Behold a World

Fresh pomegranates! I stared at the proclamation scrawled on a board inside Minneapolis’ Red Owl grocery store. I’d dropped in for some essentials—milk, ground beef, juice and bread— but that sign veered me toward the produce section. In the American Midwest of the early 1970s, the selection of fruit leaned heavily toward oranges, apples, bananas, pears, peaches, plums, grapes and the “exotics”—pineapples, mangoes and papayas. Ignoring the everyday offerings, I rushed toward that day’s new exotic. Not having eaten or seen a pomegranate since my arrival in the United States in 1968, I craved holding and tasting one.

The image flashed through my head of a pyramid of glistening red fruits as big as softballs, stacked high on thelas, or “wood carts,” in Karachi. A few partially cut pomegranates, their skins peeled back like petals to create blossoms encrusted with crimson gems, always made my mouth water, and I’d beg my mother to buy some.

There was no bright, shiny mound here at the Red Owl grocery, only a dozen shrunken fruits lying forlornly in the case. I plucked one from the pitiful pile. But that thing—pockmarked, speckled with dreary brown and pink spots, its proud crownlike calyx shrunken and broken—bore no semblance to the pomegranates of my memory. It was no fiery orb of redness. I considered the price—more than a dollar apiece, too much for my college student’s budget. But it had been so long. And maybe the fruit would be fine on the inside. I put it into my basket.

I rushed home with my little indulgence and cut it open. But I didn’t find the hoped-for spectacle of glittering seeds, each wrapped in a translucent, brilliant-red sac teeming with juice. Weeks past their prime, the pale pink, shrunken seeds were on the verge of rotting. Unwilling to give up so easily, I selected a spoonful of the most plump and pink ones, and popped them in my mouth. Instead of a tongue-startling burst of juice, I got a mouthful of musty, cloying, chewy and nearly dry seeds. I spit them out.

We share a long history, the pomegranate and I. Its legends and myths have enticed me all my life; we have both traveled across countries and cultures, and we have seen changes in the places from which we hail. My memories of the beauty of those fruits from my past, from the Pakistan of my birth, belie the destruction laid to the land and people in the decades following my departure.

The fruits in Karachi’s bazaars came from several places in Afghanistan and other parts of Pakistan, but the pomegranates (in Urdu, anar) were nearly all of the “Kandahari” variety, from the Afghan province famed for its fruits—big, lustrous globes encased in a blemish-free, tough leathery rind, their scarlet color tinged with gold. The appearance of the swaggering Pakistani Pashtun or Afghan vendors, who spoke broken Urdu, increased the mystique of the fruit. Their fair skin, light hair and often blue or green eyes hinted at faraway mountains, snow melts and oases with lush, thriving orchards.

If we complained about the high price, they insisted, “Kandahari anar has no equal.” And to prove their point, they’d thrust slices into our hands. “Judge for yourself; find one sweeter, and you can have your money back.”

The dry climate of Kandahar, with its hot summers and cool winters, is ideal for the thorny, deciduous pomegranate tree, which can grow 25 feet high. But three decades of wars and drought have all but destroyed most fruit crops, including the pomegranate. The Soviets, who invaded Afghanistan in 1979, sowed millions of land mines in pastures, farms and orchards; after they left in 1989, the Taliban and other warring factions in the ensuing civil war seeded the land with more. Worried about losing limbs or lives, farmers stayed away from their lands. Without irrigation and care, the ground turned to wasteland; only a few crops were sown, not enough to feed even the valley. The people starved.

Unnourished, untended for years, trees no longer bore fruit. Unable to feed their families, farmers cut down the trees and sold the firewood to buy food. The remaining trees yielded pitiful crops of withered, stunted fruit.

In recent years, international aid agencies and the Afghan government have tried to persuade farmers to plantnewpomegranate trees. But the trees take three to five years to mature, and the hungry farmers, unwilling to wait that long and under pressure from local Taliban, instead plant poppies, which grow quickly. The poppy sap, harvested within months, is sold for a high price to drug lords, who turn it into opium and then heroin to fetch yet-higher prices.

Until the beginning of the 21st century, most of the world’s opium originated in the Golden Triangle, a mountainous area that includes parts of Burma, Vietnam, Laos and Thailand. Now, nearly 90 percent of the world’s opium comes from Afghanistan. Kandahar ranks second among Afghan provinces that grow poppy; fields of the crimson flowers ripple in old groves where pomegranate and other fruits once ripened on trees. The Taliban use the proceeds from heroin and opium sales to finance their war against American and other Western troops and against a government they consider a puppet of the West.

