A journey through annual conventions of the Islamic Society of North America

 

imamapaloozaMany years ago (okay, in 1991), when I was not an American, and had never thought I would be an American, I was working at the International Islamic University (IIU) and I heard from a student tell of an event called the Annual Convention of ISNA (the Islamic Society of North America). This dear friend of mine was a religious misfit like myself, and her mother had hoped she would find a nice, educated, liberal, upwardly mobile professional, and religious boy at ISNA. So her mother packed her off to Chicago where she attended talks by Imam Siraj Wahhaj and Jamal Badawi (she got the two of them mixed up, and told me how Jamal Badawi was amazing! Tall and Black and amazing! Okay, in the photo below, Badawi is on the LEFT.) But she met no nice badawisirajboy – probably because she wasn’t really focused on the job. A year or so later, in 1993, I met a couple of Canadian students at the IIU, young women who were on friendly terms with ISNA leaders and who had organized major events such as the protests against the Bosnian genocide. They told me more tales of ISNA. 

It crossed my mind – how completely amazing and insane would it be if I, the niqabi from Kinnaird College, could attend ISNA. Most of the people in my social class did not quite get my religiosity. As for those who did get religion, they criticized my lack of traditional gendered behavior and my love of English literature. I was so lonely as a religious woman. I felt being at ISNA would put me in a cerebral network of love and awareness. All I’d known so far was Jamaat-Islami (whence I was now an exile, because I was no longer an Islamist) where the boys tended to be conservative, macho, and more interested in power politics than religion. Then I’d known my Chishti Sabri silsila where most of the people were – well, women. Radiant, smart, and devoted women, but, mostly, upper class. In case this escaped you, dear reader, I’m not upper class. I’m barely hanging on to middle class. More on that later. 

A few years later, in 1996, as a newly arrived graduate student, I attended ISNA in Columbus. I had no money, and was kindly accommodated in the interns’ hotel room. I felt completely out of place among these very American undergraduate women who were so comfortable with each other and with their very informal cliquishness. When I spoke (in my strongMatrimonial-20141 angular British accent, completely pure of midwestern slang) about the ISNA experience, they stared at me quietly, and then turned back uncomfortably to talking about Stuff. I felt dreadfully Pakistani, so foreign, and so disappointed that I wasn’t in heaven even though I was at ISNA. And no boy had liked me yet. 

Several ISNA’s later, I am off to Detroit for ISNA 2014

It is now 21 years since I first heard of ISNA. I still have no money, but I have friends – friends I can crash with. I did eventually find a man, by the way. I didn’t meet him at ISNA, but I met him at the cousin of ISNA (AMSS, which is now NAAIMS).

isna-hallwayNow when I attend ISNA, I am overwhelmed by the crowds of uncles, aunties, sisters, brothers. I smile indulgently as I pass through the hotel lobby where young Muslims flirt and make eyes at each other. I roll my eyes at the fanfare around the arrival of celebrities – and then I try to shove my way in so I can catch a glimpse of Shaykh Hamza Yusuf. I am excited to see friends I haven’t seen in years. On my way to and from lectures and events, I see friends from all over N. America. I am connected now, and I am home. As home as possible. 

 

Check out my Meet the Author event on SUNDAY AUG 31, SESSION 12M, 11:30 AM – 12:45 PM. Room 311AB. 

We don’t laugh at the same jokes anymore

On my first day in Lahore, I was excited to share this video “S*it Punjabi Mothers Say” with my family. Svend and I have watched this video, along with many others by Lily Singh, an extremely talented Canadian-Indian comedienne, with our 8-year old. We have watched it many, many times, and we never tire of it. Our 8-year old daughter has adopted some of the phrases in it (“sick people hondey!”)

But when I showed it to my family, I was amazed that no one cracked a smile. What’s funny about a strict Punjabi mother? That’s just the way all mothers are. My tastes and my sense of humor are profoundly diasporic. The Punjabi mother stereotype is hilarious in the contrast it represents to the low-key White suburban mom who addresses her children with courtesy and “discusses” s*it with them. The Punjabi mother calls her daughter “gaindi jaiee” (fat rhino) and cusses her out with abandon. These “s*it ___ mothers/fathers say” are funny precisely because of their place within the spectrum of mother/father types of various racial/ethnic/cultural groups. As many anthropologists say, human nature is not really the same everywhere, nor does “funny” mean the same everywhere.

