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.

A journey through annual conventions of the Islamic Society of North America


imamapaloozaMany years ago (okay, in 1991), when I was not an American, and had never thought I would be an American, I was working at the International Islamic University (IIU) and I heard from a student tell of an event called the Annual Convention of ISNA (the Islamic Society of North America). This dear friend of mine was a religious misfit like myself, and her mother had hoped she would find a nice, educated, liberal, upwardly mobile professional, and religious boy at ISNA. So her mother packed her off to Chicago where she attended talks by Imam Siraj Wahhaj and Jamal Badawi (she got the two of them mixed up, and told me how Jamal Badawi was amazing! Tall and Black and amazing! Okay, in the photo below, Badawi is on the LEFT.) But she met no nice badawisirajboy – probably because she wasn’t really focused on the job. A year or so later, in 1993, I met a couple of Canadian students at the IIU, young women who were on friendly terms with ISNA leaders and who had organized major events such as the protests against the Bosnian genocide. They told me more tales of ISNA. 

It crossed my mind – how completely amazing and insane would it be if I, the niqabi from Kinnaird College, could attend ISNA. Most of the people in my social class did not quite get my religiosity. As for those who did get religion, they criticized my lack of traditional gendered behavior and my love of English literature. I was so lonely as a religious woman. I felt being at ISNA would put me in a cerebral network of love and awareness. All I’d known so far was Jamaat-Islami (whence I was now an exile, because I was no longer an Islamist) where the boys tended to be conservative, macho, and more interested in power politics than religion. Then I’d known my Chishti Sabri silsila where most of the people were – well, women. Radiant, smart, and devoted women, but, mostly, upper class. In case this escaped you, dear reader, I’m not upper class. I’m barely hanging on to middle class. More on that later. 

A few years later, in 1996, as a newly arrived graduate student, I attended ISNA in Columbus. I had no money, and was kindly accommodated in the interns’ hotel room. I felt completely out of place among these very American undergraduate women who were so comfortable with each other and with their very informal cliquishness. When I spoke (in my strongMatrimonial-20141 angular British accent, completely pure of midwestern slang) about the ISNA experience, they stared at me quietly, and then turned back uncomfortably to talking about Stuff. I felt dreadfully Pakistani, so foreign, and so disappointed that I wasn’t in heaven even though I was at ISNA. And no boy had liked me yet. 

Several ISNA’s later, I am off to Detroit for ISNA 2014

It is now 21 years since I first heard of ISNA. I still have no money, but I have friends – friends I can crash with. I did eventually find a man, by the way. I didn’t meet him at ISNA, but I met him at the cousin of ISNA (AMSS, which is now NAAIMS).

isna-hallwayNow when I attend ISNA, I am overwhelmed by the crowds of uncles, aunties, sisters, brothers. I smile indulgently as I pass through the hotel lobby where young Muslims flirt and make eyes at each other. I roll my eyes at the fanfare around the arrival of celebrities – and then I try to shove my way in so I can catch a glimpse of Shaykh Hamza Yusuf. I am excited to see friends I haven’t seen in years. On my way to and from lectures and events, I see friends from all over N. America. I am connected now, and I am home. As home as possible. 


Check out my Meet the Author event on SUNDAY AUG 31, SESSION 12M, 11:30 AM – 12:45 PM. Room 311AB. 

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.

Power outages in Pakistan

electricity-protest1-640x480After less than 24 hours in Lahore, the power outages felt routine. Nowadays, no one in Pakistan even bothers to mention them anymore. For a traveler from the US, there is no point obsessively checking the forecast here. What’s the weather right now? Hot. What’s the weather going to be like tomorrow morning? Hot. What’s the weather going to be in 10 days? Hot. No surprises. It’s hot, and the power will go out. In the very nice Ramada – which was not 2.5 stars in Pakistan – the power outages continued but the only impact was felt when there was a 3 second gap as the generator kicked in. My hotel room also had a central electrical system, a bank of buttons on the nightstand whence you turned off and on the TV and 10 different lights in the room. Of course, when the power went out and then on in the middle of the night, all the lights turned on and woke me right up. Apparently my room lacked the battery unit that should prevent this from happening, though why such a central electrical control should be used in a country with frequent outages, I do not know.

