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Winter 1998, Volume 15.1

Fiction

 

Tahira Naqvi

Lost in the Marketplace

Tahira Naqvi (M.S., Western Connecticut State U) has been teaching English and Urdu for the last thirteen years. A widely-published short story writer, she is currently working on her first novel and is translating a collection of short stories by the late Pakistani writer, Khadija Mastur, for Oxford University Press.

 

Lahore is unlike any other place I've ever seen. Not even on its busiest days are there as many cars on the streets and avenues of New York as there are here, day or night. I sit in my aunt's White Pajero jeep, clutch the edges of my seat, my eyes darting in a hundred different directions, my breath held, mostly in fear, while our somber-faced driver weaves in and out of several lines of cars, vans and buses with the careless ease of a gymnast. On the road dense clouds of dust arise without warning. Sometimes you can't see what's inches away from you and then suddenly everything clears and you find you were a hair breadth's distance from a Toyota or a Suzuki and a collision that could have taken your life in seconds. The trick is in becoming passive.

Today we are traveling with Auntie Shahida to her friend's house where I am to meet a doctor my aunt and my mother think will be just right for me. He is, in the words of Auntie Shahida, "handsome, smart, and very intelligent." Well, what more could a girl want? my mother's glance seems to be saying. And a doctor too. "The best part is," Auntie Shahida continues in the voice she has developed after years of successful matchmaking, "he's already passed his USMLE." What a relief, my mother's placid expression informs me, one less thing to worry about.

December is coming to a close, but there hasn't been any rain. Tall trees, tahli, oak, and other broad-leafed varieties I'm not familiar with stand coated with a layer of white dust, like ghosts stilled forever. What was dappled emerald green once is now only an indeterminate, dirty olive. The trunks are muddied brown, and the high bushes along the sides of the road or outside boundary walls look like bizarre mud sculptures. Puffs of dust made leaden with smog seep in through the chink in the car window and fill my nostrils. I place my dupatta before my nose and imagine what life would be like as a doctor's wife.

"Does he have a mustache?" I ask Auntie Shahida who, surprised at my question, turns to face me from the front seat and wrinkles her brow. "You know, one of those long, black things every Pakistani man has sitting on his upper lip?" I add flippantly in response to her brow-raised astonishment.

"You don't like mustaches?" Auntie Shahida asks fearfully.

"I'm not partial to mustaches, especially since they're like a mark that's stamped on every man's face. I'm a male, I'm a Pakistani male, it seems to be crying out." I know Auntie Shahida suspects my heart is not in all this meeting young Pakistani boys business. Earlier that morning, over tea and parathas at her house, she had hinted I exhibit caution.

"You mean not talk too much about the U.S., about the boys we know in college, the way we dress there and everything?" I teased, rolling the dark brown paratha as if it were a crepe.

"If you've already made up your mind you're not going to like him, I don't think we should have this meeting." Auntie Shahida responded sulkily and, looking at Amma, pressed her lips together, rolled her eyes and shook her head.

"No, no I'm only teasing Auntie," I reassured her with a smile, my mouth filled with a taste I didn't want to relinquish. I would never say this aloud, but I had decided to put this meeting down as part of my cultural training. So many Pakistani girls went through this process with ease and grace, Amma and Auntie Shahida had both done it before me, successfully if Abba was any indication or Uncle Rahman, Auntie Shahida's husband. I had nothing to lose. Yet.

"Well, he does have a mustache," Auntie Shahida looked at me closely as our driver honked at a van angrily, muttering something under his breath, "but it isn't one of those clipped military types, thank God. Mustache is only hair, Nasreen, it's not a permanent disfigurement."

This isn't the first time I'm in Lahore, but it's the first time I'm in Lahore and thinking of marriage, or rather, being made to think of marriage. Jeanne, my roommate, can't imagine marrying someone you haven't known extremely well, as in having lived and slept with.

"It's primitive, Nasreen, how can you even agree to consider it?" she protested when I told her I was going to Pakistan with my mother to look at boys. "Sounds like you're going shopping or something." She looked at me in a strange way, as if I had sprouted horns or broken out in a blue rash.

"I'm just agreeing to go through this to make my mother happy. I promised her I'd meet these people, that's all. I'm not going to walk into some stranger's living room, take one look and agree to have a wedding."

"What if he's perfect, I mean by your mother's standards, you know, handsome, rich and all that? What excuse are you going to come up with?"

"I've told my mother I won't be pressured. She understands."

