This September, I’m irresistibly drawn to remembering that 20 years ago, I got my first real full-time job at the International Islamic University.
Dr Farhat Hashmi (the very same) was then coordinator of the قسم البنات (Women’s Section), and was keen to hire me, one of the few niqabi, religious English MAs she’d met so far (things have changed in Pakistan, now). I interviewed with the crusty, blunt Brigadier who was then Head of the English Department, and he took me on as a part-time hire until a position opened up. (I made a lot more money as a part-time hire).
It was the first time in my life that I had even imagined living away from home. The night before I left Lahore and my parents’ home (MY home), my heart was gripped in an ice-cold fist, as I realized I was moving away from home, family, and parents, into the unknown. None of my siblings had ever moved away for work, and I was a single young woman. But my parents, and especially my father, though conservative religiously and culturally, believed in women’s independence. “You should have something in your hands,” they said. “Men are bastards,” said my father with his characteristic bluntness. “You can’t trust them.”
I still remember that that night, I got a static-filled phone call that asked for me, mentioned the job I’d applied for at Lahore College for Women, and then became inaudible (phone lines in Pakistan …). It left me with a sense of indecision: should I stay in Lahore? Should I wait for work at a college in Lahore? Should I drop the IIU now? But it was an opportunity, and who knew what would happen if I let it go? And then, I was a lonely religious young woman in a social circle that was not heavily religious. Being at the Islamic University could mean I would find my home. Or would it?
I begged my mother to get an intercom system installed, so that she would be safe, in the absence of her protective daughter. (It stopped working, of course.) I felt guilty for leaving her. It was incredibly hard. The car speeding towards cold, green Islamabad was driving me into a cold embrace. We ate in a desolate restaurant in Blue Area, and by then, everyone realized I was depressed and fighting tears.
By the time I arrived at the Women’s Hostel, where the students lived, I had been vomiting. The ‘warden’ (yes) was coolly welcoming, but was clearly working to ensure boundaries. I was to share a room with her and use a bathroom that was shared by a bunch of students. I hadn’t shared a bedroom or a bathroom in years. The social class difference was traumatic.
It was destined to become a home, a community, where I found sisterhood and Divine Love. I still yearn to return, but it isn’t what it used to be, and I am not that green (in more ways than one), 22-year old niqabi, wiping vomit from my lips, clinging to my mother and nervously peering up at the women in the hostel, wondering how to put my lipstick and eye make-up in the noisy grey steel freestanding locker. It was a new world.
We people of education (or at least literacy) have to translate everything in our lives. Everything at the bodily or physical level must be translated into verbal or scientific “meaning.” Meaning, the final kill.
Everything that is emotional must become verbal and physical. Hauntingly, in such works of art as “Baraan,” the emotional is bottled in its intensity, untranslated, sublimated. My shaikh urged me, at times, to avoid writing poetry about the spiritual, but to bottle it in: in that state of pressure within – without contamination from the public eye and our attempts at translating the inward for that public eye – that is where things happen that are impossible to translate.
Our educated lives sever us increasingly from our elemental roots, forcing us into the brain, which is only part of our toolkit of processing experience.
And the body. On such days as today – an early autumn day in September – I am struck by my entire being’s attempt to simply be. It is the first week after an intense 4-month summer in Oklahoma, and Oklahomans are reeling from the first sweet taste of good weather. Air-conditioners are not running. We can enjoy the sensation of being outdoors without consequences. With my Muslim friends, I have also completed Ramadan. Suddenly, I am aware that I am unaware of my body even while my body is most at ease. Nerve endings are not constantly aware of heat and discomfort, and I am almost numb for pleasure in the mild sunshine. How much of our lives is spent in awareness of pain, discomfort, heat and cold, hunger and thirst, the sensation of clothing? How many of us do not have the option of freedom from those sensations?
Even on a day like this, you can see, my mind and my words disrupt the tranquil yet productive silence, and force their way through like weeds.