When in America, do as the Americans don’t

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I wrote this piece for a class on Immigration Reporting at Journalism School last March, right before I left for Spain to film a short documentary about Pakistani immigrants in Barcelona.  

Identity is such a fluid thing – parts of it change every time you move, make new friends, do something different in life – and parts of it are simply unalterable. I can’t say I feel exactly the same now as I did when I wrote this, but it was a very strange and interesting part of my life, shared I think by many Pakistanis studying or living abroad.

Published in The Express Tribune Blog, August 25th 2010
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Rediscovering nationality in the melting pot

MANAL AHMAD, PAKISTAN: I was spring-cleaning my laptop a few days ago when I came across these two pictures. Normally, I wouldn’t have even noticed them, buried in virtual stack-loads on my hard drive, the blessing and bane of digital photography. But, my general sense of awareness about “culture” and “identity” somewhat heightened of late, I paused to look, and was struck by the utter incongruity of it all. Not just the photographs, but of myself – in Pakistan, an English-sprouting, skinny-jean-wearing junk-food-eating, American Idol-watching “Westerner”, and in America, a jingly, jangly, Urdu-priding, chai-chugging, public transport-taking “Pakistani”.

 manal_double

I moved to California from Pakistan in 2007 to start graduate school at UC Berkeley. Though I had come as a student, I experienced much of what a new immigrant experiences – curiosity, bewilderment, loneliness, discrimination, independence, and – unexpectedly enough – a conscious need to re-affirm my “identity”. During the 22 years I lived in Pakistan, this had only occurred to me on a handful of occasions – cricket matches against India, for example, or when the enormous green-and-white flags appeared on 14th August, Independence Day, only to disappear a day later.

At the upper-class, English-medium, private university in Lahore I attended for my Bachelor’s, there was a course called “Pakistan Studies: Culture & Heritage” that we were required to take before graduating. Ironically, it is in this class that we were thoroughly “de-nationalized”. In this class, taught by a radical Marxist Yale-educated professor, we learnt there was no such thing as a “Pakistani”.

Then what was Pakistan? Little more than a project of India’s Muslim intellectuals, feudal elite and the British colonial government. The very concept of “nation-state” was foreign to the Indian subcontinent; it was forced upon us by the British, and Pakistan was the direct result. At independence in 1947, less than 10% of the people in Pakistan actually spoke Urdu, the national language; most spoke regional languages like Punjabi, Sindhi, or – Bengali! Yes, because Bangladesh used to be a part of Pakistan, until it seceded in 1971, which of course didn’t do much for consolidating our national identity.

Add to that the fact of the vast economic disparity in the country, 6th most populous in the world, where 1/4th of the people live below the poverty line and 54% have no basic education – I, who started learning English at age 4 and grew up watching Disney cartoons, had a computer at home ever since I can remember, ate out with friends every weekend at American Pizza Huts dressed in jeans and cute tops because that’s what was cool and shalwar kameez was something only our mothers wore or we kept for formal occasions – I was obviously the exception.

That is not to say I didn’t enjoy my culture, as I knew it. I loved it, yes; I loved my traditional embroidery, the block-print and mirror-work, the silver jewelry. I loved my home-cooked food, the grand weddings, the Mughal architecture, Ramadan and Eid, sufi-rock; but I loved it, like a visitor, like a curious traveler, collecting souvenirs, taking pictures. Pakistan was a colorful, exotic TV series, which I could switch on whenever I wanted, and switch off whenever the beggars and child laborers and hungry people came on.

My world was very different. Did I really know anything beyond it? No.

Then, I came to America, the place where what little “nationality” I had might have melted away completely. But quite the opposite happened.

I remember the funny warm feeling I got when I saw the first restaurant sign that said “Pakistani cuisine” in Berkeley (later to discover that desi or South Asian food was a local favorite and that there were hundreds of such restaurants all over the Bay Area). “Hey, that’s my place!” I would think with pride, and proudly order in Urdu, and tell him to make it extra spicy, because of course that’s what I was used to. I would stare at the food, my food, that all these foreigners, these Americans seemed to enjoy so much, mystified at the sight of them eating with their hands, tearing the naan into morsels and scooping up the bhindi or aaloo gobi – food so utterly commonplace that you couldn’t find it at even a roadside stall back in Lahore.

