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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!
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
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.
Can I just say I am fascinated with America’s version of pomp and circumstance? At today’s Naturalization ceremony, where fifty new citizens took their oaths (I was the fiftieth to receive my certificate), our judge took the opportunity to cheerily induct us into American informality – “darn well,” “we want you to enjoy the moment,” “relax.” As someone who has walked woodenly during British convocations and sat with head bent for ages during high school assembly in Pakistan, this laid-back joke-studded ‘ceremony’ truly sums up everything that I find lovable and hilarious about America.
It’s significant that I spent much of my time in sympathetic whispered conversation with a younger Pakistani woman whose marriage, it seemed, was on the rocks. And as we placed our hands on our hearts, this woman’s predicament reminded me of some of the factors that prompted my immigration – my own struggles with my gendered status, and my sister’s awful breakup and divorce and struggle for custody of her children. Back in the early 1990s, in Rawalpindi, after her husband beat her, I took my sister to see a lawyer one afternoon. We returned to her (husband’s) house to find her in-laws arrayed against us, demanding to know why we had dared to leave the house. We were their women and their “responsibility” and we were completely helpless. That day I decided that I would never be in a state of such disempowerment and victimhood.
There’s no doubt about it: I could not find a man I could respect who could respect me in turn. Of course this is not to say that there were no men who could respect me. The problem was that I couldn’t find these men; I was (along with my diminutive stature and my very middle-class, frugal family background) being vetted by prospective mothers-in-law with powerful eugenicist motives and class aspirations. I was too studious to be a pretty, stylish, and sugghad (domestic and industrious) daughter-in-law and wife. My family was not wealthy enough, and was definitely not showy enough for fervently upwardly mobile suitors. My father’s eccentric temper drove people away unless they were willing to look beyond his beetle-browed and pugilistic appearance. And as for suitors who showed up bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, well, they couldn’t understand me and how my dreams went beyond marriage, children, and keeping a tidy home. After some years of futile rishta-hopping, and a couple of kinda-engagements, my parents knew that I was a commodity whose value was not current in the marriage market. So when I applied for scholarships and study abroad, they sadly and pensively agreed to support me.
The woman I met at the ceremony was surprised when I told her I had arrived in the US as an unmarried student. It was quite unusual in the 90s, she said, for unmarried women to travel to the US to study. “My parents are very conservative,” she said. “Oh, mine are too,” I assured her, “but I was even more conservative than them, so they thought I’d be safe. Of course, a few years later, I brought a white guy to Lahore to them, so that didn’t quite work out, did it?”
She told me about how her husband told her she should dress, how he was jealous of men who looked at her, and how he resented her work and her achievements. And even as I am fiercely loyal to the land of my childhood, and the home of my culture, I find myself sadly relieved that I am today a citizen here in this low-context individualistic culture, where – at least in theory – I, despite my relative lack of wealth, can enjoy many of the fruits of freedom and equality.
We held up our right hands and said something about foreign princes and potentates, sang something about bombs and flags. My neighbor told me she’d told her interviewer that she was not willing to bear arms but she’d be happy to serve in a civilian capacity. “Because I don’t want to bear arms, you know,” she said, and I chuckled because anyone I bear arms for is in a lot of trouble, owing to my lack of fine physical coordination.
The judge told us that today, it was like we were planting trees. Maybe we ourselves would not get to enjoy our trees so very much, but our grandchildren some day would say, “Gee [I hope they say ai-hai] I’m glad grandma decided to immigrate to the United States.” And, softie that I am, tears welled up in my eyes at the idea of how being an American shapes Raihana’s life chances and opportunities, and the lives of her children, and their children – and how some day, they will look at a picture of great-nanijan who, once upon a time got on a plane in her abayah and hijab, nervous at the thought of sitting next to a white man, and flew off, leaving tears in her aging parents’ eyes. I glanced over immigrants from twenty-six nations, including Albania, Bosnia, Cameroon, China, the Congo, Ghana, and Jordan, thinking of the travails that these immigrants had all gone through to become part of this collective, and cried some more. You can’t have a naturalization ceremony without a little crying. Some crying for the girl I used to be and for the woman I thought I’d be. Some tears for the dreams I learned to dream as a girl, and for the dreams that became nightmares. Some tears for the new dreams that I learned to dream in America, and the struggles to realize those dreams. Some crying for what you’re letting go of, and some crying for what you’ve gained.
