Matt W Cook

writer.former fundamentalist.christianly fellow

Tag: sindh

Letting Conditions Go

I’m reading a book called The Poisonwood Bible about a missionary who takes his wife and daughters to the Congo in the late 50s. It gets so familiar that it jars me. I like to think that my missionary philosophy was a direct response to his. He wanted to show Africa the power of American Evangelicalism. I wanted to see some kind of Sindhi Evangelicalism take root. We called it Incarnational Ministry, and Paul’s commitment to “become all things to all people” was my modus operandi.

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It made me a gentler missionary than Nathan Price, I suppose. And it allowed me to see some beauty in Pakistan and her cultures. But I was still a fundamentalist, so I couldn’t see the value of any faith here, except insofar as it accorded with the core of my own.

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So despite my desi dress and family and lifestyle, I was still set apart–in Sindh but not of it. I suppose I took it as a badge of honour at the time. But my constant dissatisfaction with the way my neighbours worshipped and viewed the world built a wall around me, and they could sense it.

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I’ve come to embrace a new mantra since then, borrowed from a Christian ska band: Freedom means love without condition. I still can’t say that I am of Sindh, but I can embrace my family and friends here with a kind of abandon I wasn’t able to before. I’m thankful for that much.

Changing Sindh

Construction is real in Sindh. Many of the roads have been completely re-done. Here in Sanghar the main road used to be a bumpy mess of rocks and water that would never completely dry up. Now it’s as smooth as anything you’d drive on in Canada.

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Once you get out of the city it’s a different story. Mirpur Khas is fifty-seven kilometres away, but it took us two and a half hours to get there. The roads were a mess, gouged out by fervent construction.

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Rattanabad has changed, too. I don’t even recognize the place. But I recognize the people, though they’ve all changed, too.

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To say that everything changes may be banal, because what else would everything do? But the banal things might be the most real, after all.

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It’s been one week since I left my home.

Took a plane and went to Pakistan alone. My wife and kids must be missing me, and I still haven’t blogged at all about my journey.

Don’t blame me, it’s been a whirlwind.

I took a day in Karachi to rest and draw up energy. Considering how I feel now, it was a good choice. IMG_0081.JPG

Saddar is the only part of Karachi I know well, so I picked a hotel there. But it’s changed. What used to be an eternal excavation site has grown up into a mall. There’s a cinema and a Dunkin’ Donuts and everything–donut was a bit stale, but the coffee was great. I would have seen a movie but the one I wanted to watch started at 10:30 and I wasn’t looking forward to walking back to my hotel after midnight in Saddar.

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No Dunkin’ Donuts in Sanghar, of course. That’s where I’ll be spending most of my time, hanging with my in-laws. I haven’t been taking the best pictures because it’s been busy enough just sitting and eating and smiling with everyone.

Tea with the landlord

Kunri, Sindh.  2006

Our landlord lives in the flat below us. He invites me over for tea in the evening, after the nap. His place is nicer than ours. I like ours better, though. We have the roof. It’s one of the biggest buildings in Kunri—three storeys. And the high walls on the roof make it look taller, though they do spoil our view.

I sit with my landlord on the charpai. His English is good, and I’m grateful. I’ve only been in Pakistan a year and Urdu still makes me nervous. We talk about all sorts of things. He asks me about my family. He asks me about Canada. Strange, I don’t seem to ask him much.

He brings up religion. They always do here. I’m eager on this subject. I take control. I make my argument. Tight and powerful. I show the weak spot in his (what shall I call it?) cosmology. Proved. Done. QED.

But he doesn’t get it. He has no answer, but he is unconvinced. Seeing that the stakes are raised, he throws his own attack at me. It’s nothing I haven’t heard before. Nothing I haven’t thought of before. It doesn’t faze me. I have no answer to give him, though. And the look on his face tells me he thinks he’s won something.

The conversation moves on, I suppose. I hardly notice. If only I’d had more time, I could have told him something clearer. Something that would have helped him see what I see. It’s just so obvious from my side, and I can’t understand why he can’t see it. He’s not an idiot, after all. I wonder, as we shake hands and I turn to go home, if he is thinking something similar about me.

I don’t sleep much that night. It’s hot. My bed is on the roof, nuzzled by winds that have been gentled by the high walls. I stare at the stars and ask my silent God to sow a seed in my landlord’s heart. To crack the hard shell of his delusion.

At least as much as he’s cracked mine.

Teaching in Kunri

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My classroom is small.  A second-storey room with an open window looking out to the fields in the nearby Christian district of Josephabad.  I have eight students in my split grade seven / eight class.  I look at them weakly this morning, because I’m in the middle of a malaria resurgence.  Today we’re trying to talk about history.  The history from their textbook is not the history I learned in school.  We aren’t learning about the First Nations people or the French Revolution.  Our histories are full of strange names like Jinnah, Nauru and Emperor Ackbar of the glorious Mughal Empire.  I ask if they know anything about European history.  One student tells me how much he loves Hitler.  It is hard to fight him and the malaria at the same time

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Morning Commute

I finish my tea and go back to my house.  We eat fried flat breads with last night’s chickpeas.  A bit of yogurt and raw onion to make the taste dance.  More chai.  I adjust my pathan cap and sindhi ajrak and gently carry my bicycle down the narrow stairs.  My wife follows in her burka, with our son.

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My son sits on the bar in front of me.  I screwed a little padded seat there for him.  He grins as he clutches the handlebars.  My wife pulls herself up on the rear rack while I hold the bike balanced.  Then we’re off.  What things can I see while we go through the streets of my town?  The shop we buy our firewood from.  The only honest yogurt vendor in town.  A child defecating by his front door—the same time every day.  I see goats tied to electric poles, red-mouthed paan vendors and little boys running to delivery steaming little tea pots and nearly clean cups.  I see rich men in large cars blocking the roads while I slip easily by them on my three-person bike.  I see yellow rickshaws crammed with schoolchildren and teachers.  I see the natural world of humanity, busied and arbitrary.  There is no difference between this place and the place I was born.

Chai Khana

The Chai KhanaI slip down the dark narrow stairs onto the bright dusty street.  There’s a lot going on.  Our corner of the intersection is the electrician’s part of town.  The shop right by our  door is owned by the guy who put in our line to the communal backup generator.  The shop around the corner is owned by the guy who fixed it when it exploded a day later.  The line, not the generator.

I cross the intersection, lazily dodging a motorbike weaving around a milkman’s donkey cart.  The milkman is bringing milk to the chai khana.  The chai walla smiles and raises his hand to me.  I shake his and sit on the bench, huddled in my chadar against the surprising chill.  Akbar and Faisal are there.  Akbar tells me a story about his village.  I hardly understand a word because he’s spoken Dhadki to me ever since he found out my wife was from a related tribe.  Faisal makes fun of him for it in Sindhi.  The chai walla smiles and hands me my chai on a clean saucer.

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.

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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.

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.

Matt