Culture & Society
Published in The Express Tribune Blog, January 20th, 2011
Last week, my husband and I finally booked our return tickets to Pakistan. It was a proud moment, a happy moment, not only because we had been saving to buy them for months, but because we had not been home in nearly two years.
Two years! It seemed like a lifetime. We had missed much: babies, engagements, weddings, new additions to the family and the passing of old, new restaurants and cafés, new TV channels, even the opening of Lahore’s first Go-Karting park. I could hardly contain my excitement.
Yet, my excitement was tainted by a very strange and disquieting thought – was there even a Pakistan to go back to?
My family and friends would be there, yes, and the house I grew up in, and my high school, and the neighborhood park, and the grocery store where my mother did the monthly shopping, and our favorite ice cream spot…
But what of the country? And I’m not talking about the poverty, and corruption, and crippling natural disasters – I’m talking about a place more sinister, much more frightening…
A place where two teenage boys can be beaten to death by a mob for a crime they didn’t commit, with passersby recording videos of the horrific scene on their cell phones…
A place where a woman can be sentenced to hang for something as equivocal as “blasphemy”…
This is not the Pakistan I know. This is not the Pakistan I grew up loving. This bigoted, bloodthirsty country is just as alien to me as it is to you.
The Pakistan I know was warm, bustling and infectious, like a big hug, a loud laugh – like chutney, bright and pungent, or sweet and tangy, like Anwar Ratol mangoes. It was generous. It was kind. It was the sort of place where a stranger would offer you his bed and himself sleep on the floor if you were a guest at his house; a place where every man, woman or child was assured a spot to rest and a plate of food at the local Sufi shrine. A place where leftovers were never tossed in the garbage, always given away, where tea flowed liked water and where a poor man could be a shoe-shiner one day, a balloon-seller the second, and a windshield-wiper the third, but there was always some work to do, some spontaneous job to be had, and so, he got by.
My Pakistan was a variegated puzzle – it was a middle-aged shopkeeper in shalwar kameez riding to work on his bicycle, a 10-year old boy selling roses at the curbside, a high-heeled woman with a transparent pink dupatta over her head tip-tapping to college, with a lanky, slick-haired, lovelorn teenager trailing behind her.
A Michael Jackson-lookalike doing pelvic thrusts at the traffic signals for five rupees, a drag queen chasing a group of truant schoolboys in khaki pants and white button-down shirts. Dimpled women with bangled arms and bulging handbags haggling with cloth vendors, jean-clad girls smoking sheesha at a sidewalk café, and serene old men in white prayer caps emerging from the neighborhood mosque, falling in step with the endless crowd as the minarets gleamed above with the last rays of the sun in the dusty orange Lahore sky.
My parents were practicing Muslims, and religion was always an important part of my life. Like most Pakistani children, my sister and I learnt our obligatory Arabic prayers at the age of 7; I kept my first Ramadan fast when I was 10, bolting out of bed before dawn for a sublime sehri of parathas, spicy omelettes, and jalebi soaked in milk. By the time I was 13, I had read the Holy Qur’an twice over in Arabic, with Marmduke Pickthall’s beautifully gilded English translation.
But beyond that – beyond and before the ritual, or maddhab, as they say in Sufism, came the deen, the heart, the spirit of religion, which my parents instilled in us almost vehemently, and which to me was the true message of Islam – compassion, honesty, dignity and respect for our fellow human beings, and for every living creature on the planet.
So, while we as Pakistanis had our differences, and practiced our faith with varying tenor – some were more “conservative” than others, some more “liberal”, some women did hijab while others didn’t, some never touched alcohol while others were “social drinkers” – we were all Muslim, and nobody had the right or authority to judge the other, no red-bearded cleric or ranting mullah. There were no Taliban or mullahs back then; if they existed, we never saw them. Not on TV, not in the newspapers, not on the streets, in posters or banners or fearsome processions.
It wasn’t a perfect society – far from it. Inequality and abuses were rampant, and daily life for a poor person could be unbearable. But they were the kind of problems that every young, developing, post-colonial nation faced, and the worst thing that could happen to you when you stepped out of the house was a petty mugging or a road accident, not a suicide blast. It was chaotic, but it was sane.
Then 9/11 happened, and society as my generation knew it began to unravel.
