Babylon & Beyond

Observations from Iraq, Iran,
Israel, the Arab world and beyond

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PAKISTAN: A little kindness amid chaos

October 25, 2007 | 12:13 pm

On the night Benazir Bhutto’s convoy was attacked on the outskirts of Karachi, I hurried out of my hotel to get to the scene. For the last mile or two, I had to travel by motorbike — one ridden by a young follower of Bhutto’s Pakistan People's Party, flagged down by my desperate driver when he realized he wouldn’t be able to get close enough.

As we approached the chaotic scene, I felt my dupatta — the shawl-like scarf worn by Pakistani women and adopted by foreigners like me — fly off my shoulders. As I jumped off the bike, I looked around. I spotted it, but it had already been trampled, perhaps run over by another motorbike. The ground was sticky with blood and pebbled with broken glass.

I quickly began talking with the people still milling around the scene. What happened? What did you see? Are you hurt? People were tearful, distraught, but almost everyone took a moment to describe what they’d seen, and what had happened to them. Many were crying.

Just as I turned away from a particularly difficult conversation, I felt a pair of bony hands pressing on my shoulders. A Pakistani woman was draping a faded blue dupatta over me. Her face was kind. I saw my motorbike driver standing by; he must have appealed to her for help. She slipped away almost before I could stutter my thanks.

Covering your head isn’t mandatory in Pakistan — at least, not yet, and not in most urban areas. Most city women wear a dupatta draped loosely across their chest and shoulders, and tug it up over their hair only if they feel the occasion demands.

With a scarf or without one, I was conspicuously foreign. But the last thing I wanted on that night was to give offense to anyone. I was grateful for the cover.

I used the dupatta again the next day, when I went to the morgue. The weather in Karachi is warm, even in autumn, and the smell of decomposing bodies was overwhelming. I wrapped my face in it as I talked to morgue workers, who were also wearing scarves around their heads to mask the unmistakable smell of death.

Back at the hotel, I considered throwing out the scarf, together with everything else I’d been wearing that day. Instead, I sent my things off to the hotel laundry.

The blue dupatta was duly returned, with a polite note from the laundry staff noting that it was already tattered and torn before they’d been asked to wash it. They couldn’t fix it, they said.

It came back to me wrapped in crinkly cellophane, and I think I’ll leave it that way. Carefully pressed and starched, with its holes and fraying ends still visible, it reminds me of a pressed flower — a memento of a terrible night, and of a sisterly gesture of kindness.

— Laura King in Pakistan