Monday, October 15, 2007

Hello Pakistan? It’s Blair from America.

You Guys Are Really Nice…..
One of Kahlil Gibran’s quotes that lives online, but of course was not born, there is “a little knowledge that acts is worth infinitely more than much knowledge that is idle.” I want to apply this quote to a recent research trip to Islamabad I finally made this October. For two years I have been planning, talking about, and studying for a departure into the unknown. This year I told myself I had to go, without a contact or a guide, because if not now, when?
There have been a few reasons why this trip was delayed. Some reasons were because of the worry from family, some because I had not secured a contact to take me around. But the main reason now, as I look back was fear. I was constantly asked by family to not go. They would tell me as the subject was brought up-did you see the news? Two people were killed in Pakistan. The American Media puts this awkward, untruthful, fabricated, warning level-like spin on the information it delivers to its’ viewers. Last year armed with a Visa, plane ticket, and hotel reservation, I was ready to visit Islamabad to search for women and children injured in the 2005 Earthquake. I changed my trip at the last minute because I hadn’t found a guide. I was also scared to go alone into the unknown. The concerns I mentioned above came from educated people, people who even, at one time, worked for the United States Government. According to International Media I am no sure how lucrative that job is at present time. However the actor in me “felt” that I had to go regardless, I had to see for myself, get hands on information, material, the research. I had an acting teacher once that said, “Actors don’t think, they do.” I just had this “feeling” it was the right thing to do and it was going to be okay. But now doing research for a PhD I had to think, apply theory, and I would find that the hands on research I obtained would push me further into the mountainous regions of Pakistan. This would be true, if I wanted to find out what it is really like for a Muslim woman with a Mixed Ability in one of the present day global societies on my list of destinations. I the actor, the woman who herself has a Mixed Ability, was in search of other woman and how they faired in their particular infrastructure and in their culture.
I was relieved to see how friendly and helpful the Pakistani people were. Yes it’s a poor country, but that doesn’t mean there are thieves and murderers, car bombers and kidnappers running around in the streets. Probably my only supporter in regards to my trip to Pakistan was a fellow actor, dive bar comrade, and close friend. He kept reminding me not to stand out, be alert, and don’t pre-judge. So I died my hair this horrible brown/black before I left and made sure where ever I went I wore a head scarf and gloves to cover up my tattoos that decorated my right shoulder down to my knuckles.
Once on the runway in Islamabad, we had to wait on the plane another twenty minutes for another plane to exit the gate we needed. The cabin filled with grunts after that announcement. We finally entered the gate. Everyone exited as I waited for the aisle chair which came rather quickly and I found that my wheelchair was already in the airport. I asked if someone was with it? They said someone was. So I hopped in this metal tank connected to this truck and me, four folded wheelchairs, and my new friend drove to the airport terminal on top of this truck. As we drove over I had my camera in my hand and was trying to do some undercover filming. My new friend said is that a camera? I said no, no, its’ for DVD’s and put it away. I guess there’s no filming here.
As we were almost the airport I could see through a crack in the wall of the metal tank my wheelchair waiting for me and I yelled excitedly, “That’s my chair!” I was so happy. It was waiting with two airport employees and two Military Police. The entrance to the airport next to a nice long ramp. I got out of the truck/metal tank contraption and got into my chair and as my new friend tried to push he looked confused when there were no handle bars, I said, no I do it and gestured for him to go first and I would follow. Then he gestured for me to go and he would follow. I didn’t get this because I had no clue where I was going, so as comedy works in threes I gestured for him to go and I would follow and he finally conceded. I was trying to think if this was a factor of the Muslim culture I missed in my preparation for this trip and I couldn’t think of why the woman would lead. And as I made it up the ramp fine, even thought he cheated and still pushed a little, I turned to him to say again I could do it I saw the military officer waiting in the door way. Once in the Islamabad Airport and in my chair I was whisked through the Customs line. Then my new friend and I searched diligently for my luggage, this was his job but I felt he was on top of it. He kept asking me what my bag looked like. He even left me at the conveyer belt and ran over to the window and watched for thirty minutes all the bags coming out of bulk from the plane. As I waited by the luggage conveyer I joked and scoffed with my limit Urdu about the delay in the luggage arrival with others Pakistani men standing next to me.
Finally my bag was located and I was escorted to the parking lot. It was crowded but I was met by a tall man with a beard asking if I needed a taxi. I asked how much, he said 500 Rupees. I said okay, not realizing at the time that 500 Rupees is the equivalent of a few dollars in America and it is a consistent amount for just abut anything in Pakistan. A scarf-500 Rupees, a Taxi ride across Islamabad-500 Rupees, Dry Clean Eight shirts and a couple skirts-500 Rupees, and so on.
Visitors from outside Pakistan are known as Foreigners. I tried to not act like one. I could see how things might get bad very quickly if you were not respectful of your host. In the parking lot my taxi driver pulled his small car out of the parking space so I could get in. Two very tall, gaunt, dark men who looked related were helping direct traffic around my drivers car but it seemed as though they hired themselves as parking attendants because as I looked around there were so many people and cars on this lot, constantly moving. I got in the car, gave the airport worker -500 Rupees- he vanished, then I helped my driver with the disassembly of my chair and the two parking lot employees looked at me and I gave one -500 Rupees- and he disappeared. Then the other looked at me for another bill. I said I gave him one for the two of you. He kept begging for another and my driver took off. I felt bad as I watched the two men walk back to the airport entrance. I started to realize everyone was on their own here and I could be a little more generous with the Rupees. It’s hard sometimes being from New York, you always feel like you are being ripped off. That wasn’t the case here.
