Anniversary of an arrival

This August of 2016 is my 20th anniversary of arriving in the United States.

Not the anniversary of my leaving Pakistan: that was October 1994, and I went to Cambridge in the UK. Nor the anniversary of my leaving my family home: I left in 1991, at age 22, with an MA in English, to teach English at the International Islamic University in Islamabad, a world away from my almost 20-year home in Lahore. In retrospect, I was an unusual case in my peer group, leaving my home, my hometown, and my home country as a single woman, purely for education, rather than accompanying a husband’s career. Each anniversary is laced with excitement and fear, anxiety and aloneness, fragility and courage.


I remember being on the bus from Walm Lane to Willesden Green station, giddy with excitement. A PhD program! I was about to take flight!

I quickly abandoned most of my possessions overnight – leaving it to my friend Aliya to dispose of them – and packed a suitcase full of clothes I considered nice (they were too “nice”, it turned out, for the American everyday).

Twenty years ago, I got a budget flight on the now-defunct airline ATA, delighted with the lighthearted American tone of the announcements: “Welcome to Hawaii!” as we landed in O’Hare.


The aching void of love


Amrita Shergil

In Surah al-Qasas, the Qur’an tells us about the mother of Moses – how God tells her:

“Suckle (thy child), but when thou hast fears about him, cast him into the river, but fear not nor grieve: for We shall restore him to thee, and We shall make him one of Our messengers.” But when she casts Moses into the river, she is so utterly overcome by emotion that she barely restrains herself: 

وَأَصْبَحَ فُؤَادُ أُمِّ مُوسَىٰ فَارِغًا ۖ إِنْ كَادَتْ لَتُبْدِي بِهِ لَوْلَا أَنْ رَبَطْنَا عَلَىٰ قَلْبِهَا لِتَكُونَ مِنَ الْمُؤْمِنِينَ

  • Asad: On the morrow, however, an aching void grew up in the heart of the mother of Moses, and she would indeed have disclosed all about him 10  had We not endowed her heart with enough strength to keep alive her faith [in Our promise]. 11
  • Malik: On the other hand, the heart of Musa’s mother was sorely troubled. She would have disclosed as to who he was, had We not strengthened her heart so that she might become one of the true believers.
  • Pickthall: And the heart of the mother of Moses became void, and she would have betrayed him if We had not fortified her heart, that she might be of the believers.
  • Yusuf Ali: But there came to be a void in the heart of the mother of Moses: she was going almost to disclose his (case) had We not strengthened her heart (with faith) so that she might remain a (firm) believer.  3337
Jochebed, by Franklin Simmons

Whenever I read this verse, it rips my heart into two. Especially right now, it seems, as I prepare to send my little one into a new school this September- her first big city public school. It feels like existence, connection, parenting, is a way to open my heart up to this aching, gaping void.


It brings to mind the first time I dropped her off at daycare: that intersection in Athens, GA, where that green arrow brought me to tears every time I turned. I hated to let go. My heart broke. And my heart turned into a storm, an empty aching void; my heart itself was “as air” (Surah Ibrahim 43).

Love is pain. Love is terror. Love is a terrible, painful thing. All my resources, all my power, all my learning is as air, as a gaping aching void before the thought of my child.


Less known India-Pakistan partition narratives

What narratives are privileged to define historical events? What narratives support and reinforce ideological frameworks? What narratives and voices do nothing to support and reinforce such frameworks and, as a result, fall through the cracks and are lost?

You’d think that positive stories of goodness would flourish. But some of these stories fail to support favored ideological frameworks.

So they disappear, or fade. part.jpg

I’d rarely ever, in all my years of education in Pakistan and trawling through the interwebs, encountered the stories of Indians of various faith backgrounds who defended and protected people of other religious communities from the riots and bloodshed during the India-Pakistan Partition. Where they exist, they often are twisted to serve narratives of demonization and superiority, as in Gadar. 

So here they are, “Punjab’s little-known Schindlers, who saved many during Partition violence.”

These stories must be kept alive. The internet is brimming over with voices of vicious
hate, resentment, anger, fury from Indians and Pakistanis. Try poking around Twitter on the 14th and 15th of August. Let’s disrupt those voices of hate, not by contradicting them, not with arguments, butArthurRackham_GoblinMarket_100.jpgwith repeating, just repeating these stories. Each of the persons in these stories stood, surrounded, swamped by hate but never sinking below it:

Like a lily in a flood,—
Like a rock of blue-vein’d stone
Lash’d by tides obstreperously,—
Like a beacon left alone
In a hoary roaring sea,
Sending up a golden fire,—

Christina Rossetti, Goblin Market. 
Those of you dedicated to simply reciting the story ofsalman.jpg faith, friendship, solidarity, and love are standard bearers against a rising tide of hate. Your endeavors, even passive and quiet, are resistance.  There is a reason the love story of Bajrangi Bhaijan was so popular across the subcontinent last year.

Perhaps the hour of humanity is here. One can hope.


