Long-delayed lessons in Urdu

Years ago, I promised myself that I would be That Parent who ensured that her child would fluently speak Urdu, Arabic, Punjabi, and her native English. Maybe Farsi and Danish too.

A decade of U.S. grade school later, a sadder and a wiser woman approaches the task again.

So this summer, we are courting Urdu once more. We’ve unearthed our qaida, the Urdu primer. And yes, I feel a little sad inside, as I remember how my 3-year old kid handily recited all these words. Now, after elementary school and middle school in the US, she has lost much of her Urdu knowledge. (I’m looking at you, Miss Bonnie, who found fault with my toddler for not being fluent in English in preschool, so I felt pressured to ditch Urdu).

I bury my sadness, and reassert joy. I firmly believe in laughs as we learn. So with ب, I throw a mock-fit because LOOK AT THE BILLI it’s like they got our very own cat Ghost for the photo!!

It’s a sign!

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I go on to explain to R that Urdu is like, such a very obliging language for English speakers. Because ٹ is for ‘tamatar’ and ‘tank.’ Can you see how you really should not even get credit for learning a new language?

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I ask her to read the word for ج and she goes 🤨 “But that’s JUG.” So I explain patiently, “Yes, you’re welcome; we’re a welcoming sort of language; we accept all words, and when you come to learn our language, we say, no problem, ma’am, bring your words, we’ll take it all.” Hammered the same point home with ر for ‘rail and ‘rickshaw.’

However, I was forced to apologize for how we use the same جہاز for a ship and an airplane, sorry about that, but you can always be persnickety and say ہوائی جہاز for an airplane, and be ridiculously literary and call a ship a سفینہ but nobody’s going to get that, especially not the current generation of romanized-internet-Urdu texters 🧐

As for the word for ث I mean, this is just the most useless word ever; you’re not going to go up to a fruit-stall and say, “Janab, my good man, give me some samar;” you’re gonna ask for پھل so this is the ‘Mess With Your Head’ side of Urdu. “Why do we have them?” she asks, “why do we keep them?” WE DO NOT TOSS. We keep it, we save it, because we don’t throw anything away.

This goes for various letters we get from Arabic, which we take, and we smelt them all into one sound each. So ث and س and ص are all the SAME sound; she’s curling her tongue to say ص and putting a little lisp into her ث and I say “NO. It’s ALL the same, don’t you be all fancy and Arabic with us.” We take our lowly ت and our sophisticated ط and we flatten them into One. “Why?” she says. Why don’t we just get rid of them? Because Tradition.

Because words with ط have meanings and links all over the place, and to substitute them with a basic ت would disconnect it. We do not disconnect – whether it’s a toxic cousin or a grumpy uncle, we do not disconnect. So we do not disconnect from our ط or our ص either.

My kid has named چ the ‘preening letter.’ Arabic doesn’t have the sound; English doesn’t have a single letter for it. But we have a چ! 🇵🇰

Likewise for ژ – if you want to transliterate French, like bonjour, you’ve got the perfect sound right here. But we know, don’t we, that for most of the time this is a useless letter. Who’s going to say ‘zhaala’ instead of اولے (hail)? And who’s going to say مژگان instead of پلک (eyelash)?

The ح word حوض is not very useful unless you’re reciting a na’at about حوض كوثر. Or you’re familiar with the water reservoirs they use to water cattle. Or you go to a mosque where they have standing water for ablutions. 😬

My teen got a kick out of خرگوش (rabbit) being an amalgam of خر (donkey) and گوش (ears). Here, we risked a long digression re: amalgamated animal names – except I moved right along to ذ which is basically like the X of the Urdu alphabet.

What is X without xylophone? For ذ all we have to offer, for years and years, is that old trade word ذخیرہ – which most folks don’t use unless they’re talking about hoarding.

I guess toilet paper would be the latest ذخیرہ and ذخیرہ can return to currency in the pandemic?


Emotional crochet

I know, I know – it’s amateur hour for this new crocheter. But I turn to my crochet needle and yarn to drown so very many struggles.

There is so much I cannot control. But I can control this needle.

Do you see it, can you feel it – the anxiety and the grief woven into the stitches? Every stitch carries the burdens of forgetting. Every chain is an irregular heartbeat. The double crochet, the half double crochet, patterns and rhythms of separation and displacement. I plunge into the new quest of the linen stitch because so many of my journeys seem to be endless, never arriving at my refuge; this quest will go somewhere. Somewhere imperfect, but something I can get my hands and fingers around.


