Behind the Walls in the Land of the Pure

Ali, who worked at the Sapphire, was cute, smart and wore suits straight out of the pages of GQ. He had a garrulous laugh and exuded a heady combination of confidence and sex appeal. Ali always seemed to appear in the lobby as I was leaving the hotel in the morning or when I returned from work.  My two male colleagues teased me about my admirer.

A few days after I checked in, flower arrangements and fruit baskets appeared in my room.  One day, a charming copper bowl filled with tiny flowers was artfully placed on the bedside table and the next, a wall hanging and a tablecloth, beautifully wrapped, were on the coffee table. There was no gift card.

I was fairly sure Ali had sent the gifts. I was used to unwelcome attention from Pakistani men – primarily rude and bold stares. I expected this behavior and knew how to deal with it. An admirer was uncharted territory.  The flattery was fun, but I was also wary. Where was this leading?

“May I join you?” said Ali, as he sat down in one of the chairs beside the swimming pool.

“Absolutely, I just ordered tea. Would you like some?”

Ali smiled. “No, thank you. I’ll only disturb you for a minute. I just wanted to know if you’re free this Thursday night. I’ve been invited to a party. Great way to start the weekend.” In Pakistan, the weekend started on Thursday night and ended on Sunday morning.

I didn’t know what to say. Three weeks earlier, I never imagined that there were any parties in Lahore or that I would go to one on a date!  For me, recreation in Lahore had always meant going shopping, sightseeing or visiting relatives, not to a party.

“Can I get back to you later today?”

“Wonderful. Hope you can make it!” Ali stood, smiled, mock-saluted and then headed back into the hotel.

I pondered Ali’s invite.  Caution was important. What if the party was raided? Pakistan was under military rule.  But Pakistani laws for the rich and laws for the poor were very different. Nothing would happen. I accepted the invitation.

The evening of Imran’s party, I strode confidently out of the hotel main doors where transport was always waiting for me – either my family or an office driver. Seeing neither, the Christian doorman gave me a funny look, but I smiled and kept on walking towards the parking lot. I wore black leather pants and a white shirt.

Ali had said to look for a white Nissan. “My plate number is LHK-747. I’ll wait for you in my car at 9 p.m. in the hotel parking lot.”

I opened the car door and stepped inside. I looked at him and laughed. “Love the white shirt and black leather pants. We have matching outfits!”

As we drove to the party down Lahore’s Mall Road, Ali filled me in.

“The party is at the Diplomat Hotel and the host is the owner’s son, Imran. When the British were here, it was the place to stay. You can bet there will be lots to drink.” Ali smiled broadly. “You see, Mariam, until about ten years back, booze kept the hotel from going under. But when Bhutto caved in to the fundoos and banned alcohol, the bar was closed. So, the Diplomat went into the bootleg liquor business.”

Ali parked the car in front of the shabby hotel. We strolled through the tired 1930s-style lobby out to the high-walled garden and greeted our host. Then we wandered over to the bar. Feeling adventurous, I tried the dirty punch. It was a mixture of unidentifiable alcohol, fruit juice and sugar. The foul taste reminded me of what my friends and I drank in the parking lot before high school dances. We called it shit mix.

My fellow partygoers gulped their drinks like water. There was no food to accompany the punch. As the evening continued, I was one of the few guests still sober.

Two men walked by, hand in hand, deep in conversation. Pakistani males were very demonstrative with each other in public. Men often walked down the street holding hands. Yet men never touched an unrelated woman – this was taboo. Even a married man wouldn’t dream of holding his spouse’s hand in public but would happily walk down the street arm in arm with a close male friend.

A disco had been set up in a room just off the pool. We went inside.

You’ve got it, ooh baby you’ve got it…

I couldn’t believe my ears. “Venus”, the latest song by Bananarama, was blaring from tinny speakers. The same song had swept the Montreal clubs just weeks before. Was I really in Lahore? I looked around. I was the only woman not wearing Pakistani traditional dress, the shalwar kameez. Everyone stood shyly in a circle, swaying to the music. Two girls danced together. It reminded me of Junior High. Ali grabbed my hand and pulled me onto the dance floor. Spurred on by the dirty punch, we twirled for a few songs, barely conscious of the curious gazes.

By 3 a.m., the party was winding down. Ali and I were poolside, talking to some of the other guests.

Imran burst out of the hotel, clapping his hands. “Boys and girls, it’s bedtime.”

Behind him walked a servant who held aloft a tray full of hotel room keys. Was this a Pakistani key party?  Before I knew what was happening, Ali grabbed a key from the tray with his left hand. With his right, he propelled me in the hotel door and down the corridor. He stopped in front of a door.  Fumbling for a second, he turned the key in the lock, opened the door and switched on a fluorescent light that hung from the ceiling. I followed him inside.

The high ceilinged room was sparsely furnished with two twin beds and a table in between.  It smelled musty. There were faded flowered curtains on the window, a rusty ceiling fan and an old TV. The atmosphere was gloomy and decrepit and not at all seductive.  I sat on one of the beds. It squeaked, and I could feel the frame through the thin foam mattress. Ali sat across from me on the other bed.  I folded my arms across my chest, crossed one leg over the other and looked at Ali.  He flashed me a nervous, excited grin. I knew exactly what was behind his smile.

“Ok, just hold on a sec here. Ali, I said I would go to a party with you. I didn’t agree to sleep with you.”

Ali looked at me, confused. “But you’re used to this – I mean, you’re from Canada.”

“Oh yeah, and just how much do you know about Canada?”  I stood up. “For your information, I don’t have sex with every guy I go to a party with. Get real. And even if I wanted to, I don’t have a condom. Do you? There is this little problem called AIDS.”

“Don’t be ridiculous, Mariam. There’s no AIDS in Pakistan. No filthy homos either.” Ali scowled.

“Excuse me, but you don’t need to be gay to get AIDS.” My voice was getting louder. “And by the way, one of my best friends back home is a gay guy.”