But that's easier said than done. Understanding. Actually I place the blame for much of what's going on at this moment on Marium. She's my cousin, my mother's older sister's daughter, and she married an American boy. A non-Muslim boy. A great many parents in the family, mine included, pulled in the fences closer on their daughters. The casually watchful became keenly vigilant. Amma conferred with Auntie Shahida who is my aunt from my father's side, and after a flurry of correspondence this trip to Pakistan materialized. Sometimes it's best to go with the flow. Life's too complicated anyway. And Amma knows, and I know too, the fences are like paper cutouts, more cosmetic than real.

I'm dressed in the ajrak shalwar kurta suit I bought at Shararay Boutique yesterday. My Urdu is as polished as it will ever be. I remind myself to use the trick my cousin Marium has espoused from time to time during her travels to Lahore. "Jump into English in mid-sentence if you have the slightest doubt about the correct usage or pronunciation. Everyone thinks it's cute when you mix and match Urdu with English." Looking out the window of the car, I see, in the car on my left, a young girl like myself. Short hair, eyes hidden behind sunglasses, thin, a dab of lipstick on her lips. She looks straight ahead though, being used to driving through this morass no doubt, unperturbed by the dust, the noise of tooting horns, the closeness of humanity. Perhaps she's a new-fangled feminist. I've met a few of those lately, the sharply intelligent, drop-dupatta, chain smoking types who'll talk to you endlessly about crimes against women between sips of vodka. "Gloria Steinem has retracted and Erica Jong isn't in anymore," I told one of them who was saying all men are bastards.

Soon the car with my twin looms ahead and another takes its place. Another face, a man and a woman, then another, women and children, men only, then children. On and on, like shots from an avant garde film, each self-contained, yet connected to the others, incomplete without them. Beyond the cars, on the side of roads are vendors who sell forbidden wares­tangy chat, tongue whipping hot kababs, dahi-bhalas topped with umber-hued tamarind chutney, round, fragile gol gappas with chick peas and a tart, spicy, watery filling, also curliqued, syrupy jalebis bright like swirls of cadmium orange on a palette—not for me any of this, for I am not a local and coming from a country where everything is so clean and so pure, I must not eat any of this. Who knows what germs are concealed in the murky depths of this merchandise and what havoc they might cause once they find themselves in the bowels of a foreigner like myself. I gaze longingly at what is forbidden and soon Marium and Jeanne recede into the background, like faint memories of a distant past, their place usurped by the clamor of the city, the masks we all wear when we come here, the warm breath of culture that pants closely against my skin, making it tingle.

 

2

He's wearing tight Levi jeans, a long-sleeved Polo shirt, his socked feet shod in tan pennyloafers, and his hair, dark, swirling masses of it, is swept back stylishly. He has a long thick mustache that shields his upper lip so you can't tell what wonders lie there. He's stocky. I haven't quite registered everything as yet when, almost magically, there's two of him. A brother, I think, a cousin I'm told later. Secretly I wonder if he's also a candidate, if Auntie Shahida, wily and underhanded, had thought to offer me a choice.

There are other people as well. A sister and more cousins, an aunt who seems to be Auntie Shahida's counterpart at that end, some very young children who are watching an Indian film intently, their small heads lifted reverently toward the TV screen, their mouths half-open in wonderment as Amitabh Bachan trusses about some really foul-looking thugs, exhibiting swift and mean legwork as he leaps and bounds across the screen.

"Children, lower the sound please, " the aunt says and then, looking at us, smiles apologetically and explains, "they just love all these fighting scenes."

The children do not move and Auntie Shahida and Amma respond with an understanding smile and shaking of the heads. We edge toward the drawing room, all of us, as if we're a caravan in search of an oasis. The two young men follow solemnly with their hands behind their backs, and I realize with a sudden feeling of panic I don't know which of the two I'm supposed to be observing.

Large and expansive, bigger than any I've had occasion to be in, the drawing room swallows us. Various sofas, some upholstered in flowered tapestry, others with wooden arms and backs, all large enough to be termed sprawling, are positioned along the walls invitingly. I sit next to Aunt Shahida and the two young men are suddenly on the other side of the room, facing us across a colorful Bokhara carpet and several glass-topped tables decorated with alabaster and crystal vases containing a combination of dried and silk flower arrangements. Amma and the aunt sit together and start talking immediately. Within minutes Auntie Shahida has joined them on the pretext of seeking an answer to a question about this tailor both she and the aunt use and who has been extremely slow lately. A reshuffling is in progress I realize. The two cousins and the sister quickly come and grab the space vacated by Auntie Shahida and my mother.

