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“Repeat expat Manal Khan lives in fact, in fiction–and everywhere in between”

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Golden streets of Segovia, Spain
Golden streets of Segovia, Spain

Dear readers,

I was recently interviewed by The Displaced Nation, a New York-based online collective of travelers, expatriates and ‘global nomads’ pursuing creative interests, in their homes-away-from-home. Click here to read the interview, and let me know what you think!

Hugs,

Manal

 

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Thoughts on Moving Back to Pakistan

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Published in the Express Tribune Blog, May 21st 2012

When my husband and I moved to the U.S.,  we knew that it wasn’t for good. Contrary to everybody’s assumptions, we knew that we were going to return to Pakistan, at some point in the meandering, distant future.

But we never imagined that it would be now, so suddenly, so unexpectedly, and under such sad circumstances.

As I sit here in the study of my in-laws house in Lahore this sunny April afternoon, looking out on a sumptuous garden decked with purple petunias, crimson lilies, snow-white roses and bright bougainvillea, listening to the chipper of birds and the low chatter of servants in the kitchen,  New York seems like another planet – another time, another dimension, a past life that may or may not have even happened.

So many times we discussed this, our move back to Pakistan, my husband and I. Living in America had unalterably changed us; there, in our little 1-bedroom apartment complete with leaky faucets, mousey kitchens and batty landlords, independent for the first time, we realized how unnecessarily indulgent and painfully isolated our lives in Pakistan had been. While Occupy Wall Street was raging on in New York, we used to joke with each other about being the “covert Pakistani 1%” in the enthusiastic, indignant ranks of the “American 99%”.

“But I don’t think I could go back to living like the 1% or 5%  in Pakistan, the way we  grew up,” I used to say.  “I hate the idea of being waited on by a troop of servants when I know I’m perfectly capable of doing their chores myself. I hate the idea of  living in a 2-story, 4-bedroom mansion while a whole family sleeps, eats, dresses in a single cramped ‘quarter’, dusting and sweeping a dozen rooms that nobody uses. I just could not live in such a disparate situation.”

It wasn’t just upper-class guilt and a stubborn sense of egalitarianism rearing its head.  There was also something else – the beauty and indelible satisfaction of doing things yourself, of building your physical world with your own hands. Of chopping the garlic, peeling the onion, painting the wall, scrubbing the bathtub,  carrying a nice heavy bag of groceries upstairs to your apartment.

Sure, I complained about it sometimes, but I was secretly proud of it too. For somebody who had never even fried an egg  by herself, let alone stand in long, sweaty queues at the Post Office or trudge a mile to do laundry, the daily struggle was a revelation. It was something you shared with the people around you. You felt a camaraderie with the strangers on the subway, the families who shopped at your neighborhood grocery store, the cab drivers, the receptionists, the waiters at your favourite restaurant. No matter who they were, where they came from or what work they did, you had something more meaningful in common with them than just the colour of your passport. Call it class blindness or class ignorance, I loved the feeling.

And, naively, I believed we could replicate that sense of camaraderie and egalitarianism with the ‘common man’, in Pakistan. That we could forge an alternative, healthier, more connected way of living, different from that of our class and our our parents; we could live in a smaller house or apartment, for starters. We could learn to take public buses, and walk to the bazaar instead of taking the car or sending a servant. We were young – we didn’t need servants obsequiously lingering about all day to feed our lethargy. If we had money to spare, we could put a poor man or woman through school instead, or a training course for a skill he or she had always wanted. We could live comfortably, but simply, with less material things, less “luxuries”, fewer TVs and cars and expensive dinner sets. It was possible, I insisted. We could reinvent ourselves in Lahore too!

My husband was skeptical, realistic. “We are who we are in Pakistan – the privileged. And it’s pointless to try to be anything else, because that can’t change. We just have to do the best we can in the roles we’ve been given.”

I didn’t agree. I believed every person had the power to change their situation, even if in a very small way.

But now that we’re actually back in Pakistan, all that seems like selfish banter, a pipe dream, wholly insignificant in the larger picture. Suddenly, we find ourselves thrown into roles, situations and relationships that we never envisioned, never planned, never wanted. We find ourselves perpetuating the status quo, the class consciousness we wanted to break. I feel the Lahore lethargy seeping into my life, my mind, slowly sapping the vigour and determination I felt before. I don’t want to walk to Al Fatah anymore, people will stare. I don’t want to take the public bus, it’ll be hot and uncomfortable. I don’t want to iron my own clothes, because I’d rather sit at the computer or read a book or take a nap; besides, that’s what the maid is there for…right?

