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Riding the bus from Tulsa at dusk
singing to myself, I fill the air
With richly-colored rainbows, and know
I’d missed those Mughal-e-Azam songs.
You know what they say, how people are people
and people everywhere are just the same,
their lives, experiences, feelings, joys,
sorrows, fury, frustration, tragedies,
all practically uniform.
I say – with all due respect to uniters
of a troubled world – no, we live in different rooms.
And me, I occupy two spaces
at once, speak different languages
My throat emits sets of different sounds
My two atmospheres differently composed
The stars in their heavens sparkle differently
I manage. I combine them both
in unequal measure at different times,
slipping one behind my back on campus
whipping it out with a flourish at the mosque.
But the struggle comes through sometimes
when I say I will do this yesterday and I stood my car
when I can’t find the right words in Urdu emotion
when I’m talking to ammi.
When they say bicultural
it’s not just that s.he can make lasagna and lassi
It’s that she can construct, maintain, and live in
two different worlds, set them up
with different furniture, in different colors
Fabulous, amazing, colorful lives!
(Bloody lonely hard work, of course).
Many who call themselves bicultural
can live one culture and can just manage the other.
Functionally literate. Not so bad,
but not quite comfortably at home.
To those who (try to) color the world
monochrome, I say, transcend that.
Maybe embrace the world that swirls
with dramatically different,
clashing hues, that clatters with a cacophony
of millions of kinds of sounds.
Going colorblind’s the lazy way.
A cop-out. That way, you’ve no need to try
to contain it all. All you have to do
is pretend it isn’t even there. Big deal, huh?
What an achievement to shut eyes tight,
and tell me I am beautiful (despite the swarthy skin
the heavy hair sans sunny hues, the opaque dark brown eyes.
Oh yes. Gorgeous and exotic.) try instead
to become an Argus, with eyes that truly
see a thousand colors, with ears
that truly hear a multitude
of children crying in different tones –
some of them charming your hearts away
and others not.
Read this ‘Christian Science Monitor’ article “Islam, the American Way.” I was interviewed for it, and am quoted.
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.
As a critical scholar of citizenship and pluralism, I can’t really celebrate almost anything. Nerds are a somber and disconsolate breed. Still, passing my U.S. citizenship test as I did this week gives me pleasure. Let me tell you why.
- First, I now share the same citizenship as my husband and child, so we can stand in the same queue on arrival into the U.S. If the political climate in this country takes a serious downward turn, I won’t be so fearful of becoming separated from my family.
- Second, my daughter now sees that I am not an unalloyed foreigner but am Pakistani, British, as well as American. Like Lola, I am collecting a collection.
- Third, I am from a test-and-rote based culture but I have not had the chance to practice my mad cramming skillz in a very long time. Cramming the 100 questions forced me to put aside work on my article on Muslim American women and dance, but it was a highly edifying process. For example, I now know that the Mississippi and Missouri rivers are the longest in the United States, and that a male citizen of any race can vote. This changes my perspective on life in a significant way.
- My only complaint is that my interviewer at the Chicago office did not ask me all ten questions and did not test me on three sentences each for English writing and reading. She only asked me 6 questions – and yes, she asked me for one of the two longest rivers and I told her both, hoping to get some kind of extra credit. I was actually hoping she would ask me for the names of Native American tribes so I could go through a beautiful list of names – Hopi, Inuit, Cherokee, Choctaw, Apache, Sioux, and so on. I’m glad, however, that I was tested on my knowledge of the Speaker’s name, though I resent not being asked about my local Congressman, Illinois Senators, and our governor, especially after I had managed to stop getting them mixed up. The interviewer gave up after having me read one sentence in English, which is patently unfair.
- She asked me if I had a middle name. I said no. This is kind of a sore point for me. Despite all my marks of cultural assimilation, I have only two names. I feel like a rapper – Snoop Dogg; Ice Tea; Vanilla Ice; Shabana Mir – instead of a scholar and writer with a respectable series of three names. At the very least, a middle initial that didn’t stand for anything except appropriate rhythm would be handy. One feels so much weightier with three names.
- Maybe this is why my interviewer asked me if I wanted to change my name. I was a little stumped. Was citizenship contingent upon my response? I took a chance and said no, since I am in the illustrious company of Omid Safi and–okay, that’s it.
- Notably, my interviewer asked me if I’d ever been arrested, convicted, or addicted to drugs. I decided to forego all mention of coffee and the occasional allergy medication and continued to say no.
