Matt W Cook

writer.former fundamentalist.christianly fellow

Tag: pakistan

Fire Building

Kunri StreetI wrap a blanket around myself and drag the metal fire holder to the open part of our apartment where there is no roof.  I build the fire to heat our bathing water.  The landlord’s teenaged children, who often peek under our door to watch us, are surprised that I know how.  I ask if this is because they assume a high-class white boy like myself would know such a rural skill.  They say it’s because building fires is such unmanly work.  I say it is considered very manly to be able to build a strong fire in Canada.  They laugh, because that’s stupid.

Winter Morning

Morning in KunriIt’s hard to get out of bed in the winter in Kunri.  My Canadian friends laugh at that.  But in Canada we live in heated houses with thick insulated walls.  In Kunri we live in airy cement blocks.  It’s not the force of the cold, it’s how we are set up to deal with it.  We put on our sandals before pushing open the bedroom doors.  Feet go quickly numb in the winter.  And once they’re numb it’s hard to get them feeling right again.  Short of a hot shower.  But those are hard to come by in Kunri.


MorningFajr wakes us up while it’s still dark.  We groan a bit to each other and thank God that our religion isn’t so loud so early.  But we don’t really begrudge it, I think.  The quiet minutes after Fajr, before we slip back into sleep, are wonderful.  Especially in the winter when we have heavy blankets to huddle inside while we listen to morning birds in utter darkness.  And especially in the summer when we sleep in the courtyard with nothing between us and the sky but a thin mosquito net and a sensually warm breeze.  Especially anytime, I guess.

Into the Thar

I took a drive into the Thar.  The sun was hot and dry and beautiful.  Sand stretched around as far as our eyesight would carry us.  We stopped the car and got out in a place without any memorable landmark.  We walked around and looked at the nearly nothing that surrounded us.

Tree in the Thar

My son was two or three.  He was enthralled by the endlessness of it.  A place without walls or horns or people.  A place where you could run without watching and fear no accident.  No ditch to fall into.  No traffic to be wary of.  Endless surface just begging to be played with.

We crouched own on the ground together and looked at the sand.  It seemed like any other sand at any beach or children’s play pit.  We picked it up in our hands and let it slip through our fingers.  Eliot was able to see fear in a handful of dust.  We saw beauty in a handful of sand.

TharDespite its playful novelty, the desert was an obviously hard place.  Everything alive had to fight to keep living.  Every dry and thorny bush.  Every skittering lizard and scorpion.  And every tree. You wouldn’t think there would be trees in the desert–and deeper into the Thar there wouldn’t even be these grasses, let alone trees.  But here there were a few daredevil khejri and neems that had managed to beat the odds to stand alone in vast fields of sand and sparse grasses.

Night fell and we were still out in the open desert.  We wandered as the stars burned against the night sky.  There were no clouds or city lights to hide them.  I had seen stars before–I had been raised on constant trips into the Canadian wilderness.  But even the vibrant stars over Temagami could not compare to the lights above the stark emptiness of Thar.

We looked up at a menagerie of flame and void.  The Milky Way scattered itself across the scene.  One Pakistani folk tale says that the Milky Way is made by the spirits of dead youth who spend eternity scattering grains of salt across the sky.  I believed it that night.

We stayed for a long time, walking, praying.  The void of desert and sky brought out something within us we all had forgotten.  A certain mysticism that all religions try to stumble toward and none really manage to grasp.  A sense of the immensity, beauty, and absurdity of existence.  An understanding of the cosmic power of love.  A yearning to fly into the waiting arms of the universe herself.

A Sense of Life

There is an intense sensation that I’ve found only in a few places.  A sensation of deep reality.  Of trueness.  A sort of clarity of life that reminds me that I’m alive and so is everyone around me.  Earthy.  Dirty.  Wondrous.

I first noticed it in Pakistan.  I had it every single day.  It was as if every bit of artificial life was taken away and nothing but the raw, pulsing trueness of life remained.  I think it was this sense that made me love Pakistan so much.

I have felt it in other places, too.  Sporting events.  Protests.  Certain types of bars.

I had expected it to be in Thorncliffe.  After all, Thorncliffe was supposed to be mini-Pakistan, wasn’t it?  I was surprised to find that Thorncliffe didn’t have it, though.  It was wonderful to live there for four years, but the spark wasn’t there.

But it seems to be on Bloor.

