The neighborhood that is home to the Turkmen in Attock is called the Bijli-ghar muhalla or the Bijli-ghar neighborhood. The name comes from the now-defunct electric power house (or bijli-ghar in Urdu) that sits smack in the middle of the narrow alleys and small brick facades. It was Sunday, so the schools were closed. Abdul Rehman and his eldest daughter Saleema offered to take me around Bijli-ghar to meet the Turkmen girls and women in their homes. It was something I had been anxious to do since I first arrived in Attock, so I was quick to accept.
Our first stop was Abdul Rehman’s mother’s home—two rooms built on the upper level of a school. As we entered, three young women who had been bent over a carpet loom jumped up and started scurrying around to make us comfortable. They were Abdul Rehman’s sister and sisters-in law. His mother was a graceful lady of about 60, clad in traditional Afghan attire. She didn’t speak Urdu, but her eyes were welcoming as she led us to a room that was a customary part of almost every Turkmen home. I called it the ‘red room’. The floor was lined with red Turkmen Ersari rugs, the walls with red embroidered fabric, and large red cushions lay scattered around the room for seating. A few minutes later, Abdul Rehman’s sister put drinks, sweets, nuts and a pizza-sized flour roti in front of me.
As we sat chatting, Saleema noticed my gaze drifting to a long, white fabric casing embellished with fine embroidery. It hung from the wall and had something stuffed in it. “Can you guess what is inside?” she asked, a hint of mischief in her eyes. I guessed nuts, shoes, and money before finally giving up, at which point Abdul Rehman’s sister stood up and spent the next five minutes getting the casing off the wall. It took a long pole and a considerable amount of jumping, and the thing fell off. She carefully unfolded a silky white burqa from inside it.
“This is the traditional Turkmen burqa every girl brings from her parents’ home when she gets married.” she explained. “The plaits you see come undone if it is washed. We must store it very carefully, so it doesn’t need to be washed for a long time.”
I knew that most Turkmen women never left the house without their burqa, so I was puzzled.
“But it took you so long to get that off the wall.” I said. “You do this every time you need to step out?”
“Yes,” she replied, smiling. “We only go out a few times a year. Usually when it’s Eid, or there’s a wedding, or a death.”
In some homes where word had not spread about BLISS, the women told me they had no say in sending their daughters to school – the fathers would never agree to forfeit the wages earned by working at the carpet looms. I talked about the financial incentives BLISS was offering, and they agreed the ‘pocket-money’ could change their minds.
“I want them to go to school and get an education.” one mother told me about her five daughters. “I want their lives to be better than mine.” The truth was, these girls already led lives different from those of the older women in the community. They could speak Urdu and communicate with the non-Turkmen. They went out more often, sometimes with their fathers, and were more aware of the world that existed outside their close-knit community. Hopefully BLISS would mean that they also got an education.
In one of the homes, I met an old, frail woman who had lost her arms to a bombing in Afghanistan during the Soviet war of 1979. She narrated a heart-wrenching tale of losing her house, her husband, half her family and both her arms. She had escaped to Pakistan with her remaining children, and lived in Attock since. “We don’t want to go back.” she told me. “We have seen everything there is to see in Afghanistan. There is nothing there for us anymore.” She had two daughters, one of whom had Down’s syndrome. For her healthy teenage daughter, getting an education was an irrealizable dream. With a physically disabled mother and a mentally disabled sibling, she had to stay home to take care of them and do the housework.
At the home that was our last stop, I met Abdul Rehman’s cousins—two beautiful Turkmen women, and their children.
One of the 4-year old girls started crying hysterically at seeing me. Attempts to soothe her were futile; every time I spoke, she would only cry harder. “She thinks you are the doctor!” laughed her mother. “Around here, the only people that come into our homes are doctors.”
The day ended with a feast at Abdul Rehman’s house made by his wife. Hospitality knew no bounds at the homes of the Turkmen.