Monday July 3, 2017 



In a Muslim World

Reflections of nursing in the Middle East

Myrtle Macdonald, M. Sc., Author

t seems timely to tell friends about my experiences among Muslims. While I was waiting 6 months in 1986 in Toronto for a visa to work in the city of Lahore, Pakistan, I often went to a Pakistani Christian church. I also did some private nursing. One home-care patient was a quadriplegic Muslim boy from Yugoslavia. His mother was kind. I nursed the boy 8 hours about 10 times, including Sunday near Christmas. After the end of the shift, I decided to dress in a sari before going by bus to the Pakistani Christmas feast. Just as I was saying goodbye, my patient’s father came home inebriated. He was intensely angry at me and could not say why. He had me taken off the case. Perhaps he thought I was from India. Previously he had been reserved but not unfriendly.

An older Pakistani Muslim lady taught me Urdu while I waited for the visa. She gave me gifts to take to her lady friends in Lahore and some of them became good friends. One was a Persian language professor.

Christian Programs in Lahore, Pakistan

            In Lahore I had an apartment at the United Christian Hospital (UCH) in a residence for single staff nurses and lady house doctors (soon to graduate). I arrived in January and worked with Dr. Richard (Rick) Allen, a Canadian Presbyterian, who was setting up a maternal-child community health program for displaced people and refugees, living along the railway track in huts and tents. The principle was to work ourselves out of being needed as soon as possible. As people learned better child care and nutrition we moved on to other villages, including brick factory colonies and urban slums. We had two RNs, a student nurse rotating monthly, a Pakistani Christian male doctor, a clerk, and two male drivers who doubled as Health Educators. We went two by two from house to house carrying audio-visual aides, a spring scale, and basic medications. We charted changes in weight and health on a colored graph for each infant, left with the mother. The drivers were very well accepted to my surprise, perhaps because they were accompanied by a nurse, or because the sign on our van: United Christian Hospital Community Health Program, evoked respect. The two doctors held classes for our team and worked behind the scenes to gain and maintain approval of government and village leaders. If they went to a village women & babies stayed away.

Lahore streets are clean and landscaped with traffic islands of flowers and fountains. The staff took me to their homes for memorable meals and to fascinating markets to purchase supplies and treats. Few women wore burkas but all wore a dupatta (large scarf) or shawl around their shoulders or head. Many women used public buses but sat at the back and most draped their scarf around their heads. If ever I forgot my scarf when I left the hospital gates, the Muslim gatemen sent me back for one.

Prayer in Lahore

On a day off I found the home of the lady Professor of Persian. Her daughter said she would be free in a few minutes, and got acquainted with me as I sat on the sofa. I did not realize until later that her mother was in prayer on her knees and face behind the sofa. We became friends. Some months later when she had a heart attack she was in Intensive Care in Mayo Hospital (university affiliated). The nurses behind the desk were neat in their white uniforms. She said she had been there for several days and had not had a bath. I said I’d be glad to give her one. I found a basin but had to clean it. There was no hot water but the day was warm. The only towel, which was small, served as wash cloth, and a sheet as the towel. She was amazed at how logical and relaxing a bed bath was, and said she would teach her daughter-in-law to do the same, and she did. She recovered. Some months later she was on my mind, so I went around to her home and found out she was in a different hospital with heart trouble again. I went to see her. She said “I was praying you would come,” both of us prompted by the Holy Spirit. I pray for her and her family and her friend in Toronto.

I was in Lahore during Ramadan (month of fasting) two successive years, both in the hot season. The dates move ahead 11 days each year, and last until the new moon is first seen. (In 2001 Ramadan started Nov 15.)

During daylight hours you may not eat or drink in public, even if not a Muslim, lest you cause offense. Shops and restaurants though closed in daylight hours, opened after dark. Friends and relatives visit after dark and even during the night. My Urdu language teacher said food costs were high during Ramadan, because of many guests during the night. At UCH my young doctor neighbors made so much noise cooking, visiting and eating that my sleep was disturbed every night. Smoking and alcohol are prohibited during Ramadan.

Disaster between Sunni and Shiah Muslims

I went on vacation to northern Pakistan near the end of Ramadan. I had a flight booked from Islamabad to Gilgit. Flights were canceled for three days, and no reason given. On arrival I looked up a Christian teacher to give him a letter from a friend. He was in a state of shock and told me that there had been a riot between Sunni and Shiah (Shiite) Muslims and that 5000 people had been killed. Why? Because the Sunnis saw the new moon a day before the Shiahs did, so when a few were smoking near the entrance of the Shiah place of worship, a fight broke out, and escalated. This was not reported in the media.

After a sad beginning I had a very good holiday. In Gilgit I met women when I strolled alone in a back street. A sweet young lady fastened blue flowered clips in my hair. She spoke a different language. We knew few words in common. I pray for her.

