Thursday, July 27, 2006

Burnin' down the house...or hostel

Yes...the title is literal! A few weeks ago I went to make some rice in the hostel kitchen...and well to make a long story short because my space bar is not working resulted in a huge gas fire!

The girls had left the flame on the gas stove, like they always do, so I just put my pot of water on. I turned it up a bit, and then suddenly flames came out of everywhere, even the knob that I was turning. My first reaction was to turn off the knob, but I would have had to reach into the flames. There was another girl in the kitchen and so she and I just backed away from the stove. I figured that the girls would know what to do, since they live here and always deal with gas stoves,but I was wrong. They kept telling me to just wait cause "uncle" (one of the older guards) was coming and he would fix the problem. Well first Uncle had to get permission to come into the hostel,cause no men are allowed, and when he saw the blaze, which was about four feet high and now working it's way across the kitche, he said, "Oho!" and didn't know what to do. One of the girls rolled in an old fire extinguisher which I had no idea how to use and figured was five or ten years out of date. Uncle looked at me and said, "yih pani hai?" while pointing at the fire extinguisher. "This is water?" I said, "Nahin, yih chemical hai."

It was at this point I realized nobody knew any better than I did what to do so with a Punjabi-English mix of instructions myself and the other girl who had been in the kitchen took charge. She went outside and turned off the gas supply. At this point, all the hoses connecting hte gas had melted and the gas was even burning inside the wall. I could smell the gas filling the kitchen, which is quite large, and it was difficult to breathe or keep my eyes open. I got a pail of water and directed Uncle to fill up a bucket with dirt to throw on the blaze first. We had had monsoon rains that afternoon, so we ended up with a few buckets of mud. Then Uncle and I, along with one other girl, went towards the blaze slinging mud at it as if it were our opponent. Uncle was desperately trying to be "the man" although he's a bit older so it would have been better if we girls had just handled it.He drenched a thick rug with water and threw it on the gas stove,which Iwasn't sure was the best idea but at least we'd already covered it in mud and gotten rid of most of the flame. The other girl and I concentrated on throwing mud into the pipes burning inside the wall in order to extinguish it for good. There were still some flames creeping out from under the stove,when finally a man who knew how to use the ancient fire extinguishers arrived. He put out the blaze once and for all. Whew.

Afterwards the crowd was joking about "michelle's sunday night special," which now included charred mushrooms, onions, melted plastic and a whole lot of ashes!

The good thing is, the fire incident led to the purchasing of new stoves and the installment of safer metal piping instead of rubber hoses, which had led to my dinner becoming a blaze...

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

You just might miss it...

Stories such as the following show up EVERY day in the local newspaper ( These stories don't ever make the front page and remain small blurbs on the inside of the paper. I'm also wondering, who is this dubious "correspondent" with no name....seems like he or she always comes across that most gory stories.

Woman, daughter slain
By Our Correspondent (DAWN)
JHANG, July 10: A man stabbed to death his wife and mother-in-law after his reconciliation bid with his estranged wife failed in Malhoona village, some 20kms from here on Sunday. Reports reaching here said that accused Qaiser had contracted marriage with Surraya Bibi of the same village some two years back.A couple of months ago, Surraya Bibi shifted to her parents’ after quarrelling with her husband.The accused tried to bring back his estranged wife, but to no avail. In a last ditch attempt of reconciliation, he again went to his in-laws on Sunday. During a squabble on Sunday, he fell into a rage when his mother-in-law and wife refused to accede to his request. He took out a knife and stabbed to death both of them on the spot.

Expats looted
By Our Correspondent
GUJRANWALA, July 10: Dacoits looted houses of four expatriate brothers, a landlord and killed him on resistance in two strikes in and around the city here on Monday. Reports said seven robbers forced their entry into the house of Boota, Allah Ditta, Muhammad Yousaf and Abdul Ghafoor on Kot Noora Road in Ghakkhar Town by scaling the boundary wall. They held hostage women, children and made off with Rs200,000, gold jewellery worth Rs400,000, mobile phones and other valuables.The four brothers were settled in Italy since long while their father was present in the house along with his daughters-in-law and their children.In another incident, four bandits entered the house of landlord Muhammad Anwar at Behlool Chak, took away cash and gold ornaments worth Rs100,000 and shot him dead on offering resistance.