I took my bike down to the coffee shop near our new place.  I could feel it there.  The dangerous, moving life.  The sense that everyone I see is interesting and beautiful and full of so much potential love and power and happiness.

I’m going to enjoy living here.


     It’s that time of year again.
     The heat seems to come from below, bringing sopping air with it. The smells are pungent and human. Sweat. Dirt. Exhaust. Rooms with air conditioning seem sterile while rooms without seem dirty. It all awakens in me a desire I thought was fading.
     The country has not treated me and mine well, of course. But I’m longing for it again. Why? I can’t figure it out.
     I would lose family and friends again. I would miss out on all my geeky conversations. I would lose my financial stability. I would suffer ridiculous heat. I would trade my own powerful and comfortable culture for a foreign one.
     But I’m yearning, still.
     I could do it, of course. I could start packing and be gone when my lease runs out. There is nothing stopping me. I could get a job teaching English or raise money for some humanitarian project. And then I could live there again.
     I could soak in the poetic Urdu. I could walk through fields of cotton and mangoes. I could drink chai with shopkeepers.
     But do I want to?
     So very much.
     And not at all.
     At the same time.
     It’s not Doublethink. It’s Doublefeel.
     And while I’m doublefeeling about being there, I’m also doublefeeling about being here.

What do you Doublefeel about?

Guest Post: Experiences in Pakistani Prison


I’ve been quiet about the situation with Nate and Hillary since they got out of prison. I wanted to give them a chance to organize their own thoughts and share their story in their own way. So, for you lovely people who were thinking and praying and mobilizing for them, here is the official update from the Barnetts.

     First off we want to say thank you… I am not sure if words can even begin to express fully just how thankful Nate and I are for our incredible family and friends!! We were so amazed when we arrived home and saw just how much was done on our behalf!

     I guess the best way to start is at the beginning :)

     Nate and I really enjoyed our time in Karachi. We loved being able to see what some organizations were doing with regards to health and helping orphans (two things that are still so important to us!) But most importantly we really enjoyed getting to know some great friends! Though there are many issues in Karachi, and Pakistan on a whole, we loved being able to meet and get to know great people that loved their country and wanted to see it change for the good.

     We knew our visas were going to expire while we were in Pakistan. Nate went to the visa office in May and clarified that they would expire three months after we arrived – which would be July 5. The visa officials explained to Nate that it would be a simple renewal process and to come back in June (about 2 weeks before it officially expired). We felt this was not leaving a lot of time but were reassured by the visa officials it would be no problem. When the time came Nate brought in all the required documents only to be told we needed to have more documents and that all of our information would have to be sent to another city for processing. Then for the next three weeks we were on the phone with people who were shuffling us from one person to another, never really explaining to us what the problem was and why it seemed to be taking longer than normal to process. All this time we were speaking to visa officials and many friends (who had similar issues) who never once warned us to leave the country when our visa expired. It was always said that it was not a problem since our paperwork was being “processed” and that if anything we would have to pay a fine at the airport when we left.

     Unfortunately we did not realize all the effects of the huge changes taking place with regards to foreigners in Pakistan and that Pakistan officials were starting to flex their muscles after the issues with Mr. Davis and Mr. Bin Laden. We also believe we may have unknowingly befriended someone that we should not have. All this to say, there was a lot that happened that did not make sense!

     On Monday July 11 I left the city to attend a wedding of my friends. Normally Nate would travel with me but this was the first week of the summer camp he had been planning and did not feel that he could leave them. This was ok because I was travelling to the other city with my friends and staying with them the whole time and Nate was hoping to come and meet me at the end of the week. But our plans got changed.

     At around 9pm that night Nate was at our apartment eating dinner when the police came to the door. (He Was Not outside “loitering under ‘suspicious circumstances’ “…and also he is not 40!) He was taken to the police station but then returned to our apt again with more police who then proceeded to search our entire apt. they confiscated our laptop and copies of our visa renewal (which thankfully Nate had kept a copy of…but then they somehow disappeared in police custody). During this time I was receiving texts from Nate but then they took his phone and turned it off.

     I was thankfully with my incredible friends who surrounded me with hugs and prayers and wisdom. I called a friend who lived close to the police station who went and spoke to them. They told him that Nate was only there for questioning and that he would be out after a couple of hours. Those couple of hours dragged on and when we realized that he was not going to be released I started to wonder if the police would come to get me.