I often wish I was immune, the way people are, to the unpalatable realities we live with in Pakistan. I wish I could authoritatively give orders to the servants like they’re used to, shoo away that pesky beggar like she’s used to, tip the Al Fatah boy with a crumpled 20 rupee note because you have to give something, gloat over  the few hundred rupees you “saved” from the cloth merchant because you always get a bargain – I wish I could occupy the upper-class woman’s “role” with ease and flair,  but if after 22+ years of living in Pakistan I’m still not able to do it without extreme discomfort , will I ever be?

That’s not me. And I don’t want to be that person. I don’t want that “power”, that patronizing, suffocating power, and the guilt that comes with it.

Perhaps it’s impossible after all, to create that kind of life in Pakistan – the kind of life we had in America. For all its problems and its flaws, life there taught us not to take even the basics for granted. It taught us the value of hard work and instilled in us a sense of equality and humanity we had never experienced in Pakistan – a kind of class blindness. We could live in any sort of neighbourhood we chose, make friends with anyone we wanted, eat and shop where we liked, do any kind of job; and there was no judgment, no binding social norms and family legacies to contend with.

It’s true that there will always be someone who is less privileged than you. But  the divide need not be so wide, so unjust, so tragic it makes you want to cry, if you only think for a moment about the difference between you and the man who cooks for you in the heat of the kitchen all day. I would rather be the 99% than the 1%, any day, in Pakistan or any other place – if only I had the choice.

Occupy Wall Street

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Occupy Wall Street protesters rally in Lower Manhattan - Getty Images

I loved going to protests as a student. Be it a rally of solidarity with Palestine, a march against the U.S. invasion of Iraq or Emergency Law in Pakistan, or a demonstration to close down Guantanamo, I was there, banner in hand, a chant on my lips. It was important, I thought, for people  to express their concern, their outrage, at an injustice committed to them, in their name, or perhaps not directly affecting them at all – because if you couldn’t do anything about it, you could at least say something. That was a moral obligation, even if it made no difference to the powers-that-be, even if it did not stop the wars or the drone attacks or the repression and brutality. As the famous African-American writer and former slave Frederick Douglass said, “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”

So why aren’t I out there at Liberty Plaza for Occupy Wall Street? It’s been 5 weeks since the encampment started, and I’ve only visited twice.  When we talk about it at work, I try to avoid mentioning this embarrassing fact. Why is it, as the largest and most dynamic protest movement in America since the Civil Rights and Anti-War resistance of the 1960s, the closest thing to an “American” Spring, unfolds right here in New York City, that I have no interest in being there, in participating in history?

I’ve puzzled over this question myself many times. I mean, I understand what they’re protesting – economic and social inequality, and a government that is beholden to corporations rather than people. That, and everything else that’s wrong with the American system, from healthcare to unemployment to the illegal wars. And I agree with them.

But where is my fervor? Where is my passion, my “earnest desire to save the world“?

Photo: Civilian News

Last weekend, we were at a tea party at a friend’s place, talking to a fellow Pakistani, a little older than us, who had been living in New York for the past 6 years. He was telling us about a recent trip to Lahore to see his ailing father.

“And you know what’s the hardest thing for us first-generation expatriates? Not being there for our parents in their old age…”

I nodded sympathetically, though in fact I had stopped listening to him when he said “us first-generation expatriates”.  “What?” I thought to myself, “I’m not a first-generation expatriate, nor do I intend to be one! I’m going to go back to Pakistan!”

And I think that’s when I got my answer, the explanation for my lack of motivation for participating in Occupy Wall Street. As much as I support the movement, in spirit and letter, I do not feel it’s my struggle. I do not feel it’s my part in history to play. Simply because, I’m not American, and I don’t plan on becoming American.

