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.

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.

Cold enough for ya?

It’s pretty cold right now. My Facebook feed is practically exploding. Sometimes, even though I am an immigrant, I lose this perspective.

As a girl, I had no coats when I was growing up, and we were middle class. I remember wearing thin cardigans over linen shalwar kameezes, with lightweight socks. One time, a schoolfriend wore a fuzzy coat to school one winter’s day (her brother had brought it her from the US) and I was stupefied. In the late 1980s, Afghan tradesmen used to sell fuzzy sweaters – possibly aid or charity clothing – at the roundabout in Liberty Market. We’d never seen anything like it.

To this day, when I wear performance fleece, I want to stockpile the stuff, fill a plane with it, and take it to Pakistan. The poor – the milkman, the vegetable seller, the gardener, the maid – they all wore nothing more than their shalwar kameezes with a woolen shawl over their faces and bodies.

You might think that it doesn’t get very cold in Pakistan. The coldest I feel is when I visit Pakistan in the winter. The poorly insulated homes and the lack of central heat make a visit to the bathroom an experience to be remembered.

The upper and middle classes now have access to a range of products, in Pakistan as well as abroad. But for the poor, the thin layers of a shalwar kameez with a worn-out shawl is all most of them have. And in recent years, the shortage of gas and electricity make for a killer mix.

Even if you do have gas heaters (and gas), those things tend to be leaky and you will get dizzy and ill if you enjoy them too long. I’ve done it too many times. I will never forget the time when a group of Albanian students at the International Islamic University (I was the Residence Hall Director) decided to run the gas heaters in their closed room at NIGHT. I went upstairs to check on them  and found them all passed out. We opened doors and pulled them awake, and carted them off to PIMS (local hospital). It was terrifying. Those women learned that cold was not something you could always fight. You think we’re fatalistic? Try spending the winter in Pakistan.

So if you are in the US in the middle of a cold wave, or even sidling up to your radiators in parts of Europe, some would love to have what you have.

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.

Cramming my way to America


Tomorrow I take the U.S. citizenship test and interview.

It has been an edifying process, of course. Among other things, I have discovered my old cramming-for-test skills are still as bright and shiny as they were when I took my B.A. examinations in Lahore. Meet the student who memorized the entirety of ‘Macbeth’ so she could respond to any questions about ‘If it were done when ’tis done’ or ‘Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow,’ and likewise for ‘Hamlet,’ ‘The Rape of the Lock,’ and much of ‘Emma.’

For the woman who could memorize Harold Pinter’s plays, factoids about the number of Congressional representatives in the country, a Senator’s term, and the Bill of Rights are fairly manageable. Still, wish me luck!

The book is here!

Photo on 11-16-13 at 5.36 PM Muslim American Women on Campus: Undergraduate Social Life and Identity – my first full-length book – is here from the University of North Carolina Press.

This is a big day. I was struck by the fact that my editor, Elaine, reminded me in her letter to celebrate properly. I suspect Elaine knows academic authors too well. We see every accomplishment, every book, every journal article, and every award in the context of academic productivity.

So in this photograph, I am taking the time to celebrate “properly” with my esteemed co-author, my seven-year old daughter. It is Raihana’s sacrifice of a good deal of quality time as well as her raising of questions about being Muslim, American, Pakistani, and White all at the same time that have resulted in this book. I owe her big time.

The book is available at the University of North Carolina Press.


International departures

June 24: I am in the large airy lounge at the Allama Iqbal Airport. It is 2am. I would like nothing better than to stretch my legs out and sleep. Considering I have at least 24 hours of travel ahead of me, I probably should. But the tumult in my heart will not rest.

This goodbye to my parents was the hardest so far, and I have said goodbye a number of times since I left Pakistan in 1994. Normally I retain my tears until much later, until I have been in my airplane seat for a few hours, it is dark, and no one can see me weep. This time, I wept silently all the way to the airport as my mother pressed and patted my hand, also silently and (as she thought) imperceptibly weeping.

I cried all the way from the entry into international departures through passport control, security check, and the lounge.

“Where are you going?” the security staff lady asked me. “America,” I answered with a voice full of tears. “Crying all the way?” she said with a smile.

Second-last day in Lahore

It’s Saturday. I leave in the early hours of dawn on Monday. This has been one of my shortest trips back home. There was one other 2-week trip, during which I suffered from a most debilitating flu and high fever for much of the time. This visit has been uneventful health-wise. I have been careful about what I consume to the point of paranoia. People look at me funny, of course, when I decline such harmless things as a still-unwrapped charcoal-cooked corn on the cob – how I yearn for them and for the college memories that they bring – but after a few extremely unfortunate illnesses during previous visits, I am twice shy. I have refused fruit chaat, broast chicken, endless quantities of tea and coffee, and varieties of fruit juices, and I remember all of those refusals with heartache. Even that most fiercely delicious of Pakistani fruit, the mango, has upset my stomach somewhat but in this one respect, I have soldiered on, gorging myself on mangoes, combining the diarrheal qualities of mango with the costive qualities of the strange addictive purplish-black jamun. 