In Karachi, Afghan and Pakistani Pashtun fruit vendors still hawk succulent pomegranates, but the fruits are now from northern Pakistan. In Anchorage, Alaska, where I live now, I can buy pomegranates, large and bursting with juice, and likely grown in California on large, industrial farms. They taste far more wonderful than the sad pomegranate I found so long ago in the Red Owl grocery, and when I eat them, they evoke memories. But there’s nothing unique about them; they have no aura of lands distant and exotic.

Like other delicious and wondrous foods—think crabs or artichokes—a ripe, red pomegranate is intimidating to eat.

Pried apart, the pomegranate reveals a world: nearly 600 to 800 seeds arrayed in glowing clusters—separated by inedible, paper-thin, cream-colored, bitter membranes—resting on a honeycomb of white, spongy tissue. It’s a struggle to extract a small amount of seeds. I skip steps. My mother scored the fruit into lengthwise slices; I cut it in half and gently tear it apart. One segment at a time, I carefully loosen clusters of seeds from their enclosure of membranes. A spoonful of those hard-won seeds floods the mouth in a rush of opposing tastes and textures: sweet melded with tart; smooth, soft, juicy pulp wedded to the crunch of the small, hard inner seed; and sometimes a hint of bitterness from fragments of membrane.

I have savored pomegranates with juices running down to my elbows. After a couple of fruits, I look as if I have been in a bloody fight. Scarlet stains on my fingers and cuticles turn brown and slowly fade away, but the red splotches on my clothes never disappear; they only dull after repeated washing. I have enjoyed pomegranate juice in many settings, from cafés in luxury hotels to vendors’ carts on dusty streets of Pakistani frontier towns. Today, I pour it from plastic bottles, some with two orbs atop each other that evoke the fruit’s shape. A friend from Anchorage who had never seen or tasted a pomegranate in her childhood, or even heard of the word, floats seeds in her glass of bubbly Prosecco.

Was it four, six or seven pomegranate seeds that a hungry Persephone ate in the underworld after Hades kidnapped her to his realm? It doesn’t matter. But blame her indulgence for the cold, dark winter months of our planet. Having lost her only daughter, Demeter, the goddess of fertility, sank into sorrow and neglected her duties, and Earth—once bounteous year-round—began to wither.

Alarmed by the misery on Earth, the gods allowed Demeter to see Persephone. But the one-time reunion was both joyful and mournful for divine law forbade the return to Earth of anyone, even an immortal, who had tasted anything in the underworld. Desperate to keep her daughter, Demeter warned of an Earth gone to waste forever. The gods took her threat seriously and offered a compromise: Demeter could have her daughter for some of the year, but because Persephone had eaten those seeds, she’d spend at least four months in Hades. And those yearly absences left Demeter’s heart—and the Earth—barren and cold.

But we can’t blame Persephone. We all succumb to desire; we can blame no one for our failings. Offered a plateful of bright pomegranate kernels in the dark reaches of Hades, I, too, would eat them. The momentary delight from just one or two seeds is sometimes worth more than any promise of what tomorrow might bring. For tomorrow may bring nothing.

It is an old, marvelous fruit, the pomegranate, an ancient and universal symbol of beauty, love and marriage, fertility and renewal, its narrative woven into the history, cultures, literatures and religions of many nations. Its Latin name, pomumgranatum, means “apple of many seeds,” and the name of the semiprecious stone garnet harkens back to those red seeds, or granata. The sound of the word pomegranate—polysyllabic and explosive—hints at the fruit’s bursting web of crimson seeds.

In their 40 years of wandering in the wilderness, Israel’s children often longed for the comforts left behind in Egypt, including the refreshing coolness of pomegranates from their abandoned orchards. It was a favorite of Prophet Mohammed, who urged his followers to “Eat the pomegranate for it purges the system of envy and hatred.” Pomegranate trees, says the Quran, grow in the gardens of paradise.

The pharaohs of Egypt were buried with pomegranate seeds to guarantee their safe passage into the next life. The Chinese scattered seeds under the beds of newlyweds to ensure a fruitful union. It’s still customary for Bedouin bridegrooms to split open the ripe fruit on their wedding nights: Abundant seeds predict many children.