I know other Pakistanis and foreign-born New Yorkers who are thrilled about the movement, spending days at Liberty Plaza with the other protesters, marching alongside the students, teachers, workers and citizens of all classes and color at their various demonstrations. But they are like the guy we met at the tea party, those who have accepted their immigrant status and the fact that they are here to stay. They’ve left their native countries, shed their old accents, looking for homes to buy. They belong to America now. This is where their children will grow up. And so, they have a cause, they have a reason –  they are part of that 99%. They can chant at the marches, they can sing along with Tom Morello when he performed “This Land is Your Land” at the encampment this afternoon, they can hold signs that say “We want our country back!” and mean it.

Photo: Getty Images

Not so for me. I feel like a traveler, merely in passage – observing the goings-on of this great, crazy city, appreciating the good and the bad, the beautiful and the ugly, and moving on – curious but detached. I live here, but I don’t belong here.

Does that somehow absolve me from being an active member of the community? I don’t know. Have I become less idealistic than I used to be, a little more practical, self-interested, or just plain lazy? I hope not.

Do I need to be 17 again to feel the same fervor, the same passion, the same desire to change the world? Maybe, maybe not.

But Occupy Wall Street is not my moment, my history. It’s America’s moment. And, no matter what happens tomorrow, a week from now, a month from now, even if society is ostensibly as unequal as it was on September 17th – at least you spoke out against it. At least you demanded. That can never be in vain.

The Freedom To Be

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Published in the Express Tribune Blog, October 4th 2011

A friend from Lahore recently asked me, “What would you miss most about New York if you were to move back to Pakistan right now?”

I thought about it for a few minutes. Unlike many Pakistanis living in the U.S. I knew, I wasn’t particularly attached to this country, or to New York.

To me,  it was just another city – a hard city, a cacophonous city, where bright lights and gleaming skyscrapers belied the darkness, the sadness, the grime and the poverty in the corners; where glamour, spectacle, a veneer of ethnic diversity thinly concealed the underlying greed and racism.

I had no great love for New York; my heart still belonged to Lahore, and it was Lahore that I forever looked for, in every street sign, in every face, in every smell and neighbourhood.

But there was one thing.

“Freedom”, I replied to my friend. “That’s what I would miss.”

It wasn’t the freedom to wear a tank top or mini-skirt in public, to dance at a nightclub or get a tattoo; it wasn’t the freedom to hop on a train or bus at any hour of the day and go where you wanted, come home when you pleased; the freedom to attend any kind of rally, concert or film screening that suited your fancy, to make friends with any colour or class of people you chose,  to walk out on the street at 2.a.m. for some ice-cream from the 24-hour deli, to nap under a tree in Washington Square Park.

No, these were superficial freedoms. It was something deeper than that.

It was the freedom to be. 

Growing up in Lahore, I didn’t ever ask myself – Why are all the women I know teachers and doctors, the other half housewives? Why don’t I know any women engineers, scientists, actresses, novelists, athletes, dancers, photographers, lawyers?

I never asked myself – Why do I have to wait for the driver or one of my parents to drop me to school or to a friend’s house? Why can’t I take the bus, a taxi or rickshaw?

Why must I send the cook to fetch that tub of ice-cream from the shop across the street for my slumber party? Why can’t I go myself?

Why can’t I say my prayers at the beautiful neighborhood mosque? Why must I pray in the musty, uninspiring ante-chamber, or in the confines of my house?

Why can’t I play cricket in the park? Why can’t I wear jeans to Liberty Market? Why do I need a male friend to accompany me on my field visits to the shehr?

Why must I get married by the age of 24 and have at least one child by 26?

Why? Because that’s how things were.

I never questioned it, or if I did have questions, they were momentary. The main explanation, of course, was that I was a girl.

That was good enough. It was reasonable, it was appropriate. You never asked why your brother could do things you couldn’t, why there was one set of rules for the boys and another for the girls. To question that would seem presumptuous, daftly unrealistic, “Amreekan” – this is was Pakistan, this was how society functioned, and women were completely A-OK with it.

There were exceptions to the rule, of course, a handful of courageous women who dared to break into non-traditional roles and spaces – but these women, although publicly lauded, were implicitly looked down upon by middle- and upper-class morality. They were arrogant, promiscuous, “unfeminine”, or, they were supremely-gifted rarities that happened once in a generation, and while you admired them, you couldn’t possibly aspire to be like them.