Heatwave claims four lives
By Our Correspondent
DERA ISMAIL KHAN, July 10: Four people were killed and more than 20 fainted on Sunday owing to scorching heat and humidity which gripped Dera Ismail Khan. A farmer Musa was fell unconscious when he was cutting grass in village Kathgarh. He later lost his life in the field due to suffocation. Another farmer died during tilling his filed in Guldani North village.Yark police mobile found a body near a tower of Telenor cellular company. A farmer died while grazing his sheep herd in Harwakai area of the district.Meanwhile, the frequent power breakdowns have caused unrest among the people of the district.

Runaway Returned

Here’s an update on the runaway girl that I wrote about last week. You were probably shocked to find out that she was only fourteen, well guess what, her actual age was eleven! More details have come to light since the first blog.

The runaway girl, we’ll call her Saima to make this easier, went out to the market to get some everyday food stuff. She met three boys at the market. From this point on we have two possible stories. 1. The girl left willingly and ran away with the boys or 2. The girl was kidnapped by the boys in the middle of the crowded market. Option #1 seems more plausible considering the circumstances, but the girl’s family holds to option #2 in order to preserve their family honor.

So back to the story, Saima was out at the market. She met three boys from the neighborhood. They boys were older than her, somewhere between 16 and 18. Saima is still in a child’s body at the age of 11. Her height is barely to the waist of the teenage boys. Somehow, she either decided to get in a rickshaw with them or was forced to. Her family claims the boys’ had a pistol and forced her to go. Their next stop was the crowded train station of Lahore where they caught a train all the way to Karachi. If you know the map of Pakistan, Karachi is a city in the southernmost part of the country on the Arabian Sea. A journey there from Lahore can take anywhere between 15 and 24 hours.

All three boys were with Saima on the train. They stopped along the way at a hotel and got some food. Meanwhile, back in Lahore Saima’s parents notified the police. They found out that she had disappeared with the boys and their fathers were arrested and put in jail. Here, because the family ties are so strong, police regularly hold and torture family members in order to get the accused to fess up. When my friend was telling me I was confused, because in America a rebellious teenage boy most likely would not care if his father was in jail. Nevertheless, this psycho analysis proves correct here and two of the boys return home to free their fathers. One boy, the main culprit, stays with Saima and continues on the Karachi.

When they got to Karachi they tried to stay at one of the boy’s relative’s houses, but they had been forewarned and would not let them in. At this point Saima called her parents and was telling them that she had gotten married and did not want to come home. Upon seeing the girl, my friend Rana didn’t think it was possible that anyone would have allowed this girl to get married. She would not fool anyone that she is past 13, nevermind the legal marrying age without parental consent. The boy didn’t have any money for a bribe and had spent most of their time on the train so it’s doubtful that any marriage took place. Saima’s story is that after they were refused housing they got back on the train and headed back to Lahore. 15 – 24 MORE hours on the train.
Reaching Lahore again, they went straight to the boys’ family. His older brother, who had been put in jail until his return, was released. The boys’ family was now afraid to return Saima to her parents. Her own family would be likely to beat her or even murder her for the shame she would bring her family for this escapade. She spent two days at the boys’ house, being told continuously that if she went home her parents would surely murder her. The boys’ family tried to convince her to stay with them for the sake of her own personal safety.

Now, my friend Rana to the rescue. Turns out he has connections with both sides of the family. The boys’ side is unwilling to give Saima back to any of her family members. Saima’s side is livid. They want their daughter back and they are in the process of filing kidnapping charges against the boy. Rana knows that this is a serious situation, and that is entirely plausible for this girl to be murdered or “disposed of” by her own family. He talks to each of the male family members and makes them promise not to hurt Saima if she is returned to their home. He is still worried about the female members of the household, who sometimes are the most merciless when it comes to issues like this, but he decides to risk it. He tells them, “Look I will collect and return your daughter to you. If anything is to happen to her, I will testify in court that I returned her safe and sound to your doorstep. The boys’ family will have nothing to do with this and the blame will be on your heads.”
The family agrees to the conditions.