My first curry

It feels like eons ago that I was a new resident at the International Islamic University Girls’ Hostel in the fall of 1991. I was the only faculty member at the hostel, and special permissions had to be acquired for me. Living in a hostel in a city far from my comfortable middle-class family was a strange practice for women of my class. Why would I choose to do this? How could my family countenance this? People were mystified.

But my parents wanted me to chase my dreams, and they also wanted me to have financial independence.

The hostel was not comfortable. It wasn’t always clean. I remember being shocked by the communal bathroom on my first day there. I didn’t have a private room at first; I shared one with people who weren’t terribly happy about sharing a room, and who thought I was rather spoiled (which I was). They laughed about how pale I looked when my mommy and daddy dropped me off, and how I’d vomited for nerves en route to the hostel.

And there I was, in Islamabad, to teach English to IIU students.

This was a new existence. If you wanted something, you had to get it. If you wanted it done, you had to do it yourself. I was the youngest child of a middle-class doctor; I attended the best and most expensive girls’ school in Lahore. We were frugal, but we were insulated from everyday life. And then I was out there, by choice, dealing by myself with sniping colleagues, catty students, hostel staff, bus drivers, taxi-drivers, shopkeepers, cat-callers …

I was often hungry. Hostel food wasn’t good, and it wasn’t enough. But I was no cook. I never actually learned as a girl. I took a rubbish class with some housewife, and watched as she cooked dishes in her kitchen, but I was not an interested learner.

I was always cold; for a Lahore-raised girl, Islamabad by the hills was often freezing. We didn’t really have winter-appropriate clothing, now that I think about it. And no buildings were insulated, ever. Always drafty. So I got myself one of those tiny, terribly unsafe gas heaters, a rickety little metal thing – I can’t even find pictures of it online anymore. But it was a lifesaver on those cold mornings when I shivered through fajr.

I don’t know who, but somebody taught me I could flip the heater on its back and it would then be a little stove. On this little stove, I balanced a small saucepan. Poured a little oil into the pan, and chopped an onion and a tomato into it. Cooked it for a few minutes, grabbed a roti from the hostel kitchen, and this was my dinner.

How delicious that simple onion-tomato curry was to me.


Feminist critique in a Pakistani film, Ek Gunah Aur Sahi

FIPRESCI - World Cinema - Cinemas of the South

A hit in 1975, the Pakistani movie Ek Gunah Aur Sahi (Just One More Sin), attacked exploitative respectability patriarchy in the story of a madam, known as “Mummy” and her (real or adoptive) daughter, Afshan. The bare plotlines are familiar: the deeply spiritual madam and the prostitute with a heart of gold seek respectability but they are defeated by male lust on the one hand and misogynistic respectability on the other. Once I can gather my emotional energy to do so, I’ll write a feminist analysis of the entire film.

One of the songs in this film, Aa dekh Mohenjodaro mein, rendered powerfully by Noor Jahan is, for its time and place, quite radical in its feminist critique of patriarchy. I have been trying unsuccessfully for some days to add translations to the youtube videos (they will not allow it), so I decided to just post my translation here.

In the scene, the respectable man who is besotted with Afshan, the prostitute, encounters her and her madam at the ruins of Mohenjodaro. In this song, Afshan confronts the man with the history of patriarchy and female exploitation and degradation. The song makes use of the Pakistani Muslim assumption of superiority to an idolatrous past. In the past, Afshan says, the priesthood used and abused women for profit and pleasure. Yet what has changed today, in an enlightened Islamic society? Here too, women are both consumed and slandered. So objectified and valueless are women that even respectable families sell their daughters by advertising their beauty for the sake of a marriage proposal. In Muslim Pakistan, the birth of a girl is greeted with sorrow and anger, while the birth of a boy grants honor and pride to the father. Men hold the keys to respectability, honor, religion, social mores, and status; how is their humanity superior to that of women? The song closes with a ringing call for freedom from these chains of patriarchy and submission.