And while life did go on, and the women of my class “progressed” day by day, from classrooms to TV screens to charity fundraisers – the socially acceptable, the superficially liberal – the greatest inhibitions remained.

What if I wanted to be a political activist, campaigning door-to-door and chanting slogans at rallies shoulder-to-shoulder with men? What if I wanted to be a social worker, visiting slums and prisons and acid-burn victims in teeming public hospitals? What if I wanted to be a professional musician, performing at cafés, parks, theaters, outside the protective walls of my school or college? What if I wanted to go for a stroll at midnight, sit at a roadside khokha chewing paan, live in a 3rd story flat in Anarkali, ride my bike to work?

What if I wanted to marry for love to a man “below” my class, to a foreigner, to a gora?

What if I wanted to do all of this, not to make any statements, not to be provocative, not be seen or talked about, but just because that’s who I was, who I wanted to be, and doing something contrary would be oppressive, inhibiting.

In New York, all the inhibitions inculcuated in you since childhood slowly chipped away. You could see yourself for who you were, and you could actually be that person. Nobody judged, nobody cared. People treated you as a human being, without the gender labels and cultural baggage. No one stared at you, no one harassed you. No one noticed you for being a woman, for being different. You were anonymous – and while that could sometimes feel lonely, it was also very liberating.

What it comes down to is choice. You coud choose to pursue your passion, and, married, divorced or single, childbearing or childless, rich or poor, be the happiest woman in the world for having done so – or you could be be like the neighbouring mother-of-4, whom society praises for raising such well-behaved children, for keeping such a tidy, efficient household, for having such an amicable relationship with her in-laws, for being so equable with the servants, and yet be lifeless inside, burdened with regret.

For no matter how noble the mission of wifehood and motherhood, no matter how sacred our notions of femininity, I do not believe that any woman can enjoy seeing her ambitions crushed. I do not believe that every aunty I know did not nurture a secret wish in her heart that she was not able to fulfill. And that was a loss not just for herself, but for everybody around her, for society, for the country – because one woman who lives life to her potential, who is brave and follows her heart, is far more inspiring than any number of daughters, wives and mothers imprisoned to their homes and kitchens and children and a job or husband they do not love.

So, yes, what would I miss about New York if I were to move back? The freedom to be. The choice to be. No double-standards. The same rules for men and for women. The same benchmarks for your daughters and your sons.  And though I miss Lahore with all my heart, I do not miss its self-righteous upper-class morality.

Obviously, there will never be a day when you wake up in the morning and the men of Lahore cease to ogle, the aunties cease to matchmake, the uncles cease to lecture, and society ceases to preach one thing or other. It’s up to us to make that happen. It’ll  take courage, but that’s the only way to live, the only way to free yourself  from the invisible cages your mothers were trapped in, the only way to ensure that your children aren’t trapped the same way.

I’ll leave you with a request to read Ismat Chughtai, the brilliant grande dame of 20th-century Urdu literature, whose work inspired me to write this post. She wasn’t just a gifted writer  – she was a keen social commentator, whose stories revealed the deepest of deep-rooted hypocrisies in middle-class Indo-Muslim society. She saw things for what they were, she saw herself for who she was, and she was not afraid to be that person, no matter how much people gasped and censured. Though times have changed and women are “freer” than they were in the 1960s, when Chughtai wrote “The Heart Breaks Free”, one of my all-time favourite stories, her observations are just as pertinent today, and we can learn much from them. I couldn’t find the story online, so I’d encourage you to go to a store, buy it and read it, in Urdu or in English. Enjoy!

Lingering Fragrance

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She needed some green in her apartment.

Before she bought furniture, she was at the flower shop – a subconscious evocation of a fecund childhood, romping in gardens, rolling in lawns, clambering mango trees, picking flowers in the morning for the breakfast table…

“Philodendrons, lilies, ferns, azaleas,  bonsai…”

Hmm. She spends long minutes gazing at each plant, fingering the leaves, feeling the texture, inhaling its aroma.

“I’m sorry, I just can’t decide!” she smiles apologetically at the Chinese lady behind the counter. “Everything is lovely, but…” What do I want?

Then, among the flowering pots, in a tangle of pink, yellow, purple, red, blue, she spies a familiar star-shaped white…

She blinks, startled. Is it? It can’t be…bending forward, she buries her face in the modest little shrub bearing the two pale-faced flowers and takes a deep breath…

Suddenly, she’s not in Brooklyn.

