MarySmith’sPlace – Sibi Mela, Pakistan

Here in Scotland we are in the middle of the agricultural show season. The Royal Highland Show, the flagship event of the Royal Highland and Agricultural Society of Scotland, starts things off in June when over four days the finest livestock is shown off and judged. There’s also show jumping, countryside pursuits, entertainment (one year I was invited to read poetry in a yurt!), shopping and much more.

I thought, though, I’d take you to Pakistan to experience the amazing Sibi Mela. Usually a nondescript, rural backwater in Baluchistan province, Sibi bursts into colourful, noisy life for five days every year with thousands of farmers and traders bringing their livestock.

Sibi -01 (Custom)Assuming the livestock would provide a familiar point of reference, we headed firstly towards the cattle area. Chewing the cud with bovine nonchalance, coats gleaming like silk – in lines as far as the eye could see – they were ignoring the fussing of their grooms. One farmer, delighted at the interest being shown in his beast, prodded the dozing animal, causing everyone to step back hurriedly, as several tons of prime beef lumbered to its feet. “He is champion,” he exclaimed, pointing proudly to the red rosette.

So far, so familiar: however, major differences soon became apparent. For a start, it is difficult to imagine Scottish farmers painting their prize stock with henna (though maybe some talcum powder for the sheep?) as is dressing them in colourful, silk coats and beaded headdresses. Sibi-03

Nor are we likely to see, next to the cattle, countless oxen, buffalo and strings of camels. My delighted cooing at the baby camels – ungainly bundles of fluff, still practising their sneers – brought astonished looks from their owners.

We were swept along towards an exhibition area where at least some sights were familiar. The shiny new tractors and other agricultural implements were admired by crowds of men and small boys. Families came along to enjoy the carnival atmosphere of the fair. Just like their Scottish counterparts, children gleefully collected freebies from display stands promoting everything from artificial insemination to hybrid seeds. Also on offer for entertainment are folk dancers, tent pegging, camel races, handicrafts and tribal dresses and jewellery, fairground and circus.

Suddenly, an instantly recognisable sound tugged the heart strings, bringing a wave of homesickness as a Pakistani pipe band marched through the crowds, playing of all things, Scotland the Brave. Instead of Highland dancers, though, groups practised traditional folk dances to be performed later in the main stadium. A five-man team, stunning in bright, candy pink shalwar kameez, their leader in a contrasting outfit of startling canary yellow waved gaily coloured pompons as they rehearsed.


A strange looking troupe appeared. One gaunt old man, stripped to the waist, whirled in circles to a pulsating, hypnotic drumming which built into a deafening crescendo, before abruptly stopping. The crowd watched intently as another man slowly, methodically, pierced the dancer’s naked flesh with sharp metal spikes. The drumming began again, softly. The man – seemingly entranced – resumed his dance, whirling ever faster as the beat quickened, the embedded skewers quivering from his sides and neck.IMG_0007 (Custom)

As the drums reached a crescendo, the leader moved forward, caught and steadied the dancer. He blew – puff! – on the pierced flesh, removed the skewers, holding them aloft. Not a drop of blood to be seen. With gasps of wonder, spectators dug into their pockets for rupees.

From a row of makeshift huts – palm leaf mats lashed together – enticing cooking aromas caused hunger pangs. When the clientele had recovered from the shock of a foreign family joining them, they laughingly made room for us.

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The restaurant kitchen

As we sat cross-legged on the mat, tearing off chunks of hot, fresh chapatti with which to scoop up our meat stew and spicy lentils, they nodded approval. After a fight with the proprietor over the bill – “You are guests in Baluchistan. Baluchis do not take money from guests” – we headed for the stadium.

We were led to excellent seats and it was only when handed cups of tea by a uniformed orderly, I understood we had been mistaken for VIPs. Horses plumed and bedecked in finery, high-stepped in time to martial music. We feared causing a diplomatic incident by leaving mid-performance and cringed in our seats, hating the sight of this unnatural parody of dance achieved by the painful application of an electric prod.

