Dirt roads, chaotic city streets, eating mangos, stealing guava off trees with my cousins, lazy summer days, getting chased down the street by a rabid dog, and getting so sick that I have to be hospitalized. Those are the images my mind conjures up at the mention of Pakistan. It probably brings up very different images for you. I visited Pakistan every summer with my family until I was twelve, then we stopped going. I somehow managed to spend a lot of time in hospital beds during these visits be it from food poisoning, dehydration, malaria, or a mysterious skin infection. Those are just the few I remember.
In March 2013, I was invited by the US Department of State on a four city tour of Pakistan. My visit was part of a cultural exchange program between Americans and Pakistanis. In my case, between an American-Pakistani and Pakistanis. My Pakistani parents moved to the US in the 80s. I had never given much thought to my hyphenated identity until a few years ago when a lack of Muslim-American female voices in the arts compelled me to write a play. I wanted to share with the world what I had always taken for granted — that the Muslim-American community is not a monolith in thought or practice, and suffers from the same trials and tribulations as other communities. I created a one woman play titled Dirty Paki Lingerie to tackle this image, now playing at the Flea Theatre through August 18. I describe the play as “sex, religion, and politics collide as six Pakistani-American Muslim women air their dirty lingerie…”.
As a performer, I live by a simple rule. If something scares me, I should do it. The idea of going to Pakistan in these times scared me a bit. I hadn’t been back in a long time. All I had to go by were stories from my parents, and images I had seen in the media. The US Embassy in Pakistan worked with me to create a tour in Karachi, Islamabad, Lahore, and Gujrat that consisted of me performing my play, collaborating with local artists, and teaching storytelling workshops to college aged students, and children as young as ten years old. I set out on this trip with a very clear goal in mind: to come back healthy and alive. Even my parents who go to Pakistan often, they visited in January of this year, were a bit concerned about my safety.
The day I landed in Pakistan (Karachi) a bomb went off in a Shia neighborhood killing and injuring many people. If I was worried about safety, the next day the armored vehicle and the two gunmen that showed up to travel with me everywhere I went, put all my fears to rest. I was in a highly secure area. The hotel had barricades, and several checkpoints leading to the main entrance. There were many gunmen manning the main entrance as well. The locals take their own precautions though. I noticed the hotel shuttle driver who picked me up from the airport wasn’t stopping at any red lights. When I asked him why he wasn’t stopping, he promptly responded, “No madam, we don’t stop at red lights late at night because gunmen will come on motorcycle and rob you.”
My trip was full of surprises. I had pitched the idea of performing a reading of a documentary play called SEVEN on International Women’s Day in the capital city, Islamabad. SEVEN is written by seven American female writers about seven female activists from around the world. The day before the performance I arrived at the oldest women’s university in Pakistan, Fatima Jinnah Women’s University, to find out I was actually not acting in the play, but I was directing the play. I am an actor and a writer. The organizers clearly didn’t have an understanding of what that means. If there is one thing I have learned from acting all these years, it is that when you are asked to do something you roll up your sleeves and do it. In Pakistan I directed my first reading of a play.
(Photo of SEVEN at Fatima Jinnah University)
I also managed to do my first tech in Urdu. We had some simple light cues. Introductory address to the audience, lights off at the beginning of the reading, the actors take their seats, and then lights come on. To accomplish this, a man clad in traditional shalwar kameez at the back of the room opposite the stage made a hand gesture to another man standing in a door to the left of the stage. Then that man gave a hand gesture to another man standing outside in the hallway to turn the breakers on. And we had light! It was exciting, challenging, and I learned a lot about myself from doing it. After receiving sometimes decipherable and sometimes indecipherable direction for years, I realized I am capable of talking to actors and giving direction in a way that they can understand. I was so impressed with these girls who had no real acting training, but within two days put on a show that would make professional actors envious. There appears to be immense talent in Pakistan, but a lack of institutions to harness that talent.
The most memorable event for me was a speaking engagement about my career at an all girls high school in a small village outside Islamabad. I was told the event was canceled the day before due to a city wide strike of non-teaching staff in government schools. A few hours later I was told the event was back on. The female principal of the school convinced the bus drivers to end the strike to drive these girls to school and back home just for this event. We drove past unpaved roads, clusters of men sitting on charpoys doing nothing, and young children playing unattended by heaps of garbage. I couldn’t help but think this could have been my life. But by some trick of fate, I was born into the only household in my father’s family where children received an education. My dad is one of eight kids, and is the only one of his brothers who went to college. In fact, he is the only one who completed high school.
(Photo of students at the Girl’s Model School.)
Three hundred girls were present on their day off from school. I started off by asking them how many of them wanted to study medicine. About 20 hands went up. I then asked how many wanted to study engineering, and 8 hands went up. I then asked how many wanted to study writing or acting, and 5 hands went up. I asked how many of them wanted to work after college graduation, and only one girl raised her hand. When I asked how many of them think they’ll get married after graduation, all of them raised their hands. They told me their families and brothers wouldn’t like them to work outside the house for various reasons. With all this talk of girls’ education in Pakistan, I can not help but wonder what about the many girls who can never put their education to use in order to gain financial independence. But then again, it is extremely hard for men with college degrees to find jobs in Pakistan, let alone women.
Over the course of the hour, we shared our fears, hopes, and obstacles. We talked about convincing parents to let us try new things. I have mastered the art of convincing my parents to let me do things they may not deem suitable for girls. I’m hoping my tips pay off for these girls. I shared my own path from a Google employee to a writer and an actor. They asked intelligent questions about how to move forward with a career. At the end, all three hundred of them said they would consider finding a job, and not necessarily just get married after graduation. I hope it wasn’t just the excitement talking. At least for some of them, I hope it sticks.
While I was mostly looking forward to performing my own work in front of a new audience before I set out on this trip, the most memorable moments came from the interactions I had with the local artists and students. The theater magic we created together is forever etched in my mind and soul. I taught fourteen workshops in four different cities in Pakistan. What astounded me the most was that during the storytelling workshops themes of homosexuality came up again and again. A playwriting professor at NYU recently told me that is the most discussed topic in her students’ writings.
Pakistanis are the most hospitable people I have ever met. Every place I visited I was greeted with smiles, and a warm cup of tea. Sometimes five cups of tea. In case you are wondering, I did not get hospitalized. I did get the worst 24 hour stomach bug of my life three days before I left Pakistan. But for what I gained on this trip, I will gladly brave a stomach bug or hospitalization a hundred times over.
Now when I think of Pakistan, I will think of the artists who inspired me, and the friendships I formed that I hope last. I will think of the generosity of the people I met who welcomed a stranger with open arms, and took care of her. I will think of the three hundred girls who are so hungry to learn that they came to school for an hour on a day they had off.
I hope you will too.
Aizzah Fatima’s theatre credits include #serials@theflea (The Flea Theater), Circumcaedere (LABrynth Ensemble), Play by Play: Rendezvous (Stageworks Hudson), Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues (V-Day 2010), Seven, (Hostos Cultural Arts Center). TV credits include: The Good Wife (CBS), Patrice O’Neal’s Guide to White People (Comedy Central), Food Detectives with Ted Allen (Food Network), Mata-e-jaan (HUM TV) and Cinematherapy with comedian Chuck Nice (WEtv). She has performed at Upright Citizen’s Brigade, and appeared in sketches for collegehumor.com. She recently wrote and starred in the short film Stuff with Annette O’Toole, and is working on a feature film script based on characters from Dirty Paki Lingerie.