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On becoming a Lahori

Nine months of trying to come to terms with the Lahori way of life as the Danish wife of a Punjabi

On becoming a Lahori

You only become a Frenchman after three generations. I am not sure how long or what it takes to become a Lahori, but somehow I have come to the conclusion that after nine months I still have a long way to go.

Even though I carry my marriage certificate and hold a bank account, I am still forced to pay the tourist fee at the entry gates to the city’s many museums. Telling the ticket controller that, “mae Lahori hoo” (I am Lahori) with a fixed gaze and a less convincing gora accent does not change the reality. I will forever stay a foreigner, unless I master the language completely, wear a hijab and cover my blue eyes with sunglasses. Even then, I am not sure if I would become a stereotypical Lahori, if there is  a thing as a stereotype in Lahore.

Lahore has already absorbed Mughals, Pathans, Jats, Kashmiris and many other ethnicities and castes. Actually, I am a Jat too, a Danish Jat from Jutland in Denmark originating from the Danish Vikings. People laugh when I introduce myself as a Jat from Denmark. I think they associate me with an awkward villager coming to the big city.

Well, I am guilty of that. But, somehow as a villager I feel very much at home in this city, which judging from the speed of rumours travelling from mouth to mouth is quite similar to an overgrown village. When I told my Danish friend that Lahore is a village, he jokingly called me a global metropolitan, while reminding me that I was not in a village, but in a city with double inhabitants as the total population of Denmark. To give some perspective, Copenhagen the largest city of Denmark only inhabits approximately one million people.

Anyhow, you might ask yourself, “why is she even trying?” Well, as opposed to so many other people dreaming of lives in Europe and moving out of Pakistan as soon as they get a chance, I moved the other way around — because of my love for a very lucky Pakistani man.

The country I come from is ranked the world’s happiest country, has the least corruption and one of the highest levels of equity, thanks to our Scandinavian welfare state-model. I do not wish to sound superior as I believe we all have something to learn from each other.

Anyhow, you might ask yourself, “why is she even trying?” Well, as opposed to so many other people dreaming of lives in Europe and moving out of Pakistan as soon as they get a chance, I moved the other way around — because of my love for a very lucky Pakistani man.

Having grown up in a very equal society, I realise I am not raised to be quiet when the ‘elders’ are talking or nod in consent even if I disagree. Can I still become a Lahori without letting go of my eagerness to question the status quo or authority? You tell me!

You find all in one city and that perhaps explains the saying “you have not lived till you have seen Lahore”. Now is not the time to paint a naïve romanticised picture of Pakistan. Believe me, my new hometown is amazing. It has everything from green parks, rich history, oldest cultural monuments and legacies, some of the world’s brightest scientists and flourishing colourful fashions. At the same time, it is cursed by accommodating all contrasts, including extreme poverty, dengue, polio, organ selling and of course terrorism.

Somehow, you get used to the latent risk as life goes on.

The greatest culture shock I have gotten so far is perhaps attending gender-segregated dinners. After attending a few, I realised a casual dinner is all about painting your nails, matching your heals with your shalwar kameez which has to be from this season, and putting on some party make up so that you look married enough.

Soon I found out the make up was not for my husband to see, not even in ‘modern’ Lahore. Because my husband and I would go to the same dinner but attend two different conversations. Either we are seated in two different ends of the room or we are directed into two different rooms. I know it is easier to host more people in this way but it has often led me into troubles, as I jump straight into discussing politics and often fail to engage in a regular conversation around clothes, food and children. My sister-in-law jokingly tells me, “What is wrong with you? You are a terrible ‘Begum’”. She says it jokingly because she is like that too.

Often the women at these dinners converse in Urdu and the men in Punjabi. So I really want to learn Punjabi to get to know what is so important for the men to talk about when we are not around. My attempts so far have only taught me some swear words, which perhaps says it all.

People tell me that segregation allows women to talk about baby food and fashion while allowing men “to be men”. What the men don’t know is that we women at times also have a habit of telling rustic Punjabi jokes and discussing politics. The Punjabi jokes are no less funny after being translated by one or sometimes two translators for me to understand. Forgive me but they do not really qualify for print!

The other day, my husband jokingly told me I should be sent on a course on how to run a household. I am used to doing everything myself since the age of 18 — I have cooked, cleaned, and done grocery shopping on my bicycle. Apparently, it requires a lot of change to get used to a life as an “aristocrat of the 18th-century” where you do not need to produce anything except professionally.

Managing ‘servants’ is a skill and I am not sure if I have got it right yet. In my eagerness to learn Urdu, I have gladly closed the front door behind our maid every night with the words, “Kal phir milenge” as a loose translation of “See you tomorrow”. This I practised until someone laughingly stopped me saying this was “a bit too informal”. But what else would you say?

Nine months in Lahore and one thing is clear — I belong to a minority here. Every time I introduce myself as a Lahori, someone asks, “but where are you ‘really’ from..?” To them I remain a tourist, not a Lahori. I will never blend in as well as the Jats, the Kashmiris or the Mughals.

So, if you ask me again: why am I even trying? I will answer, I might be naïve, there might be something I fail to understand since so many others seem to be on the run, but here in Lahore my heart is complete. So why not keep trying?

Mette Hartmeyer

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The author is a researcher based in Pakistan currently working for Institute of Social and Policy Sciences (I-SAPS).

2 comments

  • Enjoyed the article – fun and thoughtful! Please give more “outsider” views so we can learn and be better.

  • Enjoyed the article.. waiting to hear more from you and exciting journey of settling in this new city.

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