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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Pakistani Culture Hides Behind Eclectic Facade

This is the fourth in a series on Moscow's embassies and ambassadorial residences.


On a path well-trod by many Muscovites sits a gray house that tells the story of Moscow's prerevolutionary grandeur. It also tells the story of an architecture on the cusp of modernity, and a distant culture that can now celebrate its own modern independence.


Located on the Garden Ring between a statue of literary hellion Mayakovsky and the stalwart Stalinist skyscraper on Kudrinskaya Ploshchad, the Embassy of Pakistan occupies an eclectic building that portrays this country's struggle between East and West.


On Aug. 14, Pakistan celebrated its Golden Jubilee in honor of the country's 50 years of independence from Britain.


This gray masonry mansion that serves as the ambassador's residence was built in 1911 by a wealthy merchant to house his mistress, said newly ensconced Ambassador Mansoor Alam as he discussed the house's history.


Perhaps in an attempt not to betray the opulence within, the mansion's facade is relatively simple. It is relieved only by the intricate red, white and blue mosaics that, with their Eastern appearance, foreshadowed this Islamic country's residence here.


Another clue to the occupants of this mansion is found at the threshold of the embassy compound where, under a flag depicting a moon and a star in green and white and standing next to a Russian militiaman, is a Pakistani employee clad in the long-flowing traditional garb called a shalwar qameez.


Alam came to Moscow in mid-June with his wife, Zehra, and daughters, Sabah, 25, a recent graduate school graduate, and Madiha, 14. He most recently completed a tour of duty as Pakistan's ambassador to Egypt.


"I like it here. I like the architecture in the older parts of the city," said Alam as he surveyed the expansive living room with its deep green and red striated marble panelling. "I particularly like the Kremlin area and this neighborhood, too."


The house was built at a time when classical ornament was being replaced by the more abstract decorations of modernism, both of which are seen here. Elaborate ceiling frescoes rise above wood panelling with simple geometric patterns.


While eclectic, the house provides a complementary background for the Pakistani art, antiques and rugs found throughout.


Bas-reliefs depicting nubile devochki, or young girls, romping in their loose-fitting togas frame the walls above the living room, which is covered in a sea of rose pink carpet. Hand-made brass bowls and lamps, green onyx vases and inlaid wood and marble coffee tables imported from Pakistan add to the exoticism and show off the country's tradition of artistry.


In a more sober manner, the ambassador's extensive diplomatic career is commemorated in a cluster of Egyptian silver frames in a corner of the living room. Political luminaries such as former Egyptian president Anwar Sadat, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Cuban leader Fidel Castro attest to the ambassador's far-flung travels.


After stints in the warmer climes of Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Mexico and sunny Central American locales, Alam is not daunted by the prospect of Moscow's less hospitable winters.


"Cairo and Moscow are alike in one sense -- both are very vibrant, lively cities," he said. "Both are culturally very active. Here you have ballet, many museums, theaters. And Cairo is, likewise, the cultural center of the Middle East and North Africa."


As the ambassador walked up a few steps into the sitting room, he pointed out some of the artifacts he collected throughout his travels in the Middle East, like the gambia, or daggers, that line the walls.


"People from Yemen and Oman wear them as part of their dress," said Alam, who acquired the swords on his travels to these Arab republics.


Perhaps the most fundamental symbol of Pakistani culture in the house hangs on a wall in the central hallway. A section of one of the holy cloths that was once set inside the Holy Mosque in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, during the annual haj ritual and pilgrimage is framed as a reminder of Pakistan's Islamic faith. The black cloth is embroidered with an excerpt from the Koran in silver and gold thread.


Leaving the central hallway, one is culturally jolted in a dining room replete with ornate woodwork done in a Gothic style. Seemingly out of nowhere, this sentimental medieval theme is typical of this eclectic turn-of-the-century period, when designers approached their work with an anything-goes attitiude. But here, too, abstract paintings by contemporary Pakistani artists remind diners of their hosts and vibrantly attest to the country's modernized culture.


And when it comes to the food served in the dining room, the aroma is decidedly Pakistani. A fragrant curry wafts through the room, summoning the entire household. Traditional Pakistani fare includes biryani, a rice and meat dish, pallik, a vegetable and potato dish, and the delicate bread chapati prepared by a Pakistani husband-wife team that the Alams brought with them from Cairo to entice guests to the long table that seats 18 people.


Across the hall, the ambassador's study boasts extensive woodwork done with the modern and austere craftsmanship popular internationally at the turn of the century. The ambassador's bookshelves still heave with such staples as "Karl Marx: A Biography" and Khrushchev's "For Victory in the Peaceful Competition With Capitalism."


Plush black leather furniture gives the study a more contemporary flair than the other rooms. The Pakistani presence again is evident in the olive green and maroon "hunting rug" adorned with small animals, while the presiding portrait of Pakistan's secular founding father, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, less subtly alludes to Pakistani culture.