In my distress at cultural inaccuracies and inauthenticity (see America the khubsoorat), there are parallels in my struggles with “traditionalist” Muslims who find “progressive” Islam wanting and inauthentic. When Muslims frame their Islam “mere Islam,” untouched by human hands, and my Islam adulterated, corrupted, shaped by human fallibility, I protest against their unfounded claims. After all, religion – religious texts and sources – go through the human medium before reaching us no matter how “mere” its adherents may claim to be. So why the coyness about ijtihad? Why the distress at indigenizing religious practice? Why the hissy fits over scholarly reinterpretation of sources? Why the extreme contempt for contemporary sources and scholarship that inch away from medieval scholarship?
Religion, like culture, shifts and changes. This does not detract from its Divine origins. Religion, like culture, must find a hospitable habitat and, in order to do so, must shift its weight, wiggle, and stretch a little. Maybe a lot.
I know I retain a core of nostalgia about that old-time religion and the desi culture of the 1980s and 1990s. But every time I follow the crowd into Lahore Airport, I know that that culture is gone. It has shifted and become something else. It is not unrecognizable, but it is not what it used to be. Year after year, I land there, holding in my heart the shreds of a hope that I might find my bachpan ke din again. I am not a child anymore, nor is my homeland. We are all growed up.
When I follow the queue of dazed Pakistanis, bearded men, disheveled women, and restless children, into O’Hare, I can see that they have changed. Some of the demeanor and the mannerisms I donned again for a 3-week visit in Lahore has already puddled around my feet and I am back, baby. We can get together and tease each other with rude Punjabi jokes, poke fun at homeland politicians, and enjoy each other’s biryani, but we always order cheese pizza for our children. And we tune netflix to Shrek so the kids can be quiet and we can relax and talk in Urdu.
It’s pretty cold right now. My Facebook feed is practically exploding. Sometimes, even though I am an immigrant, I lose this perspective.
As a girl, I had no coats when I was growing up, and we were middle class. I remember wearing thin cardigans over linen shalwar kameezes, with lightweight socks. One time, a schoolfriend wore a fuzzy coat to school one winter’s day (her brother had brought it her from the US) and I was stupefied. In the late 1980s, Afghan tradesmen used to sell fuzzy sweaters – possibly aid or charity clothing – at the roundabout in Liberty Market. We’d never seen anything like it.
To this day, when I wear performance fleece, I want to stockpile the stuff, fill a plane with it, and take it to Pakistan. The poor – the milkman, the vegetable seller, the gardener, the maid – they all wore nothing more than their shalwar kameezes with a woolen shawl over their faces and bodies.
You might think that it doesn’t get very cold in Pakistan. The coldest I feel is when I visit Pakistan in the winter. The poorly insulated homes and the lack of central heat make a visit to the bathroom an experience to be remembered.
The upper and middle classes now have access to a range of products, in Pakistan as well as abroad. But for the poor, the thin layers of a shalwar kameez with a worn-out shawl is all most of them have. And in recent years, the shortage of gas and electricity make for a killer mix.
Even if you do have gas heaters (and gas), those things tend to be leaky and you will get dizzy and ill if you enjoy them too long. I’ve done it too many times. I will never forget the time when a group of Albanian students at the International Islamic University (I was the Residence Hall Director) decided to run the gas heaters in their closed room at NIGHT. I went upstairs to check on them and found them all passed out. We opened doors and pulled them awake, and carted them off to PIMS (local hospital). It was terrifying. Those women learned that cold was not something you could always fight. You think we’re fatalistic? Try spending the winter in Pakistan.
So if you are in the US in the middle of a cold wave, or even sidling up to your radiators in parts of Europe, some would love to have what you have.