 Yesterday was the closing ceremony of my ethnographic methods workshop at Lahore College for Women. The workshop participants praised me effusively during the certificates-distribution ceremony, and this was my moment to bask in both pride and humility. In Pakistan, it is inappropriate to speak well of oneself. When I spoke of the importance of “selling yourself” through your resume or collegial networking, a participant smilingly referred to this as one of my “American” notions. You are supposed to serve in exemplary fashion until others spontaneously laud your qualities.

So on this last day of the workshop, I received the fruits of my labors when my dedication, my qualifications, my pedagogy, and my content knowledge were complimented in probably rather exaggerated terms. Uncomfortable with praise, however, I took that opportunity to express gratitude to the LCWU VC and the DFDI team which made the entire workshop possible, as well as the participants who brought keen energy and enthusiasm to the 2-week workshop. It was what the VC Dr Sabiha Mansoor described with gentle humor as our mutual appreciation society, and it was fun. I was presented with a plaque and a large bouquet of tuberoses and roses, and we hugged each other all around – I had to remind myself not to shake hands with the male faculty.

The workshop was, apparently, a watershed moment for faculty participants who rarely found opportunities to network and collaborate with fellow faculty at other institutions. The institutions represented were, moreover, a varied set – the large and old women’s university LCWU, the prestigious Presbyterian college Forman Christian College, and the venerable and bohemian National College of the Arts. The event was also an excellent opportunity for me to get a slight feel for the academic cultures at these different universities, and I enjoyed it immensely. It was, of course, sometimes challenging to advise faculty in postmodern literature, art, and music on their research writing, but the challenge was a productive one.

I saw plenty of evidence of how ethnographic methods fired the imaginations of Pakistani faculty across the disciplines, and it was delightful. I advised people on their research proposals for their PhD work, for applications to PhD programs, on fieldwork methods, and on report-writing. Now that I am a primarily-undergraduate faculty member at Millikin – and enjoying the pace of life as well as the new youthful spirit of teaching there – I am refreshed by the opportunity to advise postgraduate researchers.


It is Saturday afternoon. Now that I have had my annual grooming at Samia’s beauty salon (a lovely haircut but a hair dye several shades lighter than what I’m used to because blond is the new black over here!) I am sitting in Gloria Jeans Coffee in case any friends from my school, college, and work days are available to drop by and say salam. It would be better manners to visit friends individually or in small groups than to send out a facebook mass-message about my availability, of course. But the 2-week work trip simply didn’t allow for the time it would take to coordinate and visit people. So here I am.

The emotional climate between my parents and me is reaching a fever pitch. There are many long sighs, and much pottering around in my vicinity to clean up for me and provide any little thing I might possibly need. This can be difficult. Keep in mind, my life has revolved almost exclusively around two individuals (husband and child) for many years now. We have a fairly limited social life. The idea that anyone would tell me I should not go shopping or that I should go to visit the neighbors is hard to swallow. But I have been away for a long time. Just as I expect to see the Lahore of the 1980s and I find it excessively changed, my parents frequently turn to see their naive, bohemian, studious 20-year old daughter, and find an independent, excessively self-reliant 45-year old woman who does not take in her stride any effort to shape or restrict her activities. I react quickly and defensively to my father’s eccentric counsel regarding my financial decisions as if it were a personal affront. We are both struggling with a cumulative gap of many, many years. We have all aged immensely in each other’s absence, and now here we are, trying to understand each other.

We are different people. But our aching hearts are the same. We ache and weep for each other, but in person, we constantly squabble and misunderstand. Once we have squabbled, we mope, sulk, and cry in our separate spaces. Then we return, broken and hurt, because we do not have the time to sulk. We have only 1 day left together. And what after that? Do we have another visit next year? Who knows? I am terrified that at the next visit, I will not be able to squabble with my parents, that no one will tell me what to do and what to wear.

Mortality hangs over us, the loudest presence in the house. My father is 80, my mother is 78. These once-strong, hardy, and hard-working people are limping, napping, dozing, peering at me. Diabetes, cataracts, and a variety of other old-age ailments crowd my parents’ personalities out sometimes. My father repeatedly offers me milk, forgetting that I am lactose-intolerant –and then I realize that age has wreaked havoc with their capacity for memory. My mother tried to pair a red dupatta with a fuchsia outfit the other day; I was in a hurry to get to the workshop, and I snapped impatiently at her. A moment later, I suddenly realized that my mother did not see the difference between the colors. Utter shock.

For many years, I took in the world through my mother’s eyes. Now her eyes are failing. How will I see now?

Why do I see things so differently from her now? Why is she so frustrated when I see things differently?

At none of these moments do I reveal my shock and pain. Maybe I should. Maybe I should cry, let my weakness show, let my parents in, allow them some weakness too. I think I am crabby and stiff on purpose, because I am deeply afraid that any weakness will result in total collapse. Because deep down, when I think about my parents living their lives without me, growing old and growing sick, sighing and full of heartache when I disappear into international departures at Allama Iqbal International Airport – I want to collapse, cry, scream, and fall into hysterics. No other response seems appropriate. Everything else is a performance. So I continue, stiffly, snappishly, irritably, talking of work, packing, and the return flight, allowing no chinks to show in my armor. It is a worthless, cruel, painful strategy, and I will continue in it until I am alone in a crowd inside the airport lounge where no one who counts can see my tears. It is time to stop writing this now, because Gloria Jeans Coffee isn’t the place to be crying into your keyboard.

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.

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.