Alexander the Great marched through Afghanistan on his way to India. He is said to have founded a city that he named Alexandria, which many believe to be Kandahar, the capital of the Kandahar province. In the 19th century, the British launched a failed attempt to conquer the same area. The accounts of their soldiers expressed appreciation for the strength of their enemies and the wonders of the country. An officer serving in Kandahar in 1839 wrote about the local fruits and proclaimed “a tumbler of pomegranate juice is a drink for the gods.”

The new Umreekan fighters sent to Afghanistan are probably just as ignorant of history as the Greeks, Mongols, British and Soviets who came before them. Do they know anything about the long-ago conflicts that raged in the hills and valleys? Do they know that invaders always leave without conquering the Afghans? A few might know. But, as others before them, they all know one thing: fear for their lives.

Today, fear grips not only Umreekan fighters but also Afghan soldiers and police, all targets of Taliban attacks, which also kill ordinary people going about their daily lives. Today, bullets and bombs splatter the garnet blood of Afghan and foreign fighters and innocent citizens on the streets of a troubled land. And if not a bullet or a bomb, then perhaps a grenade—the hand-tossed ball of explosives the French named after the pomegranate, perhaps because fragments of bloodied shrapnel reminded them of the fruit’s blood-red seeds, or granata.

When I was 8 or 9, my father read me the lines from “Romeo and Juliet” where Juliet tries to persuade Romeo to stay longer with her. Not wishing to see him leave, Juliet tells him the bird he hears singing is not, as he thinks, a lark signaling daybreak but rather a nightingale that nightly “sings on yon pomegranate tree.” By that age, I spoke and read both Urdu and English, but the word pomegranate was unfamiliar, and I asked my father what it meant. Long though it was, I repeated the word to memorize it. Even today, I like the English word better than the Urdu anar; its varied letters convey nuances of love and mystery.

I loved Shakespeare’s legend of ill-fated love as much as another tale closer to my home—that of the 16th-century dancing girl named Anarkali, reputedly entombed alive in the northern Pakistani city of Lahore. The Mughal emperor Akbar ordered Anarkali’s death because she—a woman of lowly birth, who displayed her body in provocative dances—had dared to fall in love with his son, Salim, the heir to the throne.

Everyone I knew saw the 1960 retelling of Anarkali’s story in the popular film “Mughal-e-Azam.” “Pomegranate blossom,” the English translation of “Anarkali,” sounds unromantic, but in Urdu, the lilting word glides off the tongue. We sat mesmerized through a three-hour extravaganza of coy glances, resplendent costumes, dazzling palaces, swirling dances, romantic songs, furious arguments, fierce war. We booed Akbar’s decree banning the marriage. We grieved when the prince rebelled, battled his father, lost and was ordered to be hanged. We sobbed when Anarkali offered herself in her lover’s place but requested one night with him. We rejoiced when the emperor agreed, knowing too well he agreed only to ensure his bloodline would continue. We wept again when the soldiers hauled her away the next morning. We shuddered with horror at the cruelty and arrogance of the Emperor for the manner of Anarkali’s death. It was our first lesson in the nuances of both love and war—the use of war and threats to attain a goal and of unconditional love to save a life.

At least one night of love, we sighed. The story enthralled me as it did millions of other girls in the subcontinent. As a young girl, I fantasized about Anarkali’s fear as she cowered in a corner, gasping for breath as darkness descended upon her and the walls of her tomb rose higher. All for love.

In the city of Lahore, there is a maze of streets known as the Anarkali bazaar. It is a favorite of women, who haunt its congested, meandering alleys in search of fabrics and tailors; cosmetics and bangles; pots, pans and dishes; sheets and towels; and savory snacks and cold drinks served in sidewalk stalls. I wonder if Anarkali’s story still resonates with today’s young women as it did with the women of my generation. The world has changed; the tale, so old-fashioned in the age of Internet, satellite television and other entertainment, has probably faded from people’s memories. Now, there are other stories more moving, events more dramatic and important, than something that happened centuries ago.

Instead of shoppers, terror lurks in the streets of Lahore today. In recent years, the city has suffered several devastating bomb blasts, which have killed hundreds. The war in Afghanistan has spilled over into Pakistan; Lahore, which is not very far from areas where Taliban hold sway, has been hit hard. Pakistani Taliban want the country to adhere to their version of Islam, one that imprisons women in their homes; forbids creative expression through music, dance or art; and outlaws even offerings or worship at the shrines of Muslim saints. The Anarkali bazaar hasn’t suffered any bomb explosions, yet. But Taliban suicide bombers have managed to kill more than 40 people in a series of attacks in the centuries-old Data Darbar, a Sufi shrine about a mile from Anarkali. Fewer people venture out into crowded bazaars or, at night, into areas that once pulsated with life. I know their fears; I always felt safe in Pakistani bazaars, but I don’t any more. The Taliban are slowly expanding their presence throughout the country. Nearly every week, people lose their lives in Taliban bomb attacks or battles with the Pakistani army or other groups opposed to them.