"Why don't you people also come and join the girls here? Nasreen must have stories about America you'll like to hear." Auntie Shahida waves a hand encouragingly in the direction of the young men, who laugh politely and then, while I watch nervously, saunter over to our side of the room. While they are in the process of traversing the breadth of the Bokhara carpet, my mother, Auntie Shahida and the aunt start chatting vociferously. Before I know what's happened, they've left the room.

What Stories?

By now I have made a distinction between the two men. One is brash and smiles whenever our eyes meet, while the other is quite deferential, tries not to look me in the eyes at all. And so I find myself drawn to the fellow with the brash gaze.

"Do you like our city?" he asks as if he owns Lahore.

"This isn't my first visit," I say. "But yes, I love Lahore. I don't think anyone can really dislike Lahore."

"Does it remind you of New York City? I hear you're living quite close to it." He has an accent that I can't place. A little bit of the American twang and some of the British tightness.

"No, I don't think there's any similarity, not in the real sense of the word. Lahore is an Asian city, it has an Asian face."

The two female cousins are leaning forward attentively, watching us closely. The sister, however, who had been introduced as Ninee, is content to lean back against the sofa and twirl the bristly, pointed end of her long braid that falls over her right shoulder and into her lap.

"Do you mean the dust and the traffic and the poverty?" He is smiling cynically now, one dark eyebrow raised.

"There's enough traffic in New York as well and quite a bit of poverty too, and no I didn't mean that at all."

"Amir Bhai, she means the historical buildings, the culture of the people, the food." One of the cousins comes to my defense in a sing-song voice and I'm relieved I know his name at least.

"And the geography, the fine workmanship of Pakistani life that emerges once the dust settles down." Amir's companion opens his mouth at last. He's smiling benevolently.

"I'm still waiting to see the fine workmanship," I say, trying to temper the sarcasm that's threatening to creep into my voice. "The dust hasn't quite settled yet."

The two men give each other knowing glances. "Are there many doctors in your area, Pakistani doctors?" It's the benevolent one. Alas, he's the one I'm supposed to be observing.

"There are Pakistani doctors everywhere Faisal," the young lady on my right who had been chewing gum fiercely, says with authority. She has short hair that envelops her face in soft curls. Her eyes are small and thickly-lashed and the shallow hollows in her cheeks give her face a mature look. Why isn't Faisal marrying her, I wonder suspiciously when she begins talking. "And soon you'll be one of them." She giggles meaningfully. She can't be too much younger than me, two years at the most. And she has such a pleasant, smiling face.

"There's a brain drain in our country. All our doctors have gone to the U.S. And now Faisal is ready to flee." Amir leans back and waves a hand energetically in the air.

Faisal smiles again, indulgently this time. He's still looking expectantly at me, waiting for an answer to his question. I'm sidetracked.

"Well, I don't see America sending people to recruit doctors from Pakistan. No one is forcing you to go." My voice doesn't sound my own.

"Those who are there come back with stories of the wonderful life they're leading there and then we are trapped. We are human after all, and a poor country with not enough to feed our people." He crosses one denim-clad leg over the other, takes out a cigarette from a pack of Gold Leaf which he had been playing with earlier and lights it. The flame from the match momentarily throws into relief the sharp, clean-shaven angles of his face.

"Amir, come on now, don't tease Nasreen. She's our guest." The young woman with the smiling face admonishes gently. "Nasreen, tell me about New York. I've heard so much about it. Is it true people can get mugged and killed there if they're the slightest bit careless?"

"People can get mugged and killed here too if they are careless," Amir says with a loud guffaw. He slaps Faisal on the shoulder and chuckles again. Faisal emits a small laugh as well. He doesn't seem to mind that he is one of the trapped people Amir was referring to only a short while ago.

