America

Published in Sanctum!

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A story I wrote as a senior at LUMS for a class on Islamic Spirituality was just published in the Fall 2010 issue of Columbia University’s bi-annual Journal of Religion, Sanctum. The story, titled “The Scholar, The Philosopher & The Soldier“, is set in the Golden Age of Islamic civilization, sometime during the Abbasid Caliphate (between the 9th and 12th centuries), and is a parable for three different approaches to Allah, The Divine Being, in classical Islamic tradition.  

It is a simple story; but it illustrates a large part of what I took away from that class (taught by Columbia alumnus Shaykh Kamaluddin Ahmed). Click here to read the story, and here to read the “sequel”, titled “Salar & The Sufi“.

Knock, and you shall enter

Warmly Winter

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Published in Pakistan’s “Women’s Own” Magazine, December 2010

It’s finally happened.

The knock on the door, and an outstretched palm containing a steaming plate of food.

Chicken-and-veggie rice casserole or Palestinian maqluba, to be specific, on a plastic white flower patterned plate.

Yes, Mama Jama the landlady brought us dinner!

And it couldn’t have been at a more opportune time. In my missionary zeal for bhoono­-fying, I had just burnt the aloo gosht. Mama Jama probably smelt the aroma of charred onions drifting down the staircase and took pity on us.

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Homemade Gulloos

Of course, it’s not that I was expecting her to. It’s not the reason I’d show up at her doorstep every other week with a lovingly-prepared bowl of kheer, zarda or melt-in-your-mouth gulaab jaaman.

I was just being neighbourly.

And testing out my (extremely novice) Pakistani dessert skills.

And skirting the guilt of single-handedly consuming 2 pounds of sugar in one afternoon – an inevitability if said bowl of kheer or gulaab jaman remained in my apartment, thanks to the relentless sweet tooth inherited from my dad.

Yes, I am an epicure (fancy word for greedy). If it were up to me, I’d either be at home baking apple pies and chewy chocolate brownies before proceeding to do justice to their goodness, or I’d be outside in a café or bakery sinking my teeth into the congenial warmth of freshly-baked cinnamon roll, red velvet cupcake, almond croissant, pumpkin pie, strawberry cheesecake, piping hot apple pie or chewy chocolate brownie, with my nose between an equally delicious New York Public Library book.

Luckily, I have a very active and health-conscious husband, who, a) makes sure that I never find more than 50 cents in my wallet at whatever random moment the sweet tooth calls, rendering me helpless in the face of heavenly-smelling street stalls and petite cafés with bothersome minimum-cash policy; and, b), manages to drag me out somewhat regularly for a bit of exercise.

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Rock climbing in Central Park

Our current physical activity is rock climbing – on the boulders of Central Park. So, if you ever happen to be strolling near Columbus Circle on a Saturday morning and see two figures attached to a rock – one, strong, athletic, moving swiftly across the rock face like a demo picture from “The Self-Coached Climber”, and the other a ball of play-dough smushed against the wall – you’ll know it’s us.

I have to say though, as much as I was dreading another East Coast winter, there is a charm about it, a crisp-coloured storybook charm.

I don’t know if it’s in my brown BearPaw boots, or the toasty knit cap and woollen mitts that I gleefully don every morning; the feel of a hot Starbucks hazelnut latté between my fingers or the beautiful bareness of Central Park, the crunch of leaves beneath my feet, and the blossoming of Christmas lights on 5th Avenue. Ice skating at Bryant Park, followed by a cup of steaming apple cider and a stroll through the dazzling holiday market, a veritable Santa’s workshop; the pleasant conviviality of huddling with strangers in the 8×8 floor space of Kathi Rolls or Mamoun’s Falafel in the Village,  exchanging smiles over a shami kabab roll and shared hearth; or, maybe it’s just the indescribable comfort of home, where you return from the cold with relief and bliss in your heart – given that the heat is  working, which you can trust it to be if you’re on food-exchange terms with the landlady.

Of course, slopping through puddles to do your laundry or buy a carton of milk is another matter, as are the thundering hailstorms that sound as if they’ll break straight through your skylight and flood the apartment, the sodden subways and the razor-sharp winds whipping through the labyrinth of high-rises ready to slice off your nose, or having to wear the same inflated down jacket for five months until you are resigned to looking like the Michelin Tyre Man in every photograph.