The drive to the hotel was eye opening. The streets look dry and it was busy outside but felt empty. I asked the driver if he could drive by Melody Cinema, a place where the owners had housed many injured women and children after the Earthquake. After a few stops and some directions from men working on the street, the driver found it. It was vacant and quiet.
At the hotel armed military officers checked the driver and the car for weapons and bombs. Once inside and around more Military Officers and a metal detector I reached the front desk and gave my driver 1000 Rupees. He smiled and left. He told me in the car after I asked him his name that my name-Elizabeth- was pronounced Alishba in Urdu. I was not sure name which I liked better.
At check-in I was met by a good looking young man who spoke English fairly well. He had a smile he made with his eyes and mouth after he spoke that made you look behind you to see if there was a clown or someone making faces. As he was checking me in and continually smiling, a woman with a British dialect came to the front desk, no scarf on, and was perturbed about a phone call and her bill. She was politely scolding the men behind the desk and then she walked off. I kept thinking she must be out her damn mind. I just kept smiling and thanking the young man behind the desk and smiling back.
Once in my room, after the tour from the bell man I noticed something. All the items in the room seemed as if they were found or gathered from other places and then arranged in here-like I did in my doll house when I was a young girl. The hotel room was very nice. The bed was soft and cozy, a huge tapestry hung behind it framed with a decorative wood panel, and the walls looked like they were made of porcelain. A glass door opened up to a sitting room with couches and chairs. The bathroom was completely accessible, even more so than the hotel room in Dubai. I asked the bellman for a shower chair and he came back along with another bellboy, who I think might have wanted to check me out or get a tip, no problem with either. He looked very green anyway, young face, wide eyes, and passive. The bellman brought his interpretation of a shower chair, a metal side table. It fit in the tub and would work. I thanked them. I sat in my hotel room in Islamabad happy. I felt safe.
I went out to visit the city of Islamabad the next day with a driver the hotel called in. He had a newer car and I sat in the back behind mesh-tinted windows. He was a tall man, wearing light clothing and a kind face. He was hesitant when he first saw me waiting for him at the front desk. He came up behind me as I was talking to the young man who checked me in. The young man was giving me his phone number in Pakistan. He wanted me to keep in touch. Each day I had been there he had the dining room staff after dark-as they were observing Ramadan-send me fruit. I was thanking him and he was picking me up Pakistan style as the driver approached. I was flattered and gave him my business card with my number in the U.S. and my email. He asked if he could call the number for me and I joked that it was my father’s number and his face almost went white. I said I was just kidding, he needed a few of those to reassure him before he took the card.
I left with my driver Zafar. He put my chair in the trunk and we took off. I wanted to visit The Edhi Foundation, a Human Rights/Welfare Organization with over fifteen offices based in Pakistan and also many other major countries around the world. This was another organization I had been attempting to contact for the last two years in order to get information about the Earthquake Victims and the now empty Melody Cinema. They had an office down the rode from the hotel. As we drove there Zafar mentioned how on our left was the Mosque that was just the scene of the hostage gun battle a few weeks before. There were these banners tied between the trees in front of the Mosque. The banners had these huge phrases written in colorful paint in beautifully scripted Urdu. I asked what they read and Zafar hesitated, he said they asked for money for food.
We got to the Edhi Foundation. Zafar parked and got my chair. I got out of the car and it was crowded outside but not too many people looked at me. They just walked around or sat on the ground minding their own business. This one woman was at the top of these huge brick steps that lead downstairs to the Foundation. She had a pretty face and was wearing a paisley scarf. I was envious of her scarf. Why did I arm myself with black outfits and black scarves. A lot of the women either didn’t wear a scarf in defiance of the oppressive nature of the head dress or they wore complete head dress with only slits for their beautiful dark eyes, or they covered their hair. I guess I was in the middle along with this young women holding pamphlets and talking directly to me in Udru. I wished I spoke their language. I looked at her and smiled. As I tried to keep eye contact with her Zafar got my attention. He looked at me and pointed to the steps. But it wasn’t the steps he was concerned we wouldn’t get down it was the masons who were re-designing the walkway to the staircase. He asked a man standing near us if there was another entrance and the man made a fluid gesture towards the building. Zafar then said we must go around to the back of the building. I left the woman and asked Zafar what she had said, he said she asked for money for Edhi. As we drove around the back of the building, Zafar helped me out again I noticed there was a ramp. What is going on here? This place isn’t supposed to be accessible! It’s supposed to be archaic and hard to navigate and I am supposed to be crying and wanting to go home and write letters to the United Nations pleading for wheelchair accessibility in Islamabad. Was my research changing? Would I now have to write about how the poorest country was the most accommodating? The most helpful? What did this mean to my research? Was I now reporting on places that people could go and visit without structural obstacles? I had more questions each minute and I felt as though my research I had narrowed down had now become more vast and complicated. As I move forward in my research the more I see the more questions I have.