     Sure enough at about 1230am there was a knock on the door at the place I was staying and there was a large group of officers (including a female guard) who had come to take me down to the station for questioning. I was questioned for about three hours and then had to wait for the whole next day to see a top official of the city police. Thankfully I was able to keep me phone and was in contact with our friends in Karachi that were with Nate. I also contacted someone at the Canadian High Commission.

     On Tuesday evening I finally reached Karachi, and went through another interrogation. At least Nate was by my side through this one. They told us we would have to separate again and be held in separate police lock-ups. Nate and I tried to see if we could stay together but they insisted. Amazingly they allowed a friend to stay with me. It was such a comfort to have her with me, she not only had a better grasp of the language but she comforted and encouraged me and got me through that night.

     The next morning (Wednesday July 13) we were together at the police station again. Everyone kept saying that we were going to the court and that the judge would likely ask for a fine and we would be deported. Although we were still not sure exactly what would happen, we tried to stay hopeful.

     Our friend Pervez stayed with us at the court house. He was a great friend to Nate the whole time we were in Pakistan and we were amazed at how faithful he was through this whole ordeal!

     When we were finally brought before the judge he asked us if we knew what we were being charged with. The police officer and the judge conversed in Urdu for a while and then the judge told us that our court date was July 25 and that we would be in Jail custody until then. Nate told him that we had a flight booked on July 24, to which the judge looked surprised but stated that the date could not be changed.

     We were devastated and confused. And we had no way of passing on this new problem. Thankfully we saw Pervez outside before we got put into the truck that brought us to the jail.

     But things were still quite confusing. We didn’t know where we were being taken exactly, one officer said back to the police station and others said the jail. We could understand a little of what the officers were speaking about in the truck and they were joking that by the time we left jail we would be fluent in Urdu. When we arrived at the jail I was ordered to get out of the truck. Nate and I had already talked that we would be adamant about not separating until we could communicate with someone we trusted: either a lawyer, our high commission or one of our friends. So we put up quite a fight when they were ordering me to get out of the truck without Nate. Thankfully a lady was walking out the jail that spoke English well enough that I could explain that we had not been able to call anyone and she at least got the guards to allow Nate to come inside with me. Once inside we were asked to separate again. But Nate stubbornly sat outside of the office while I tried to reason with a head matron. She was not impressed that we were not backing down and told me I was “wasting her time” when I told her all we wanted to do was make one phone call. I actually walked out on her and clung to Nate as he tried to tell the guard that we needed to know if Pervez was outside at least. At that time one of our friends arrived that knew Urdu and calmed us by letting us know that a lawyer was being contacted, that the high commission of Canada knew what was going on, and that our friends were working hard to figure this out for us. At that point, he reminded us that we could do nothing but wait. He said that this would be the hardest moment of our life possibly, and he was correct.

     He was correct because that moment led to three weeks of separation, confusion, and frustration. I did not see Nate for another 8 days.

     I met the lawyer on July 13. Some friends were able to visit on July 15 (before they were told to stay away because of publicity). I met someone from the High Commission on July16. I saw the lawyer again on July 20. And finally went to court and saw Nate on July 21.

     In the mean time I hung out in the barrack. All the ladies were very friendly and happy to see a new `foreigner`. Their first question was whether or not I was involved in drugs…that seemed to be the only reason why foreigners were sent to jail. I lived in a large room with another lady (Rose) from Africa. She spoke excellent English and was respected (and a little bit feared) by all the other ladies. There were about 60 of us plus children. The barrack had high ceilings, fans that stayed on most of the time (unlike my apt!), a TV, two Pakistani style washrooms, a sink, a water cooler (that didn’t really work), and shelves for food storage. Just outside our barrack was another barrack for some of the other ladies and it had a cooking area that we could use until our door was locked each night at 6pm. The windows were big, though they had bars on them, but there was always a breeze coming through…which was very nice at night. At night we had mosquito nets and typical Pakistani beds called a “char pie” (four legs). There was food provided, but it consisted mostly of flat bread (roti), lentils (dal), boiled potatoes or vegetables, and a couple of times through the week we would get chicken. Most of the time it was too spicy. So Rose and I would cook our own food – rice, and potatoes. At the beginning I was able to get some bags of essentials (clothing, toiletries, some food, and encouraging notes) from very sweet friends, but after the first week I didn’t get any visitors so I was so thankful to have Rose!

