27 December, 2007

Delirious New York

In other news: I went to New York with Hannie, Angela, Colleen and Angelica. We went to Central Park for ice skating, which was as fun in the end as it was impossible at first. As always, the lights and crowds in New York swept me away, and it was only Hannie's presence that prevented me from spending too much money.
Twelve days before elections in Pakistan, Benazir Bhutto, daughter of the greatest democratic leader we have seen, first woman Prime Minister of Pakistan, a significant part of Pakistani politics, has been assassinated near Liaquat Bagh, Rawalpindi. She wasn't the most amazing Prime Minister but her death is a huge loss to the country, especially because it represents the end of what she represents and the rise of Islamic extremism.

25 December, 2007

Khamosh Paani

This is one of a few amazing movies I have watched in these lazy winter days at Princeton, days which start at 2pm, consist of 2 hours of sunlight and stretch on till 4.30am. My sister Hannie is visiting from Mount Holyoke College. We got groceries and she cooked Pakistani food:)

Hina is applying to colleges and I have written a peer recommendation for her. I really hope she gets into some good colleges in the US.

So anyway, Khamosh Paani or "Silent Waters" is a movie every Pakistani should watch. It's an interesting window into the Pakistan we never got to know, the Pakistan before Zia-ul-Haq's regime brought extremism to our country. The beautifully tragic story... I will not ruin for you. For a more detailed review, go here.

21 December, 2007


I watched this movie in Sohaib's room last night and I loved it. If you liked Moulin Rouge and Lord of the Rings you will enjoy this a lot! If you are down and need some magic in your life this is the movie to watch!

20 December, 2007

It has been several orange key tours, many nights of reading and French homework, countless problem sets, a birthday, a few Boston Legal episodes, an SVC Communicator, a front page feature on the Daily Princetonian, a handful of difficult decisions and new ventures, some new friendships and personal relationships, and a lot more since I last wrote here. It must be a pretty boring blog indeed! My life must seem quite banal. Well, it isn't.

18 August, 2007

Luna Lovegood, Neville Longbottom and Severus Snape

I had thought for some time (especially since the movies started coming out) that I was quite over Harry Potter. But all the excitement of Goblet of Fire, which had I read when I was 14, was back. Spectacular, theatrical, brilliant, witty, grand, thrilling.... Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows gives all the answers and solves all the riddles.


Deathly Hallows is reminiscent of Lord of the Rings (sometimes quite starkly) in its grandeur, but I love how Rowling moves beyond the good-vs-evil theme to explore the gray areas in the life of Dumbledore, as well as Voldemort. The exploration of ideas such as death, and "the greater good" as perceived by the elite, are also very intriguing. Most of all, I love the treatment given to characters like Snape and Dobby, the book's tragic heroes. Here lies Dobby, a free elf. Beautiful!

Though it is a children's book that may perhaps lack the subtlety of fully rounded characters, it is still a masterpiece. For me, its magic lay in the way it made me feel like a child once more, especially when the whole of Hogwarts prepared for battle (like when the people of Rohan took arms against Saruman but much more intense, as all magical creatures joined in). While I mourn the deaths of the fallen, I must say I have not felt this thrilled, excited, amazed and scared since the summer camp. Lastly, I had always known that Dumbledore must have asked Snape to kill him. Aha! I was right!

14 August, 2007

Harry Potter and the SOS Village

I can be quite theatrical, I realized, when a handful of hyper children finally settled around me, as I started off with my Urdu version of Harry Potter. With a lot of gesturing, using the sign language I knew (while inventing the signs I didn't) and a little help from Jessica, the DRTC teacher, even the deaf children seemed to become, ahem, spellbound.

So when despite the attempts of his evil khala (aunt) to prevent him, when Harry Potter finally opened the letter addressed to him, he saw it was in English and he could not read it! So he went to his friend Mishaal (here four-year-old Mishaal's face lights up and all the other children are awed) and she was happy to be of help. It said: Dear Harry Potter, you have been admitted to the SOS Village.

One by one all the children were featured in the story, and eventually, to save Harry from danger, all of them formed a train (the Hogwarts Express) by holding the shoulders of the kid in front. If the train broke, Harry Potter would fall out.... Some of their fascination obviously came from the fact that, like Harry, these kids didn't have parents, and had nowhere to go until they came to the SOS Village.