But no matter how much I complain about it now, winter was always my favourite season in Lahore. I would dream about it the whole year – dream of the day, sometime in November, when the gas heaters were unearthed from the store room and dusted out, when bright chunky sweaters and printed Aurega shawls were unpacked and sunned to get rid of the minty smell of mothballs.

With family in Lahore in the beloved brown shawls

The marvelous halvas my mother would begin to ghot-ofy in the kitchen, gajar, anda, sooji, and my personal weakness, chana daal, the rich smell of ghee and shakkar permeating the entire house in its intoxication; the blood-red pomegranates and succulent oranges we’d eat sitting out on the dewy lawn, the dogs snoozing under the chairs, wrapped up in a brown khaddar shawl that smelt of faded Chanel No. 5.

Even going to LUMS in the morning was fun, dressed in a gigantic sweatshirt and sitting on the sidewalk across the cafeteria after class, watching the steam from the PDC teacup mingle with our cloudy breaths, as the fabled Defence fogs circled in around us from the empty stretches of Phase 5, and we pretended we were in a Sci-Fi movie…

Winter was synonymous with Ramzaan and Eid, with grand tented shaadis, Capri nashtas and apple sheesha at MiniGolf, starry walks, sunny picnics, bonfire dances; lying curled up on a floor cushion in front of the heater in your living room, looking out at the lights of the 600-year old Lahore Fort from the rooftop of Cuckoo’s on your cousin’s December birthday, or blushingly saying “Hello” to your soul mate in the back rows of  a Gymkhana concert…life didn’t get any better than a winter in Lahore.

And though I am here now, and New York City beckons with its lights, treats and newfound friends, and I am happy with my new life, I still dream of those magical Lahore winters, old friends, old shawls, ancient forts, and the fresh, pink-cheeked days that hold some of my most precious memories …

And that’s alright. Because time doesn’t flow if you don’t dream.

The Third World Burden

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Published in The Express Tribune Blog, November 9th 2010

At the documentary production company where I worked over the summer, one of our ongoing projects was a film about four Senegalese teenagers chosen to come to the U.S. on basketball scholarships.  At the end of the film, the boys return to Senegal, and one of them says, “We were the lucky ones. Now it’s our turn to give back”.

“Ah, that noble, philanthropic  spirit!” my boss once remarked with an ironic laugh, as we had just finished watching a fresh cut of the film. “Isn’t that just so African?”

“No,” I thought to myself, slightly annoyed at her levity. “There’s nothing African about it. That’s what anyone would say…”  And as these thoughts went through my mind I suddenly realized that this attitude, this sentiment that the young Senegalese boy had expressed and which to both of us was so completely natural and unquestionable – this attitude was not universal.

It was a Third World phenomenon – a Third World burden.

We’ve all felt it, growing up in Pakistan – an intense altruism combined with intense guilt. We know that we haven’t done a thing to deserve the blessings we were born with, the schools, books, servants, cars and computers that we took as a matter of course; and that knowledge makes us extremely uncomfortable, especially when we go out and see the reality on the streets.

So, we feel this compulsion, this need to absolve ourselves by “giving back”, by doing charitable works, by devoting some part of our lives to this country that gave us so much simply by a stroke of chance.

This sentiment formed a large part of my motivation for applying to Journalism School. Journalism, for me, was a way to “give voice to the voiceless”.  It was my way to “make a difference”, to “bring about a change” in my country, and other such lofty objectives, which I liberally elucidated in my personal statements.

I was being serious, too. Ever since I can remember, I’d had this sense of responsibility to “represent” Pakistan, to tell the world “the truth” about my misunderstood and maligned country. How and why I wanted to do this was irrelevant – I just knew that I ought to, that it was my duty. And so, I would dutifully watch the 9pm PTV Khabarnama with my dad every night, scan the front pages of The News or Dawn every morning before going to school, glue myself to CNN and BBC as soon as I returned home in the afternoon – feeling very good about myself, very clever and “aware”, because, after all, this was going to be my cause, this was my calling.

