A poem from my daughter

36739827_1717827578264252_466539864750292992_o.jpgToday’s post is by our guest blogger, Raihana – my daughter:

Every day I have to write a paragraph. Today I chose to write a story on the picture story panels in the wordless picture book Story Worlds: Nature, by Thomas Hegbrook, but the story turned out to be more poetic than story.

So, without further ado, I present to you all:


The Beating Heart of Nature


I am a bird who waits.

I wait for my mate.

I wait for sticks for my nest.

I wait for the chance to build the cozy home which will house much of my family.

My mate arrives with greeting chirps.

I still have much to wait for.

As a hedgehog I sniff.36656107_1717827468264263_3923706667916591104_o

Forward I go.

Into the clump of leaves.

I feel intense, calming feelings of temporary comfort as I sink into the orange, crimson, and golden leaves. Temporary safety.

But not for long.

Onwards, trotting along the paths I’ve trod hundreds of times.

Being myself a mole, I fear the light.

My vision is poor.

Predators are everywhere.

But I must leave my cozy hole, to get more leaves for my bedding.

It will be quick.

Now, as I stand a whole foot from my home, I must do this.

But still I fear.

I am a caterpillar, dreaming of beautiful orange wings.

Two months more in my green, vulnerable form.

I am a butterfly, soaring through the sky, dreaming of my upcoming migration to the south.

I see a caterpillar on a branch and remember my fearful days in that body.

I am a squirrel, jumping gracefully, branch to branch.

I am a toad, hopping splashily through my pond.

I am a snail, moving sluggishly, leaving slime, with lofty dreams of flying.

We are the earth, in all its glory, from tree to horse to woodpecker to boar to lady bug to pigeon to dandelion, living, breathing, each with a sparkling, shining, blindingly beautiful fragment of Allah* inside us.


By Raihana

July 3, 2018


* God




Of ambivalent immigrant narratives

Ali, my Lyft driver today, is from Morocco. He has lived, off and on, in the US for two decades. He’s 40+. His wife has lived here for about eight years. Now he has sent them back home. He wants the kids to get their schooling in Morocco while he himself will work in the US a few months a year. He didn’t want them to grow older before he sent them back, because then it would be harder for them to return and adjust to Morocco.

Later, he says, when they are grown, he thinks they will come and attend university in the US.

What do you think, he asked me.

I ride Lyft frequently. I am now an unofficial educational advisor to Lithuanian-American college students and Moroccan fathers.

I told Ali he was doing great. I think it’s excellent that he’s choosing to raise his kids in Morocco. Why subject them to daily racism and stigma here in the US? The psychological cost is too high. If my own back-home security conditions were better, and the economic prospects for my employment there were better, and my husband was brown (and therefore not a walking signal that spells dollar signs), I might well move too.

But, I said, I think European higher education could be a lot cheaper for your kids. U.S. higher education is insanely expensive. Europe would also be closer and less prohibitive from Morocco. When you are an immigrant from Asia or Africa with ties back home, Europe is a geographically preferable option. I say this as someone struggling to come up with cash to pay for flights.

I left him mulling this over seriously.

Do you think I’m planning this well? he asked me. I’ve rarely encountered people who, unlike Ali, weren’t constantly thinking of ways to remain here in the US, or ways to make their lives more permanent here in the US. And for what? For many, many professions, economic prospects are bleak and jobs few (not to mention racism, credential transfer, etc.). If your field is not doing well, then–especially with the Muslim Ban and anti-immigrant sentiment at a high level (again)–why bother with the struggle? And then why put your kids through identity crises in White supremacist society? Struggles to belong? Constant endeavor to calibrate their identity so they are non threatening, acceptable, white enough, and — and then finding they have lost their  cultural heritage? Lost the integrity of their religious identities as married to a sense of place, roots, and kinship? The ability to walk through the streets with a solid sense of belonging?

Oh, how I do miss that.

Photo: APP. Via The Express Tribune

Just the other day, I realized that I miss standing by a fruit stand and talking to the fruit-seller and casually chatting with aunties and uncles nearby.

I miss being truly knowledgeable about my environment in a way that goes into my bones and blood and my history.

Untitled 2.png
©Zaigham Abbas

I miss knowing that my favorite tree is an amaltas tree, and that I will pass it on my way home.

Sometimes, I told him, I sit in Devon Ave. and look at the old people gazing around forlornly. I’m going to be those people. Oh my God, he said, I think about this too.

The artist Bruno Catalano who created these sculptures said, ‘I have travelled a lot and I left Morocco when I was 12 years old. I felt that a part of me was gone and will never come back.

