fun, Pakistan, spiritual

Pakistani ghost story

800px-Basement_of_Lawang_Sewu_2011 This blog has become too serious. How about an authentic little ghost story?

One of my cherished memories from Pakistan is the scary story-tellings at night. “Jinnon ki kahaniyan.” Friends, relatives, family, – we’d be sitting together and chilling out, and suddenly someone would start telling a scary story. That would remind the other person of another scary story, and they just kept pouring out. Eventually, everyone was so terrified out of their wits that they didn’t even want to go pee by themselves. And each of these scary stories bore the mark of undeniable authenticity because ‘my uncle’ or ‘my mother-in-law’ or ‘my Qur’an teacher’ told me.

My mother reassured me that jinns lived in remote, desolate areas. And then she reminisced about the jinn who pestered her father, my maternal grandfather, a hakim (a doctor of Unani medicine). This jinn was mischievous, and had a tendency to pour out big sacks of cardamom and clove in long, neat lines. But that’s another story.

We were always being warned not to wear perfume at night or the jinns “stick to you” or fall in love with you. “When I grew up,” my Urdu teacher Mrs. Wasti said with a chuckle, “I discovered who those jinns were.” Also, don’t walk under a tree with your hair loose at night: jinns will definitely attach themselves to you. Years later, I met a Bosnian woman in London: her son’s eye was damaged by jinns, she claimed, because he urinated under a tree where this jinn happened to reside.
There was the tale of the maulvi saheb who used to teach in a madrassah. and one day, he asked his student to bring him a glass of water — and the student stretched out his hand — aaaaaaaaall the waaaay to the kitchen. So it turns out he was a jinn.
Abbu told us a story like that once. But this was not a jinn story. It was a ghost story.

Abbu was the eldest boy of his brothers and sisters. His father was a high-ranking civil servant, a gold medallist in Engineering in the days when Muslim boys did not get gold medals very often. He was a lover of literature and culture.

Then, suddenly, my grandfather took a second wife. She was a beautiful and smart woman. From my dad’s stories, I gathered that the elder wife (my grandmother) died soon after that.

My father still hates polygamy. It’s not that he’s a feminist or anything like that. Not by a long shot. He just hated the way his mother ached when another woman came along and took her place. He doesn’t want to see another woman hurt like that.

His mother died. It was probably a home abortion gone terribly wrong, because she did not want to bear any more children for her bigamist husband.

Later, one thing led to another, and abbu ended up in a domestic quarrel, and his father told him to get out of the house.

Abbu loved his father. He adores him to this day. I think some people who never quite attain to their parents – because of soured relations – always love them like children, and cannot transcend that aspiration. They struggle through their parents’ injustices, still trying, like children, to make mummy or daddy love them best.

So abbu left the big house in Mayo Gardens where my grandfather’s large family lived. He spent some nights in the park called Lawrence Garden (or Bagh-e-Jinnah, as it was renamed). “There were snakes this long in Lawrence Gardens in those days,” he’d brag. I don’t know how he eventually got off the streets and back in business, but I know there are sad tales of abandonment in there.

Abbu put himself through medical school. Every summer, Pakistani students go on vacation because the summer is just too hot to do anything. And this was before the days of air-conditioning. So every summer, when abbu could not stay at the Nishtar Medical College hostel anymore, he left to seek shelter. He’d try to crash at a relation’s house, or a friend’s. Sometimes people were kind; other times, they were not.

One summer, with no options, abbu’s only choice was to stay at an abandoned house that belonged to a relation. Abbu tells some tales, so I never quite know for sure. He claims that the house was built on a cemetery. Every night, he says, spirits or jinns appeared to disturb him, and terrified him out of his wits. I will never know whether they were actually jinns or anything other than his fears and loneliness. All I know is that my big abbu, who terrifies a lot of people, does not enjoy being alone at home.

One night, he said, he was sitting, terrified, in the house. Suddenly, he saw his mother. His dead mother.

Only, she was a torso. Head to waist.

She looked at him, and she smiled upon him. It was as if she was saying, “Don’t worry; I’ll take care of you.”
From that day on, there were no more hauntings.