Then I came to the U.S., and found a precise pigeonhole sitting in wait for me – the young, educated, uber-ambitious, hyper-intellectual Pakistani-Muslim woman, an increasingly-coveted creature in the West. Falling into this pigeonhole, I was expected to be an authority on “all” things Pakistan – at least the Western conception of it – from the “War on Terror” to the safety of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons, relations with China and India to the sociology of the Taliban, violence against women, the rights of minorities, jihad in Islam, arranged marriages, the latest connivances of the President/Prime Minister/Military Dictator, whichever incompetent and corrupt nutcase happened to be in power, the number of casualties in the latest suicide attack…

I couldn’t have any other interests, and people didn’t expect me to converse about anything else. Anything but the destruction, misery, and despicable politics of my country.

And, to a degree, I lived up to the stereotype.

When Musharraf declared emergency in November 2007, when Benazir was assassinated in December 2008, when suicide bombs and drone attacks were reported in the New York Times, the people I passed by in the corridors on my way to class would look at me with an intense pity, even a kind of awe, as if I were the most unfortunate person that they knew. As if, every time a missile struck or a bomb exploded anywhere in the country, whether in Islamabad or the remotest part of the tribal belt, I was somehow directly affected, I somehow had an obligation to grieve. And I would return their gazes with a wan smile, a nod of the head, acknowledging their sympathy and concern with the air of a martyr.

But you know what? Sometimes I faked it.

Deep down inside, I knew this person wasn’t me. This person, posing to be the face of the Pakistani nation, a walking repository of information and statistics, the sharp-witted political analyst or TV talkshow host of tomorrow – it wasn’t me. I wasn’t an authority on anything except my own experience, and my own experience was as far removed from the poverty, violence and corruption that comprised of the news headlines as could possibly be.

And what if – what if I didn’t even want to be that person?

What if all I wanted to do in life was travel the world and take beautiful pictures? Did that make me a “bad” journalist, a “bad” Pakistani?

Once, one of my father’s friends – an “uncle” – asked me what kind of “issues” I was interested in covering as a journalist. “Politics, economics, business?” were the options he gave me.

I decided to be bold this time. “Actually, I’m more interested in culture and travel,” I said, stealing a glance at the yellow National Geographics that lined the bookshelf. “I want to be a travel writer.”

The uncle’s face fell to a grimace, as if I’d said I wanted to be a tight-rope dancer at Laki Rani Circus. “Well, there’s a lot of use in that,” he muttered.

So we come back to the Third World burden, where every son or daughter of the land who is able to “escape” abroad for a better education or a better life is unspokenly expected – no, duty-bound – to “give back”, to “represent”. Indeed, to have other aspirations or interests would be considered strange, unworthy, or irresponsible, a “waste”.

Don’t take me wrong. I love my country, and I do want to give back. But I don’t want it to be out of “duty”, or worse, guilt. Most of all, I dislike the stereotype, the stereotype that hounds countless other Pakistanis, especially journalists like myself, that prompts the same automated response from all media outlets in New York City: “We don’t have any use for you here. However, if you were in Pakistan…”

Yes, I know.  I need to be in Pakistan, I need to talk only about Pakistan, if I want to be a journalist, if I want to further my career, if I want to make a name for myself. I need to write an exposé on madrasahs or profile Faisal Shehzad, interview a militant, acid burn victim, or a young girl orphaned by the floods – I need pictures of devastation, tales of suffering, tinged with the spectre of extremism, I need to exploit my country’s wretchedness on HD-cam for the world to see, and then tell myself I’ve done a good deed, that I’ve done “my bit” to give back.

No, thank you. Give me a ticket to teach English in China, a spot on a Mount Kilimanjaro expedition or a photographic tour of the Silk Route any day. I’ll give back when I want to, the way I want to.

An Independence Day in New York

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My sister and I were window-shopping in Chinatown the other day when an oddly familiar sight met our eyes – a gaggle of googly-eyed brown faces with oil-drenched hair and electric white grins poking out of a car window. “Oye, desi ho?!” they yelled in chorus, the words bouncing back and forth through the depths of the 10-seater vehicle.

My sister and I turned away pretending not to hear, but we couldn’t control an involuntary chuckle from spreading across our faces.  It was the 7th of August, exactly one week before the birthday of the country that we, and that vanful of lafantars, called home.

Growing up in Lahore, Independence Day or Jashn-e-Azadi meant three essential things: the perfect flag, forest-green and Mickey Mouse-free, to be hauled up a day before on the rooftop; the night drive down Mall Road, to see the city bedecked like a bride in mirchi lights and the accompanying car-top bhangra; and the annual military parades in Islamabad, aired on PTV at 8 in the morning, which my dad would drag us out of bed to watch. I’m sure he intended it to inculcate a serious sense of patriotism in us, though at the time I was quite content with my homework-less monsoon day, nan haleem and biryani for lunch, and the mix tape of pop-national anthems that I bought every year from Off-Beat to play in the house till bedtime.

