Is there a Pakistan to go back to?

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Resting by the Kunhar River near Balakot, Kaghan

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”…

A place where a governor can be assassinated because he defended the victim of an unjust law, and his killer hailed as a “hero” by religious extremists and educated lawyers alike…

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.

Our impromptu guide in Lahore's Old City

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.

Badshahi Mosque, Lahore

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.

Freshly fried, sticky hot delicious jalebi

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.

Winds

A Lazy Friday Afternoon

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OK, so its not topped with whipped cream and chocolate flakes. But it tastes so good!

Ah, that blissful in-between-jobs limbo! With my three-month HuffPost stint come to an end,  an exciting news fellowship starting next week, and a much anticipated trip to the homeland in February, I couldn’t be a happier house elf this bright white new year. I wake up, make myself a cup of coffee on my Black & Decker coffee machine – a gift from my lovable Toronto aunt – butter up a slice of toast, and settle down in front of the laptop to catch up with friends on Skype, alternating between “French Lessons with Michel Thomas” and “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” on iTunes, with an hour of Democracy Now! during lunch, and, some more coffee.

You see, I’ve become somewhat of a coffee addict (that, and The Office). I think it’s since I started popping illachi or green cardammon pods into the water to boil (a cue from the Palestinian landlady) – I just can’t seem to get enough of that aromatic zing. Toss in a spoonful of cocoa and a pinch of ground cinnamon, and you have the most delish mug of coffee you’ll never get from an overpriced cafe.

My one slice of gooey goodness

Today at my afternoon coffee break, I had a sudden craving for apple pie. Warm gooey apple pie. Grandma Ople’s apple pie, with oodles of cinnamon. There was only one Granny Smith apple in the fridge. So, did I swathe on my winter armour and trudge to the grocery store to buy more apples?

No. I’m not mad. I just made myself one slice of pie.

It was rather tricky, scaling down the ingredients from a recipe for 8 (1/4th of an egg, anyone?). But I patched something together, somehow, and it turned out – well, not exactly ravishing, but still quite yummy.

All in all, a perfectly comfy Friday. There is something so comforting about coffee, apple pie, and watching the snow drift down endlessly from the sky. Enough to make you forget about the troubles of the day, and those on a distant shore – if only for the moment.

Published in Sanctum!

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

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

Knock, and you shall enter

Warmly Winter

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

It’s finally happened.

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

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

Yes, Mama Jama the landlady brought us dinner!

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

home-made-gulloos-complete-with-shredded-coconut.jpg
Homemade Gulloos

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

I was just being neighbourly.

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

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

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

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

rock-climbing-in-central-park.jpg
Rock climbing in Central Park

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

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

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

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

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

With family in Lahore in the beloved brown shawls

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

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

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

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

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

Aung San Suu Kyi Released

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Aung San Suu Kyi

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

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

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

Travel Slideshows

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Achelya, friend!

Here are some of the slidehsows I’ve been working on since I joined the Huffington Post as a Travel intern. No traveling myself yet – at least physically! – but I have been learning a whole lot about the world, and getting a million more ideas about places to go and things to do. Oh, world, you’re just too vast and beautiful and interesting for one lifetime!

Deep in the Hindu Kush mountains of northwest Pakistan lies the remote and picturesque Chitral Valley – home of Tirich Mir, the 14th-highest peak in the world (25,550 ft), and of the legendary pagan tribe Kalash.

With more than 110 peaks that rise over roughly 22,965 feet, the Himalayas are the longest, highest mountain range on earth. They straddle a mighty 1,500 mile-long swath across Nepal, Bhutan, Tibet, India and Pakistan, and are home to 9 of the world’s tallest peaks, including Mount Everest.

We love places of worship – their grandeur, their peacefulness, their architectural beauty. We especially admire mosques. Here’s our pick of 24 beautiful mosques, from Morocco to Malaysia, which reflect the great cultural diversity of the Muslim world.