North America’s Beauty Dwarfed by Gilgit and Khyber Pass

I walked through ancient forts and castles, each with a large storage room for dried apricots for use all year round. The people are famous for longevity. From Gilgit via Hunsa to the Chinese border I was privileged to see two excellent Community Health programs by Ishmaeli Nurses from Karachi, and make home visits with them.

I was the only woman on a bus returning from the Chinese border to Gilgit. A school teacher on vacation sat beside me for protection from less kindly men, and pointed out places of interest. Snow-capped mountains were much higher than our Canadian Rockies. We passed K2, the second highest in the world. On the bare foothills were thousands of wild rose bushes, more profusely in bloom than in Alberta, the wild rose province.

Returning to Islamabad, I met some Afghani taxi drivers and made a brief visit to Peshawar, Afghan border. I visited prehistoric archaeological sites at Taxila. Nearby is a highly respected Eye Hospital started by American missionaries, now staffed by Pakistanis. I had my eyes examined and trifocal lenses ground.

Coordination of Community Health Programs

In Lahore Dr. Rick Allen and I were both invited to be advisory members of a Community Health Program set up by staff and friends of Mayo Hospital and Medical College. There were board meetings and an international conference, with guests from as far away as Turkey. I visited a variety of community health projects, to share and learn. Some were under Christian auspices, such as Salvation Army. A number of British Government nurses led workshops and programs.

Pakistani Nursing Leaders

I soon was active in the Pakistan Nurses’ Foundation as well as the Pakistan Nurses Association. One day I had an appointment with the Chief Nurse in the Pakistan government. Traveling by Lahore city bus I arrived at the large government building complex two minutes before I was due, and I did not know how to find the office. Just as I was stepping down out of the bus, a little rotund man came toward me and asked in English, “Are you a Christian?” I said yes and he asked me if I needed any help, so I gave him the address and name of the person I was going to see. He led me through a web of lanes right to the office and then disappeared. I think he was an angel! I had a good meeting and made some friends. Later I met other leading nurse administrators and instructors and was invited to special conferences and dinners. Some have kept in touch since.

Aga Khan College of Nursing and Hospital in Karachi

In Karachi I enjoyed visiting the great Ishmaeli Aga Khan Hospital and School of Nursing (degree level). It is set up along progressive modern lines. There was an American nurse who after working many years in India, was instilling nursing ethics in Pakistani students. There were two Canadian nursing instructors from Manitoba.

Touring around the city to see clinics, I learned about ongoing internal political strife that dates back to the influx of well-to-do Muslims from India in 1947, after Partition from India. I was glad to live in peaceful Lahore, where I stayed for two years. I had two Ramadans (month of fasting) and one Christmas there.

Former Army Officer Director of United Christian Hospital, Lahore

The Christian Administrator of the UCH was a retired army officer. He enjoyed having student nurses drop into his office, which troubled the Nursing Superintendent. Many people spoke of him as setting himself up as Nursing Superintendent, for he often gave orders to staff and students that overruled her plans. But most mature nurses respected her and carried out their work under her direction. She often came to share with me and we were close friends. The following year she had me teach a Ward Administration course to her Head Nurses.

Christmas in Lahore was a joy for Christians as anywhere, but less commercialized. Food was exchanged. Pots of chrysanthemums were in abundance in the private gardens of the Administrator and American Medical Director. The gardeners were hospital employees. I asked the Administrator if he could have some of the mums placed at the rather bare student nurses’ residence. He was hostile about my request. He arranged a wonderful evening garden party and meal for senior staff in his private garden. He had student nurses do a beautiful rainbow dance, with colorful saris weaving and swaying in changing circles, like in Arabian Nights. I enjoyed Christmas celebrations in several churches.

Christian and Muslim Weddings

On December 26th I was one of hundreds of guests at the wedding of the son of a Christian lawyer from Canada. A Pakistani Muslim Professor of Law was an honored guest. The church ceremony was like ours. A sumptuous feast, gift giving, music and speeches followed. Both sets of parents of bride and groom were honored with gold tinsel garlands to celebrate their wedding anniversaries, also on Dec 26 th. Then all guests who were married on any Dec 26th were invited to come forward. Many did, and were duly garlanded. There was much laughter as garlands were reused for more and more couples.

My Urdu language teacher took me on his motor bike to the Muslim wedding of a relative. The women in gorgeous garb, feasted in a separate room while the marriage contract was finalized elsewhere by men.

Sports and Life Style

My language teacher was always neatly dressed in western style dress slacks, shirts and jackets or cardigans. He said they were second hand, and showed me streets where he bought fine used clothing from around the world. Earlier I had a young Christian lady language teacher a few months. She found city bus travel difficult due to lewd passes made. I was always treated with respect, probably because I was older.