This year – this year was different.  Instead of the usual itinerary of  flags, floats, songs and speeches – which was readily available in  New York City – my first Independence Day in America consisted of Macy’s,  a Starbucks Frappuccino, Tere Bin Laden in a half-empty theatre,  and a Punjabi cab driver’s pithy piece of advice: accent-learning classes.

Beta,” he told me very sincerely. “Agar aap nein yahan rehna hai, you need an American accent. Otherwise, you a second-class citizen.” He grimaced. “Yeh log baray ghatia hotay hain.”

Mr. Chaudhry – that was his name – went on to suggest some instructional CDs that he had availed of himself.

“Did it help you, uncle?” I asked innocently.

“Well, beta, I don’t know,” Mr. Chaudhry laughed, a little sheepish. “In my jaab you don’t have to taak much!”

Of course, I had no intention of surrendering my beloved South Asian-British accent – unlike Ali Hassan, the ambitious but flaky TV reporter played by Ali Zafar in Tere Bin Laden, whose wannabe wide-mouthed drawling is so convincing – “Moz-lems”, “baams”, “Pack-is-TAN” –  he’s thrown off the plane to New York and denied a U.S. visa 6 years in a row.

It was one of many satirically funny moments in the movie, produced in Bollywood but set in Karachi, about a chicken-raising Osama look-alike whom Ali Hassan wheedles  into “starring” in a fake OBL video: a desperate wager for passage to America, the land of Hassan’s dreams.

But there was something deeper to it than the seemingly superficial need to adopt an accent. There was a finality to it, the knowing that you are never going back, that you can’t go back, even if you wanted. And the thought that crossed my mind this 14th August was – was there even a Pakistan to go back to anymore?

My home would still be there, yes, my house in D.H.A., Lahore, my island. But the country, the nation, crippled by corruption and somebody else’s war,  with a fifth of its territory under water and 20 million people in need… What of that? Was such devastation fathomable? Was recovery possible?

“The total cost of reconstruction and rehabilitation is not even countable,” said Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi , at a Pakistan Flood Response event hosted by the Asia Society’s New York headquarters on August 19th.  The other speakers, including U.S. Special Envoy to Pakistan and Afghanistan Richard Holbrooke, USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah, the presidents of Oxfam America and the International Rescue Committee, and representatives from Save the Children and the Asian Development Bank, acknowledged that global response had initially been slow. They went on to pledge their long-term support, and appealed to all Americans for assistance. Many numbers were quoted, figures thrown around, comparisons made; bigger than Katrina, bigger than the Tsunami, bigger than Haiti,  17 million acres of agricultural land destroyed, 3.5 million children at risk of fatal diseases…

There was talk of climate change, of the economy, of  extremism, that “thrives in anarchy and chaos”…

It was a calamity of unparalleled proportions. Everybody knew it. But what brought tears to my eyes was this 3-minute video, which was screened before the Foreign Minister’s speech. “The world cannot forget about this in a matter of days or weeks, like a passing news item,” I thought. “This needs to stay in people’s minds, because it’s far from over.”

And so, it was bittersweet, and cruel, this month of August, this feted month of freedom, when people thronged the streets and danced in the rain, when the monsoons were celebrated with prayers, a burst of heaven for the parched land…This August, over 20 million people – more than the population of New York State –  had lost everything, while we, the thousands of Pakistanis in America, watched from afar with growing despair, living in the country that was, yes, our favourite enemy, the source of so many of our troubles, but also, in some way or other, the land of our dreams, our friend in need?

“Pakistan matters,” Holbrooke had stressed, “not just because of its neighbours. We want to be the first, to give the most.”

“Thank you, America,” the Foreign Minister had intoned, “for taking the lead.”

Perhaps it was a little too fervent, a little too soon to say; and though this was a tragedy to eclipse all tragedies in the pages of our young history, I thought, maybe,  just maybe, it would be, it could be, a new beginning, a better beginning, a new page?…

Please donate generously to the relief efforts at UNICEF, UNHCR, The Rural Support Network, The Citizens Foundation, or any of the organizations listed on this website.

