Shame, or, how I spent my holiday in Pakistan

Some weeks ago, an article in semi-literate English by a Pakistani I’ve never heard of and whom few most likely have ever heard of either (more fool us: his brief bio informs us that he is famous), was published right here in the Times of Israel blogs. The author has nothing good to say about our little country, perhaps not too surprisingly, and sternly informs us that Pakistan will not recognize Israel. So there. A few days later the Pakistani Foreign Minister, Shah Mahmood Qureshi, discussing Israel’s actions in Gaza on CNN, said, “They’re losing the media war despite their connections…” The reporter asked, “What are their connections?” He replied, “Deep pockets.” She persisted: “What does that mean?” And he explained, “Well, they’re very influential people, they control media.” “They” means, well, you know who “they” are.

Oh yeah? Well, M. Famous Writer and Mr. Foreign Minister, since you profess to be such great experts on all of US, I thought I’d enlighten my co-conspirators, Elders of Zion, and other unrecognized Jews and Israelis a little bit about what YOU are. Not that we should care, what with our deep pockets and octopoid breadth of influence. But why not? It’s fun.


In 1983, the great writer Salman Rushdie, a Mumbai-born Muslim who lived in Pakistan for some years of his youth, published a novel about the latter country. It is entitled Shame. Rushdie’s later opus, The Satanic Verses, eclipsed Shame; and since surviving the fatwa, he’s gone into embroidered Oriental storytelling. Pleasant, but less than Tolstoyan– maybe a sort of literary PTSD, and who can blame him.

For those of you fortunate enough to be innocent of knowledge of South Asian history since 1947, colonialist Britain decided to visit one final assault on India before quitting the Subcontinent it had been vampirizing for some two centuries. The English performed a final abortion and extracted Pakistan from India. It used to be Divide et impera; but divide, step back, and smirk at the carnage was Whitehall’s spiteful policy. One thinks of the Schadenfreude of a spoiled and naughty child. The still-born little corpse was an artificial country in two parts, West and East, intended for those Indian Muslims who didn’t want to live with Hindus.

Some fifty million people, Hindu and Muslim, perished during the bloody farce of partition. Pakistan is a manufactured name, a neologism. The word is a sort of double-entendre acronym. It encodes the first letters of the names of provinces the new state engulfed: Punjab (well, only part of that), Kashmir (the other bit of which has become a perennial headache for India), and Sindh. The Persian name of the latter, Hind, gives us the name “India”, via Greek, and of course the designation Hindu, which embraces the ancient, indigenous religions and profound philosophies of the world’s most populous and diverse democracy. India. (When General Sir Charles James Napier conquered Sindh he sent Queen Victoria a one-word telegram, Peccavi. That means in Latin “I have sinned.” Get it? It’s a pun: I have Sindh. Ha ha ha.)

What’s the other compartment of the portmanteau? Oh yes: the Persian words pak and -stan mean “pure” and “country”: Pakistan is supposed to be somehow pure. Indeed it is, in the sense of ethnically cleansed: its Hindus and Sikhs are mostly gone, its Christians are, to put it very mildly indeed, beleaguered, and its little Jewish community is scarcely a memory. The country is an ally of that wonderful bastion of freedom and the protection of the lives and rights of Muslims, China. It makes frequent armed incursions into the Himalayan regions where India shelters Tibetan Buddhist refugees, and make a point of murdering Tibetans and desecrating Buddhist monasteries. The state-sponsored Lashkar-e Toiba terrorist gang attacked Mumbai and massacred people at such well-armed, strategic targets as the Parsi Zoroastrian-owned Taj Hotel… and Chabad House. The country’s version of the CIA, called ISI, supports al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan. Pakistan as a neighbor? There goes the neighborhood.