She’s in a garden in Lahore on a warm summer’s night. The grass is damp from the afternoon rain. Crickets and other invisible creatures of the dusk trill madly in the bushes, and a velvety breeze rustles in the bougainvillea creepers and Gulmohar above, filling the air with a shower of orange and fuchsia…

It smells sweet, but a subtle kind of sweetness – of budding love, and clasping a dear one’s moist hand, of late-night drives and dewy white bracelets bought from the barefoot little boy on the curbside, of cooing pigeons and clouds of fluttering wings on the rooftop, of twinkling black eyes rimmed with kajal, white blooms wreathed in black hair, and the enveloping scent of flowers in a bride’s bedroom…

“So you want the jasmine, miss?” The Chinese lady grins, her cropped black head nodding vigorously, round black spectacles bouncing on her nose.

Jasmine! Motia….”Yes, I’ll take the jasmine,” she nods vigorously back.

It sits on a windowsill in her apartment, in a modest little green pot – spreading its delicate, memory-laden perfume over the folds of her new life, a graceful remembrance, a lingering fragrance of the past.

Change

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Humans are such creatures of habit.
We yearn for change, for tides and storms to break the uniformity of our days.
But when change comes, we recoil; we are unnerved, thrown into disarray, suddenly clinging to what we know, what is familiar.
Whether a change in city, neighbourhood, house, colleagues, friends.
Even the arrangement of books on a shelf, or spices in the kitchen cupboard – it agitates us.
Maybe it’s a sign of aging. Or maybe it’s just me, an earthbound Taurus.
The sea is beautiful, but standing on the shore looking out upon the interminable flatness, the ceaseless motion, I am intimidated. The sea does not calm me.
I prefer land, the solidity of a mountain, the rootedness of a good weathered tree  – feet firm on the earth yet a head in the sky, nodding in the breeze, whispering leafy music, growing stronger, reaching higher.
I wish to be like that tree – not the water, not the ocean, heaved and hurled about with its vagaries – but to mature with the seasons, to sing with the clouds, to know my own depth.
When I was younger, the idea of being a carefree, freewheeling itinerant excited me – it was romantic, it was adventurous, it was what the heroines in my favourite novels were like – and a part of me still clings to that notion.
But a bigger part has accepted that I am earthbound – I am not not made of air, or fire, or water, but of deep, dense, redolent earth. I need to sow, to nest, to reap, to have spontaneity with order, to keep the scissors in the right drawer, to adore a particular film, writer, song, person; to be attached.
New York is becoming home.

Of New York Spring And Other Things

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Cherry Blossoms at the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens

Published in the Express Tribune Blog, May 24th 2011

Growing up in Lahore, the monsoon was my favourite season – those muggy, motionless afternoons when the air suddenly exploded into a river of orange rumbling down from the sky, leaving  jungles in its wake. In the Bay Area, every balmy day of the year was beautiful, except for the miserable characterless spluttering they called “rain”.

In Ithaca, my favorite season was Autumn – a firedance in the sky, bold and blazing, curling flames at your feet – and in New York, it has to be spring, the teenage of nature, blooming poetry from every stem, every lilting branch, a breathtaking ballet of pink and white to melt the numbest of hearts.

On such a blossomy New York morning last week,  my colleague Ryan and I were at Ground Zero, jostling through hundreds of New Yorkers and out-of-towners to catch a glimspe of President Obama as he arrived to lay a wreath at the September 11th Memorial Site, giving symbolic “closure” to the victims and families of the 9/11 attacks following Osama bin Laden’s death.

We didn’t see him, not even a fluttering hand through a darkened car window. But Obama became irrelevant once we actually started talking to people and recording their reactions to the news.

Reactions were predictable: One African-American woman beamed with pride that Obama had been in office “to do this urgent and important duty”.  A man who had lost four friends in 9/11 said he felt a sense of “relief” and “joy” beyond words; a young Latino-American who had recently joined the New York National Guard said that Osama’s death was a source of “unity” for the people of New York, that it showed “how Americans come, in all shapes and forms, whatever nationality you are, whatever colour you, you come as one.”

