Passages Through Pakistan – An Excerpt

passages-cover

The train rounds a bend.
The rest of the cars appear
one by one,
all tied to one another
far into the distance
It comes as a surprise
to be tied to things so far back
Nazım Hikmet,
Human Landscapes from My Country

We moved from town to town during my childhood, but I was unfazed. My constants were my boarding school, based in a solid stone building in Murree, and my parents, who, though flesh and blood, seemed equally solid and immoveable. Pakistan was home. She adopted me, a foreigner, and took me in. I belonged. I belonged in the family and in the community into which I was born. I belonged in the country where I took my first steps. Legal documents might say otherwise, but they were unimportant to the reality of my experience.

I learned early on of the beauty and hospitality of Pakistan. My eyes captured landscapes that the best photographers in the world could not capture, and the music and colors are etched on my mind. I was welcomed into homes and churches, played in courtyards and on canal banks.

In my childhood, the Pakistan I knew was a place of color and life: bright oranges, reds, yellows, and greens of spices and fabrics. I knew the ready invitations to come for tea that brought smiles to my face and delight to my heart. I knew the best food in the world – mouthwatering and piping hot pakoras; kebabs purchased in the middle of the bazaar in the afternoon; spicy, red-orange, charred chicken tikka with naan and fresh lemon; the cold tang of lemon squash; and chicken masala’s thick, onion-filled sauce that made my nose run through an entire meal. The tastes and spices lingered long after the meal was over. I knew Pakistan as a place of food, music, colors, and laughter.

This was my home, the setting of my earliest memories, my first steps, my first kiss, my first love. I literally cut my first teeth in this land. Pakistan was a place of life and faith. I was surrounded by Pakistanis who loved me and put up with the immaturity of my childhood. This was where my physical  and faith journey began. Would I ever love another place so much? I didn’t think so.

Later, I would come to know the complexity and contradiction that defined this homeland that had adopted me, but in early years I knew only the good. I would later discover more of her history. I would learn of a Pakistan birthed in violence and tragedy, a land that continues to face crisis after crisis – some at the hands of other governments, and some of its own making. I would learn of the difficulty of a country that struggled to find her identity apart from the larger Indian subcontinent. I would see the struggles in my friends around marriage and family and learn of the massive disparities between the wealthy and the poor. Later, I would learn that in addition to the beauty of friendship and hospitality there was also the horror of violent fundamentalism. I would be introduced to and angered by the one-dimensional Pakistan of Western perception and media. I would understand that alongside stunning landscapes of high mountains and clear lakes was the dirt and raw sewage of cities. I would later face disease, high infant morbidity and mortality, inescapable poverty, and the light hair and big bellies of malnutrition. I would grow to see many dimensions of this beautiful, complex land.

But the Pakistan of early childhood was a beautiful home, and I loved that home.

Excerpt copyright from Passages Through Pakistan, Doorlight Publications, March 2017, Pages 29-30

Available for pre-order and on sale TODAY! Click HERE to order. 

When No One Shares Your Grief

A week ago my mom called with some sad news. Stefanous had died. I was so shocked. He was only 5 years older than I am. His youngest daughter was only just married two weeks ago. A flash flood of memories instantly floored me and I began to cry.

For those of us who grew up in far away parts of Asia and South Asia and I suspect in the great continent of Africa, our families, our households, included extra people. It was impossible to attend to all the work of living on their own in places where conveniences were few and life was hard and so our mothers hired house helpers and sometimes gardeners and cooks and guards or watchmen. These extras were a vital part of the cast of our theatrical lives. They were in the background many times, but they were there, constants in a sometimes-chaotic childhood. In some ways they were family, but those ways are stretched and extended. From this side of the ocean looking back on the strange story that is my childhood it feels awkward and difficult to explain the connection to these beloved extras.

Stefanous came to work part time for my family when he was only 14 or 15 years old. Mom taught him to wash dishes, to clean the house, to help with basic meal prep. Later, as Stefanous grew up, he fancied learning how to cook. He learned how to bake bread. He learned several Western dishes. He could make a few desserts. Mom would demonstrate how to do it. She would tell Stefanous the recipe and he would write it down slowly in a small “copy” (notebook) with his pencil. Our strange and foreign favourites were now captured in Urdu in a Pakistani copy and in the heart of a Punjabi man.

