MarySmith’sPlace – Leave of absence

I’m going to disappear for a couple of weeks. I’m on deadline to finish Secret Dumfries. Amberley Publishing has already put the book for pre-order on Amazon – and I haven’t finished writing it yet.

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When they were commissioning the book I was asked to supply a back-of-the-book blurb, before a single word had been written. I sent something off, saying I hoped it wasn’t cast in stone as we didn’t know what we (photographer Keith Kirk and I) might find during the research. Next thing, it’s there on Amazon

Here it is:

“Dumfries, in south-west Scotland, has a long history, much of it well recorded. However, as with most places there are more than a few secrets hidden away. First referred to as the Queen of the South by a local poet, David Dunbar in 1857, the name stuck and was later adopted by the local football team. Not many know this makes it the only football team in the world mentioned in the Bible. Darker aspects of the town’s history include the burning of nine witches on the Whitesands in 1659 and the last public hanging of a woman in Scotland, Mary Timney, was held in Dumfries in 1862. There are tales of plague victims being exiled to Scabbit Isle, of murderers and grave robbers. Not all its secrets are so dark: there’s Patrick Miller and his introduction of turnips courtesy of King Gustav III of Sweden, and the exiled Norwegian Army making its home in Dumfries during the Second World War. And what is the significance of the finials depicting telescopes and anchors on the railings along the Whitesands?

Local author Mary Smith, and photographer Keith Kirk, take the reader on a fascinating journey through the town’s past, unearthing tales of intrigue and grisly goings-on as they provide a fascinating glimpse into some of the lesser known aspects of the town’s history.”

Sounds good, doesn’t it? Now, I need to get my head down, nose to the grindstone and work my socks off. I hope if I use enough clichés here, they won’t creep into the book!

Please accept my apologies for not being able to visit everyone’s blogs for the next couple of weeks. I’ll be back – all chilled and euphoric.

 

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MarySmith’sPlace – fighting photo phobia

I hate having my photo taken. I can hear an instant chorus of ‘so do I’ but I’m sure no one hates it as much as I do. It’s almost a phobia.

A camera is pointed in my direction and in an instant every muscle in my face freezes, my shoulders lift up to my ears, my chin sticks out and all the wrinkles in my neck are accentuated a hundred-fold.

The profile pics I’ve been using on Facebook, Twitter and blogs were taken by a photographer friend. I was grateful for the time and effort she took and I picked (out of many) the ones that seemed to me to be ‘not too bad’. These were taken some years ago and I knew I really ought to update them.

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This was taken several years ago  – time for an update

I was thinking it was time to bite the bullet and have a professional photo taken which I could use on as my social media profile and for book covers and press releases and all the rest of the things authors and bloggers need to do which seem to require a mug shot. At a party I bumped into portrait photographer Kim Ayres. Fate!?

We had a long chat. I had several glasses of wine and agreed we should meet – just to discuss the idea. Kim emailed me next day, we met and he spent time explaining why so many of us don’t like seeing photos of ourselves. It’s because we only see ourselves in the mirror so we always see a reverse image of ourselves. Other people don’t shriek in horror at our pic because they are used to seeing us that way.

I understood what he was telling me but it didn’t totally convince me. If I think I look ghastly in my photos, does that mean everyone thinks I look ghastly in real life?  And does that mean that only my hairdresser knows how I see myself? Anyway, I somehow found myself agreeing to have him take my photo.

Kim suggested I pretend I have a twin sister about to have her photo taken and think what advice I’d give her. ‘Eyebrows,’ I told my mythical twin. ‘You need to get your eyebrows done.’ Off I went – no manicure, no plumping up of lips, no facial – just the eyebrows. Funny, isn’t it what can make us feel better about ourselves?

He emailed to suggest I might have a drink to help me relax as long as I promised him I didn’t become either an aggressive or a maudlin drunk. I hadn’t actually contemplated getting drunk but when he arrived with all his photographic paraphernalia it suddenly seemed like a good idea. While he had a cup of tea I mixed a gin and martini cocktail – well, I didn’t bother with the lemon peel or olive or ice or shaking it – just a good slug of each in a glass. I don’t think it helped.

What did help was chatting, listening to Kim explain all sorts of things about photography (most of which went right over my head) and telling me we would have fun and, no matter how long it took, we would get a good photo – a photo I was happy with. Thinking back, it was like he was making soothing noises to a frightened horse!

