cultural, diaspora, immigrant, Pakistan

We don’t laugh at the same jokes anymore

On my first day in Lahore, I was excited to share this video “S*it Punjabi Mothers Say” with my family. Svend and I have watched this video, along with many others by Lily Singh, an extremely talented Canadian-Indian comedienne, with our 8-year old. We have watched it many, many times, and we never tire of it. Our 8-year old daughter has adopted some of the phrases in it (“sick people hondey!”)

But when I showed it to my family, I was amazed that no one cracked a smile. What’s funny about a strict Punjabi mother? That’s just the way all mothers are. My tastes and my sense of humor are profoundly diasporic. The Punjabi mother stereotype is hilarious in the contrast it represents to the low-key White suburban mom who addresses her children with courtesy and “discusses” s*it with them. The Punjabi mother calls her daughter “gaindi jaiee” (fat rhino) and cusses her out with abandon. These “s*it ___ mothers/fathers say” are funny precisely because of their place within the spectrum of mother/father types of various racial/ethnic/cultural groups. As many anthropologists say, human nature is not really the same everywhere, nor does “funny” mean the same everywhere.

I’ll bet this has profound implications for cultural understanding and conflict.

children, cultural, desi, immigrant, Pakistan, Urdu, USA

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.

children, cultural, desi, immigrant, USA

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.

children, cultural, feminism, gender

No more Disney Princesses

A mother in California, sick of Disney representation of girls and women, came up with a new cast of characters – the Guardian Princesses. This is a hopeful sign, but Setsu Shigematsu cannot do it alone. Disney with its enormous, hegemonic power – cultural as well as financial – is too big for one person to battle alone. I hope Shigematsu finds allies and backing in her work because I am one of those many, many parents (and others) who are sick to death of the Disney/Pixar girl image problem. I would really like girls to have a narrative that is not centered around the climactic appearance of romance and a man, but most entertainment products for children appear to follow the dominant romance narrative. This is more than a feminist issue. The narrative is reductive. It centers the life-story around the identification of that Other Person who will make life meaningful. That expectation is often a destructive and depressing force which can detract from a person’s strength and aims.

May I a little spitefully hope that someone other than the big corporations picks up where they failed. Why should they get to make money off all the consumers, feminist and nonfeminist alike? When Merida belches and doesn’t care for fancy outfits, this is good, and the change in body representation is helpful, but for me, the plot is the key issue. When everything in the plot revolves around a man/romance/marriage, any degree of proud, strong, assertive, feminist female character only succeeds in showing that that, too, can be domesticated into patriarchy. The feminist representation becomes harmful because it’s just a way to nab a wider audience. The Guardian Princesses will be a change from the Disney norm if the plot is not man-driven.

children, cultural, immigrant, political, Uncategorized, USA

Citizen of the world

calvinAs a critical scholar of citizenship and pluralism, I can’t really celebrate almost anything. Nerds are a somber and disconsolate breed. Still, passing my U.S. citizenship test as I did this week gives me pleasure. Let me tell you why.