I’ll bet this has profound implications for cultural understanding and conflict.

Power outages in Pakistan

electricity-protest1-640x480After less than 24 hours in Lahore, the power outages felt routine. Nowadays, no one in Pakistan even bothers to mention them anymore. For a traveler from the US, there is no point obsessively checking the forecast here. What’s the weather right now? Hot. What’s the weather going to be like tomorrow morning? Hot. What’s the weather going to be in 10 days? Hot. No surprises. It’s hot, and the power will go out. In the very nice Ramada – which was not 2.5 stars in Pakistan – the power outages continued but the only impact was felt when there was a 3 second gap as the generator kicked in. My hotel room also had a central electrical system, a bank of buttons on the nightstand whence you turned off and on the TV and 10 different lights in the room. Of course, when the power went out and then on in the middle of the night, all the lights turned on and woke me right up. Apparently my room lacked the battery unit that should prevent this from happening, though why such a central electrical control should be used in a country with frequent outages, I do not know.

So it was hot. On my first day, I accidentally spilled a 1-liter bottle of water on my mattress. The mattress was entirely drenched. But no problem! Put it outside for an hour and it’s dry as a bone. The heat in Pakistan doesn’t radiate warmth. Its tentacles penetrate deep inside everything and pulsate powerfully there. It envelops you in a bubble of extreme heat and renders you tired, hot, and slightly ill. When you return from an allegedly enjoyable expedition to Monal Restaurant at Daman-e-Koh up in the hills, you feel like you’ve been through boot-camp. It’s no big surprise we’ve got issues.

Afternoon siestas are not naps in Pakistan. You just basically pass out for a while in the middle of the baking hot day, and then you can resume getting through the rest of the afternoon and the long evening (Pakistanis do not go to bed early. Dinner is around 9 or 10pm, for instance. If you’re hoping to get something done around 8 or 9am, dream on.)
The pattern of such sietas is thus: you fall asleep with the air conditioner running freezing cold, and you wake up with palpitations, with your mouth completely dry, to find the room hot and stuffy when the power’s been out for just half an hour. Of course the above applies to my parents’ home, mainly, and not to the university settings where I’d been delivering lectures and engaging in discussions with faculty, students, intellectuals, and observers of the political scene. Most such settings were equipped with electrical generators.

Bashiran, my mother’s part-time maid, said a power surge in her neighborhood destroyed a number of appliances in the homes of poor laborers and domestic workers. I cannot stop thinking of a little girl Bashiran mentioned, about 4 years or so, whose family’s pedestal fan quit working. The girl wept ceaselessly for hours until her eyes were swollen and red. Yeah, well, in a day or so, I would be on a plane to the land where, at the height of summer, the power flows nonstop. We run the a.c. until we are cold and have to grab a sweater.

Returned from the motherland

cropped-cropped-iphone-2011-11-12-050.jpgAfter a two-week visit in Pakistan, I’m back in Champaign. I’m a little dizzy with joy from being back with Svend and our daughter, and I am also constantly wrestling the demons of grief and loss from having to say goodbye yet again to my aging parents. Last night, I went to bed grateful that I was able to sleep through the night without being awoken every alternate hour by power outages and the suffocating heat that builds up quickly in the bedroom. But I also grieved that I would not be awoken by my mother’s loving touch upon my ankles as she asked me if I wanted some mint tea and toast.

The next morning we went to the bank, thinking of all the days in Pakistan when I wondered if burglars would strike our home (they had done so 3 times before), and the fact that I had zero such feelings after arriving in the US. As I stood in line and awaited my turn behind an Indian gentleman with a tilak on his forehead (who eyed me with familiar interest, probably wondering if I was a member of the tribe), I was overwhelmed by the surroundings. How clean the floors were, how orderly and updated the furniture. How the fluorescent lights did not buzz. How dust-free every surface was. How friendly and yet casual the staff were. How equitable our interaction was despite the fact that the service was excellent and efficient. How economical and yet how pleasant the social exchange was. How we ended on jokes and pleasantries with the staff that left no marks upon us, no promise for future connection.