Cricket season absorbed the whole population and included games on the hospital compound all day. Interest in international cricket is great and includes star Pakistani players. The Gadaffi stadium is impressive.

Muree Hill Station Named for Mary Mother of Christ

My second hot season in July-August I went to Muree, a cool hill station where I studied Urdu in a Jesuit language school. Muree (Mary) was named for the mother of Jesus, who by tradition was buried there in a tomb that is still a place of Muslim pilgrimage. The virgin birth is accepted. Jesus is honored, but as a prophet. In Muree, children of foreigners attended an international English medium boarding school.

Muslims in India

Much earlier for many years in India, I worked among Hindus, but I have some striking memories of Muslims who make up 10% of the population, more than the total population of Pakistan. Hindus usually like having pictures taken, so once on a train, since they looked alike, I was surprised by a rebuff and the comment “We’re Muslims.”

On a train journey a young lady from Bangalore said she had left the Muslim faith and become a Christian. She insisted that her family and friends had no objections. Severe efforts to force return to Islam are usual.

We had Muslim gatemen at some hospitals. They cooked our staff Christmas dinner, lamb pullao.

Shopkeepers in Calcutta and Delhi

A local young woman whom we had sent to a Salvation Army centre north of Bombay, graduated there as an X-Ray technician. After her return she and I went to Calcutta where she picked out a Seimens X-ray at a Muslim medical supply house.

Once in Delhi I bargained for a silk sari. To my surprise the Muslim owner sold it for less than half price at the end of a day of slow sales.

Vacation with Muslims in Kashmir Eden

Our family had a month in 1961 in Kashmir on Dal Lake in a lovely houseboat. It was almost paradise. The Muslim house-boat owner took along his granddaughter (4) to keep our son Tim (5) company, on day trips with a picnic lunch. His wife, son and daughter-in-law did the cooking at home. They taught Tim to fish. One day they dressed our daughter Evelyn (then 15) as a Kashmiri lady, and we took great photos of her in a boat. They asked us to photograph their women folk, being careful not to let people in neighboring boats see. We strolled in several ancient Moghul gardens that still looked regal. We bused east to the border of Ladakh with uniquely dressed people. Men wore large turquoise earrings. To the west, on horses we climbed Khilinmarg to 18,000 ft. We felt ill from the elevation, but made a snow man and viewed 100 miles or more on three sides, and on the other, Nanga Parbat, the 6 th highest mountain in the world.

The majority of Kashmiris are Muslims, so it is obvious why Pakistan claims Kashmir. India traditionally, since the Moghuls in the 14 th century, has been sovereign. What a pity both cannot have this glorious valley with its birds (kingfishers and hoopoos). They build islands out of water weeds and mud, plant vegetables and when solid enough pull each to a chosen spot, and build it up more. On older artificial islands there are two and three story houses.

Muslim craftsmen make intricate furniture, brass, papier mache, silver filigree jewelry, carpets and embroidered woolen shawls, etc. in both Pakistan and India.

Friendships on Train Journeys

Once, when returning by train from taking my daughter to boarding school in Kodaikanal, Madurai, south India, I had severe shooting pain in my back, perhaps a kidney stone. An older Muslim man (an angel?) came to my side and massaged my back, speaking comforting words. After a while the pain subsided and never again have I had such an experience. I thank God and pray for him.

RCMP Training of Police in Lesotho in Southern Africa

In 1991 in Lesotho, a mountain kingdom in southern Africa, with CESO (Canadian Executive Services Organization) I was a consultant, working with the Lesotho Ministry of Agriculture in their Nutrition and Home Economics program. I can tell you more about that at another time, but what I want to say here is that the apartment provided for me was owned by a Muslim man. He told me he had been in the bodyguard of the King, and that he had received training in Canada under the RCMP. I noticed that Lesotho police do resemble the RCMP and that they use horses ceremonially, and for work in the mountains.

During my time in Lesotho I observed a spectacular Muslim wedding. There were over 1000 guests and they appeared wealthy and largely of Indian origin.

Experiences of Mahatma Gandhi in South Africa

During my work in southern Africa I realized that their Indian population was predominantly Muslim. I remembered that Mahatma Gandhi, of Hindu birth, had practiced law in South Africa. His experiences there influenced his tolerant views on religion, race relations and politics, which he subsequently introduced into India. He respectfully renamed Outcasts as Harijans (sons of God) and brought about harmony among castes and religions, non-violent protest marches, and Indian self-rule.

I have warm feelings toward Muslims. Friendships have been very special. In Pakistan although they looked alike racially, they got offended and angry unexpectedly, so I learned to be tactful and understanding in different ways than in India. Please pray with me for many to receive the living Word. May I hear from you?

May I hear from you? Please contact me via e-mail here.

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