- She asked me if I’d ever been a member of any terrorist organization. I really should mention academe because this is a pretty terrifying institution.
- In response to at least 4-5 different questions, I expressed my total and eager willingness to bear arms and hurt other people for the United States, whether in the army or under civilian command. Knowing as Svend White does how terrible my aim is, I would be concerned for any army or civilian command that handed me weapons, but if the United States doesn’t mind, well, why not.
- I should lodge a vociferous complaint about the Immigration and Naturalization Service because I was forced to sign my name on the absolute worst passport photographs I have EVER had. I am hopeful that they won’t stick it in my passport because this is a mug shot. I look obese, puffy, and ill; I have stringy, blond-streaked hair hanging over my forehead; and the Walgreens photographer instructed me specifically not to smile, so I look like I’m ready to fall down dead. If this picture ends up in my passport, I’m going for my fourth nationality.
Naturally, my family and I celebrated U.S. citizenship by escaping to the Pakistani neighborhood on Devon Street in Chicago, pigging out on Karahi Chicken, picking up halwa puri and gajar halwa, and praying my afternoon prayer in the basement musalla at Tahoora bakery.
Like Diogenes, I aspire to cosmopolitan ideals, and like Anthony K. Appiah’s (see Cosmopolitanism), I am an American citizen who is also Pakistani and somewhat British. I say ‘somewhat British’ because I catch myself whenever I describe myself as ‘British’ and recall a professor who scrunched up his face with ill humor saying, to the Zambian students at Cambridge University: ’She’s about as British as I am Zambian but she’s got a British passport.’
I want to ask that professor exactly what he meant by British – since he was White, a social-justice-educator type who does – ironically – inclusion in education. He does inclusion in education, though: his inclusion is focused on particular student populations, not on interlopers in the British bodypolitic who were born in the U.K. and happen to have very good English. So I want to ask him, and myself, and my daughter, where do we draw boundaries and borders and lines? Which ones serve a good purpose? Which ones can we cross? I have just crossed another border, in terms of my official paperwork, but I can’t help asking myself if I have actually also put myself behind another boundary, line, demarcation that divides me from humanity.
Tomorrow I take the U.S. citizenship test and interview.
It has been an edifying process, of course. Among other things, I have discovered my old cramming-for-test skills are still as bright and shiny as they were when I took my B.A. examinations in Lahore. Meet the student who memorized the entirety of ‘Macbeth’ so she could respond to any questions about ‘If it were done when ’tis done’ or ‘Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow,’ and likewise for ‘Hamlet,’ ‘The Rape of the Lock,’ and much of ‘Emma.’
For the woman who could memorize Harold Pinter’s plays, factoids about the number of Congressional representatives in the country, a Senator’s term, and the Bill of Rights are fairly manageable. Still, wish me luck!
Today, Saudi women will defy the ban on women driving. I hope and pray that the Saudi government will lift the ban right away.
I just arrived. Today, I acquired the regalia that visibly identify me as a member of the scholarly class.
I got my PhD in 2006, but I never bought the regalia. I also never made the trip back to Indiana so I could “walk” (i.e. walk across the stage during a graduation ceremony, be “hooded” by my advisor, and be photographed so I could add that photograph to my collection of status markers). Why didn’t I get the regalia and “walk”? I didn’t have the spare cash that would fund a trip to Indiana as well as an expensive set of robes. Of course I was also a new mother at that time, and I couldn’t really spare the time either. Also, my parents are in Pakistan, so who was going to tear up as they watched me walk? No one. The ritual didn’t hold meaning for me.
For the past several years, I’ve rented robes whenever I was obligated to attend my employing institution’s graduation or convocation ceremonies. This costs me about $60 each time. After a few rentals, one realizes that this is a bloody waste of money. In other words, it’s become cheaper to buy the regalia. I confess, too, that I envy my colleagues’ colorful regalia, and feel like a poor country cousin when I show up wearing a rental gown with the colors of my *employer* and not my doctoral institution. Horrors! I always shrink a little when eyes are cast upon me with the question, “Why don’t you have regalia from a different institution? Don’t you have a PhD? Is your PhD not from a reputable institution worthy of recognition through regalia?”
As a member of the toiling scholarly masses, this month – seven years after my PhD was awarded – I was able to purchase a velveteen gown and hood with the correct colors and a six-sided tam, no less. It’s probably no accident that I felt stable enough to also frame my PhD diploma and my MPhil diploma and tack them both up in my office.
