A yearning for normality in the midst of turbulence


BIROT, Pakistan - Shahid Ali Abbasi was hiking this week to his wedding, accompanied by scores of wedding guests. Two of them began debating last month's terrorist attacks on the United States until Abbasi interrupted them.

Abbasi, a 27-year old farmer's son, had heard enough.

"No political talk, at least not now," said Abbasi, who wore a purple-and-white turban that rose from his head like a rooster's crown. "This is my marriage."

Abbasi, like his country, was trying to maintain a semblance of normality. U.S. airstrikes on neighboring Afghanistan have brought tens of thousands of Pakistanis into the streets to protest, but far larger numbers have continued the daily routines of going to work, attending class or observing rituals, including weddings.

In recent days, pairs of families gathered in the Pakistani capital, Islamabad, and in the mountains to the northeast to celebrate marriages. Abbasi's wedding was held in a private home in a traditional farming community. Azhar Shabbir, a 27-year-old physician and captain in the Pakistani army, held the final stage of his wedding in a banquet room of a five-star hotel.

Societal divisions

The two weddings illustrate some of the deep divisions in this nation as it faces one of its toughest tests in decades. And the contrasting scenes highlight the chasm separating the country's wealthy elite from the people living traditional lives in the countryside.

The settings and guest lists could not have been more different.

Abbasi began his wedding day at his family's farmhouse, along the border with Afghanistan. To reach his home, guests navigated a mountain trail in their finest shalwar kameez, a traditional dress of flowing shirts and baggy pants. The guests included subsistence fruit farmers who tend goats and water buffalo. They spoke the regional language, Punjabi, and a smattering of English.

Shabbir's wedding was held at the Islamabad Marriott, the city's finest hotel. Islamabad, a city of sleek government buildings and tree-lined suburban streets, seems so far removed from the grit and bustle of the rest of the country that people joke that Islamabad is just a 20-minute drive from Pakistan.

Instead of climbing down a rocky mountainside, Shabbir's guests trod across a polished marble floor, past the Marriott's outdoor pool and into a banquet hall with potted palms. As is Muslim custom here, male and female guests sat in separate sections, their chairs covered in white cloth with red sashes.

The groom and his bride, Khajida, a 25-year-old doctor and army captain, sat on overstuffed living room furniture on a raised platform, where they posed for photos and chatted with friends and relatives.

Shabbir's guests spoke English, a few with accents acquired from years studying in Britain. Most of the young people were, like the bride and groom, physicians and army officers The bride's father is an army surgeon, and her mother is a gynecologist. Shabbir's father is Mohammed Shabbir, a nuclear scientist with Pakistan's atomic program.

The only refreshments were coffee, tea and soup. The menu was required by law. When Nawaz Sharif became prime minister in 1997, his government banned the serving of food at wedding events outside private homes to crack down on wasteful spending in an impoverished country. Pakistan's current leader, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, overthrew Sharif in 1999, but the ban on food remains. When guests left the Marriott, they were heading home for dinner.

Food wasn't an issue at Abbasi's wedding; there was plenty. Behind his family's farmhouse, men stirred giant iron pots filled with curried mutton, and beef bubbled over wood fires.

Shabbir and Abbasi were taking part in arranged marriages. Shabbir knew his wife before they were married, and they are training at a military hospital in nearby Rawalpindi. Abbasi had seen only seen a photo of his wife.

He and scores of male guests headed up the mountain toward the house of his betrothed as children lighted firecrackers along the way.

"Up to this moment, I've never seen my wife," said Abbasi, who wore a necklace of gold tinsel. The mystery of an arranged marriage, he said, had a "certain unearthly charm. You have all sorts of expectations."

As his bride waited inside her family's house, Abbasi sat with a local religious leader and recited scripture from the Quran. After signing a marriage contract, he grinned and hugged male friends and relatives.

Men, women separated

Male guests retired to the roof for cookies and tea with milk. Abbasi descended to a lower courtyard, where women gathered separately, hidden from view by yellow canvas tarpaulins. Abbasi still had many rituals to perform. Hours would pass before he would meet his wife.

Abbasi has mixed a keen interest in the West with deep respect for Muslim and Pakistani traditions. He is a graduate student in English literature at International Islamic University in Islamabad. His thesis is "Religion and Spirituality in the Poetry of Emily Dickinson." He hopes to study for a doctorate in the United States.

His modern ambitions did not extend to his bride, Ghazala Shaheen, 22. Most guests never saw her on her wedding day.

"She will be a housewife," said Abbasi, who still had not seen her. "That is my preference."

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