Three weeks into our time in Islamabad has a science fiction quality to it. Have I time traveled swiftly into the future? Looking back, it feels like the days have flown by and suddenly I am here with new knowledge on how to get around, new favorite haunts, and new friends who are already familiar faces. Sometimes it feels like I am caught up in a fast-moving current, pulled before quite being ready into areas where I feel out of my depth. Yet day to day, time flows slowly, the hours each full and long with experience.
I’m invited to attend my first iftar. During Ramadan, iftar is the daily dinner at sunset that marks a break in fasting. It also becomes a convenient time for meetings, parties, get togethers of family, friends, and work contacts. I find myself in a nondescript ballroom at a local club surrounded by people I don’t know.
To my great relief, a kind woman impeccably dressed in a vibrantly yellow shalwar kameez guides me to a table to sit with her and another lady. Sitting down, she immediately strikes up a conversation with a man to her right, so I introduce myself to the other woman, who is also stunningly attired in a deep ruby-colored shalwar kameez with what look like real rubies adorning her ears, neck, and fingers. After our pleasantries, she leans in and asks, “Have you bought any Pakistani clothes yet?”
Despite having bought three beautiful kurtas for just such local occasions, my nerves got the best of me at the last minute, so I opted for a safe navy blue pant suit. I say as much to the lady and we then embark on a lengthy conversation about shopping in Pakistan that sets me at my ease.
After an hour and a half of speeches in English and Urdu, the evening winds towards sunset and there is a palpable restlessness around the room as staff start bringing in fragrant smelling dishes for the iftar buffet. I resolve to wait a bit to allow others to get their food first… and because I want to observe what to do so I don’t make a fool of myself (not making a fool of myself is a consistent goal I take with me from country to country… I’m only marginally successful at it). I introduce myself to a few people, but then look up five minutes later to see that half the room already have full plates… clearly not eating all day makes people quick to get through a buffet line!
My ruby friend leans in and quietly says, “I recommend avoiding the samosas… if you’re not used to them.”
I ask, “Oh why, are they spicy?”
She diplomatically arches a perfectly sculpted eyebrow, “They can just be a bit hard on the stomach.”
Having spent a couple days at home in bed early that week with tummy trouble (euphemistically known as an unofficial welcome to Pakistan), I take her word for it. I make sure to try the sweet jalebis though, because who can say no to deep fried dough in sugar syrup? Not me anyway.
The event quickly winds up after that. Thankfully my friends had let me know that people leave quite quickly after an iftar, so my car is ready and waiting as I head outside into the warm night. As summer approaches, the air has a hot, heavy quality even after sundown.
It is these outings that make it feel that I have been in Islamabad longer than just a few weeks, because each new place and experience adds to my feeling of settling in and belonging. On Saturday, A and I go out shopping to a couple “marquaz” (essentially outdoor strip malls with lots of different shops) and lose ourselves for at least an hour in Saeed bookstore. The selection is huge and the prices are at least half as expensive as Barnes and Noble so we leave with a stack of books to fill up our empty bookshelves- me with all fiction; A with all non-fiction Pakistani history books.
Having just arrived in country, we opt to stay here rather than travel over Memorial Day weekend. Plus, to get just about anywhere from Islamabad requires at least two flights and lengthy travel time. Instead, we head to a nearby hotel to enjoy a spa day, tasty buffet lunch, and lounging by the pool. So worth it to get away for a bit and relax.
On Monday, new friends invite us to join a carpet party at a Turkmen store in town. It’s evening and so time again for iftar. Our hosts graciously prepare us a lavish feast of traditional dishes, including a few Turkmen specialities like warmly spiced rice laced with plump raisins and lamb. I suppose the food is in anticipation of all the expensive carpets our group will buy and the promise that we will bring more new arrivals to Post to their shop- it’s incredibly nice all the same. We all sit around chatting and two minutes before the call to end the fast, pass around dates. “I think I hear the signal outside,” one of our new friends says as a sound much like a siren cuts through our chatter. Our host makes a quick phone call to confirm. It’s 7:10pm exactly and time to eat.
The food cleared away, our hosts start laying out carpet after carpet, some gigantic, some small, from Pakistan, Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Turkey, Jaipur, Xinjiang in China (which has a predominantly Uighur Muslim population that is worth learning about if you’re unfamiliar). They are different ages from 50 years old to brand new, in different styles, of different qualities, some soft, some coarse, some wool, some (the most expensive) entirely silk that reflect the light and are exquisitely intricate. They run from $100 to $2700 depending on size, quality, age, and origin, some big ones half as cheap as others half their size.
Some of our friends have already filled their apartments with carpets and are shopping for family and friends. As the pile of carpets grow, people call out when they want one set aside. We all sigh over the luxuriously soft full-silk carpets that catch the light and seem to change from light to dark colors as we walk around them.
In the end, A and I settle on two Pakistani silk-wool blend carpets that will match well with our furnishings in our new home and are very reasonably priced. We head back with the car trunk stuffed with carpets and holding doggy bags with leftovers.
Summer is a time of change in the expat community. Goodbye parties meld with welcomes. Many people we meet are measuring their time here in days while others, like us, have only just arrived. Newcomers gather tips from the short-timers and scope out the recent arrivals who will become our longer term community. We’ve all done this before, been the new arrival and the one leaving. We swap stories of other posts and find shared acquaintances in the small foreigner bubble.
It takes time, but I am finding my place and enjoying the process.