  • First, I now share the same citizenship as my husband and child, so we can stand in the same queue on arrival into the U.S. If the political climate in this country takes a serious downward turn, I won’t be so fearful of becoming separated from my family.
  • Second, my daughter now sees that I am not an unalloyed foreigner but am Pakistani, British, as well as American. Like Lola, I am collecting a collection.
  • Third, I am from a test-and-rote based culture but I have not had the chance to practice my mad cramming skillz in a very long time. Cramming the 100 questions forced me to put aside work on my article on Muslim American women and dance, but it was a highly edifying process. For example, I now know that the Mississippi and Missouri rivers are the longest in the United States, and that a male citizen of any race can vote. This changes my perspective on life in a significant way.
  • My only complaint is that my interviewer at the Chicago office did not ask me all ten questions and did not test me on three sentences each for English writing and reading. She only asked me 6 questions – and yes, she asked me for one of the two longest rivers and I told her both, hoping to get some kind of extra credit. I was actually hoping she would ask me for the names of Native American tribes so I could go through a beautiful list of names – Hopi, Inuit, Cherokee, Choctaw, Apache, Sioux, and so on. I’m glad, however, that I was tested on my knowledge of the Speaker’s name, though I resent not being asked about my local Congressman, Illinois Senators, and our governor, especially after I had managed to stop getting them mixed up. The interviewer gave up after having me read one sentence in English, which is patently unfair.
  • She asked me if I had a middle name. I said no. This is kind of a sore point for me. Despite all my marks of cultural assimilation, I have only two names. I feel like a rapper – Snoop Dogg; Ice Tea; Vanilla Ice; Shabana Mir – instead of a scholar and writer with a respectable series of three names. At the very least, a middle initial that didn’t stand for anything except appropriate rhythm would be handy. One feels so much weightier with three names.
  • Maybe this is why my interviewer asked me if I wanted to change my name. I was a little stumped. Was citizenship contingent upon my response? I took a chance and said no, since I am in the illustrious company of Omid Safi and–okay, that’s it.
  • Notably, my interviewer asked me if I’d ever been arrested, convicted, or addicted to drugs. I decided to forego all mention of coffee and the occasional allergy medication and continued to say no.
  • She asked me if I’d ever been a member of any terrorist organization. I really should mention academe because this is a pretty terrifying institution.
  • In response to at least 4-5 different questions, I expressed my total and eager willingness to bear arms and hurt other people for the United States, whether in the army or under civilian command. Knowing as Svend White does how terrible my aim is, I would be concerned for any army or civilian command that handed me weapons, but if the United States doesn’t mind, well, why not.
  • I should lodge a vociferous complaint about the Immigration and Naturalization Service because I was forced to sign my name on the absolute worst passport photographs I have EVER had. I am hopeful that they won’t stick it in my passport because this is a mug shot. I look obese, puffy, and ill; I have stringy, blond-streaked hair hanging over my forehead; and the Walgreens photographer instructed me specifically not to smile, so I look like I’m ready to fall down dead. If this picture ends up in my passport, I’m going for my fourth nationality.

cartoonNaturally, my family and I celebrated U.S. citizenship by escaping to the Pakistani neighborhood on Devon Street in Chicago, pigging out on Karahi Chicken, picking up halwa puri and gajar halwa, and praying my afternoon prayer in the basement musalla at Tahoora bakery.

Like Diogenes, I aspire to cosmopolitan ideals, and like Anthony K. Appiah’s (see Cosmopolitanism), I am an American citizen who is also Pakistani and somewhat British. I say ‘somewhat British’ because I catch myself whenever I describe myself as ‘British’ and recall a professor who scrunched up his face with ill humor saying, to the Zambian students at Cambridge University: ‘She’s about as British as I am Zambian but she’s got a British passport.’

I want to ask that professor exactly what he meant by British – since he was White, a social-justice-educator type who does – ironically – inclusion in education. He does inclusion in education, though: his inclusion is focused on particular student populations, not on interlopers in the British bodypolitic who were born in the U.K. and happen to have very good English. So I want to ask him, and myself, and my daughter, where do we draw boundaries and borders and lines? Which ones serve a good purpose? Which ones can we cross? I have just crossed another border, in terms of my official paperwork, but I can’t help asking myself if I have actually also put myself behind another boundary, line, demarcation that divides me from humanity.

cultural, gender, Islam, Pakistan, religion, sex

Home movies that destroy lives

While interviewing Pakistani women academics in 2012, I learned how technological advances offer freedoms as well as snares for women. My research participant “Tahira” told me how some Pakistani young women are lured by secret lovers into making  amateur “sex films,” but these men then proceed to share these films publicly on the internet. Reputations, lives, and families are ruined in the process.

There are, however, relatively innocent films that are posted publicly and cause similar devastation in conservative families.

I know that for many, the solution is for young women to do absolutely nothing that might bring shame upon their families. Perhaps, indeed, young women must wear chadors at all times and never get caught in a private moment where they appear erotic or attractive. I am, of course, being sarcastic.