     A typical day would start at about 830 for me. Rose and I would clean our barrack (sweep and wash the floor and bathrooms) and do laundry and shower. After breakfast we would just try to keep ourselves busy. She had lots of crafts – crocheting and quilting – and I tried to help with that, or I would read or watch TV. In the afternoon some ladies were allowed in our barrack so we would visit, or watch TV with them, or play with the kids. Then in the evening Rose and I would just talk about life and watch TV again. I spent a lot of time thinking.

     There are many stories of my three weeks with these ladies. Some are funny, some are heart breaking but above all I am thankful that these women became a part of my life!

     Nate’s experience was quite different. After we separated he was brought to the men’s jail. The jails were next to each other but the buildings were quite big. He was placed in a large barrack with about 70 other Pakistani men. There were two sides to the room. On one side there were about 20 men that had mattresses and pillows, better food, and rights to the washroom – this was only because they paid extra bribes or were on the good side of the prisoner that was “in-charge”. Nate was not on this side! He was crammed onto the other side with about 50 men. He had no pillow or mattress and was sleeping shoulder to shoulder on a cement floor. He was told he had to pay $1000 in order to be allowed into the “foreigner barrack”, but we believe once there was more awareness and pressure from the Canadian Consulate he was moved to another barrack without paying! For the final two weeks he stayed with two other African men in a small room with a TV and a washroom. He also had a small foam mattress to sleep on. Food was provided for him, but because there were 4000-5000 male prisoners there was not an assortment of food. He basically had rice and dal (lentils) for 3 weeks.

     Every time we saw each other at court Nate had chains on. Or he was chained to 5 other men and brought to all their court rooms. Bribes had to be paid in order for us to see each other, even when we waited at court. And there were always 4-5 guards around us – staring, talking, or trying to get more bribes. We tried to push everything else out of our minds and focus on each other. We were so thankful for those times, though brief!

     We were supposed to have our final court date on July 25. There was a strike that day so when we went to court house to do paper work on the 26th, the Judge then scheduled the new court date for July 27. We appeared at court that day to find out the Judge had taken two vacation days (unannounced) and so we would return on Friday July 29. On that day we were supposed to see the judge at 1030am, we finally were brought before him at 330pm. This is when he finally sentenced us to 22 days in prison (almost already served) and 10000 Rupees each (approximately $100). Finally on August 2nd at about midnight we were escorted out of jail.

     Throughout this time there were so many ups and downs. So many precious times with my new friends, and so many heartbreaking moments. So many questions for ourselves, for those around us, and for God.

     We are home now and have enjoyed many good times with family and friends. Asking questions and explaining answers. We believe this will not be something that is processed quickly, but we feel that the more open we are about what happened the more we will be able to process. So please feel free to ask questions if you want to!

     We also ask that if you put anything about us in your facebook profile, or emailed people about us (including MP’s), or spoke to people about us, that you either link this or pass this on. When we came home we realized just how big this was over here and were amazed at how many people knew and cared about what had happened to us! We thank you! Don’t forget about us:) but we ask that when you do remember us, please remember the people that are still in that country. A lot of those people do not have a stable country like ours; they do not have safety, education and health like a lot of us. They do not have infrastructure that protects abused women, or education that encourages embracing those who are different. We have a lot to be thankful for, but with that comes more responsibility.

     Thanks for reading! We look forward to hearing from you! – with Nate Barnett.

Flooding in Pakistan

The flooding in Sindh seems to be the worst I’ve ever seen it. Crops are dying. Houses are losing their foundations and falling. Diseases like malaria and typhoid are going to be spreading rampant very soon. The whole province is in pain. My mother-in-law’s house is flooded up to knee-level. They rarely have electricity.

I have been slowly building my mother-in-law a house to retire in. It’s on an elevated place and is, apparently, less damaged. I’ve been working on it for three years and it’s almost livable now. Just a few hundred more dollars and it’ll be ready. We’re hoping we can manage soon because the house they are in now is in a depression, so it’s getting hit harder than most places.

So, praying friends, pray for Sindh and for my family. In the West we don’t realize how dangerous these floods can be. The biggest danger is never drowning. It’s the failing crops, the wildly spreading diseases, the damage to the houses. When we were living in Pakistan 300 houses collapsed in my mother-in-law’s town. And this year, apparently, it’s worse. The people need help. So I ask, pray and, if you can, send some help. We’re trying to get them into their new house so this won’t be a problem and we’d also like to help with many of our other friends who live in the rural villages. If you can help, please let us know and we can give you details.


