Berkeley

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

 

Egypt

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Without prognosticating, analyzing, rationalizing – irrespective of what happens next week, the next day, or the next hour – I think what’s happening in Egypt right now is beautiful.

It’s one of those moments, those rare historical moments that you read about in your classroom within the pages of a textbook,  and it all seems so distant, almost fictional, and as you memorize the facts for tomorrow’s quiz you believe quite firmly in your heart that nothing like that will happen in your lifetime. Because you were born too late, because  such grand, moving events just don’t happen anymore…

When rank and class and position, the neighbourhood you live in, the clothes you wear, the work you do, the dialect you speak,  everything that separates you from your fellow countryman or woman on any ordinary day suddenly melts away; when, for once, a system that is based on divisions and duties and somebody else’s rules breaks down, and people speak with one voice – not hundreds, not thousands, but millions. Then, there is no power, no number of tyrants, tanks or tear gas in the world that can silence them.

I’m not there in Tahrir Square in Cairo, but I can feel the thrill, the exhilaration that something momentous is unfolding before my very eyes.

It feels a little like the time when Obama became President in 2008. Irrespective of what came after, the broken promises, the disillusionment, that moment itself was pure magic; when a joy and a hope stronger than anything else swept over us at the I-house in Berkeley, and people from every corner of the world cried and cheered and celebrated in a unison that couldn’t be explained, only experienced.

Or the time when Pakistani students rose up against General Musharraf’s martial law in November 2007, abandoning their books and taking to the streets with a passion that nobody knew existed, and young people in Pakistan felt – even if only for those dramatic few weeks – that we actually had the power to change the society we lived in, for the better.

What ensues from such extraordinary moments isn’t always better, or different from before. But isn’t life more about the moments than the monotonous spaces between them?  The birthdays, the marriages, the revolutions and revelations, those precious fleeting moments of unadulerated emotion that you savor and look back to forever?

Egypt has had its moment. Egypt will never be the same. The Arab world will never be the same.

And Egyptians aren’t thinking, “What if Mubarak doesn’t step down after all? What if the constitution isn’t changed at all? What if another puppet dictator takes over in his place?”

These questions and speculations and eternally encumbering “what-ifs” don’t bother them, shouldn’t bother them. The Egyptian people have spoken. They have shown their courage, their humanity, their unity to the world, and to themselves. That is the power, that is the point. That is what matters.

Aung San Suu Kyi Released

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Aung San Suu Kyi

I woke up this morning and the first news that greeted my eyes when I opened my computer actually made me shout out with happiness – Burma’s pro-democracy leader and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, the beautiful and heroic Aung San Suu Kyi  has been released from house arrest! After almost 15 years of incarceration in abject conditions at her home in Rangoon by the unspeakably brutal military dictatorship that has ruled over Burma since 1962, this is indeed a joyous event, even as it comes in the wake of a sham election.

I feel a personal involvement in the story, not only because of a phenomenal book called the Glass Palace which left a lasting impression on me when I read it 10 years ago, but because of an amazing individual I got to know and work with during my time at Berkeley. Min Zin is a former political activist from Rangoon who was forced into exile by the Burmese junta in 1989, at the age of 16. He now lives in California and is pursuing a PhD. in Asian Studies at UC Berkeley. I wrote a detailed profile about him and his life in exile, which you can read here.

The military junta in Burma has always been extremely erratic, and nobody knows how long Aung San Suu Kyi will remain free or the extent of her freedom. But I hope that this augurs a new and happier chapter for this rich country, poised at the fascinating crossroads between India and East Asia, and home to some of the most spectacular Buddhist temples in the world, such as the Golden Rock Pagoda. I hope I can visit some day.
Golden Rock Pagoda

California Dreaming

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

I’m sitting on a Virgin America flight to San Francisco, sandwiched between two very distinct gentlemen: one, a rotund avuncular specimen happily cuddled into a hot pink inflatable pillow, and the other a goggle-eyed, fuzzy-lipped stick figure equally absorbed in a game of Doom on his personal TV.

Meanwhile, I’ve been nibbling on the egg and cheese Panini I bought from JFK five hours ago. Consider yourself lucky if you even get a complimentary packet of peanuts on a domestic U.S. flight; the crisp coleslaw sandwiches and squelchy shahi tukray of PIA en route to Karachi are but a distant fantasy. Ah, PIA, I forgive you the screeching babies and leering uncles and assiduously obnoxious 5-year olds kicking behind my seat for the sake of those shahi tukray!

There it is again – that incorrigible nostalgia I’ve been wallowing in of late. It also happens to be the sole motivation behind this trip to the West Coast. San Francisco, Berkeley, Bay Area! What don’t I miss about that place? The deep blue waters of the Bay, the impossibly puffy white clouds, the crunchy-freshness of the air, the swaying palms on the horizon? Or the incredible purple-gold sunsets over the Golden Gate Bridge, which I watched from the steps of the International House in Berkeley every evening on my way back from class…

The Golden Gate Bridge at sunset, from Berkeley

Then there were my favourite haunts – the thrift clothing stores where you could find tassled Pocahontas skirts, Dashikis and BCBG jackets all on the same rack, Berkeley’s answer to Zainab Market and the place I’d inevitably splurge half my work-study paycheck. Those wondrous second-hand book stores, musty and chaotic, where wiry old men in suspenders smiled benignly at you over their wire-rim glasses, exactly the kind you’d expect to hand you a copy of “The Neverending Story” and promptly vanish. The board game shop that I never spent less than an hour in each time I entered.

