Teaching that squeezes you dry

“Tired” – Christian Krohg (1885)

Teaching fills me with joy. Teaching drains me. Teaching excites me like a child hopped up on candy. Teaching squeezes me dry to the point of being psychologically parched and mentally worn out.

Today, on day one of the Fall semester after the summer, this truth hits me harder than ever. Maybe this is more intense now, as my health has taken a few sharp turns lately.

I find myself scrambling in panic, seeking a cocoon of stillness after the over-being of teaching.

I’ve written about how teaching is life-giving to me as a teacher. I’ve mentioned how I am similar to a vampire, feeding on my students’ enthusiasm and energy. But that nothing about this life-giving connection is mechanical:

I kept thinking, I should cut this discussion short and pop in the video. But I knew, too, that the students were thinking, thinking hard and eagerly, creatively, on the topic (relativism and neutrality). Students aren’t a mechanical puzzle: you don’t put in all in the ingredients, do your job, and walk out. Teaching is more organic than that – and more unpredictable. I teach three sections of the same course, and often I tell myself I will reduce my workload by doing the same prep and the same tricks for each section. But I can’t. It doesn’t work that way. Each group is different. Each group responds to a different kind of magic. There is nothing uniform about it.

Why am I a vampire? “We harvest energy from our students because teaching – good teaching – drains enormous quantities of energy.”

Augustine_and_donatists.jpgWhen I am in the classroom, and those hopeful eyes are turned to me, I give of myself without question, effortlessly. It is a moment when my energies are poured into the process of learning. Not to be too bombastic, but that moment of intense giving reminds me of Calphurnia’s dream in Julius Caesar where Caesar’s statue ran blood “like a fountain with an hundred spouts” while Romans smiled and “did bathe their hands in it.” (Maybe that is plenty bombastic). Students have often told me they find me intensely energetic, that I fully wake them up with my teaching; I talk, I laugh, I joke, I connect dots, I walk, I interact with individuals, I pour my excitement about the topic into my classroom, and, without bragging, I can claim that I am, usually, a fiery ball of energy.

Once I am finished, I find myself utterly drained. Teaching drains me like an adrenaline high. I’m worn out. Today, as the schools have not yet opened, my daughter is with me, and requires answers to many questions. She has sat in the back of the classroom, and now she looks to me to continue my pattern of pouring my energies out all day long. But I am finished. My mind is now dull and parched. I have nothing left for now. Until Wednesday’s class.

I have among my friends those who imagine that teaching is a mechanical task, similar to entering data into a word-processor. They don’t understand why there are breaks for academics, why there is a summer break, why teachers can’t keep going day after day, class after class.

Teaching, done well, is much more, and far, far more demanding than what these people imagine. There is absolutely nothing mechanical or straightforward about teaching. People who don’t get that are the kind that try to standardize teaching and learning. People who don’t get the powerful connection that happens in teaching are the ones who imagine teachers as assembly-line workers conveying bits of information on a conveyor belt. These are the kind of people who are poison to the magic of learning. They bring their capitalist alienation and detachment to the classroom, and kill everything in sight.

Teaching is life-giving. Teaching is a killer. Teaching fills with joy and cleans you out.

Teaching is the beast that reaches deep into your mind, your heart, and your soul, and takes absolutely everything.


Happy 70th birthday, Pakistan

You’re my family and my cradle. Wherever I go, you’re in my heart. You held me in your arms when I was young, and I grew up to be who I am today. I walked your streets, and I drank from your waters. Your trees shaded me from the hot summer. Some day, I want to bring my child for you to cradle in your bosom and to teach her what you taught me.
Now you’re facing tough times again. You’ve faced them before. Inshaallah, we’ll leave the struggles behind and move ahead. Inshaallah, better times lie ahead. I want to wipe your tears and dress your wounds. I want to see you rise up, glow with your former beauty – no, with a new glory. I am far away, but I am always connected to you, always yearning for you, always praying for you. In being far away, I am in pain forever, divided, and torn. But I am grateful, no matter what, that you are there.
Better days will come. Some day, we will not be fearful, in line at immigration, with green passports. Some day, we will not all be jumping ship, reaching out for foreign lands. Some day, we will stand proud and tall again, ambassadors of peace and love, generous and loving even in our poverty. Some day, we will not be afraid to walk the streets. Some day, our hearts will not break daily at the sight of barefoot children struggling to make a living on the street. Some day, Lord, some day, God, – let that day come soon.