Where have I come from, who am I?
Maybe you might know me
The curtain rises from history
See if you can recognize me

Come and see in Mohenjodaro
This distorted image of mine
On this weak hope I live on still
Some day perhaps my fate will change

With a sandalwood mark on my forehead
And bracelets of flowers on my arms
You called me devadasi
Made me dance in temples of worship
Lustful priests lived off my blood for centuries
Their god was pleased with my service
And humanity’s tavern flourished as well

How will you erase my tale?
It is written in the stone of history

Come and see in Mohenjodaro
This distorted image of mine

She who is sold in the markets
She wanders lost in the streets
She is an eclipsed moon
A star fallen from the heavens  
Every evening she changes into this form
Lying in your bed
Yet she may be someone’s mother
She is someone’s daughter too

Disrepute is my destiny
So go on, and enjoy slandering my name

Come and see in Mohenjodaro
This distorted image of mine

What happened, has happened to us in dark ignorant times  
But sadly, even today in respectable families
By custom, we decorate and display our daughters
For marriage proposals, a hundred ways are devised
That this bad commodity may be sold off somehow

Such is the ‘honor,’ such is the ‘esteem’
That I am granted in the world today

Come and see in Mohenjodaro
This distorted image of mine

To you belong morality, religion is yours
Yours are the rules, yours is the law
But is your being separate from mine?
Is your blood distinct from mine?  
When a son is born, how proudly does your neck stretch high
What happens to you when a woman births a girl?

So when will the day of freedom arrive?
When will these chains of mine be shattered?


What you left behind

Old house
Photo credit: JJ Foster

When you move geographically, when you immigrate, no one tells you what this really means.

You think of yourself as a safely transplanted shrub: everything you need is going with you, and you will make a home in a new place. Nothing will change. No one tells you that you are pulling up roots, ripping yourself.

You imagine that you are packing everything you need in some infinite suitcase.

But there is a weight limit.

You think of yourself as adding to what you already have. But there is subtraction. Stuff gets left behind.

You left huge chunks of yourself behind. And now you have to grow new limbs and new pieces of our heart. It hurts to grow. It hurts to replace yourself.

When you arrive at your destination, you are so busy setting up in the new place, you don’t check to see what you brought.

And eventually, when you have the time and mental energy to check your attic and your albums, you realize that your life, huge chunks of it, got left behind, never to be reclaimed. What you left behind isn’t waiting for you. It was swept away with time. And so are you.


Maturing skin: reflections from a woman in her early 50s

The other day I video-chatted with a young friend.

I’d just woken up from a bad night (well – a series of bad nights).

I thought, Should I put on moisturizer and lipstick? Nah, I told myself, it’s fine. I’m used to looking fine. I’m used to looking good. But my awareness, it seems, hasn’t caught up to the reality of me.

After your 40s, it goes down fast.

Well, I turned on the video camera and I was shocked! shocked I tell you, by the aging, the maturing, the sagging. Who is that woman?! I refuse to accept her. I sit up straight, I throw hair over my jaw, I pout. She will not go away.

The visceral response this engendered in me has me reeling. Who am I? How do I respond to this reality?

To people who have not known us before, maybe I look pretty good for my 50s. I could look better, sure; I could lose weight and have a tighter chin and jaw. But to others, who are used to seeing the Best of the Best Facebook Profile pictures, the sudden decline (why do I call it decline?) may be shocking. I imagine seeing the shock in their eyes. Is it real? Are they really shocked?

For some reason, most of my friends tend to be younger than me. This has been the case for many years. The nature of my immigrant career trajectory is, in part, the reason. It took me longer to get from Country A to B to C. It took me longer to get from Postgraduate Degree A to B to C to D. It took me longer to wade through Marriage Market A to B to C.

Maybe it’s because I radiate that Cool Older Person vibe that is both comforting and fun to young folk. Maybe I am a sort of Peter Pan, who hasn’t embraced her age properly.

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For whatever reason, I often find myself comparing myself to the young folk in their prime that I am surrounded by. This is not healthy.

The young folk in their prime that I interact with – not to generalize but for the most part, they are not worrying about their now-permanent, deep, dark eye-bags. They have, for the most part, a gentle smoky eye, easily covered by a lightweight concealer. On my eye bags, the concealer must be caked on to have any impact; in which case, it is cakey and cracks and it is more of an insult than an improvement.

My young friends aren’t dealing with a sagging set of matching jowls. They are contouring with bronzer to get a better set of cheekbones. I never had cheekbones, and now I am losing whatever jaw-line I had a few years ago.

My gaze is cruel and brutal, dwelling upon the lines across my neck, the frown-lines set into my brow. How did I come to be this body and face? And how will I come to accept it, as it shifts and melts even more?

