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Sunday, February 11, 2007

Secrets from the Field

An Ethnographers notes from the North West Frontier Pakistan
Published by Author House 11/09/04
ISBN 1-4208-0674-2
Price $15.50
Much has been written about the Pukhtuns and some have romanticized them and others shown them as scoundrels, but Benidicte Grima makes an effort to understand them especially the women, of whom very little is known or has been written.
Grima is a courageous soul who braved living among the Pukhtuns for many years, and being a woman she had access to the inner most sanctums of most homes which allows her a rare insight of the workings of women and how they live and react in day to day situations. She also has the added advantage of speaking Pashto, which gives her greater acceptance into female circles once the initial awkwardness has worn out.

It is interesting to read of her exploring, discovering and an attempt to explain and make sense of our culture. She tries to pinpoint different aspects of Pukhtunwali as it exists in the female world, but it is her ultimate discovery when she realizes there is not a lot of black and white, but many shades of gray that differ from home to home and town to town.

Fully immersing herself in the culture of the people, she gives an accurate representation of the people. Dressing, eating and living like them, she not only observes but first hand experiences the different aspects of their life. At one point in even becomes clear that she has started to think like them.

Secrets from the Field is an intimate look into Grima's experience, she bravely admits when she makes a mistake, but also firmly stands her ground when she knows she is right. Amazingly did she not only dare to live there, she also trusts the Pukhtuns enough to take her baby daughter Lewangina and entrust her to the care of a local nanny.

Looking at our culture through her eyes and not finding any embellishments or exaggerations, makes the book very endearing. Though not personally familiar with the people she writes of they represent everyday people that we do know, or events that have befallen our families too and the place she writes of are very familiar.

We feel her shock of discovering the invisible social hierarchy and it reminds of the day we grew up enough to realize it too. Grima discovers how words in a sentence can contradict themselves and what is said is not neccesarily what is meant, and she learns that parties are very chaotic occasions, and no matter how well you plan things can always go wrong in a myriad of unseen ways.

Through her book we meet Sayyed and his woes, we meet Gol Begum and her family. We are drawn into the smoky kitchen where Grima is making doday over an open fire that she keeps going with thorns and dung cakes. We attend the wedding of Nilufar and we see our own mothers in Baji's nervous breakdown just before the wedding. Meeting the quarrelsome Mina and hearing her very Bollywood movie life story, we move on to Yasmin and her smoothly run household.
We meet Aziza the Afghan student and we shudder at Raissa's fate knowing all to well how easily it can befall any of us. Of all the things that Grima does there, from living alone to riding a bus alone to Baluchistan, her most daring adventure is the one to Pir Baba.
Grima deserves credit for realizing something which few other outsiders do, that the Pukhtun raise their expectations of acceptable behavior and are less tolerant once one is made aware of the correct protocols for social interaction.
All in all the book is a very light and interesting read and I recommend it but with the warning that it will make you nostalgic for home and eating ganeray in the sun or warming your feet by the open hearth fire.

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