Home from Pakistan

30 November 2010 in Pakistan | Comments (2)

Karachi rickshaw

I arrived home on Sunday after my whirlwind trip to Karachi and Lahore.  The trip both confounded and confirmed my expectations.  I’ll admit that I was tense a lot of the time, if not a little scared too - there is nothing relaxing about travelling in an armoured car with an armed guard past buildings that are heavily fortified with sandbagged turrets and sleepy armed security men watching as you drive by.  But everyone I met did so much to keep me at ease, and to demonstrate how, exactly, life does go on in Karachi and Lahore, and young people there are as funny, as irreverent, as excited and as full of ambition as young people anywhere.  The two-day workshops themselves went really well, and were a lot of fun for me.

Of course after one week I have no special insights to offer into life in Pakistan, only a few observations.  I met women in positions of authority everywhere I went, from the principal of the National College of Arts to the head of OUP in Karachi, to within the British Council itself.  The Council is huge in Pakistan, more than 180 employees throughout the country, and only 4 of those are non-Pakistanis.  There’s a massive underclass in Pakistan, and all Pakistanis of means have servants:  I’d hazard a guess that a family like mine, with the kinds of jobs my husband and I have here in London, equivalent in Karachi, would have probably 3 or 4 servants, maybe even 5.  We’d have our clothes made by our tailor.  We’d have a driver. 

Inflation has hit hard in Pakistan in the past five years; for instance, a woman told me that after the 2005 earthquake if she went to the supermarket and bought 4 bags of sugar for her own kitchen, she’d also buy 10 bags of sugar to give to the earthquake relief effort.  But this year, with the floods, giving on this scale has been much harder to afford.  My colleague in the Lahore office - a middle class woman, a well-educated professional - told me a bit about her experiences of the past couple years:  May 2009 at around 11 in the morning a huge bomb blew up next door to the British Council, blowing in all the windows in the building, and bringing down ceilings.  It was a miracle that no one was hurt.  When she made her way back to her flat later that day, she discovered that all the windows had been blown in there as well.  During the floods this year she was away on a family visit in Balakot, in an affected area:  the hotel she’d had tea in the previous afternoon was washed away, many houses between where she was staying and the river disappeared completely, and it was pure luck that the bridge in the town withstood the enormous pressure from the flooding water as it rushed down the valley, and she was able to travel out of the area eventually.  She showed me videos she’d taken on her phone.  She is not blase about these events, but life goes on, life must continue. 

Many people told me with sadness about how they used to love to holiday in northern and eastern areas of the country that are now no go areas, in particular the gorgeous Swat Valley; one couple told me they had given up entirely the idea of being able to go on vacation anywhere in the country.  As well as the bombs, there’s a new fear:  mosquitos bearing dengue fever.  No one sits outside in the evening - the mosquitoes come out in force from dusk onward.  After Sept 11th, the Council closed its offices to the public temporarily, reopened and then closed again permanently, closing access to their libraries, as well as stopping all on-premise teaching and training, so now all the Council’s efforts are outward facing, with no public access to the buildings.  Some good initiatives have come about because of this - for instance, they now focus on teaching teachers how to teach English - but the loss of the libraries and physical access to the Council must be mourned.  Mohsin Hamid spoke of his memories of being brought to the Council buildings in Lahore to watch nature documentaries made by David Attenborough:  it might sound whimsical, but this kind of loss of access has its significance.  From all these stories I got a strong sense of the way in which the current situation forces life to close down in many ways.

The hotels are all like giant impenetrable fortresses, because many hotels have been targetted by the bombers, though again, staying inside a heavily fortified hotel did not make me feel safe.  There are men with guns absolutely everywhere, with roadblocks and checkpoints; at night the armoured vehicle I was travelling in would simply drive through all the red lights, though the roads were fairly deserted anyway. 