The academic summer ends


The academic summer is creeping to an end.

Meetings begin. Administrators smirk with an At last you feel our pain expression.

Reviews are overdue: non-paying customers are unhappy.

Syllabi are overdue: time to make unripe readings and assignments decisions that I will regret in October. Fresh desk copies sit untouched.

And the article that was supposed to be my one goal this summer watches me from a corner, like an eternally unhappy spouse, murmuring, “I thought it was going to be different this time.”



Celebrate With Pakistan. Go On. Just Once.

The Pakistani judiciary just removed from power a man that has held a tremendous amount of power in the country for years.


No, seriously, years. And a tremendous amount of power. You don’t understand. This is Nawaz Sharif. This is no joke in Pakistan.

The underdog is rarely celebrated for any of her achievements. A comparable event of comparable complexity can be celebrated with outpourings of optimism and fist-pumping in a Western nation or a regional superpower. In the case of Pakistan, the complexity (military involvement and political shenanigans) which would be pushed to the background to discuss a different country, take over any optimism.

In a single-clause sentence, try to acknowledge that Pakistan’s judiciary did what few countries in the world have achieved.




We’ll all write essays about complexity and political baggage afterward. But give us that one moment. That one moment that we never, ever get, because every pundit in the world stylishly adopts the “basket case” discourse as soon as the word “Pakistan” comes up.

And if you don’t want to give Pakistan that one moment, show me what you’ve got.

Show me your comparable stuff.

Who’s your hero?

ross.jpg“What’s wrong with this guy?” he said over a plate of expensive pasta. “Here’s this beautiful woman, and you won’t commit to her? What’s wrong with him?”

The woman was Rachel in Friends, and the person talking was a high-level manager at an IT company. A grown man who could not separate the fictional personae on the screen from reality.

It never fails to blow my mind how regular folks who should know better buy into the PR of mass-consumed celebrities.

There are people who would like John McCain to be their grandpa, Obama to be their neighbor, and Justin Bieber to be their buddy.

These people will probably slam me for my cynicism. People will say that they have lurve to give, and they believe in the goodness of these celluloid personae.

But for all the people who weep about John McCain’s “heroism,” how many of them recognize the thousands of disability rights activists who put their bodies and their wheelchairs on the line?


mazie.jpgIf folks really have so much love to give, how about recognizing Mazie Hirono, who traveled despite stage 4 cancer to cast her vote for healthcare? Why focus so much on the last-minute move by McCain – who didn’t even take a stand during his speech about getting to “regular order”?


A Hollywood cliffhanger that tells you the story of the gruff heart-of-gold who had a last-minute change of heart draws out people’s emotions because it plays on emotions more effectively than the unsensational, persistent, steadfast work of healthcare activists.

For smooth sensational screen-friendly celebrity personae, people ignore any number of facts about how their political heroes in the 1% have killed thousands in a war (but those are brown people, far away from us, so it doesn’t really matter).

People ignore how these celebrity politicians lack a consistent record of policy friendly to obama-mic-drop.jpgthe 99%, simply because oh, they talk so good, and the narrative around their personae is enthralling. It’s like we watch politics and life with glazed eyes and a big tub of popcorn.

How about this:

Is your emotional vulnerability selective? Perhaps you are vulnerable to the powerful, the wealthy, and the famous.

This is not love. This is a love of power.

Antonio Gramsci has some things to say about how hegemony is perpetuated by your consent and mine.

“Are you okay? Is the cancer gone?”

Maxine Noel
‘The Conversation’ by Maxine Noel (Ioyan Mani) – needlepoint

Someone asked me last week, “How are you doing?”