It’s just one thing I can cross off my list. I now have regalia. I have arrived. Possibly, for some, donning regalia and posing for photographs in said regalia is a moment of pride and joy. Me, I feel like I just finished a load of laundry. What’s next on the list?
What’s next on your list?
Education and its symbols are some of the most hilariously bourgeois status markers of all. How affluent are you, after all, that you have the money to study for years and years, in contrast to most people in the world who struggle daily to fill their stomachs? The affluence of scholarship is not enough, though. I must fling it in the face of the world by donning gowns and caps with gold tassels on them.
The years spent in the service of scholarship are not enough though. One must pay through the nose to obtain the markers of this scholarship.
My trip has entered the awkward semi-final stage before departure. I have just about a week to go before I get back on that plane and head over the ocean. During the first week or so, I was struggling with heat, jetlag, and my workshop schedule. I was too harried to be sorrowful. My dad had a few of his usual outbursts of temper, and I returned, albeit briefly, to adolescent sulking. At times, I kind of looked forward to the return flight back to Chicago, where any power outages are strange and brief, my bed is soft rather than firm, and the road stretches out – paved and smooth – before me. My family scrambled to make my life here pleasant and manageable. Sleep-deprived and irritable, I accepted their efforts with relatively poor grace.
Now, my parents and I are in an intense state of perpetual awareness of the impending departure. We wake up in the middle of the night and wander in the house. Lights are on at odd hours. There isn’t enough time left together for us to be grumpy.
I prayed fajr prayers outdoors in the porch in the cool dark dawn today, and my mother prepared toast for me. My mind and heart are full: I am preoccupied with my emotional and cultural dis/orientation here in Pakistan and there in the US. Every time I leave Pakistan, I am wrenched anew. The only metaphor I can think of for this wrenching is that of getting your legs waxed. The searing, wrenching pain, the soreness afterwards, and then, barely a few weeks later (for us South Asian girls) the discomfort and itchiness of new hair in follicles. Immigration is a constant pain. Sometimes it dies down, and sometimes it fades, but it remains. I wonder, under the dark sky, sitting on my prayer-mat, what would life have been like if I had never left? I would have remained embedded in my family’s lives without any disruption, and I would have continued to be excited about coffee at Gloria Jeans Coffee, dinner at Gymkhana, and shopping at Junaid Jamshed. Could I have remained content in that life, in that incarnation? Perhaps I could have been more than content – perhaps I could have been more whole, less disrupted, less guilty. Who knows?
I am reminded of an intense moment from twenty years ago. I was a newly minted MA in English Literature from Punjab University, and my family was hosting the family of a suitor. He was decent enough, they all were – simple, middle-class, low-key, Urdu/Punjabi-speaking people. His mother sat in my room, talking about I can’t remember what, except that it was mind-numbingly dull. Something about the texture of okra, or the price of cotton lawn, or one of her ailments. And I saw with horror my life stretching out before me in a long series of conversations about okra and ailments, and felt like an arrow had pierced my heart and I was slowly bleeding to death. I couldn’t do it. I was not that person. But I did not know how to avoid the responsibilities that that person faced. If I had this arranged marriage with one of these decent men, I would have to have these conversations about okra, and be grateful for them. Of course this is not to say that there aren’t desultory, monotonous conversations in the US: there are plenty of unpleasant, boring, even offensive conversations but I am not bound to them. What frightened me was the binding nature of my ties here, the cocooning of my mind in the particularities of my socioeconomic culture here. And now, I am free, right? Now I am free in the US to spend day after day with only accountability to the workplace and my nuclear family. I needn’t answer any questions about okra at all. Svend is too cerebral – except when he is juvenile – to be able to sustain lengthy conversations about mundane matters. I can’t even decide what it is that is pulling me apart – East-West culture, the differences between Islamic religious culture/s in Pakistan and in the West, geography, class, education, intellectual style, language, or all of those things together. If you’re reading this, good luck figuring it out.
“Which is better, America or Pakistan?”
The little girl who asked me this question in Urdu yesterday was bright-eyed and eager. I looked into her curious thin face, and I knew I could only say, “Pakistan.”
“Isn’t America good though?” she asked. I was befuddled. She had me cornered. I live there, don’t I? I chose to move there, didn’t I? I have many that I love there, don’t I? Must I choose? The little brown girl stares brightly at me and the Atlantic Ocean glowers, demanding that I decide.
My postcolonial, subaltern sensibility brought me through: “Yes, America is good, but we are Pakistani, aren’t we?”
I hope she doesn’t figure out that I didn’t really answer her question. I can’t. I can’t even answer the questions in my own heart.