Amy Herdy's Pakistan travel diary, volume four

Categories: Politics

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Amy Herdy teaching at the National University of Modern Languages, or NUML, in Islamabad.

Editor's note: Amy Herdy, a former Denver Post and Channel 9 journalist who's currently the advisor for the University of Colorado at Boulder's CUIndependent.com online newspaper, is in Pakistan under the auspices of the State Department. Her mission: to give students and professional journalists the tools they need to improve the media in their country. Below, find the fourth edition of her travel diary. Click on these links to read the first, second and third, as well as this account of her first visit to the region.

I didn't drink the tap water -- I didn't even use it to wet my toothbrush.

I avoided having any milk other than powdered in my tea because it was more than likely not pasteurized.

I didn't eat fruit I couldn't peel.

But ultimately, it was my love of salad that got me -- or rather, the water used to rinse it off.

At any rate, I barely remember the late evening drive from the airport to the Islamabad home of my host, U.S. Embassy cultural attaché Constance Jones. I do remember seeing her in the driveway and feeling immediately heartened. I stayed with Constance last November and enjoyed her company immensely. Now her familiar, cheerful face reassured me that even thought I felt like death, things might get better after all.

Constance fixes me some herbal medicine she'd gotten in Germany, but my stomach soon rejects it, along with the ginger ale given me by Kabir, her houseman. This goes on until early morning. Finally, after my body is satisfied that every last bit of the unwelcome bacterial guest has been evicted in as thorough a manner as possible, I fall into a heavy sleep for the next twelve hours.

The next day is Sunday. There is nothing scheduled -- no meetings, no workshop, no dinner, and I am very grateful to simply be. I would find out later that Constance, taking care of me even from a distance, had been the driving force behind my ticket being changed so that I left Karachi early. It wasn't for security, she told me. I had been working hard for six days in a row, and she had wanted me to have an entire rest day, free from even travel.

Still wearing my pajamas in the afternoon, I slowly walk the grounds of Constance's home. I feel like someone has sewn me up in a sleeping bag and then used a baseball bat on me; I am sore all over. But that soon fades as I begin to enjoy the lush atmosphere of her garden. An ancient rubber tree, its leaves shiny and green, holds court over the driveway, its gnarled roots splaying out like thick, knotted rope. Next to it, a magnolia tree cups its fragrant white blossoms throughout its heavy branches. There are rose bushes of every hue in every direction, and their blooms are often cut and decorate the house in colorful bouquets.

It's quiet here. The home is surrounded by a very tall concrete wall with rolls of barbed wire at the top. Other than a guard at the foot of the drive who remains on duty 24 hours a day, there is no one to look at me strangely as I move carefully about.

For the first time in many days, I fully exhale. The rest of the day is spent reading, catching up on e-mails and writing my travel journal.

It's during my stay in Islamabad that I will realize how many folks in Pakistan are reading my travel blogs. All week long, during meetings or dinner conversations or even in casual conversation, someone will preface saying something to me with, "This isn't for your blog, but..."

I don't ask anyone, including even Constance whom I greatly admire, if they like the blog or not. I don't want to know, because I don't want to be impeded by anyone's opinion. I write it for my students back home, for my family, my friends and for me. In a land where everything is so foreign and, as a result, sometimes difficult, it comforts me somehow, maybe because it helps me maintain a connection to who I am. And I share my personal experiences because I feel that an examination of everyday life can offer insight. In this case, it can highlight the differences -- and the similarities -- between the American culture from which I hail and the Pakistani culture in which I now move.

As for the venue -- with their own Web site on hiatus for the summer, my students picked Westword.

I'm accompanied all week long by Embassy staff, who are all smart, gracious and crisply efficient. On Monday, it's time for our first workshop of the week, to be held at National University of Modern Languages, or NUML, which is in Islamabad. True to its name NUML offers a wide variety of languages to study, including Arabic, Chinese, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Persian and Russian.

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The audience at NUML.

Most of the male students wear jeans and a T-shirt. Some wear the shalwar kameez, or a long tunic over loose pants. Nearly all of the females wear shalwar kameez and also a dupatta, or scarf.

I'm wearing a suit, as I've done so far for most of the trip. Before I left for Pakistan, embassy folks had told me that due to the scorching tropical weather, simple blouses and long skirts would be fine. But I wanted to present in as professional a manner as possible for the students. Plus I have a freakish ability to withstand heat.

So far, the weather hasn't mattered. Except for a brief afternoon sightseeing tour in Lahore, my time has been exclusively indoors, due in part to schedule constraints and mostly because of security concerns. In Karachi, the workshop was held in a room that was so highly air conditioned that I became chilled and began wrapping myself in the ajrak, or large shawl, given to me at the Karachi Press Club. The second day of the workshop, I deviated from my usual suit. The security briefing still at the front of my brain, I wore loose cotton pants and a short kurti, or tunic, I had bought during a brief dash to a store in Lahore, in order to be just a little less obvious as I moved about outside our room.

Here in Islamabad, the weather is less extreme than in Lahore or Karachi, where the temperature reached 106 degrees.