He’d asked what I wanted people to see when they looked at the photo. I said I wanted to come across as warm and friendly, someone people would want to get to know. As he took each shot it appeared on a tablet so we could see it. To start with, all I could see was ‘meah’ but something happened during the process and I began to react differently to the photos. I began to see how things changed with a tilt of the shoulder here, a movement forward there, laughing at something just before the shutter clicked, a ‘think of something naughty’, stick out your tongue. Best of all, Kim never gave that terrifying command I’ve heard from photographers – friends, professionals, family – ‘Smile!’ As someone who was a smoker, who drinks black coffee and red wine and has some unflattering NHS dental work, I’m very self-conscious about my teeth – as well as all the other major defects I immediately notice in my photos.

Kim was so relaxed, not rushing things, actually making me feel if took ten hours it would be fine with him and it did actually become fun. It took a couple of hours though, but eventually I looked at a photo and didn’t cringe. I was drawn to my eyes, which looked quite twinkly, rather than my wrinkly neck. I saw my neck, but it didn’t matter, because I realised people would look at the eyes first. Another one made me say: ‘Oh, my shoulder has moved up spoiling the line.’ Then, I realised I was looking at the whole image with a different eye. Kim was grinning.

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The new profile pic

When the shoot was over I was both exhilarated and exhausted. I wanted to tell Kim to come back and we could do it again, maybe in the blue dress this time. I wanted to continue having fun because I suspected the euphoria would wear off and next time someone points a camera at me I’d freeze like before. When I need a new profile photo, I’ll definitely be calling Kim again.

Check out Kim’s website here.  I’ve been looking at the amazing, exciting images on his website and thinking of all kinds of photographic possibilities then I remember I’m 63, a writer and blogger, an introvert rather than an extrovert, warm and friendly, hoping people would want to know me as I am.

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I can even be in black and white or colour

 

 

Mary Smith’s Place – Karachi crocodiles

I apologise for the lack of decent photos to accompany this post. I visited Manghopir several times, taking many photos of the crocodiles and of the shrine, the busy shops around it and of the hot springs but I can’t find them. I suspect they were in the albums thrown out after our previous cat sprayed on them. He had a tendency, after a stray kitten tried to take up residence, to mark everything in the house as his.

The legendary crocodiles that guard the shrine of Saint Mangho (ManghoPir) were piled in a heap, under a tree. They looked very muddy, and suspiciously lifeless. The shrine, or mazar, lies to the north of Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city. There are two springs beside it, one hot, and one cold. Bathing tanks have been provided, for the water is reputed to cure all manner of ailments – from rheumatism through frigidity to skin diseases.

When Mangho arrived, in the middle of the thirteenth century from Iraq, in true hermit fashion, he chose a patch of arid desert in which to pray for grace. Making the cold water trickle from a rock was his doing. Producing his drinking water, however, seems to have exhausted Mangho’s miraculous powers, for no more are mentioned. Fortunately, he had some friends who turned up to lend a hand. The most famous of these, Qalander Lal Shah Baz of Sehwan, provided the hot spring.

Mangho’s other three friends – there is no general consensus as to who they were, everyone cites the names of their personal favourites – joined in the miracle making. One produced, from the twig with which Mangho cleaned his teeth, a date palm oasis. Another provided honey and melted butter which rained from the trees. According to some versions of the story, the fourth friend caused a wilting flower to change into a giant crocodile to guard Mangho and the shrine.

There are various legends to explain the existence of the crocodiles. My favourite is the one in which Mangho was terribly troubled by lice. These – as they do – made his head itch dreadfully. One day, driven mad by the itching, Mangho, in an unsaintly display of temper, stamped his feet. This dislodged a great number of lice – which turned into sacred crocodiles.

They are mugger crocodiles, looking rather like alligators but definitely a true crocodile. One more scientific explanation is that these crocodiles were carried through some heavy floods, during ancient times and gathered here. Archaeologists believe there was a Bronze Age community near Manghopir, which worshipped crocodiles.

Joining the other observers, I peered over the wall of the enclosure. As far as living legends go, they were a bit of a disappointment.

