Magdalen Nabb


Postcards From Pakistan
A Well In Afganistan





Every year I interrupt my work on novels about crime to write something for children. This year was different. At the time when I would normally have done that, I was drawn instead to the plight of Afghan refugee children and to the work done for them by Elisabeth Neuenschwander whose school in Quetta, Pakistan,I saw on tv. This seemed to me the moment to do something different for children so I arranged a meeting with Elisabeth in Switzerland with the idea of using the proceeds of my Josie Smith stories to buy books for her school. On returning home I received a fax, through riding contacts, from the Brooke Hospital for Animals asking for help to deal with the sudden influx into Pakistan of horses bearing refugees from the American bombardment of Afghanistan. One of my children’s books, ‘The Enchanted Horse’ seemed written for no other purpose than to provide that help. There are times when the only option is to go with the flow. I booked a ticket and applied for visas...

Afghan refugee school   Brooke Hospital drinking trough



Peshawar airport swarms with people, mostly men, some of them dragging bundles three times their own size, their entire household goods wrapped in striped cloth. Where are they coming from or going to? There are heavily armed soldiers everywhere. The few women are veiled. My veil is in my luggage and my luggage is lost. I am lost. A driver among the dozens touting for business attaches himself to me. “Don’t worry,” he says, “We respect women here. I look upon you as I would my mother.” Do I look that haggard after the journey? “My grandmother, even!” Oh dear. We abandon the luggage problem. The roads are frightening, potholes, dust, exhaust fumes, burning oil, gigantic buses and trucks covered with minutely painted patterns, tinsel, pompoms and flags, horses and donkeys pulling monstrous loads, camels lending tone. Do they drive on the left or the right here? It depends, mostly on the potholes. On either side in one-storey clay brick buildings they’re selling timber, used tyres, tinsel and coloured streamers, sugar cane, popcorn, scrawny chickens, dead or alive, kebabs, doughnuts, alfalfa and mugs of tea. Every so often there’s a bit of spare ground, a half built aparment block with buffalo lolling in the little shade cast by the walls. The modest hotel has armed guards, a fresh lawn, roses and nasturtiums, tea to be brought in a little while when the man has said his prayers. I like it here.

Street scene, Peshawar   Donkey taking medicine, Brooke mobile clinic


My first visit is to a brick kiln. Beyond the busy streets are fields of alfalfa, sugar cane and wheat. Then the landscape turns brown and dry, great chimney stacks smoke on the horizon, huge craters gape in the dust. It is very quiet. The craters are so deep because land is expensive here. Far below, old men and girls are shaping clay into bricks and stacking them to dry. Men and boys load them on to donkeys and climb the steep sides of the clay pit to take them to the kilns. The animals, unevenly and too heavily loaded, often stumble and fall. I am here with a Brooke hospital for animals mobile clinic, here every day to help these people who work twelve hours a day for about two dollars and who can’t afford vets, blacksmiths, harness or more than a few minutes off work. Without their animals they have no income. Boys and men and donkeys, all brown with clay dust, queue in silence for bleeding backs to be dressed, harness to be mended, vaccinations, medicines, financial help when their donkey has fallen for the last time from heat and exhaustion. Waiting, boys and donkeys lean on each other, glad enough of a rest. Tiny girls in broken plastic shoes and embroidered frocks cluster around me. They hold out their hands solemnly. No, they don’t want money as city children might, they want to shake hands. Even the baby one of them carries holds out a tiny fist and shakes hands too. They talk to me in Pashto and I answer in Italian. This arrangement seems to suit. Mothers want to chat, too, peeping out from a long low mud building, where the families live, donkeys and all. They tell me they can’t afford to send their children to school. They can’t afford to feed them. They consider themselves lucky, being refugees, to have work and shelter. They wave and smile as we leave and the brown silent ‘moonscape’ receeds.

At work in the brick kilns   Too poor for school


Driving to Islamabad I cross the Indus, sapphire blue, emerald green, glittering. Islamabad seems like the film set for a capital city. They tell me that just one of the massive government complexes, built by Mrs Bhutto, cost as much to run as the average town. Mrs Bhutto is still in exile. I talk to her People's Party media advisor, Embesat Khan, an aspiring politician herself. “Musharraf? He was our only alternative to the religious extremists. I’m interested in women’s questions. I was in Ireland recently at a conference on violence to women and everyone was speaking against Pakistan, women’s faces damaged by acid and cut with knives. Those things are true but Ireland has the highest incidence of wife beating in the world.” Embesat lives right next door to the Christian church that was recently bombed and which she occasionally attends though she is a muslim. The veil here is very much a fashion accessory, draped prettily over one shoulder. “I am a modern woman. I have a career and I live alone,” In an elegant apartment with two manservants. Her two brothers each have places in the same block, her parents are across the spacious courtyard. We look at the day’s newspapers. One of the lead stories is that of Mohammed Rehan, a child in hospital after being beaten in a Rawalpindi madrassa. “all the newspapers are in the hands of just two owners and Musharref controls them.”