When we finally escaped the stadium, we discovered the fairground. Instead of bouncy castles there were manually operated, gaudily painted wooden roundabouts. In a sawdust strewn circus ring, we saw a tightrope walking goat, a monkey pedalling a tricycle and a lady vanishing in a puff of smoke.

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IMG_0016 (Custom) IMG_0015 (Custom)We joined a long queue to see the Snake Woman, whose body was rather obviously a length of poorly disguised hosepipe. No-one seemed to mind this in the slightest.

We clambered up the perilous stairs of the Wall of Death. Peering down from the rickety viewing platform, our astonished gaze fell, not on a motor cyclist, but on a group of made-up transvestites, gyrating seductively to Indian film music.

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They pouted, blew kisses and winked enticingly to encourage the men in the audience to throw rupees down to them. When the music stopped, the ‘girls’ collected their money, making way at last for the stunt man. Dressed in leathers, he zoomed his bike around the walls making the structure shudder alarmingly. He collected fewer rupees than the dancers. IMG_0012 (Custom)

Later, we watched dazzling displays of horsemanship as wild looking tribesmen showed off their horses’ paces in tent pegging competitions and trotting races.

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When the cattle were bedded down for the night, their attendants curled up beside them. A haze of smoke from cooking fires hovered in the air and it was, sadly, time for us to leave.

Write What You Know: A Guest Post by Mary Smith

I was delighted to be featured on Linda Hill’s fabulous blog – lindasbookbag – writing a guest post on Writing What you Know. Do check it out and have a look round Linda’s blog – she reviews some wonderful books.

Linda's Book Bag


Earlier this year I had the privilege of staying in with lovely Mary Smith to discuss her book No More Mulberries in a post you can read here. I have also been lucky enough to read and review (here) Mary’s short story collection Donkey Boy.

I have so enjoyed Mary’s writing and she is such a wonderful supporter of Linda’s Book Bag, that when I heard she had a new book out with photographer Keith KirkSecret Dumfries, I just had to invite her back to the blog. Today Mary has kindly written a guest post all about writing what you know and even better, it’s Mary’s birthday today so happy birthday Mary!

Secret Dumfries is available to buy on Amazon or directly from the publisher, Amberley Publishing.

Secret Dumfries


Dumfries, in south-west Scotland, has a long history, much of it well…

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MarySmithsPlace – Canada (part 3)

Quite a while before I went to Canada I read a book, Travelling to the Edge of the World by Kathleen Jones who travelled to the islands of Haida Gwaii, off the northernmost coastline of British Columbia. She went (and now I’m quoting the back of the book blurb) to talk to a nation who have lived in harmony with their environment for more than ten thousand years. They have a saying ‘everything is connected’ and their philosophy ‘Yah’Guudang’, is about “respect and responsibility, about knowing our place in the web of life and how the fate of our culture runs parallel with the fate of the ocean, sky and forest”.

But there is a darker side to Haida history. Kathleen Jones uncovers the story of how the British Colonial administration reduced the population from more than twenty thousand to just over five hundred by a policy that has been identified as ‘cultural genocide’. Haida artist Bill Reid, whose sculpture ‘Raven and the First Men’ appears on the cover, wrote that, “It is one of the world’s finest tributes to the strength of the human spirit that most of those who lived, and their children after them, remained sane and adapted”.

When I finished reading Travelling to the Edge of the World, the first thing I wanted to do was re-read it immediately.  I also wanted to visit Haida Gwaii (previously known as Queen Charlotte Islands). I knew when I made my trip to Canada it wouldn’t be possible in the time I had to include a trip there – and I still want to go – but I was able to visit the Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia. There I was able to see some of the Haida carvings and totems as well as work by acclaimed Haida artist Bill Reid.

My cousin Grace and I went to the museum. Several galleries showcase thousands of objects from all around the world. As well as exhibits on display other objects are in drawers beneath the s cases which you can open to explore even more artefacts.

Outside are examples of Haida houses and Musqueam house posts which are fascinating. DSC00152 (Custom)

Inside, the Great Hall, with its displays of totem poles and carvings, is truly spectacular. Spellbinding. Light pours in from the floor to ceiling glass walls highlighting the totems, which are so much more than I expected. Taller, so much taller, and so intricately carved.

