Journalist or bride?

I get a marriage proposal, get compared to "Hanoi Jane" and plan a trip to Afghanistan on a prayer.

Published October 19, 2001 7:40PM (EDT)

It's been almost a month here. A war began. Children here have already thrown a Halloween party two weeks early. I ordered the No. 1 special at McDonald's in Lahore. Today, I applied for an extension on my visa, and am again reminded there is a war across the border. War, what war? While interviewing this very lovely family, which includes a very eligible 34-year-old son, I have to try to explain that I won't be a good bahu, daughter-in-law. I don't know how to knead dough to make roti. The teenage son will learn, the mother responds, her jaw stiff and earnest. They give me a cloth, hand-embroidered by the youngest daughter. "Lazy Daisy," it reads, in Urdu.

Maybe Azaz Hussain, a young Pakistani journalist for an Urdu newspaper, Khabrain, my cousin and I had given a ride to some nights earlier, had been on to something. As we dropped him off at his newspaper office, he asked me, "Are you here for journalism or matrimonial?" Perhaps, it would seem, a little of both?

I do my best to discourage the mother. "This potential bahu is seriously thinking of buying a motorcycle to ride around Pakistan," I say. "You wouldn't like that, no?" The mother insists she doesn't mind. In fact she had slaughtered a chicken for me, knowing I would be coming today.

"I did Isthikhara and saw in my dream that I would be going to report in Afghanistan. You don't want a bahu running off to Afghanistan, do you? Why don't you first see if I return or become a 'shaheed'" -- a martyr, I joke.

No, that's OK, says the mother. We'll marry both of you together first, she says, and then you can both go off to Afghanistan together. Great.

Who will take care of you in 10 years if you fall sick, the eligible boy asks; he's 34 years old, a year and a half younger than I am, but still called a boy until he gets married. "But I might become a 'shaheed' tomorrow," I say, joking, sort of. "What is the purpose of worrying?"

As I leave he stands at the top of the stairwell and asks, "Should I tell my family to bury their expectations?"

Yes, I think, perhaps.

Isthikhara is a Muslim act of faith in divine revelation, which reveals itself in the subconscious of dreams. I write as I bounce on the highway past trucks painted elaborately with peacocks and paisleys. The other day, on this same route, I saw a lorry, as the big trucks are called, with a larger-than-life Osama bin Laden airbrushed onto the back, a machine gun on his side. My would-be husband's younger brother, beside me, repeated what has become a refrain over here: "Osama bin Laden, the hero of the Muslims."

The driver of this slightly beat-up Suzuki taxi has a purple velvet "Allah" written in Arabic dangling off a suction cup attached to the front window, a graduation tassel swinging with each bounce. A small black-and-white photo of bin Laden from a newspaper sits in the right corner of his rearview mirror tucked below a watch. A reporter from South Africa took a photo of this driver, Mullah Abdul Hafiz Pirzadah, as he glanced his gentle eyes into the rearview mirror. He wishes he could remember the reporter's name. It was a very difficult name. You know, one of those foreign names. Not as easy as a Muslim name.

A horse grazes on the side of the road, tied to a post. The sun blazes deep on this late afternoon carrying with it a thin layer of sweat. Men sit piled atop buses where luggage would normally rest. We circle around an exit ramp. Islamabad, nine miles away.

My cousin Arina had written the instructions for me to the Isthikhara, which Muslims are taught to recite when they want to make a decision. I know I want to go to Afghanistan. It is, after all, the birthplace of one of my Sufi spiritual inspirations, Rumi, when Afghanistan was part of the Persian Empire. The rest of the world has to get the blessing of the Taliban Embassy. Me, I had to e-mail my father two nights ago to pass his blessing onto my bure abu (my father's eldest brother) and my phuppi (my father's sister) who feel responsible for my safety here in Pakistan. (Dad, thanks for calling.)

My cousin Arina has gotten some 42 marriage proposals (really, only a slight exaggeration) and turned to Isthikhara to sort them all out. The instructions are simple: two rakats Naf'l prayer (that's two sets of specific prostrations in the direction of Mecca, the holy city for Muslims), after which you read a prayer in which you think about the question before you. Then, you're supposed to sleep without speaking to anyone. (I woke up and used AOL Instant Messenger without speaking a word. I don't know if that counts.)

Sure enough, a message came to me in the moments before I awakened this morning. In the dream, I, a friend who is here as a journalist and another woman were having our papers surveyed by Sohail Shaheen, the deputy Taliban ambassador whom I recently wrote about. (I got reams of critical e-mail after I wrote of my visit with Shaheen and his two wives in his house, which is called the White House. One reader equated me to "Hanoi Jane" Fonda, who was ridiculed for being sympathetic to the Communists during the Vietnam War. I can only believe that some readers were made uncomfortable by any information about the Taliban, the monsters of the free world, that could make them seem remotely human. Islamabad Asra? Fine. And perhaps, one day, Afghanistan Asra, too.)

In this dream, the three of us were cleared to go to Afghanistan. I woke up from the dream with a smile, knowing the mandate. In the dream, I saw on TV CNN-like graphic flames on the northern four-fifths of Afghanistan with the southern one-fifth the only part left in Taliban control. That's OK. We'd still go.

I go to the Taliban Embassy. It's a right turn at the white sign with black lettering, "Embassy of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan." There's a Pakistani journalist escorting a Western reporter in for an interview with Sohail Shaheen, the sort of tag-team reporting that's coming with a price tag during this war coverage. Some Afghans shuffle in and out. A guard puffs on a cigarette. The driveway is cracked. It's not a posh place. A man known as Abid Saheb, one of the English-speaking officials inside, comes out barefoot. He hands out a press release photocopied on cheap Pakistani paper. The headline: "American Terrorist Attacks on Afghanistan Continue."

A Western journalist puts his right hand over his heart as he approaches Abid Saheb. "Could I have one?" he asks gently.

"It is the last one," says Abid Saheb.

"Visas?" the journalist asks meekly.

"Monday," comes the response.

I have to return my application tomorrow, but I already got my answer in my dream. I hope. Now just that little matter of a stamp.

I come home, tell my phuppi about my day. I got the Pakistan visa extension (they're only giving 14 days right now). Then, there was the small matter of the marriage proposal.

"Thoba. Thoba. Thoba." Loosely translated: What a shame. What gall. Howcouldtheybesobold?

I guess that's a no.

By Asra Q. Nomani

Asra Q. Nomani, a reporter for the Wall Street Journal currently on leave to write a book, is reporting for Salon from Pakistan. To read more about Nomani click here.

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