Stefanous lived in a small room behind our house. After he got married he brought his beautiful Parveen back to that simple room. Their babies eventually joined our circle; first Lubana, then Aksah and then the boys: Amoon and Shani. I was a teenager by the time those adorable girls were toddlers. Lubana and Aksah were in and out of our home. They were my playthings. I loved them. Lubana, the precocious beautiful first-born daughter especially stole my affections. Like a real life doll, I dressed her and toted her around all over the courtyard and through out the house.

Two weeks ago one of Stefanous’s sons sent pictures of his sister’s Aksah’s wedding. I stared at each picture and tried to find the little people I had known in the adult faces. I marveled at how Stefanous himself looked remarkably the same. Parveen Bhaji (my big sister) also seemed the same, maybe slightly softer and rounder, but essentially the same.

And now Stefanous is gone. The news is cryptic and insufficient. We suspect it was a heart attack, although we’ll probably never really know the details. What do I do with this strange grief? Where do I go to ‘ofsos’? Where do I go to give my condolences? Stefanous wasn’t family in the traditional sense. How do I post on FaceBook, “my parent’s servant died”? There’s no way to explain it.

I called my Lowell. He responded with comfort and joined me in my sadness. I tried calling Marilyn, even though I knew the chances were slim that she would answer. Still I knew that if I could get a hold of her she would understand. I tried calling another childhood friend, Kiran, whose childhood was just as far away as mine. She missed the call but called me right back. Kiran held my memories with reverence. She let me cry. I told her some of the funny foibles of Stefanous’s work habits. I remembered how he just about drove my dad nuts. He was such a slow worker, especially in those early years. Stefanous was also one of the most honest people I know. He was faithful and loyal and consistent. Stefanous was a good husband and a devoted father. He loved his family well.

When Lowell and I got married and moved to India I missed Stefanous so badly. I wasn’t sure how to live in South Asia without him. He became this larger than life thing in our marriage. What I remembered of him and all he could do grew to mythical proportions as I struggled to set up household routines in a foreign country. When Lowell actually got to meet Stefanous and heard the real stories from my parents he never let me live it down.

I know I’m not just grieving the loss of Stefanous. I’m grieving another deathblow to my childhood. I’m mourning the miles and miles that keep me separated from those memories. I cry because somehow the death of Stefanous serves to remind me of how strange my story seems. My tears tell of a strange sort of weariness. There are days I long for a more normal narrative.

But for today I mourn for Stefanous. His widow, Parveen, is a strong woman and she has her two sons to care for her, but it’s too soon to lose Stefanous. I’m so sorry for her loss. I’m grateful Stefanous was able to get both of his precious daughters married off but those daughters will always miss their Abhu Jaan. The sons, Amoon and Shani, still need their father to shepherd them through their journey into adulthood. Death is always difficult. Death so young is impossibly hard. Death so far away seems doubly so.

Stefanous Massey, 51, died suddenly of a suspected heart attack. Stefanous was born to Bharakat and Khurishida Massey in Bees Chuk, District Layyah. The second youngest of eight children, he spent most of his childhood, along with his immediate family, in the home of Norman and Helen Gamble. He was employed by Gary and Joan Allyn from 1980-2000. Since then he has worked in Lahore for the Seven Day Adventist guest house, and for a general in the Pakistani army. Stefanous was a loving husband and a devoted father. He had a great sense of humour and he especially loved playing jokes on people. He loved music and would often listen to it and sing along while he worked. During their years in Layyah he was a member of and faithfully attended the church there. He is survived by and will be sorely missed by his wife Parveen, his daughter Lubana and her husband, one grand daughter, his daughter Aksah and her husband, and his two sons, Amoon and Shani, several siblings, many nieces and nephews and countless cousins.

Rest in peace, Stefanous, rest in peace.

On #InternationalDayofTolerance – Fight for Asia Bibi!

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I’m angry. 

A Christian Pakistani woman is sentenced to death in Pakistan. Her crime? She is allegedly accused of insulting Islam after a group of Muslim women did not want her sharing the same water bowl as them. She offered them water and they refused stating it was “unclean.”