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We all had to crane our necks to see the tops of the totems.

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Bear by Bill Reid. It was hard to obey the ‘do not touch’ order as this – and other sculptures – are so tactile.

One of the highlights was seeing Bill Reid’s sculpture of Raven and the First Men, which depicts the story of human creation. Carved from a giant block of laminated yellow cedar, it took two years to complete. Bill Reid, goldsmith, carver, sculptor, writer and one of Canada’s greatest artists was born in 1920. His mother, Sophie, was Haida but was sent away to school on the mainland where she was not allowed to speak her native language. She became an English teacher before she married Bill’s father who was of German Scottish descent. Bill was raised as ‘white’ by a mother who had assimilated western ways. On a visit to Haida Gwaii in 1954 Bill came across some carved bracelets by his great-great-uncle, carver Charles Edenshaw and the world changed for him.

In Haida culture, the Raven is the most powerful of mythical creatures. His appetites include lust, curiosity, and an irrepressible desire to interfere and change things, and to play tricks on the world and its creatures. According to Haida legend, the Raven was alone on Rose Spit beach in Haida Gwaii when he saw a clamshell inside which were small humans. The Raven coaxed them to leave the shell to join him in his world. Although hesitant at first, the humans did come out of the clamshell and became the first Haida.

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Raven and the First Men

Several First Nations carvers also worked on the project, including Reggie Davidson, Jim Hart, and Gary Edenshaw. Sculptor George Rammell worked on the emerging little humans, and Bill Reid did most of the finishing carving.

One day I might actually get to Haida Gwaii but at least, in the meantime, I’ve had the opportunity to see some of the fabulous work and learn a little more about the culture of a people I first read about in Kathleen Jones’ book.

Another piece of Bill Reid’s fabulous art is in the International Terminal at Vancouver Airport: The Spirit of Haida Gwaii. The Jade Canoe, a traditional six metre long Haida cedar dugout canoe in green-coloured bronze represents the Aboriginal heritage of Haida Gwaii. DSC00183 (Custom)

The canoe carries the following passengers: Raven, the trickster, holding the steering oar; Mouse Woman, crouched under Raven’s tail; Grizzly Bear, sitting at the bow and staring toward Raven; Bear Mother, Grizzly’s human wife; their cubs, Good Bear (ears pointed forward) and Bad Bear (ears pointed back); Beaver, Raven’s uncle; Dogfish Woman; Eagle; Frog; Wolf, claws imbedded in Beaver’s back and teeth in Eagle’s wing; a small human paddler in Haida garb known as the Ancient Reluctant Conscript; and, at the sculpture’s focal point, the human Shaman (Kilstlaai in Haida), who wears the Haida cloak and woven spruce root hat and holds a tall staff carved with images of Seabear, Raven, and Killer Whale.

The variety and interdependence of the canoe’s occupants represents the natural environment on which the ancient Haida relied for their survival: the passengers are diverse, and don’t always get along, but they must depend on one another to live.

I like that. I like the acknowledgement that we may not always live in harmony but we are dependent on each other. The sooner we accept this truth, the better for our world!

Guest author: Mary Smith – Secret Dumfries

I’ve been a guest today on the delightful and generous Sue Vincent’s blog talking about Secret Dumfries and providing a few wee tasters.

Sue Vincent's Daily Echo

The ‘office’

I’m thrilled to accept Sue’s generous offer to let me loose on her blog to talk about my latest book, Secret Dumfries.

I say my latest book but I should say our latest book as it is the result of a collaboration with photographer Keith Kirk, who in our part of the world (south west Scotland) is best known for his fantastic wildlife photography. It has been a wonderful project to work on –frustrating at times, fun, informative and exciting.

Obviously, as not all readers will know Dumfries we included a brief overview of the well-known areas of its history and I suspect we could have written a whole book on the pre-history of the area. When I was chatting to the local authority’s archaeologist he showed me maps on which he’d plotted ancient historical sites – there are literally thousands. However, we had a strict word…

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