I emerged profoundly grateful for the lightness, the warm brightness of the air, thinking I would like to hug you, Ms. Bank Teller, for your amazing personality and kindness and efficiency. And I was simultaneously smashed in the face by the sense of contrast with the homeland. I had struggled these two weeks, again, with the constant awareness of social class; the simmering resentment, envy, desire, and need; the chaos; the very organic order that emerges from connection which is for the same reason so fragile.

And yes, I was now relieved to be back in the first world – not just the first world but America which is the lap of luxury despite my many financial and professional issues. But I was also reminded of how this shiny, bright, perfect place is a bubble, a big glistening bubble that is separated from the world, that is different from most of the world. And I am in it. I am in this bubble. I am in this Matrix. How can a person choose to live in the Matrix, Morpheus? I have chosen to live here, chosen to love this place. I am even called upon to serve as a cultural ambassador of sorts, in my own cultural origin. Is this legal? Is this appropriate? Is this sustainable?

Of course this – this global distribution of resources is deeply, shockingly inappropriate, wrong, and unsustainable. But what of my place in all of this? Is it okay for me to smugly pull my feet off the dirty floor and curl up on the cushion like a cat, and to throw my lot in with this bubble? When I travel back, a living representative of AMERICA in my standard of living, in the Luna bars, Nutella-and-go packs, easy-macs that I leave in my wake, and in my complaints of the heat, the power outages, and the disorder, do I possibly do more harm than good? Am I sharing expertise gained in the first world or am I simply scattering more acutely felt inequality?

Social class slammed into my face the moment I got off the plane when I arrived. In the hungry eyes of the porters, the wonderment of the passport control officer as she flipped through my navy passport, the dust, the fabric-wrapped suitcases marked in Urdu and coming from Jeddah, Madinah, Dubai, Abu Dhabi, the lower middle class expat workers, innocent of deodorant in their synthetic shalwar kameez outfits, as they compulsively pushed and shoved and struggled against the queue. The day I brought my carry-on down to the hotel breakfast, I was surrounded by officious waiters and other staff hoping that I’d tip before leaving. I was a disappointment, after having flashed a navy passport at check-out. In part, being stingy is protection against being targeted as the local generous tipper. Going to the airport bathrooms was always stressful because there’s a female janitor stationed there, whose main purpose appears to be to ask you questions about where you’re traveling, and then offer a string of invocations calling blessings, safety, and many children upon you, like an axe she is holding over you to make you pay up. The force of expectation is crushing. I didn’t have the right Pakistani cash on me. It was agonizing to me, now, to be at the center of so much expectation and so much need – absolutely justified need and justified expectation – because I wasn’t sure what to do (whom to tip, how much, whether to tip or not, whether it sets me up for trouble or not), and because I didn’t have unlimited financial reserves even though I do have a spinning carry-on, obviously American shoes, and that accent.

Mastery of English constitutes a stick that I seemed to be using, unwittingly, to clobber people over the head all the time. When I was asked a question in English, I must answer in English, but the contrast between my speech and the halting tones and stilted grammar of some interlocutors in itself, maybe, comes across as violence. I don’t know for sure. I think there is both aversion and desire, and I burned for hyper-visibility, shame, and ambivalence at being at the center of this interplay.

Visiting Pakistan

I’ve been in Pakistan for a week now.

It’s delightful to see family and friends when I visit Pakistan. Still, I can’t help always getting a little overwhelmed with having so many people in my life all the time. Much of my regular workdays in the US are spent alone – as in, not in close contact with anyone, and any contact is usually of limited duration and depth. When I am here in Pk, and am trying to arrange each daily schedule with invitations, visits, tailor-visits (not to mention work), I find myself lacking the emotional stamina and mental focus to keep it all together.

I think I sometimes come across as a little cold because I will not do multiple visits a day, and I am trying not to go out in the devastating heat almost at all. But I confess that my focus is on work and, most of all, my parents. If I end up outdoors and busy with visits too often, I will end up neglecting them, so I keep my engagement calendar busy but not too busy. Inevitably, I will offend a few people in the process. 

Ghost in your memory

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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?

Proud American

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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.