In the unregulated jungles of the internet, there does not appear to be any available strategy that might protect people from the damage of being caught by strangers engaged in fun that does no one (else) any harm.

But perhaps, in our families, schools, colleges, and madrassahs, young men can be educated to think and speak of women with respect, as agents and not as objects, as persons who can speak and act, and not as things that can only be seen and spoken of. Muslim religiosity and conservative cultural norms certainly contain the seeds of compassion, humility, and understanding of human sexuality, complexity, and diversity. It’s time those seeds bear fruit. 

children, cultural, desi

Squashing the Pakistani out of me

I’ve been carrying the US Citizenship test materials in my car, planning on putting the CD in my stereo just as soon as I’m done listening to ‘Brick Lane.’ Raihana saw the booklet yesterday. And completely unexpectedly, she said:

“Mama, I don’t want the Pakistani to get squashed out of you – the way the Dursleys said they’d squash the magic out of Harry Potter. – Because I want to learn more things about Pakistan everyday!”

On the one hand, I am pleased that my daughter has a protective and nurturing impulse toward Pakistani culture. I’m also happy that she is consciously aware of the processes of cultural assimilation, stigma, and acculturation.

On the other hand, I’m concerned that she possibly suspects that I am “acting [too] white.” I’d also perhaps prefer that she were not aware of the expectation that I “squash” the Pakistani out – but this awareness is inevitable. She has shown an acute awareness that not everyone knows about Urdu, Eid, and dupattas, and at times is quite put out by this.

At other times, she parades a dupatta around so that everyone will know about Pakistan. At such times, I have conflicting impulses: I want to protect her from racist bigotry yet I want her to be proud and comfortable in her skin.

cultural, immigrant, Pakistan, Uncategorized, USA

The impending return

lahore airport (5)My trip has entered the awkward semi-final stage before departure. I have just about a week to go before I get back on that plane and head over the ocean. During the first week or so, I was struggling with heat, jetlag, and my workshop schedule. I was too harried to be sorrowful. My dad had a few of his usual outbursts of temper, and I returned, albeit briefly, to adolescent sulking. At times, I kind of looked forward to the return flight back to Chicago, where any power outages are strange and brief, my bed is soft rather than firm, and the road stretches out – paved and smooth – before me. My family scrambled to make my life here pleasant and manageable. Sleep-deprived and irritable, I accepted their efforts with relatively poor grace.

Now, my parents and I are in an intense state of perpetual awareness of the impending departure. We wake up in the middle of the night and wander in the house. Lights are on at odd hours. There isn’t enough time left together for us to be grumpy.

I prayed fajr prayers outdoors in the porch in the cool dark dawn today, and my mother prepared toast for me. My mind and heart are full: I am preoccupied with my emotional and cultural dis/orientation here in Pakistan and there in the US. Every time I leave Pakistan, I am wrenched anew. The only metaphor I can think of for this wrenching is that of getting your legs waxed. The searing, wrenching pain, the soreness afterwards, and then, barely a few weeks later (for us South Asian girls) the discomfort and itchiness of new hair in follicles. Immigration is a constant pain. Sometimes it dies down, and sometimes it fades, but it remains. I wonder, under the dark sky, sitting on my prayer-mat, what would life have been like if I had never left? I would have remained embedded in my family’s lives without any disruption, and I would have continued to be excited about coffee at Gloria Jeans Coffee, dinner at Gymkhana, and shopping at Junaid Jamshed. Could I have remained content in that life, in that incarnation? Perhaps I could have been more than content – perhaps I could have been more whole, less disrupted, less guilty. Who knows?

