Last winter, Washtenaw Community College Humanities instructor Elisabeth Thoburn visited Pakistan, taking in everyday life at mosques and colorful markets as well as the devastating assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. A lifelong traveler, this Berlin native has visited Peru, China, Cuba, Greece, Italy, Turkey and India to bring back first-hand accounts for her students. An exhibition of her photos (a few dozen from a collection of about 4,000 images) from Pakistan now hangs at the college’s student center.
Metro Times: You say that Pakistan lies in the margin of our focus, unjustifiably so. Why do you think that is?
Elisabeth Thoburn: Politically it’s our focus in America. We already read about Pakistan in the newspaper, but culturally it’s not, and I think that’s linked to the political troubles over there. People don’t think of Pakistan as a country where, for example, they would vacation or where there is cultural history. They always think of it as a dangerous place.
MT: What about academically?
Thoburn: Same thing. Hardly anybody goes to work there. But Buddhist art has always interested me. Some of oldest Buddhist universities are in Pakistan so I knew about them. Then, of course, Islamic architecture, which I teach, the famous one is Taj Mahal, but the same dynasty built a tomb palace and fortress in Lahore so I knew about that. The Indus River civilization is one of the cradles of civilization, and I teach in my Humanities 101 class about that, and we always leave that one out — Egypt is so much more in focus, and China, and this usually falls by the way side.
MT: How can you see elements of history in contemporary life there?
Thoburn: Some scholars I met, of course, know about their past and treasure it, and the government at least gets money from the UNESCO to dig these monuments up and preserve them. But the population is, at best, oblivious and, at worst, destructive. I’ve seen them celebrate Eid, which is a big festival [marking the end of Ramadan], on top of the ruins. I mean, people dancing on the ruins, with boom boxes, cookouts, people drinking Coke and then making fires in the ruins. And when 500 men drink and have a cookout, then you know they also have to relieve themselves, and absolutely nobody seems to care.
If you ask them what these ruins are about they wouldn’t have a clue. They are maintaining exactly one religious tradition, and that is Islam. Islam is not interested in preserving Buddhism or Hinduism. To them these are dead places, not worth much.
MT: Artistically, what did you notice?
Thoburn: When I saw these trucks everywhere it was mind-boggling. I was so fascinated by them that I spent several hours in one of the truck yards where they paint and work on these.
MT: Do you know how it developed?
Thoburn: No, but I will make a leap here and say as you decorated your elephants, now you decorate your trucks. This is a lifeline to them. This is how you transport goods, and truck drivers make a good salary. They really take pride in their cars and, looking at these trucks, they probably go back to the periods of the British colonization. Instead of a society that throws away a five-year-old car and gets a new one — for them, it’s a 50-year-old car, and if anything needs fixing they bring it to these yards, and these mechanics are absolute wizards who take a truck down to its core and rebuild it from scratch.
The more prestigious a driver is, or the more money they make, the more they put on their trucks. The drivers hire artists and mechanics to hand-paint, collage, paste, nail and chisel. A lot of tin is waterproofed; the pieces are cut from sheets and glued on in layers. Some of it is custom-made and some parts are mass-produced. The trucks are all over the place, but concentrated definitely in the north.
MT: What about your photographs of public scenes, especially the images of men holding hands, and that man in drag.
Thoburn: They would be stoned dead if they were gay. Homosexuality is absolutely unthinkable. Men holding hands or hugging in public is an indication of a very deep friendship. Male relationships are relationships of equals, so they walk hand in hand. They wouldn’t make it through the market if they were gay.
MT: How would anyone know?
Thoburn: They are probably both married and have kids, and that would be known. If they had a sexual relationship they wouldn’t make it far.
Then we saw this kushra and waved her over to our car. In our culture, we would call him/her a transvestite or cross-dresser, a man walking around in women’s clothes. My guide, who I thought was very well-educated and very Western-liberal said, "When they are born without genitalia they become kushras and we hire them for dances and events and so forth." Well, I don’t believe that for a second. I mean, there is a sizable population of these people. This is most likely a homosexual pretending he has no genitalia so he can get by as a kushra and therefore he can live. It would have never crossed my guide’s mind that there could be a deliberate decision behind something like that.
MT: It was incredible that you visited Pakistan during such upheaval, when former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto was assassinated. Did it interfere with your travels?
Thoburn: I went during the winter because it was election time and I thought it would be politically interesting. She was the big candidate of the People’s Party. We were in Lahore, and our hotel was right next to her party headquarters. I was resting in my room and I heard a roar. If you can imagine a soccer game when everybody’s watching TV, and you hear people react when someone scores a goal? It was like that. So I went out and they told me to go back in the room, it’s dangerous. At that very moment on TV it had been said she was in the hospital and had died.
Within half an hour, the entire country knew. I sneaked by guys in the hotel, went on the roof and the first thing that happened was a power outage. Within minutes, people collected together with iron rods and started clubbing cars, hitting anything that came down the road, like people coming home from work. Within an hour we had people rioting down there and burning tires. The next day, riot police were out.
We were supposed to travel south, but people told us to fly home. We stayed at the hotel for a few hours, then we bought one of those people’s party flags and taped it to our car — so maybe someone with bad intentions would leave us alone — and begged our driver to go to the sites we wanted to see, including one of the largest mosques in Lahore. It was completely empty. It was eerie. There, at about 1 o’clock, the police said, "You should go because mosque services are out in a half an hour and if the imams in the mosque call for violence, there will be violence." But it kept quiet.
MT: What was it like to visit her tomb?
Thoburn: We took a flight there, and I bugged the locals to see her tomb, but none of them had gone because it was unsafe and there was no gas available. One taxi driver said, "OK, I’m taking you, but you have to come right now." I hopped in the car and had to pay him a huge amount of money. There were no guards, no nothing. There were a few TV stations. Some people had walked on foot for a day or two. Every morning a couple private planes landed. The French ambassador would zip down there, throw some flowers down and zip back, with an army convoy. I was literally one of the only private, non-TV-connected, non-embassy-connected person who showed up there.
I had no time to think about a headdress. I should have under no circumstances gone into a tomb with no headscarf, but I didn’t have time to think about it. I literally had to hop in the taxi right then and go. The people were saying, "Look, here’s a foreigner crying with us, mourning with us." They accepted that I was there, as inappropriately dressed as I was.
MT: As if they almost appreciated it?
Thoburn: Oh, they were deeply moved. So moved that, the next day, the entire province knew I had been there. The police officers saluted. It was beyond belief.
MT: Do you think it was because you showed a sign of respect that what happens there matters?
Thoburn: Yes. They could see it mattered enough to me to have taken that risk and to somehow have gotten out there. They touched my forehead. And at the airport, all of a sudden, out of nowhere, somebody brought us tea. Again, it was a sign of respect and welcome. It was amazing. My guide said, "You are quite famous here. Everyone’s talking about the German who went to go see Benazir Bhutto."
This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
Pakistan is on display through Oct. 10, at Gallery One, Room 108 in the Student Center Building on Washtenaw Community College’s campus, 4800 Huron River Dr., Ann Arbor; 734-477-8512. Rebecca Mazzei is former Metro Times arts and culture editor. Send comments to