Scents of Ithaca

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I woke up this morning with the smell of damp earth and wild flowers tickling my nose. I imagined I was in my room in Lahore, lying on that beautiful Sindhi-tiled rosewood bed my dad had unearthed from some curio shop in Karachi, the plum-coloured curtains flapping in the breeze and the jaamun tree outside my window bristling with dew. There would be halwa puri and aaloo cholay for breakfast downstairs, and Ammi Abbu would be sitting eating sliced oranges with chaat masala in the front lawn reading the Sunday paper, with our two Alaskan huskies Sabre and Tara gracefully curled at their feet…

I rubbed my eyes. No, I wasn’t in Lahore. I was in our apartment in Ithaca. But outside, it could’ve been Lahore, on a rain-fresh, life-affirming November day. “I’m going for a run,”  I announced, a newfound interest since my high school track champ husband Z bought me a pair of purple Nike running shoes for my birthday.

As we jogged along on the clean wet pavements, wind rustling in the oaks and maples overhead, purple  tulips and yellow daffodils nodding in their beds below, past the shingled cottages, blue, pink, red and white, and in the distance, the rolling hills of Cornell, silhouetted dark green against a steel blue sky, I breathed in the cool, redolent air and thought, “Ithaca really is beautiful. I’m going to miss this place”.

I wouldn’t have said that nine months ago. Soon after we moved to Ithaca last Fall, and Z settled into his school routine, leaving for class every morning at 8 and returning at 6 in the evening, I found myself a prisoner in our apartment: tinkering around in the kitchen, vacuuming and re-vacuuming the bedroom, re-arranging the cushions on the sofa,  trying to decide what to make for dinner…Days, sometimes weeks went by when he was the only person I talked to face-to-face.

I felt frustrated – and I was annoyed at myself for being frustrated. But it couldn’t be helped. How many books could you read, how many BBC miniseries could you watch,  how excited could you possibly be about cooking when you had to do it everyday? The fact was, I had never been the  “domestic” or ghareiloo kind – though I had imagined I would be if given the opportunity – and never in my life had I been so unoccupied, so uncomfortably free. Till now, every moment had been replete with people, parents, sister, cousins, aunts, uncles, friends, teachers, classmates – something to do, somewhere to be, something due, something planned, someone to talk to. I had even complained about it sometimes – Oh, I wish I had more time to myself! – and now that I had that time, I didn’t know what to do with it.

I blamed Ithaca. Dull, boring place. No jobs to be had, no friends to be found, no sign of life after 7 p.m., sub-zero temperatures 3/4ths of the year, nearest grocery store a 40 minute bus ride away on a bus that came every hour… How was one to live in such a place? Weeks of job-hunting and CV-submitting turned up nothing – even the local Barnes & Noble never got back to me. I was so mad I vowed to defect to Borders. “They probably thought you were over-qualified,” said Z to comfort me.

But I wasn’t comforted.  Innumerable possibilities crowded my mind  as I sat daydreaming in my red arm chair,  of New York City, of the Bay Area, of Lahore, of what I might have achieved had I been there, of what I might have made of myself. Oh, what if?…

That was nine months ago. Z is about to graduate now, and our move to the big city is  just weeks away – the start of our new life, on our own feet, the excitement, the rush of people on the street, the plays and the concerts, that dream job, glowing above in the neversleeping neon ether…

I’m excited. But more than that, I am at peace, because I understand now what I achieved in Ithaca, what  I found – something more precious and infinitely more satisfying than any job could have been.