The morning at the workshop goes well, and then we break for lunch, which is salad and pizza laden heavily with meat. The memory still fresh of the salad I ate in Karachi that literally came back to haunt me, I don't even hesitate, but choose the meat pizza. I pick off what I can and decide to not worry about the rest that's hidden under the cheese: I won't be a vegan today.

In the afternoon session, I'm answering various journalism questions from the audience when one young man says he has a question about ethics.

"Now, when journalists are spies, like Daniel Pearl," he says, "who worked for the CIA..."

I haven't interrupted a student before. I swiftly do now.

"So you're telling me that you know for a fact Daniel Pearl was CIA -- that you have irrefutable proof?" I challenge him. "You can show me this proof?"

"Well, no," he says, getting the point, and then he rephrases the question. "Suppose a journalist is actually a spy, but they say they are a journalist. Wouldn't that be a violation of journalist ethics?"

It's impossible to hide my irritation. I frown at him. "IF someone was indeed actually a spy and yet said they were a journalist, well, they wouldn't be a journalist, now, would they?"

Emboldened by that question, perhaps, the next student, another male, stands to ask me a question about U.S. policy. Again, I answer firmly. "I have nothing to do with U.S. policy," I tell him. "I'm a journalist. That's a question you should put to Leslie" -- an Embassy staff member.

The females in the audience are quiet. For the rest of the workshop's question-and-answer period, the moderators repeatedly say, "Less questions from the males. More questions from the females." At one point I even urge, "Let's have the next five questions all come from females." And we get three. I find that most of them wait until the session is over and then approach me in person.

At the next day's workshop, held at Fatima Jinnah Women University in Rawalpindi, it's a completely different situation. Fatima Jinnah, the first female university in Pakistan, is named after "Madar-e-Millat Mohtarma Fatima Jinnah," or the sister of the founder of Pakistan, Quaid-i-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah, for the efforts of his sibling toward the emancipation of women. It's primarily housed in an enormous, rambling structure that looks like a palace. Deeply hued tile adorns the walls and intricate patterns are etched into the tall ceilings, from which many of the original chandeliers still hang.

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Attendees at a workshop at Fatima Jinnah Women University in Rawalpindi.

I find the students to be exceedingly thoughtful with their observations and questions. They are primarily concerned with what it's like to be a journalist and also a woman, and our conversation is frank and personal.

"If you had to name one trait that has helped you compete with men as a journalist, what would it be?" one of them asks me, and I don't hesitate with my answer.

"I'd say it's because I never give up," I tell these young women. "Lots of journalists -- male and female -- are smarter than me, or write better than I do, or simply have more talent. But what I do have is a very strong will and focus -- if I'm pursuing a story, I simply won't be deterred. And as a woman," I tell them as they nod, "that has often meant believing I can get an interview or a story after some man has told me I couldn't."

When asked how to balance a home life and work, I tell them that even after twenty years, it's still an ongoing struggle. I'm missing my middle son's birthday to be here, I tell them, and I missed my youngest son's soccer game where he scored his first goal of the season. I feel the sting of those lost moments keenly.

But I'm passionate about teaching journalism, and I believe this work to be very important, so here I am, even though it means missing my family, I tell them. At that, they all breathe a collective sigh of sympathy.

The third day, we go to Islamic International University, which focuses on Islamic learning. It's an enormous facility set on a campus that stretches on for hundreds of acres.

Instead of a suit, I have borrowed a long striped tunic from Constance to wear. We were told that our audience would be entirely male -- they separate the male and female students -- but to our surprise, females begin walking into the room. They sit to my right, the males to my left. There is no interaction between the two groups.

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At Islamic International University. Herdy's to the right, wearing a tunic.

There is a sign posted out front that says today is "Female Day" at the library. That means, I am told, that only the females are allowed access for the day.

After the workshop, there are no pointed questions about western media. Instead, I find myself flanked by about a dozen male students, who ask specific questions about interviewing: What's the best way to ask this question, or how should I approach that person? After several minutes, I look past one of the male students and see a small group of female students standing in the back of the room, patiently waiting, so I excuse myself and walk over to them to answer their questions.

Suddenly, it's time to go. The vehicle is waiting on me, yet I can't leave yet. One female student still hovers, a tiny young woman who is wearing solid black, her small face barely peeking out from under her dupatta. She swallows with pent-up emotion and then says what's on her mind. "It is so hard," she tells me with tears of frustration, "to be a woman in Pakistan. The males look down on us so much. How can I have a happy life, living this way? How can I hope to accomplish anything?"

The group from the Embassy has headed out the door. From outside, I hear someone call my name. What can I possibly say to her in thirty seconds that might help her? What advice would I give her if she were my daughter, I think desperately.

"For every person who tells you that you can't do something, for every 'no' that you hear, you must say 'yes, I can' to yourself a dozen times more," I tell her.

"Believe in yourself. Believe you can be happy. Don't listen to anyone who tries to tell you otherwise."

I scribble my e-mail on a scrap of paper -- I'm out of cards -- and she gives a small nod of thanks and walks away. I stare after her and also feel helpless.


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