While interviewing Pakistani women academics in 2012, I learned how technological advances offer freedoms as well as snares for women. My research participant “Tahira” told me how some Pakistani young women are lured by secret lovers into making amateur “sex films,” but these men then proceed to share these films publicly on the internet. Reputations, lives, and families are ruined in the process.
There are, however, relatively innocent films that are posted publicly and cause similar devastation in conservative families.
I know that for many, the solution is for young women to do absolutely nothing that might bring shame upon their families. Perhaps, indeed, young women must wear chadors at all times and never get caught in a private moment where they appear erotic or attractive. I am, of course, being sarcastic.
In the unregulated jungles of the internet, there does not appear to be any available strategy that might protect people from the damage of being caught by strangers engaged in fun that does no one (else) any harm.
But perhaps, in our families, schools, colleges, and madrassahs, young men can be educated to think and speak of women with respect, as agents and not as objects, as persons who can speak and act, and not as things that can only be seen and spoken of. Muslim religiosity and conservative cultural norms certainly contain the seeds of compassion, humility, and understanding of human sexuality, complexity, and diversity. It’s time those seeds bear fruit.
June 24: I am in the large airy lounge at the Allama Iqbal Airport. It is 2am. I would like nothing better than to stretch my legs out and sleep. Considering I have at least 24 hours of travel ahead of me, I probably should. But the tumult in my heart will not rest.
This goodbye to my parents was the hardest so far, and I have said goodbye a number of times since I left Pakistan in 1994. Normally I retain my tears until much later, until I have been in my airplane seat for a few hours, it is dark, and no one can see me weep. This time, I wept silently all the way to the airport as my mother pressed and patted my hand, also silently and (as she thought) imperceptibly weeping.
I cried all the way from the entry into international departures through passport control, security check, and the lounge.
“Where are you going?” the security staff lady asked me. “America,” I answered with a voice full of tears. “Crying all the way?” she said with a smile.
It’s Saturday. I leave in the early hours of dawn on Monday. This has been one of my shortest trips back home. There was one other 2-week trip, during which I suffered from a most debilitating flu and high fever for much of the time. This visit has been uneventful health-wise. I have been careful about what I consume to the point of paranoia. People look at me funny, of course, when I decline such harmless things as a still-unwrapped charcoal-cooked corn on the cob – how I yearn for them and for the college memories that they bring – but after a few extremely unfortunate illnesses during previous visits, I am twice shy. I have refused fruit chaat, broast chicken, endless quantities of tea and coffee, and varieties of fruit juices, and I remember all of those refusals with heartache. Even that most fiercely delicious of Pakistani fruit, the mango, has upset my stomach somewhat but in this one respect, I have soldiered on, gorging myself on mangoes, combining the diarrheal qualities of mango with the costive qualities of the strange addictive purplish-black jamun.
Yesterday was the closing ceremony of my ethnographic methods workshop at Lahore College for Women. The workshop participants praised me effusively during the certificates-distribution ceremony, and this was my moment to bask in both pride and humility. In Pakistan, it is inappropriate to speak well of oneself. When I spoke of the importance of “selling yourself” through your resume or collegial networking, a participant smilingly referred to this as one of my “American” notions. You are supposed to serve in exemplary fashion until others spontaneously laud your qualities.
So on this last day of the workshop, I received the fruits of my labors when my dedication, my qualifications, my pedagogy, and my content knowledge were complimented in probably rather exaggerated terms. Uncomfortable with praise, however, I took that opportunity to express gratitude to the LCWU VC and the DFDI team which made the entire workshop possible, as well as the participants who brought keen energy and enthusiasm to the 2-week workshop. It was what the VC Dr Sabiha Mansoor described with gentle humor as our mutual appreciation society, and it was fun. I was presented with a plaque and a large bouquet of tuberoses and roses, and we hugged each other all around – I had to remind myself not to shake hands with the male faculty.
The workshop was, apparently, a watershed moment for faculty participants who rarely found opportunities to network and collaborate with fellow faculty at other institutions. The institutions represented were, moreover, a varied set – the large and old women’s university LCWU, the prestigious Presbyterian college Forman Christian College, and the venerable and bohemian National College of the Arts. The event was also an excellent opportunity for me to get a slight feel for the academic cultures at these different universities, and I enjoyed it immensely. It was, of course, sometimes challenging to advise faculty in postmodern literature, art, and music on their research writing, but the challenge was a productive one.