I tell myself I must not be abrasive. No one likes women who speak their mind too often or too emphatically. "New York is like any big city. There's so much there, so many different kinds of people live there. What's so unique about it is that it's, as you've said, a place where you can get mugged and killed if you're not careful, but it's also a place where you'll find the best of the arts, you know, music, drama, exhibitions, films, everything." Faisal leans forward attentively. Amir is making whorls of smoke with his mouth. An elaborate tea is followed by an even more elaborate dinner and more men appear on the scene, another cousin, an uncle, the aunt's husband, a third young man who is introduced as "Faisal's friend, Ata'ullah." He has a fierce little beard that's blacker than any black I've ever seen and his mustache sort of zooms across his lips and disappears into the sides of the beard without a trace. He's wearing a very long white kurta with a shalwar, and carelessly draped around his lean shoulders is a voluminous black shawl. He's not very talkative and quietly murmurs something in a deep, resonant voice, about saving Pakistan from western pirates, a comment which elicits another back-slapping, approving guffaw from Amir. Compared to him, Amir and Faisal look like some watery, ineffectual creatures. He has dark brooding eyes which he keeps pinned to the immediate space before him so that if you happen to trespass that space you'll catch his eye and he yours, otherwise he doesn't seem accessible. His name means "gift of God." I like him right away, more than Amir. I wonder what he does for a living and whether he too feels trapped.

 

3

"He's not one of the candidates," Auntie Shahida informs me disapprovingly. I hope we haven't wasted all this time, she seems to be saying with her eyes. "He's Faisal's friend, he's a Sindhi landlord's son, a vadera. They're a law unto themselves and they know nothing about women's rights." She examines my face for further clues.

"Auntie, that wasn't a bachelor market or anything, was it? I was just curious. He was kind of handsome, certainly more handsome than either Faisal or Amir." I can't resist the jibe. Amma is not with us this afternoon. Perhaps she's letting Auntie Shahida probe without the encumbrance of parental constraints hanging over my head.

"Well, you can't have him Nasreen," Auntie Shahida persists, smiling this time. "These boys aren't allowed to marry outside their immediate family or tribe."

How strange I think, to be in such a hostile environment. And what if one were abducted by such a man? "But what happens if one of them falls in love with an outsider?" I can't bring myself out of the eddying current just yet.

"Nasreen, you're supposed to be telling me about Faisal. What's this nonsense about Ata'ullah? I don't know. Maybe his family will make the girl disappear for good, who knows."

"But Auntie, this is 1994! You mean that this sort of thing still happens here?"

Ata'ullah on a horse, blazing a trail in the Sindh desert, his beloved behind him, clasping his waist with both arms, her head resting against his back as he flees from his tyrannical tribesmen.

"Yes, you know it does, here and everywhere else. Now about Faisal what were your impressions?"

There's sand in my eyes.

"Faisal? Oh, yes, he's okay I guess. A little too quiet, I'd say. I think he's overpowered by his friends."

"Well, he's not going to take his friends with him to America after he's married, girl. A wife can channel a husband's interests if she goes about it cleverly. And as for his quietness, I think you are mistaking his politeness for quietness. Why, did you want him to chatter away like a gossipy woman? I don't like men who talk too much, to be honest." Auntie Shahida delivers her lecture and waits for a response.

I'm still wondering about Ata'ullah and what he would do if I went up to him and asked to be taken to his village. Faisal doesn't interest me. I've decided to let him go. He'll have to find someone else to take him to America.

"Auntie Shahida, you've been such a help. I don't want to sound ungrateful. But you know, I don't think Faisal and I will be happy together. Truth is, I don't think I like doctors." The expression changes on Auntie Shahida's face. Her lips quiver as if she's suppressing a retort, her eyes no longer seem anxious to meet mine. She sighs.

"Your mother will be disappointed," she says, looking somewhere in the distance. "You know Nasreen, good boys are hard to find and you know how anxious your parents are to find you a husband who is an all-rounder."

She's saying this very seriously, as if someone's just died, and I break out into an involuntary laugh. It's the "all-rounder" that does it. She looks hurt and I quickly restrain my amusement.

"Auntie Shahida, please don't get upset. If you're upset Amma will be too. Just tell her the meeting didn't work out, that well, that I thought he was too plump or something." I place a hand on her arm in an attempt to solicit her endorsement.

She shakes her head despondently. "Your mother is not going to like this." Then she holds my gaze stubbornly. "Now tell me girl, this doesn't have anything to do with Ata'ullah, does it? You American girls, who knows what wild thoughts you bring with you. I hope you are not entertaining any silly ideas, are you?" She looks suspiciously at me.

"No, no," I say with a laugh. But the truth of the matter is I can't get Ata'ullah out of my head. "Well, what about Amir then?" Auntie Shahida's voice cuts into my reverie.

"What?" I'm not sure I've heard her right.

"Amir, what about him? He's a mechanical engineer and comes from an excellent family. His father's a retired judge and his mother is an old friend of mine." Auntie Shahida has girthed her waist and is ready for the next assault.

