My years in Pakistan started with the bombing of the Marriott and ended with the capture of Osama Bin Laden. During those tumultuous years, I felt myself shrinking and going numb after each bomb blast. Pakistan's political violence was beyond anyone's control. Youth in poverty were ready to blow themselves up to attack a Western-owned luxury hotel with their hotel guests, killing mostly their drivers waiting in the parking lot. I had studied international public policy and joined the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in the hopes to make a difference. Staring at the big hole of the explosion site, I had no idea where to begin to create hope and contentment for Pakistan's children. My day-to-day job in Islamabad consisted of introducing Japan and its culture to the people of Pakistan, fostering close feelings towards Japan and promoting positive relations. My able Pakistani colleagues organized speech and art contests, hosted cultural exhibits, ran scholarship programmes, and engaged with the press. At the same time, they taught me the intricate structures of Pakistani society, the political landscape, and the people's historical frames of reference. Despite all these efforts and my weekly Urdu lessons, I was still detached from life in Pakistan. On weekends, when the weather was nice and cloudy, I started taking walks towards the Kohsar market from my house in sector F6/3 in routine. I took my camera to take pictures of the children playing cricket on the streets of F6 and smelled the roses along the posh houses. I watched young men from the Margalla Hills gather kachnar off the tree, which I took home for my cook to prepare in masala. One Saturday, I went in opposite direction up the Hill Road towards a café and saw about fifty small children sitting in a perfect grid at a fenced open-air park across the Christian Colony. I saw some groups conducting lessons around a blackboard, too. I circled around the fence, taking pictures from a distance, until a boy invited me in at the request of Master Ayub, who introduced himself as the Headmaster of the make-shift school. Invited, I walked amidst the grid of students and seated myself next to a girl that made eye contact with me. Her name was Tina. After running into this open-air school by happenstance, things began to change for me. With limited information I picked up from Master Ayub's Urdu, I asked my cook about it, when I returned home that day. He told me of informal schools that Christian children or children of sweepers go to, as if “sweeper” were a race or a creed. My cook offered his services if there was anything he could do. Without any idea of what I wanted to do, I returned to the school just to see Tina's grin again. She had handed me a pencil drawing of a woman holding a purse, decorated by stars and hearts, the shape of the purse and the haircut indicating that the woman was me. By my third visit, Master Ayub seated a little girl with big eyes in front of me and I was carrying a picture book. I read out aloud and she repeated each sentence after me, not comprehending a word. Neither of us knew what we were doing. At work the next day, I pondered how I complained in my section that we only engage with the well-funded private schools. Here was my chance to work with an un-privileged students. I resolved that I would just keep returning and spending time with the children until I figured something out.
After the one-on-one with Laiba, whose name I did not know at the time, Master Ayub rounded up a set of older girls that included Tina's sensible older sister Annie, Laiba's cool and wise sister Larib, and an outspoken and mature Iqra. Faika and Saira, always dressed like twins in the same shalwar kameez, and Tina made it into the circle once in a while. Not knowing where to begin, I introduced myself as a Japanese from Japan and taught them phrases like "arigatou (thank you)" and "konnichiwa (hello)". When the azan sounded at dusk, they urged me to cover my head with a dupata. I took that opportunity to explain that I was Buddhist and that I was exempt. They were puzzled and asked me: “Aap Christain hay? Muslim hay?” They concluded that I must be a Chini, if I was neither. At my exclamation that I was a Japani, they asked if Japan was in India. When I showed them the map of Asia to locate Japan, one exclaimed, “China kay baad (behind China)!” to my dismay. Once, outside of school, a boy yelled out “Japan!” and waved at me from afar. They never seemed to have really understood what Japan was, but they understood that I was from Japan and it seemed positive. My official duties were to make the people of Pakistan more aware of Japan, preferably for them to like Japan, so I came closer to that goal. I next introduced origami - the Japanese art of folding paper. We started with a camera, something that is easy to make and snaps with a light tug. Faika started to make me pose, joined by many others, taking imaginary pictures saying, “Madam, cheese,” “Madam, smile” like the occasional fleeting visitors to the school. When Annie learned to make the camera before everyone else, I asked her to teach others, and she reluctantly obliged. Sometimes the girls fought over papers, hit each other, and once ripped the paper as they pulled from both ends. I sternly told them not to fight, never to hit each other and gave them a time out. After that, when they raised their arm just about to hit somebody, they took a peek my