But wait. All the provinces I mentioned are in what was West Pakistan. What about the eastern bit? That was East Bengal, you see, and after getting the short end of the stick for decades, the Bengalis demanded independence. The Pakistanis invaded their own eastern half fifty years ago and perpetrated a genocide– neither the first nor the last of the unhappy 20th century. India intervened, won the war, and helped found the new state of Bangladesh. Remember all those rock musicians who got together for the Concert for Bangladesh? Ah for the days of youth, before music celebrities were obliged to be anti-Semites. Bangladesh, with its capital Dacca is not the most fortunate place on earth but at least it’s free.

I’ve been to Pakistan twice, both times in the 1980s to lecture to the tiny Parsi Zoroastrian community as the guest of a local real estate magnate. And now, gentle reader, I will entertain you with an account of my adventures in the Pure Country.

It started with getting a visa. The consulate in Manhattan featured an ill-chosen white shag carpet that thousands of shuffling feet had reduced to the color of New York street slush. Decoration consisted of a framed calligraphic verse from the Holy Qur’an, which I mentally translated: “Which of your Lord’s beneficences will ye deny?” As I stood there in the long, disconsolate queue, I giggled to myself, “I dunno. Which?” (Game show: “Say, which box wilt thou deny? Number one, number two, or number three?” “Oh my goodness, sir, I am denying… two!” “Hurray! Number two is Jews, offspring of pigs and dogs! You win this luxurious Lashkar-e Toiba suicide vest to go commit a terrorist atrocity at the Taj Hotel in Mumbai!” “Shukriya, sahib!”) As I enjoyed my private joke, people murmured disapprovingly. No joking in Pakistan. Which, as I was soon to discover, is very hard not to do. Though a sense of humor was to prove salutary indeed at one juncture. But do read on.

The flight on PIA to Karachi from Bombay (as it was still called then, now it’s Mumbai). Stewardesses distribute to little kids what they describe as “Islamic toys”: a round peg, a square peg, and a block with a round hole and a square hole. To think that once upon a time, Islamic sacred geometry gave us the muqarnas.

Karachi. What does it look like? Take an Indian port city and subtract color, joie de vivre, and art. Pale buildings, frowning people in loose shalwar-kameez outfits, a neon ad for Rooh Afza. The latter is a sugary syrup whose mixed Arabic and Persian name means, roughly, “lifts your spirits”. It’s an unhealthy, electric red and tastes like a mixture of gasoline fumes, rosewater, and the bouquet of odors of a busy market street in the Subcontinent on a hot noon. I got to like it. You can put it on ice cream. Yum! (Drives away pesky house guests. Me: Here’s a Rooh Afza sundae for your refined palate, Alphonse! Guest: Look at the time!) Anyway, I gave my lectures, and the friendly, hospitable, nice Parsis enjoyed them. Somewhat unsettlingly, I was introduced as a “Jew gentleman,” which sparked the interest of a non-Zoroastrian in the audience: the state prosecutor who had sent the former Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto to the gallows. (Bhutto’s daughter, Benazir, was to become PM and get assassinated a few decades down the line, after being deposed by a US-sponsored military coup. Pakistan’s democracy in action.) Fortunately one didn’t see any more of him. He probably got tired of listening to disquisitions on the Zend-Avesta by the “Jew gentleman”. But another Jew in Karachi, the American journalist Daniel Pearl, was not to be so lucky: soon after 9/11, which the Pakistanis both celebrated and proclaimed a Zionist conspiracy, he was beheaded on camera. His murderer has recently been released from prison and is acclaimed by the populace as a hero.

Between lectures I was more or less under house arrest in one of my host’s hotels, which doubled as a whorehouse and looked out over a scenic swamp. On a ride to his much fancier hotel in the city center, where my lectures were held in the evening, I realized that in my three days there I’d not seen one woman in public. “Where are all the women?” I asked, quite ingenuously. “Why?” sneered the driver. “Do you want one?” Karachi streets: there must have been traffic lights, stop signs, and so on, somewhere, but all I ever saw, at a major intersection, was just a giant, floodlit verse from the Qur’an: “For truly God has power over all things.” Which I don’t doubt He does, but stepping on the gas and trusting in the good Lord to divert oncoming traffic? Well, He did part the Red Sea for somebody or other, once. But let’s not talk about Them.