It started as a reaction to the U.S.-led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, and the “clandestine” war in Pakistan – a reaction shared by Pakistanis across the social spectrum. But somewhere along the way, the anger and grief mutated into a suicidal monster of hatred, robed in religion and rooted in General Zia’s pseudo-Islamic dictatorship of the 1980’s and the U.S.-funded Afghan jihad. Pakistan was engulfed by a frenzy, an unspeakable frustration, not only at the neighboring war that had expanded into its heartland, but at everything that was wrong with the country itself. And, like the hysteria that fueled the Crusades or the 17th-cenutry Salem witch-hunt, religion was the most convenient metaphor.
I don’t claim to understand it all, or be able to explain it. But what I do know is that, alongside the two purported targets of the “War on Terror”, there is no greater victim of 9/11 than America’s indispensable, ever-“loyal” ally and doormat, Pakistan itself.
Maybe I’m romanticizing a little. Maybe I’m being over-nostalgic about the past, and the Pakistan of my childhood. But that’s the only way I can retain some affection for my country, the only way I can sustain the desire to go back and live there – if I know and remember in my heart, that it has been better. That it was not always like this. That it was once rich, multifaceted, beautiful, tolerant, sane – and can be again.
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.
Published on The Express Tribune Blog, September 14th 2010
Watching Pakistan’s Aisam-ul-Haq Qureshi almost win the Men’s Doubles Final at the US Open in New York – not a bad way to spend Eid.
Throw in a velvety lump of gulab jaman gratis the Bengali uncle at Spice Corner, beaming from behind the counter in an embroidered black kurta; some papery pista-encrusted bakhlava from the toothless Palestinian landlady, her troop of grandchildren hurtling through the building in a jumble of satin and plastic wands; and a cup of spongy ras malai from Curry in a Hurry, served by a waiter in a Jinnah cap with a retro Shahrukh Khan-Madhuri Dixit video playing on the TV – I’d say Eid was downright unforgettable.
We hadn’t planned on it. I was expecting it to be a pretty ordinary Friday, minus the 100-odd phonecalls to the 100-odd friends and family scattered across North America, an attempt to cook sheer khorma wearing gold bangles and a chiffon shalwar kameez that still smelt of neem leaves from my jahez trunk, followed by dinner at the Lebanese place down the street when my husband came home from work, and a two-person Eid jamaat in the living room, infused with jasmine incense for added effect.
But all that changed when Aisam Qureshi and his Indian partner Rohan Bopanna – nicknamed the Indo-Pak Express – zoomed into the US Open Men’s Doubles Final on Wednesday, September 8th, making history there and then as the first Pakistani to reach a Grand Slam Final, in the first major tournament that an Indian and Pakistani – sworn enemies from birth, some would have us believe – were playing on the same team.
I’m not a huge tennis fan, but when I read the news that night on my laptop, sitting in the blissful calm of our TV-less apartment, I made up my mind: “We have to go”. There were no two ways about it. We had to go support Aisam, even if we didn’t understand why the deuce the commentator kept saying “Laav” every two minutes.
24 hours, a Craigslist hunt, and a hotel lobby rendezvous later, we had four Friday tickets to Arthur Ashe Stadium in our hands and a breathless mixture of hope and disbelief in our hearts – What if they won? They had made it this far. Could it be? Could this historic India-Pakistan duo beat the Bryan Brothers, identical twins playing tennis together from the age of 2, with 65 Double’s Titles titles to their name ? Could Aisam be the hero and ambassador that Pakistan so desperately needed, in this her darkest of hours, on this blessed Eid day?
1:30pm, halfway through the second set, 4-4. We had gradually inched to the edge of our seats. Anything could happen now. I was trying to control the urge to holler a “Buck up Aisam buck uppppppp!”, an almost genetic reflex after a lifetime of cricket-watching – which, it turns out, is a very different experience from tennis-watching – but every so often a screeching “AiSaaAAAmmM!!!” would escape from our girly green corner, much to the horror of the surrounding goras.
We didn’t care. It was bad enough we had to forego the face-paint and gigantic flag in our hurry to catch the 7 train. Tennis needed some good old desi jazba.
I still wonder, if we had cheered a little louder, prayed a little stronger, would an invisible force have lifted up Aisam’s arm for that winning stroke?…
But though the Indo-Pak Express didn’t win the title, Aisam was still the hero. He was the hero in that 23,000-seat stadium, packed with Americans, a pocket of Indians and just a handful of Pakistanis, with his youthful smile, passionate smashes, an endearing hint of nervousness, and the heartfelt speech at the awards ceremony that brought everybody to their feet.