I wish this was hyperbole. I wish that I didn’t have to write this piece. But I’m angry. I’m angry that calls for tolerance don’t include the likes of Asia Bibi. I’m angry that Christians, Muslims, or non religious people who care about human rights are not standing up for this woman, insisting on her release. I’m angry that to date, very few people have signed the petition requesting her release.

Her life is clearly of no value to the United Nations, to the Supreme Court of Pakistan, to Human Rights Watch international, and Amnesty International. This should be headline news every single day until she is released. This should not be allowed to happen. The last article I have seen on this from Amnesty International is from 2014. That’s ludicrous for a group that purports to care about human rights.

Asia Bibi has been in jail since 2009. That is seven years!  But obviously, her life as a woman, as a minority, and as a Christian is not something that people who generally fight for these things are willing to fight for. 

Today is the International Day of Tolerance – and yet I saw nothing about Asia Bibi. I saw a lot of rainbows, I saw hands held ad nauseum across the globe. But no one is speaking out for her.

My question is: Why? Why can’t the International Day of Tolerance include the likes of Asia Bibi? Why can’t the International Day of Tolerance look at the plight of Christian women throughout Pakistan?

They have no voice. They have no rights. There are many like Asia Bibi who day after day are discriminated against without anyone paying attention.

Christian friends – will you speak up?

Muslim friends – I will fight for you, and speak up for your rights any day, hour, or minute of the week in this country because it is the right thing to do. I care deeply for you and your community. You are my friends,neighbors, and colleagues. Will you speak up for Asia Bibi.

Other friends – will you speak up and sign a petition for a woman who has nothing and no one fighting for her?

Here is what I am going to ask you to do:

  1. Sign this petition
  2. Email others to sign the petition.
  3. Share this post

Here is the summary: 

Asia Bibi is a Christian wife and mother awaiting execution in a Pakistani prison. She was accused by Muslim coworkers of blasphemy. More than 150,000 Christians in Pakistan signed a petition protesting the injustice against Asia and other Christians in their nation. Now there’s a way for people around the world to add their voices to those Pakistani voices, through an online petition at http://www.CallForMercy.com.

I just signed the petition, and I hope that you’ll click on the link and sign as well. As of today, 702,760 people have signed. The goal is to have one million signatures to deliver to the Pakistani Embassy in Washington DC.

Please add your name and speak out on behalf of Asia Bibi.

Folks, this is 2016 and a woman is sentenced to death because of a poorly constructed blasphemy law. We can’t sit silent on this International Day of Tolerance. 

Blogger’s note: The bigger issue is the huge problem with the Blasphemy Law in Pakistan which has come under severe attack but nothing has yet been done to change it.

Daughter, Your Faith has Healed You – SheLovesMagazine

Readers, I would love it if you joined me today at SheLovesMagazine.com.  It is a privilege to be there and to introduce many of you to the writing over at SheLoves. SheLovesMagazine is “a global community of women–a Sisterhood–who want to know and experience freedom, justice and transformation, for ourselves and others.” The mission is clearly stated on their site.

Our mission is: To mobilize and empower women, so we may transform our world together.

This was largely the inspiration of Idelette Mcvicker who is an amazing person. So I would love for you to head there after reading the trailer below!

*****

Pakistan - Family

I grew up in Pakistan. As an only daughter in a house full of boys, my family treated me like a princess.

I loved Pakistan. Pakistan was my home, the place of my earliest memories. All of my firsts happened there. As I grew up, I learned more about my adopted land. I learned about the amazing and complex country of extremes. Pakistan has some of the highest and most beautiful mountain ranges, a reputation for being graciously hospitable, and arguably has the best food in the world.

And yet, women there are in difficult situations.

Throughout my childhood, I have met women who were strong and beloved, but were in some of the worst conditions imaginable.

I was 16 years old when I first encountered a woman with a fistula. I was volunteering at a women and children’s hospital in the southern area of the country. I remember opening the door to the hospital room and seeing a young woman sitting on her bed wearing a look of defeat and resignation on her face. The smell of urine was overwhelming and the fan that whirred above me did nothing to take away the smell. Read the rest here

On Belonging


Recently I watched a group of younger colleagues. They seemed so at home with each other, so comfortable.  Like pieces in a puzzle, they all fit. There was without doubt some diversity among them, but they spoke the same language, had the same Masters of Public Health (MPH) after their names, had gone to similar colleges, and knew the same vernacular.