So it was hot. On my first day, I accidentally spilled a 1-liter bottle of water on my mattress. The mattress was entirely drenched. But no problem! Put it outside for an hour and it’s dry as a bone. The heat in Pakistan doesn’t radiate warmth. Its tentacles penetrate deep inside everything and pulsate powerfully there. It envelops you in a bubble of extreme heat and renders you tired, hot, and slightly ill. When you return from an allegedly enjoyable expedition to Monal Restaurant at Daman-e-Koh up in the hills, you feel like you’ve been through boot-camp. It’s no big surprise we’ve got issues.

Afternoon siestas are not naps in Pakistan. You just basically pass out for a while in the middle of the baking hot day, and then you can resume getting through the rest of the afternoon and the long evening (Pakistanis do not go to bed early. Dinner is around 9 or 10pm, for instance. If you’re hoping to get something done around 8 or 9am, dream on.)
The pattern of such sietas is thus: you fall asleep with the air conditioner running freezing cold, and you wake up with palpitations, with your mouth completely dry, to find the room hot and stuffy when the power’s been out for just half an hour. Of course the above applies to my parents’ home, mainly, and not to the university settings where I’d been delivering lectures and engaging in discussions with faculty, students, intellectuals, and observers of the political scene. Most such settings were equipped with electrical generators.

Bashiran, my mother’s part-time maid, said a power surge in her neighborhood destroyed a number of appliances in the homes of poor laborers and domestic workers. I cannot stop thinking of a little girl Bashiran mentioned, about 4 years or so, whose family’s pedestal fan quit working. The girl wept ceaselessly for hours until her eyes were swollen and red. Yeah, well, in a day or so, I would be on a plane to the land where, at the height of summer, the power flows nonstop. We run the a.c. until we are cold and have to grab a sweater.

Returned from the motherland

cropped-cropped-iphone-2011-11-12-050.jpgAfter a two-week visit in Pakistan, I’m back in Champaign. I’m a little dizzy with joy from being back with Svend and our daughter, and I am also constantly wrestling the demons of grief and loss from having to say goodbye yet again to my aging parents. Last night, I went to bed grateful that I was able to sleep through the night without being awoken every alternate hour by power outages and the suffocating heat that builds up quickly in the bedroom. But I also grieved that I would not be awoken by my mother’s loving touch upon my ankles as she asked me if I wanted some mint tea and toast.

The next morning we went to the bank, thinking of all the days in Pakistan when I wondered if burglars would strike our home (they had done so 3 times before), and the fact that I had zero such feelings after arriving in the US. As I stood in line and awaited my turn behind an Indian gentleman with a tilak on his forehead (who eyed me with familiar interest, probably wondering if I was a member of the tribe), I was overwhelmed by the surroundings. How clean the floors were, how orderly and updated the furniture. How the fluorescent lights did not buzz. How dust-free every surface was. How friendly and yet casual the staff were. How equitable our interaction was despite the fact that the service was excellent and efficient. How economical and yet how pleasant the social exchange was. How we ended on jokes and pleasantries with the staff that left no marks upon us, no promise for future connection.

I emerged profoundly grateful for the lightness, the warm brightness of the air, thinking I would like to hug you, Ms. Bank Teller, for your amazing personality and kindness and efficiency. And I was simultaneously smashed in the face by the sense of contrast with the homeland. I had struggled these two weeks, again, with the constant awareness of social class; the simmering resentment, envy, desire, and need; the chaos; the very organic order that emerges from connection which is for the same reason so fragile.

And yes, I was now relieved to be back in the first world – not just the first world but America which is the lap of luxury despite my many financial and professional issues. But I was also reminded of how this shiny, bright, perfect place is a bubble, a big glistening bubble that is separated from the world, that is different from most of the world. And I am in it. I am in this bubble. I am in this Matrix. How can a person choose to live in the Matrix, Morpheus? I have chosen to live here, chosen to love this place. I am even called upon to serve as a cultural ambassador of sorts, in my own cultural origin. Is this legal? Is this appropriate? Is this sustainable?