Staring at a bunch of crocodiles who only wanted to cuddle up to each other, wasn’t what I expected. Eventually, one, small and sluggish disengaged himself and waddled towards the pool, slipped smoothly into the murky water and promptly disguised himself as a partially sunken log. IMG_0009 (Small)

Perhaps the crocodiles expected something more from the pilgrims? It used to be customary for supplicants to provide a sacrificial goat. Indeed, in the old days it must have been much more exciting. Then, the devotees of the saint, both reptile and human, shared the same bathing facilities. The humans, however, took exception to the crocodiles’ occasional tendency to eat them, and a separate enclosure was erected. Perhaps that was when the crocodiles began to tire of their role. Or perhaps that came later, in the days of the Raj – as suggested by none other than Sir Richard Burton, diplomat, explorer and translator of erotic literature.

According to his account in Sindh Revisited, the alligators, as he insists on calling them, were “once jolly as monks.” Their lives took a dramatic downturn when young subalterns from Karachi’s camps found it entertaining to pit their bull terriers against them. Should a crocodile, in defending itself, kill a dog, the men “would salute the murderer’s eyes and mouth with two ounces of shot” causing the creature to plunge into the water, “grunting as if it had a grievance.” I should think it did have a grievance and the subalterns’ behaviour didn’t do much for our reputation. All in all, it is not surprising the crocodiles show a marked inclination to ignore visitors and cuddle up to each other.

Worse was to come. The crocodiles began to die off. However much the British subalterns may have demoralised them, they were still breeding successfully in those days. In the 1950s, someone estimated there were over a hundred – although terror, at being in the actual enclosure with the reptiles may have led him to exaggerate. In fact, the cause of the alarming decline was down to nothing more sinister than Pakistani Government bureaucracy.

Traditionally, the custodianship of the crocodiles was handed down, father to son, through the centuries. A Government body – the Auqaf Department – responsible for Muslim shrines, decided to dispense with the services of the family. At that time there were twenty seven crocodiles. Within a couple of years, there were only two left. In 1972, Khan Mohammed was hastily re-appointed in an effort to save the sacred reptiles. Happily, it was a successful move. Crocodile numbers began to increase. The biggest one is called – and was even in Burton’s day – Mor Sahib, or Mr. Peacock.

There are two annual festivals, one of which marks the death anniversary of Mangho Pir. The other, the Sheedi Mela is to celebrate the crocodiles. The Sheedi are a minority group in Pakistan, said to have been African slaves belonging to Arab traders. Settling first along the Makran coast of Baluchistan, they later spread throughout the province and into neighbouring Sind. The Sheedi Mela was put on hold for seven years because of the political tensions around Manghopir and other parts of the city but it took place again in 2017.

During the Mela, Mor Sahib is covered in vermilion and given a goat by the devotees. When the disciples dance, day and night to the sound of drums, it is to an African rhythm. Quite what the crocodiles make of it is anyone’s guess. Perhaps it cheers them up a little. They look like they need a bit of revelry.

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MarySmith’sPlace – Karachi driving

I went to work in Karachi, in the headquarters of the Pakistan leprosy programme, in 1986. My job was to set up a health education department. The work of this department had several aims: informing the public that leprosy is curable, encouraging them to come for treatment at the earliest opportunity and that leprosy did not automatically lead to deformities. It was also to help the paramedics trained in leprosy control find ways of encouraging their patients to take their medication regularly and not stop the treatment just because they felt well. Telling patients they would go to jail or end up becoming totally deformed having proved to be not a particularly motivational method.

As well as working from the base in Saddar, in the heart of Karachi I often had to visit clinic in various far-flung districts of the city. When I was told there was some funding available to purchase a small Suzuki van for me I was delighted because it would mean no more death-defying journeys perched on the back of a motorbike.

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Note that men can sit astride a motorbike. Only we women who have to be cherished and kept safe are allowed to risk life and limb riding side saddle

Sitting side-saddle. Clutching my handbag and files. With nothing to grab hold of and, this being a Muslim country, forbidden to fling my arms round the man who was trying to shave seconds off his previous best time between clinic and centre. My hair blowing in my eyes, my scarf flying about risking being caught in the wheels a la Isadora Duncan. Eye-balling donkeys at traffic lights. Being looked down on by camels.

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Camels feel they are a superior race.

I beamed at Mr Fernandez the head administrator. He beamed back as he handed me the keys.

“Em, I will have a driver, won’t I?”

“No, there’s nothing in the budget for a driver. You have a driving licence, don’t you?”