Happy 69th Independence Day, Pakistan.

pak.jpgThe world we live in demands that we designate particular nations or places as home, and others as Other or Rival or Enemy.
Though uncomfortable with nationalism and the artificial lines we draw to divide ourselves from others, I’m also achingly appreciative of the need for homes and comfortable spaces. (See this article on the menace of nationalism).
I deeply appreciate growing up in Pakistan, in my comfortable space. It will always be home, the place and the people I owe so very, very much.
I try my best, despite being surrounded in destructive discourses, designate any nations as Enemy or Other. Vested interests, hegemonic exploitative powers, hateful groups, divisive ideologies, and assorted 1%’s in Pakistan and worldwide are my Other. Those exploitative powers have blocked Pakistanis and others from living lives of happiness and freedom.
Let us unite, and work against the oppressions of those who are crushed, exploited, twisted into shape in the name of the nation-state. Kashmir. Palestine. Tibet. And so many, whose homes are destroyed to uphold a narrative. As Arundhati Roy asks, in a piece applicable to many other struggles, “Since when have maps been sacrosanct? Should a people’s right to self-determination be denied at any cost?”
Growing up in Pakistan, I learned that if there’s one thing Pakistanis are good at, it’s being self-critical and being critical of Pakistan. Let’s not stop asking questions, being critical, and demanding more of ourselves, and let’s never participate in oppressions – in the name of anything, whether ideological or materialistic.
Happy independence day, Pakistan! I love you. And I love all the Pakistanis who are working, against all odds, to make a better world and a better tomorrow. No matter what our politicians say, in order to protect my home, we don’t have to destroy our neighbors. In fact, our very survival depends on our neighborhoods working together. Let us stand together. Not apart, but together. That is our only hope.

Swim-racism and the burkini / burqini

In swim-racism news, I was recently interviewed for a timely Newsweek article just published here: Burkini swimsuits spark anti-Muslim outrage – and fast sales. 

A piece I wrote for Religion Dispatches in 2009 remains relevant today: The Deadly Burqini.

Enjoy. Summer’s going to be over soon, and before you know it, everyone’s going to be in puffy coats and scarves.

In the meantime, check out this man’s wetsuit. Carbone-wetsuit-4-van-8-e1441164326374.jpg


Pool racism & Simone Manuel

Black Twitter is on fire about the enormous significance of this Simone Manuel moment. Instead of trying to speak to the occasion in my own words, I’ll cite Twitter luminaries:



George Johnson wrote a piece on the subject. This fear of water is related to pool racism and racial segregation, enforced by means of, for example, acid, as in the photograph below:  




– even more painfully – the risk of drowning and death.

In related “pool racism,” Cannes has banned the burkini. This is exactly the kind of racial segregation that puts entire communities at risk of drowning, except in this case it uses the language of safety and the veil of security theater.

Simone Manuel has changed the game.



Fal-e-Hafiz, or The oracle of the poet Hafiz

Doublures inside a collection of Hafiz’s poetry, April 5 1842, Iran. Source: Indiana University Art Museum website.

Fal (faahl) is a tradition practiced in Iran and South Asia (correct me if I’m missing other traditions) where the seeker or supplicant desires an answer to her deepest desires or questions. Hafez is a 14th century Persian poet, central in the Muslim tradition. (More on Hafiz / Hafez and here.)

Quoting directly from the website Hafiz-e-Shirazi on Fal-e-Hafez.

“In the Persian tradition, whenever one faces a difficulty or a fork in the road, Or even if one has a general question in mind, one would hold that question in mind, and then ask the Oracle of Shiraz Hafiz for guidance.

“More often than not, Hafiz, in his own enigmatic way would sing to the questioner and through the song, would get the questioner to look in the mirror of his/her soul.

Upon reflection in the mirror of Hafiz’s Ghazal one would be inspired with an answer, a guidance or a direction.

Traditionally, the first line upon which the eyes of the reader fall, would give the answer to the direct question, and the rest of the Ghazal would give further clarification.” 

Give it a shot. See what Hafiz has to say about your anxiety or desire.


I Have Learned So Much

So much from God
That I can no longer

A Christian, a Hindu, a Muslim,
a Buddhist, a Jew.

The Truth has shared so much of Itself
With me

That I can no longer call myself
A man, a woman, an angel,
Or even a pure

Love has
Befriended Hafiz so completely
It has turned to ash
And freed

Of every concept and image
my mind has ever known.


Medals and victories

phelpsSome people have earned Olympic gold medals for weightlifting, backstroke, or archery.

Some have made it, limping, to the end of the day.

Some have published books and earned large research grants.

Others have successfully made dinner for the kids and earned the right to collapse on the couch at last.

Some earn recognition for their athletic, academic, financial achievements.

Others wrestle a million demons to the ground every day – and earn resentment and disapproval for not smiling.



Good-deed friends

The first kinda-roommate I had – I didn’t room with her, but I used the attached bathroom that she had all to herself, instead of the hallway bathroom used by up to ten women of varying tastes in hygiene – she was pious. She accommodated me, putting herself out with with an other worldly smile or a restrained pout and lowered eyelids.