Them. And you know who “they” are. One sweltering day my host collected me from the bordello. We’re going to the yacht club! A furlough! Yay! But it turned out the club was a small island in the middle of the oily, malodorous harbor, with a few sailboats marooned in the gently heaving sewage. No room for you on my boat, my host explained graciously. You can sit here at the club and wait. The club was a shamiana (a sort of embroidered tent-cover) with trestle tables and benches. An Englishwoman of a certain age (the former colonies tend to be well stocked with these creatures) invited me to sit down beside her. We ordered tea. She: “My dear, how do you like Karachi?” Your reporter: “Um. How do you like it?” She: “I have lived here twenty years! Do you know the best thing about it?” I: “No. What’s that?” She: “Why, my dear, there are no Jews here!” I: “None?” She: “None at all!” I: “Do you know, you might be sitting next to one and not even know it?” She: “My dear! Has that ever happened to you?” I: “All the time.” She: “How perfectly dreadful for you! But you can relax now. None here.”

One did get to tour delightful Karachi a bit more. There are merciful lacunae in one’s memory– it was terribly hot and had the febrile quality of a nightmare from which one cannot awaken– but a highlight was the Military Mosque, which, a placard proudly informed the visitor, was made of half a million pieces of white onyx. The effect was that of a monstrous, sprawling outhouse constructed in the shape of a poisonous toadstool. I admit my aesthetic appreciation was somewhat colored by the influence of my teacher, Prof. Nina Garsoian, who is now 98, God bless her. When somebody or other was gushing once about the Dome of the Rock, she sniffed and said it resembled an octopus marrying a bathroom.

I had agreed to lecture in Pakistan because I wanted to visit the Kalasha people in the Northwest Frontier Province, in the high mountains at the Afghan border outside Chitral. This was not an easy trip; and my host sent one of his employees with me, a very kind man who quickly became a good friend, although he stoutly maintained that I was insane to want to visit the Kalashas. The Kalashas are Indo-Iranian pagans: neither Zoroastrian nor Hindu and predating both, they practice a polytheistic, shamanistic religion. The region across the Afghan border where their co-religionists used to live was called Kafiristan, “Land of the Unbelievers”, and Rudyard Kipling wrote a Masonic fantasy novel, “The Man Who Would Be King”, set there. The heroes are two British soldiers. The Afghans forcibly converted the Kaffirs (Kalashas, that is) to Islam and renamed the place Nuristan, “Land of Light”. I taught and researched that stuff once upon a time, and although it all seemed terribly interesting, my poor guide and I became deathly ill and barely made it out of the mountains to Peshawar. Where I would have died, if not for the laughing cure. And what is that, you may ask?

I was lying in bed in the hotel bungalow at Peshawar sweating, with no energy left save to read the newspaper and listen to the radio on my Walkman. The newspaper, the Frontier Post, had a Friday supplement which that day featured an article on how Islamic punishments are good for you. To explain, these were the days of the benevolent rule of General Zia al-Haq (soon to be blown up, if I recall rightly, in a standard transfer of power), and various acts deemed offensive by Sharia law were punishable by public flogging on one’s backside. This was a great entertainment, and delighted citizens flocked in their tens of thousands to stadiums to relish the spectacle. The author of the thoughtful piece, which if memory serves me right was the lead article on the science page, informed his learned readers that getting spanked on the butt is, ah, stimulating, which just proves that Islam is scientific and humane even in matters of criminal justice, etc. Like any red blooded gay male I hugely enjoyed this unintentional BDSM classic (the Folsom Street fair, Muslim-style), but my chuckles turned to hysterical laughter as Radio Pakistan launched into its daily afternoon program, Melli naghma– “Nationalistic tunes”. Number one on the charts that day was a song called Pakistan hemara hai, “Pakistan belongs to us”. The lyric quatrains in Urdu were the predictably noxious, hate-filled, anti-Indian fare; but what reduced me to helpless mirth was the refrain: an artillery barrage! Pa-ki-stan he-ma-ra hai! La la-la la-la la LA! BOOM! Boom! Boom! I laughed so hard that whatever was ailing me exploded out every bodily orifice, and by the next day I was just fit enough to fly on to Karachi.