Was it really a ghost? We shall never know. But my abbu, the skeptic, who doesn’t buy superstition, was convinced that his mother had come to drive away the spirits from her son. And it strengthened his heart. That’s all we need to know.

fun, virtual

Email Manners: We Still Need Them

chickenregardsCheck out an old post from 2010, called the Internet Newbie Manual, along with a delightful little piece on awkward email situations. I’d like to add a couple of my own pet peeves to these email situations.

The thing with email is that it is ubiquitous, but we have not entirely figured out what to do with it. Can we be funny on email? Can EVERYONE be funny on email? I don’t think so. Deadpan humor, for instance, works well in person, generally, unless you’re a jerk (in which case you have no clue you are a jerk, so you’re on your own, like this guy).

In text-only email, however, humor can be extremely messy, hurtful, and offensive. I have had my share of situations where I’ve cracked hilarious email jokes in order to celebrate a new and growing friendship with people whom I considered smart, ironic, and funny, and after the total silence on email, gradually discovered that these people were no longer so very friendly anymore. You know how it is – as one grows older, one becomes more and more silent because one just doesn’t know how other people will receive humor anymore. I blame this, of course, on other people’s lack of social skills. [IRONY ALERT 🙂 🙂 ].

Women fix the problems with text-only email by generously using emoticons. Men are too cool for emoticons, so they end up looking like jerks. Which they are not.

Then there’s the power dynamic problem. This is a particular issue in work emails. I had a student once. She was prickly and easily offended. I worked hard at understanding her and being open with her. We developed a good relationship. One day, suddenly, she was offended over I don’t recall what – I think it was a 9.5/10 grade. She wrote me an email, and this is how she addressed me:


Okay, seriously, is that the way you address your professors? Is that how you address ANYONE, unless you’re Severus Snape? So I decided to be funny, and responded, starting with:

Smith, 🙂 

This, also, of course, deeply offended her. I learned that the key to communication was to either have it face to face or not at all. Frequently I get a Meltdown Email, such as:

Professor Mir, I have a bad grade and a lot of absences and I wish you didn’t grade me down so much I mean I know I didn’t do so great but I did my best and I attended whenever I could I mean I know you have a policy but why do you have such a strict policy? [and so on for another page or so]

When I was younger, I used to respond right away with a set of informative facts, questions, and answers (e.g. did you check the syllabus? we discussed this on day 1 of the class; what are the reasons for absences? I did give you feedback on your previous assignment and it wasn’t addressed when you revised it). This was a big mistake, because the next email was the Mother of all Meltdowns. Now, I know better. I respond with:

Hi Stephanie,

Great to hear from you. I’d like to chat in person. Let’s talk after class, ok? 

Usually, the response is:

I’m really busy with classes [I only have 30 minutes in between to dash off frantic emails]. I’m ok now. I’ll just try to do better on the next assignment. Thanks for your help.

Some people start every email with “Dear.” This is endearing and old-fashioned, and you cannot go wrong with this. But it seems to be very common practice to address people like this:


Can you drop the rent check off on time this month? Thanks,


Personally, I prefer emails that go like this:

Hi Shabana,  

Hope you’re doing well. Can you drop the rent check off on the 1st please? Thanks,


I can’t explain why I like this so much. Funny, isn’t it, how the addition of “hi” and “please” and the subtraction of snippy hints lubricates the angles of everyday tension? This is how the niceties of everyday social behavior work. This is why we use small talk. This is why we use emoticons and gentler language on email than we have to use in person. This is also why we don’t swamp our friends and acquaintances with forwards and sunset images just as we don’t express every single thought that flits into our heads when we are speaking to someone in person. There are parallels. You can apply everyday etiquette to email etiquette. They are still relevant, despite the ubiquity of email. Just because you send four thousand emails and texts a day doesn’t make it any less interpersonal communication.