This was the first time I’d roomed with anyone, and I was uncomfortable imposing on people. I was uncomfortable sharing space too. From a comfortable though frugal middle class family of doctors, I had my own room and my own bathroom, and I was the youngest of the family. As a roommate, I felt terrible a lot of the time, and I felt clueless about negotiating space in the situation. I took a while to connect with people, because my protective family hadn’t been socially  very active. It was hard work letting people into my life, and simply sharing space wasn’t enough to connect with them.

One day, as I struggled with my feelings and felt deeply alone, I expressed my gratitude to my kinda-roommate. Her eyes lit up. I thought, oh, maybe we will connect now. Maybe I will know the real person behind her piety. Maybe she will say, “oh, don’t worry about it! It’s a pleasure to hang out with you!”

“It’s only for the sake of Allah that I do it,” she said. Her face glowed with a sense of charitable piety, and I realized that there was very little behind the piety to connect with. I felt stumped, and I felt deeply depressed, shut out.

Good-deed friends are exhausting. They reach out to lend you a helping hand. But they don’t really want to. They do it for God, for sawab, accumulating karma or Paradise points. But their hearts are so contracted within themselves and their own grasping desire for God, karma, and paradise, that even for God, karma, and paradise they cannot give of themselves. They end up draining you of zen and happiness because it is not out of generosity of spirit that they give but competitive point accumulation.


Believers, do not make your charities fruitless by reproachfully reminding the recipient of your favor or making them feel insulted, like the one who spends his property to show off and who has no faith in God or belief in the Day of Judgment. The example of his deed is as though some soil has gathered on a rock and after a rain fall it turns hard and barren. Such people can not benefit from what they have earned. God does not guide the unbelievers (Qur’an, 002:264, Sarwar translation).

Not all good deed friends are like this. Some of us earnestly want to do good deeds for others, but occasionally, on a bad day, we will run out of goodwill. Others, however, habitually run on empty.

If your heart isn’t able to give of itself to someone, you are a good-deed friend. A good deed friend ends up taking rather than giving. And when you take from someone who is down and out, you are doing nobody any favors.

The best deed you can do, before rushing into the world to help others, is to remedy the emptiness or the damage in your own heart. The same goes for da’wah warriors who want to invite others to God and the Prophet, but who are desperately in need of spiritual first aid themselves. The same goes for many first world wanderers who seek out the poor, huddled masses in the developing world, and who inflict harm by their ultimately self-serving desire to do good.

If you have nothing to give, stay in and cure that emptiness.

As a novice in my tariqah (which I still am, to be honest), I was keen to share my newfound ecstasy with others. I spoke to circles of women in Islamabad, and enjoyed the lights in others’ eyes when I shared my disconnected set of inspirations. It was a tumult in my heart, and I felt that I had to leak in order to contain it.

I was surprised and disappointed when my shaikh told me to stop. Stop leading dars circles, he said. Stop writing so much poetry. You cannot grow unless you bottle it up for a while. Not everyone must share with others. Not everyone must go out into the world to make a difference. Focus first.

Good deed friends, until you are ready to be a friend, bottle up your love for a bit. Help yourself before going out to help the world.



Visits to the hospital

Source: Sophie Borland, The Daily Mail, 17/2/16

When I go to see my doctor at the hospital downtown, I find the crowds overwhelming.


A steady stream of people driving into the cavernous garage, parking (badly), limping and hurrying over to the elevator, down on the street, weaving their way around tourists.

Pregnant women with anxious men by their side walking to the women’s hospital; elderly people with walkers, walking slowly on the cross-walk, making their way to and from Oncology and Orthopedics; harried women pushing strollers with tiny premies sleeping in them.

It’s profoundly depressing being around them. So many, many broken bodies and hearts.

Source: AHRQ 

It reminds me of going for chemotherapy back in 2009 and 2010 in Stillwater. I’d show up, and all these heavy eyes stared at me, as if to say, What are you doing here? 95% of the patients there were elderly, a good number of them in their 80s. I felt like a ghost already.

And yet, in these crowds of sick people, I sense something else too.

All these young parents – tired, anxious, struggling to keep track of multiple offspring, pushing wheelchairs with pre-adolescent children in them. All these bent, old, gray, tottering men, helping their sick wives into the elevator. Middle aged women walking at a slow pace with their elderly parents.

I’m surrounded by a great beating heart. These broken, sick, suffering bodies held close and treasured by their healthy loved ones. Daily they wend their way through Chicago’s frenzied traffic, the parking garages, the impatient crosswalks. Daily they trudge the long way to the correct medical department, check in with the businesslike desk staff, and wait until their beloved sick dear one can see the doctor, get their imaging done, get their blood drawn, lie under the CT scanner or the radiation machine. Then they come for follow-up, for more follow-up, more tests, more consultation visits.


This place is a source of limitless hope and energy.

Allah created mercy in one hundred parts and retained with Him ninety-nine parts, and He has sent down upon the earth one part. And it is because of this one part that there is mutual love among the creation – so much so that the animal lifts up its hoof from its young one, fearing that it might harm it. – The Prophet Muhammad