After almost a year of researching, planning and convincing people that I would be in safe hands, I finally left for Islamabad in August, anticipating joyful celebrations and unbearable summer heat. Unlike the one-day wedding ceremony and reception that I am used to in Vietnam, a Pakistani wedding can include up to a week's worth of events. Therefore, it was almost no surprise that, having only planned a six-day visit, I missed the nikkah ceremony, in which the couple signed the marriage contract at the mosque and officially became husband and wife.
When my friend and her father came to pick me up from the airport at three in the morning, she was a few hours into being a married woman, having just signed the contract the day before. It turned out that I didn't miss much of the festivities; most of them were waiting for us in the next few days. Less than 24 hours after landing, I, along with three other NYUAD friends who had also flown in, learned the choreography to three Bollywood songs, had my hair mercilessly backcombed in a Chinese-run salon and marveled at a henna artist who used a needle-like tip so fine that it made the five dirham henna tubes we got in Abu Dhabi look like Sharpies.
Finally, a few hours later, I found myself in an ornate traditional dress known as lengha, standing among the bride's family to welcome guests to the marquee for the henna party, or mehndi. The dance-off was the highlight of the night — the groom's male relatives, all dressed in blue, started the competition, to which the bride's family and friends responded with dances they had prepared days in advance. The NYUAD girls and I joined in for a few dances, in which we tried to recall the correct steps, move in sync with each other and not trip over our skirts. The applause from the guests after our performances assured me that our effort was at least entertaining.
The mehndi inaugurated the festivities of the next few days. The baraat, in which the bride's family welcomed the groom's, was similarly festive with bright red decorations, plenty food and happy greetings between relatives of both sides. My favorite part of the entire wedding, however, came at the end of the baraat, when the music had faded and most of the lights in the marquee had gone out.
My friend, accompanied by her husband, finally left the ornate lounge chair on stage and proceeded to the entrance, with the Quran held over her head and her family following suit. The somber tone of the procession reminded me of the great transition that my friend was going through, as well as the changes waiting for her at the end of these joyful celebrations. To see someone with whom I had formed such a close connection over the past years heading into a new life with new responsibilities was a moment of unparalleled pride for me.
Finally, the walima, in which the groom's family welcomed the bride's to their hometown of Lahore with a great feast, brought closure to the wedding celebrations. A few more NYUAD friends from Lahore joined us for the feast, and the mini NYUAD reunion helped end my time in Pakistan on a happy note.
Lovely as the wedding ceremonies were, I felt fortunate that my short time in Pakistan was not spent completely in elaborate outfits and exquisite venues, for there was so much to see outside of the marquee's walls. My friend's three siblings accompanied us around Islamabad for a day and shared with us the favorite tidbits from their upbringing in the twin cities, which included a thrilling half-hour drive up the lush Margalla Hills. We had butter chicken and naan for lunch at a restaurant perched over the top of the hill overlooking the entire city, and I was convinced I would never eat butter chicken that delicious again.
However, my most revealing exposure to the twin cities and the country happened in Rawalpindi, when I and another NYUAD friend decided to explore the hotel's surroundings. No amount of strolling around Madinat Zayed in Abu Dhabi, where men conglomerate and unabashedly stare at women as they walk by, could have prepared me for the staring that happened on the streets of Islamabad.
The moment we stepped foot outside of the towering walls that enclosed the hotel and onto the street, the turning heads of everyone nearby made us doubt our readiness to go out. As we ventured out to the main street, trailing gazes elevated to honking horns and whistles from cars and motorbikes as they sped by. The 10-minute walk from the hotel to Saddar, the main commercial hub of Rawalpindi, made me feel more conscious about my foreigner status than ever and challenged all of the confidence I’d built from years of traveling alone.
Gazes followed us as we walked around the bustling shops of Saddar, but people whom we stopped to ask for directions and shopkeepers all offered us easy smiles and curious questions about our hometowns. When they found out my friend was from China, the smiles got even brighter, "China and Pakistan are friends! Good friends!"
Just as in Islamabad, I was fortunate to have a NYUAD friend who was a proud native of Lahore as my guide. The 20-minute drive from our hotel took us through different pieces of Lahore: narrow streets shared with donkey carts and daring pedestrians, tree-lined avenues that played home to universities and museums, lush green parks, a quiet road cryptically named Food Street and finally the weathered gates of the Walled City. Soon after we ventured into the walled complex, dark clouds turned to pouring rain that chased the heat away for a brief few hours.
Dripping from head to toe, we followed our guide through corridors and courtyards that carried just fractions of the imperial wonder that they used to be more than three centuries ago. We saw thousands of tiny convex mirrors embedded on a wall that could reflect the light from one source to intricate stonework with blue lapis lazuli and marbles on columns. These stunning remnants showed me how little I knew about the history of this part of the world and made me wish I could have stayed longer to see all that Lahore could offer.
Six days of festivities flew by. A couple of hours after the walima ended, we were back at the hotel, changing out of night gowns into worn T-shirts and getting ready to fly home, when my friend's father came with bags of mangoes and insisted that we took them back.
I left Pakistan with the fading henna on my hand, the sweet mangoes that I devoured in a corner of the Abu Dhabi airport before boarding the 13-hour flight back to Washington D.C. and a heart full with how much I had been able to see and experience in the past days. I felt privileged to be a guest in Pakistan and humbled to be part of the traditions that were of great importance to one of my closest friends.
Short as it was, my time there afforded me a glimpse of what home feels like for many of my friends and a vague understanding of what they mean when they talk about sporadic electricity cuts and chaat stalls. Yet I am aware that my picture of Pakistan, with air-conditioned hotel rooms and exquisite wedding halls, is a much rosier version of what life is like for average citizens.
Whenever I recall my time in Pakistan, I don't want my narrative to dismiss the real tension and conflicts commonly depicted by mainstream media, but do hope to contribute a different, less frequently told account — one of well-preserved history, spectacular celebrations and incredible hospitality.