Still in Prison

There are a few new developments regarding our dear friends stuck in prison here in Pakistan. Some of them are a little hard for me to understand because they are high legal things. I’ll do my best.

The Barnett’s lawyer and a representative from the Canadian High Commission met with a judge yesterday to discuss the case. Now they are waiting for the investigation officer to create a charge sheet. This is the next step in the process and leads to getting our friends in front of a judge. They hope the charge sheet will be completed by the end of the week. So, from my perspective, things are moving forward nicely.

In other news, the lawyer has recommended that we foreigners in Karachi adopt a hands-off approach to the situation. He’s asked us to no longer seek meetings or drop things off in person because of the potentially bad publicity it could bring to the case. Since I was able to see Hillary last week and Jodi was able to see Nate, we’re pretty much fine with this.

So now what?

Hard to say. I have been out of my element since arriving here. Karachi is a city I have never understood. I’m so thankful for friends in this town who, though they don’t know my friends as well as I do, have bent over backwards to help and help and help again. I don’t think I could have been able to pull off a tenth of all the amazing things they’ve done in this situation. And now that we’re being told to lay low and back off, I’m at a bit of a loss for what to do. Ruth is ill, so we may stay in the city until some of her medical tests are done. Or we may visit my in-laws for a couple days while Jodi and her new husband hold our place here in Karachi. Regardless, it’s good to know that the whole situation is moving forward and there is a whole bundle of hope at the end of the tunnel.

I’m encouraged and I feel optimistic. Everyone involved in this has been stellar. The lawyer, the friends in Karachi, the Canadian government, all you lovely people in Canada. I felt encouraged for the first time this week this morning. Just a settled sense that things were going to be okay eventually. Everything will be alright in the end. So if it isn’t alright, it’s not the end.

My Friends are in Prison in Pakistan

     Well now…

     It’s been an interesting time so far. For any of you who do not know what’s going on, I’ll start from the beginning.

     I arrived in Pakistan at the beginning of this week, eager to visit my family, in-laws and friends. During the very first night, my dear friends, Nathaniel and Hillary Barnett, were arrested by the Pakistani police.

     They had seen that their visa was going to expire a few weeks before their flight out of Pakistan. They sent their applications to to the government just like they had been told. But the application took much longer than they were led to believe and their visa expired while the process was still ongoing. Nate was arrested in the streets near their home in Karachi. Hillary was picked up at my in-laws house in Sanghar as they were busily preparing for a wedding.

     They are now in a federal penitentiary.

     They have a very good lawyer. His hope is that they can get the government to release them into house arrest until their flight, which is booked for the end of this month.

     Why is this happening? To throw people in prison for such a small thing is not common. Some people suggest that the current political is making things worse. Or maybe a few over-zealous police officers or magistrates have made it worse. It’s anyone’s guess. The result is the same.

     What can you do? You can do more than you think. I was just thinking of a neat passage uttered by the prophet Isaiah.

“You who put the LORD in remembrance, take no rest, and give him no rest until he establishes Jerusalem and makes it a praise in the earth.”

     I’d like to propose Operation No Rest. The first aspect of it is for those of you who pray. Just like Isaiah told his people to give God no rest until he restored Jerusalem, give your God no rest until he moves and takes his people out of prison.
     The second aspect is for those of you who are Canadian citizens. The lawyer has said one of the best things you can do on that side of the ocean is to contact ever MP and government official you can and tell them what’s going on and what you’d like them to do about it. And then to do it again. And again. And again until it becomes clear that the only way you’ll leave them alone is if they get mobilized and get our people out of prison.

     What are their conditions like? I was able to see Hillary yesterday. She’s in the women’s section of the prison and has not been able to communicate with her husband at all. Food and clothing are an issue but some friends and I are taking care of that for them both, making deliveries daily. She is strong and in reasonably good spirits. Her only real complaint is that she does not know what is happening to her husband. I hope to be able to see him in a few days.

     How are they being treated? Well, actually. The prison officials are kind and know that if Canadian citizens are mistreated there will be a lot of problems for them. They are guarded and protected. Which, to be honest, is a lot more than can be said for many of the others in that prison.

     My family and I plan to live in Karachi until this matter is resolved. I’ll be trying to get more information and keep you updated as best as I can. Hopefully daily.