It’s hard work answering that question.
I know it’s hard work asking the question too.
I ask myself: What is she asking? Is she asking if I am okay, or if the Disease is still active?
Which symptoms is she talking about? Emotional or physical? Or is her question about imaging and tests? Because if the Disease is inactive, this does not mean I am okay. It just means the conversation is easier, and we can move on to the next topic.
Is she asking because she wants to know? Or does she want me to end the conversation quickly and painlessly?
“I mean -” I begin haltingly. It’s like preparing a discourse, and each one is individualized.
She helps by adding: “Is it gone? Please say it’s gone. I want it to be gone.”
[Ah. Now I know what to say. She’s asking if she needs to prepare for me to lose hair, get surgery, do the Big Things of Disease, – OR if I am suffering but not leaning precariously over into mortality.]
“OH. Yeah. I’m clear.” But am I? There is no magic silver bullet imaging, no Cancer-Pregnancy Test that you can pee on and see POSITIVE or NEGATIVE for Any-Cancer-In-Your-Body.
But is this a moment where I can explain the science of cancer? Does she want to know?
Sometimes I skip the explanation. But when I’m talking to someone who I know cares 39102deeply, I explain the ambiguity of how cancer hides. It’s not a matter of a Strep test; you just have to monitor for symptoms.
And you don’t catch symptoms sometimes. In time.
And then they ask, “But you don’t have symptoms, right?” And sometimes you hear the hopefulness in the voice, which is in part a hopefulness that says, “Oh please be okay, please don’t be sick.” In part it’s a hopefulness that says, “Please say you are okay, because I don’t know how to have this conversation, and I just want THIS thing to be over. This cancer, yes, but more importantly, this conversation. It hurts so bad because it could be anything. It could be normalcy, and it could be death.”
I get it. Disease and mortality are not easy conversations to have. I am no expert myself.
So when I reflect on these difficult conversations in this blog, I’m not contemptuous. God, no.
I’m not resentful either. I’m just reflecting.
I’m thinking:
You know how HARD this conversation, this exchange is between you and me? It’s even harder WITHIN me, between me and me.
Am I okay? Is it gone?
No. Not for a long time. And I don’t know.


The Sick Child 1907 by Edvard Munch 1863-1944
Edvard Munch, The Sick Child

Dear clergy: we’re counting on you

Whenever I wander into the shitholes of the internet, I’m astounded by the vast numbers of people who believe that 1.5billion Muslim people are worshippers of violence and evil. And they believe that these 1.5b people must be bombed into oblivion.
At first I think, hey, I’ve got to persuade them we’re not like that!
Then I think:
These people must have some serious mental issues and truly horrible religious beliefs to believe entire populations are evil.
So what they really need are: mental health support, sane and better-informed pastors and priests, and – if they’re lucky – some college courses.
Then I think: Oh shit, Trump is killing higher education and healthcare.
So, dear clergy: we’re counting on you. Gather your flocks and save them from the madness. 

Be with your ageing loved ones in their aloneness

My father’s ageing has made me tender hearted to the elderly. This is good because I’ll be in that age group soon.

I remember him saying one evening this March, “Zarina (ammi), I’ve become alone. I’m alone.” Just being frail, bedridden, and mentally wandering makes it harder for him to join the party. Everyone goes to work, parties, shop, chat, while he’s too weak to come along.

This March, after a ten-day stay, I had to move from my parents’ home to a conference hotel in Lahore. But to simplify it for abbu’s mind, I told him we were leaving for the airport and flying out. As we prepared to load into cars and leave for PC Hotel 30 minutes away, abbu limped over and got his sneakers. He put them on, painstakingly slow with the shoelaces. And with a heartbreakingly eager smile and a pitifully determined mien, he said he was going with us.

“To the airport?” I asked, unsure if he was planning on flying to the US with us, or if he’d figured out our stupid little ruse. “Yes, of course!” he smiled bravely, “Zarina, let’s go. You’ll go with me,” as if he knew well enough that he’d encounter resistance. As if he knew someone would say, “No, stay. You’re too weak to go. There’s no room in the car. Everyone *else* has to go.”

So he smiled, showing how game he was for anything. And even as I wondered how we’d handle this situation – that we’d LIED ourselves into – my heart shattered to see this powerful man reduced to smiling as if he’s pleading, and trying so hard to become part of the party, to say goodbye to his youngest child for who knows how long.

abbu kiss copyI had a heartbreaking dream about an ageing mentor being depressed and alone. Today I had to call to check on them.

Don’t forget your ageing loved ones. Isolation increases anyway. Try to assuage it.

This is abbu kissing my hand tenderly at my daughter’s birthday party in Lahore.

Mommies Making Holidays For the Family


My dear friend (and author of Cairo, Ms Marvel, and The Butterfly Mosque) wrote a heartfelt and thought-provoking post today about the role of mothers in the construction of Ramadan, Eid, and other holidays.