I felt a surge of joy at taxi rides, when I would invariably get a Pakistani or Indian driver (yes, Indian counted too, but that’s another complex affinity, another story). I would invariably smile at any man or woman I passed who looked desi to me – maybe I would talk to them at the bus stop or in a store – and how thrilled I was if they understood Urdu!

Perhaps the most bizarre thing was paying $20 to dance bhangra at a San Francisco club called “Rickshaw Stop”. A bhangra club? That didn’t make any sense! Bhangra was what guys did. They did it at weddings to live drummers, or in Punjabi music videos, or in the villages. You didn’t dance bhangra for any other reason. And how would a girl dance bhangra in the first place? Why would you ever even need a lesson in bhangra? It was all too confusing.

But when I saw what it was all about, I realized with a start: this was as much foreign to me as to everyone else in that room. This was bhangra? This incredible complicated sweaty aerobic choreographed performance that all these goras (literally, “white people”, but meaning any Westerner) seemed to be enjoying out of their minds?

Well, I decided I wanted in – I decided that this was mine, it was mine to own, it was Pakistani, and I could do it better than any of these goras because this is what we did back in Pakistan, didn’t we? And everyone believed me.

Why did I need to re-affirm my difference, my uniqueness, my identity in the melting pot? Why did I feel more Pakistani in America? I don’t really know. Is it because in this country, “ethnicness” is generally prized, coveted, glorified? Or, as a human being, you struggle to identify with a group because you find strength in groups, so you meet, talk to and befriend people you may never even have acknowledged back home – just for the color of their passport? Is that hypocrisy?

In Pakistan, I would never talk to my cab driver. I’ve never dream of taking a cab in Pakistan by myself. But here – it is a bonding experience. Here, I trust a desi cab driver over all others. He might have been a criminal back home, for all I know. But in America, it doesn’t matter. We are the same.

And sometimes I find myself thinking – if all Pakistanis moved to the U.S., we might actually be a nation – a much better nation! We would work hard, we wouldn’t have to bribe or take bribes to make our way in life, and we could communicate with each other, without suspicion or pretense or awkward social barriers.

But the question is, is it even real? Or do we find this strange affinity only because we stereotype ourselves to fit American expectations and tastes, shaking hands and serving them chicken tikka masala while pretending its “authentic”?

The last vestige of nationality probably lies in the accent. The moment people stop asking you what part of the world you’re from when you talk to them – you’re lost. You’ve become American. You drop your T’s. You’ve successfully “assimilated”. And for this confused “Westernized” desi, for whatever illogical irrational reason, that’s not a compliment.

Lahore’s Old City

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As this is my first post, it seems fitting to dedicate it to Lahore, my beautiful hometown. I haven’t lived there for 3 years now, so I’m aware that much of my nostalgia is tinted. But what does it matter? Lahore will hold endless fascination and mystery for me, if only in my imagination. This is a “brief” history of Lahore’s inner city, the “Androon Shehr” in Urdu, that I wrote as part of my thesis at college, with my cousin and constant companion Sana. Here is an excerpt, minus the footnotes! Any additional lore, fact or fiction about Lahore is welcome :) You may also want to read Chowk: Musings at a Crossroads.

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“Lahore of blissful waters, be praised

The goal of old and young, Lahore

I do not think that in the seven climes

A place so lustrous exists, as Lahore.”

– Talib-i Amuli, Ghaznavid poet

Hindu legend has it that, nearly three millennia ago, Loh, one of the sons of the god Rama, hero-king of the epic “Ramayana”, founded a city on the banks of the river Ravi. He called the city Loh-Awar – “The Fort of Loh” in Sanskrit. Situated on a naturally elevated alluvial plain at the gateway between the mountains of Kashmir and waters of the Indus, Loh could not have chosen a more scenic or strategic location for his city. Today, we know Loh-Awar by one of the numerous variants of its name that survived: Lahore.