I am reminded of an intense moment from twenty years ago. I was a newly minted MA in English Literature from Punjab University, and my family was hosting the family of a suitor. He was decent enough, they all were – simple, middle-class, low-key, Urdu/Punjabi-speaking people. His mother sat in my room, talking about I can’t remember what, except that it was mind-numbingly dull. Something about the texture of okra, or the price of cotton lawn, or one of her ailments. And I saw with horror my life stretching out before me in a long series of conversations about okra and ailments, and felt like an arrow had pierced my heart and I was slowly bleeding to death. I couldn’t do it. I was not that person. But I did not know how to avoid the responsibilities that that person faced. If I had this arranged marriage with one of these decent men, I would have to have these conversations about okra, and be grateful for them. Of course this is not to say that there aren’t desultory, monotonous conversations in the US: there are plenty of unpleasant, boring, even offensive conversations but I am not bound to them. What frightened me was the binding nature of my ties here, the cocooning of my mind in the particularities of my socioeconomic culture here. And now, I am free, right? Now I am free in the US to spend day after day with only accountability to the workplace and my nuclear family. I needn’t answer any questions about okra at all. Svend is too cerebral – except when he is juvenile – to be able to sustain lengthy conversations about mundane matters. I can’t even decide what it is that is pulling me apart – East-West culture, the differences between Islamic religious culture/s in Pakistan and in the West, geography, class, education, intellectual style, language, or all of those things together. If you’re reading this, good luck figuring it out.


“Which is better, America or Pakistan?”

The little girl who asked me this question in Urdu yesterday was bright-eyed and eager. I looked into her curious thin face, and I knew I could only say, “Pakistan.”

“Isn’t America good though?” she asked. I was befuddled. She had me cornered. I live there, don’t I? I chose to move there, didn’t I? I have many that I love there, don’t I? Must I choose?  The little brown girl stares brightly at me and the Atlantic Ocean glowers, demanding that I decide.

My postcolonial, subaltern sensibility brought me through: “Yes, America is good, but we are Pakistani, aren’t we?”

I hope she doesn’t figure out that I didn’t really answer her question. I can’t. I can’t even answer the questions in my own heart.

academic, cultural, immigrant, Pakistan, Uncategorized, USA

Eliza Doolittle returns to Lahore

One of the most poignant scenes in My Fair Lady is the one where Eliza returns to Covent Garden after being groomed and bullied by Henry Higgins into becoming a ‘lady.’ The happy, singing London poor – Eliza’s former comrades – treat her with distant deference. She is vaguely familiar but they do not know her. Her demeanor and her language have transformed her from an insider into an outsider. She has all the cultural capital of a lady. As a result, she has lost the cultural capital that enabled her to hustle, to ply her wares (flowers) on the London street, and to form some kind of a rough but instant and real connection with her former colleagues.


Eliza is now a beautiful, glamorous person
of quality, but Eliza is no flower-seller. She is an exile forever. She has had a room, a house, pillows and sheets, maids and expensive attire, and now, without all of these, she is bereft and bare, shorn as a lamb, entirely lost.

I am on my way for a two-week trip to my hometown of Lahore. This is where I lived, grew up, attended school and college, and this is where I still have my family. Now, my nuclear family is here in Illinois.

Now my hopes, dreams, routines, and rituals wind their way around Panera, Millikin University, functional traffic signals, the D.M.V, book-writing, and tenure. I have been disconnected, in my adult years, from the deep-rooted dreams, routines, and rituals that wound their way around my heart – rituals of picking out lemon tarts in the Ghalib Market bakery; dissecting Bernard Shaw in class at Kinnaird College; getting involved in student politics at Punjab University; spending long hours in Ferozesons Bookshop; ordering freshly-made mango ice-cream in Liberty Market, and early-morning dusty trips to relatives in Gujranwala.

I keep returning to these roots, to these rituals. But now, I cannot digest the mango ice-cream. Ferozesons bookshop burned down last year, ironically, during my last trip: the ruins of the historic building were still smoking when I stepped out toward it. I have been trying to re-establish a connection as an alumna with my alma maters, and have only made it (thanks to an old friend who teaches there) as far as a short visit to the Convent of Jesus and Mary school. I’ve been to Punjab University, but I am like a ghost wandering through the buildings. I suppose I could do better if I was less diffident, but like Eliza, I am uncertain when I step out of the plane and into the airport in Lahore. I am nervous. I don’t know what awaits.