He was our Lahori boy who started playing tennis with his mother when he was 14 because it beat staying indoors doing homework.
He was a real guy. And he proved that with talent and hard work, you could get anywhere. More importantly, he showed to all Americans watching the game that day why Pakistan deserved respect – respect, and right now, more than ever, support. The Bryan Brothers have donated $5,000 to the Qureshi family’s relief fund for flood victims, and with Aisam in the limelight, one hopes that other athletes follow their example.
Thanking the Bryans for their donation, shouting out an Eid Mubarik to the crowd and a Happy Birthday to his sister back home, and expressing to America a simple message – “We want peace just as much as you do” – Aisam brought out the best of Pakistan.
It’s about piling up in the car for the annual visits to your endless roster of relatives, from Anarkali to Multan Road to the Gulberg III cemetery; the date brownies at your phuppo’s and the anday ka halwa at your khala’s, playing Taboo or Monopoly with your cousins till midnight or watching Michael Jackson videos on your chacha’s new TV system while the grown-ups laughed boomingly away in the drawing room, because no matter what you would always be eight years old in their eyes, and that was a great feeling.
I wasn’t with my parents this Eid, nor my cousins or khalas and khaloos, chachas and phuppos. Eid dinner consisted of my husband and I with a remotely-related United Nations-veteran New Yorker-aunt and a third cousin whom I had never met in my life, at a Chinese-Indian fusion restaurant on Lexington and 28th. Stir-fried bhindi and gobi manchurian.
But I was with family. It was Eid, I was a proud of Pakistan, and Aisam-ul-Haq Qureshi had waved at me. It was a good, good day.
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.
I listen to a lot of music – Dire Straits, The Beatles, Pink Floyd, U2, Led Zeppelin, Bob Dylan, Def Leppard, Michael Jackson, Bob Marley, Santana, Counting Crows, Lifehouse, Jason Mraz, Shakira…everything from classic rock to salsa, Celtic, Middle Eastern, West African, Native American…I have 26 Putumayo albums on my iTunes (thanks to you Urvi!), plus an illimitable collection of BBC World Music Award Winners from my days at FM91 in Lahore. I can sing along to almost all of them, in somewhat mangled Spanish, Turkish, Persian, Arabic, French, Wolof, a smattering of Mandarin.
It feels cool. It feels like you’re “a citizen of the world”.
Yet every so often, you feel a pang in your heart; a yearning, a hunger almost, to hear the sounds of your childhood, the rippling rhythm of the tongue your mother used to sing you to sleep, the hearty banter of shopkeepers and radio on the streets, the spirited voice of your jokes, your laughter, the stories you told each other during recess, no matter how much English they tried to hammer into you in class…
Wasn’t Dil Dil Pakistan the first song you ever knew the words to, in all its smooth-shaven, skinny-limbed, cableless-electric-guitar glory? The first crush you had Shehzad Roy – holay holay, mera dil ye dolay! – and the first concert you went to Strings or Awaz (ideally at Gaddafi Stadium, open-air!), armed with a cushion, waterbottle and a box of egg sandwiches, watching thousands of yellow flames bobbing in the darkness as you sung your heart out to Sar Kiye Ye Pahar or Ae Jawan?
Or the first time you danced at a mehndi, awkward pre-teen feet struggling to keep sync with hands, vowing there could be no song on the planet faster than Hawa Hawa!
How about that first time you heard qawwali, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan at Gymkhana, sitting on the carpets infront with your arms wrapped around two gow-takkias – precious booty at Gymkhana concerts – the uncles and aunties swaying in ecstacy, little black-kneed kids bouncing about on the stage, and your mouth agape at this great man’s phenomenal voice and size?
And, no matter who you were or where you lived, in the city, slum, village or mansion, or even in a 30-storey apartment building oceans away, didn’t your heart always beat a little faster, your eyes flash with an inner joy, at the chorus of Jazba Junoon?
Then, you grew older, tapes turned to CDs, and there was Noori, Atif Aslam, Fuzon, Strings reborn, strumming guitars under the bamboo shade at college, crooning Manwe Re and Aadat to pieces, “reporter” visits to Ali Noor’s house, ice cream with EP, peace concerts and an unfortettable birthday invite, setting eyes on the person you were going to marry in the backrows of a Junoon concert…
And, now? Now there’s Coke Studio.
