Leaving behind the safe confines of our hotel, I ventured alone onto the busy street of Islamabad, Pakistan. Immediately, I felt all eyes were upon me. Shop fronts were full of male eyes, stern, expressionless faces, dark beards, long flowing clothes. Groups of men gathered on the roadside and in smoky restaurants. A hawk startled me as it swooped down to feed on the shreds of meat strewn across the road.
What sort of place was this? Where were the women?
Feeling uncomfortable with my uncovered arms, I chastised myself for not wearing the clothes I had purchased especially for this country. I felt disrespectful, judged, unwelcome.
Grappling with my thoughts, I focused on the road ahead, eyes down. It was then I noticed the blood in the puddles. Walking quickly past, I found a shop I felt I could comfortably enter; women’s clothes were on display. Bright colourful suits and scarves. But the shop attendants were all male. Embarrassed, I left the shop and retreated quietly back to our hotel.
It seemed Pakistan was delivering what I had feared. I should not have ventured out alone, dressed like a Westerner. I needed to exercise more care.
Evening time and my partner was ill and I needed to eat. Stepping out into the night, the street had come alive with flaming barbecues and the sweet smell of bread. I scuttled to the far corner of the closest restaurant, just wanting to hide from the staring, hostile eyes. Eat quickly and leave.
In a brief, uncomfortable time, a male waiter approached me with a smile. Speaking in perfect English, he patiently and respectfully explained the menu. Still the men stared from behind their food stations. Searing ovens, flaming barbecues and large pots of mysterious foods.The restaurant was on pause and someone had forgotten to press the play button.
Slowly, the men returned to their jobs; dough making, nan cooking, barbecuing, lassi mixing and other activities.
Fascinated by the preparations of food in every corner of the restaurant, I slowly stood up to photograph one corner of bread making. Wrapped in a black scarf, revealing only his eyes the bread dough maker skilfully kneaded and rolled, mesmerizing me with his skill and grace. Warm, friendly eyes looked back at me and a pause of his actions signalled to me his willingness to be photographed. Responding quickly, I smiled and showed him his image on my camera. His eyes smiled back.
Next was the white-capped man crushing ice with a large hammer. He was obviously proud of his craft and beckoned me over. Again I had a willing subject. Before long the restaurant owner had pushed him aside so he could pose proudly in front of the delicious looking home-made ice cream.
My dinner arrived and I sat down to eat. Those staring, hostile eyes had melted into warm smiles and curiosity.
The next morning I stood in the gate way of the hotel looking out at the many shop fronts. A man in a small window, sitting cross-legged on a bench beckoned me over with an upside down wave. As I crossed the street, he then waved me into his shop. Navigating my way through small droplets of blood on the floor, I looked up to see three goat heads on the bench. Sheep carcasses hung in the corner and the three men, sitting crossed legged in front of their chopping blocks were butchering meat. One with his knife in-between his toes.
The shop owner smiled and asked me to take a seat. Then he motioned for me to take his picture. Of course I obliged him and, as before, other people came in to the shop asking to be photographed. People with excellent English began to open this world for me. Questions abounded.
“What is your good name?’
“What is your country?“
“What is your purpose in Pakistan?”
“You came here for recreation?”, they asked incredulously. My response of yes bringing smiles of pride.
I was a foreigner who had seen Pakistan worthy of visiting as a tourist.
One man came into the by now busy butcher’s shop and said in broken but intelligible English,”I am not a terrorist. I do not like terrorists. Pakistan is good.” Immediately I felt sad and overwhelmed by guilt.
As we rode out of the street the next day, the butcher called out from his window, “ Goodbye Sister.”
My trip in Pakistan had only just begun.
The people of 55th street…….