Rome welcomed Fakhra, but didn’t manage to save her
Fakhra Yunus was a Pakistani dancer from Karachi’s red-light district. In 2000, her face was disfigured by an acid attack: she accused her former husband, who has always maintained his innocence, and who was acquitted. Fakhra obtained political asylum in Italy, and she wrote a book about the experience called, ‘Il volto cancellato’ (‘The Erased Face’) with journalist Elena Doni. On March 17, 2012, at the age of 33, she jumped from the sixth floor of her Rome apartment. We asked Elena Doni to reminisce about who Fakhra was: today this story will be published in three countries simultaneously – in Italy in La27esima ora, the women’s blog of newspaper Corriere della Sera, in Pakistan in Dawn, and in the United States in the American online magazine “Women Writers, Women Books”.
When Fakhra was acting whimsically, fickle, lazy, or bossy, in order not to get angry I would think of the “Divinas” in Europe from the beginning of the Twentieth century: they were singers or actresses who were celebrated by poets and who the public adored, something which never again happened in Italy. In Pakistan, Fakhra was a real diva, and millions of poor girls dreamed having success like her.
Fakhra told me about her childhood. She and her brothers were so terribly hungry, and they waited for their mother to come home every night after earning some money by selling her body. Later on, she realized that men became crazy for her dancing and threw plenty of money at her feet. By the time she turned 20 she had already become a star, acted in two films, and given birth to a baby boy, Noman. Fakhra married her “prince”, the son of the former governor of Punjab, who was immediately cut out of his father’s will. She told me that they fell into poverty, and he started drinking and became violent. She fled to her sister’s house to escape him, but her husband found her there and threw acid in her face, erasing her beauty forever. She spent months in the hospital. Afterwards her husband sequestered her in a far away country mansion.
Fakhra escaped with the help of her mother-in-law, Pakistani author Tehmina Durrani, a former wife of the governor of Punjab. Tehmina, who had influential friends in Italy, took her to Rome where she was introduced to the then- mayor Walter Veltroni. On the day that he received Fakhra in his office, he opened his windows overlooking the city: the ruins of ancient Rome were in the foreground and the modern buildings beyond. Veltroni said: “This city will not forsake you.”
Did Rome keep its promise? For many years we could have answered, “Yes.” Rome didn’t betray Fakhra. She received assistance from the health –care system, from the Smileagain NGO which hosted her for several years, from the Municipality which provided and apartment for Fakhra and her son, from the “Casa delle Donne” (House of Women) which gave her a place to stay when she arrived from Pakistan, and more recently from the NGO Co2, which recently remembered her with a music event.
When Fakhra arrived in Rome, the most urgent need was to find a surgeon who could help her. The first person that was contacted gave up after seeing her; the second one was Professor Valerio Cervelli. He decided that first of all, she needed to be able to raise her head again. She didn’t have a chin anymore, and her lips were attached to her chest. The surgery – an impossible mission according to other doctors, because she needed to be anesthetized but a cannula couldn’t be inserted in her throat – was performed successfully by Cervelli through endoscopic intubation. After a few days Fakhra was able to raise her head and look again at her child’s beautiful face. Thirty-eight more operations followed, all performed in Rome by Cervelli. She did not regain her beauty, but her face, although scarred, was a “normal” face.
All these people who loved Fakhra uselessly begged her for years to learn to read and write so that she could also find a job. But they failed. This is why the Italian publisher Mondadori asked if I would write a book about Fakhra’s life on her behalf. This is how “Il volto cancellato” (The Erased Face) was conceived. Fakhra would speak and I would write, and I would mix her life story with stories about Pakistani traditions, which are so different from ours. She would remember and I would write. This is how I got to know this “diva” who was so generous and spendthrift, funny and lazy, friendly and extremely tied to the traditions of her country. Day after day, I got to know her and to understand how difficult it was for her to accept our rules and habits.
One day, I was driving on a highway and she was sitting next to me when, all of a sudden, she said: “I want to have a driver’s license so I can buy a car and drive it myself.” I was driving slowly enough to show her a big green board on the side of the highway with a large white arrow pointing to the word “Rome”. I asked her to read it and Fakhra, impatient as ever, replied: “You know very well that I don’t want to learn to read!” That day we laughed together, but I believe that her inability to make this country become “her” country was one of the causes of Fakhra’s desperation.
When we worked on the book, she gave me a pretty necklace of strange, smooth little stones which I keep on my desk to this day. I don’t wear it anymore, but I often look at it with a mix of melancholy and anger, because so many of us didn’t manage to save her, and I ask myself: “Why?”