Ghost in your memory

800px-Great_Departure

Immigration is a process of rupture – uprooting yourself, struggling to graft yourself into a new ecosystem. Like the process of diaspora, the academic career disrupts and disconnects. Job market options are few. Among the factors you must weigh to select your options, financial and cultural factors must weigh the heaviest. In all of this, you lose friends and family, moving from study to work.

The day in September 1991 that I decided to accept a position at a university in Islamabad, I remember the cold stab of loss I felt when my parents, turning away their sad eyes, drove back to Lahore, and left me at the women’s hostel. This was the first time I had chosen to break ties and move ahead. “I want you to stand on your own feet,” my father said forcefully, disguising the break in his voice. “It’s a good university,” my mother said, “and you’ll work with people who are like you.” I was their baby – I am their baby – and they had to let go.

Over the three years that I worked in Islamabad, I visited Lahore and my family quite regularly. Over time, the visits became a chore. I wanted to stay in cool, calm Islamabad, where I was free to socialize with friends all day, visit Faisal Masjid, and, most importantly, practice my Sufi muraqaba in private. I was my own mistress, and where I explored my spirituality freely. Over time, I didn’t need to be in Lahore so very often. It saddened me, but it happened.

Then I applied for a scholarship, and went to Cambridge for a Master’s degree. As difficult as that first year abroad was, it was good to find my feet in a completely different environment. I became a central person in the Cambridge University Muslim women’s group. But when my parents called me, they didn’t quite understand what my day was like, why I wasn’t home, why I was a little irritable, what it was like to work at the Careers Center processing alumni mail, and how hard it was to make my advisor understand who I was. My maternal uncle died that year, and I wasn’t with my mother to comfort her.

When I visited Pakistan that winter, my mother told me that my father wept privately and said, “meri kudi bahr li hogayee ei” (My daughter’s become a foreigner). I had.

And then I took an ATA plane to Chicago, and how much harder it became to visit Pakistan! How much more expensive. The time zone difference made it harder to talk on the phone.

I made good friends, dear friends wherever I lived – and then I moved. London and the FOSIS Women’s Hostel community. Bloomington, IN and the Muslim sisterhood there. Washington, DC and its extended many-pocketed Muslim and South Asian community. Then I was in Oklahoma, and suddenly, I was far away from all my former friends, and in a full-time job that gave me very little flexibility to attend conferences.

I find, today, that for many friends whom I hold dear in my heart I am a fading picture. I see signs of this, and these signs break my heart, but there is little to be done. I have been absent so long from so many lives that a Facebook connection simply isn’t enough to keep my memory alive. You have to be there to be a real presence. Or you have to be not-so-completely tangled in the turmoil of trying to get tenure, working on marriage and parenthood, rebuilding your health after cancer. For many people who are central to my emotional and social trajectory, I am like a ghost. I was there once. And where am I now? Who am I now?

When I visit Lahore, I meet many Pakistanis who ask me eager questions about how they might study (and move) abroad. They don’t like it when I ask them if they really want to move, if they really want to pay that price. When you move, you are gone. Until you move, you think you can live multiple lives – in Lahore, in DC, in London. Maybe for those of you who make money the way I don’t, this is a possibility. But for people like me, you’d better make choices you can live with. Because you choose one thing, and you give up another. Are you willing to give it up?

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