Published in Pakistan’s “Women’s Own” Magazine, October 2010
I’m sitting cross-legged on the dark brown laminate floor of our 3rd storey brownstone apartment in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn. To my right is a mound of tools – staple gun, drill, screwdrivers, pliers, nails, measuring tape, paintbrushes, and a number of pointy objects I can’t identify – and to my left, a mountain of half-opened boxes, bags and suitcases. Infront of me is the ustad – my husband – wearing paint-splattered khaki shorts and a white t-shirt, mounted on a step-ladder and swiping the bedroom wall with strong strokes of a roller brush soaked in “Kabuki Clay” – a rich, creamy white paint that looks so MilkPak delicious I’ve been tempted more than once to dip my finger in for a taste. “No, you can’t eat it,” my better half repeats with inexhaustible patience. He looks pretty good, I think. The rugged workman look, stubble, smeared forearms and all.
I on the other hand look like a complete bum. Not the cool dreadlocked guitar-toting kind of Berkeley and Ithaca – my two former domiciles – but the true urban homeless, the kind who sleep on subways, scour through trash cans, trundle around with empty shopping carts, and invariably miss a few teeth. OK, maybe not exactly, but I think my dirt-streaked face, faded blue jeans ripped quite naturally at the knees, musty red rag-of-a-t-shirt with a mournful-looking Batman printed at the front (the kind they call “vintage”), spots of dry paint on my calves, toes, fingers, fingernails, forehead, hair – which currently sits in a chaotic jumble on the top of my head – are enough to earn me a kindly quarter from a passerby, or even a Central Park bench spot.
“Four days ago, I would’ve died before I let you see me like this,” I joke with my husband-of-nine-months. But appearances stop mattering pretty quickly when you’re moving house, living out of a single duffel bag, subsisting on bread and cereal, sleeping on the floor surrounded by paint cans, scrubbing bathroom tiles, carrying a 70 pound flatscreen TV up three flights of stairs, and whatever kajal you’re wearing melts away like candlewax in the fanless stillness of a New York June afternoon, leaving unflattering gray streaks in its wake…
But, here we are – our new home! Or at least the four walls, slowly colouring up and being adopted as our own. Bed, dressing table, sofa, kitchen cabinets….all afterthoughts. They’ll follow in due time. Meanwhile, I’m already in love with the leafy elm tree outside the living room window, the peeping spires of a nearby Greek cathedral, and the rows and rows of slender redbrick buildings, framed with terraces and ivy and windows, rows and rows of windows, like a beehive, a kaleidoscope of lives. I’m beginning to discover for the first time the guilty city-pleasure of observing neighbors through my window – what they’re watching on TV, the colour of their walls and curtains, who they have over for tea, coffee or lemonade, whatever their cultural preference. I also love our landlady, a sweet old Palestinian grandma as white and delicate as a cream puff. She sweeps the backyard every morning in her black embroidered thob, spends the afternoons with her “cousins” around the block, and sits on the porch in the evening sipping mint shai with the Moroccan neighbours. She knows maybe 10 words of English (including “crook”), and breaks into a melodious stream of Arabic the moment she sees our faces. To date, she has six grown-up American-accented children, who all seem to live nearby but keep appearing at the building every other day. I suspect she has more, because I’ve seen letters in the mailbox addressed to other people with the same last name (nosy, I know, but I can’t help it!). I think I’ll just ask her one of these days – when I go to call on her, officially, carrying a pot of biryani or gajar ka halwa, some deliciously impressive Pakistani dish (cooked over the phone with my mom’s instructions), my 30 words of Arabic, and my own first name – from experience, the surest way into an Arab’s heart!
How we found this apartment is another story altogether. Let’s just say that after ten days of Craigslisting, emailing, subway-hopping, borough-crossing, handshaking, trickster agents and sore feet, from Gramercy to East Harlem to Clinton Hill, Bushwick, Jersey City and Jackson Heights, from hoods to dens to beaver hats, the one question that we asked ourselves was: “Could we bring our parents to this place?” I mean, if you’re going to live 6,000 miles away from home, family and every imaginable comfort, it better not be underneath a phaatak or graffitied expressway, above a Liberty Market-esque kids’ clothing store with sugar-pink jumpers in the display, or a scene that inspired George Orwell’s Victory Mansions.
So, Cobble Hill won, with its Thai and Mexican restaurants, Chinese laundromats, 24-hour Arab-owned delis, Cuban musicians, Indian policemen, British bankers, thrift stores, designer boutiques and fresh fruit markets, moms, nannies and stroller-babies, yuppies, hippies and hipsters, English on the street in twenty different accents – all the things that make New York special. There’s a lot to be done of course – painting’s just the start! – and I’m reminded of my mother and father, at the time we were building our own house in Defence, Lahore. The interminable haggling with the contractor, the spectrum of paint samples on the wall, endless trips to Casa Bella and Barry’s for upholstery fabric, Bajwa’s for lights, Ferozepur Road for tiles and bathroom fixtures, my sister and I grumpily trailing behind after school in our dusty blue-and-white checked uniforms. My mother was a natural at it; colours, textures and the arrangement of things came effortlessly to her. I don’t know if my design sense is as instinctive, though I’d like to think that I’ve imbibed at least a little. You can decide next month, once we get to the Architectural Digest Before & After stage!
Uh-oh. I was just in the kitchen putting together some sandwiches for dinner, and I opened the oven, where I had stored some extra plates, and a scream escaped from my throat as a pair of beady black eyes met mine…it seems, to quote Agent Mulder, “We are not alone”!
Or, as any veteran New Yorker would say, “Welcome to New York!”
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.
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.