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For all of us, whether Christian or not, this is a good time to – as Pope Francis said today - look into our own hearts. It is a reminder to return to the “examined life” and to break with the somnolent continuity of apathy. I ask myself, along with Pope Francis, “has my life fallen asleep?” and whether I, like Pontius Pilate, faced with a complicated situation, wash my hands and turn away.
“Where is my heart?” I often ask myself – especially these days, when the survival of academics and scholars appears to rely on constantly endeavoring to generate likes, clicks, citations, and retweets. It is a struggle to foster and to enjoy the fruits of aloneness. And the Prophet Muhammad reminds me to look for my heart when I am alone. If I cannot find my heart in solitude, then – the Prophet urges me to “ask Allah to bless you with a heart, for indeed you have no heart.”
The progressive Pakistani poet, Fahmida Riaz, recites a poem to an Indian audience comparing the rise of Hindutva in India with the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in Pakistan. Note the delight of the Indian audience and the “delicious” cultural affinity between Indian and Pakistani political discourse. And forgive my attempt at translation. It’s impossible to catch all the nuance, but I tried.
Turned out you were just like us.
So it turned out you were just like us!
Where were you hiding all this time, buddy?
That stupidity, that ignorance
we wallowed in for a century -
look, it arrived at your shores too!
Many congratulations to you!
Raising the flag of religion,
I guess now you’ll be setting up Hindu Raj?
You too will commence to muddle everything up
You, too, will ravage your beautiful garden.
You, too, will sit and ponder -
I can tell preparations are afoot -
who is [truly] Hindu, who is not.
I guess you’ll be passing fatwas soon!
Here, too, it will become hard to survive.
Here, too, you will sweat and bleed.
You’ll barely make do joylessly.
You will gasp for air like us.
I used to wonder with such deep sorrow.
And now, I laugh at the idea:
it turned out you were just like us!
We weren’t two nations after all!
To hell with education and learning.
Let’s sing the praises of ignorance.
Don’t look at the potholes in your path:
bring back instead the times of yore!
Practice harder till you master
the skill of always walking backwards.
Let not a single thought of the present
break your focus upon the past!
Repeat the same thing over and over -
over and over, say only this:
How glorious was India in the past!
How sublime was India in days gone by!
Then, dear friends, you will arrive
and get to heaven after all.
Yep. We’ve been there for a while now.
Once you are there,
once you’re in the same hell-hole,
keep in touch and tell us how it goes!
Let’s accept that the transitions we make during conference travel can be difficult ones. This past week, I was in Oakland, CA and Los Angeles, eating fusion cuisine with great friends. Today I am in Central Illinois / Champaign-Urbana and my restaurant choices are Red Lobster and Panera – with my grading.
This year, Raihana’s spring break did not coordinate with mine. I spent my spring break freezing my rear end off in Toronto at the Comparative and International Education Society conference. One week after my break had ended, her primary school began its break. I was scrambling from teaching in Decatur to a highly dissatisfied almost-8 year old. She pronounced the beginnings of her spring break boring, and demanded my companionship.
On Monday, I realized that the slightest endeavor at thinking a work-related thought to its conclusion would be impossible alongside the nonstop high-energy demands of my daughter. My parental ethic, by and large, means that I am uncomfortable allowing TV and computer games to babysit Raihana. I know that she would be happy to read, play Minecraft, or watch Ruby Gloom for several hours, but that would be too easy. When was this job ever easy?
So I put aside all my work and decided that the most I would do this week was answer work emails and do short tasks. “Mama,” Raihana said, “Abbu has gone to work, and you’re not going to Decatur, so I have you all to myself!” I felt that I was quite successful in being a loving and fun parent though, by Wednesday, I felt like my brain was being suctioned out of my skull. I was a dedicated parent, and I was not allowing work to turn me into a second-rate mom.
Teachers claim my daughter struggles with transitions. Well, on Saturday, I found quite intimidating the prospect of transitioning to writing / class prep from a nonstop parenting-fest. I felt like I was trying to put the brakes on while driving on an icy highway, or rev the engine up to high speed immediately on a cold morning.
When Svend took over, and I brushed Raihana’s hair before heading out to resume writing, I felt that I could afford a moment of self-congratulation. “Did we have a good spring break together?” I asked Raihana,
Pausing between shrieks and demands to stop brushing her hair, Raihana snapped, “I had a horrible spring break.”
I stopped between brush strokes, shocked at her sincerity and surprised at how hurt I was, “What do you mean?”
“I wanted to be by myself,” she went on, “and you were always breathing down my neck! And now spring break is over and I have no time to myself!”