I stopped beaming and tried for a beseeching look but he was having none of it. “All you have to remember is to watch the car in front. We drive on the same side of the road as you and follow your Highway Code. After the first couple of dents you’ll be fine. Maybe don’t go near Empress Market at first. When I’d just passed my test I found myself there by mistake. All the buses, the cars, the horns blaring – total gridlock.” He shuddered at the memory. “I stopped the engine and walked away. Went back for the car when it was quieter.”

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Outside Empress Market

I took the keys in my now sweaty hand and went outside to admire ‘my’ new vehicle. I sought out Zafar and asked if he’d sit with me a few times – like maybe a hundred – until I gained a little confidence. Could he think of somewhere quiet to practise? He decided we’d drive to the sea front at Clifton a place favoured by Karachi-ites for ice creams, pizzas, catching the sea breezes.IMG_0007 (Small)

I seem to remember it was about 10 o’clock at night. Zafar drove at first explaining the rules of the road. There was one more than the one Mr Fernandez told me about. The only other rule, Zafar told me was that if the vehicle approaching is bigger than you, you give way, otherwise you go. We swapped places and I started driving, very, very slowly. Zafar urged me to go a little bit faster and eventually I was in third gear. By the time I’d driven to Clifton and back three or four times Zafar declared himself satisfied with my progress and we returned to the hospital.

“Just one thing,” he said, “it would be best if you kept your eyes open when you go round a roundabout.”

I learned to keep my eyes open. I learned to be a pretty confident driver but I never, ever learned to keep my hand on the horn – at all times.

February’s Featured Blogger: Author, Mary Smith

Art by Rob Goldstein

February’s featured Blogger is author, Mary Smith.

Mary is the author of No More Mulberries, a novel set in Afghanistan and a collection of short stories, Donkey Boy & Other Stories. Her non-fiction work includes a memoir of her time in Afghanistan, Drunk Chickens, and Burnt Macaroni.

Thank you for being here , Mary.

You write in your biography that you’ve always written, but was there a moment of inspiration?

Hi Rob, thanks so much for choosing me as your blogger of the month. Your first question stumped me because I honestly can’t remember any one single moment of inspiration – I just always wanted to write.

What did you read as a child and what was your favorite story?

I read a lot as a child. One of my favorite (sorry, I can’t do American spelling so you might have to change some words!) books was What…

View original post 1,269 more words

Messing about on boats – Pakistan style

Messing about on boats has never been my thing and when I went to work in a leprosy hospital in Pakistan sailing was not something in which I expected to participate. Karachi-ites, however, are proud of the wide range of water-based sports on offer and expect foreigners to make the most of the opportunities to try deep sea fishing, scuba diving or explorations of the mangrove swamps.

My first boating experience was not a happy one and left me with no desire to accept further invitations. Not even the prospect of sailing around the harbour to visit one of many deserted bays for a private swimming party held any appeal. Until, that is, my imagination was caught by an article on the delights of midnight crab fishing. The idea of drifting gently in the moonlight on the calm waters of the Arabian Sea in a traditionally built boat, its lateen sails billowing, while I reclined on silken cushions had a certain appeal. As did the thought of dining on freshly caught crab, cooked on board by the crew as we sailed leisurely homewards.

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This is the kind of boat I thought I’d be going on

My new friend Zafar, a leprosy patient from Afghanistan, who within days of my arrival in Karachi had appointed himself my guide, chaperon and English student, was eager to share the experience. However, an Afghan refugee without papers and nervous of being out at night, he wanted an afternoon rather than an evening outing. Scratch the moonlight, then.

He rounded up some friends and we set out in my little Suzuki van which I drove with a combination of great pride and sheer terror through Karachi’s teeming streets. It seemed to me every one of the city’s ten million and rising residents were on the roads at the same time as I was, driving their trucks, buses, rickshaws, donkey carts and battered taxis in my direction.

Down on the old harbour front, Zafar indicated where I should park and within seconds of leaving the vehicle we were surrounded by swarthy, Baluchi fishermen sporting magnificent moustaches. Everyone was yelling at us. Thinking I must have pinched some VIP’s parking space I began to retreat. “No, no,” Zafar explained, “These are fishing boat men. First, we fix price.”  Though proud of my bargaining skills in the bazaar, hearing two dozen prices quoted at the same time, at full volume, threw me completely and I left him to it.

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Three of the dozen of so fishermen who bargained to take us out crab fishing.