Brainchild of ex-Vital Sign’s bandman Rohail Hyatt, the Coke Studio TV series started three years ago as a platform to bring together musicians of various genres from all over Pakistan, creating “a musical fusion of exciting elements and diverse influences, ranging from traditional eastern, modern western and regionally-inspired music.“
The result? Some absolutely incredible pieces of music, the kind of which I’ve never heard before (I’ve compiled some of my favourite performances from the past two seasons, plus the current season, on a YouTube Playlist). Most of the songs are very spiritual; in fact, Pakistani music, especially folk and classical, is inherently Sufi-istic, inspired by love and devotion and inspiring devotion in turn. For instance, Alif Allah, a collaboration between Arif Lohar, renowned Punjabi folk artist and perhaps the only person in the world who plays the chimta – tongs! – and Meesha Shafi, model-actress turned lead singer of goth-rock band Overload. Below is the original in Punjabi, with an English translation of the lyrics here.
Mera dil nahin avail-lable koi aur khat-khat-khataa!
One of the perks of being a “Cornell spouse” is uninhibited access to the university library. So, once every month, I descend into the stacks at Olin with an empty Jansport backpack, the bars on my cell phone dwindling with every step into that delicious musty labyrinth, to emerge a few hours later with books piled up to my chin, like the fat little mouse Gus in Disney’s Cinderalla and his teetering armload of cheese. Setting down my own bits of cheese on the circulation desk, I proudly flourish the shiny blue-and-white Cornell ID Card, and walk out with an immensely satisfied look on my face , 20 pounds worth of books pulling happily on my shoulders and many weeks of apple-pie reading ahead.
The book I just finished is Daniyal Mueenuddin’s “In Other Rooms, Other Wonders”, a collection of short stories about Pakistan. I had heard about Mueenuddin – praise for the most part, from friends, and a cousin who knew him personally – but for some reason I hadn’t been particularly motivated to read his book, until prompted by a certain Bangladeshi friend from Berkeley. I had been in the middle of a book of short stories by Rabindranath Tagore when I messaged him: “Have you read these? They’re incredible! So witty, wise, sad, ironic..” I raved, and to my surprise he replied: “No, actually I haven’t read any of his stories. But have you read Daniyal Mueenuddin?”
One cannot compare the two at any rate – Tagore is a giant, a saint, a genius – but it suddenly struck me that all this time I had unconsciously been avoiding Pakistan writers. I think the last Pakistani novel I’d read was Kartography, or Moth Smoke – years and years ago. I don’t know why I’d been ignoring them, especially considering that there were just a handful. Perhaps it was my conception of books as windows to other worlds – other times, histories, cultures, people, different and fascinating – and Pakistan was all too familiar.
But Mueenuddin’s stories left me puzzled, stunned – I knew as little about the world he described as I knew about Naguib Mahfouz’s Cairo or Tagore’s rural Bengal. Nawabdin electrician, Saleema, Zainab, Rezak – all these people were alien to me, foreigners, their private lives detached from mine by an invisible wall. Of course I knew people like them – we kept servants at home, like any well-off Pakistani family, and most of them came from the villages surrounding Lahore. But I really knew nothing about them, the cook, the maid, the chowkidaar, the sweepress, the driver, all the people who worked in my house; I knew nothing beyond the rudiments, the apparent facts. I liked to think that I was friends with the maidservants, those pretty, smiling young girls who washed and pressed my clothes and dusted my room everyday; at least I had every intention to be friendy. But would I ever know what they really thought about me, or any of us, what they said to each other in the confidence of the kitchen, the one space in the entire two-storey house that belonged to them? Could one of them be a Saleema, could my cook be a Hassan, could the driver be having an affair with the sweepress half his age? In our house?
It was unimaginable. These ideas had never occured to me, till very recently, when my mother – obviously privy to all the servants’ politics – started to discuss them with me and my sister, suddenly deciding that we were “old” enough. I think it happened when that new maid was hired, the 21- year old widow (so she told us) whom my sister and I nicknamed “Pocahontas” at first sight, so tall, golden and raven-haired she was. After the first few days of feverish excitement among the male servants – all married – the burly cook huffingly announced to my mother that the girl had to be dismissed, she “wasn’t right”. Sahi nahin hai baji. That was all he said. My mother, with her calm, instinctive wisdom, understood everything. She later told us that the young widow apparently had a habit of parading topless on the terrace of the servants’ quarters, causing quite a commotion, and not one slip-up – including the grumpy cook and even one of the neighbor’s kitchen boys. I will never forget my initial shock and disbelief. “These things happen, Minu,” my mother had said in her soothing way, half-amused at my incredulity.
