Sunday, April 3, 2011

Dirty American

Dirty American

It was my first day of my UN internship at the Nasir-Bagh refugee camp in Pakistan. I was looking forward to attending to the care of the Afghan refugees, who made up this camp of some 100,000 residents.  Most of these refugees had fled from the brutal Taliban regime in neighboring Afghanistan.  As I arrived that morning, I saw young, thin boys swimming in an impossibly filthy stream in the front of the camp.  After turning left and crossing a narrow bridge, we drove down the long, dusty road toward the large, canvas tent, where we would see our patients.  Along the way, I saw vegetable vendors and make-shift stores embedded alongside the countless rows of mud huts. 

Upon arriving, I joined my superior, Dr. Alam, and the rest of the UN staff around the large table outside the main tent. Alam made polite small talk with me and served tea.  Tea far too hot for the 116° heat.

I was still getting accustomed to Peshawar.  I had only been in this dusty, poverty-stricken city for two days.  I was still jet-lagged and rather self-conscious that I did not speak the local language.  At the large, wooden table, Alam and I were joined by the nurses and midwives, who all seemed to be talking about me.  I was slightly relieved to see kind nods and smiles.  On the other hand, I remained rather nervous because this was my first time doing any type of aid work.  I just didn’t know what to expect.   

Alam continued break thxe ice, but it didn't make me any less uneasy.  "You have settled into your room O.K.?”
"Yes, my room is quite comfortable."
"Are you liking Peshawar?"
"Yes, I'm growing accustomed to it."  I decided not to tell him what I really thought, which was that Peshwar was one of the most bizarre places I'd ever seen.  The filth I saw when walking along the streets was unrivaled. They day before, I had seen a man leaning over a whole chicken, removing its feathers on a dirt path, with hands covered in motor oil.  "Note to self," I thought, "eat rice with lentils from now on." But poor cities are almost always dirty places.  What was truly odd about this is that I saw absolutely no women about the town.  Not a single one.  I knew that Pashtos (the dominant ethnic group in Northwest Pakistan) had a custom of not allowing women to leave the home, but I thought I'd at least see women with their husbands.
"Soooo, Sasha, how many girlfriends do you have?"
O.K. This was not a question I had anticipated, but I fielded it as well as I could, given the circumstances.  "Well, Alam…uhhh…I have one girlfriend."
"Oh, you only have one girlfriend?  I thought you would have many more. 15."
"15 girlfriends?” I began to laugh.  “No, no. I've never heard of anyone in the States with so many girlfriends."
"Really?" he said inquisitively.  "So, what is her name?"
I cringed.  We were getting into territory I really didn't want to be in.  My stomach churned and it wasn't the astronomical bacterial content of beef stew I had the night before.
"Her name is Anita."
"She is Indian?"  he asked without judgment.
I looked across the table and felt that all the rest of the camp staff were listening, as their eyes were intently fixed on me.  I had to reassure myself that they didn't speak English.
"Yes, she's Indian," I replied. 
"Oh, God!  Why did I say that? Here I am in one of the most conservative Muslim cities in one of the most populous Muslim countries in the world and I just told my superior that my girlfriend is Indian.  Fantastic.  They’re going to think I’m a bad Muslim and a traitorous Pakistani.  Great start to this internship, buddy.”
"Very interesting," Alam remarked.
“’Very interesting?’ Oh, no.  I hate ‘very interesting.’ It seems innocent enough, but anytime someone says ‘very interesting’ it really means, ‘Yeah, that’s some fucked up shit?’"  So there I was, being welcomed by the doctor who would be my internship supervisor and I was stupid enough to reveal my girlfriend was a member of the only religion that my coworkers might have a problem with.  “What the hell is he going to think of me now?” I wondered.
"Is she a Hindu?"
With great hesitation, I answered, "Yes, she is Hindu - so what time do we begin seeing patients?"
Alam didn't hesitate nor did he go for the change in subject.  I thought, "He's not going to give me some lecture about why I should date Pakistani women is he?  This is absolutely not how I want to begin my work here."
"Sooo, what do you do with her?" 
"I'm saved," I thought.  I was relieved Alam was not one of those self-righteous people that always feel they need to judge Americans.  "Well, we go to movies. We go to restaurants for dinner. We spend time with friends.
"No, no.  I mean, what do you do with her in the bed?"
"Did I hear that right?  Did my superior, a UN doctor, just ask me about what I do in bed with my girlfriend?  Isn't this place supposed to be ultra-conservative?  What the fuck am I supposed to answer?  Wait! Clarification!  Yes, yes there must be some language gap here.  He must mean something else."
"I'm not sure I understand, Alam," I said with a furrowed brow.  "What, exactly, do you mean?"
"Oh, I mean, like what positions are you liking?  How do you like to do it?"
I couldn't believe what was happening.  I looked over at the nurses and midwives.  I was desperately hoping someone would comment that it was time to begin seeing patients.  I was hoping a meteor would hit.  Anything, anything to stop this conversation. Did I just hear a Taliban rocket? “What does he think," I wondered, "that Americans are all sex-crazed miscreants who live real-life Cinemax movies?
"I see.  Ummm.  I'm sorry, I'm not really comfortable answering this question."
"O.K.  Tell me, are you a good fucker?" 
"Oh, I am a very good fucker," Alam said confidently while smiling and gesturing with his forearm and upper leg. 

I had to ask myself whether this was all really happening.  I mused that it might be the heat that was making me imagine this whole situation.  But in my heart I knew this was, in fact, reality.  It was officially the most bizarre first day that I could ever imagine.  "Please, God," I pleaded" I will never question another girl who claims to have been sexually harassed in the workplace.  Just please, I beg of you, get me out of this conversation!"  In a desperate attempt to change the subject, I asked, "So, Alam, tell me about your wife.  What is her name?"
"Oh, ha, ha, ha," Alam laughed as people often do when a social custom has been violated by an outsider. "We do not consider it appropriate to talk about our wives here in Peshawar."

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