be to The Golden Temple, a Sikh gurdwara in Amritsar.

It was so good just to walk around freely, take taxis, talk to people... As an added bonus, traveling there and back secured me another 30 day stay in Pakistan. Visa restrictions have their perks.

At the return border crossing, the Pakistani immigration official asked how the weather was in Amritsar. "You mean, how's the weather right there?" My colleague and I answered, pointing across the line. "Pretty much like it is here."

We got asked that question quite a few times. Maybe there's so much scary mythology built up about India, the weather is the only safe place Pakistanis could think to start a line of inquiry.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Things That Define Us

Yesterday's outing was to the closing ceremony of a Model UN camp. As part of the camp activities, the students created a 'Global Village' with elaborate booths depicting different countries.

At the U.S.A. booth, the students had assembled what they thought best represented America: a seven-foot tall recreated Statue of Liberty, a picture of an eagle, a box of KFC, a diorama of the Hollywood sign... and a diorama of the burning World Trade Center, complete with cottonball smoke. "This attack was very important for America," one of the girls explained to me. I didn't know what to say -- it was done without guile, but how awful that we've allowed that day to now define us for so many people around the world. I suppose it was better than a depiction of a mass of college students cheering in front of the White House after Osama bin Laden's death.

The Pakistan country booth treated me to some mehndi.

It left me wondering what students in the U.S. would have come up with if asked to depict Pakistan. Something about SEAL Team Six, likely.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

PD is a Political Animal

Over and over people tell me how lucky I am to have the 'fun' job in the Mission. "It's great that you do cultural stuff and don't have to deal with politics," I was told at my welcome party.

I do my best not to take offense at the obvious subtext ('The rest of us do real work; your job is just fluffy'), but stranger to me is the assumption that "cultural stuff" is somehow apolitical -- that PD is safely and comfortably separated from policy issues. I don't believe that's the case.

If cultural arts are so 'cute' and apolitical, then why do governments feel the need to ban films and books? Why was theater state-controlled in East Germany? Why would my friend Dave and I be inspired to turn to each other spontaneously during the Amman Comedy Festival and both say at once "This is democracy!"?

If I'm doing my job right, then our Cultural Affairs shop should be dripping with policy. I don't want to waste U.S. tax dollars on just entertaining sideshows. I want to leave people talking about universal political values like freedom of expression and civic engagement and tolerance of minority opinion. I want them to have that same 'A-ha' moment that Dave and I did -- only I want it to be "I am a part of this democracy!" Because the one thing I learned in Jordan is that democracy has very little to do with elections. It's all about freedom to share ideas -- and the capacity to think critically about things. I feel that good PD programs could advance that freedom and that capacity. We'll see how far I get.

And if anyone thinks it's good apolitical 'fun' answering university students' questions about "violations" of Pakistani sovereignty, issues of aid, and U.S. support for LGBT rights, then come join me. They'd be happy to talk to you, too.*

*Honestly, it is a blast. But it's not easy.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Loaf of Bread, Jug of Milk

There are definite advantages to grocery shopping with a bodyguard.

First, you've never felt more important in your life. People in the aisles part before you like the Red Sea, all the while eyeing your cart to see what the other half is buying. I only hope the store was prepared for the resulting run on Ariel detergent and canned spinach.

Second, it's helpful to have a local always at hand who can rate your selection of pre-packaged biryani mix. He really put his all into this part of the excursion, I've got to say.

After we'd checked out, however, I was a bit stumped. Do you tip your grocery store bodyguard? I mean, protecting you from potential cereal aisle snipers is kind of a personal service, right, like a haircut or a massage or something?

Though, to be clear, I never asked him to carry my shopping bags...

Sunday, July 03, 2011

Word Search

Sometimes it takes a while to really understand and define the distorted narrative that you're trying to counter.

Other times, it's more obvious.

For the record, that is NOT the U.S. goal in Pakistan, despite what the Pakistan Today puzzle editors might think.

Saturday, July 02, 2011

The Sky in a Puddle of Water

My dad told me that when he was stationed on a ship, he made a point every day to go out on deck and look at the ocean and sky. Apparently, on the big carriers, you can spend all your time down below if you don't make an effort to get up top. You can forget that the sky exists.