Of course this – this global distribution of resources is deeply, shockingly inappropriate, wrong, and unsustainable. But what of my place in all of this? Is it okay for me to smugly pull my feet off the dirty floor and curl up on the cushion like a cat, and to throw my lot in with this bubble? When I travel back, a living representative of AMERICA in my standard of living, in the Luna bars, Nutella-and-go packs, easy-macs that I leave in my wake, and in my complaints of the heat, the power outages, and the disorder, do I possibly do more harm than good? Am I sharing expertise gained in the first world or am I simply scattering more acutely felt inequality?

Social class slammed into my face the moment I got off the plane when I arrived. In the hungry eyes of the porters, the wonderment of the passport control officer as she flipped through my navy passport, the dust, the fabric-wrapped suitcases marked in Urdu and coming from Jeddah, Madinah, Dubai, Abu Dhabi, the lower middle class expat workers, innocent of deodorant in their synthetic shalwar kameez outfits, as they compulsively pushed and shoved and struggled against the queue. The day I brought my carry-on down to the hotel breakfast, I was surrounded by officious waiters and other staff hoping that I’d tip before leaving. I was a disappointment, after having flashed a navy passport at check-out. In part, being stingy is protection against being targeted as the local generous tipper. Going to the airport bathrooms was always stressful because there’s a female janitor stationed there, whose main purpose appears to be to ask you questions about where you’re traveling, and then offer a string of invocations calling blessings, safety, and many children upon you, like an axe she is holding over you to make you pay up. The force of expectation is crushing. I didn’t have the right Pakistani cash on me. It was agonizing to me, now, to be at the center of so much expectation and so much need – absolutely justified need and justified expectation – because I wasn’t sure what to do (whom to tip, how much, whether to tip or not, whether it sets me up for trouble or not), and because I didn’t have unlimited financial reserves even though I do have a spinning carry-on, obviously American shoes, and that accent.

Mastery of English constitutes a stick that I seemed to be using, unwittingly, to clobber people over the head all the time. When I was asked a question in English, I must answer in English, but the contrast between my speech and the halting tones and stilted grammar of some interlocutors in itself, maybe, comes across as violence. I don’t know for sure. I think there is both aversion and desire, and I burned for hyper-visibility, shame, and ambivalence at being at the center of this interplay.

Warning: scam job ads that seek to prey upon women

The internet jungle preys upon the innocent. Someone I know has been looking for a job, so I had my eyes open. I was poking around university Facebook pages when I saw a note on the Beaconhouse National University FB page that said:

“A reputable company urgently requires for HR Assistant (only Females) Fresh Graduate or Graduate students Salary Package-Rs.16000-20000 K- negotiable. Apply at Subject line HR Assistant”.

It sounded off, but then I thought, maybe it’s not so strange here. I sent her the note.

She contacted them, and the ‘company’ requested a skype interview.

On skype, the man immediately started insulting and threatening her and told her she’d better do everything he said or he’d post nude pictures of her on the internet. She immediately quit skype.

Pakistani friends: please warn your students and young women not to fall into such traps and not to be intimidated by anyone.  I have found the same ad posted on a variety of job-related FB pages. It is truly criminal because they know people are desperately seeking jobs.

Visiting Pakistan

I’ve been in Pakistan for a week now.

It’s delightful to see family and friends when I visit Pakistan. Still, I can’t help always getting a little overwhelmed with having so many people in my life all the time. Much of my regular workdays in the US are spent alone – as in, not in close contact with anyone, and any contact is usually of limited duration and depth. When I am here in Pk, and am trying to arrange each daily schedule with invitations, visits, tailor-visits (not to mention work), I find myself lacking the emotional stamina and mental focus to keep it all together.

I think I sometimes come across as a little cold because I will not do multiple visits a day, and I am trying not to go out in the devastating heat almost at all. But I confess that my focus is on work and, most of all, my parents. If I end up outdoors and busy with visits too often, I will end up neglecting them, so I keep my engagement calendar busy but not too busy. Inevitably, I will offend a few people in the process.