I found two friends, Elsa and Silvano. The moment we met, at the door of our apartment, where the landlord and local godfather Carl Carpenter had brought them in his cherry-red pickup, the “nice Mexican couple” who had just got into town and were looking for a place to live,  I knew we were kindred spirits.  It was the kind, laughing eyes, the ready smile, the same room at the Hillside Inn. We could talk about books and movies, music, religion, ideas and dreams for hours on end, till we’d look up and see the empty restaurant tables and anxious faces of the waiters, and cry out, “What, it’s been four hours already?” We laughed at the same jokes, took immense pleasure in “Big Brother”-bashing, reveling in our non-Americanness, whispering animatedly of conspiracies and capitalism lest the identical blond-beefy-biker family sitting next to us at the food court overheard.  The Beatles, Dracula, Scorcese, 1984, Pictionary, Canon cameras and 5K runs, achari chicken and tostadas, Tampico and Lahore, Urdu and Spanish…it all seemed one. Urdu and Turkish, too, and aromatic tea from a petite hand-painted glass cup, cranberry muffins and Turkish delight, bangles and Rekha and two adorable two-years olds in shalwar kameez with cake on their face. Alev, Demir and the twins, my Ithaca family.  It began with an email, a response to a Craigslist ad, my first freelance video-editing  gig; turned into Urdu lessons and babysitting, playing with puzzles and building blocks, cushiony footballs and cars, singing “Lakri ki Kathi” and “Chanda Sooraj Laakhon Taare”; ended with sisterhood. They threw me a party on my birthday, a beautiful picnic in the park, gifted me their comfylicious Papasan, just because I had once said in passing that I liked it. I was overwhelmed by their affection; I felt I had left some mark on their lives, as they had on mine, found a relationship that would last. Could I have said the same about proof-reading papers for the Cornell Astronomical Society,  cashiering at Barnes & Noble?  When one of the Taiwanese students I tutor got an A on a final paper I edited, or the Chinese visiting scholar’s request for an interview with a D.C. official was finally accepted, with the help I’d given him in his letter, and they said to me with  endearing directness, “We are so lucky to have you” – how could I have underrated that feeling, that sentiment, that satisfaction?

We came back from the run, and I made spicy baked eggs for breakfast, one of beautiful Shayma’s wonderful recipes. My husband did the dishes while I read aloud a chapter from “Brave New World”, Elsa and Silvano’s birthday gift to me and sequel to our recent Orwell craze. Afterwards we sat listening to George Harrison on Pandora while Z worked on a presentation and I wrote this post, with the doors wide open and the smells of spring enveloping our little one-bedroom house, evoking memories of different times and places, mingling past with present.

Reading “Brave New World” on my Papasan. Bliss!

When in America, do as the Americans don’t

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I wrote this piece for a class on Immigration Reporting at Journalism School last March, right before I left for Spain to film a short documentary about Pakistani immigrants in Barcelona.  

Identity is such a fluid thing – parts of it change every time you move, make new friends, do something different in life – and parts of it are simply unalterable. I can’t say I feel exactly the same now as I did when I wrote this, but it was a very strange and interesting part of my life, shared I think by many Pakistanis studying or living abroad.

Published in The Express Tribune Blog, August 25th 2010
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Rediscovering nationality in the melting pot

MANAL AHMAD, PAKISTAN: I was spring-cleaning my laptop a few days ago when I came across these two pictures. Normally, I wouldn’t have even noticed them, buried in virtual stack-loads on my hard drive, the blessing and bane of digital photography. But, my general sense of awareness about “culture” and “identity” somewhat heightened of late, I paused to look, and was struck by the utter incongruity of it all. Not just the photographs, but of myself – in Pakistan, an English-sprouting, skinny-jean-wearing junk-food-eating, American Idol-watching “Westerner”, and in America, a jingly, jangly, Urdu-priding, chai-chugging, public transport-taking “Pakistani”.

 manal_double

I moved to California from Pakistan in 2007 to start graduate school at UC Berkeley. Though I had come as a student, I experienced much of what a new immigrant experiences – curiosity, bewilderment, loneliness, discrimination, independence, and – unexpectedly enough – a conscious need to re-affirm my “identity”. During the 22 years I lived in Pakistan, this had only occurred to me on a handful of occasions – cricket matches against India, for example, or when the enormous green-and-white flags appeared on 14th August, Independence Day, only to disappear a day later.

At the upper-class, English-medium, private university in Lahore I attended for my Bachelor’s, there was a course called “Pakistan Studies: Culture & Heritage” that we were required to take before graduating. Ironically, it is in this class that we were thoroughly “de-nationalized”. In this class, taught by a radical Marxist Yale-educated professor, we learnt there was no such thing as a “Pakistani”.

Then what was Pakistan? Little more than a project of India’s Muslim intellectuals, feudal elite and the British colonial government. The very concept of “nation-state” was foreign to the Indian subcontinent; it was forced upon us by the British, and Pakistan was the direct result. At independence in 1947, less than 10% of the people in Pakistan actually spoke Urdu, the national language; most spoke regional languages like Punjabi, Sindhi, or – Bengali! Yes, because Bangladesh used to be a part of Pakistan, until it seceded in 1971, which of course didn’t do much for consolidating our national identity.

