Broomsticks and Backaches
On Absurd Superstitions and their Impact in Pakistan
When I called my driver, Asif, the other day, he told me he wouldn’t be able to pick me up. “Why?” I asked, concerned. I often brag that Asif the most reliable driver in Pakistan; If anyone ever modeled a video game after the chaotic mess of traffic here, he’d be reigning champ.
Knowing he’s so dependable made it just a touch easier to deal with the sharp decline in mobility I encountered when I moved here last Fall. After all, I grew up in the American Midwest where driving is a necessary survival skill from age 16 on. Despite this, I don’t think I could brave the rabid overtaking, blaring horns, and especially fearless jaywalkers here on top of the added challenge of left-hand traffic. All this makes me think there’s a reason driving is a profession here. Once, years ago, a family driver navigated my uncle, aunt and I through a herd of hundreds of goats that appeared seemingly out of nowhere after a blind turn.
Still, it took me a while to get used to the decline in freedom of mobility I accepted by having to call a driver every time I wanted to go somewhere, even if I know Asif to be among the best. And anyway, he’s always on time to pick me up — a feat in a country where punctuality is a very fluid concept. Suddenly a bit more superstitious than I used to be, I worry that I might have jinxed him with so much praise. “Is everything ok?” I ask.
“Yes, fine. It’s just that I hurt my back. I can hardly stand because of the pain.”
“Oh no, what happened? Did you lift something heavy or fall or something?”
“No, it’s just that I stepped over the back of a broom.”
“So you tripped?”
“No, no. I just walked over it.”
“What does that have to do with your back hurting?”
He tells me brooms are used to clean homes and places of worship so they shouldn’t come beneath the feet, as if it’s by the act of sweeping that the sanctity of these places are preserved. I press on with questions, attempting to expose the ridiculousness of this causation, even though I know it’s an argument I’ll never win. Such superstitions are deeply-rooted and largely respected in Pakistan — a place brimming with clamoring chaos, boundless injustice, and rigid social conventions. Even if they don’t always make sense, these age-old customs offer a sort of order to life here that makes the constant assault of millions of little inequities a little more tolerable.
Still, I somehow doubt the broom thing relays any valuable insight, but my driver has given up trying to explain it’s significance to me. “It’s just something everyone knows,” he says, finally. Apparently, everyone but me.
My parents grew up in Pakistan and despite their best efforts to recreate the views and values they had been taught, growing up in America meant that my brothers and I were exposed to all sorts of things they hadn’t encountered. There’s also a lot that we missed. My parents couldn’t offer us children a full view of our culture and cuisine, language and lineage in suburban Ohio, and so it was during trips to Pakistan that some of these gaps were filled.
It happened often that an aunt or cousin would shriek upon spotting me trimming my fingernails at night or passing under a tree with my hair hanging in loose, wet locks. The fact that I was unfazed by their ominous sense of dread regarding the repercussions of my seemingly benign actions led to all-around frustration. But no one ever had a good reason not to do these things. They didn’t like being subjected to my line of questioning either, but by the time I began to be schooled in these age-old beliefs, I was too old for the easy acceptance of such lore — and far too stubborn to just let it go. I like to think that I’m a little less annoyingly obstinate these days, but I still can’t help but smile a little as I press my driver tells me about his predicament.
“Have you seen a doctor about this?” I ask.
“Yes, and he gave me some pills and ointment but they aren’t helping.”
“Really? So what are you going to do?”
“Well there’s only one thing I can do. I have to find two sisters who’ve married two brothers and have one of the sisters press her heels into my back seven times after sunset.”
This is by far the most elaborate superstition I’ve ever heard. I swallow hard to suppress the chortle tickling my throat and inquire as to how he plans to go about finding two sisters married to two brothers willing to free him from his misery.
Conveniently, he already has.
The next day, when I ask how the whole thing went he says that it’s like there’s a balm emanating from the spots where the sisters’ heels touched his back. “I felt like I was in a trance after the treatment. I could feel the pain leaving me.”
Of course, there’s no way to know if the pills or ointment helped any, or if a similar sort of massage from just anyone would have alleviated the pain. And while there are some beliefs that might cause harm — and of course, relying solely on them for medical concerns may well have negative consequences — it seems that a good many superstitions that have lasted through the centuries promote practices with a broadly positive rationale especially as far as public health is concerned.
I was in the kitchen the other day helping an aunt set up for lunch. True to form, I scooped up a bit of the savory rice with my fingers from a steaming dish of biryani.
“Ha! So you have that habit too?” My aunt said, leaning in conspiratorially, “You better stop or it’s going to rain on your wedding day.”
“No way,” I said, picking up a slice of cucumber from a plate of salad. After all, it’s this same aunt that had feared my mortal end one time years ago when I consumed yogurt and watermelon in the same day.
“It’s true!” my cousin said, punching numbers into the microwave. “It happened to me!”
“Come on, you’re a doctor!” I said to her, “How can you believe that there’s any connection between me picking at a dish of biryani and the weather on my wedding day?”
“There are just some things that people have believed forever. Anyway, why tempt fate?” she said, and flashed me a smile.
I thought about this a little while later when I went to wash up before lunch. I’m enough of a germophobe to keep antibacterial soap in my toiletry kit and to reach for hand sanitizer every time I step back into the house, but the thought of contaminating a whole serving of rice by sneaking a taste didn’t occur to me right away. And of course, there could be few worse ramifications for a considerate daughter helping around the kitchen than the risk of ruining her wedding day. For the first time, I began to think that maybe there’s some similar real world truth behind all the superstitions I’ve scoffed at to date. It’s possible that most of them have simply been distorted with time or outlasted their benefit. And maybe just believing in them is enough to have a tangible impact on someone.
Surely if my back began to hurt badly enough, I’d be willing to do anything to make it stop. And if I believed that finding two sisters married to two brothers to press their heels into it would make any amount of difference — well, I’d at least start asking around.