Until now, my main struggle has been reassuring Raihana that I was present for her, that I wouldn’t neglect her, and that she was my priority. “But you love your work,” she has accused me. “Why don’t you spend time with me, Mama?” So I have tried, and tried. Suddenly, after pushing and shoving, after making me adjust and re-adjust my attitude to life, work, and parenting, I feel like she is changing game plans on me. One day, I’m complaining about the daily grind of parenting, the wrenching struggle to show up and do a good job at work while my heart is with my daughter who is disappointed that I’m a no-show at some school event. The next day, I feel like I am getting summarily laid off. One moment, I’m dealing with the daily grind, the next moment I’m sitting in a recliner with a beer gut watching home shopping ads. One moment, I’m preening myself over my lengthy scholarly resume and the next moment, I’m in the Apocalypse and wishing I’d spent some time learning to hunt rabbits and construct shelters.
Is my 8-year old turning 13 already? Her childlike exuberance suddenly shifts and I see flashes of a pre-teen, like some strange transmissions on a television screen, like flashes of demon in a child in some poltergeist movie. Time to prepare myself for a new child, when I’d never figured out the first one.
Today, I am grieving. I am exhausted with the flow of bad news from home.
Sometimes it feels like things are going from bad to worse. But today, just today, I refuse to let my heart be clogged with despair. Instead, I share with you a song from Junaid Jamshed’s solo career.
Yes, I’m familiar with Junaid Jamshed’s career. This is the land where a rock star can also be a global fashion entrepreneur and a religious leader. We want a land of many colors and possible futures. We refuse the monochromatic colors of small minded people who close their eyes to reality. We embrace today and we dance to the music of yesterday all the way into the future. We will submit to the embracing passion of the Merciful, to the Unity of Being, and the unity of creation – not to divisions, disunity, hatred, hierarchies. We open doors and welcome today. We will change the future, no matter how dark the present may seem. Prepare yourselves for change, because change is inevitable. We will make it so.
Remember the dream that your gaze brought to mine
see that that dream is never shattered
And the traveler who returns after so many years
take care that he is not turned back sorrowful
The color in your cheeks today
is new to your face this spring
The wine in your voice
is new to your song this spring
Let our hearts come together for just a spell
and we will find a way somehow
The dust of sorrowful memories will be washed by the rain
And the miles between us will shrink and fall away
Remember the dream that your gaze brought to mine
see that that dream is never shattered
And the traveler who returns after so many years
take care that he is not turned back sorrowful
When difficult conversations make an appearance, the response of many well-meaning White persons is to react with feelings of hurt irritability. The response often says: “I’m a nice person, I am kind to all people. I don’t intend any harm to people of color, and I can’t help liking the people I like, marrying the people I like, socializing with the people I like. Therefore, my actions as an individual should, out of courtesy, be spared such critical scrutiny.”
This response speaks at cross-purposes to critical scrutiny because racism is systemic. Racism is not a conflict between individuals. But when people of color and white allies point this out, nice White people say, “D-uh, then it’s not my fault anyway.”
The problem with scrutinizing systemic racism in an intensely individualistic cultural setting is that most people lack the tools for macro scrutiny of such issues. This is why narratives of colonialism, slavery, and racism are all silenced with a shrug and Well, I didn’t do it, and you didn’t get dragged here in chains, and it was a long time ago, so can we get over it now? Nice White individuals feel that their basic decency should emancipate them from the unpleasant kitchen-sink talk of racism and inequality. If it’s not their “fault” as individuals, they shouldn’t as individuals be asked to engage with the issues.
But a person’s niceness doesn’t make systemic racism go away. It may give you moral authority over a vast mass of nasty White people, and it may give you the cosmopolitan power of I’m different: I have Black, White, Hispanic, Muslim, Asian, gay friends. But it does little vis-à-vis systemic inequality and racism. It also does nothing to change the fact that you are complicit in systemic racism, that you, your children, and your closest friends benefit directly from being White, from the many privileges of being White right now, not a long time ago.
It may seem un-classy, in a Dowager Countess sort of way, to talk about a nice individual’s participation – albeit unwitting – in systemic racism. But perhaps the problem is not with the scrutiny but with Whites’ narrow, individualistic notions of niceness. If my niceness is unable to stretch enough to put me as an individual in slight discomfort, then my niceness is a starched, out-dated, egocentric niceness. If every conversation must conclude with me “feeling good about myself” then my niceness is ultimately self-serving. If you cannot bear to have difficult conversations (or watch difficult movies), then you may wish to recognize how you are fully complicit in systemic racism to the extent that you will lose neither an ounce of privilege in college admissions, job prospects, and social belonging, nor will you withdraw from your place of superior and cushy benevolence in social interactions.