The original site of Lahore, believed to have existed somewhere in the foundations of the Lahore Fort, is now found only in myth and imagination. However, historical evidence suggests that the “core” of the city, what is known colloquially as the Androon Shehr, assumed its present shape and form in the aftermath of the Ghaznavid invasion in the 11th century. Hitherto a mysteriously abandoned Hindu principality, the city underwent a veritable transformation at the able hands of Malik Ayaz, governor of Lahore under Mahmud of Ghazna. It is said that Malik Ayaz built up the walls and gates of the city in one miraculous night; whether or not that is true, Lahore, the capital of Mahmud’s Indian provinces, soon grew to rival the city of Ghazna itself as a centre of wealth, learning and culture.

Lahore suffered many reversals of fortune in the ensuing centuries, the inevitable target of countless invaders, plunderers and would-be kings – from the Ghauris to the Mongols, Taimur the Lame to Bahlul Lodhi – owing this fate both to its geographical location and to the stories of its splendour. However, it was not until 1526, when a certain Taimurid prince from Ferghana decided too to try his luck in the plains of the Punjab, that Lahore regained the status and security it had enjoyed in Ghaznavid times. That young prince was Babar, the first Mughal emperor, and his dynasty, firmly anchored in its North Indian strongholds, had come to sta y.

Thus the city of Lahore, together with Delhi and Agra, witnessed the apogee of its career under Mughal patronage. Merchants, scholars, musicians, lovers, travellers from both ends of Eurasia, thronged its narrow streets; Eastern and Western poets alike eulogized the city for its “palaces, domes and gilded minarets”, for the “enchantment” locked within the burnt-bricks of its miraculous walls.  In 1584, the Emperor Akbar shifted his royal residence to Lahore, renovating the Fort, constructing nine guzars (residential quarters) within the city, and rebuilding its walls and gates. His son Jahangir, likewise, continued the legacy of the sponsorship of arts and architecture in the city of his birth; English visitors to Lahore, especially frequent since Jahangir granted trading rights to the East India Company in the early 17th century, described it as “a goodly great city, one of the fairest and most ancient of India, exceeding Constantinople itself in greatness”. But it is Jahangir’s son, Shah Jahan, who earned for himself the repute of greatest of Mughal emperors, at least in terms of wealth and architectural opulence. Under Shah Jahan, Lahore glittered and flourished like never before: “a handsome and well-ordered city”, “crammed with foreigners and rich merchants” and “abundant in provisions”, in the words of Niccolo Manucci, an Italian physician serving at the Lahore court in Shah Jahan’s reign. The Wazir Khan Mosque, Shish Mahal (“Palace of Mirrors”, within the Lahore Fort) and Shahi Hamam (“Royal Bath”) in the Walled City, as well as the Shalimar Gardens in the suburbs, are but a few remaining testaments of the prosperity of the age, while the Taj Mahal in Agra has acquired iconic status.

Yet, already in Shah Jahan’s lifetime, Mughal coffers had begun to shrink, and the reign of his younger son Aurangzeb, last of the great Mughal emperors and builder of the Badshahi Mosque, was plagued with all the uncertainty and instability of a dynasty running the final pages of its history.  With the death of Aurangzeb, Lahore, like the remaining parts of the Indian subcontinent still outside the control of British traders and self-styled governors, fell victim to the cruel vicissitudes of politics. The relentless raiding of the Afghan Ahmad Shah Durrani, and later Shah Zaman, and their furious battles with the Sikhs over the sovereignty of Lahore left the city permanently scarred. When the Sikh forces, led by Ranjit Singh, ultimately took power in 1797, they inherited a desolate township with crumbling walls, which they proceeded to loot and destroy, so that in 1809, an English officer described Lahore as “a melancholy picture of fallen splendour, of which now only the ruins are visible.”