Dorothy Brooke, founder of the Brooke hospitals   A Brooke mobile clinic


A new paper, ‘The Daily Times’ has just been launched from Lahore. I talk to the editor there. ‘We intend to be totally independent. The paper is in English and I have excellent journalists, educated at Cambridge,Harvard and Princeton. Musharref is the third of his kind. They take power at gunpoint and then they lose it.’ Lahore is the way I imagined the North West Frontier Province to be: forts and barracks, military schools, good broad roads and beautiful gardens. If you turn off the main road, though, it’s potholes and a camel tethered to the traffic lights. A ladies’ polo team is visiting and there is a party. Servants in starchy white tunics and turbans with high cockades, moustachioed generals, perfect English accents, very British Raj--except that some things have changed: our hostess, a beautiful Pakistani woman, leaves her husband to his polo ponies and pursues her own career as a commercial airline pilot. Also, Islamic states are officially dry so the servants offer fruit juice while the host discreetly but generously doles out vodka and whiskey. The women say the men drink heavily all the time and that there’s nothing much else to do. Veils an optional fashion accessory. I think I’m getting the hang of it.

Little girl studying   Making harness fot the Brooke


Quetta is the principal city of the province of Baluchistan in the south. It is poor but cheerful and my whitewashed room, two clean sheets, one blanket with holes, a plastic container of distilled water, costs about six dollars a night. My money is destined for better things than hotels. As at Peshawar in the north we are close to the Afghan border and most of the three and a half million refugees are in these two cities. Elisabeth Neuenschwander, an extraordinary Swiss woman, started the Amin primary school here and a sewing centre to help refugee women earn some money. The teachers are also refugees and what the school lacks in space, furniture and equipment--and it lacks them all--it makes up for by having the exceptional teaching of professors, lawyers, doctors and other highly qualified men and women which no normal school could dream of. The children speak Pashto or Dari and often English too. They tell me stories and jokes and sing to me of Afghanistan. Veils here are required and I do my best to keep mine on with the occasional discreet tug from a helpful little girl. One such, tiny and too shy to talk, whispers to teacher that she could show me her favourite game, blind man’s buff. She comes to the front with two friends and with a merry glint in her eye, whips off her veil to make a blindfold. The school is coeducational so how did Elisabeth escape censure from the Taleban? “ They came round here and said it was a disgrace. I agreed. I said it was shocking and I intended to get more space and teachers so as to split up the sexes within six months. Time’s nearly up but they seem to have gone.” They’ve gone from the Afghan consulate, too, just reopened under new management. The consul tells me that they trashed the place and left with all the blank passports. They did this at all the consulates before vanishing, a fact to remember when the tv news talks about ‘the last remnants of Al Kaida and the Taleban’. After our interview we go out to the garden where some turbaned warriers from Mazar-i-Sharrif are playing buzkashi on the lawn--sort of polo but using a dead goat. They’re here to give the consul lessons. I have a ride, too and then we go back in to eat an improvised picnic, sending out for kebabs and hot bread and spreading the local paper by way of a tablecloth. We watch the recent opening of the consulate on video. The secretary of the Teachers’ Association is with us and he tugs my arm, struggling to whisper in English. ‘Can you dictionaries?’ I can dictionaries all right. That’s what I’m here for. Next day we visit an Afghan money changer in the bazaar where we gossip and drink ginger tea and take the proceeds to three bookshops to buy stacks of English dictionaries and Pashto/English dictionaries.

Bagpipers, Lahore polo match   Afghan horse fare


‘Home’ to Peshawar to the familiar hotel where tea will be ready as soon as he’s finished his prayers. Out to a wedding which has been going on for most of the week. Tonight the bride will be dressed in red and the groom will take her away with him to his parents’ home. The garden of the Peshawar Club is strung with fairy lights and the warm night air is heavy with the scent of roses as a line of girls showers the guests with petals from big pewter bowls. We are all veiled and only women are allowed in this section of the garden where the bride is enthroned on a stage flanked by her sisters and girlfriends. The gauzy dresses are breathtaking ‘And,’ my neighbour whispers to me, ‘all that glitters is gold.’ The groom is brought in under a canopy, accompanied by a band, and tries to take his bride. The girls wont even let him sit with her until he offers vast amounts of money in exchange. Banknotes fly through the air, children and musicians grab what they can, the boy gets his girl and we are free to eat a lot of delicious food--a lot of it curried, some of it very sticky--on our knees--with our veils. Oh dear.
But now it’s over, the veils packed, the desert passing below me. I feel bereft.