I sat in the background, observing.  I found myself in the place I’ve been so many times — not belonging. From my education to my background to my age, I was different. I was other. 

If we are honest, we have all experienced this — though some substantially more than others. That sense of being other, of yearning to belong.

It is this that has led me to really think about how I would live if I truly believed in my heart that I am loved by God as much as my intellect and faith tell me I am loved. How do we live when we are fully loved? How would I live if I truly felt I belonged?

And I know the answer. Because there are times when I feel a sense of belonging that is so strong it drowns out any other feelings. I know what it is to belong. 

This weekend I will be at a reunion. It’s sort of like a family reunion, but only a few are blood relatives or relatives by marriage. It’s sort of like a school reunion, though many parents are also invited. It’s a reunion of place and people. It’s a reunion where, in a myriad of ways, I belong.

I don’t have to explain early separation from parents or boarding school. I’m never asked at this reunion if boarding school was difficult – because we all get it. We all knew that it was difficult — and it was wonderful. I don’t have to defend a country that is always in the watchful eye of a military drone and on a terrorist watch list, because I’m with people that have a three dimensional view of the country of Pakistan.

I get into conversations on how faith is hard and a long journey, and my words are met with nods and tears of understanding. I am with people that love curry and chapatis as much as I do, and we reminisce with our tongues burning just with the thought of it.

We come from a line of people that shared text books, clothes, dolls, and teachers. We speak the same language, we know the same stories.

For a short time, like pieces in a puzzle, we will fit. We will belong, and it will be glorious.

And I will remember what it is to live like I really belong. 

A Moment Between Worlds

moving train quote

I’m sitting in a Pakistani Restaurant in Los Angeles, just two miles from the airport – because that’s what we do when we are global nomads. We find comfort foods and places wherever we go, places where we can kill the saudade.

I arrived just a couple of hours ago from New Zealand and knew I had too much time to stay at the airport, but too little time to go very far. So I looked up restaurants near the LA airport and found Bihar Halal, described as an authentic Pakistani restaurant a short ride away. It is indeed only a short ride from the airport and I walk into the smell of naan and curry. There are mostly Pakistanis in the restaurant, a sure sign of its authenticity. I sit down and order a chicken curry, raita, and tandoorki roti. No fancy Americanization of this delicious food – just authentic curry.

I eat with my fingers and soon my nose is running, the spicy taste delighting my palate and forcing me to wipe my nose. The TV is set to a station in Faisalabad, Pakistan. Periodically an advertisement comes on and the Pakistani National Anthem plays in the background. I hum along with it. My Urdu is challenged as I try to follow the plot line of a crime show.

Suddenly my situation strikes me as absurdly surreal – I just arrived from New Zealand, I’m sitting in a Pakistani restaurant, and I’m watching a crime show on Pakistani TV in the middle of Los Angeles. Just yesterday I was sitting in my friend’s garden in Christchurch, New Zealand eating breakfast. Sometimes my worlds change too fast and I am left spinning, like a top spun over and over again by a child who won’t give the toy a rest.

When my mom and dad first moved overseas they would travel by ship. Instead of frenzied airport arrivals and departures, they would wave from the balcony of a ship. They would wave until those they loved faded out of sight, and all that was left were tears on their faces and a wide ocean that would be their landscape for the next six weeks. They left slowly, and they entered slowly. Those long days and nights at sea prepared them for their next steps on land. It was a good way to travel. For six weeks you were literally between worlds, without expectations from either.

Sometimes I wish it were still that way. We move so quickly between countries that it is hard to breathe. Currency, language, food, and customs change in a short plane ride. The cultural lines get blurred and we have high expectations of how quickly we will adjust to whatever culture we find ourselves. No wonder we find ourselves exhausted, collapsed on beds with tears on our pillows. It’s all a bit much.

As light fades outside the restaurant, I realize I have been traveling hard and fast.  The crime show has finished and I am now watching recaps of the Pakistan/India cricket game. I am alone, but not lonely. Instead, I am content in this world I live in. In his book, The Art of Stillness, Pico Iyer says this: “In an age of movement, nothing is more critical than stillness. In an age of distraction, nothing can feel more luxurious than paying attention.” A busy restaurant may be an unlikely place of stillness, but for me that is just what it is.