We ran into the young woman who was in front of the building as we approached the Edhi office. She must has heard Zafar ask if there was an entrance around back. We passed by her and entered the office. This Edhi office in Melody Center looked like it came off the set of an Indiana Jones movie. There were these huge wooden desks with elderly Pakistani men seated behind them in old wooden chairs. Along the walls as if part of the architecture were these huge bookcases. Littered on the desks were stacks and stacks pf papers and receipts-sheets with carbon copies. No computers. I thought as I sent out my emails to Edhi that they were arriving in some corporate office in Islamabad. I started to speak English to this one man and he waved me off to his colleague who stood up and I asked him if there were any woman or children who needed wheelchairs from the Earthquake. As I asked this I got a sinking feeling in my stomach. He looked at me and said no. All that was taken care of a long time ago. I asked about Balakot a small town five hours north of Islamabad that was hit the worst by the Quake. This town was also on television the day before for the country wide Observance of the Quake and it’s victims. Pakistan held memorial services identical to 9/11 on their news stations all day and in the city.
He said Balakot didn’t need chairs. He said they were sent out already. He basically said everything is being taken care of. He said I could go there if I wanted. I realized this moment was futile. I was too late. The only thing I wondered but didn’t ask was why, if Pakistan has over 850 paraplegics from the Quake, was didn’t you see one person in a wheelchair on television? There was only one quick remark about the injured on the News Broadcasts that I watched the day before taking furious notes. As we left I was sadly thinking about the empty Melody Cinema and those women and children. I remember two years ago I saw a brief news story on one of America’s Network news stations. A British male reporter was in a makeshift tent with a microphone. The only light was from the cameraman. He panned through the flimsy metal walls and along side them were women and children lying in bed with colorful blankets around them and scarves to cover their mouths. Some just stared into the camera, lost. Others looked terrified. The news reporter said these women and children were now paraplegics from the Earthquake in Northern Pakistan. He said they had no medical care, doctors to fuse their broken backs, no wheelchairs. He said it would be getting very cold in the mountains of Kashmir very soon. And then the story ended and some bullshit commercial or story about a fucking animal rescue or a shooting in Brooklyn came on. This thirty second news piece stopped me in my tracks. I thought: what did I just see? They can’t walk now, they have no chairs or doctors. What can I do? I can’t ignore this.

