Lucy Ferriss

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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.

Taxila

May 17, 2015

April 21, 2012, Pakistan --

At 8:30 a.m. on my last day in Peshawar, Aslam Khan fetches me for a trip to the Buddhist ruins at Taxila, outside Islamabad. Aslam is a friend of the journalist Jan  Goodwin, who gave me his name 6 months ago; we've already had a lively correspondence about the subject of my novel and the ways in which it might offend or be useful to Muslims. Aslam has also given me a lovely rug and hosted a dinner for all of Shazia's family. Now he arrives with a pair of traditional Pashtun sandals for my son, which is perfect as I did not yet have a gift for Dan. He has a driver with him, but for the most part, he drives with me in the passenger seat and the driver in back. Mr. Aslam is a portly man, very devout. He also has firm ideas about issues that he says the Koran does not condemn and on which Pakistan needs to advance, e.g. divorce without stigma and gay marriage. He is very eager to discuss these differences of culture and religion, and he talks of Jews, Xians, and Muslims all being "people of the Book." We also talk a great deal about individual responsibility; he allows that the are times he wishes he didn't have to continue to be responsible for his grown (and at least in one case married) sons, yet he fully expects that they will care for him as he grows old, so that's part of the bargain. Basically, there is no time in life when one is not responsible for others in one's family. The years of freedom we Americans think of, being in our early 20s perhaps, or after 50 when the kids are grown and the parents passed away, do not exist, nor do the years of isolation. Mr. Aslam is also quite interested in the issue of life after death because he feels there should be punishment and reward for the ways in which one has conducted one's life. He wants to know what I think, and my belief - that such punishments and rewards generally arrive in this life via feelings of remorse or of an easy conscience - sounds strangely naive.

Taxila itself is an impressive place. A World Heritage site, its museum is far better curated and signed than any of the museums I've seen thus far. The focus is the first and second centuries A.D., when the story of the Buddha began in these parts, and a number of remarkably well preserved artifacts, in stone and in stucco, fill the museum. We are clearly honored guests, and after our tour of the museum, we are served tea and given a splendid catalog of the relics and history. Then we head out. There are three major archeological sites in the area and almost a dozen smaller ones. But Mr. Aslam is not an athletic man, and we make it all around one site but that is clearly it for the day. The one site, though, is fascinating. They have actually uncovered three levels of civilizations, stretching well back before Christ. Only in one corner of the dig, though, do they go all the way down to show the earliest and middle settlements, since to dig up the earliest one would require destroying the first-century one on the top. Anyhow, we wander about the ruins and are given details about the remains of temples, a sun dial, irrigation systems, etc. Much Greek influence, since this followed the era of Alexander the Great. The Buddhas in the museum look very different from the fat happy Buddhas of the Far East. These fellows are mustachioed, muscled, almost military in their bearing, with sculpted robes draped Greek-style over their 6-pack abs. As the stories I've been hearing here tell it, this was the cradle of the Buddha, whose story then spread eastward, but of course there are no longer Buddhists in Pakistan, so the stories are of a past that is split, theologically and philosophically, from the present.

As we leave the archeological site, two things happen. The first is the arrival of a trio of young boys bearing what look like the artifacts we saw in the museum. Mr. Aslam explains that the boys are claiming these to be true relics, but they aren't: the local people are excellent stoneworkers, and these are imitations. Do I want a souvenir anyhow? Well, sure, I say, but only if it's small and doesn't cost much. A fair amount of haggling ensues, with Mr. Aslam eventually slipping the boy what looks like 5000 rupees, and we get a little stone frieze with 3 figures, about the size of my palm. The second thing that happens is that a gang of schoolgirls in blue & white uniforms come striding across the field toward us as we leave, obviously intent on catching our attention. Each puts out her hand and says, "Hello," and I shake all the hands, and then we have to have a picture. I've almost grown used to this excessive attention but am still not sure what draws it. Do they somehow spot me as an American, or just a Westerner generally? Do I look like the people who come as part of an NGO? Or is it simply my height and pale hair, no further analysis required?

Mr. Aslam obviously feeling done with archeology, we head into Islamabad, where his nephew runs a fancy Chinese restaurant, and they recommend various dishes, and we're served mountains of lovely food that I do my best to consume, little imagining that Mr. Aslam will also insist on our getting ice cream on the way out of the city. More energetic conversation on the way home, this time the theme being the question of whether religious people are basically better, more moral people (Mr. Aslam votes yes on this one), at one point he trades places with the driver because he's afraid he'll fall asleep at the wheel, also he wants to eat his ice cream. An endearing sight, plump Mr. Aslam enjoying his treat in the back seat. So generous of him to give me his whole day as well as all the gifts! When he drops me, I try to get him to come in for tea, but he declines.

At Shazia's house, her brother has arrived from Toronto, first trip home in 10 years, having come via Mumbai which also meant that he had to fly to Islamabad via Abu Dhabi because no direct flights from India to Pakistan. What a crazy world. He and others in the house think my little souvenir may be a real artifact. More discussion through the evening of religion and politics, S's brother being skeptical of all religions and Sohrab being deeply involved in looking for evidence of any of these so-called Prophets' having lived. Shazia is of the opinion that it doesn't matter; that God is something more like a physics equation.  A notable moment when S's brother spoke of being Pashtun. If someone steals his car, he says, he can't be like the guy who shrugs his shoulders and reports the theft to insurance; he must have revenge. "If you steal my shirt," he says, "it doesn't matter that I have a hundred shirts just like it. It is MY SHIRT, and I want it back, and I will come after you!" It occurs to me that I am the guy who shrugs shoulders and reports to insurance. Because the theft would be nothing personal, and I have no personal vendetta against the thief. But that's not the way of the Pashtun.

To bed for an uneasy 3 hours of no sleep, then a tap at the door and it's time for the airport.

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