I checked the local newspaper for photos of the naturalization ceremony.
Guess what I found in the News-Gazette. A photo essay about a family of White South Africans and here and here. Photos of immigrants from the Czech Republic, from Russia, from Spain. In recent photos of naturalized citizens, I found one photo of a black African, and one photo of an immigrant from El Salvador. We had immigrants from 26 nations, so no, the room was not full of Caucasians.
Immigration? No problems here. We’re just putting more White folks in the mix.
Immigration is a process of rupture – uprooting yourself, struggling to graft yourself into a new ecosystem. Like the process of diaspora, the academic career disrupts and disconnects. Job market options are few. Among the factors you must weigh to select your options, financial and cultural factors must weigh the heaviest. In all of this, you lose friends and family, moving from study to work.
The day in September 1991 that I decided to accept a position at a university in Islamabad, I remember the cold stab of loss I felt when my parents, turning away their sad eyes, drove back to Lahore, and left me at the women’s hostel. This was the first time I had chosen to break ties and move ahead. “I want you to stand on your own feet,” my father said forcefully, disguising the break in his voice. “It’s a good university,” my mother said, “and you’ll work with people who are like you.” I was their baby – I am their baby – and they had to let go.
Over the three years that I worked in Islamabad, I visited Lahore and my family quite regularly. Over time, the visits became a chore. I wanted to stay in cool, calm Islamabad, where I was free to socialize with friends all day, visit Faisal Masjid, and, most importantly, practice my Sufi muraqaba in private. I was my own mistress, and where I explored my spirituality freely. Over time, I didn’t need to be in Lahore so very often. It saddened me, but it happened.
Then I applied for a scholarship, and went to Cambridge for a Master’s degree. As difficult as that first year abroad was, it was good to find my feet in a completely different environment. I became a central person in the Cambridge University Muslim women’s group. But when my parents called me, they didn’t quite understand what my day was like, why I wasn’t home, why I was a little irritable, what it was like to work at the Careers Center processing alumni mail, and how hard it was to make my advisor understand who I was. My maternal uncle died that year, and I wasn’t with my mother to comfort her.
When I visited Pakistan that winter, my mother told me that my father wept privately and said, “meri kudi bahr li hogayee ei” (My daughter’s become a foreigner). I had.
And then I took an ATA plane to Chicago, and how much harder it became to visit Pakistan! How much more expensive. The time zone difference made it harder to talk on the phone.
I made good friends, dear friends wherever I lived – and then I moved. London and the FOSIS Women’s Hostel community. Bloomington, IN and the Muslim sisterhood there. Washington, DC and its extended many-pocketed Muslim and South Asian community. Then I was in Oklahoma, and suddenly, I was far away from all my former friends, and in a full-time job that gave me very little flexibility to attend conferences.
I find, today, that for many friends whom I hold dear in my heart I am a fading picture. I see signs of this, and these signs break my heart, but there is little to be done. I have been absent so long from so many lives that a Facebook connection simply isn’t enough to keep my memory alive. You have to be there to be a real presence. Or you have to be not-so-completely tangled in the turmoil of trying to get tenure, working on marriage and parenthood, rebuilding your health after cancer. For many people who are central to my emotional and social trajectory, I am like a ghost. I was there once. And where am I now? Who am I now?
When I visit Lahore, I meet many Pakistanis who ask me eager questions about how they might study (and move) abroad. They don’t like it when I ask them if they really want to move, if they really want to pay that price. When you move, you are gone. Until you move, you think you can live multiple lives – in Lahore, in DC, in London. Maybe for those of you who make money the way I don’t, this is a possibility. But for people like me, you’d better make choices you can live with. Because you choose one thing, and you give up another. Are you willing to give it up?
The big unsaid narrative buried in a naturalization is the one that is supposed to say I’m moving up, baby! When you naturalize, the question frequently in the minds of fellow Americans is, boy, just how relieved are you to be like us? How great must it be to be at the top of the world?
Naturally, we celebrated by eating at the Chinese buffet. Raihana flitted in, and chirped excitedly, “I like this place because it’s very familiar. It makes me feel safe.” The familiar is usually much safer. Except when the familiar is tied up with ransom kidnappings, bombings, and armed burglaries.