Of course these things happen. Mueenuddin’s stories revealed that secret world for me. And when he wrote of K.K. Harouni in his attitude towards his servants’ personal lives, “He didn’t particularly care one way or the other, except that it touched on his comfort”, I realized that it was, more or less, painfully true.
But I understand even less about the “other” world – K.K. Harouni’s, Sohail’s or Lily’s, or any of the wealthy people in Mueenuddin’s book. I’m not like them. We’re not like them. My family doesn’t own apartments in London or Paris, my father has never touched alcohol, my mother doesn’t wear saris or grape-sized emeralds in her ears everyday, we don’t socialize with people called “Mino” or “Bumpy”, neither have we ever hosted Tsunami-themed parties with artificial beaches in the lawn, or been invited to one – thank God for that. We know who these people are – in our family we call them the “filthy rich”. Perhaps my father is acquainted with some of them through work, we see them at weddings and other big events, and in the social pages of the Sunday magazines. But there’s is a separate universe. Reading about them in Mueenuddin’s book, I found myself shocked once more. Ecstacy? Getting drunk on bootlegged alcohol, sleeping around? In Pakistan?? How little I knew! How naive I was! Were there only three kinds of Pakistanis then, the struggling, servile poor, the opportunisitic middle-class like Husna and Jaglani, and the hedonistic elites? Where did my family fit in?
I grew up in inviolable purity. In retrospect, I think it almost hilarious, how little I knew of anything – I can just hear my best friend Zohra laughing delightedly at my scandalized face at some story or other – but I treasure that. I value that, I wouldn’t call it ignorance, but security, that preservation of my inner child. Little things, tiny things, inconsequential for some people maybe; not knowing the smell of alcohol, for instance, till I was a 23-year old graduate student at Berkeley, passing through the dorm to my room on a Saturday night; never having been on a “date” with anyone but my fiance (now husband); still shy of wearing a sleeveless kameez infront of the family elders. The possibility of premarital sex did not exist – the idea of sex itself was, for the longest time, something mysterious, slightly embarrasing, and not particularly fascinating. Outside of marriage, it was an impossibility. It was not only because of our Muslim upbringing, but my personal beliefs, as they evolved with age; grounded in Islam, nourished by the various volumes of Sufi poetry scattered about the house, shaped into an intimate, spiritual, almost mystical view of life that I carry with me everywhere.
I remember how upset I was when some of my friends started smoking in high school – a habit I still dislike but have grown to tolerate, with a roll of my eyes and half- laughing censure. I’ve accepted many other things since then – have “grown up”, though somewhat unwillingly. I am not one to judge anybody, not people from other societies and cultures nor fellow Pakistanis. And yet, my heart is still floating in that prism – sepia-tinted, “old-fashioned”, you might call it – where there is nothing sordid, no taint or speck to marr its clear beauty. Loyalty, fidelity and honesty are things you take for absolute granted; there is no other way to speak to a servant but with the utmost respect, even more than you give your parents; and there is was no other way to look upon your parents but with love, understanding and forbearance, even if you feel angry or wronged. You can go bury your face in the pillow or brood for an hour in your bedroom, but to raise your voice, to actually “fight” or quarrel with them? It never crossed our minds. I tremble at the thought.
As I finished reading “In Other Rooms, Other Wonders”, with a strangely sad feeling in my stomach, and tears for the “Spoiled Man” Rezak welling up in my eyes – my favourite story in the book – I thought, “This is a depressing country, this country of ours.” These were tragic stories, with no real faith, comfort or redemption for any of the characters, the peasant woman or the feudal lord. Their lives seemed empty, hollow, unfulfilled.
But that is not the Pakistan I know. It is not my Pakistan.
One day I’ll write a story about the Pakistani life I knew – a beautiful life, with its share of ordinary family problems, but beautiful, and wholesome, spirited, and simple. One day I’ll write a story about my family, the poets, lawyers, doctors, artists and engineers, never poor, never too rich, and in my memory never anything but upright, dignified in everything they did. That is the only way I saw them, and that is all I knew.
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
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”.
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.