American woman

US-CITIZENSHIP-CEREMONY

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.

 

Village Woman on Suspension Bridge

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

dali

End of story

butterfly

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

You’re a story that’s already been told

and done. Nothing else here. You are

a moth that didn’t have space to unfold

What would your conclusion have been had you found

some open air to stretch and yawn,

some solid ground?

Let me weave your stories with tender

shaking fingers as you breathe your last

and uninteresting breaths, as finally

you abandon all endeavor and

allow yourself to be

Authentic culture and pristine religion

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.

America the khubsoorat*

* khubsoorat (Urdu/Hindi): beautiful

I am preoccupied by only one aspect of the Coca Cola ‘America the Beautiful’ commercial. I cannot understand the Hindi lyrics. It’s not that it’s a poor translation. I have no idea what kind of translation it is. Every time I search for the Hindi lyrics, I face a barrage of articles about hate discourse. So I give up, and join the ranks of those protesting against the hate. Then I return to puzzle over the crystalline voice of the singer again, in the extended video, and it continues to present an almost total blank in terms of meaning. My first-generation friends and my friends in India are likewise puzzled.

So my main concern with the Coke ad is this: why the hell would they make use of Hindi if they weren’t going to do a decent job of translation? Why wouldn’t they choose a more proficient Hindi speaker? Or at least coach her in better articulation? I shudder, for example, when she says paharon (mountains) instead of pahadon but that notoriously difficult r/d sound inevitably stumps novice speakers of Hindi, Urdu, and Punjabi.

But as I shudder, and turn up my nose at the Whitified Hindi that is almost unrecognizable to me, I turn my gaze upon my 7-year old daughter, who can only speak Urdu in snippets and phrases. Some day, a first-generation snob like me will laugh at her and cause her to blush for her lack of authentic cultural capital.

Culture moves on. Language moves on. For all my first-generation nostalgia and expertise, it is the Raihanas and the Sushmitas that will shape Hindi and Urdu as they are spoken in North America in the future. Maybe Raihana will go to grad school and Pakistan to study Urdu poetry and maybe she will spend hours perfecting her accent. (I’m hoping she chooses the sciences, actually). But most Raihanas will be delighted with their ability to sing about pahars, eat nan, and dance bhangra at parties. And this is the process of language change over generations. I recognize it as an anthropologist. I shudder as a lover of Urdu.

At its core, too, this inner turmoil of mine is about cultural authenticity and cultural ownership. This is my cultural capital, and I don’t like it being commodified, sold, and consumed in its “bastardized” forms, with the name of Hindi or Urdu. I imagine that I have possession of this commodity – yes, I commodify it too – and I claim ownership. I evaluate the secondary ownership of second-generation cultural members and find it wanting. But the process of cultural change takes one sneering glance at my protestations, and trundles on.