academic, children, fun, Pakistan, social science, Uncategorized, USA

Inward struggles of an academic researcher

I am in one of my pre-creative stages of academic writing. Unless you are one of those horribly prolific academic authors – in which case, stay away from me because I will be unable to control my envy – you know what this means. I have data from a pilot qualitative project that I conducted in Lahore during 4 hot and frantically busy weeks of teaching and advising at a public university. Since the methods were exploratory, the data are, naturally, messy. I know that as a qualitative researcher I should relish the messiness of data, knowing that life is messy and complex and that if the data were tidy and immediately classifiable, red flags and warning bells should go up/off. Still, when I am trawling through transcripts of intense conversations that are widely dissimilar from each other, I do sometimes wish for a closed-ended survey. When you’re grading a large stack of papers, the closed-ended exam is what you’d have, ideally. But it tells you little, unless you know exactly what you’re looking for, and the survey effectively targets that goal. Hence the pilot study.

So at this time, I am staring, through my data, at a variety of paths leading out in a variety of directions. It is also difficult that I am doing international research and that I am woefully ignorant of the work that has been done in Pakistan on the reforms in Pakistani academe. A lot of such work is government documents which is, let’s be honest – yawn. There is so much reading between the lines to do in government documents. And when I come across Pakistani officialese, I find myself completely befuddled. Maybe my training in informal American academic-speak has left me grievously inadequate to the task of formal jargon. This is not to say that I am, like – stupid or linguistically impoverished. I think.

I am looking forward to doing another round of interviews and observations at the university this summer. But since life is complicated, and I have a family which won’t accompany me this time, I cannot spend more than two weeks there. I do sometimes wish I was one of those fiercely independent academics who deal, efficiently and productively, with long periods of time away from their families, and build their research careers on such stints. I am told that when my child is older, this will become easier. As of now, my daughter gazes at me in relief when I return home after a couple of hours’ absence. So the guilt is overwhelming.

The mothering guilt is another problem with the pre-creative stage of academic writing. When I was immersed in finalizing my book manuscript (it is on its way, thanks for asking), the work was simple (well – I mean -), I knew what I was doing, by and large. Actually, I had so much to do, I had no time to feel lost. Right now, I am stuck, staring at the different paths. I am at risk, while productively contemplating my choices and the literature, of wasting (well – “waste” is an ugly word) wasting abundant quantities of time wandering in directions that will ultimately prove worthless (another ugly word). I know there is no such thing as waste in the research process. After all, as I stroll into studies of academic climate, and then gaze over into studies of work-life balance, I can only benefit from a wide-ranging appetite for contextual knowledge. But there is no category in my resume that says “Academic Appetite” or “Desultory Wanderings.” If they didn’t result in a tangible artifact, they don’t really count for much. When I am a tenured professor, I can be the expert whose musings and wanderings will be of value – someone who scatters academic value on her way as she ‘wastes’ time.


Victoria’s Secret’s never-ending catalogues

I am so very sick of them. They seem to arrive every few days. Here’s the new winter collection! Hey, and here’s the late winter catalogue. Oh wait, here’s the clearance winter catalog. … In case you forgot, here’s the winter leftovers … and it goes on. The anorexic models continue to exhibit unhappy pouts that make you want to call a hotline for help, and they continue to twist their bodies into angles one would not consider physically possible. And now, there are the new underage-looking models in their grownup-mimicking styles (don’t you just see your tweenage daughter modeling this stuff some day? Perhaps she could practice).

They offer an easy way online to get ON their mailings. Okay, and to “reduce” mailings (I guess, to just under 75). BUT to STOP their mailings, you have to call 1.800.411.5116. And when you call, you waste 10 minutes waiting for the end-catalogues option which DOES NOT HAPPEN. You ask for customer service and the honey-toned voice insists that “I think you asked for Customer Service but I can help you if you just give me a little more information.” So you hope for the best and pronounce your address clearly, whereupon the voice assures you excitedly that in just a few minutes you’ll be able to RECEIVE their prolific mailings (NOT remove them).

So you hiss Customer Service and the voice cannot seem to make out what you are saying and asks you to repeat. Then you eventually get through to a person (of course you have your inevitable wait) …. And congratulations! I have at last gotten off the mailings (Of course they are pre printed so it will take 90 days for me to stop receiving them.)