I saw plenty of evidence of how ethnographic methods fired the imaginations of Pakistani faculty across the disciplines, and it was delightful. I advised people on their research proposals for their PhD work, for applications to PhD programs, on fieldwork methods, and on report-writing. Now that I am a primarily-undergraduate faculty member at Millikin – and enjoying the pace of life as well as the new youthful spirit of teaching there – I am refreshed by the opportunity to advise postgraduate researchers.
It is Saturday afternoon. Now that I have had my annual grooming at Samia’s beauty salon (a lovely haircut but a hair dye several shades lighter than what I’m used to because blond is the new black over here!) I am sitting in Gloria Jeans Coffee in case any friends from my school, college, and work days are available to drop by and say salam. It would be better manners to visit friends individually or in small groups than to send out a facebook mass-message about my availability, of course. But the 2-week work trip simply didn’t allow for the time it would take to coordinate and visit people. So here I am.
The emotional climate between my parents and me is reaching a fever pitch. There are many long sighs, and much pottering around in my vicinity to clean up for me and provide any little thing I might possibly need. This can be difficult. Keep in mind, my life has revolved almost exclusively around two individuals (husband and child) for many years now. We have a fairly limited social life. The idea that anyone would tell me I should not go shopping or that I should go to visit the neighbors is hard to swallow. But I have been away for a long time. Just as I expect to see the Lahore of the 1980s and I find it excessively changed, my parents frequently turn to see their naive, bohemian, studious 20-year old daughter, and find an independent, excessively self-reliant 45-year old woman who does not take in her stride any effort to shape or restrict her activities. I react quickly and defensively to my father’s eccentric counsel regarding my financial decisions as if it were a personal affront. We are both struggling with a cumulative gap of many, many years. We have all aged immensely in each other’s absence, and now here we are, trying to understand each other.
We are different people. But our aching hearts are the same. We ache and weep for each other, but in person, we constantly squabble and misunderstand. Once we have squabbled, we mope, sulk, and cry in our separate spaces. Then we return, broken and hurt, because we do not have the time to sulk. We have only 1 day left together. And what after that? Do we have another visit next year? Who knows? I am terrified that at the next visit, I will not be able to squabble with my parents, that no one will tell me what to do and what to wear.
Mortality hangs over us, the loudest presence in the house. My father is 80, my mother is 78. These once-strong, hardy, and hard-working people are limping, napping, dozing, peering at me. Diabetes, cataracts, and a variety of other old-age ailments crowd my parents’ personalities out sometimes. My father repeatedly offers me milk, forgetting that I am lactose-intolerant –and then I realize that age has wreaked havoc with their capacity for memory. My mother tried to pair a red dupatta with a fuchsia outfit the other day; I was in a hurry to get to the workshop, and I snapped impatiently at her. A moment later, I suddenly realized that my mother did not see the difference between the colors. Utter shock.
For many years, I took in the world through my mother’s eyes. Now her eyes are failing. How will I see now?
Why do I see things so differently from her now? Why is she so frustrated when I see things differently?
At none of these moments do I reveal my shock and pain. Maybe I should. Maybe I should cry, let my weakness show, let my parents in, allow them some weakness too. I think I am crabby and stiff on purpose, because I am deeply afraid that any weakness will result in total collapse. Because deep down, when I think about my parents living their lives without me, growing old and growing sick, sighing and full of heartache when I disappear into international departures at Allama Iqbal International Airport – I want to collapse, cry, scream, and fall into hysterics. No other response seems appropriate. Everything else is a performance. So I continue, stiffly, snappishly, irritably, talking of work, packing, and the return flight, allowing no chinks to show in my armor. It is a worthless, cruel, painful strategy, and I will continue in it until I am alone in a crowd inside the airport lounge where no one who counts can see my tears. It is time to stop writing this now, because Gloria Jeans Coffee isn’t the place to be crying into your keyboard.