Monasticism is an important institution in many religions, especially Buddhism and Christianity. In part for defense, and in part to facilitate the process of detachment from worldly concerns, monasteries were often built in highly remote and inaccessible areas.

On the dusty, noisy, chicken-crossing streets outside Accra, the capital of the English-speaking West African country of Ghana, a tribe called the Ga is making its name in the business of coffins. The coffins come in a variety of shapes and sizes, from cars to Coke bottles and cell phones.

Imagine a time and place when a yellow cab, car or train wasn’t the only way you could get from point A to point B… Bikes in Beijing, gondolas in Venice. But outdoor elevators in Chile? Giant plastic balls in New Zealand, art-on-wheels in Pakistan?

Living in New York City, with its endless jungle of gray skyscrapers, even a patch of blue sky from the office window is enough to make our day. Imagine living in one of these 15 stunning towns and cities, where at every turn you’re met with a wondrous explosion of color!

The world is full of breathtaking mountains, pristine valleys, thundering rivers and waterfalls – and what better way to explore these scenic locales than on a raft?

Which one of us hasn’t dreamed of living in a castle, a tree-house or a hobbit hole as a child? We dream of it still! And though many of us eventually settle for regular (rectangular) homes and condos, some adventurous people out there just go ahead and build what they dream.

Ever wonder how it would feel to jump from a plane 13,000 feet in the air?Terrifying, yes – but also inexplicably exhilarating, tiny and powerful at the same time. And the vision: you couldn’t be the same person after diving down the highest peaks in the world, or beholding a bird’s-eye view of the Great Barrier Reef.


The Third World Burden

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Published in The Express Tribune Blog, November 9th 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But you know what? Sometimes I faked it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

California Dreaming

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

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

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

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

The Golden Gate Bridge at sunset, from Berkeley

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

the happy chinese baba on telegraph and bancroft
The Happy Man

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

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

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

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

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

Heaven!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Different Sort of Eid

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Published on The Express Tribune Blog, September 14th 2010
Arthur Ashe Stadium, Queens

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?

Long live Craigslist (and Mr. Bridgham)

Indo-Pak Express, lower right, in action

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.

Green Team

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?…

Probably not.

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.

Our champions! Qureshi (L), Bopanna (R)
What is Eid about? Contrary to my childhood convictions, it’s not about eidi; it’s not about  new clothes or food either. It’s not even about giving or sharing, though that comes pretty close.
I’ve realized that Eid is about family. It’s about the 3x hugs, the smell of roses and frankincense, and the crisp whiteness of everything, from your dad’s kurta to the new tablecloth to the grin on the face of  the cook’s 6-year old son and the milky sweetness of your mother’s superb sheer khorma.

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.

Where True Loves Goes

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I’ve been quite busy lately, busy in the New York City-sense; people to meet, appointments to keep, errands to run, trains to catch, jobs to apply to, dinners to cook, articles to write, phonecalls to make, weekend outings to plan, budgets to organize; always something pending, something due, a task unfinished. 

And so the week  flashes by, one after another, and I feel a kind of restlessness, a kind of purposelessness, though everything is, yes, going well, as it should be, and I haven’t the slightest remotest obscurest reason to complain.

And then, on a day off from work, all alone in my apartment, the sun beating down on the windows, the fans whirring ceaselessly, a dozen Word documents and Internet Explorer windows staring at me from my laptop,  my mind zig-zagging between Skype, G-Chat, Facebook, Google, past and future, I hear the opening bars of this song on my iTunes, from the 2006 album “Another Cup” by the ever-beloved Yusuf Islam/Cat Stevens

…and I flip open a page from the hardbound copy of Khalil Gibran’s “The Prophet” lying on the mantelpiece, a gift from two kindred spirits…

And I am calmed, soothed, revived.

Here’s to following true love, laughing all our laughter and weeping all our tears, and finding joy in the dew of little things.

