New York

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

Posted on

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

Dear readers,

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

Hugs,

Manal

 

Advertisements

Thoughts on Moving Back to Pakistan

Posted on Updated on

Published in the Express Tribune Blog, May 21st 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My favourite things to do on a blustery winter day

Posted on Updated on

Last Saturday’s aberrant snowstorm notwithstanding, I love winter. I think it’s because of my predisposition to piping hot sweets and cuddly sweaters – no sooner does the air get that dash of crispness, and the first faded leaf twitters to the ground, that I wake up with a craving for warm apple pie and an urge to order ten new turtle-necks from the Land’s End catalogue.

Here are some of my favourite things to do during a freak snowstorm, or on a particularly chilly winter day, best enjoyed from your apartment window with a steaming mug of tea or coffee, watching the flakes drift down and gather at the pane, like little Kay in the The Snow Queen. What are some of yours?

  • Knitting

My goal is to be at least half as good a knitter as Naani, my maternal grandmother was, from whom I learnt my first slip-knot at age 8, and my other grandma, Aunty Z, who re-introduced me to this meditative woolly pleasure at age 25. They were true maestras, these women, with every little sweater knitted for a grandchild a timeless work of art. I’m just a beginner, at the oh-no-I-dropped-a-stitch scarf-mode, but hopefully I’ll get  somewhere near them one day!

An in-progress reversible cabled scarf I'm knitting for my sister
Z, wearing the double-ribbed scarf I made for him last winter
  • Baking / Desserts

I’ve always liked making desserts, and I like to eat them even more. Since coming to America, though, I’ve been spoiled by Keebler pie crusts and Pillsbury and Trader Joe’s baking mixes. But sometimes, you just need to sink your teeth into a crispy, flaky, butter-glazed, hand-kneaded pie crust.

Gooey, tart, crisp apple pie...taste-bud heaven / Source: Wikipedia

You can’t do the short-cut with halvas. The penultimate Pakistani dessert, rich, velvety, sinfully sweet, synonymous with winter in my hometown Lahore – I can just smell the ghee and milk, the brown sugar, the cardamoms, saffron, almonds, carrots, semolina or chickpeas, depending on what kind of halva my mum was making that day, simmering for hours on the stove…I’ve yet to muster the courage to cook one of these on my own!

Piping hot, silky sweet Sooji ka Halva...drool / Source: Mammus Kitchen
  • Reading

This is, of course, one of the most enjoyable activities ever at any time of the day, any day of the year, but even more so on a day when you just want to wrap yourself up in a soft hand-me-down blanket  and not move. Not move, not think, just lose yourself in some fantastic world, centuries away, meandering and mysterious, rife with kings, queens, heroes, romance, magic…The Arabian Nights, The Lord of the Rings, The Alchemist, and fairytales of any kind rank high on my list. Current favourite is Samarkand by Amin Maalouf, a plum of cocoon-reading if there ever was one!

  • Origami

I bought an Origami Suncatchers Kit from Barnes & Noble on an impulse, and spent the next one week bent over a coffee table strewn with colourful glazed paper, glue and fishing string. Z would find me in the exact same position every time he came home from work – the house fell into a state of neglect, dinner was reduced to pita and hummus, episodes of the Colbert Report backed up…and voila! The prettiest things to have come out of a thoroughly home-bound day :)

  • Board Games

Maybe my 25+ friends think I’m geeky for still obsessing about board games, but I don’t care! It’s my dream to have a whole store of them one day, and host extravagant board game bashes every weekend. Can there be a better way to pass time with people on a blustery winter day? The blizzard would long be over before someone declared victory in Monopoly or Catan, and you’d look out of the window and say, “Hey, when did it stop snowing?” Such is the beauty of board games.

Collection in process

That’s one thing I miss about living in a dorm – willing game players were never in short supply. And what I miss even more are those nippy evenings in Lahore, when the whole troop of cousins would gather in front of a gas heater at our grandparent’s or eldest aunt’s house every Sunday for a religious contest of Ludo, Carom, Cluedo, PayDay, and as we got older, Pictionary, Tabboo, Cranium…

An intense 5-hour game of Monopoly in Ithaca

Well, stay warm, and enjoy your winter, folks! :)

Occupy Wall Street

Posted on Updated on

Occupy Wall Street protesters rally in Lower Manhattan - Getty Images

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

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

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

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

Photo: Civilian News

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

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

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

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

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

Photo: Getty Images

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

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

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

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

My Top 8 Outdoor Adventures

Posted on Updated on

“I’m a synchronized-swimming, yoga-doing, horseback-riding, wall-climbing type of girl. My hand-eye coordination is zero.”

– Mia Thermopolis in “The Princess Diaries”

I was never very sporty as a kid. In fact, I dreaded Games period at school, when we’d be forced to wear those awful dust-blue track suits and pummel each other in Netball matches. I was also quite lazy, and always looked for opportunities to get by in a game of KhoKho or Cricket with the least amount of movement (hitting chaukas and chakkas was my specialty). Swimming was the only sport I enjoyed at school – maybe because I could do it solo, without depending on or being depended on by anyone. I suppose it’s not the kind of thing you’d mention in a job application, the apathy for competitive, coordinated team sports. But I just wasn’t into it.

Years after resigning to my regrettable un-athleticness, I discovered that there did exist physical activities that people like me were actually good at – “adventure sports”! I think it was that first rock climbing-cliff diving-caving trip to Khanpur with the LUMS Adventure Society in Pakistan that sparked it off – and, I’m happy to report, I’ve never looked back :)

Here’s a list of my 8 most memorable adventure sport experiences…hopefully many more to come!

  • Hiking / Camping
Hiking through Harriman State Park, New Jersey
Our campsite at Pine Meadow Lake, Harriman State Park
Our campsite at Pine Meadow Lake, Harriman State Park
  • Horseback Riding
Getting on my horse Mariposa in Arenal, Costa Rica
Riding 2 hours through Costa Rican countryside
  • Rock Climbing
d
Rock climbing in the Adirondack Mountains, New York
Hi down there!
  • Skiing

(I don’t have any pictures of me actually skiing, but here’s the beautiful place we went to!)

Mallamjabba Ski Resort in Swat, Pakistan
Ski slope
  • Snorkeling
On the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica
Angelfish at the Cahuita coral reef, Costa Rica
  • Zip-lining 
Canopy Tour in Selvatura National Park, Costa Rica
Riding on a 1km-long cable 500 ft above the Monteverde Cloud Forest!
  • White Water Rafting
On the Pacuare River in Costa Rica
Class III-IV Rapids!
  • Skydiving
Parachuting down after the freefall at the Long Island Skydiving Center, New York
Strapped on to my instructor, with the whole of Long Island below us!

The Freedom To Be

Posted on Updated on

Published in the Express Tribune Blog, October 4th 2011

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

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

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

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

But there was one thing.

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

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

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

It was the freedom to be. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why? Because that’s how things were.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lingering Fragrance

Posted on Updated on

She needed some green in her apartment.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Suddenly, she’s not in Brooklyn.

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

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

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

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

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