An extremely belated Eid mubarak and Merry Christmas to readers.
And now 2007 is coming to an end.

Many of you are hoping for a better, more triumphant, happier, more personally satisfying, more spiritually fulfilling year. 2008 is an enormous blank right now. It’s enormous, and it’s a blank. From a Muslim perspective – or from most religious perspectives – it’s neither. It’s brief: how brief does 2006 feel now that it is blowing out the door to join the dead leaves swirling in the wind? So it’s not enormous: it’s a short, mere day of a year, that will melt into one whole, becoming yesterday very quickly.

It’s not a blank either, from a religious perspective. It’s a blank to us, because we can’t predict it. But it is inscripted with the Writ of God, as Omar Khayyam puts it:

The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all your Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all your Tears wash out a Word of it.So in one respect, we plan our 2008. We – or I should say, the organized among you – draw it up, complete with to-do lists and new year’s resolutions. In another respect, we wait by the door, hoping that 2008 will be a cheery rosy-faced aunt, laden with presents, rather than a stern-browed stranger.

Right now, in the middle of a vacation, staying with friends and relatives for a few days at a time each, I’m more inclined to drowsily wait for the rosy-faced aunt.

May your 2008 be blessed, happy, and successful. May our human family be protected and blessed.

Pakistan, political

The pressure cooker of potential

Pakistan is on my mind. My family, relatives and friends in Pakistan are on my mind. The poor are on my mind, since the hangama on the streets will obviously wreak more havoc in their lives than anyone else’s. Average people aren’t able to find petrol/gas to get to work. The fear of demonstrations and police crackdowns will infest the homes of all and sundry.
To borrow from Lawrence’s post about Benazir (he calls her “Possibility”), I always look upon Pakistan as a pressure cooker – but a pressure cooker bubbling with passionate potential. You never know what it’s going to come up with.

It will be unpredictable, frustratingly unpredictable to those who want to plan the futures of millions. You could plunder the treasury for years and make your millions off the starving masses, and suddenly you are stopped in your tracks. The same masses could lift a cricket player on their shoulders, hoping he might be their knight in shining armor. They call for change, for affordable meat and lentils, for decent schools, for values, for security, for jobs. They tolerate even plunderers of the nation’s wealth, hoping for a different tomorrow. Their demands are not complicated. They don’t ask for much. They just want to be able to live lives of tolerable dignity, with food, water and clothing. They want safety in their lives and their honor. They want some protection from invaders, from the exploitation of the wealthy classes and from the ruling classes.

When people ask me what Pakistan is like, I’m stumped. I have to explain that Pakistan is two things. Pakistan is the place where people can buy foreign products – Levi’s jeans, Skechers shoes, Body Shop cosmetics right in the middle of Gulberg – and eat in foreign restaurants. Pakistan is the place where the price of onions and lentils goes up so high that the poor can barely afford to eat. Pakistan is the place where people can spend thousands of rupees a night, amusing themselves in private parties and restaurants. Pakistan is the place where power outages are common, in the middle of the summer. Pakistan is where some people have airconditioners throughout their homes so that they never even experience the weather, and it is the place where some have barely a table fan to cool off.

So which Pakistan do you want to know? Which Pakistan do you want to experience? Depending on how much money you have, you can get your pick. You can have a good time, and you can come back swearing about how nasty, brutish and short the lives of “those people” are. I know Pakistanis who can trip back and forth across the globe, easily living lives of inexpressible comfort in both Pakistan and the US. I know people in Lahore who have doctors in the family yet can just barely manage to make ends meet.

Immigrants like me are shaken and traumatized by the events and the changes in Pakistan. I remember the curfews after Bhutto’s execution. I remember Zia’s violent death in the plane crash. I remember the undisguised corruption of politicians and rulers. I remember the endless unanswered questions, the frustration of average Pakistanis who wanted to live with basic dignity.

Naziraan, our maid, looked over a one rupee coin with the image of Quaid-e-Azam on it and said wistfully, “eh haunda te ennee mehngaai na haundee” (If he was alive, there wouldn’t be so much inflation.) Naziraan wanted a TV: she didn’t want to have to go to neighbours’ homes to watch movies. Naziraan wanted a fan for the home. There was always a glimmer of hope in some hero/ine. Bhutto would fix it. Zia might fix it. Benazir might do some good. Nawaz Sharif might be different. Heck, even Musharraf might surprise us. And so we wait.

While Naziraan waited for a fan, our friends shipped over American SUVs as gifts for family members. Others scraped together money earned in Dubai to pay for their daughters’ weddings. They worked, day after day, in the desert heat, far away from their loved ones, hoping to reconstruct their children’s lives. “So that they might have something better than us.” My father worked all his life and forgot how to relax and enjoy himself, forgot how to take vacations, working both morning and evening and coming home tired and bored, so that he could save enough money for us, so that he could put us in the best private schools. And then I got in a plane and left, taking with me the investment of years.