Many of you will not recognize these feelings. Many of you will not see why a person should feel so divided. Why not enjoy the paved roads and air-conditioning? I do, I really do. With all my physical health issues, I really do rely on my American life. But I have a Pakistani core that screams out and cries for nourishment. I speak zero Urdu for weeks at a time. I yearn to drop the line of a popular she’r and not have to explain it to culturally inquisitive Americans. I want the uninterrupted cultural communication I used to have.

Ali’s kids will have that. More power to him.

Of course none of these answers are perfect, and no place is perfect. But Ali’s kids will speak perfect Arabic, and, since they attend an excellent school, will have English and French as well (good luck achieving that in the US). They will have ties with their extended families and a sense of being grounded in a culture. They will not worry, as we do, of how far this Muslim Ban rubbish is going to go. Yes, they will have probably issues in their economic lives, families, freedom of speech, availability of resources etc. But they have a better chance at being whole. 

And they will not have an American perspective on the world, on economics, on people, and on life. This, I believe, is worth the trouble.

I probably wouldn’t have said these things a few years ago. Now, I feel more and more that what has been left behind is far too precious and what has been gained is of at least dubious value.

Svend says that these sentiments are, possibly, a sign of the times.

My triumphalist narrative is dying.


New words: patronymic names and onomastics

john.jpgWhen I was growing up, I observed that young women getting married in the 1980s were increasingly taking their husbands’ first names as their own last names. I found this strange, but as an anthropologist, I know that naming conventions are many and complex.

My mother has the common last name Akhtar (=star, in Farsi), and many women of her generation had such last names as Khatoon, Bibi, Begum (all mean lady), Bano (princess or lady). A woman called Fatima Khatoon, for instance, would not have to change her last name on marriage, but her lineage would also not be identifiable by her name. My name shows my patrilineal descent (my father’s family has the common Kashmiri name of Mir, showing their noble-ish descent and their Kashmiri origins). My mother’s family were Punjabi Kashmiri Butts, but not all of them used Butt as a last name. If I lived in Pakistan, I might be expected to change my name on marriage; there were times when I was addressed as Shabana Akram, whereupon I bridled in shock (my husband’s middle name is Akram, but that is also the name my family use for him as his first name. Svend just doesn’t work well in Lahore. But it doesn’t work all that well in the U.S. either.

Today, after watching Madras Cafe, I found myself inexplicably chasing after John Abraham down internet rabbit holes. Westerners may find his name odd. It’s even odder if you know his dad’s name is Abraham John. No, his isn’t an inverted name. The actor’s name is John, and his last name is a patronymic name.

Your first new word for the day is patronymic. If you already knew it, don’t brag.

In Pakistan (and other countries), children are often given patronymic last names i.e. the father’s first names, not family names. For instance, my niece’s last name is my brother’s first name. But my name is my family name, which I share with my grandfather, paternal aunts and uncles, father, and siblings.

Tariq Rahman, in his book, Names and Identity in Pakistan refers to my daughter’s name, saying that most women with that name would probably be in their fifties. This is entertaining to me, because when I chose the name, I was quickly scolded by Pakistanis, and asked why I would choose such an old and unfashionable name. The trend today is to pick short, modern, unique names, some of which don’t have a lot of meaning. But most religious (and even many non-religious) Muslim Pakistanis are devoted to naming with meaning and history. My mother, despite her profoundly religious background, picked a remarkably secular name for me, which means simply of the night. Go figure.

My relatives named prior to the growth of Islamism had names that were not terribly Islamic in character, e.g. Shaista, Faiza (successful), Anjum (star), Naseem (breeze), Shameem (fragrance), Kishwar (realm), Naushad (happy), Raheela (probably Rachel), and Talat (moon).

Today, I know fewer women with complicated names like Fakhrunnisa (pride of women) or Mehrunnisa (moon among women) or Durre-shahwar (pearl worthy of kings) in the upper and middle social classes. Fakhrunnisa is doomed because of its fate when mispronounced in Western countries. Short names with a minimum of kh and gh sounds are popular. Short names that can easily transition to Western names (Mishal) are also used. The possibility of global mobility is ever-present.

There are other concerns with naming. I have heard many Pakistanis caution others not to choose heavy names like Umar (the powerful, charismatic Companion of the Prophet) because such names can be too psychically burdensome for the bearer, and can even make him ill.

Pakistan has a wide variety of naming conventions. To learn more about the study of onomastics (second word of the day) in Pakistan, look up Dr. Tariq Rahman’s book Names and Identity in Pakistan that explores naming conventions in Pakistan, the impact of modernity, “Islamization,” and so on.