Add to that the fact of the vast economic disparity in the country, 6th most populous in the world, where 1/4th of the people live below the poverty line and 54% have no basic education – I, who started learning English at age 4 and grew up watching Disney cartoons, had a computer at home ever since I can remember, ate out with friends every weekend at American Pizza Huts dressed in jeans and cute tops because that’s what was cool and shalwar kameez was something only our mothers wore or we kept for formal occasions – I was obviously the exception.

That is not to say I didn’t enjoy my culture, as I knew it. I loved it, yes; I loved my traditional embroidery, the block-print and mirror-work, the silver jewelry. I loved my home-cooked food, the grand weddings, the Mughal architecture, Ramadan and Eid, sufi-rock; but I loved it, like a visitor, like a curious traveler, collecting souvenirs, taking pictures. Pakistan was a colorful, exotic TV series, which I could switch on whenever I wanted, and switch off whenever the beggars and child laborers and hungry people came on.

My world was very different. Did I really know anything beyond it? No.

Then, I came to America, the place where what little “nationality” I had might have melted away completely. But quite the opposite happened.

I remember the funny warm feeling I got when I saw the first restaurant sign that said “Pakistani cuisine” in Berkeley (later to discover that desi or South Asian food was a local favorite and that there were hundreds of such restaurants all over the Bay Area). “Hey, that’s my place!” I would think with pride, and proudly order in Urdu, and tell him to make it extra spicy, because of course that’s what I was used to. I would stare at the food, my food, that all these foreigners, these Americans seemed to enjoy so much, mystified at the sight of them eating with their hands, tearing the naan into morsels and scooping up the bhindi or aaloo gobi – food so utterly commonplace that you couldn’t find it at even a roadside stall back in Lahore.

I felt a surge of joy at taxi rides, when I would invariably get a Pakistani or Indian driver (yes, Indian counted too, but that’s another complex affinity, another story). I would invariably smile at any man or woman I passed who looked desi to me – maybe I would talk to them at the bus stop or in a store – and how thrilled I was if they understood Urdu!

Perhaps the most bizarre thing was paying $20 to dance bhangra at a San Francisco club called “Rickshaw Stop”. A bhangra club? That didn’t make any sense! Bhangra was what guys did. They did it at weddings to live drummers, or in Punjabi music videos, or in the villages. You didn’t dance bhangra for any other reason. And how would a girl dance bhangra in the first place? Why would you ever even need a lesson in bhangra? It was all too confusing.

But when I saw what it was all about, I realized with a start: this was as much foreign to me as to everyone else in that room. This was bhangra? This incredible complicated sweaty aerobic choreographed performance that all these goras (literally, “white people”, but meaning any Westerner) seemed to be enjoying out of their minds?

Well, I decided I wanted in – I decided that this was mine, it was mine to own, it was Pakistani, and I could do it better than any of these goras because this is what we did back in Pakistan, didn’t we? And everyone believed me.

Why did I need to re-affirm my difference, my uniqueness, my identity in the melting pot? Why did I feel more Pakistani in America? I don’t really know. Is it because in this country, “ethnicness” is generally prized, coveted, glorified? Or, as a human being, you struggle to identify with a group because you find strength in groups, so you meet, talk to and befriend people you may never even have acknowledged back home – just for the color of their passport? Is that hypocrisy?

In Pakistan, I would never talk to my cab driver. I’ve never dream of taking a cab in Pakistan by myself. But here – it is a bonding experience. Here, I trust a desi cab driver over all others. He might have been a criminal back home, for all I know. But in America, it doesn’t matter. We are the same.

And sometimes I find myself thinking – if all Pakistanis moved to the U.S., we might actually be a nation – a much better nation! We would work hard, we wouldn’t have to bribe or take bribes to make our way in life, and we could communicate with each other, without suspicion or pretense or awkward social barriers.

But the question is, is it even real? Or do we find this strange affinity only because we stereotype ourselves to fit American expectations and tastes, shaking hands and serving them chicken tikka masala while pretending its “authentic”?

The last vestige of nationality probably lies in the accent. The moment people stop asking you what part of the world you’re from when you talk to them – you’re lost. You’ve become American. You drop your T’s. You’ve successfully “assimilated”. And for this confused “Westernized” desi, for whatever illogical irrational reason, that’s not a compliment.