Read my latest Religion Dispatches post here: An Immigrant’s Tale: The Pull of the Homeland.
Recent events in Pakistan over the past few years have left me broken-hearted. Some have wondered why I, as a Pakistani expat, don’t comment on these events. Why don’t I write an op-ed? A letter of protest? An analysis of the issues?
The truth is, I am speechless. Yesterday, after a long time, I was forced to speak. And I realized the only way I could express my feelings was in verse. So here’s a poem from 2002.
My mother’s home
Prayer of a Pakistani expatriate for her homeland
Black clouds race across the skies
Over my mother’s home.
O come, do come, and shade the roof
With dark green leaves of the mango tree.
My mother’s house stands alone.
My father’s tired horse pulls
the cart and hurries across stones.
The river rumbles and rises higher.
No one will give my father shelter,
and my mother’s home stands alone.
My brother’s child plays in the dust
With paper horses and dolls of clay;
She does not see the clouds ahead.-
Run, child, run into the house for
Lightning cracks over your innocent play.
My sister embroiders her crimson shawl,
Smiling to think of her wedding day.
But the mad wind in the peepul moans
And tugs upon my sister’s shawl,
And my mother’s house stands alone
Across the seven seas I sit
At foreign windows and watch the sky
Until the last of the swallows has flown
And I wait until my tears alight,
Praying for my mother’s home.
My burly cousins in the neighboring town
Can thatch a roof and mend the walls,
But their own house is made of stone
And they have harvest time today
And do not think of my mother’s home.
My mother’s home stands low with no
brick wall, or gate, or dome.
The harsh wind buffets it from all sides
No one comes to my mother’s aid
And her home stands all alone.
O if I were the river I’d embrace the banks.
I would swallow the clouds if I were the sky.
I’d shade the roof if I were a tree.
If I were light I’d embrace the land
And protect her home from the evil eye.
And here is another poem that strikes a similar note. Some of you have already read it, and I thought it could use a re-run.
– immigrant eid –
they announced Eid today.
my house is silent.
i hear more sirens than usual outside.
my husband’s at work.
i couldn’t get out of bed and go
to eid namaz.
i really should push myself, i thought,
and go, but thought, then, go for what?
so my husband and i can split up
at the mosque front door to go and sit
with our respective strangers inside?
so aunties in abayas can look
at my pants, because they’re shabby and
because they’re pants, and then look up
at my face unseeing-
When we’re done i come out and wait
for him in the cold parking lot
watching people hurry to cars
and segregated parties in their
tight little colour-coordinated groups-
while a bearded man in a jalabiya
stares at this female body jammed
outside in a twisting river of men.
when i got out of bed at last, i didn’t
want to, and i couldnt stop crying
in the shower.
ammi has cooked two types of sivayyan
and put them out in glass bowls,
with carrot halva and Kashmiri chai.
My Eid outfit complete with sparklies
is lying ironed on the bed.
Auntie Shaista in the drawing room loudly
waits to see how my outfit looks.
Little Izza is knocking at
my door, asking when i’ll be ready,
when I will come out to admire
her pink sharara and bright new shoes.
Asad is watching TV, but
the corner of his eye is waiting for me
Abbu and Imran are just returning
in white kurtas from eid namaz.
in the fortunate first world
where I’m supposed to be bettering my life
and speaking english all the time–
here, where there is no dust, no flies,–
here, in the warm clean tiled shower
i can’t stop sobbing
Alone, with sirens screeching outside,
i prayed two rak’ahs afterwards
with seven takbeers
and seven tears hit the ja’inamaz
with far too loud a splash, and then
i read some pages of the eleventh sipara
and sent sawab to the Prophet,
my shaykh, my uncles and aunts,
grandparents, like ammi does, and then
I’m sorry i didn’t go to Eid namaz
and then i couldn’t stop crying again
my heart broke right there on the rug
and spilled wide open
and i said please don’t be mad at me.
look, i’m here, and my outfit’s in Lahore,
and Izza’s knocking on the door,
and I have no sivayyan,
and my heart the poor tattered heart
that I know You love
is broken today.
He looked at me, with those quiet eyes
and said, yes, I know. i cried again
and said that eid is eid
only because You’re here with me.
ten years in this new home of mine
and still eid day is not quite eid.
They say it’s eid today, but there,
on the rooftops of Lahore, young boys
saw a little sliver of moon that shone
through smoggy clouds and snaky cables
as an eagle swam across the sky.
Here, i saw no moon, i saw
moonsighting.com, and wrote an email-
eid mubarak exclamation point-
and cc’ed it to everyone.
i thought of calling ammi to say
eid mubarak. but i was afraid
my voice would catch, and she would hear
who i am here
and then i’d know for sure that she
was there, and there are no sivayyan
on my IKEA table, no halva
on the stove, no kashmiri chai
steaming in pretty china cups
no smiling niece outside my door
and no red kurta on my bed
I had forgotten all about this poem, until today when I went digging in the ruins of my “writing” folder. Here is a poem over six years old.
– Immigrant nostalgia –
If I say it, you will put me on the old brown shelf–
So I’ll only whisper to the moon at night
how my heart strains for the absence of time
while it absorbs the concreteness of place
in quiet afternoons and expanding dawns.
How my niece’s brown hopeful, patient eyes
give me reason to live at a kindergartner’s pace.
How the endless nights still call for me
back to searching the clouds for light.
How the settling of dust on leaves can mean
much more than pages of printed lines.
How the gathering of heavy clouds assembles
hymns of rapture like an endless choir.
But if I say it, you will shelve me out of sight,
some Other drawer, with some Other label.
To you my knowing of yesterdays
are denials of your here and now.
But I don’t spin on my own axis alone.
Without a second line, my poem won’t rhyme.
How can you understand? Your life is sufficient
to itself, and I am forever split
into one who weeps when the other has flown.
(March 11, 2002.)