I’ve noticed a lot of Muslim mommies getting burned out this Ramadan…the long summer hours, the difficulties that creates with children’s schedules and other household errata, the inability to stop and go deeper into one’s personal practice because one has to create a holiday atmosphere out of thin air for the sake of the family. The cooking, the special, time-consuming holiday treats, the Ramadan calendars, helping kids memorize their surahs, planning for Eid, etc…whenever I feel like it’s too much, I remember that for kids, mama and baba essentially *are* the holidays. There’s an early 20th c English writer (whose name I’ve forgotten) who put it very succinctly in an essay about his childhood: each household has its own animating genius, and that genius is often (though not always) feminine. I’ve shifted my thinking in recent years–since the kids have been old enough to understand what Ramadan is–from the idea that the holiday is something I celebrate to the idea that the holiday is something I create. It hasn’t made the work easier but it has made it more fulfilling. The idea that the kids will look back on these days with joy–and that the joy will shape the internal rhythm of their lives, which will carry the whole tradition forward through a time of tremendous uncertainty–is what makes this time wonderful to me in the same way the extra ibadat and contemplation made it wonderful to me pre-kids. We are in the rush hour of life; we are now the middle generation upon whom both the younger and the older generations depend, and if there is going to be delight and splendor in any of it, it will have to come through us. The joy we have will be the joy we bring. – G. Willow Wilson 

Now, Willow adopts a joyful, creative approach to this loving labor.

My approach is the grumpy one, characteristic of the lazy youngest sibling of the family. In other words: WHERE THE HELL IS MY READY-MADE EID? Where are my ammi and abbu? Why am the grownup today? Why do I have to be up and cooking? Why can’t I just walk into a pre-prepared holiday?

When I first wrote the poem Immigrant Eid (2005), I was desperately depressed for a variety of reasons. Svend was at work, unable to get a day off. I struggled to motivate myself to go for Eid prayer.

Immigrant Eid 

they announced Eid today.

my house is silent.
i hear more sirens than usual outside.

my husband’s at work.

this morning
i couldn’t get out of bed and go
to eid namaz.

i really should push myself, i thought,
and go, but thought, then, go for what?
so my husband and i can split up
at the mosque front door to go and sit
with our respective strangers inside?
so aunties in abayas can look
at my pants, because they’re shabby and
because they’re pants, and then look up
at my face unseeing-
When we’re done i come out and wait
for him in the cold parking lot
watching people hurry to cars
and segregated parties in their
tight little colour-coordinated groups-
while a bearded man in a jalabiya
stares at this female body jammed
outside in a twisting river of men.

when i got out of bed at last, i didn’t
want to, and i couldnt stop crying
in the shower.

In Lahore,
ammi has cooked two types of sivayyan
and put them out in glass bowls,
with carrot halva and Kashmiri chai.

My Eid outfit complete with sparklies
is lying ironed on the bed.
Auntie Shaista in the drawing room loudly
waits to see how my outfit looks.

Little Izza is knocking at
my door, asking when i’ll be ready,
when I will come out to admire
her pink sharara and bright new shoes.

Asad is watching TV, but
the corner of his eye is waiting for me

Abbu and Imran are just returning
in white kurtas from eid namaz.

but here
in the fortunate first world
where I’m supposed to be bettering my life
and speaking english all the time–
here, where there is no dust, no flies,–
here, in the warm clean tiled shower
i can’t stop sobbing

Alone, with sirens screeching outside,
i prayed two rak’ahs afterwards
with seven takbeers
and seven tears hit the ja’inamaz
with far too loud a splash, and then
i read some pages of the eleventh sipara
–ironically, ya’tazirun–
and sent sawab to the Prophet,
my shaykh, my uncles and aunts,
grandparents, like ammi does, and then
i said,
I’m sorry i didn’t go to Eid namaz
and then i couldn’t stop crying again
my heart broke right there on the rug
and spilled wide open

and i said please don’t be mad at me.
look, i’m here, and my outfit’s in Lahore,
and Izza’s knocking on the door,
and I have no sivayyan,
and my heart the poor tattered heart
that I know You love
is broken today.