But what was unpredictable was these people’s, these ordinary, middle-class, tax-paying people’s calm acceptance of the fact that yes, this “war” was “not going to end with the death of one person”, and, more disturbingly, that it needed to go on, that it should go on. In the words of one 67-year old ex-Marine, “We have to be there in all of these countries to assist…so we can crush these people when they come in to try and hurt us. It’s not over.”

While Ryan asked the questions and I filmed behind the camera, I thought about the questions I would have liked to asked these people: “But do you know the real victims of your country’s fallacious war? Do you know who actually pays the price? What do you have to say to the families of the tens of thousands of innocent men, women and children killed in Afghanistan, in Iraq, in Pakistan because of this war? Were their lives less valuable than the 3,000 Americans who died here 10 years ago? Do you not see that what you’re calling ‘patriotism’ and ‘duty’ is decimating entire societies, entire nations as we speak?”

I said nothing of the sort. I was a journalist, and Pakistani on top of that, and the last thing I wanted to in that sort of crowd was get into an argument.

Turns out, somebody else was there to do it for me – a lanky, bespectacled and very articulate white dude by the name of Sander Hicks, founder of the “Truth Party”, a grassroots political group that believes in exposing, among other things, that 9/11 was a hoax. Wearing a black T-shirt with the words “9/11 Is A  F****** Lie!” emblazoned on the front,  Hicks shouted maniacally but fearlessly to the crowd, “Why am I here? Am I here to celebrate and validate a murder? Without a trial, without due process? Or am I here to think about what is really happening in our country? Do we justify war and torture based on 10 years of lies? I say no! And I don’t care if there’s a million people here saying I’m an a**hole, just for standing up for peace and truth!”

I’m still surprised that he got away with saying that, and a lot more, without even a scratch, though there were several jingos in the crowd who would’ve liked nothing better than give the provocative Hicks a square punch in the jaw. But shouting back “A** hole!” is about as far as they let their anger go.

Then, in the middle of the fray, a red-faced, white-mustachioed little man broke in.  Wearing a black leather jacket covered in Vietnam insignia, he cried in a thick Texan drawl: “You know what I would’ve done if I were President when 9/11 happened? I would’ve nuked the entire Middle East, starting with Mecca!”

So far that day, I had been watching and listening to everybody almost in the third person, a perfectly neutral body. But at those words, I felt my heart plummet like it would at a vertical drop on a Seven Flags rollercoaster, and a row of goosebumps shot up my spine as if I were suddenly caught in an Arctic gale wearing a T-shirt.  I looked up from the camera. My eyes stung; I thought I was going to cry.

It was pure reflex. Something essential and sacrosanct, seeded deep in my soul, had been momentarily convulsed, and at that moment  I could’ve clawed out the old geezer’s eyes.

There was a collective gasp from the crowd, and people were quick to admonish, “No, no, that’s crazy!”, “Not all Muslims are bad!”. Clearly, the guy was a loony, and it would’ve been stupid to take anything he said seriously. But his words stayed with me long after his black leather jacket disappeared into New York’s hubbub of loonies, and I thought, “So this is how it feels – to be on the ‘other side’ of extremism?”

We’ve had plenty loonies from our part of the world dispense similar tirades about the West, about the U.S., Europe or Israel – and God knows I’m not a fan of those parts of the world or their foreign policies. But to an ordinary citizen, who has as little control over what their government does as we do over ours, how would it feel, to be so sweepingly abused, to hear people talk about obliterating our very existence, burning flags and defacing temples as if it would have no consequences, as if it would offend or incite nobody; even for someone like me, deeply suspect of nationalism and all other -isms in general, I admit that it would hurt – that it does hurt.

It’s complicated. It’s complicated when imperialism is involved, when capitalism and neo-colonialism is involved, when there is a legitimate anger and resentment and struggle for justice, like in Palestine, or Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. It’s difficult to talk without the invective, without the bitterness, when you have been truly wronged; but all I can say is, let’s let humanity win.

That’s all we have, to keep us alive and save us from total catastrophe. At the end of the day, it’s the ordinary citizen’s sympathies and consicence that we can appeal to, we can touch; it’s their ordinary humanity that we can depend on, not any politician’s or government’s. Let’s not sacrifice that, no matter which ‘side’ we come from.

Pure beauty