Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Story Time – Real Muslims

In November of 1962, not long after the Cuban Missile Crisis was over, my ship pulled into Karachi, Pakistan, for a well-earned rest. We would relax here for a while and enjoy our Thanksgiving dinner.

One day, a Saturday, as I was standing watch on the quarterdeck, I was called on to recruit volunteers to go to a tea party to be given that afternoon by the Pakistani Navy at PNS (Pakistani Naval Station) Dilawar, a local navy base. Few of these hard-drinking woman-chasing American sailors wanted any part of a tea party. Now, I was also always on the lookout to learn more about people and their culture and history. I expressed my regret that I had the duty and couldn’t go, but the officer of the watch suggested I get a standby. This turned out to be easy because I had already stood my watch, and the ship only needed a body in case of fire or some other emergency.

We had tea and a number of tidbits – tiny bananas, some very spicy tarts, a sweet cookie, etc. All of us there were very conscious of being the strangers in a strange land. The food was different. The tea had milk and sugar in it. And we had been constantly warned throughout the Muslim world not to ever eat with our left hand or offer it (or anything in it) to another person. (In the old days, in the desert with little or no water, the left hand had been used for certain personal cleanliness functions and was therefore soiled. The functions changed with time, but not the customs of politeness.)

Then they put on a magic show with some fabulous tricks. One trick was writing in any language on a piece of paper. Two guys wrote something, then the papers were burned after being folded and sealed in envelopes. Two small slates were scribbled on with chalk and the ashes were placed between them. When the plates were taken apart, the ashes had disappeared and writing was on the slates, one message on each – the same language, the same handwriting, the same size as had been written on the papers.

Another trick involved a rope which had been cut before our eyes. The ends were placed together and zip! The rope was whole – no knots – perfectly, as if it was just made. Then the two loose ends of the rope were placed together, and zip! The rope was a loop – no knots, as if it had been made that way.

A ring was borrowed and made to disappear. Then a sailor was asked to unwrap a ball of twine about three inches in diameter and four inches long. The twine had covered a whole egg, which was then broken. It held a nut inside. The nut was busted open and there was the ring.

Another ring was made to disappear and a sailor was asked to cut open a grapefruit. The ring was inside.

On the bus on the way back I met a Pakistani sailor from Dacca, East Pakistan (now Bangladesh), who had been sitting behind me during the magic show. His name was H. U. Ahmed. We made friends instantly, so I offered to show him around my ship. He got a big kick out of the coke machine, how it worked automatically. He even asked me to buy a second one so he could watch more closely! Then we talked for quite some time, during which I expressed my interest in learning more about Pakistan and its people. So we made arrangements to meet the next day about 1400 (2:00pm); we would go to the movies (Pakistani style) and then to the international trade fair here.

On Sunday afternoon, I left the ship before Ahmed arrived to watch a show on the pier being put on for the Americans: a fight between a cobra and a mongoose. The handler had a leash on the mongoose and turned the cobra loose. This was of some concern to me at first, but that cobra wasn't interested in anything else than his mongoose enemy. The mongoose started snarling and the cobra started hissing and spitting as soon as they saw each other. As the two were placed facing each other, the mongoose couldn’t show his real stuff (running round and round the cobra, which watched the furry little rodent, which made the snake dizzy). However, it did run back and forth a little, and then we saw how fast the mongoose was, for it suddenly attacked. In the blink of an eye, it held the cobra’s head between its needle-toothed jaws. The snake writhed violently, wrapping itself around the animal’s body, but to no avail. The serpent’s head was soon crushed, and the mongoose kept gnawing, probably until the handle pulled it off or until the snake’s head fell off.

I didn't see that part of the show, because Ahmed arrived and we prepared to go to the “Bengali film.” We went to the theater and Ahmed bought the tickets for a show that would begin in an hour or so. He paid for both of us (“My treat!” he said.). Then we went to have tea and more of those great cookies. He paid.

“You are my guest,” he smiled.