 

When he told me to return to the van, I thought even Zafar, skilled negotiator though he was, had failed. The men followed, crowding us, still yelling. “Start the car,” commanded Zafar authoritatively. I turned the key in the ignition. The clamour increased.

“Off the engine. I have okay price,” he said, beaming happily.

As we followed our chosen crew towards their boat, memories of my earlier experience on a boat trip to the island of Manora floated into my consciousness. On that occasion, I’d stood at the foot of harbour steps gazing at the passenger ferry which lay on the far side of a dozen small bobbing boats. While I was still wondering how they were going to steer it up to the harbour wall my companions, Hameeda and her sister Razia began skipping nimbly from boat to boat, unconcerned by the vertigo inducing effect of the murky water slap slapping against each one. Fighting panic I’d clambered clumsily after them.

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Part of the fishing fleet at Karachi

Within twenty minutes the ferry was full and we’d lost much of our seating space as everyone squashed up together. Ten minutes later, the boat was decidedly over-full and sitting impossibly low in the water. I was thinking perhaps a visit to Manora wasn’t really all that important when the engine roared into life and we headed out to sea. The voyage lasted barely twenty minutes – long enough for me to recall with frightening clarity every headline ever read about overloaded ferries capsizing on Asian waterways.

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Did the sharks I had seen being unloaded at the fish market (fins to the Chinese restaurants, the remainder turned into fish fingers) come this close to the harbour?

Manora, which is a Pakistan Naval base, is all of 300 square acres and about 100 feet high. It was the starting point of the British conquest of Sind in February 1839. When the commander of the mud fort guarding the harbour entrance refused to surrender, Rear Admiral Sir Frederick Maitland in command of HMS Wellesley gave the order to fire. The fort was smashed to pieces. When the gallant British soldiers stormed over the walls they found the garrison comprised one old man, one young woman and a boy – all of whom instantly surrendered – hardly a glorious conquest for the British troops. Four years later, Charles Napier took possession of Sind, reputedly announcing his success to the world with the cryptic Latin comment:  peccavi – meaning, ‘I have sinned.’

“Isn’t it beautiful?” demanded Hameeda, indicating Manora’s silvery white sands.  It certainly was, but the thought of our return journey prevented me from appreciating our glorious surroundings. All the way back I fretted about having top repeat our earlier acrobatic performance but, to my relief, the boat nosed in close to the harbour.

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I disembarked, lost my footing and fell face down, full length on the slippery steps. Feeling myself slither towards the soupy water below (Karachi’s harbour is one of the most polluted in the world) I clawed frantically at the sludge covered stones. Tearing every finger nail in the process, coated in a thick layer of foul smelling slime, I finally hauled myself to my feet. With a collective sigh – whether of disappointment or relief I wasn’t sure – the crowd of curious onlookers parted to allow me through. Razia and Hameeda, embarrassed by such unseemly behaviour and ashamed of my disreputable appearance and smell, walked stiffly on ahead, pretending they didn’t know me.

What made my misadventure all the more unbearable was learning Manora isn’t a real island at all. It’s a peninsula connected to the mainland by a 12 kilometre road.

Edging once more down those same treacherous steps, I was in no position to argue with Zafar about the craft he had hired. Ignorant as I am about boats I do know a motorised one when I see it. Scratch the lateen sails – and the silk cushions on which to lounge. Once on board he explained with a shrug: “Sail boats very high price and take long time to reach fishing place.”

The crew handed out lines and lumps of fish for bait then hovered, landing nets at the ready, to assist us haul our catch aboard. After a while, when it was apparent all we were going to catch was sunstroke, they pottered off to the other end of the boat to do their own fishing. One or other of us felt a tug an occasional on the line but the crab had always managed to disentangle itself by the time we hauled in the line. The sun beat ferociously down on us, the ice in a bucket to keep our drinks cold melted, leaving us with lukewarm Fanta and, knowing there wasn’t one, I started worrying about what to do if I needed to go to the loo.

An enticing aroma of frying onions and spices cheered me up. The boatmen generously shared their catch with us. It may not have been quite the outing I had anticipated – an overpowering smell of motor oil rather than a salt tang carried on the sea breeze, scorching sun instead of silvery moonlight – but those succulent, spicy crabs were delicious.

I resolved, though, to buy them at the fish market: messing about on boats – not my thing at all.