Behind the Walls in the Land of the Pure

I wanted to scream; I was so frustrated by his ignorance.  I sat down on the bed and folded my arms across my chest. Why did I come to this stupid party? I should have known better. I looked at Ali. He was staring at the floor.

“Listen, Ali, let me tell you something,” I began. “Life in the West is not like you see in the movies.”

I sat on one bed and Ali faced me on the other. I told him about life in Canada.  Unlike Pakistan, Canadian men and women were not segregated. I had attended school with boys since kindergarten. I talked about crushes, high school dances, going around with someone, dating. I told him that Canadian freedom, especially sexual freedom, came with responsibility.

Ali listened attentively.

“Of course, I never had a girlfriend. It’s almost impossible here. There was a girl I liked when I was in college, but we never even talked to each other. She’s married now.” Ali put his head in his hands. “The truth is, most Pakistani guys learn about sex in a brothel. Including me.”

He yawned, stood up, smiled and held out his hand to me.

“Come on, you look tired. I’ll buy you a fresh orange juice at the bazaar. Then let’s call it a night.”

I felt relieved. I gave him my hand.

“Okay, Ali. Chalo.  I’m bushed.”

We left the key on the counter. A clerk was sound asleep, slumped in a chair behind the hotel front desk.

Ali stopped in front of the gates to Lahore’s Anarkali Bazaar, named for a famous courtesan. Dawn was just breaking, but a juice cart, stocked with fresh oranges, was nearby. Ali brought two glasses back to the car. The orange juice was cool and refreshing. I hadn’t realized how thirsty I was. Or how tired.

We drove back to the hotel in silence.  No doorman greeted me. It was too early.

My hand lightly grazed Ali’s shoulder. “Good night, Ali. I had a great time.”

He smiled, stifling a yawn. “Same here.”

I dashed through the lobby, grateful that nobody I knew was at the front desk.  I put the Do not disturb sign up on my door before I locked it behind me. I fell into bed and was soon fast asleep.

The shrill sound of the telephone jarred me awake.

“Hello, beautiful!” said a familiar voice. It was Ali.

“Good morning,” I croaked. “I was sleeping.”

“I need to talk to you. 9 p.m. tonight?”

“Well – yeah – okay. What do you want to talk to me about?”

“You’ll see.”

I hung up and went back to sleep.

At 9 o’clock that evening, I stepped into Ali’s car. He gave me a huge smile and handed me a small box.  I looked at it, puzzled.

“What’s this?”

“Go ahead, open it.”

Inside was a beautiful pair of earrings. I rarely bought jewelry in Pakistan because most of the styles were elaborate and would have looked ridiculous back in Canada. The earrings, like all the other gifts Ali had given me, were just perfect. He had fantastic taste.

“Thanks a lot, they’re beautiful. But what’s with the gift? I thought after last night…” my voice trailed off.

“You know, Mariam, last night was… I guess you could say it was a revelation for me. Pakistani men are stupid. Just because it’s impossible to meet girls here we think that in Canada people must be having sex all the time. Give me another chance.”

I was taken aback but also impressed.  What was there to lose?

“Okay, I’ll give you another chance. So, what are we doing tonight?”

That evening we did what most young affluent people in Lahore do for entertainment. We drove up and down Lahore’s famous Mall Road.  When we reached the roundabout, we turned around and went down the road again. Pakistan had virtually no public space for social life; cars were an extension of private space.  Most private vehicles, including Ali’s, had darkened windows to keep out both heat and prying eyes.

“Why don’t we go to the coffee shop in the Indus Hotel?” I suggested, naming Lahore’s other five-star hotel.

“Everybody knows me.  I don’t want to start rumors. People will wonder who you are, what you are doing having tea with me there.”

“You’re right. I didn’t think about that.”

Looking out the car window, I realized Ali was correct. Rumors might get back to both our families. Lahore’s many restaurants and coffee shops were the exclusive domain of men. A woman, even accompanied by a man, who entered one of these establishments, would be highly conspicuous.  If we wanted a snack, we would have to do what most people in Lahore did: order our food delivered to the car on a tray to be eaten in privacy behind dark windows.

Over the next month, Ali and I cruised the Mall Road and beyond.

“I want to show you how wonderful Lahore is,” said Ali.

We went to McLeod Road for namkeen chai, a milky pink Kashmiri tea. We drove over to Fortress Stadium to buy bootleg cassettes. There were more parties, though none at the Diplomat Hotel.  Ali’s tour included Lahore’s red light district, heera mandi, where dancing girls, five-o’clock-shadowed transvestites and red-lipped prostitutes entertained nightly. The world’s oldest profession thrived in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan.

Coasting up and down Mall Road with Ali was a master class on the hypocrisy of Pakistani society. It was all there – sex before marriage, adultery, drugs and drinking. Ali knew the stories, scandals and rumors. Riveted, I listened as he told me tales of men with mistresses, women with lovers, rich kid drug addicts – I was astounded and intrigued.

As we drove past some of Lahore’s newest walled mansions, Ali waved his hand.

“Welcome to Pakistan. We have it all – sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll.” He turned towards me, flashing me one of his dazzling smiles.

“You know what, Ali?” I leaned back in my seat and studied the car ceiling.


“All my life I thought that Pakistan was the land of the pure. But now I realize that Pakistanis are sinners just like the rest of us. I can’t put my finger on it, but knowing this makes me feel much more at home here than I ever did before.”

Ali chuckled.  The car slowed as he shifted down and approached the roundabout yet again.

Allah! God help us, Mariam.  We’re all humans. What’s that British expression? We all put our underpants on one leg at a time?”

We were both giggling as Ali steered around the curve.

Shezan for tea and cake? Would Madam like car service?”

“Sure,” I said, and we roared down Mall Road once again.


Mariam S. PalMariam S. Pal is an emerging writer based in Montreal. She has traveled extensively and lived in the Philippines and West Africa. Her short essays about her family history, squirrels invading her house or her love of pickling have been published in Canada and abroad. She is currently completing the manuscript of her first book, a memoir about growing up Pakistani-Canadian. Mariam has taken numerous writing workshops and is a founding member of a Montreal writing group now in its fifth year. Mariam has degrees in economics and law and is semi-retired from careers in international development and immigration.