I keep sanitizer and bottled water handy. Most of the time, I look like a fright because my hair, skin, and body have forgotten how to handle the heat, the humidity, and the dust. I complain incessantly of the heat, the humidity, and the dust. I love the hot, chaotic, unpredictable beauty that springs out and startles me at every corner yet I struggle with it constantly, willing it into the disinfected, white-tiled, cookie-cutter clean lines of American life. I must have my mangoes and my jamuns, but I must have them washed with bottled water. I hang out with my family, reclining on beds all day in the single air-conditioned room, but I cannot stand it when the power goes out and I cannot check my email 24 hours a day.

And much has changed. Some of my old haunts have disappeared, or have transformed themselves. The quiet part of Gulberg where we lived is now intensely fashionable and exudes quantities of wealth I had never known or seen. Parts of Lahore Cantonment that barely existed during my girlhood now flourish, throbbing with activity.

When I try to re-insert myself into former routines and spaces, those routines and spaces have changed beyond recognition. For friends and family who remained in Pakistan, yes, change has occurred, but they have been there to witness it, to shape it, to become part of it. I have not. I have seen it in the news, heard of it second-hand. Many beloved relatives are now dead. I haven’t even attended their funerals. I forget who is still alive and who is dead. Celebrities who were all the rage during my girlhood are dead and dying. I am Rip Van Winkle, returning home after a long, long nap, to tell stories of the past that everyone else has gotten over. I am now the relative who visits every few years. I am like an absent lover, trying to force Pakistan to embrace me again as it used to, to become again what it used to be, except Pakistan has moved on. And what right do I have to expect it to fall in love with me again? It is those moments that I dread, moments where Pakistan spurns my advances, shuns my English-accented words of endearment, stares coldly at my attempts to be collegial, and tells me I do not belong. During a discussion on politics, an uncle disagreed with my perspective and called me “you Americans.” Naturally, Americans would disagree with him. I am that dhobi ka kutta – the washerman’s dog who belongs neither at home nor at the riverbank.

gladys cooper, audrey hepburn & rex harrison - my fair lady 1964

During a faculty workshop at Lahore College for Women University in the summer of 2012, I cracked a joke in Urdu to bring home the importance of tone in the ‘thick description’ of qualitative field-notes. When the laughter died down, a professor commented with wonder on how I was one moment an ‘American,’ and the next moment, a ‘typical Pakistani.’ I am. I can do that. I am bicultural. Isn’t it great? But true belonging is usually monocultural. You have to be provincial to be a real insider. Comopolitanism is foreignness at heart – it is an exile.

Even now, when I go grocery shopping in the U.S., I find myself lost as to what groceries to buy. What do people do with leeks? Where are the teenday, the arvi, the jamun? And when I go back home, I can’t even eat out of doors because my stomach is frustratingly delicate. No gol-guppay or open-air samosas for me, thank you: I’ll stick to my kichri, and it will stick with me (if I’m lucky). I make stupid grammatical mistakes in Urdu and my mother laughs at my Punjabi accent. Every merchant knows to charge me double. I don’t get any of the political jokes in Pakistan. I am Eliza, out of place at Ascot and out of place in the streets of London. I can perform and approximate belonging, but I am not fully understood in both places, and I do not fully understand both. But I can theorize the hell out of it all. And a lot of good it does me.

cultural, spiritual, Uncategorized

A loss of perspective

These days, I am an infrequent blogger, so when I do blog, you know it’s because I really want to. We just returned from a 10-day road-trip vacation to Chicago and Missouri, and I am fairly brimming o’er with inspiration. The primary purpose of travel was attending the ISNA Convention. Before you roll your eyes at “another academic event,” note that I attended not a single session or panel at the Convention, and my three goals there were a) seeing friends b) shopping in the bazar c) sneaking off to Tahoora on Devon Street. Still, I find that the Qur’anic verse above strikes a chord with me right now, referring as it does, at least on the surface, to travel and sightseeing:

Do they not travel through the land, so that their hearts (and minds) may thus learn wisdom and their ears may thus learn to hear? Truly it is not their eyes that are blind, but their hearts which are in their breasts.

