Day 10: Adventures in Taking Tea

9:57 pm 31 March 04 Islamabad

Today's meeting was with the Information Minister. Our driver Happy picked us up at the hotel and drove us the two blocks to the Ministry. When we got to the gate he said something to the guard in Urdu that included the words "Fox News."

The guard at the gate blew a whistle and another guard a few feet away opened the gate.

"He used a whistle to signal a guy four feet away," Mal noted.

We rode up in a small lift with a big man wearing shalwar kameez. Shalwar kameez is the traditional costume here, a big baggy top over similar colored baggy pants — light cotton, good for hot weather. Perhaps for a Westerner you get the feeling you are wearing pajamas. Mal and I each bought a pair to stand out less in the tribal areas. Mine is olive, 100 percent cotton, extra large. I'm not sure what color Mal's is, but I hope it is not olive also.

The man in the lift had his left hand up to his ear. I thought it was dumb to try to make a phone call inside an elevator and looked closer at his hand, wondering just how small his phone was...but there was no phone. He was just fiddling with the hair in his ear.

We entered an office with two desks and some chairs out front and said hello to a man behind the desk. I was not sure if it was the minister. It turns out it was an outer office. The carpet was thin green and the cables running under it were visible. There was one large black and white picture of a founder of Pakistan on the wall. One guy behind the desk was wearing shalwar kameez. The other guy had on a dark pinstripe suit. The guy in the pj's signaled for us to sit in chairs. The guy in the suit, who seemed to have nothing to do, leaned back in his chair, turned his head to the side, put one hand on the side of his face and said with an appearance of boredom, "Do you want some tea?"

Of course this was not the best way of offering tea. In Russia if you asked someone if they wanted something they would be offended and say no, sometimes repeating the verb "to want," in surprise. The polite way is to say "you will have chai," and if there are no strong objections you bring it automatically.

The problem was Mal and I did want tea, since we had nothing to do sitting in chairs in the outer office, and tea would be a nice distraction. So we ignored any perceived lack of refinement and said yes.

It was then that the man in the pj's reached to a shiny silver circle on the center of his desk and rang it. It looked like a bicycle bell. An old man appeared, moving quickly. He had been summoned by the bell.

The old man had on a thick gray shalwar kameez. I had never seen a dark gray one. The linen seemed heavier. He had a small circular lace hat on his head, like a tiny tablecloth for his skull. His eyes darted around the room, ready to satisfy whatever demands were about to be placed before him. After a few words of Urdu he disappeared. I heard some noises like pots being washed in the next room, and was beginning to wonder what had happened to my tea when he appeared before me with a large tray.

The small old man in gray linen and white skullcap held the tray before me with both hands, his eyes imploring. He was breathing heavily, rasping, the sound of an old but eager dog that had been forced to run too far. I listened to his breathing and looked at his wares. Not only was there tea, cups, plates, and powdered milk, but sandwiches with the crusts cut off and a variety of cookies — large, small, coconut and chocolate coated. I took the tea, added the enormous crystals of sugar, two spoons of powdered milk, and looked at his eyes. His eyes went to the sandwiches and the cookies. They were shining. He was breathing heavily and I felt the longer I dawdled, the longer I was making him hold the tray up in front of me. Standing there he was just slightly taller than me seated. I also sensed the eyes would be disappointed if I did not fully partake of his labor, so I took a half sandwich and a cookie. Looking at him with each choice, we nodded and smiled. The man in pj's took a sandwich and a man in white robes and a red headscarf in the office also took a sandwich, as did Mal. The man in pj's did not look at the old man when he took his sandwich.

The man in the dark pinstriped suit was standing now in the center of the room. He put his right hand in his suit. As a man who rarely wears suits, I recognized another man who rarely wears suits, or who at least was proud of his suit and modeled it for us in the center of the room. He seemed to be thinking, "I am wearing a suit."  When the old man offered him a half sandwich in Urdu, he turned it down in Urdu. Then for some reason looking down at the floor he said in English, "no thank you." I was not sure for whose benefit the "no thank you" in English was. He said it again the second time he was offered food, again looking at the floor.

The sandwich was a spread of cucumbers and other vegetables and was good. I wished I had taken a whole one. PJ rang the bell again and out sped the old man. PJ took a second half sandwich. The old man offered him yet another, but was rebuffed by a shake of the head, again with no eye contact. The old man disappeared.

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