Meantime if I make the mistake of ordering a single pair of PINK socks from VS, the deluge will resume. Thank goodness it’s not being taken from the Canadian caribou for now – though who knows where else it’s coming from. If you are one of its victims, don’t feel alone: your catalogue is counted among only about 400 million mailings.

fun, gender, Islam, religion, social science, USA

“What are we going to do about American women?”

Enjoy my new (satirical! satirical!) post at Religion Dispatches.

“We have to liberate them. We have to let them know that their way of life is evil at its core. Years of subjugation and conditioning have rendered them incapable of desiring something better. We have to empower them to hate their civilization, their culture, their people, their norms of gender and sex.

“Yes, I appreciate that it is an enormous undertaking, but since what we have to offer is so much better, surely it cannot be that hard. We have to teach them that they should abandon the men they trust and obey–all of them …”

desi, fun

Stuff Pakistanis like

I thought I’d do what I thought might be a “witty” take on Stuff White People Like and adapt it to what Pakistani Americans like. With the many caveats that are necessary – these are stereotypes, they are not universally applicable, they have a class bias (I don’t fit them either – well, okay, not ALL of them). They’re listed in a very Pakistani, very organic fashion – as in, in illogical sequence. Feel free to add more!

1. Cars – Hondas. Pakistanis have a deep loyalty to Japanese cars, and among those, to the Honda. We believe (it’s somewhere in the Pakistani creed) that Hondas never die, and that all other cars are mere cheap imitations of Japanese models.

2. Shopping – Retail. We dislike used goods. It’s low-class. Who would buy second-hand items to use? What are we, beggars? However, wealthy Pakistanis love to shop at Walmart too.
3. Clothing – Short-sleeved silk shalwar kameez outfits flapping in sub-zero temperature, combined with strappy high-heeled sandals and no stockings.

4. Careers – Medicine. Nothing else. All other careers are second to medicine. Service-oriented careers such as teaching are “admired” in other people’s kids. The humanities and arts are not careers: they are hobbies. For White people.

5. Homes – sprawling brand new detached house with attached bathrooms, in the suburbs. (Who would want to live in an apartment in the city? Pakistanis do not need street cred.) Townhouses and duplexes are technically not homes.

6. Number of children – 3-6 (and up).

7. Beverage – milky tea that’s been cooking for a half hour.

8. Dessert – the more ghee, sugar, cream and whole milk the better.

9. University of choice – Harvard. (Actually, the only currently existent university).

10. Hair dye color – dark brown streaked with dirty blond.

11. Make-up – more is more.

12. Jewelry – a) Diamonds b) gold. (Once these two ‘basics’ have been established, others such as emeralds, rubies, etc. may be added. Silver does not count).
13. Food – Meat. A lot. Vegetarian dishes are for poor folks.

14. Animal protein -(in order of preference) a) goat b) chicken c) mutton. (Beef is for poor folks too).

15. Choice of children’s school – private.

16. Choice of neighbors – White.

17. Choice of sons/daughters-in-law – tall, fair, educated Pakistanis. Intellectually bland is okay. Lower middle class is not.

18. Religiosity – just enough, not too much, not too little.

19. Home decoration – crystal ornaments and shiny majestic furniture.

20. TV – Geo and Zee.

21. Exercise – treadmill at home. Outdoors? Hiking? Who does that?

22. Politics – apathetically conservative.

23. Radio – What?

24. Pets – children.

25. Book preferences – gilt-bound religious volumes in living room. (Don’t worry, it’s not like we READ them).

26. Best friends – wealthy and influential. Gifted, religious, smart, intellectuals etc. are okay for big parties or to show off to others.

27. Time zone – Time does not exist. Space does. But time doesn’t. Come to my son’s wedding and you’ll find out.
28. Common environmentally friendly practices – Enviro-what?