The movie had been made in Bengal (East Pakistan at the time, now Bangladesh) but was in Urdu, the official language of the country and the main language spoken in West Pakistan. The name of the movie was “Chanda” (emphasis on the last syllable). It portrayed the struggle of modern thinking against old customs.

{The movie’s story line – skip if you don’t want all the details: A stranger comes into a region of Bengal. He fell in love with Simki. Also, he saved the life of Chanda, the local king’s daughter, and she fell in love with the stranger. Many struggles and hardships occurred, including the imprisonment of Simki – I don’t remember why, and my notes don’t help – and her release by Chanda, who had a bit of pull since she was the king’s daughter. There was also a villain, of course, and he wanted to have his way with Simki, by force if necessary. And so the stranger battles the villain and kills him by throwing him over a cliff. Now it was against the law for a local woman to fall in love with an outsider, and so Simki was condemned to death by cobra bite. Chanda, who also loved the stranger and felt that even if she lived she wouldn’t have a chance of getting him (against the law, remember?), so she took Simki’s place and died. Chanda was delivered to the sea by the stranger (as burial). The death of his daughter made the kind realize how bad that law was, and he repealed it, and so Simki and the stranger lived happily ever after.}

This movie, a fairy-tale story that was crude by American Hollywood standards, was in its 33rd week of play, and was a favorite hit of the Pakistani people. Ahmed and I sat in the very back row so we wouldn't bother any one; he translated the story for me, just about line for line, in a loud whisper.

Next we went by taxi (which Ahmed paid for) to the outskirts of the city, to the P.I.F., the Pakistani International Fair, a good sized trade fair. We ate sugar cane (which Ahmed bought), getting at the sugar by biting off a chunk of the cane, chewing on the inside pulp until the sugar was gone, then spitting out the remains. Ahmed also bought some some “pan” (pahn) for us, a very spicy and aromatic mixture of shredded spices and herbs (including betel) wrapped up in a large leaf. It is chewed for a long time to extract the good tastes and releasing the aromas. The red juice acts as a breath freshener and helps the digestion. We saw a number of displays and Ahmed explained everything he could from his part of the world.

At one point, we almost had a fight. I wanted to buy some souvenirs and gifts for folks back home and again he insisted that he should pay for them. I refused.

“But you are my guest!” he persisted. We got around the problem when I explained that I was willing to accept his paying for me as his guest, but these were things for others whom he didn’t know and who weren’t with us. So he resigned himself to letting me pay for my souvenirs.

By the way, Ahmed made about 100 rupees a month. At the time, I was making over six times that amount.

But this isn’t the end of the story. Ahmed got me back into the city and we were waiting for a bus that would take me back to my ship. However, he had watch-standing duties to perform, so he asked another Pakistani sailor, a chief petty officer, to escort me. I replied that once I got on the right bus I would be all right, but, no, I was a guest, and would be escorted. So I said good-bye to Ahmed and got onto the bus – the Chief had already paid for me.

One of my “hobbies” was to collect as complete a set of coins and bills as possible from every country I visited. But since Ahmed had paid for everything, I’d had no chance to get any coins at all (I had bills from my money changing on board my ship). The buses in Karachi are British style, with conductors in the aisles to make change and collect fares. So I asked the Chief if he would have the conductor make some change for me. He asked why and I explained. Then, he reached into his pocket, pulled out a handful of coins. He started going through them, extracting different ones, asking “Do you have one of these? How about one of these? Here, take two of these, they’re small.”

And so I got my coins from Pakistan.

I have often marveled at the treatment of guests by people in other countries and prayed that visitors to our country could find Americans who were as selfless and generous. And when people today begin to rail about how horrible those Muslim people are, I shake my head and tell them this story. Ahmed and the Chief, not the terrorists, are the real Muslims, following the real teachings of Islam.

2 comments:

Kris said...

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Keep up the super articles!

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rox said...

Rich,
That was a fabulous story! It always made me so sad to hear the Somali people I worked with last year talk about the prejudice and discrimination they experience at everyday places, like Target or the grocery store. Sometimes I wonder if people would be so rude if they knew what these people had gone through to get here...