"You're not serious! Amir? I mean he's a really nice guy, much more lively than Faisal it's true, but I hadn't thought and he hates America." I'm relieved to find an excuse that has a solid, straight back.

"Ohho, all the young men say that at first. Don't you know it's fashionable to hate America? Why, hating America is part of our culture and if we didn't do it we wouldn't be who we are. Don't worry about that. What you have to think about is whether you like him or not." Auntie Shahida leans forward eagerly in her seat.

I didn't know Auntie Shahida had it in her to be so funny. Unfortunately I can't express my amusement openly.

"But he talked energetically about the brain drain and he thinks we trap men here with dreams of a wonderful life in the States. I'm quite sure he means what he says."

In a tent, mewls of wind swirling about us, rapping against the flaps of the tent, Ata'ullah holding me within the fierceness of his gaze, his broad-palmed hand resting on my back, its touch fevered, passionate.

"Ohho, you are too naive, Nasreen, you have a lot to learn about us in this country." Auntie Shahida laughs merrily, dispelling my dream like the flick of a magician's wand.

Puff!

 

4

While shopping in Anarkali the next day I run into Auntie Fatima who is also visiting Pakistan this time of year. She's buying salim shahi shoes and is alone. I'm with Rabiya, Auntie Shahida's daughter, who has promised to show me the dark side of Lahore. She means the parts of this old city not often frequented by people who drive Pajero jeeps. Anarkali Bazaar is one such place.

The bazaar is named after Anarkali, allegedly a dancing girl for whom a Moghul emperor and his mule-headed son, Prince Salim, both nursed a passion, and who according to one legend, was buried alive in a wall on the orders of the frustrated monarch whom Anarkali defied, and according to another legend, was banished. Situated on the outer corner of Anarkali Bazaar, a mausoleum bearing her name now houses the Lahore Museum's Records Office. Anarkali. A pomegranate bud, blood-red, yearning to flower.

My head humming with visions of unfulfilled love as Rabiya embellishes the story of doomed love, I look around at the crowds milling about us and realize we're surrounded by men. There are women present as well, but the dark-skinned, thickly-mustached men, a great many bearded too, nearly all dressed in shalwar kameez suits, looking like a uniformed army on furlough, appear to dominate the central avenue of the bazaar. In all of this I'm really surprised I have managed to spot Auntie Fatima sitting on a bench in this poorly-lit, narrow, shoe-lined shop trying on a zari salim shahi. I could have easily missed her. Rabiya and I shout and gesticulate wildly to catch her attention, forgetting we're women.

She wants to know how the "boy-watching" process is coming along. Everyone jokes about this, one of the most serious topics to be ever contemplated, but that's only because making light of the process diminishes some of its more bizarre properties, making it hum-drum, ordinary, yes, believable. I recount the story of our visit with Faisal and Amir. I don't withhold the part about Ata'ullah. She bursts into laughter and then both she and Rabiya tease me.

"Let's look for him, Nasreen," Auntie Fatima says with a warm smile, not remembering that she's an aunt and should not be encouraging such wild notions. But then she's different. She's lived in the U.S. for twenty years, but unlike Amma, she's a working woman; she teaches. Of course, she also has no daughters.

Rabiya agrees we should at least make an effort. "I'll investigate," she offers with a tilt of her head. All this is going on while the shopkeeper is yanking off shoe after shoe from the shelves and placing it before Auntie Fatima, who, it seems, has very big feet and can't find a shoe she can fit into comfortably. The shopkeeper, a young man with tired eyes and swirls of black hair, some of it falling carelessly on his forehead, looks wearily at us while we prattle in English. Other customers amble in and, perked up just a bit, he turns to them.

We give up on the shoes and Auntie Fatima suggests, with a twinkle in her eye, that we have some chat.

"I know just the place," she gestures with her hand, and we follow.

A gulley off the main bazaar leads us into another maze of streets, covered this time and called, I'm told by the two veteran shoppers at my side, "Bano Bazaar," the woman's bazaar. Suddenly we're engulfed by female shoppers. Dressed in black burkas, wearing white chadors with delicate lace edging, some with dupattas fallen in careless tangles over their shoulders, some, like us, consciously plucking at dupattas to make them stay in place. Young women with eager, excited expressions, older women, wary and watchful, little girls who are wide-eyed and brisk of step. And occasionally a man here and there, often staring with undisguised curiosity. The shopkeepers, sitting cross-legged on the carpeted floors of their shops, surrounded by bales of brilliantly-colored, richly-textured fabrics, eye the river of females expectantly, some rising up in miniature dances, leaping up with extended hands toward the women, beckoning.

