Unraveling the East-West Myth

Does the divide between us and them exist within our souls?

| January / February 2003

I arrive in Peshawar, Pakistan, on a day in mid-October, one month after the tragedy the Western world remembers as September 11. The Americans are bombing Afghanistan. I am here on a human rights mission, meeting with recently arrived Afghan refugees. When I get to the hotel, I register as a Canadian woman. However, I am wearing shalwar qamise and speaking Urdu. The man behind the counter wants to know where I am “really” from. The place of birth listed in my Canadian passport is Nairobi, Kenya.

“East Africa,” I say. He chuckles to himself. There are no local women in sight. As I go up to my room, I hear a doorman say that I am no lawyer, but a local whore for the foreign men. It seems I cannot fool him with my English and my foreign ways.

The next day, I meet with a group of Afghan women who have recently crossed the mountain pass into Peshawar. We wear the same clothes, but mine are new, bright, and color-coordinated, just bought a couple of days ago in Islamabad, and theirs are dusty, tattered, randomly matched.

I don’t officially “interview” them because I know they will put on a performance for me; instead, I invite them to tea and we chat, sharing confidences.

Sometimes, just to win their trust, I tell them lies. I tell them that I am married and have two children—that, yes, I am just like them. When I am really feeling brave, not the case on this visit to Pakistan, I tell the truth: that I am 30 years old and unmarried. This confession is often met by silence. Occasionally, a pitying look or knowing laugh breaks the silence. It is always followed by a question. “Why not?”

Indeed, why not? Why have I chosen this lifestyle? Who would I be if I had been born here and if my ancestors had not been shipped across the Indian Ocean to East Africa?