Lucy Ferriss


I've called this blog "Travelin' Thoughts" in the past, because I kept it mostly as a journal to record impressions of new places and cultures. But in a way, it's still a place for traveling thoughts--ideas that move through and past me, and out into the world. Some of these are literary, some just about life. It's a good place to open up the conversation, and I welcome your thoughts and comments.

Sethi House

May 17, 2015

April 20, 2012, Peshawar -- For all practical purposes, today was my last in Peshawar. Tomorrow I’m off to Taxila to see Buddhist ruins, then to Paris (ah, coffee) on Saturday. Had a long talk with Sohrab this morning, then off to Sethi House, a landmark house in the old city in the process of restoration. Normally you can’t get in to see this place, but there was a gathering of architects and we were able to join. The house was built sometime in the 17th century and brought to grandeur by a famous merchant family in the late 19th century; then, like so many of these places, it fell apart and was being rented to several different families as late as 2006. The most amazing thing was the basements, 2 of them, high-ceilings with pointed archways, reaching deep underground. A room for hiding from marauders included an airshaft up to the top of the house, and a well also dove down from the lower basement and ran upward, so water could be pulleyed up from the fourth floor. All of brick, carved wooden doors, ornate ceilings, stained glass - but clearly a long-term restoration. We were going to step into some of the smaller houses on the same narrow street, which were more fully restored, and then walk around the old city. I’d really wanted to do this - the narrow alleys and enormous array of tiny shops selling every from chickens to ground spices to fine leather goods, really fascinated me. But we left the house and were suddenly walking rapidly down the narrow street and into the car, which the driver had brought around. Shazia said that our tour guide had indicated the things might’ve been getting dangerous for us in the area. I couldn’t discover why. A disappointment. I have not been able simply to stroll around anywhere. It’s considered too chancy by my hosts. And I’m sure they have very good reasons, but it is frustrating and my leg muscles are wasting away before my eyes!

Anyway, after the Sethi House, Shazia’s aunt apparently wanted to meet me but we had some time to kill what with having raced away from the old city and all. So we stopped in at a rug shop and I bought a small but very finely knotted silk rug, plus a couple of curios including a lapis and otherwise inlaid pencil box that for some reason (well, it’s beautiful) I adore. Then to the aunt’s house, where we were served Roo Afsa, of which I’d heard, along with a spiced fruit salad. These are traditional Ramadan dishes, so we talked a good bit about Ramadan, which falls in July this year, making for a difficult fast: it’s hot, and almost 16 hours from sunrise to sunset. Jenny will fast for the first time this year, because she has had her menses; this news brought a shy blush to her face. They drink Roo Afsa during Ramadan because it’s refreshing and you get so thirsty, especially in the summer; but like so many of the drinks here, it seemed super-sweet to me and I couldn’t finish more than half the glass. The taste is of rose and citrus. The fruit salad was nicely spiced - cumin? pepper? - and the aunt seemed pleased that we all enjoyed. She lives in a government house, very plain, drab, but perfectly adequate home afforded to them free because her husband works in a government hospital - but the contrast between their set-up and the Kakakhels was stark, and gave proof to Sohrab’s point that ordinary doctors don’t make much. Her daughter has just finished a master’s in English and is teaching basic English grammar at the college level. Not sure how the master’s compares to the States; she seemed more on the level of a B.A. to me. She’s almost certainly waiting for a proposal and marriage arrangement. Must be a strange limbo.

We managed to eke out a couple of hours at one point to go over Shazia’s poetry. It’s very much the poetry of a Pakistani woman feeling the restrictions on her life, though at least in one point about her ancestral lands, the beauty as well. Both she and her husband are Kakakhels, the “khel” meaning clan, and they trace their lineage back to a famous mystic centered in Nowshera. For many years people used to approach a Kakakhels and touch them on the head, as if that might convey the dead saint’s blessing.

That night I went to bed early, anticipating a big outing on Friday and then the flight, but I couldn’t sleep for the barking dogs and the gunfire. Perhaps I was finally a bit frightened because of the ISI’s having grilled Shazia, or perhaps it was just the fatigue of remaining on guard all these days. There are hired patrolmen who bicycle the street of Hyatabad, blowing whistles to scare off robbers, and the stray dogs (and also, I think, the dogs in Shazia’s back yard) bark at each one as he whistles by. Then there was echoing gunfire, quite near, and I wondered what it would take to get past our armed guard and the dogs and possibly Sohrab, who keeps a couple of guns. There would be good reason for a proletarian uprising here - for the residents of Hyatabad to live in such comfort and splendor in the face of so much suffering - but that doesn’t actually seem to be at issue here. Maybe gross wealth inequality is so ingrained that no one really questions it. But gangs from the tribal areas are very fond of robbery and even more of kidnapping. One of Shazia’s colleagues has been held for two years now. The attitude is very much “each family for itself.” No one counts on the police and in sync with that no one sees it as his or her responsibility to care about community per se.

While I’m being critical, I’ll mention lack of physical exercise, which along with poor diet and pollution causes both men and women to age more quickly than they would elsewhere. It’s odd to picture some of these Pashtun people riding their beautiful horses down the plain or trekking for days over the mountains. You can see how well-built and beautiful they are (and I mean that with genuine envy, not looking at my friends as some sort of specimen), but perhaps like Native Americans, they risk obesity with idleness. There is no Phys Ed to speak of at Jenny’s school; Shazia walks but not much else and already has issues with knees and back; and her mother, at 68, walks like a very old woman. Even Sohrab told me he has trouble focusing on being physically fit. And I have noticed my leg muscles, especially, atrophying since I got here. I finally did a half-hour on Shazia’s elliptical machine, which is in her bedroom so I felt I was being invasive. But among the wealthy, there just aren’t opportunities for walking, biking, jogging, and for women especially the attitude seems Victorian in re exercise. Shazia tells me the brides make a point of being this and then let themselves go after marriage. This is another thing I cannot get myself to chalk up to cultural difference. I believe people are better off in just about every way if they remain fit and in touch with the outdoors. So it makes me sad to see so much of a culture either bent down by drudge labor or soft and at risk. Call me judgmental! More positive stuff in next post.

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