My first awakening was on the first day of driving, when we took an exit to get a quick dinner. Finding ourselves quite unexpectedly amidst an apocalyptic scene of blocks upon blocks of collapsed homes and businesses, with furniture crushed underneath, we realized we were in Joplin, MO – the scene of the tornado on May 22, 2011. Struck quite dumb, we drove between leveled buildings. In that area, bare knobbly trees stuck out at odd angles in the horizontal landscape, as if civilization had lost its hold on the city, and the elements had resumed their hold on the land. We were trying, also, to track a Chinese restaurant, fearful that we would eventually find it amidst the rubble. It turned out to be completely intact, next door to a building, housing a technology business, that had fallen apart.

The news and images from Joplin, MO had shaken our confidence in the predictability of life, but our physical presence amidst the scenes of disaster changed our hearts. I watched stragglers around Joplin and wondered how many had been rendered homeless, how many uninsured families had lost everything, and how they would fare henceforth. I wondered how that one day in May had changed Joplin. Even Raihana, my 5-year old (when we explained the scene in simple terms), prayed for the citizens of Joplin to find their feet and to resume normal lives.

The skyscrapers and lights of Chicago wiped this remembrance from our minds entirely, and now we rejoiced in the beauty and the majesty of the human endeavor. Museums and theaters of all kinds dotted the landscape, so many that you would need weeks to enjoy them all. And nicely hemming the city with blue, Lake Michigan spread its skirts out for families and individuals to enjoy. On an architectural cruise on the lake and the river (overpriced, like almost everything else) I learned to look at buildings with new eyes for both utility and beauty, and also heard about the Dave Matthews incident and the great fire that destroyed Chicago in 1871. We frugally sampled some of the delights of Chicago, and experienced all over again the headaches of parking in a big city.

On our way back from Chicago to Oklahoma, we stopped in St Louis. I was reminded all over again of how parenthood changes our lives. Here we were, in a big city at night, and fairly dazzled by the beauty of the city, in a way that – thanks to early bedtimes – we have rarely been since Raihana’s birth in 2006. She was a trooper over the vacation, despite  late bedtimes and long hours of occupying a carseat, but these late bedtimes, though delightful for her, led to several inevitable meltdowns and total exhaustion (not to mention parental guilt).

Svend suggested we stop for Meramec Caverns, so after a surprisingly affordable night in the local Marriott (thanks to a slow week-day), we drove over to Meramec. The caverns are privately owned, but the land and Meramec River adjoins state-owned park land and water. The sight of people zip-lining over the river greeted our eyes as we drove in, and we had to contain our excitement and forego the pleasure: Raihana was too young to zip-line, and the price was too steep for us, after a week-long vacation. A gentle green river rippled near the campgrounds, and families with babies and toddlers camped and fished nearby.

If you visit Meramec Caverns in Stanton, MO, remember to take a layer of clothing along with you. Despite the heat of the day, we found ourselves cold inside the dark depths under the mountain. I wondered at just how cold it must be in the winter, but the guide reminded me that the temperature remained stable here at about 60 degrees. Native Americans used it as a summer shelter though (according to the informational display in the caverns) there were few “major” tribes in the region, and whites and Indians co-existed relatively peacefully until Indians left “voluntarily” to “avoid” white migration.

In the 1890s, people used it as a summer resort, almost, and square-danced in one huge room inside the cave. Saltpeter, or potassium nitrate was discovered in the cave, and used for gunpowder. The caves are famed as hideout for Jesse James, as the outlaws Jesse and Frank James may have hidden out in the cave: the cave owner Lester Dill discovered, to his great good fortune, a set of artifacts belonging to Jesse James, in the cave. It’s a good story anyway and lends itself well to the sale of outlaw artifacts in the tourist shop.