Now Rana is contacting the boys’ family. Mobile phone calls. Let’s meet here. A sketchy place in Lahore late in the night. Nope, too sensitive. Let’s meet at this place. He’s driving from place to place, getting more and more nervous. Finally, he meets the entourage. This is his story:“I looked and I saw the girl. She was small, much smaller than I thought she would be. Just a child. The boy was a grown man, the same size as me. And she was barely coming past his waist. I looked into her eyes, and she looked at me as if I was her murderer. I will never forget the look she gave me. I was shaking. I was thinking, God please protect this girl when she goes back to her family. She sat in the car, right where you are sitting now (the passenger seat]. I hadn’t gone to her family’s house before. We found the house, arrived, and I took her inside. Again I made her family promise not to hurt her or lay a hand on her. Then, my job was over, I left her there.”

Currently Saima’s family is deciding whether to press charges against the boy. If they can show it was a kidnapping, and that she did not go willfully, it will save some of their family honor. The girl is now talking in agreement with this as if it was against her own will, while previously she was calling from Karachi saying she got married and wanted to stay there. The parents say that Saima was forced to say these things because the boy had a gun. The whole family is happy about one thing though, Saima and her kidnapper allegedly spent all their time on the train and could not have had time to have sex, or so they think. A 17 or 18 year old boy would have sex with a pre-pubescent girl is somebody I think should go to jail anyway…but Saima’s family would rather charge him on kidnapping and keep it in their minds that they were unable to fool around. If she is no longer a virgin, even though I’m sure she is not developed enough to be pregnant, then she is no longer marriage material and it will bring shame to the whole family. Girls in this country have been killed for far less offenses, like being caught sitting with a boy in a park, or in a car, or receiving letters from a boy in the neighborhood. Women in this country aren’t supposed to have any desire, except to marry who their parents choose for them. Whether that be a 50 year old to wed a 16 year old as his second wife, a boy who has not yet gone through puberty, an obsessive compulsive maniac who is unable to have sex and writes down everything his young wife says or does, a compulsive womanizer who calls his wife while he is cheating on her at a five star hotel…..the women must obey their parents. And yes those examples are all real. “Hey, just wanted to let you know, in case of emergency, that I’m at the PC Hotel, room #404. Say goodnight to the boys for me.”

We’ll see what’s in store for Saima. Pray that she makes it to the marrying age. Another two years until she’s a teenager. Every night I go to sleep thankful that I was not a woman born in Pakistan. And every morning I wake up thankful for the same thing.
“Life is nothing for women in Pakistan.”
a friend’s mother lamenting of her husband taking a second wife
June 2006

Thursday, July 06, 2006

What Happened to Michelle?

Yesterday I had to cancel my class because I had to make a visit to Islamabad, five hours away by car. I talked to my director and the director of the English department and they assured me that someone would let the class know what had happened and that they could go home early. I teach the second two hours of a four-hour intensive course. Anyway, they had their tea break and nobody bothered to tell them I was outta town so they all sat in the room waiting and wondering what happened to me and why I wasn't in the class. Finally they found out from my supervisor that I was in Islamabad and they went home early.
Today when I found out about what had happened in the class I decided to make it into a creative activity. We were due to practice phrases of agreement and disagreement as well as phrases expressing doubt. I asked each of the five groups to come up with a story to answer the question, "What happened to Michelle?" (Remember Heather sounds like the boys' name Haider so I don't use it here). Then each group would share their stories and the other groups would have to agree or disagree using the target phrases. It proved to be quite an amusing activity!
Group 1 - Most Plausible
"Michelle is usual punctual so when she had not arrived by five minutes after 11 we were quite concerned. We were sure something had happened to her because we knew she would never skip the class. She cares too much about us. We finally found out from Mr. Tahir that she had gone to Islamabad, and we thought that maybe she was going back to the U.S. We thought she had gone to the American Embassy in case of some emergency at home. We knew she wouldn't leave us, because Americans are very committed to their work. We were sure that she would come back."
Group 2 - Most Traumatic
(I had showed them my multi-purpose tool, including a small blunt knife, a few days earlier in response to a question about knife vocabulary. I joked that it was my defence weapon against sketchy men on buses)
"Michelle didn't arrive for class yesterday and we were so much worried. What happened is that the day before she was taking a rickshaw. We know Michelle is very afraid of rickshaw accidents. She was wearing pink and white, and she was looking absolutely divine. The rickshaw driver was fascinated by her beauty and he decided to kidnap her. As he was trying to take her away, Michelle figured out what his intention was and took out her knife. She took her fiance's advice and stabbed the driver right in the heart. The driver was no more. When she returned to the institute she was too tired from her fight to take the class."

