Traveling While Brown

By GIRLWITHABOOK Co-founder, Lena Shareef

No pictures from our trip could truly capture the essence of this post better than this meme

No pictures from our trip could truly capture the essence of this post better than this meme

ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN

Today’s team blog post is about the Diplomatic Enclave. This is a special place in Islamabad that houses diplomatic missions and cafes where foreign aid workers, diplomats, expats, and other non-Pakistanis gather to hang out, drink, etc. Actually, it’s more like where foreigners are allowed to gather, especially those working on behalf of their governments (particularly the U.S. government) mainly because of safety concerns. It’s truly a shame because as we met some of these foreign workers, we came to realize that during most of their time in Pakistan, they hardly get to see any of the country. Even worse, they barely get to interact with any normal Pakistanis that aren’t already in their workplace. So naturally, they turn to places like the Diplomatic Enclave to let off steam and be themselves with peers working in similar industries. In case I didn’t make it clear earlier, it’s not open to the general public.

After spending several days in the beautiful mountains of Muzaffarabad and on our last day in Islamabad, we had the opportunity to visit this so-called haven. That evening, we first met up with a few friends (most of whom work as aid workers in Islamabad) at a hotel where we had dinner. They then suggested we go to the Diplomatic Enclave for coffee and dessert. That sounded like a lovely idea and we were rather fascinated by this heavily guarded refuge for foreigners, so we excitedly agreed to go.

As we were walking to our friend’s car, she turned to me apologetically and said, “I’m so sorry but I think you’ll have to duck and hide when we get to the entrance gate.” I wasn’t even confused when she said that to me. I knew exactly why such actions were necessary. In fact, I chuckled and nodded as I got in the car and proceeded to duck down while a towel was thrown over my head to fully cover me up. Because you see, as a Pakistani woman with brown skin, the security guards would make a huge hassle and ask for my passport, identification, etc. even though I am a U.S. citizen. Ultimately, it would be a long and arduous process to finally prove to them that I have no ulterior motive for wanting to visit the Diplomatic Enclave and that I am only going there to eat some chocolate form of dessert. On the other hand, Jen and Olivia didn’t need to hide because, frankly, they are white. The security guards would just assume that they are aid workers or diplomats or foreigners in general who already have their passes and usher them in right away. And that’s exactly what happened.

Things like that had become routine on our trip. I got double takes (in every country actually) when I insisted that I, too, am an American. Waiters would come to our table faster if my friends waved their hands at them instead of me. Sometimes hotel staff would think I made a mistake as I handed over my American passport when we checked in. For some reason, these kinds of things became very normal, very quickly for me as we traveled from city to city. Jen and Olivia noticed the differences in treatment too and were baffled and frequently disturbed by it, which I appreciated. But I didn’t let it bother me too much until after the whole project was over and we were back in the U.S. I think I just didn’t want to acknowledge it. And the only way I could do that was by focusing on our work.

Later that night, as our friend drove us out of the Diplomatic Enclave, I asked if I needed to hide again. She said, “No, they don’t care as much about who leaves.” After she dropped us off at our hotel, I spoke to my father on the phone and told him what happened. Once he finished laughing, he said to me, “So you, as a Pakistani, had to hide from other Pakistanis. In Pakistan.” Yup. That about sums it up. I still joke about it when I tell friends or colleagues about the incident, but after awhile it brings a bad taste to my mouth. It’s not fun having to prove my worth only exists as long as I have a shiny blue passport. And it’s definitely not fun when I have to do the same thing at home in the U.S.

My thoughts exactly

My thoughts exactly