But the natural limestone rock formations in the caverns are its most prized features. Stalactites, stalagmites and pillars (which is what is born when stalactites meet stalagmites) in amazing formations follow your trail in the dark depths of the cave, and a river of mirror-like clarity (Mirror River) lies on either side, reflecting the rocks above.

Naturally, part of the charm of a cave experience is the fear and awe inspired by the utter darkness. I walked ahead a little, before the guide turned on the lights, just to plunge myself into that total darkness. Most of our lives, we urban folk never truly experience darkness uncontaminated by light, and a good deal of a nature trip is molded and dented by human commercialism, into just the right shape to earn your dollars. My few seconds of darkness helped me get a tiny glimpse of why seekers throughout the ages, such as our Prophet Muhammad (peace on him), occupied cave spaces far away from human settlements in search of ultimate answers.

In a large room (named the ‘theater’) there is a 70-foot high, 60 feet wide and 35 feet thick ‘curtain’ or ‘frozen waterfall’ of mineral deposit, about 70 millions years old, possibly the largest cave formation in the world. The ‘wine-table’ is a rare  formation in a room of popcorn mineral formations, and “onyx mountain” – a mountain of onyx, literally – is about 500 feet around, 200 feet thick and 33 feet high, and still growing on one side.

It was my utter inability to imagine 70 million years, but my extreme awe before this ages-old natural formation that jolted me from my mundane sense of the everyday. This onyx mountain and this curtain of rock had been here, under the earth, undisturbed for the most part, for longer than I can even imagine. As my little five-year old sprinted and danced in an attempt to stay warm, and a baby shrieked like a bat in the darkness, I was struck fairly dumb by amazement by the sight and smell of millions of years around me.

When on earth as opposed to under it, I am usually preoccupied by the quest for my little victories – personal and professional – that bring me enjoyment, profit, and security. I am engrossed in my challenges as I ascend the stairways that my fellow humans have created around me. I think in terms of me, my claims on my environment, my family, my child, my parents, my relatives, my friends, my career, my home, my country. Very often, in fact, I struggle with how little empathy I really can squeeze out for the suffering of those not connected with me, and how quickly I forget the earthquake in Azad Kashmir and the tornado in Joplin, as I relax on the beach in Chicago and stare at the fish flitting in the water. A prisoner of my own perspective, I cannot get out of my point of view. Eons may as well not have happened, as far as my own forty years are concerned. Compared to the birth of Raihana in 2006, 70 million years are naught. Below the surface of the earth, onyx mountain and the curtain of rock have been happening, untouched by my disasters and my tragedies. It is both profoundly disturbing and immensely reassuring to know that Being and the universe are so unimaginably greater than myself that my own views and perspective do not even graze the surface of it all.

For a few seconds, and a few millimeters deep into my heart, I lost my sense of perspective. I lost my sense of being at the center of everything, and knew that I could never in this lifetime know Reality truly and properly. In being entirely shaken in my confidence, I was comforted.

Tired as he climbed the stairs to the ‘theater,’ Svend carried a shivering Raihana in his arms. In love, we lose perspective. At least a little bit, in parenting, we lose our sense of self, and are able to open ourselves to a fraction of the eons and the enormous events and the Being that lie beyond our smallness. In traveling, too, we lose a bit of that perspective, and educate our eyes to take in more than they usually do.

As a Sufi fable goes, during a terrible famine, a seeker, on listening in to a couple of vultures, heard them blessing the days that brought them abundance of food. Experiencing a multiplicity of perspectives, what we imagine to be good or bad events lose their certain colors and become definable in a multitude of ways. What is good for the beef-eater is not good for the cow; what is good for the sheep may be bad for the shepherd; what is great fun for Raihana is usually an hour of cleaning for me.

I lament the events that bring me loss and rejoice in profit, unable to imagine a perspective that is inclusive of all. Not being God, I will never be able to have a God’s eye view, but in my questions about why bad things happen, I can know, for a split second at least, this one truth: I do not know what is bad and what is good. Knowledge is power: but to acknowledge one’s ignorance in the face of awe – is freedom.