But there is also much to celebrate.  Pakistani popular music is a hotbed of experiment and activity; people are fashionable and sharp and satirical, and of course, obsessed with politics - empowered by their obsession with politics, I’d say, your average educated Pakistani infinitely better informed about both regional and global politics than your average educated Brit or American.  It’s a vibrant and very young country and it has a wild free press that seems to be grabbing its chance to open up discourse and debate in many directions all at the same time.  There were a few entertaining stories in the press while I was there - a bunch of gov’t MPs have been exposed as having fake university degrees; the fake mullah who’d been informing on the Taliban for the Americans was unmasked.  The rumour mill is gigantic and conspiracy theories abound:  the Indians caused the floods because they’ve dug a gigantic hole in one of the glaciers - or is it the Americans who caused the floods by microwaving the glaciers from their satellites? 

In Karachi the streets are crowded with buses and motorised rickshaws and they are things of great beauty and charm, covered from top to bottom in glorious ‘truck art’ - the photo here is of a little model rickshaw I was given by the British Council (I was showered with gifts, absolutely showered).  These buses and rickshaws are reason enough for me to get back to Pakistan before too long:  I didn’t get to go on one, in fact, I didn’t even get a chance to take a photograph of one.  In Lahore, which is more stately and felt a bit quieter and more formal than the wild west style chaos of Karachi, people ride big old-fashioned proper bicycles.  And then there’s the staring, which, I’m told, is a national pastime:  once I’d been reassured by my Pakistani friends on Facebook that staring is just part of life I began to rather enjoy it.  In Village restaurant in Lahore one evening, a small girl all dressed up in sparkling blue and silver stood beside me and stared at me for a full ten minutes.  I didn’t mind.  Next time I’m in the country I plan to do a great deal of staring myself.  There’s a lot to look at in Pakistan.

In Pakistan

25 November 2010 in Pakistan | Comments (0)

Here I am in Pakistan having such an incredibly interesting time I can’t quite believe it.  I’m in the Ladies- only wing of the hotel, and they really do know how to make a girl happy - there’s a red silk kimono, bath salts, fresh flowers, and a young woman just delivered to my room a plate of fruit, a large cake and a ribbon-wrapped box of sweet biscuits.

I can’t really begin to summarise the last few days so won’t even try.  I’m here doing work with the British Council, running two two-day creative writing workshops in Karachi and Lahore.  Coming to Pakistan with the BC means that I am able to meet a big range of people I would never get to meet as a tourist, and running workshops for young Pakistanis is great fun - they are a very lively and talkative bunch, and Pakistanis turn out to be very funny and hugely hospitable. 

But what a difficult place to live and work; this is clear to me even as I go about in my BC bubble, chauffeured around in my armoured car, viewing the world through tinted glass, my companions all English-speakers.  In Karachi everyone is as paranoid about a new menace - mosquitos carrying dengue fever - as they are about being blown to bits.  Lahore looks slightly less decrepit than Karachi and is much much greener.  There are guards with huge automatic weapons parked in jeeps and in sandbagged turrets everywhere in both cities, in front of shops and apartment buildings as well as government buildings.  The BC workers in Karachi refer to their compound as their comfortable prison - three layers of armed and fortified gates to get in; in Lahore, the hotel is completely fortified, cars enter via a series of checkpoints including a station where they are swept for bombs; a publisher who invited me to dinner in her home has a guard armed with a submachine gun in her front garden 24/7.  Terrifying.

And yet.  And yet.  Pakistan is strangely familiar to me.  This must be for a big mix of reasons - the colonial links, of course, and the first, second, and third generation Pakistani communities in Britain; Pakistani names are not new to me, the food is familiar, the way the women dress, the gorgeous colours of their fabulous cotton and linen shalwar kameez:  even the burka is familiar to me from Shepherd’s Bush and Leicester.  And being in Pakistan does make me think more about Leicester and its extraordinary mix of people from the sub-continent, and how lucky I am to work in that milieu at DMU.  And it is odd, coming to a place where terrible things happen all the time, where people die from floods and quakes and bombs and dengue fever, in one of the hottest geopolitical frontlines on the globe, and to feel so strangely at home. 

Maybe I’m fooling myself and the tinted glass has distorted my view.  And I’m a sucker for a fruit plate.

IMPAC Dublin Literary Award longlist

15 November 2010 in The Mistress of Nothing | Comments (1)

‘The Mistress of Nothing’ has been nominated for the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award!