Funny Response - "I don't think she has the guts to kill anyone."
Me - "Yeah I'm not sure if I do either."

Group #3 - Most Ridiculous
"It was wicked hot and Michelle had trouble sleeping the night before. When she woke up, she realized that due to the heat she had pimples all over her face. She looked in her mirror and saw the pimples. She was upset and decided she could not go to teach class with this complexion. She went straight to the parlour to have her face fixed. It took two hours, and by the time she was looking beautiful enough for class, we had already left."

Response - "I don't think Michelle is that beauty conscious."
Me - "Yeah I agree with that."

Group #4 - Most Hilarious (this one is of course the boys)
"Michelle's cousin was interested to propose to her. He thought that she was so beautiful that he must marry her. He came all the way to Pakistan, but unfortunately he went to the wrong city. He landed in Islamabad and not Lahore. This man was, Tom Cruise. Michelle found out he was waiting for her in the capital and asked Mr. Tahir to go to him. Now we have a drama to show what happened."

(all actors are the boys with Kamran playing Michelle much to everyone's amusement)
Mr. Tahir - Michelle how are you?Michelle - I'm good. I have a favor to ask you.
Mr. Tahir - No problem, just ask me and we'll see what we can do.
Michelle - You see I have to go to Islamabad. One of my friends is waiting for me there.
Mr. Tahir - Well, who will take your class? I don't know if this is a good idea.
Michelle - Oh please let me go. I really need to meet with this friend.
Mr. Tahir - Ok, you can go.
Michelle - Thanks so much. Bye Bye. (Waving girlishly)

(In Islamabad Tom Cruise paces anxiously in Jinnah Gardens, a popular meeting places for couples)
Tom Cruise - (pacing and talking on the cell phone)
Michelle - (walking into garden) Hello. I am here. How are you?
Tom Cruise - Where have you been? I have been waiting for you for so long.
Michelle - I had to come from Lahore. You know it's five hours away.
Tom Cruise - Nevermind. You are so beautiful. I want to ask you to marry me...
("Tom" goes to kiss "Michelle" who is really another guy)

Both guys laugh in embarrasment. "That's it. We're done." All the girls are cracking up. I'm wondering how old my students are again. Hmm middle school? My response,
Me: "Do you guys know it's illegal to marry your cousin in America?" The class is surprised. "Why?" "Because the more you marry in the same family the higher risk you have of your children having birth defects. People don't think of their cousins in a romantic way in the US. "
The class is shocked. I think 50% or more of them will marry their cousins.
Me: "Do you guys think this scenario is possible?"
Boys: "Well, it's plausible."
Girls: "No. I don't agree. Michelle's not that kind of girl."
"Me too, that's impossible."
"Yeah there's no way."
Another amusing day in LIP....

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

the LIP boys

I'm currently teaching a program called LIP, Language Improvement Program, to 37 students. Most students are currently teachers in government English medium schools, but I also have four guys in the class. Two are in the army and two are currently studying for their Masters. It's an interesting dynamic with 33 girls and only 4 guys, but the guys have bonded together and help make the class fun....although sometimes at the teacher's expense!

A quote from class:

Ms. Michelle (me) - "Okay so who decided they wouldn't want to study in Australia?"

(All four boys and two girls raise their hands. I call on the girls first. )

"Because why study in Australia when I can study English here?"

"Well, why go to Australia? I'd rather go to Canada where my sister lives."

And the boys, "We don't want to go to Australia 'cause we have a pretty teacher from America right here!"

Everyone laughs. The boys proudly smile at their response. I laugh, most likely turn a little bit red at embarrassment, and say "Okay, on the next question...."

During our game day last friday, one of the boys proved to be a real smooth talker. We were playing a game from "Whose Line Is it Anyway?" where there are three guests with interesting identities or strange problems. The "host" of the party needs to guess what the guests are struggling with. We had one girl who thought she was a fish outta water, an elderly woman on the verge of death, and a supermodel. All the girls were great actresses, I was quite impressed! The supermodel girl walked in fixing her hair and kept talking to Ejaz, the host, about how she wanted to become more and more beautiful and famous. He assured her, "What are you talking about? You are already the most beautfil girl in the world? There is nothing you can do to become more beautiful. Does anyone have a mirror?" The class roared in laughter.