Pomegranates were in season during a visit I made to Karachi several years ago, and I stopped by a favorite hotel café for a glass of freshly squeezed juice. As we turned into the hotel driveway, my driver pointed to some splotches on the pavement. It looked as though someone had spilled juice, but it was dried blood. A couple of days before I arrived in Karachi, a group affiliated with Al-Qaeda planted a bomb in a van and blew it up when it got near the U.S. Consulate. The blast also tore through a nearby car carrying four women: a driving instructor and three students. They all died, along with another woman and five men, occupants of other vehicles. Pieces of their bodies were collected from the road, sidewalks and limbs of nearby trees, and sent to local hospitals for identification.

I glimpsed the mangled, charred carcasses of the van and the bomber’s car in front of the U.S. Consulate, next to the hotel. That day, I heard no laughter in the café. I saw no Americans, either.

I used to drink pomegranate juice, without a care, in all sorts of locations. Now, I feel on edge in my hometown and no longer spend much time in bazaars or places like hotels where Americans or others have been killed. I no longer want my American husband to visit Karachi for fear he’ll be targeted; I still take my blonde American daughter with me, but I am always nervous when we move around the city. We love Pakistan and our family and friends there, and it saddens us that we no longer feel safe when we visit.

And yet, life goes on in Karachi and in Afghanistan, and I carry on, too. Nonetheless, I understand the difference between my reaction and that of the people who live there. They accept the violence and indiscriminate attacks as everyday occurrences. They still line up in front of street-side cafés or carts selling cholay, the spicy potato and chickpeas snack; freshly pressed sugar cane juice; the refreshing nimbu pani drink of crushed ice, salt, sugar, soda water and the juice of fresh limes or lemons; and, of course, lassi, the sweet and salty yogurt drink. Terror is part of their lives, and they refuse to succumb to it; life may not be sweet, but it has to go on.

I return every year, but it’s only because the old ties tug me back. I mourn the loss of old places, people and a more tranquil life. Modern, air-conditioned malls, now crowding many Karachi shopping areas, offer convenience and variety under one roof. They are not like my haunts of old—redolent with smells of ripe mangoes, custard apples and papayas; pots of cholay steaming on thelas; savory samosa pastries filled with meat or potatoes sizzling in vats of hot oil—all of it mixed with dust and the general odor of humanity. Those smells spelled my old Karachi—a place I’ll never have again.

The waiter at the Karachi hotel set a glass of pomegranate juice—pigeon-blood red—in front of me. It tasted wonderful but not quite the same as the juice I remembered from my youth. I thought of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s prophetic words about how a pomegranate:

cut deep down the middle,

Shows a heart within blood-tinctured of a veined humanity.

There may come a day, perhaps soon, when pomegranates from Pakistan’s northern valleys will no longer be sold in Karachi. The Taliban, now slowly gaining in their fight with the Pakistani army, may lay those valleys to waste just as they have in Kandahar. In many areas, such as the lovely valley of Swat, the veins of humanity pulse with uncertainty and grief, and daily killings are displayed in full color. I wonder if Pakistan is entering a season of despair, as Persephone did. Persephone’s mother bargained for her and lessened the length of winter. But who will help Pakistan? American threats to bomb Pakistan for harboring the Taliban make me cringe. Bombs are not the solution. A positive engagement with both Pakistanis and Afghans—education, development aid and population control—will lift their people up, make them believe in us and narrow a growing distance.

So I cling to hope, however desperate, and the reality that tomorrow will arrive, bringing both pleasure and sorrow. I have tasted pomegranates, and I, too, travel between two worlds and know how we willingly take risks to explore possibilities beyond our imaginations, dreams, desires or plans. We keep alive the promise of summer for we know it always returns. We are like the pomegranate, holding within us something sweet and sharp.

About the Author

Shehla Anjum

Shehla Anjum, a long-time Alaska resident, is originally from Karachi, Pakistan, and visits there every year. She has an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Alaska-Anchorage and an MPA from the Harvard Kennedy School.

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