So we had a morning session and an evening session each day, and we had already meticulously planned what each group would be doing when. The first day was slightly disorganized. All right, that might be an understatement: when I entered the Small Auditorium where both the Orange groups were supposed to be working, there was a huge mess and thirty kids were running around wild, the volunteers standing helplessly on the sidelines. How was this going to work, I thought, most of these people hadn't done this before. All our battle plans seemed to be falling apart at the onslaught. Against my instincts, I stayed calm, had the kids seated and explained to them the rules. We had a meeting with all the volunteers during break and we agreed that aside from the team-leader, who would be managing the activity, all other volunteers would sit and work with their three children at all times.

We decided to include a lot more outdoor activities so the kids could channel their energy.

There was a marked improvement. I saw that the less I interfered, the less the volunteers relied on me to solve each and every little problem, and the better they got at their job. During this time we got to know the children really well, having had time to talk to them. I could even tell the twins, Tooba and Shehnaz, apart!

By the third day, we were generally doing spectacularly on the activities (Aside from the occasional team-leader reduced to tears after a long day, by either the kids or the volunteers working under them).

There was therefore the need to have those private talks with volunteers to remind them of our expectations, and that seemed to solve most of our issues.

Soon I got to know the strengths and weaknesses of all the volunteers quite well, and learned that each of the four leaders had a unique way of working. It became easier to decide who would work better where, who was independent and best left alone, and where I needed to be. I became more of a support person, who would arrange for the DVD player, put up shiner charts for each group, make new name tags, facilitate meetings, address discipline issues and basically motivate the entire team.

The excursions were a whole other matter. We faced the same disorder on the morning of our first excursion and I knew that if even one of these fifty-five little children were hurt, I would never be able to forgive myself. I checked and rechecked lists. It was hot and sweaty and it seemed no one was organized. Everyone wanted to leave and Mary told me we were late. Someone said the cooler was leaking and I found myself screaming, "Deal with it man, I'm not going to come fix it for you!" Meanwhile I went to the two buses and painstakingly checked off the SOS kids' names and then the deaf kids' names and made sure that each of the 28 volunteers had 2 or 3 kids with them. The bus engines roared. The kids erupted into screams of delight and songs (They love getting out of the orphanage). Exhausted, I crashed in the front seat and checked and corrected my lists again. I was never going to lose temper again. This would never happen again. Not at the camp.

The kids loved the electronic rides (especially the bumper cars) despite the intense heat. One kid got sick but the volunteers were great at handling that and we asked the driver to get 25 more large bottles of water. Even the volunteers seemed to be loving the rides. Finally we were back - all of us, thankfully!

Meanwhile the games night was approaching and a few of us got together to discuss a strategy for that. On the day itself, we had defined specific jobs and put down names of people under those headings. That way people would know where they needed to be. We then had a large meeting to go over details, critique them and finalize our plan.

At seven o'clock the bell would ring and the kids would start coming in; that was the deadline we were working toward. With Henna returning from retirement for the day and Ovais being a super leader, everything went almost flawlessly! The barbecue team outside, led by Ahmed and Hina, was efficient and commendable; by the time we were done, a roaring campfire, and innumerable hot dogs, chips and drinks awaited us.

Henna and I ran the show and the kids loved the games. There were three teams and the games were designed for different age groups. The team leader volunteers would nominate the players from their teams and the competition would take place on stage. We had finally resolved all logistic problems such as who would blow the balloons for the "Burst the Balloons" game. This was done, for instance, by introducing a balloon-blowing game for the older boys!

The second week started and we had to start planning the carnival, and the last evening, complete with video- and picture slide-show, sending invites, deciding on a guest performer, and preparing the prizes for the children. Activities and excursions continued for all groups and varied greatly (I only write here about my own group but the scope of the summer camp was much larger than this alone).

The volunteers were great with the children.

The carnival this year was organized by the middle-boys' group. They worked very hard and we were all proud of their achievement. They had designed stalls for outdoor games and tickets for the younger kids to carry and mark their winnings. There was face-painting, races, sponge-the-bozo, and ice cream!