But Lahore saw the beginning of the most damaging phase of its history in 1849, when the British purchased the province of Punjab from the incumbent Sikh Maharaja. The colonial authorities did not loot or plunder the Inner City as previous invaders had; they Orientalised it. While they did engage in major renovation projects in the Inner City, repairing portions of the Lahore Fort, Badshahi Mosque and other buildings destroyed by the Sikhs, their efforts were centred upon the development of the Civil Lines and Cantonments, which lay beyond the perimeter of the Walls. Suddenly, the Inner City became synonymous with the “Old City”. Invisible barriers were erected between “native” space, symbolized by the crowded, “quaint” streets of the Androon Shehr, and the manicured, tree-lined “colonially produced” space without– the origins of dualism, the modern-traditional dichotomy that prevails in postcolonial cities to this day.

Numerous crafts and trades, associated with and sustained by the demands of a royal court (Ghaznavid, Mughal and Sikh), met their inevitable demise with the British interlude – for example, the manufacture of elaborately wrought weaponry. Other court-related skills, such as miniature painting and fresco-work, were stripped of their former utility and relegated to the status of antiquated “arts”, fit to be practiced in Art Schools alone. Yet others, such as gold embroidery, silk-weaving and brass- and copper-smithing, continued to persist, though they catered to a diminishing “inside” population, relative to the rapid settlement of “outside” areas by colonials and indigenous nouveau riche. At the same time, the British initiated an irreversible process of change within the Androon Shehr, especially through the act of removing much of the old walls of the city as a precautionary measure against urban revolt, which became a genuine threat in the years following the Mutiny, or War of Independence, in 1857.

On the eve of decolonization, the Androon Shehr was still considered a prestigious, if not an affluent area, the cosmopolitan home of Lahore’s old, well-established families, of upper-class literati, bourgeois merchants and vagabonds alike.  But Partition violence, concentrated in the border cities of the Radcliffe Award, devastated the fabric of the Androon Shehr’s society on an unparalleled scale; “The Walled City was shaken to its foundations”. The inhabitants of the Shehr, riled by communal hatred, wreaked havoc upon their own city – the gates were vandalized, bazaars were burnt, and entire neighbourhoods razed to the ground. Depopulation of the religious enclaves, coupled with the waves of migrants from across the border, turned Lahore into a rootless city of ruffians and refugees. From this massive convulsion, the Androon Shehr never truly recovered. It was the point of no return.

It was also the point of new beginnings. In the freshly conceived country of Pakistan, Lahore retained its age-old position as capital of the Punjab, yet the intensive redevelopment work that followed, under the auspices of the Lahore Improvement Trust (LIT), did not aim to “preserve” what was left behind. It aimed to remake. The debris was levelled clean by bulldozers, the narrow streets giving way to large thoroughfares and new markets, with little or no consideration to the surrounding architecture. Yet, in what seems an ironic or perhaps expected sequel to colonial activities, Lahore resumed to expand outwards, with the LIT concentrating its construction efforts upon areas such as the Civil Lines, and the new suburban communities of Model Town, Gulberg, G.O.R., Mayo Gardens and so on.

Meanwhile, the Androon Shehr was left to its own devices, and change was inevitable, though difficult to define. The Shehr was not impervious to the contemporary forms of modernization enveloping the surrounding city, yet, up till 1979, more than 80% of its built stock still comprised of Mughal structures, and most of the Lahore Development Authority’s public and municipal development programs continued to focus on the newer parts of the city.

Today, the Androon Shehr, as a physical space, is a mass of old, beautiful, rotting buildings and dusty, twisting streets, with choked gutters, unreliable water supply and precarious housing – home to “over a quarter of a million people, the largest concentration of urban poor in the country”. The government as well as academia profess to take keen interest in “arresting the decay of the city to preserve the nation’s heritage”, but the superficiality of their claims is borne out by observing the ground reality in the Shehr itself. The prominent monuments within the Shehr, mainly the Fort, tombs and older mosques, are repeatedly made the targets of much-advertised “historical conservation” and tourism campaigns, while the inhabitants of the City themselves, their lives and grievances, are conveniently overlooked in the media and other popular discourse.

It seems, in another ironic sequel to colonial Orientalism, that, for the people living “outside”, the Walled City exists solely for its historical value, a “suspended” site where only “traditional” time and place must be celebrated; the inexorable transformations taking place within the Shehr are altogether ignored. As it happens, however, the reality of the Androon Shehr differs sharply from the intentions to propel it as “a museum and relic of past glory”.