Mughals in the Backyard

BY GIRLWITHABOOK CO-FOUNDER, OLIVIA CURL

Growing up in Oregon, our big elementary school field trips usually revolved around school hikes up the McKenzie river, visits to the End of the Oregon Trail Interpretive Center, and fish hatcheries. It was pretty great, but when I arrived at university on the East Coast, I found myself jealous of my peers who had grown up casually visiting sites like the liberty bell and civil war battlefields. “How neat!” I thought, “To grow up near so much history!” Well, frankly, most of the rest of the world (and especially Asia) has America super beat in terms of growing up near history. 

Before flying north to Islamabad we took a day trip about 100 km east of Karachi to the town of Thatta. With a population of 220,000 Thatta feels somewhere between a big-town and a small-city. Our purpose was to visit one of HOPE Foundation’s formal schools and community hospital. HOPE (Health Oriented Preventive Education) is a Karachi-based NGO promoting sustainable self-sufficiency in communities throughout Pakistan with a combination of formal and informal schools, vocational centers, hospitals, and nutritional programs. 

The formal school— packed to the gills with eager kiddos, most of whom weren’t able to attend school before now — is a two story building adjacent to the small hospital. The hospital has a small surgical theatre and largely deals with C-sections, miscarriages, obstructed labor, and other pregnancy and birthing complications. 

Maternal and reproductive health is kind of my thing. I love learning about how different cultures and communities approach pregnancy, birth, and infants. I think Jen and Lena probably got sick of my reliably loud squeals whenever a baby was in sight throughout all four countries (in fairness, Jen has the same reaction to cats). So you can imagine my delight when we not only got to meander through the hospital but also got to visit with post-op women, new mamas, and teeny-tiny brand-new babies. There were lots of squeals to be had. 

Women recovering in HOPE's community hospital in Thatta (photo by Jennifer Ciochon)

Women recovering in HOPE's community hospital in Thatta (photo by Jennifer Ciochon)

The squeals continued in a different way when the HOPE staff took us to Thatta’s main historical attraction: the Shah Jahan Masjid. This is an instance where Pakistan kicks America’s butt in terms of growing up with astounding history in one’s backyard. The Shah Jahan Masjid was built in 1647 during the reign of the emperor Shah Jahan in the Mughal Empire. It is simply spectacular. 

As you can probably imagine, and especially in recent years, there’s not a lot of casual tourism to Pakistan, and even more rare is Western tourism to Pakistan. It felt incredibly special to be able to visit this extraordinary piece of history, really an architectural wonder, and so far off the beaten path in Pakistan. Adding to the magic, families were casually coming through the courtyard as we poked around and took pictures. Some came to pray, many came just to hang out. 

All countries and peoples have their magic, and I don’t begrudge my childhood of fish hatchery field trips at all. Still though, it was pretty nifty to imagine a childhood where kiddos accompany their mothers and aunts and cousins to their local 400 year old mosque from the Mughal Empire. 

Girls pose in the garden that precedes the entrance of the Shah Jahan Masjid in Thatta (photo by Olivia Curl)

Girls pose in the garden that precedes the entrance of the Shah Jahan Masjid in Thatta (photo by Olivia Curl)