Although my students are all out of college and at least in their twenties, it's like teaching 7th graders when it comes to boy-girl relations. The boys always sit in the corner by themselves, and anytime anyone mentions the opposite sex, marriage, or anything of that sort, the class erupts into giggles. The boys have a good time with this, although they can get embarrassed as well. Today we were talking of our "future plans," and the boys were embarrassed to say that they hoped to get married. Only one of them, who said he planned to do a Masters and establish his own business first, would admit he wanted to get married and have children in the future. This put all the girls laughing and refusing to look him in the eyes in case he might be interested in them. This dynamic is amusing for the foreign teacher, but many times I have to steer clear of topics that I would easily be able to use in the American classroom. Also, many times I try to avoid topics on dating and the like, the students are so preoccupied thinking about it that every topic comes back to the opposite sex anyways. In order to avoid any proposals myself, I've taken to telling everyone in this country that I'm already engaged. This has saved me from being proposed to by uncles, men already with a few wives, strange boys who pay someone for my number, and having my marriage arranged by friends to their son, grandson, nephew or whoever. Upon meeting me everyone always asks, "Ap shadi hai?" are you married? It is crazy for them to think of a 23 year old girl travelling the world, not living in her parents house, and not yet being married with a few kids! One of my friends is a 34 year old single guy, he gets even more grief than I do for not being married yet. Students can barely carry on with their lessons because they are all dying to ask him why he has not taken one, two, or four wives yet. Oh the amusement that gender segregation brings to the co-ed classroom. :)

Monday, July 03, 2006


Late last week a friend of mine called me, apologizing for not being
in touch. He'd been helping me with my visa process, and as the
current one runs out on July 15th he is accustomed to giving me daily
updated on the extension process and letting me know what I need to do next. I hadn't heard from him in three or four days and there was a good reason why.

One of his friend's daughter's had run away and gotten married. Her
family is extremely conservation and despite wearing full burka (the
black, tent-like get up) and being kept in purdah (seclusion from
males other than family members) somehow she managed to meet a guy and decided to run off with him. One of my friends told me she met her husband when he dialed a wrong number and ended up with her at the other end. He kept calling her back, and she was "fascinated with his voice." They pursued their romance solely on the telephone, without meeting, for over a year, until she finally snuck out to meet him in person. Two years after that her parents finally gave in to letting her marry him, as he was of a lower caste. It's possible that the same sort of situation may have happened with the runaway girl.

Two days after their marriage, signed in the mosque and everything,
the girl had moved in with the boys' family and refused to come home
at her parents' request. She said she was happier there and with her
new husband she would remain. You might be thinking, good for her,
she's escaped her seclusion and made a choice on her own, but the
problem here is not just that the girl ran away and eloped, but the
fact that she is only fourteen years old. She can't sign a legal
marriage contract (nikka) without her parents' consent.

This then makes her marriage eligible to be tried against the Hudood
ordinances, which would leave both her and her husband charged with
adultery: sex outside marriage. This is punishable by the death
sentence, if enraged and dishonored family members don't murder the
guilty parties previous. There is such a strong concept of family
honor and shame based around women, that fathers or brothers have been known to brutally kill their own daughters and sisters in situations like these. If the girl has been married illegally, and the marriage consummated, or the girl has even been touched by the man, she is considered as spoiled. Damaged goods. The prospects of her family marrying her off are slim, unless she is attractive and they can put up a sizeable dowry. Her action ruins the reputation of the entire family, and sometimes people see the only way of preserving their honor to be killing the culprit, usually the girl. Thankfully, in this family the parents fought hard to get their daughter back and as far as I know are open minded enough to allow her to live and carry on with her studies.

Every day I read in the newspaper here about strange murders and honor killings. Last week I read about a man who suspected his wife of having an affair with her cousin. He not only killed her but also her aunt and one of her friends in a fit of rage. He had no proof, just a nagging suspicion. Men like this are unlikely to be arrested and tried, for the mullahs support their actions against their "shameful" wives.

14 years old, running away to a new life. Sick of the burka. Sick of seclusion. Ready to find out about the world of boys and men. Running away and getting married. 14 years old.