There's such a rush at the chatwallah's I can easily believe he's offering something no one else has. Women congregate around his stall noisily, many awaiting their plates impatiently, others already hastily spooning chat into their mouths, their faces red and sweaty from the hot chilies, their purdahs and dupattas forgotten as they lift spoonful after spoonful of soft yellow chick peas, thinly-sliced, sharp onions, tomatoes, hot green chilies and pieces of potatoes, all doused with a variety of tamarind-laced chutneys and spicy yogurt. Flies hum busily around us and over us, the air is redolent with the piquant aroma of spices and tart tamarind juice; our mouths water.

"Don't tell your mother we had chat," Rabiya warns as she digs into the pyramid in her plate.

"And if you get sick make sure you come to me," Auntie Fatima waffles through a mouthful. "I have something that works much better than Imodium A.D."

My mouth is on fire. It's a blazing, wondrous fire that leaves me hot and cold alternately. Like there's heat coursing through all the veins in my body. The tastes tap dance on my palate and burrow into my tongue. The tamarind chutney makes my eyes flutter. Just as I'm about to wipe off with a corner of my dupatta the tiny glob of yogurt that's trickled onto the side of my mouth, I see Ata'ullah.

He doesn't see me right away. But when he does his eyes hold mine for an instant in surprised recognition. Walking alongside him, although it's difficult to see who's with whom because everything and everyone is cheek by jowl in this place, is a tall woman in a white chador. Her face, except for the rectangle of her eyes, is veiled. At first I think he's a figment of my imagination, what with all the stories of Anarkali and then the chat which is burning me up. But then he looks in my direction again and there's a hint of a smile—yes, just a quick, small turning up of the lip nearly hidden under the inky black mustache. I nudge Auntie Fatima with my elbow, kick Rabiya's foot with mine.

"That's him," I whisper fiercely, my cheeks tingling, my tongue wobbling.

He notices our stare and before I can fully recover from the surprise of finding him in this unlikely place and in the company of a woman whose face I cannot see and whose eyes reveal no emotion, he trudges away from us, the woman following closely behind.

"Well Nasreen," Auntie Fatima says sympathetically, "that's probably his wife."

"She could be his sister too," Rabiya says, clanking the spoon in her empty plate, trying to get the last drop of chutney.

"Yes, that's true, but we'll never know, will we?" Auntie Fatima gets money out of her bag to pay the chatwallah.

"Unless we go after him," Rabiya offers with a chortle.

Ata'ullah's companion has slowed him down. She is fingering a length of purple chenille on a bale that is part of an arrangement projecting invitingly from the shop's interior. His back is turned to us. He seems to be ignoring the movement of his female companion's hand. I notice rings, a heavy gold bracelet. The eyes dart from one part of the fabric to another. Then she drops the piece and picks up something else. A red chenille. He hovers, restlessly. Although the two of them are together, there is so little communication between them they could easily pass for strangers standing next to each other. Unimpressed with what she sees, she moves on to the next shop, to another display. The shopkeeper jumps from his place to throw open a bale with a flourish. Ata'ullah walks on as well, but his gait is cautious, as if he can feel our eyes on his back.

This is not how I had imagined him. He's incongruous among these mundane surroundings—a bazaar, women fingering fabric, buying shoes, eating chat. Standing like a watchman next to a fully veiled woman in a busy section of the cloth market while she shops for chenille, he's curiously out of place. Not once had I imagined him anywhere else except in the desert, on a horseback, the wind sweeping through his long, dark hair. And would I also wear a veil if he and I were together in public? Suddenly I think of Faisal, the doctor with dreams of America in his head, his heart a wide open space where any young Pakistani American girl could fit easily, and fear clutches at my heart. What if I were alone here, and lost?

Auntie Fatima looks at me. I can see she's weighing Rabiya's remark with all the prodigious experience of her years on one scale and the streak of boldness she's suffered from all her life, in the other.

As we talk Ata'ullah and his female companion turn a corner and disappear from view.

"Too late now," Auntie Fatima says with a smile.

Rabiya pats my arm reassuringly.

"We weren't really going to follow him, were we?" I ask.

"We weren't?" Auntie Fatima says and both she and Rabiya break into laughter.

I am uneasy. Auntie Fatima's question rankles in my mind, tossing about as if it meant something. "Ohho, be serious," I mutter irately, "why pretend we're brave when we're not."

 

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