29. Favorite health food – Food is healthy. “Health food” is redundant. (And greens are for rabbits).

30. Cultural pursuits – Didn’t we just mention Zeetv? What do you mean “the arts?”

31. Top topics of conversation – a) children’s career highlights b) bodily ailments.

academic, fun

Academic interviews

Tis the season for academic interviews! From my personal experience, allow me to offer a bit of advice on what to do when invited for a campus interview:

  • Read carefully your brand new “free” business cards ordered off the internet. Do so especially before you hand one to a head of department and to all the members of the search committee. You never do know – your business card company may just have decided that “Mir” is not a valid name, and that you are really “Shabana MR” (all caps, bold). When such a business card is examined, your case for being a  smart, productive and organized member of a dynamic team may well be somewhat weakened.
  • And if the business cards are good, well, make sure to take some with you for each interview. Don’t remember them just as the plane takes off.
  • Make sure you get plenty of rest and sleep before a campus interview. A campus interview lasts all day. Literally. Usually, it runs from breakfast around 7:30am to productive after-dinner conversation at 8:30pm. If you are Pakistani, and have those large and characteristically deep-set eyes, you might want to use a bit of concealer and not use mascara and eye-pencil. Around 5pm, you might find that your bright-eyed mien will dwindle to a rather wizened, darkened appearance, and your prospective colleagues will wonder why you got two black eyes just prior to flying in.
  • Try out those brand new shoes that you picked off the Wal-Mart sale rack before wearing them for a 14-hour interview day. They might just become blocks of cement as you scurry from office to office to meet the dean and the faculty in half-hour sets of time. You may also wish to figure out for sure if you are a 6W or a 6.5.
  • Wool pants, rather than a lightweight cotton, might be a good idea when flying out to snowy 8 degree weather.
  • And make sure that you travel in clothing that would be appropriate to meet new colleagues in, when they pick you up from the airport.
  • On the morning of the interview, get ready before taking time to re-prep your job talk. If your hair doesn’t look quite right, it could distract you throughout the day.
  • When you have breakfast with a senior prospective colleague, EAT. It’s going to be a log day. When you have lunch with students, also, EAT. Perfect your skill of politely interspersing food with conversation.
  • When traveling during the late winter months, make sure your CARRY-ON contains some wardrobe essentials and toiletries. You MIGHT end up being the horror story candidate whose flight was delayed, whose connection was canceled, and whose baggage was lost. You don’t want to be the candidate whose future colleague is obliged to drive them around in freezing weather to find a late-night grocery store. Also, one does not feel like a competitive candidate in a grubby t-shirt, an old cardigan and SNEAKERS. Still, stranger things have happened, and people in grubby t-shirts sometimes end up getting offers. If the unexpected happens, avoid freaking out, and treat the situation with good humor and flexibility. After all, YOU are the interviewee, suit or not.
desi, fun, gender, Pakistan, religion, USA

Mo meets Mom in the deep South

I have a paternal uncle who arrived in the deep South 50-some years ago. He was the only foreigner the area. His face was splashed all over the newspapers as “Mo” the tennis star from Pakistan, who had a tennis scholarship at Clemson. Wherever he went, he was recognized: “You’re Mo, aren’t you!”

So 50 years ago in Greenville …

My uncle shows up at the young Nancy’s house, to meet her mother. (They had to wait 9 months till she was legal to marry.) He was an undergrad, a clean-cut, modern, polished Pakistani from a prominent family in Lahore. He’s short, brown, with a strong Pakistani accent.
She’s a farm girl, with 6 brothers, sitting around the house in dirty boots.

Nancy’s mother interviews young “Mo.” He’s still Mo. (Mohammad).

Mom: “So you’re not from here are you?”

Mo: No.

Mom: where are you from?

Mo: Pakistan.

Mom: Oh Palestine!

Mo: No, Pakistan.

Mom: I heard you, you said Palestine. (She remembered her Bible lessons).

Mo: I’m not from Palestine, ma’am, …  I’m from Pakistan.
Mom: I know where Palestine is, son.

Mo: Forget it. Yes, I’m from Palestine.
Mom: So what religion are you?

Mo: I’m Muslim.

Mom: What’s that? Is that like Catholic?

Mo: No.

Mom: OK. You can date her then!