He looked at me, with those quiet eyes
and said, yes, I know. i cried again
and said that eid is eid
only because You’re here with me.

ten years in this new home of mine
and still eid day is not quite eid.

They say it’s eid today, but there,
on the rooftops of Lahore, young boys
saw a little sliver of moon that shone
through smoggy clouds and snaky cables
as an eagle swam across the sky.

Here, i saw no moon, i saw
moonsighting.com, and wrote an email-
eid mubarak exclamation point-
and cc’ed it to everyone.

i thought of calling ammi to say
eid mubarak. but i was afraid
my voice would catch, and she would hear
who i am here

and then i’d know for sure that she
was there, and there are no sivayyan
on my IKEA table, no halva
on the stove, no kashmiri chai
steaming in pretty china cups
no smiling niece outside my door
and no red kurta on my bed

I remember my friend Jasmin affectionately reminded me that here in North America, I was ammi now, and must cook sivayyan and plan outfits for everyone.

3-different-foods-for-eid-al-fitr-celebration.jpgHumph, I thought to myself, (though I inwardly agreed), but I’m not done being not-a-grown-up yet. When I sleep deeply, I often wake up groggily, thinking tranquil thoughts of: “I can sleep in, because ammi and abbu are taking care of everything in the entrance of the house – comings, goings – and I am not in charge.” And then I remember, my kid is waiting for a meal, and I have to go to work, and ammi and abbu haven’t lived with me in 26 years. I’ve been gone from home since 1991, and have been a guest in my own family home since then.

As the baby of the family (um, a rather old baby now), I never quite mastered the domestic arts. My husband – well, he’s got patriarchy to blame – certainly never mastered domestic anything. I once asked his dad (an old-fashioned White guy) why he never trained his son to pick up his socks; dad replied, “Well, [with a trace of gentle accusation] my mother took care of all that and I never had to do it. So with my boys, I wanted them to have what I had.”

Well, funny enough, my mother had to take care of everything, forever, and she wanted me to have what she never had the liberty to chase ideas in books all the way to the United States and a PhD, and to be free from the kitchen. My father, who loved his daughters’ academic pursuits, groused irritably, “And then they all have to just make rotis some day.” He really hated that.

My mother rarely ever asked me to take care of household affairs. This was a practice rare in Pakistan in my socioeconomic class. My mother did this partly because I was sensitive and prone to fevers, partly because I was the baby, – and partly because I started observing strict purdah at age 16 and announced virtuously that I would not be serving tea to mixed-gender groups in the living room and I would not be interacting with the gardener or the peddler. Well, then, I’ll be the Outside Market Woman, ammi decided, and guard my daughter’s spiritual virtue while she reads Iqbal’s poetry in seclusion.

I was a teen who’d pile up my clutter and shut it up in an armoire: my mother and sister worlds-greatest-mom-ribbon-craft.jpggasped when I said, “Well, what else is the armoire for?” My father would often dart into my messy bedroom and make the bed for me, shaking his head at my response: “What’s the point? I’m going to sleep in it in a few hours anyway.”

Here I am now, in the U.S., a place where we often do not even get a day off for Eid and must make arrangements. In Chicago, we can get sivayyan (not good sivayyan, usually) at a restaurant on Devon Street, and we can join the festivities with other families (families with grownups who grew up before I did).

Adulting still hurts, but I’m starting to do more of it. But a disproportionate share of the ramadan-crafts-for-kidsburden of holiday-construction still falls to mommies like me. Creating the decorations, when you are not a crafty or practical person, may not sound painful to you. Preparing holiday meals you’ve never made (making them in treacherously large quantities so that they never turn out the way ammi made them) is often simply depressing to those of us who aren’t sugghar domestic goddesses. Yes, we exist. We are mothers, and some of us are not great at cooking, we hate cooking, and are terrible at tidying up.

Some of us are married to spouses who are even worse at the domestic arts. Some of us have spouses who cannot physically see dust, dust-bunnies, dirty dishes on the coffee table, and gunk on the counter. So I am perpetually trying to keep ahead of the other clutter-creators in the house: if I abandon one cardigan on the couch, pretty soon my kid will abandon socks, hoodie, books, and pencils in that spot and my husband will forget to pick up socks, boxers, pants, and t-shirt. I can leave no trails, because they will become mountains.