_____________________________

Love

Then said Almitra, “Speak to us of Love.”
And he raised his head and looked upon the people, and there fell a stillness upon them.
And with a great voice he said:

When love beckons to you follow him,
Though his ways are hard and steep.
And when his wings enfold you yield to him,
Though the sword hidden among his pinions may wound you.

And when he speaks to you believe in him,
Though his voice may shatter your dreams as the north wind lays waste the garden.
For even as love crowns you so shall he crucify you. Even as he is for your growth so is he for your pruning.
Even as he ascends to your height and caresses your tenderest branches that quiver in the sun,
So shall he descend to your roots and shake them in their clinging to the earth.

Like sheaves of corn he gathers you unto himself.
He threshes you to make you naked.
He sifts you to free you from your husks.
He grinds you to whiteness.
He kneads you until you are pliant;
And then he assigns you to his sacred fire, that you may become sacred bread for God’s sacred feast.

All these things shall love do unto you that you may know the secrets of your heart, and in that knowledge become a fragment of Life’s heart.

But if in your fear you would seek only love’s peace and love’s pleasure,
Then it is better for you that you cover your nakedness and pass out of love’s threshing-floor,
Into the seasonless world where you shall laugh, but not all of your laughter, and weep, but not all of your tears.

Love gives naught but itself and takes naught but from itself.
Love possesses not nor would it be possessed;
For love is sufficient unto love.

When you love you should not say, “God is in my heart,” but rather, I am in the heart of God.”
And think not you can direct the course of love, if it finds you worthy, directs your course.

Love has no other desire but to fulfil itself.
But if you love and must needs have desires, let these be your desires:
To melt and be like a running brook that sings its melody to the night.
To know the pain of too much tenderness.
To be wounded by your own understanding of love;
And to bleed willingly and joyfully.

To wake at dawn with a winged heart and give thanks for another day of loving;
To rest at the noon hour and meditate love’s ecstasy;
To return home at eventide with gratitude;
And then to sleep with a prayer for the beloved in your heart and a song of praise upon your lips.

________________________

Marriage

Then Almitra spoke again and said, “And what of Marriage, master?”
And he answered saying:

You were born together, and together you shall be forevermore.
You shall be together when white wings of death scatter your days.
Aye, you shall be together even in the silent memory of God.

But let there be spaces in your togetherness,
And let the winds of the heavens dance between you.

Love one another but make not a bond of love:
Let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls.

Fill each other’s cup but drink not from one cup.
Give one another of your bread but eat not from the same loaf.

Sing and dance together and be joyous, but let each one of you be alone,
Even as the strings of a lute are alone though they quiver with the same music.

Give your hearts, but not into each other’s keeping.
For only the hand of Life can contain your hearts.

And stand together, yet not too near together:
For the pillars of the temple stand apart,
And the oak tree and the cypress grow not in each other’s shadow.

__________________

Friendship

And a youth said, “Speak to us of Friendship.”

Your friend is your needs answered.
He is your field which you sow with love and reap with thanksgiving.
And he is your board and your fireside.
For you come to him with your hunger, and you seek him for peace.

When your friend speaks his mind you fear not the “nay” in your own mind, nor do you withhold the “ay.”
And when he is silent, your heart ceases not to listen to his heart;

For without words, in friendship, all thoughts, all desires, all expectations are born and shared, with joy that is unacclaimed.

When you part from your friend, you grieve not;
For that which you love most in him may be clearer in his absence, as the mountain to the climber is clearer from the plain.

And let there be no purpose in friendship save the deepening of the spirit.
For love that seeks aught but the disclosure of its own mystery is not love but a net cast forth: and only the unprofitable is caught.

And let your best be for your friend.
If he must know the ebb of your tide, let him know its flood also.

For what is your friend that you should seek him with hours to kill?
Seek him always with hours to live.
For it is his to fill your need, but not your emptiness.

And in the sweetness of friendship let there be laughter, and sharing of pleasures.
For in the dew of little things the heart finds its morning, and is refreshed.