the happy chinese baba on telegraph and bancroft
The Happy Man

The diminutive Taiwanese baba in a coolie hat who stood on a bucket all day chanting “Happy, Happy, Happy” and holding anti-Bush and anti-Dalai Lama placards; the crazy campus bum who earned his daily bread by charging people to swear at him  (I think the rate was a dollar per minute). The roadside jewellery stalls on Telegraph Avenue, a riot of feathers, seashells and antique Afghan silver; the proliferation of Pakistani fast-food joints,  free Lipton mixed chai and plastic cups of kheer; the refreshing absence of chain stores till as far as the eye could see, save for the errant downtown Starbucks. The fixture of anti-war protestors on Sproul Plaza, the Native American chief who lived in the trees and ran for Berkeley mayor, the weedy-smelling People’s Park and my homeless old Vietnam-veteran friends who strummed away my favorite Eagles’ songs on the grafittied pavements.

Crazy, beautiful, bubble-of-a-Berkeley, just my kind of place.  But most unforgettable of all were the friendships, forged over the unforgettably tasteless food they served at the International House, where I lived two years during Journalism School.

So, when I found out that Z’s company was sending him to Los Angeles for work, I immediately pulled out my old Dashikis and peasant tops and gotay-wali kurtis from the suitcase under the bed – no way was I missing out on a trip to California either!

Anti-War Rally at People’s Park. Thrift store togs.

As for New York City – well, I’m learning to like it. Getting out of the house definitely helps, which can be quite a challenge for a ghar ghussoo or homebody like me.  As I blissfully look around at the avocado green walls of my apartment, the potted Pothos plant hanging from the ceiling, the block-print Gultex tablecloth, the beauteous kilm gracing the dark brown floor of the living room, which my mother brought over from Lahore this summer, the mantelpiece full of books, and as I inhale the scent of caramel-vanilla candles and sandalwood incense, listen to the birds chirping in the trees, and open my fridge to admire the lasagna, apple pie, leftover homemade Pad Thai and housewarming chocolate pastries, I think: who in their right mind would want to step out of this piece of heaven?  Out there, into the puddles and gloom, odiferous subways and tourist-yapping streets?

Heaven!

Actually, I have been forced to step out. I have been forced to communicate with people other than my husband, the Palestinian landlady and the Indian-Guyanese cashier at the grocery store – courtesy my two jobs.

Yes, I’m working! The hitherto unemployed, Master’s degree-holding housewife has found not one, but two jobs (Thank you, thank you). I have joined the ranks of the active labour force. Now I too get to catch the morning train at rush hour along with the rest of the dapper designer bag-clutching Stieg Larsson-obsessed populace. I, too, grumpily slam down the alarm clock at 7 a.m., gulp down a bowl of cereal, throw on a slightly crumpled H&M button-down, and shoot down the stairs to the subway with the alacrity of somebody who’s just been informed that Michael Jackson has come back to life – all to sit in a windowless office staring at a computer screen for 8 hours straight, with a meager 15 minutes at lunchtime to eat your humble turkey sandwich, and, if it’s a particularly exciting day,  exchange a few words other than the mechanical “Good Morning” with your ambitiously poker-faced colleagues.

Sounds tempting, doesn’t it? It’s true, jobs are overrated. Work is overrated. A necessary evil. At least that’s what I’ve concluded from my weeks of face-reading and eavesdropping on the jam-packed subways, and from my own (brief) brush with a 40-hour work week. I’m already beginning to daydream about the “Era of Gainful Unemployment”: extended tea sessions with Mama Jama the landlady over half-a-dozen wedding albums and Syrian soap operas, 5-hour long grocery store binges, simultaneously reading Kafka, Tolstoy and Orhan Pamuk, walking with no purpose. The “Era of Frustrated Unemployment” has been conveniently glossed over, like a Pak Studies History book, as has the even more miserable “Job Application Process”. Dissatisfaction, thy name is me! Of course, it would be an entirely different matter, if, say, I actually found that elusive “dream job”, or,  if I even knew what that was…

“Ladies and Gentlemen, we have begun our descent into San Francisco International Airport. Please switch off all electronic devices, bring your seat backs to an upright position…”

Yay! The announcement I’ve been waiting for! Peering over the globular uncle’s hot pink pillow, I catch a glimpse of the blue water, the green hills, the red  arches of the Golden Gate from the window. Memories flood back to me. I remember the moment when, over 3 years ago, I landed in this city as a graduate student, straight out of LUMS, moving away for the first time from the only home I had ever known. I remember teasing my mother at the forlorn finality of her goodbyes – “Ammi, I’m going to come back, you know!” But she knew better.

And though I can’t wait to see all the places and people I loved, the nooks and crannies and eccentricities of this place I grew to call my second home, I also feel a little nervous. Will it be the same?

I often feel this way landing in Lahore. Is going back ever the same? Or do those beloved places and people inevitably move on, and leave you behind, so that the only way you can enjoy them is through nostalgia, through memory?

Perhaps they don’t change at all. Perhaps the change is in you.

PS: I had an absolutely fabulous time in California. Can’t wait to go again.

PPS: In case you were wondering, the beady-eyed furry creature(s) in the oven have been eliminated.

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.