Finally the last day was approaching and Ayesha and I started to plan the program for the evening where we would be emceeing. It was back again to planning, setting deadlines, rules, defining responsibilities for the evening; all in all, it was an immense thing to coordinate.

We were either really good, or the the kids were loving the camp too much, knowing it was about to end, because we faced no more discipline problems. The name of the child pictured below is Saddam Hussain and you can see he is busy working on his greeting card.

We were kidding about how on the final evening we should send Saddam and Osama to go and receive the prizes for the youngest kids' groups. But on a serious note, it is interesting how our experiences make us the people we are, and I am positive that, owing to the positive nurturing environment he is in, this child will grow up to be a very fine person.

Before we knew it it was seven o'clock on the evening of Thursday, 26th July 2007. The displays of all the children's work were up in the lobby and the auditorium was set up. The whole place was bustling with people. We had brought along a change of clothes that day and looked proper for the occasion. The trustees of SOS Village, the principals, the sponsors, the CEO of HSBC Pakistan... they were all there.

It was a lot of fun emceeing. I was in this elated state where nothing could make me nervous - not the heat, not the booming sound system, not the delay that forced us to go up on stage and improvise by calling up kids and talking to them. It was a blast! For me it is a long way from when I could hardly talk in front of people. I was also proud of my Urdu, a result of watching local news everyday in light of the very volatile situation in Pakistan at that time.

In fact, once the program ended and the guests left for dinner the DJ turned the music up and the kids came up on stage and we all danced to a few songs. The deaf kids were the most animated and I wondered if they could sense the music somehow: Richard had said something about them being able to sense low pitched sounds.

And then it was goodbyes, exchanging phone numbers, tears from some children and some volunteers too... leaving SOS is always difficult...

"Dear Waqas, Nazish, Ozair, Danish, Madiha, Mehvish, Maryam, Haris, Mustafa, Ahmar, Ayesha, Ammar, Beenish, Shazia, Nadir, Hamza, Pyari, Mohammed, Farwa, Sarah, Elaine, Johnny, Joyanne, Hina Ather, Danish, Alia, Sana, Asad, Joe, Rashid, Umama, Aniq, Madiha, Sarah, Kanza, Mariam, Aniya, Aisha, Soha, Ayesha, Huma, Nida, Fatimah, Moeen, Ahmad, Ali, Ali, Hassan, Iman, Harris, Saifullah, Ovais, Henna, Fizza, Sarah. Sijal, Menaal and all,

"Wow, this was a long list to type but that is part of our appreciation for all your love, care, energy and hard work that you put into the preparation of the camp as well as into the actual camp days. Thank you so, so much and all that love will live on in the hearts of each of the children that you cared for.

"I know it was not always easy and your patience and endurance were tested in the heat of the summer. When you thought activities were finished, there was just one more hour left to keep the children busy. The workshops suddenly came alive when faced with disciplinary issues and personality differences. I am proud to say though that you made it as a team with flying colors. I hope that when you look back on this camp, you can say that it was the best thing you could have done with your summer holidays, realizing that it changed the lives of many children and teens your age.

"We are trying to work out a little get-together for everyone and I’ve already called quite a few people to let them know that coming Saturday might be an option for us to do that. Could you please give me a call on Thursday to confirm this and I’ll give you further details then. We will also pass on certificates to you at that time for both the workshops and for the actual camp.

"I came across this beautiful quote that says: “Give for the joy of giving, knowing that you are the one blessed by having the ability and resources and will to help another.”

"Thank you once again, you were a fantastic team to work with.

"With our Love and appreciation,

"Mary and Mike

"For ‘Family Educational Services Foundation’

13 August, 2007

Revisiting Maleer Halt

So everyone agrees that they love Princeton more when they're away, but I was glad when some skills I'd learned at Princeton really came in handy this summer.

For nine years now, FESF has been organizing this summer camp for the kids at SOS: two intense weeks of fun activities, vocational workshops, excursions, movies, a games and barbecue night, and a final evening of performances and prizes. The kids wait for these two weeks all year round.

