By Frances Bulathsinghala
Colombo, January 24 (Dawn): Muhammed Jahangir holds up bold, colored textiles with intricate traditional needlework. He explains them to the Sri Lankan customers at his trade stall — how the needlework is done and how painstaking it is.
Entirely handmade in his all-women factory in south Punjab, some of these traditional forms of stitching date back to the Mughal period, he tells two Sri Lankan women while giving them a brief account of the relevant history.
They pick up three sets of the material. Jahangir provides a discount without them asking for it. He also tells them that if they know of people in the traditional stitching business in Sri Lanka, he will get the authorities’ help in Pakistan in arranging a small-scale Sri Lankan textile trade fair.
The two Sinhalese women depart talking about the “amazing” manner in which Pakistanis conduct business.
Such good-natured trading was a common feature at the second Pakistan trade and food fair held in Colombo from Jan 13 to 15, with the participation of 156 Pakistani companies.
Organized by the High Commission of Pakistan in Sri Lanka, with the collaboration of the Trade Development Authority of Pakistan (TDAP), the single-country trade fair featured leading Pakistani manufacturers, including those dealing in engineering and agricultural products, textiles, and handicrafts.
The Pakistan food fair held at the Galadari Hotel in Colombo ran parallel to the trade fair and was supervised by the Pakistani celebrity chef Mehboob Khan. It featured a striking array of vegetarian food alongside non-vegetarian dishes — breaking the stereotype that Pakistani food is monopolized by meat-based dishes.
Meanwhile, the interactions within the trade stalls constituted a sociological study on how business can also be a cultural exchange.
Shazad Nasim from Karachi was busy in his shop selling onyx stone ornaments whilst explaining where the stone is found in Pakistan.
“Onyx stones are found in Balochistan, Sir, a very beautiful place,” explained Nasim to a keen buyer who asked if he could buy onyx Buddha statues.
“This time, no, Sir,” responded Nasim.
“My father is from Punjab and my mother from Sindh. Our family has been in the onyx business for the past 40 years,” Dawn was told by Nasim, who exports his products to Western markets including the United States, Canada, and Europe.
Like most of those who set up stalls at the trade fair, this was Nasim’s second experience exhibiting and selling his products in Sri Lanka.
“The pioneering 2016 exhibition drew a record number of visitors,” he reminisced.
Held at the Bandaranaike Memorial International Conference Hall in Colombo, the largest exhibition venue in the country’s capital, the trade fair was patronized by all Sri Lankan communities but also — significantly — the minority Muslims who makes up around 10 per cent of the country’s population.
“I came for the cutwork shawls,” said one Muslim woman who had travelled from the district of Puttalam in the North-Western Province. Another said that she had come to see the rugs and carpets Pakistan is well known for.
For traders from Pakistan, while the fair was a good opportunity to showcase their products, it was also a matter of battling difficulties like high customs’ duties, which they feel should be reduced. But despite the challenge of selling enough to make a profit, even small-scale artisan-focused businesses like that of Kausar Ahmed were optimistic.
“I used this opportunity to display the jewelry of Swat,” said Ahmed. “These items are expensive in Sri Lankan currency but we did sell enough to motivate us to exhibit next year as well,” she said, pointing towards the exquisite metal artwork-based purses and jewelry.
Meanwhile, at the Galadari hotel in Colombo, chef Mehboob Khan was busy supervising diverse traditional Pakistani dishes that included a wide range of vegetarian dishes in small amounts of oil.
“Many vegetable-based dishes are cooked in diverse ways by different villages in Pakistan,” he said. “I have in my 30-year career as chef travelled throughout Pakistan to learn about the difference between the urban and rural diet. Contrary to the general impression, the majority of Pakistanis in rural areas consume a largely vegetable-based diet and I make it a point to include these recipes in many of the international food fairs I attend,” Khan said.
He added that he is exploring the possibility of encouraging a Pakistani Street Food Festival in Colombo next year, along the model of the Lahore Food Street.
According to the Pakistan high commission in Colombo, plans are already afoot to organize another trade and food festival in 2018.
(The featured picture at the top shows Kausar Ahmed displaying exquisite metal jewelry from Swat in North West Pakistan)