A Taliban Refused To Shake My Hand In Pakistan

TravelTales03

As soon as I stepped into the small waiting area of Pakistan’s Moenjodaro Airport, a swarm of menacing men armed with rifles bombarded me with a series of questions, “You Dr. Khoo-Lattimore? You come from Malaysia? You give talk in school?”

I did not know which answer would dictate whether I will be alive or dead – do I own up or should I deny? I wasn’t thinking so much about my own safety as that of my unborn child. I decided to be honest, and they responded with a very stern, “Okay, come with us now.” When I refused, they became exasperated and continued to harass me with more urgency.

At the most dramatic moment, when a small crowd had started to gather around us, a familiar face appeared and provided instant relief – Dr. G, my colleague and host at the Shaheed Mohtrama Benazir Bhutto Medical University (SMBBMU). Wonder what took him so long! Dr. G spoke to them in Sindhi. As it turned out, the frightening men were police escorts, and their presence had been imposed on SMBBMU by a regulation to protect a foreign visitor such as myself. And so we drove to the university, with me feeling quite royal.

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My police escort scoping out the danger before me (Photo credit: Catheryn Khoo-Lattimore)

I was in Larkana. This city was home to the late former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, the Bhuttos before her and many more politicians after her. As we drove to the campus through dusty roads, it is evident that there is much hardship in Larkana. Buildings are dilapidated, there is no colour and people generally do not smile.

Poverty is evident, which is why I did not complain about my residence on campus. It was air-conditioned, which must be luxury in Larkana, but it looked ‘lived in’. I suspect that they had temporarily evicted a faculty member for me. The room resembled that of a 2-star hotel, but with room service. I was served all my meals in my room by an elderly man who did not speak English. When I tried to leave my room for a walk, my bodyguard who waited outside my room followed closely behind, his trusted rifle by his side. I tried to make conversation, to make him smile but he was not interested in small talk.

I was an invited speaker in Larkana, and was to be presented to members of the press to promote the event and my visit to the university. I did feel like quite the dignitary. At the initial meeting, I realised that all press members were men and all representatives of the university were men. I was the only woman in this lunch room and I could not tell if they were interested in me because of my gender or my intellect. After lunch, I was escorted back to my room until it was time for my talk. Again, I tried to make my escort friend smile. He seemed stressed.

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How cool is that – my womanly name in the midst of all these men? (Photo credit: Catheryn Khoo-Lattimore)

Two hours after I was scheduled to speak, I was ushered into an auditorium full of men. This was seemingly strange, considering their former Prime Minister was a woman. At the end of my speech, I was introduced to the VIPs. Everybody was gracious and said kind words. If they did not like what I had to say, they certainly did not show it…except for one man. He refused to shake my hand like the others did, and in fact, looked at me with revulsion. Dr. G explained to me later that the man was a respected Taliban and influential alumni to the university. The Taliban disapproves of women’s presence in public. I had by now failed to work my charm on two men; I blamed it on my protruding belly.

After my talk, I was escorted to do some sightseeing. I met with an old local artist who dedicated his unpretentious gallery to his mother. I was introduced to a very old man who was influential in the politics of Larkana and Pakistan in his younger days. I visited the site where Dr G was going to build his new home. I laid flowers at the tomb of Benazir Bhutto and then walked through the archaeological ruins of the ancient Indus Valley, a UNESCO World Heritage site with my loyal escort in tow. This time, I communicated with him through Dr. G. This time, he smiled!

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My loyal escort…he’s smiling, right? (Photo credit: Catheryn Khoo-Lattimore)

People had warned me about going to Pakistan, and particularly, about going to Pakistan pregnant. But the majority of these people, as with most people who are quick to dish out advice on anything, are people who have not even visited Pakistan, let alone been pregnant or pregnant in Pakistan.

I am glad I went. The adventure was worthwhile and I discovered that everyone was wrong about the Pakistan they had described to me. With the exception of that one man, I was well-received, well taken care of and well-respected.

Someone by the name of Chuck Thompson said, “No place is ever as bad as they tell you it’s going to be.” I reckon he is a wise man.

Cover image credit: Tom Moore/Flickr


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CatherynKhooLattimore_100x100
Catheryn researches women and young travellers in tourism at the Griffith Institute for Tourism (GIFT) in Australia. She has reproduced again since this American trip, and now has three children. That hasn’t stopped her from travelling extensively.

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