It was slightly daunting as our group of five sat in the air-conditioned living room on a searing hot June afternoon launching preparations for the 2007 camp with Mary Reik, the director and organizer of the annual camp at the SOS Village (an orphanage) in Karachi. A lot of our experienced volunteers had not been able to join us this year and, having volunteered at this camp for the last five years, I suddenly found myself in a central, responsible role. There would be a team of fifty volunteers and if ever teamwork was important, it was now. As we critiqued last year's camp and brainstormed ideas for this one, I became more confident and realized how important it was to be positive and focussed. Looking back more than a month later, I can say that it really was a splendid experience!

We had scheduled interviews for new volunteers: two of us interviewed each applicant; we had a list of questions and a form to write down responses and then our final impressions. Behind the very professional demeanor, I was absolutely thrilled to get to know so many new people, to get to ask them questions about their life and work, and to see how nervous some were. These were generally high school and college students (some had
heard of me - which was super flattering) and lets just say I wasn't the scariest interviewer around (which would result in an embarrassed silence when weeks later at the camp, someone would remark: Who interviewed this freak?). I learned that seemingly great interviewees can be deceptive losers and some uncertain candidates can turn out to be great team-workers - not a general rule though!

We would have deaf kids from the DRTC school coming for the summer camp again this year so the workshops included forty-five minutes of a sign language crash course everyday.

This was my second year so I felt much more comfortable with it. I learned that there exists a deaf culture around the world and deaf people in one region may relate better to deaf people in other regions than hearing people in their own countries. We learned the American Sign Language (ASL), one of many that exist. Richard (our teacher) told us that deaf kids are very expressive with their gestures and movement and can be restless, but that should not be considered offensive. He said that sign language is like any other language and because we were going to be surrounded by so many deaf kids at the camp, he was being nice and teaching us this talent so that we might feel better about ourselves. I loved the way he taught us to understand deafness, and that knowledge resulted in some truly amazing silent (but highly animated) conversations at the camp. The little kids gave me a name sign, a sign that can be used when referring to me - it is supposed to be characteristic of the person and all the deaf kids had one.

The workshops lasted for seven days and included special training by Mary (she uses a lot of this material for her teacher training workshops!) on teamwork, leadership, working with children and conflict resolution. We learned to define clear rules and have consistent rewards and consequences for the kids.

During the workshops we got to know the volunteers and made some very good friends. Tea was especially nice after long sessions of intensive work. Once we had assessed people's preferences about what age group of kids they wanted to work with (and also got to know them a little and ascertain where they would be "most needed") we put up a list of who would be where. There were some grievances to be addressed regarding this: A little bit of "We need your energy there most!" or "Yes we know you can work with her better but the whole idea is to make new friends!" did the trick.

Ayesha and I led some of the brainstorming sessions - like the one on excursions. It was really a lot of fun to break the sometimes serious mood of the discussion with something humorous or ironic - especially if it went unnoticed by the majority of the people. We managed to plan the camp quite well, if one is to compare with previous years.

I was in charge of the around twenty-five volunteers who would be working with the youngest children (four- to ten-year-olds). We had four smaller groups, Yellow A and B, and Orange A and B. So after assigning Team Leaders (some were naturally great - others became great by the time we were done) and Assistant Team Leaders, we realized that a lot of shifting needed to be done, to assure that each team was equally strong, and occasionally a few people were asked to step aside for a word (that meant trouble!). I got really good at this by the end and Mary started to rely on my ability to carry it out on my own, which was the whole point of having individuals overlooking large groups - so that one person didn't have to worry about everything. One of the greatest lessons I learned was that to make something very big happen, you have to rely on the power of team-work and trust your teammates - you cannot afford to micro-manage.

So for the youngest kids' groups we planned out each of the eight days of camp and reviewed and critiqued it all, and then planned some more. We tried to add themes and focus each day on a certain learning idea. Meanwhile sponsors and people at excursion venues had to be contacted and details had to be finalized.

We had special planning sessions for the games and barbecue night, which typically requires all hands on deck for planning and executing a very complicated, greatly tiring and extremely fun evening. Whatever was left out was now going to be ironed out at the camp itself. The preparations were done and the camp was about to begin.