I watched and wondered if there might be a way for me to go back, to make some contribution, to raise my child there, to live a life of real contact with real people who spoke my language. And my brother said to me, “Why would you come back? Make your life there.” So I stay here, and my heart remains split in two. It lives half in the Pakistan of the 1980s and half in the US of today. I am divided between two spaces and two times.

But this isn’t about me. This is about the lives that are being crushed under the military boot, the lives being moved around by great invisible hands over a chess-board.

The helplessness of average people is palpable when you land there. They watch you as you exit from International Arrivals, hoping you might take their cab, or allow them to carry your suitcases full of unknown goodies. The hunger is unending. The frustration has been building up for years. The pressure cooker has been bubbling for years, and no one lifts the lid. Promises, laws, bans, curfews, policies and empty words. No one listens.

And then foreign viewers of CNN wonder what is wrong with the angry faces burning tires on Mall Road in the Lahore. They watch the contorted faces with uncomprehending fear, hoping those faces stay right where they are, with their funny languages, their strange religion, and their swarthy complexions. Surely they must be calling for something strange and outlandish, like some barbaric laws or death and destruction … – when truly, some peace, security, a bit of food and drink, and some honor and dignity might really work just as well.

Pakistan, political

Benazir Bhutto is dead

Just days after the murder of the artist Gulgee and his wife, Benazir Bhutto has been gunned down.

I was in elementary school when one-time prime minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto was executed under General Zia’s martial law in April 1979. Less than a decade later Benazir Bhutto took on the mantle of her father and became prime minister in 1988. Towards the end of the first decade of the 2000s, Benazir Bhutto has been assassinated. I haven’t been following her family much, but this would be the ideal way for the dynastic politics to continue.

Bhutto was not my favorite politician, nor was she a person of great charisma or outstandingly relevant politics. She is suspected of numerous crimes, financial and others, against the nation. But she was the prime minister of Pakistan when I was 20 years old, and her existence is etched upon my mind – and her death is necessarily a shock. Though I wasn’t an admirer, a woman head of state was still a tremendous statement in our everyday lives. Electing a woman head of state is something many, many other nations have yet to achieve, and my country achieved this in spite of enormous challenges.
We remember this today, as we mourn the circumstances in Pakistan that make such events possible and oddly unsurprising today. As a friend has reminded me, Pakistan needs our prayers today more than ever.


The balance of aloneness and togetherness

These days, we’re holidaying with friends in the DC area. It’s incredibly satisfying to know that every day, you’ll be seeing familiar faces, exchanging ideas, feelings, memories with them. You won’t be spending the day in your own personal orbit.

At times, though, you wonder where *you* are.

Socializing with kindred souls is spiritual, emotional, fulfilling. It’s hard to tug yourself away. Raihana, at 21 months, has the same struggle. She doesn’t want to go to bed. She screams at bedtime. At times I’m the same way. Sleep and weariness fills my limbs, but I don’t want to sleep.

When I consider going to bed, I am haunted by the days that mingle into each other, when all I do is work and study, care for the baby, take her to school, pick her up from school, and so on.

But after a few days of fevered socializing, in spite of myself, I find my heart stealing inwards into my rib cage, my mind tiptoeing around to find a cubbyhole. My eyes wander beyond my friend Maliha’s pretty bamboo blinds to the bare trees outdoors, the gray branches swaying gently in the wind, the clouds scurrying across the great blue. I’m trying to find myself again, trying to find my spiritual compass, my emotional home.

I am enjoying myself intensely, but I need to find a balance where I am connected to myself inwardly and connected to others outside. The way my life goes, though, it’s usually one or the other, but I’d like to be the tightrope artist that balances both sides of her body perfectly. I do feel that, now that my immediate social hunger has been somewhat satisfied, a few days into the vacation, I try to breathe Hu *while* I am surrounded by loved ones.

children, poetry, political, Urdu, USA

An Eid present from Uncle Soldier

I chanced upon this heartbreaking poem here when looking for children’s literature in Urdu. The barefoot child is hurrying along, her small wrist grasped firmly by a uniformed (probably American) soldier’s hand. She is holding a bundle high–she is small, so she is trying to hold it up so it doesn’t touch the ground.


Mama, look!
Get up!!
I got this Eid gift from Uncle Soldier.
How nice they are,
these uncles of mine.
They gave me food
they gave me toys
they gave me Eid money

But they say, “Papa will not come”
And that I’ll never see Big Brother again
and that I’ll never go back to my village again

Get up!
You don’t listen to
anything I say

Papa doesn’t come, and Brother isn’t here.
These clothes that the Uncles gave me
who shall I wear them and show them to?

How shall I celebrate this Eid?

(By Muhammad Ajmal Anjum, translated by myself)