I sat in my apartment, warm, with my “things” and wondered how could get help to these women and children? How could I get to them? The next two years I would try via emails, internet searches and such with no real response, only generalizations and mixed information. But it is the same now as it was back then: I only got a little bit of information at a time. Since this news story I have been piecing together this event and trying to get to these Women.

Since the first news story I focused on one spot which I read a few articles about. A place in Islamabad called Melody Cinema. Supposedly it burned down a few years ago as it acted as a Mother and Son run Movie Cinema. After the earthquake the pair opened its doors to women and children who needed medical care and shelter. Now it was vacant. I had seen so myself. But where was everybody? And why hadn’t anyone followed up on this? Am I going insane and wasting my time? Should I be looking into female paraplegics in Alabama as my father wishes instead of Pakistan? Just more questions.

I gave the woman with the paisley headscarf 100 Rupees. She looked at the note slightly disappointed. It wasn’t enough to get one of those brochures she had in her hand. Zafar helped me back in the car and I focused on the rest of the day in Islamabad.

We drove to a market his friends owned. One of the most popular in Islamabad he said. And as if someone was taunting me the market had a ramp. It was concrete liked the buildings themselves so it wasn’t new. I bought some scarves and Pakistani beads. Zafar mentioned this place a few miles away he liked to go. He said you could see the whole city and Rawalapalindi in the distance. I agreed to pay him another 500 Rupees to go. As we drove there we were stopped at a light and a woman with full head dress and a child under her arm was walking down the line of cars peeking in banging with her fists on the windows. She made her way to Zafar’s window and he completely ignored her and kept talking about how there was no work here and how the Red Mosque Incident blocked him from getting to the hotel to pick up fares. As he was talking the woman made her way to my window. She peeked in trying to see through the mesh tint. She scared me. She looked serious and angry her fist banging on the window. Zafar then said with perfect timing as the woman gave up and moved away how the mesh tint protected his Foreign customers. If he didn’t have it in his car it would be dangerous for them to be seen. I thought great this is getting better by the minute. Not only has part of my research collapsed in one afternoon but I find out the tint isn’t for show.
We drive past all the State buildings and Zafar pulls over so I can take pictures.
He then takes me up this mountain rode. We pass by a Military Base and a man lying on sand bags with a huge automatic weapon the size of Zafar in front of him. Zafar says this rode is safe not to worry, the Military training camp is right here. We pass men pulled over in their cars talking to each other. As we drive further up the rode is looks very peaceful and you can begin to see these mountains in the distance.
Then a sign for The Islamabad Zoo, I wondered about this. In my research before leaving for Pakistan I read about this Zoo and wondered what the Islamabad Zoo had. As Zafar got us VIP entrance, he said his friend worked the gate and let us up to the look out point. You could see monkeys everywhere. On the grass in the garbage cans-fat monkeys not in cages but walking around. Then Zafar showed me the peacocks, his favorite, again walking around no cages.
He helped push me up another ramp and we made it to the spot he was telling me about. It was beautiful. You could see the whole city. You could Rawalpalindi. On the right he showed me the Mosque Saudi Arabia bought for them.
Then Zafar told me about this place he brought me to. He said he came here with his wife. He said this was the place for their Honeymoon. He said there marriage was arranged but that he loved her and she was a good mother to their two children. He said how he brought his mother here and she sat on this bench that was right near where we were standing and he then told me soon after he brought her here and after she told him thank you for bringing her because it was such a beautiful place he said she died. He then said he will now remember this place because he was here with his wife, he had been here with his mother before she passed away, and now he had been here with me, his new friend. He then walked around the lookout with me and as I took pictures he saw a flower and asked me to take a picture of it and I did. He kept reminding me to put the camera strap on my wrist. He seemed to value its’ safety more than me.
As we went back to the car I noticed a wheelchair sitting in of a huge handicapped sign at the bottom of this huge ramp. I took a picture and just smiled.
My trip back to the airport was early and my new friend at the front desk was sad to see me go. I asked him if he would be here in February because I wanted to visit Balakot. He said he will take care of me and get me a ride there. He asked one more time if the number I gave him was mine and not my father’s and I reassured him it was mine.

