Canine door into the real Islamabad

ConstablePamelaWhen you are dealing with a really talented report, one who really knows how to listen and tell the stories of real people, religion can show up in the most unusual and touching places. Veteran Washington Post foreign correspondent Pamela Constable is one of the best and, clearly, she gets religion -- in a wide variety of cultures. She has even written a book on that, "Fragments of Grace: My Search for Meaning in the Strife of South Asia." I should be honest and admit that Constable has spoken to my students before on Capital Hill, when stateside, and I sure hope that she can do that again.

The other day, Constable served up an unusual, first person, non-snarky Style section piece that, on first glance, is the story of a dog. The headline: "Ahu & Me: A Dog Is Lost, Hope Is Found In Pakistan."

The basic plot: Experienced foreign traveler meets dog. She adopts dog, then has to leave town on assignment. While gone, the dog vanishes. So she has to go looking for the dog. End the end, she finds Ahu, which, we are told, means "deer" in Afghan Dari.

That's the story and you should read it.

But GetReligion readers will want to pay special attention to the fine details of the search. You see, this isn't really a story about a dog. It's the lost dog that opens doors into the heart of the real Islamabad and, once Constable is away from the streets that most foreigners see, she finds herself traveling deeper and deeper into unseen communities, including religious minorities.

She here is a sample:

Islamabad is a city of many pet owners but few animal lovers. Affluent families dote on imported Persian and Siamese cats and retired officers walk their German shepherds or stout yellow labs, but I have rarely seen anyone express concern or affection for a street dog. The snobbery of the elite is passed down to the servant class. Ahu looked like a hundred other homeless dogs, and the guards and sweepers and drivers we met in our search regarded her as having no value. If we were looking for a local stray, they told us with looks of faint distaste, we should try the nearby "Christian Colony."

This turned out to be a warren of alleys and shacks, hidden behind a wall and inhabited by several hundred families of garbage scavengers. Christians are a small, mostly impoverished minority in Muslim Pakistan, popularly disparaged as thieves and drunks. The colony filled a designated economic niche, like a community of "untouchables" in India. In every alley, boys delivered bulging sacks and men weighed piles of glass and cardboard for resale.

The inhabitants were astonished and amused to see us, but they were neither rude nor threatening. Dirt-streaked boys surrounded us and eagerly took the fliers; shopkeepers listened politely to our story. "Madam, do not worry, we find your dog," one old man selling a pile of eggplants promised gallantly.

There were indeed many dogs living in the colony. The community had a reputation for stealing them, but it seemed to me they were treated more as co-inhabitants at the margins of society, neither pampered nor shunned. After several visits, we recognized most of the regulars, and they trotted up wagging their tails. As we broadened our search, scouring parks and vacant lots and garbage pits, we came to know the dogs that lived there, too. After dark they huddled in groups of three or four near the Dumpsters, waiting their turn after the crows and scavenger boys.

Several looked like Ahu, and I kept thinking sadly that they were no less deserving of a better life.

You get the idea.

One contact leads to another. That leads to another set of people passing out fliers and then a journey into another neighborhood, then another. New contacts. New people to meet and new stories to hear.

By all means, please read it. This is a first-story, without a strong journalistic hook. I mean, it's about a search for a dog. Kind of. In the end, it's a story about how journalists learn one of the foundation truths of the craft. When you come into a new city, a new community, a new corner of the world -- everyone you meet knows more stories than you do.

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