This is great news for me, and for the book.  It is, however, the world’s longest longlist, 162 titles in total, and it is packed full of wonderful books.  So, making it onto the shortlist is a longshot - but still, we live in hope!

Pakistan and Me

8 November 2010 in Pakistan | Comments (0)

In a couple of weeks time I’ll be heading off to Pakistan to do some work with the British Council, running creative writing workshops in Karachi and Lahore.  I am so looking forward to this trip.  I’ve never been to the subcontinent (is that even the right word?), but I’ve wanted to go to Pakistan for ages, particularly since first starting work on Flight Paths; in this story one of the two main characters, Yacub, is Pakistani.  So the trip will be valuable for me for several reasons.

Pakistan is a country that looms large on the geopolitical scene.  I was going to write ‘looms large in our collective imagination’, but in fact, that isn’t really true - Pakistan looms large on our collective news screens, and the images and ideas that we in the west reference about this country are almost entirely negative, with even the country’s beloved national sport, cricket, moving from sports channels into the news recently.  But of course as we all know, these representations of Pakistan only form a tiny tiny part of what every day life is like in cities like Karachi and Lahore.  And, in my experience, a visit to Pakistan, however brief, will help me understand a little bit about what life is like away from the headlines. 

Apart from watching with amazement Pervez Musharraf being interviewed by Jon Stewart to promote his book a few years ago, my frame of reference about the country largely comes from my two Pakistani friends, what I know about the Pakistani community here in Britain, and a Pakistani student of mine.  One friend is Aamer Hussein; Aamer and I have known each other for ages and we get together for a meal every few months to gossip about writers and writing.  If you don’t know Aamer’s writing, you must read his most recent novel - Another Gulmohar Tree.  This is a really gorgeous read, a hard shiny diamond of a book about a marriage.  Highly recommended.  Another friend is Kamila Shamsie; though I know Kamila much less well, I admire her complex novels and stories, her ability to move between cultures and places, both in her writing, and in her life.  I also have a student who lives in Karachi; that is she lived in Karachi until just recently, when she and her family decided to emigrate due to the political situation. 

Due to the wonder that is twitter, I’ve connected with a couple of people in Pakistan in the past few weeks, including Mahvesh Murad, who has a radio show on CityFM89 Radio - 89 Chapters.  Mahvesh claims to be a big fan of my work Inanimate Alice , and she’s going to interview me when I get to Karachi.  If the British Council will let me leave the compound (which actually seems kind of unlikely), she looks like someone who would know her way around the interesting bits of the city.  If you put ‘89 Chapters’ into the archive search on the station, you’ll be able to listen to Mahvesh’s most recent broadcast. 

On the reading front, I’ve been reading contemporary Pakistani writers for a while now, and a recent highlight has been the Granta Pakistan issue, which contains pieces from both Aamer and Kamila. 

I’m really looking forward to this trip!

Two Bookshops, Two Cities

2 November 2010 in The Mistress of Nothing | Comments (0)

I’m just back from my enormous book tour of Canada.  I had a great time and covered many miles, met many readers, and went to many parties.  Two of my favourite events during the trip were my visit to Hager Books in Kerrisdale, Vancouver, and my visit to Flying Dragon books in Toronto.  This photo is of me with Andrea who runs Hager Books with her stepdaughter.  Hager Books is a tiny shop - seriously tiny - but they are capable of moving huge quantities of books via their highly personal and personable bookselling abilities - as of week before last they had sold 305 copies of ‘The Mistress of Nothing’ which, as far as I’m concerned, is a phenomenal amount of books.

Flying Dragon in Toronto takes a similar approach - handselling, the booksellers Cathy and Nina and their team making personal recommendations.  Flying Dragon is a children’s bookshop, but they also sell a small selection of books for grown-ups, targeting the parents who come into the shop with their kids. 

Both shops are hugely atmospheric and very comfortable; both reminded me what a great place a seriously good, friendly, neighbourhood bookshop can be.  But, perhaps most importantly, both shops demonstrate what a great job knowledgable and dedicated booksellers can do when it comes to shifting vast quantities of stock. 

Here’s hoping these bookstores continue to thrive for many years to come.