Monday, 23 March 2015

A Broad Abroad: Long Sleeves and Infidelity

It’s more than twenty years since my first, and only, visit to Pakistan. It was just a short visit to the capital, Karachi, so hardly a true taste of the whole country - I was like a tourist who thinks London is representative of the whole of Britain. But I was fascinated at the opportunity to visit a country that was very different from anywhere I’d been so far. This was long before I started working the the Middle East and so far my travel had been pretty much European-based.

I had no cultural training before I went out there, so all I really knew was that I needed to maintain my modesty at all times - and that I probably wouldn’t have as much freedom of movement and behaviour as I had at home.
My hosts provided me with a chaperone for the duration; I have to admit that I no longer remember her name, but I do remember she was a lovely woman around the same age as me, who accompanied me to all my meetings and looked after me in the evenings. She was as interested as I was in learning about a culture that was alien to her.

Because of the modesty stricture, I had packed mostly long sleeved, high neck blouses and long-sleeved jackets. And this was June! On day one, I left my air-conditioned hotel room cool and business-like, but by the end of a day spent in taxis, in meetings and on the factory floor, I was hot, slightly dishevelled and very red in the face. I’m sure the people I was auditing thought I was most unhappy with everything they showed me, when really, all I was thinking about was taking a cold shower!

As we left the hotel for dinner that evening, I asked my companion if it would be acceptable for me to at least undo one of the buttons on my high-necked blouse the next day. She smiled gently and patted my arm. “Of course you can,” she said, “and in fact, you will be a lot cooler if you wear something with short sleeves and leave your suit jacket in the hotel too!” And then, as we climbed into the taxi, she asked the question that had obviously been preying on her mind since she first met me. “Tell me, Elizabeth, is it really true that all Western women are unfaithful to their husbands?”

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