I paid the bill a long time ago and it is the goodness of the restaurant owner that he has allowed me to rest without distraction. I sigh and pack up my things, reluctant to give up this moment between worlds.

But it is time for the next journey, one that will take me back to an apartment building in Cambridge.

The top is still spinning, but curry and naan have slowed it down and eased me into reentry. I am content.

At least for now.

___________

Note: Tomorrow I will be announcing the two winners of the Meditations coloring book! Stay tuned!

Also, please continue your thoughts and prayers for the people of Pakistan as the country mourns for those who died and hopes that those who are wounded will heal.

  • Evil in Not the Final Word ““Has not Pakistan suffered enough?” I shout the words inside, knowing that few would understand my reactions. Yet, the Pakistani flag lights up my newsfeed and I am grateful for friends who do understand, who know and love this place that so many of us called home.”
  • I am Pakistan? “Our humanity has constraints; limitation is after all a characteristic common to all people. We do not therefore have the emotional capacity to mourn all who die in this world and to scream at all the wickedness that weaves so deeply through every culture. But while  our tears are reserved for Western nations, the rest of the world is right to be suspicious of us.”
  • Keen Pain in Pakistan over “Lives Shattered into Pieces”  “Shock and grief enveloped Pakistan on Monday as the official death toll from the attack in Lahore a day earlier rose to at least 72, with 341 people reported wounded by officials.”

Meditations and Truth – A Book Giveaway


Sun streams through lace curtains as I sit in my living room. Except for the low buzz of my electronic servants that sit in my kitchen, it is completely quiet.

It has felt like a rough week. Orthodox Lent began on Sunday night, a night when I was sitting in an  immigration line that stretched to the airplane gate at Logan International Airport. The week did not get easier. Family sickness that led to urgent care visits and intravenous fluids, jet lag exhaustion, multiple priorities at work, and adhering to a strict first week fast had me face to face with my human frailty and my anger. I didn’t like what I saw. This morning I woke to news that a suicide bomb went off in a busy street in Istanbul. A street where my brother and sister-in-law walk many times a week for church and jobs, where Turks gather by tens of thousands every week. I am acutely aware of a world broken and my own part in that world.

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Over a month ago I received a coloring book from Doorlight Publications. Would I be willing to take a look and review the book? I had sort of kept up with the “adult coloring book” trend, and I love coloring so I said yes — I would be glad to.

The book arrived late afternoon one day and I began flipping through it. I was taken aback by how beautiful the drawings were.  Each one is a hand drawn masterpiece. The artist, Lorien Atwood, grew up in Pakistan and the Middle East, and the designs are clearly inspired by these parts of the world that I love. They are a rich ensemble of lines and circles that flow into gorgeous designs. But this coloring book is different – because in the middle of each drawing is a verse taken from the Bible. Each drawing expertly symbolizes the verse and the result is remarkable. As you color, you find yourself meditating on the words before you and truth soaks into and awakens your soul.

As I looked at each drawing, and thought of the hours of work of this artist, an artist who loves God and uses her God-given gift to create, the words of Madeleine L’Engle came to mind:

“God is constantly creating, in us, through us, with us, and to co-create with God is our human calling. It is the calling for all of us, his creatures, but it is perhaps more conscious with the artist–or should I say the Christian artist?”

Setting out my colored pencils, I picked my colors and began to add to what Lorien started for me. I had no real plan, just the pencils and the art in front of me. Before long, the picture began to sing through the black and white. Colors and words flowed together and I found myself relaxing, meditating, and thinking of how, when we give it a chance, truth changes us.

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I think about this now, as I remember the week before. Truth changes us. But sometimes we have to sit still long enough to let it happen.  

__________________

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Blogger’s Note: I am not one to quickly buy into trends, but this book is no trend. It is a beautiful, reflective work of art created specifically to use as meditation and encouragement. I will be giving away two of these books at Communicating Across Boundaries through Western Holy Week. If you want to be considered, please leave a comment here. I look forward to sharing these with you! They are remarkable.

If you are interested in purchasing a book and don’t want to wait for the giveaway, the books are for sale at Coloring in Truth USA. 

Read an interview with Lorien here