way and I would shake my head and say, “No hitting.” And the girl would slowly bring her arm down. I felt a change in attitude and we were more at ease with each other. I thought less of making a huge impact, but just about being there as much as possible, even though every day when they asked “Kal aghe (coming tomorrow)?” I answered with a shrug and said “May be.” Because it becomes easy for a local to communicate with children, I involved my household staff. I decided to buy samosa and juice for all the children at Master Ayub School. I asked my cook to explain the concept of hygiene and to demonstrate. Surprisingly, it took my otherwise helpful cook by surprise, since this Kashmiri felt it would be a lost cause to teach cleanliness to the children of the Christian colony. With my persistence, he gave in and brought along my driver, also a Kashmiri, and both spoke to the children with polished authority and kindness. Then, they demonstrated how to bubble up the soap, clean the hands all the way to the wrist, wash between the fingers and then rinse the soap off. I wanted the children to gain the basic knowledge to protect themselves from infectious disease. The hand-washing routine brought about other serendipitous skills, which was the delegation of tasks amongst themselves, and thinking about equal and fair distribution of limited resources. With no faucet in the vicinity, I brought with me a bottle of filtered water and a bar of soap every time. Before sitting together, the girls said, “Please let me wash my hands!” One would take the soap, another the bottle of water. Initially, it was a chaotic “Mujhee! (me) Mujhee!” in order to earn the right to hold an item and to be in charge of it. When they screamed and begged for me to pick them, I just waved my hand in the air and told them, “Discuss karna, decide karna” and had them consult amongst themselves whose task these should be. Eventually, they started to build consensus and to think for themselves, who was best suited for the task. They nominated a person to represent them, which was quite a democratic endeavour. As my departure neared, my cook, driver, and my security guard asked to buy my household goods and, again, with the funds collected, we were going to treat the children. We arranged for scented anti-bacterial soap, reminding the children of when and how to wash their hands. The children each took a bar of soap from my cook and driver and some sniffed it in delight. The girls showed it to me proudly, suspecting but not certain that I was behind this gift. I was content watching my cook and driver help a community more in need than they were. On my last visit, before parting with the children of Master Ayub School, I recited a short speech that I had asked a colleague to translate into Urdu: “On one April day, four months ago, I found your school while taking a walk, and Master Ayub welcomed me. Since then, I tried to come back as often as I could and Master Ayub and you let me. Thank you for speaking to me very slowly in Urdu. Thank you for singing to me. Thank you for teaching me "Kati, dosti, fanta, chanta". Thank you for playing with me. After I am gone, I have some requests for you. Please keep washing your hands, keep clean, and stay healthy. Please be nice to each other: no hitting, no fighting. Please discuss and decide things on your own. Please help each other. I will always remember you, and I hope that when you think of me, you remember my requests. It was nice to meet you. I wish for your happiness.” The girls fell in a silence the first time round. Then, they asked me to recite the speech again and listened intently. “Again!” they said, smiles forming. “Again!” On my fourth time, they were anticipating the words coming out of my mouth, so they started correcting my pronunciation. For a moment, they forgot I did not speak much Urdu, and I understood when they broke in a quiet chatter: “Do you remember, the first time you came, you had a blue shirt on and white trousers?” “Remember, how you brought bubbles at one time, and you blew, but no bubble came out?” We had shared memories and were already reminiscing. But it was not just memories we shared. A few days prior, I had spotted Laiba holding the remains of a bottle of lip gloss that I had tossed in my garbage bin at home. She did not know that I was the previous owner as she was sharing it with her friends. The street sweeper, who picked up my garbage and cleaned the street for the city, was probably a mother of one of the girls I held hands and played games with. She could have been the mother of Laiba and Larib. I never acknowledged that woman with a broom in her hand, except with an occasional nod from inside my car. I had paid little attention to the sweeper until that moment. With that in mind, I would not blame anyone who says that I have only seen a glimpse of Pakistan in my sheltered life there. Or that the visit to the Master Ayub School was indeed child's play. But the engagement with the children showed me that I could cope with societal problems I had deemed completely irresolvable. They opened my eyes and empowered me. Instead of brooding at my desk how to make the world a better place, I stepped out of my comfort zone and took action towards too big a goal: to end violence, promote tolerance, and to create hope for the children.
The writer had been a diplomat in Japanese Embassy, Islamabad.
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