I almost didn’t make my flight the day after that back to India and sanity. At the airport our hand baggage was searched by a group of moronic-looking soldiers toting very serious rifles. The batteries were immediately extracted from my Walkman (“No music on plane!” explained one official solemnly), but I suddenly found myself looking into the business end of six carbines as the inspector with a triumphant Aha! extracted… my dental floss dispenser. Which in the admittedly limited context of everyday life in the Pure Country must have looked like a tiny bomb for little jihadi mice. Frantically ransacking my sparse larder of Urdu, I hastily explained, Dandan ke liye hai! It’s for your teeth! while the gun barrels traveled quizzically over my pantomime of flossing.

The second trip, a few years later, was better. Benazir Bhutto, later to be assassinated, was Prime Minister and things seemed to be looking up. A former student and I explored together the city of Lahore, with its Persian gardens and pleasant mosques and palaces. We made pilgrimage to Dataganjbakhsh (later to be bombed by Islamic terrorists), the tomb of Hujviri, the author Kashf al-mahjub, the first Persian treatise on Sufi mysticism, and to Madho Lal Hussein, the tomb where a famous dervish lies interred with his Hindu boy disciple and lover. (Islamic regimes outlaw gays.) We drank pink spiced tea. I got to know the music of the great qawwali devotional singers, the Sabri Brothers and the late, great Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. I fell in love with Indian Islam, a rich and profound part of the human patrimony and of the cultural heritage of all Indians. Sometimes, when the world is too much with me, I imagine the shrine of Sehwan Sharif and hum the Sufi devotional song Dama dam mast Qalandar, sahi Shahbaz Qalandar to myself. Most Pakistani people I’ve met, like people everywhere, are just fine. And culture is not the hostage of a sanguinary political abortion. It is culture. And it is, specifically and historically, Indian culture. So I’ll be damned if I were the government of Israel and accepted an offer of official diplomatic recognition from “Pakistan”. Sorry, Mr. Famous Writer and Mr. Mahmood Qureshi. That place of yours has a name. It’s called India. And we and India are already friends.


I was flying back to the States after that second visit, and the intercom on the PIA plane came on: First, sure enough, a recitation of Qur’an. I take refuge from Satan, whom we throw stones at! drones a voice. Then, Ladies and gentlemen, Inshallah, we’re flying to Frankfurt, Paris, and New York. Inshallah, huh? I say to my neighbor, a handsome young man. Really builds your confidence! Some hours later we land in Frankfurt, some guard comes on board and yells in English: No Pakistanis will be allowed off the plane!

The hell with the Germans, I say to my neighbor, I’m staying right here with you. I knew you were a Jew! says he with a big smile. I’m a Pashtun! (The Frontier Post, whose Pulitzer-class journalism you have sampled above, ran an ethnographical masterpiece while I was there about how Pashtuns must be of Israelite ancestry since they have big noses, love money, and are stingy. The Pashtuns are actually Iranian, but welcome to the club anyhow.) The plane carries on to Paris. No Gestapo announcements, just an open door. Come on, I say to the Pashtun boy, let’s walk around the terminal, try on Hermès scarves, smell perfume, and say Bonjour to beautiful women. And my friend and I take a pleasant stroll together through the airy terminal of the city of light. Liberty, Equality, Fraternity.

About the Author
Born New York City to Sephardic Mom and Ashkenazic Dad, educated at Bronx Science HS, Columbia, Oxford, SOAS (Univ. of London), professor of ancient Iranian at Columbia, of Armenian at Harvard, lectured on Jewish studies where now live in retirement: Fresno, California. Published many books & scholarly articles. Belong to Chabad.
Related Topics
Related Posts