I'm taking the same approach to my life here, trying to go 'topside' at least once a day to remind myself about the sky. At work, this means a walk around the inner wall of the consulate grounds. On the weekends, I do the same around my house. A lap around the consulate lasts 10 minutes; around my house takes considerably less time.

Still, you'd be surprised what you see in just a short walk. I spent a good portion of Friday's lunch break being fussed at by a chipmunk with bizarrely splayed legs (who knew they had chipmunks in Pakistan?). And I was delighted this morning to discover this small world in the broken fountain off the side of the house:

The guard who was trailing me (out of curiosity or for security, I'm not sure) probably thought I was insane to be taking pictures of tadpoles, or at least very sheltered. I pointed and made some exclamatory sounds; his response was extended and a bit labored. Despite an utter lack of Urdu training, even I could tell he was patiently explaining to the ignorant foreigner the life cycle of a frog.

I listened carefully, trying to pick out words. "Machili?" I ventured hesitantly, pointing at the pool of water again. He echoed, nodding: "Machili;" tadpole. "Chorti?" I tried further, making a spastic jumping motion with my hand. He echoed again, giving an amused snort: "Chorti;" frog. This was a great leap forward from the previous day's vocab lesson, when an attempt to learn the word for "gecko" was misinterpreted as a request for lizard extermination. (No geckos were harmed in the end -- and the word turns out to be "chipkili.") [Postscript: In case you're wondering whether I'd considered that "machili" might mean "pool of rancid water" and "chorti" might translate as "weird foreign hand gesture," I went back to the guards today with a pen and paper to draw some pictures and better verify things. Turns out tadpole is just "chili" and frog is "mandak." "Chipkili" was spot on, though.]

Adding these to my list, I can now say "Thank you," "Yes," "No," "lizard," "okra," "frog," "tadpole," and something the internet identified as "Jambolan plum." Well on my way to fluency, to be sure.

Jaman are edible, but I wouldn't necessarily advise that you eat them.

لاہور لاہور ہے or You Can Do Anything for a Year

Alright, I'm not going to lie to you. This is pretty grim. Check out the view from my kitchen window:

"Gosh, two sets of bars," you say. "Three if you count the elongated metal spikes on top of the seven foot concrete wall," I correct helpfully. Is it too soon for UBL jokes? Because I think my landlord might have hired his exterior decorator. The consulate itself is awash in razor wire and the sort of fences you normally only see when living within hitting range of a baseball stadium. Every day I ride in an armored vehicle there and back, following a continually changing route and schedule -- any other movements have to be pre-approved by the RSO. There is a world outside of the walls and the armored cars, but I can only just catch glances of it through cracks in fences and darkened windows that don't roll down...

The view from the kitchen is occasionally punctuated by a flash of one of the 'guards' walking past the window. I put 'guards' in quotes to indicate that only two or three of the lot of them are actually wearing a proper guard uniform at any given time*; the rest are there for some purpose unspecified by their outfits. They live off of ice, which it is my job as the 'monied land owner' (again, note the quotation marks) to bestow: once in the morning and once at night. Communication is mostly through hand gestures -- it took the intervention of a third party to make them understand that I wanted to know their names. Still, one week in, and I already find myself thinking in the evening, "I really need to get home; the guards' water has probably gotten warm." Other people on the shuttle complain bitterly about the restrictions, the scheduling, the time spent on logistics... Many of them remember when this wasn't the case.

My immediate reaction to this new reality was one of recoil. It is telling that I have yet to unpack my suitcase. The boxes sent from Amman sit unopened on a table. I started to make a tally for my office wall (one week down, only 51 to go!), but it's too miserable an outlook -- and a horrible disservice to the FSNs who are trying so hard to put a happy face on things as well. MS isn't good for much, but at the very least it's taught me the futility of raging against the cage you're in. I spent a lot of time contemplating what my motto for this tour should be. I think I've settled on "Engage" -- which definitely includes "Unpack." Something I'll do this weekend.

*Indeed, glances out the window tell me that they are often shirtless, though they are always very careful to be fully dressed during our ice exchanges.