I am bitter that Pakistan has to be that place that, whenever mentioned, causes Americans’ eyebrows to be raised. “Will you be safe when you are visiting your parents?” or the more politically correct, “Oh, that’s so interesting.” When mango season rolls around, my parents tell me, they cannot enjoy a good Anwar Ratol without a heavy sigh and, “Ah-ha, my Shabana doesn’t get any of these mangoes.” When I sit in a clean, mahogany-furnished courtroom, and am courteously ushered to my seat by White people, I sigh, and think, if only my Lahore friends were able to get through the day without wondering if there was going to be a riot on the street, if only my mother was able to rely on electricity all day and all night, and if only the police were better paid and not corrupt so my parents hadn’t had to experience armed burglaries three frigging times. I am happy for what I have. I am bitter for what my possible, un-immigrated self does not.
I asked Raihana (because I share all my angst with my 8 year-old daughter), “Do you think I did the right thing by immigrating?” She finished a mouthful of clam as thoughtfully as you can chew a mouthful of clam and said with characteristic bluntness, “There are some things that are good, and some that are bad. It’s bad because you had to leave your home-sweet-home” – I smiled – “and it’s good because now you’re in your” – she raised her eyebrows and opened her eyes wide, and raised her index fingers in exaggerated air-quotes “now you’re in your home sweet home” and of course we ended up laughing.
America is home now. This is not a treacherous or pro-imperialist thing to say. This is about picking Raihana up from school and exchanging pleasantries with her teacher, about knowing how to deposit checks at the bank, about spending Sunday afternoon at the public library. As “Intisar”, one of my research participants told me, “it’s just life, we just go through it.”
So America is home. And Pakistan, despite the fact that my heart breaks to say it, is less home every year that I spend away from it. Despite the fact that the cold, foggy mornings I walked to classrooms at the Convent of Jesus & Mary school in Lahore are still alive for me, electrically alive, the reality of Pakistan has grown up without me.
Am I proud of this? Would you be proud of leaving your deepest memories behind, like the protagonist in Memento? Would it be anything other than traumatic to let go?
If I feel pride, I should describe it as a class-based pride. When I stand in line at airports, and we glance at each other’s passports, and mine is a royal burgundy (that would be my U.K. passport) and yours might be a green (Zareena Grewal describes the impact of her “haughty navy blue vinyl”). It’s similar to the way we glance comparatively at each other’s outfits, and I shrink a little in my Old Navy sweats when I stand next to a woman in Chanel.
Even Raihana recognizes this. She went on to say, “Mama, it’s a good thing you immigrated because America is a good country” and then she said “it’s a richer country, and aren’t you happy that I don’t go to a really poor school?”
Ultimately, class defines many of our choices. Today, many middle class Pakistanis invest hard-earned savings into their children’s American education, as they themselves watch the terrorists become more fearless and the authorities more and more ineffectual. They hope that they are investing in tomorrow, and many are teaching their children the wisdom of jumping from a sinking ship.
Am I proud I jumped? Seriously? I have deep shame and embarrassment when I speak to Pakistani academics like the ones I interviewed who dedicate their days to making things better. I could have been in their position. Does holding a navy blue passport make me better than them? Maybe it makes me more of a coward, in some ways. I hold in deepest respect my Pakistani family and friends who make their way to work in searing heat, and without the benefit (often) of airconditioning or even fans, those fathers riding Kawasaki motorcycles with five children in school uniforms, those mothers walking to their house-maid jobs so that they can put daal and onions on the table for their children, those children in their grubby khaki school uniforms trying to focus on schoolwork in 110 degree heat.
Yes, I admire much about the United States political system, and I find personal relief in its friendly individualism. Yes, it is home in many ways, and I am glad that my daughter has the benefit of a public library system of stupendous power and resources, that I have access to almost every research database I need, and that everyday life – despite the pockmarked roads of Champaign post-snow – is very, very easy. That ease of everyday life is, in part, what drives much of America’s immigration narrative. Once you’ve tasted this ease, the availability of clean public toilets, the highway system, the scale of life, the size of homes (sorry, Britain), the variety of climate within its borders, the relative emphasis on customer service (have you tried complaining about gas, electricity, and telephones in Pakistan?) – most of us can do nothing but fight tooth and claw to hold on tight. Is there pride in that fight? Some would say there is, the pride of agency, the pride of rejecting a fatalistic victimhood (no, the two don’t necessarily go together), the pride of self-empowerment, the pride of self-respect, the pride that rejects a meek embrace of whatever comes. No que sera, sera in this pride.
But as I fill up on cheap gas, enjoy daily showers, and print reams and reams of journal articles, I know, too, that this pride rests on the backs of billions who do not enjoy daily showers or even potable water, who have outdated textbooks in their schools, and who walk miles and miles in unforgiving weather to work.