Do a google images search for aging or maturing women: you’ll find a lot of Helen Mirren and Jane Fonda-types – gorgeous women with a bit of grey hair in pixie cuts and tight jawlines. Your “diverse” representation tends to be of this type: basically perfect, gorgeous, graceful, skinny women with a palatable dash of age thrown in. The people who are really plastic-surgery-free-aging are on those “aging the worst” websites. Regular older women are – to some degree – scrubbed.

Does our heavily visual culture have room for me in my 50s and my 60s? Or will I increasingly become a sight that engenders discomfort and erasure? Must I be hidden away, except for a 5-year old studio photograph? If I do not submit to photographic filters and a whole new make-up regimen, may I still be seen with joy and pleasure? If not, how do we re-train our eyes, our minds, our hearts to embrace lines, wrinkles, sag, and change?


Chicago-Lahore video-chat reflections

Video chatted with family in Lahore this morning. Everybody’s in my ammi’s room. She’s massaging my niece’s foot and my nieces is lying on her tummy; my nephew & his new wife are cuddling with my sister-in-law; my brother’s excited about binging on Game of Thrones. And everyone is talking at the same time.

They’re well ٱلْحَمْدُ لِلَّٰهِ
I miss them and I miss that hamster party on the bed.

I left all that for a room of my own, for being a separate person, for health, for education, for cerebral conversations, for a certain gendered religious life, for – what, fame? Precarity? A rugged individualist economic life?

But in some ways, it just happened and it wasn’t a choice. It’s still totally unclear. If it was a choice, I’m still not sure I made the right one.


Pakistani students organizing to feed the hungry in the pandemic

I am grateful for this short interview with Wardah Noor, a young student of Law at Lahore University of Management Sciences. She has organized, with a team she’s developed – “Future Pakistan” – to serve the thousands of hungry families in the small city of Layyah in the province of the Punjab, Pakistan.

Small towns and cities are underserved by state and NGOs, so this amazing work is underway merely thanks to teams of young volunteers and word-of-mouth support.

I am in awe of these youth of Pakistan, from humble backgrounds, serving entire neighborhoods despite their own limited resources.

As Wardah Noor says, it seems that the crisis of hunger is destroying many poor families. This desperately needed work is being carried on the shoulders of young college students like Wardah Noor.

Please support this endeavor.
Paypal for donations: ahmedshoaib204@gmail.com
Bank donations info: Allied Bank. IBAN: PK45ABPA0010061253180013. Title: Wardah Noor


Muraqabah in quarantine

It occurred to me today that I had never shared the tools of muraqabah that I have gained in my Sufi order. And as a lot of people are thinking of ways to best utilize their time and minds and spirits during the coronavirus social distancing project, I thought this was the best time to share

In the centuries old Sufi tradition, muraqabah is a practice you can do at particular times, and at all times. Muraqabah means to watch over, or to be vigilant, and is a meditation practice. Yes, you can do it at specific times, collectively and individually, but you can also do it at all times, whenever you remember. In my early Sufi days, my shaikh taught me to focus on the dhaat or Essence every 15 minutes or so, and whenever I remembered. Or you could do it at a particular time of the day.

This becomes the central feature of meditation, but it is primarily a preparation: do some chants/devotions to purify your heart and wash the rust away. This is akin to the taking one step toward the Beloved.

When he draws near me by the span of his hand, I draw near him by the length of a cubit. When he draws near me by the length of a cubit, I draw near him by the length of a fathom. When he comes to me walking, I come to him running.”

Simply empty your mind of busy thoughts. Stop trying too hard. Open your heart to Allah/God/the One/the Divine allow yourself to be showered with the faizan/grace.

Faizan is always there. It is us who are not always aware of it, or ready to receive it.

Don’t worry about emptying your mind either. If a gnat flies in and out of your room, let it. If a thought buzzes around you, let it go through without trying to catch it or watch it or follow it.

This isn’t so much about work you do; it’s about loosening the knots in your heart. It’s about not doing all the busy work that blocks you from the perpetually generous Source. I recall sitting down to meditate and wondering if I should do something active – recite Qur’an, or pray, or something else. Don’t lock yourself into guilt, or stuff you should be doing or should have done.

It is better, having prepared your soul, to receive. What you have to offer the Beloved is not better than what the Beloved can grant you. Just receive.

You could do it right now; you could do it whenever you remember; you could sit yourself down in a peaceful spot to focus; you could set a timer to do it every hour for a minute or two.

The benefits are immense. The more regularly you do it, even briefly, the stronger the Attraction. You will feel the pull grow stronger as you practice this regularly.