Uncommon Ground – Hippie to Hijab & back
Brought up in the heady laissez-faire world of the 1960s free-love era, 17-year-old Magdalena was a spiritual seeker, easily influenced by those who inspired her. Following on the coattails of the Beatles, she and a friend hitchhiked from Stockholm in 1971 in search of a guru to teach them. The goal was India, but Magdalena never got that far. In the borderlands of Northern Pakistan, she fell madly in love with a young Pashtun man, a turn of events that took both of their lives onto a whole new path.
Shahid was the son of a wealthy landowner – and was already engaged when he fell head over heels for Magdalena. In his honor-bound culture, their whirlwind romance and impromptu marriage were an affront to his fiancée’s family, a crime worthy of death.
The two began travelling, trying to stay under their pursuers’ radar. With her spiritual leanings, Magdalena did her best to adapt to his culture. The couple also tried living in Stockholm, but the struggle to fit in was even harder for Shahid.
Returning to his family home, Shahid and Magdalena set up house and worked hard to make a life for themselves. Magdalena learned to cook over an open fire, eat with her hands and live under the strict regulations that govern women’s lives in the rural Pashtun culture.
Franciska von Koch paints a moving portrait of her alter ego Magdalena’s trials in the Swat Valley of northern Pakistan, the beauty of the countryside, the love of her husband and his welcoming family and the eventual collapse of their dream.
Sweet, gentle Mori! Her clothes were clean and well-pressed, but the fabric was the simplest cotton. Her brown eyes were childlike and the lines in her face showed that she’d spent long hours working in the sun. Shahid’s mother really wasn’t as old as she looked. It was the toothless mouth that made her look like an old woman, though she was probably only in her early fifties, no one really knew.
The instant Mori approached me with open arms and her wide, gap-toothed smile, I knew this woman was completely genuine. She utterly rejected the idea of getting false teeth, even if she had difficulty chewing and covered her mouth with her hand when she laughed to hide the gaps. She didn’t know any other life and she loved her family fiercely. And she was respected just as she was. In her embrace I felt that she had more than enough love to spare.
Time and time again I heard Mori say how brave she thought I was to have left my family and traveled so far. Trying to explain how far away Sweden was, I said, “Imagine riding a bus for a month.”
“Alhamdulillah,” said Mori, lifting her hands to her face, “you came that far just to live with us?” None of the women in the household had ever been farther away than Lahore, and even that had been a huge adventure.
But when I suggested that she didn’t have to live her life toothless, all she said was, “An old woman like me, what would the other wives say? They’re probably already jealous anyway.”
Excerpts – Uncommon Ground – Hippie to Hijab & back
The dust from the unpaved road swirled in through the windows that didn’t close, and the seats were hard. But that wasn’t the worst part. All the men and teenage boys had turned around in their seats and sat staring at us at the back of the bus. Even the children were staring at us, though the women sat facing forward, their heads covered with faded cotton fabric that reminded me of old bedsheets. Here in Pakistan they wore one giant cloth, making them look like covered statues in a dusty studio just waiting to be unveiled. The men were silent, staring at me. It was starting to get on my nerves. Their body language was opaque. They didn’t talk to each other or give any indication of what they might be thinking. They showed no reaction when I wagged my finger or made faces at them. It just called even more attention to me. Not once had Göran and I been left in peace since we left Afghanistan, where people were much more placid and didn’t pay us the same attention. The hours passed and the men stared.
Eventually I hit on the idea of taking the shawl I always had around my shoulders and pulling it up over my head. It was as if I’d discovered a secret code, because the instant I covered my head, everyone turned face forward and stopped staring. Now I knew how to earn respect! Later I would learn what those stares meant: A woman who openly shows her face is a whore. But right now I was just a young tourist who thought these people were rude.
[Shahid’s little sister] Muzarath giggled innocently at my Pashtu pronunciation, correcting me by singing along with the song.
She asked me in clumsy English what we did in Sweden, how we dressed, and I tried to show how men and women could lie on the ground sunning ourselves in bathing suits in the summer. She was shocked.
“Yes, we girls wear a top and a bottom,” I explained, demonstrating with my hands what a bikini looked like.
Aghast, she pulled her veil up over her nose and mouth, staring at me wide-eyed and red-cheeked.
“That’s nuts!” I assume she said in Pashtu.
“But it is normal in Sweden,” I told her.
I tried to explain that sunbathing in a bikini was something everyone did in Sweden. But she’d probably never understand. According to Shahid, no one here had ever seen anyone naked. The Pashtuns didn’t share the tradition of bathhouses that existed in other parts of the Orient, and even being outdoors among men was strange in the women’s world. But once, my sister-in-law explained in gestures, she had gone with the entire family to a wedding in Lahore, and there was a woman there who smoked cigarettes and talked loudly. She probably had trouble finding a husband – what man would want such a boorish woman? No Pashtun, anyway. But Muzarath thought it was exciting listening to her.
After having been so sick, I was vulnerable in a way I’d never been before. The unpredictable conflicts between us also created a field of tension. I never knew if I was doing things right or wrong. What had happened to the gutsy, adventurous Magdalena who had hitchhiked over half the continent? The indescribable feeling of security and caring that Shahid inspired in me could suddenly, unexpectedly, turn into a nightmare in which I felt myself ejected from paradise, and then just as suddenly that warm, fuzzy feeling would be back again.
I found myself on an emotional rollercoaster. It was draining my energy, though I didn’t realize it at the time. Often I had no idea I was making a mistake that would make Shahid’s temper flare up, and it made me emotionally unstable. We might be out exploring the town, like the time I went into a store to buy shampoo. The man behind the counter showed me several different products and I asked for hairbrushes, barrettes and other little things behind the counter. I hadn’t been in a store for over a month, and I was having fun shopping. Shahid stood fidgeting impatiently, obviously vexed. He thought we were talking too much. When the clerk gave Shahid a knowing look that said, “Aha, you found yourself a tourist girl to have a little fun with,” he was enraged. But I didn’t notice anything until he scolded me afterwards.
“Why did you stay there talking to him for so long? Didn’t you see how he was looking at you?” he demanded when we got out on the street.
“I didn’t think about it.”
“Argh, how can you be so blind? The man was staring at you as if you were a whore!”
“You have to learn!”
“Yes, I will.”
© Franciska von Koch
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