The urgency to get better at adulting comes home to me even more now. Ammi is now losing mobility. She whose hands never failed to produce meals proverbial far and wide in their deliciousness is now not cooking anymore. She is also more forgetful. She reminds me gently that she is in her 80s. I know why she is reminding me. She wants me to be prepared. She knows I am not. I am not ready to lose my ammi.

And I am not ready to take on that role alone. I am not ready to be the kind of kick-ass ammi my ammi has always been. Maybe that’s why I don’t want to try – because my version is so mediocre. Sometimes, I cook saag gosht or kareley keema, and am filled with disgust and frustration because it is so uninspired in comparison to my mother’s cooking. I toss the spatula, cover the pot, and inform Svend, “I’m not touching that junk but you’re welcome to it,” and he rushes to gorge himself on the meal. “It’s good,” he always says, “your standards are too high.” Peter-Pan.jpg

I’m not ready to be in charge.

Sure, though, I guess I enjoy it when my family enjoys the summer vacations, the religious holidays, the experiences create. But sometimes, it’s a bit like trying to tickle yourself. Or trying to experience suspense in a story you wrote. It’s just not the same. But sure, it is the circle of life.

Eid Mubarak to you. And good luck creating a holiday for your children. Or sulking because you really don’t want to do all that work.


A struggling academic’s spiritual challenges in Ramadan

In this month of Ramadan, I expect to be above worldly concerns. I find myself facing a spiritual challenge.

I’m thinking of certain colleagues I worked with in the past who were deceitful and unconscionably backstabbing. At a time when my career just taking off, I was diligently teaching and publishing my research. I was courted for my scholarship, my ethnographic work, my rich experience, and yes, the “diversity” I brought to the White institutions I served.

But due to certain colleagues/supervisors in my past, I am now in a non-tenure track position.

At my first tenure track job, I thought, if I worked hard,  I’d be safe from internal expectations are the same.jpegpoliticking among a mixed bag of underperforming academics, xenophobic White evangelicals, and dogmatically anti-faith Islamophobes. Not to mention some White anti-Muslim students whose consistently rude behavior inside the classroom shocked other students. The year I was supposed to get my 3-year reappointment, just a month or two after an excellent evaluation with good teaching and *outstanding* publications and no red flags: I was denied reappointment. I still remember my utter shock and speechlessness at that meeting. I still remember the White woman who had been mentoring me and listening to all the accounts of backstabbing against me, as she turned, baldfaced to me and said, that despite my evaluations and my work, “we know you.”

Of course the paperwork didn’t add up, so the Provost overruled it, but each of these events threw me into a fury of legal activity and job-seeking – instead of publishing and scholarship. Instead of staying put in a position where I might get tenure but would definitely be miserable, I was heavily courted for a position at a small college and left. Tenure would not be a problem. I’d go up for tenure the next year.

Back-stabbing-teacher-at-table.jpgTurns out, I got hired into the middle of a turf battle between a Dean and a VP.

My new dean held my paperwork back for a year because of his grudge against the VP who hired me. Only the Faculty Council’s expression of great concern got him to meet me for annual evaluations and start paperwork. Soon after the VP got hired by a new institution, the Dean took action. Turns out (according to my department head) he had planned to get rid of me all along. Months after he communicated this decision secretly with bigwigs in the small college, he moved against me.

The year that I was supposed to go up for tenure, with my file ready to go, I published an award-winning book. Everyone told me I was a sure thing. I was at a teaching institution, with good evaluations, a heavy load, and a new book (which few of my colleagues had). That same year, one week after giving me a great evaluation, my dean gave me my termination letter.

Sometimes I think of those colleagues, deans, department heads, and the people who could have been allies but chose to throw their lot in with the powers-that-were.

I think, I should have been tenured by now. I could have been full professor. I could be focusing on publishing instead of job security. I am in a non-tenure track position with an uncertain future.

I’ve had cancer twice in this journey, which made it even harder to pull myself up off the ground by my bootstraps and overcome my terror of venomous colleagues.

Everyday that I wonder about my academic and professional fate – and my ability to support my family …

… In my heart I have difficulty forgiving these people.

Oh, I do nothing to hurt them. I only blog, to warn others of the dangers of higher education institutions – often, waters infested with smiling crocodiles.

But I struggle because I bear wounds in my heart, and injury in my soul, and it holds me back.