The shuttle took me and a few others to the airport. As we drove there I came to Islamabad in the middle of a tumultuous election and the anticipated visit of Benazir Bhutto, but on the exact day of the Earthquake. I still didn’t know what this trip meant. We were dropped off at an illegal entrance to the airport surrounded by taxis, people climbing the airport fences and asking for money. Luckily the military police thought I was with this Spanish couple and waved me inside then they blew a whistle at all the other people and they darted away. It took a minute to get into the Departure section of the airport and at the British Airways check-in I was asked again about the bathroom. This question must be policy now. I mean if they are asking it in London and Islamabad someone must have either made a huge mess in a lavatory on the plane or maybe Flight Attendants have been helping people go? I don’t know what is going on. Luckily this young woman only asked me once, she had too much else to worry about. She escorted me to the other stations and before I could get into the waiting lounge I had to explain why I had a wrench in my bag. I told her it was for my wheelchair and not to disassemble the plane. Luckily she had a sense of humor.
Upstairs in the waiting area I looked in the bathroom and the stalls weren’t big enough. A Muslim woman with strong features and a large muscular frame, wearing a light blue Burka said something to me in Urdu but I just smiled and left the bathroom. I have this complex now. I want to go every five seconds before I board. I found the fancy lounge and the man said they have a bathroom but I would have to wait. I didn’t know why I was waiting. Then I saw the Muslim woman from the other bathroom come and escort me into the fancy bathroom. We went in together and I looked at the stall. It was half-accessible. I just waved it off and said it was okay and went to leave and she stopped me and made a gesture that she would lift me. I thought, why not. This should be interesting. So I let her help me. I never let anyone lift me, especially someone I don’t know in a public bathroom. But she picked me up without any problem and took my chair outside the stall. I went and when I was done she put me back in my chair. I said thank in Urdu and then at the sink I pointed to my chest and said Alishba. She then pointed to her chest and said Allah and looked up at the ceiling and raised up her hands in praise. I took a deep breath and thought I am never going to forget this moment. We went out side together and she walked away.
A little while later I was escorted to the Metal Tanker on top of the truck and drove over to the plane with a grumpy man who kept telling me to wait, he also told me I couldn’t take my chair on board. I thought just “wait” and see. I asked the crew if they could put my chair on board and they agreed. I got on board fine and was placed again in business class. There was not a lot of people on board this flight. I asked the Flight Attendant if she could help me with my foot rest. I told her I tried to do it and popped out the life jacket. She laughed and said I wouldn’t need it anyway, there’s no water down there.

I have realized that there is a system set up in each country for people with Mixed Abilities and each system varies according to its’ depth. Each country also has a social service system in place for victims of natural disasters and if they need assistance there are many NGO’s and Christian Based organizations that help out when a country is in need. My research has turned into discovering what already exists and how a woman today navigates through the world using what is already there. Now can I report on that research, publish what I find and by releasing my findings on what exists already can I then begin to make the system that exists better? Can I find a British Airways Executive and tell them that asking passengers in chairs if they can go to the bathroom on their on in a crowded airport is slightly uncool maybe a better system should be in place? Can I change the way people in chairs fly by not scolding the system but by asking for reform? By reporting on my travels to different countries and experiences with different cultures I can share the experience and hopefully more people will write about their experiences and create this online, virtual network of information that lives in one place. Right now information is scattered in regards to accessibility and travel. I am going to make one place for all the information you would need on accessibility and what your experience will be.
I have found that there is a Psychology that accompanies these experiences. With millions of people worldwide living with Mixed Abilities why aren’t their culture more visible? When in Pakistan I never saw one person in a wheelchair. There were no people in chairs on the television and they had satellite TV in the hotel room. If you aren’t represented in the media, why would you feel comfortable going out into society? There is a Psychology of under-representation. From my practical experience I have discovered the difficulty of wanting to be out in the world alone. I think by what I am doing now I will discover the correlation between visibility in the media and the increased visibility in the outside world.

Holiday Inn/Radisson Islamabad
G-6 Civic Center
Islamabad, Pakistan
Rate: 228.00 USD/night = Approx. 14,000 Pakistani Rupees
Wheelchair Accessible. Ramp into hotel a little steep.


Post a Comment

<< Home