Purging Lahore

Lahore outside my car window, a hazy blur. I focus on the marigolds that line the canal that runs through the city. They are un-apologetically bright and cheerful, in sharp contrast to a gloomy city and it’s gloomy residents.

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Lahore. My home city. It has never felt more foreign than it does now. I’m sure I feel foreign to her. A judgmental outsider with nothing but harsh criticism to offer. Her judgment of me is no kinder: a head-strong rebellious woman who pisses on her values and never wants to come back. Once friends, now indifferent acquaintances at best and vicious enemies at worst.

Look at the marigolds, I tell myself. But my eye wanders to the scores of children, amputees and transgender individuals begging at every traffic signal, the banged up cars and motorbikes with fake Ferrari and Apple logos plastered all over them, the decaying buildings with peeling paint and broken dusty windows, the constant bovine stares and aimless scrutiny of men I share the road with, the aggression and fuck-the-world attitude of the drivers.
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For years, I’ve virtual-realitied the fuck out of Lahore every December when I visit. But reality has diverged so much from the picture in my mind that self-deception just doesn’t bridge the gap anymore.
Before, when I went through Gulberg (my home from 20 years ago and one of the most beautiful neighborhoods in the city), I would only see quiet shady streets with mid century bungalows midst Banyan and Tobacco trees.
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A safe place. A place where old and new friends would get together on Thursday nights and speak of poetry and music over a home made meal. A nod to the hundreds of years of tradition and history of the city that was the cultural epicenter of the Moghul Empire, a city of gardens and fountains.

Now, all I see is the obnoxious Dubai-esque  aluminium buildings for some private school or another (i.e. How-to-get-the-fuck-out-of-Pakistan schools) and huge billboards selling telecom, junk food and clothing (the three national obsessions). They are loud, garishly bright in their color palette, mocking the depressed population below with their fake cheer, screaming for attention and therefore all entirely invisible. Not at all like my marigolds, that are uplifting in their brightness but respectful of their surroundings and the spirit of people they seek to lift up.

The fountains have either been permanently shut down because the country has no electricity (as evidenced by the 12 hour power outages that are now an accepted fact of life), or been replaced with more roads (to feed the appetite of an every increasing population) or worst, replaced with crass, low-taste sculptures of dolphins and other random animals (wtf! we’re land locked, this is not a maritime city, what’s up with the dolphins? I’m sure the wife of some useless minister of some useless ministry thought it was a GREAT idea after her visit to Sea World)
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The car stops, signalling that we have arrived – tea with a family friend. Relief, hopefully far from the maddening crowd.
We are greeted with darkness. No electricity. Of course.
It’s cold. But no heating because there’s no gas. And no electricity. Right.
We’d like to have tea. No hot water though. No way to heat it. Because there’s no gas. And no electricity.
Get my drift?

One thing we can do in this highly resource-constrained set up is conversation. That’s what we’re here for anyway! So we begin, and start with the topic most discussed in Pakistani living rooms right now – the Peshawar massacre of innocent children during the school day. There’s anger. A lot of it. That makes me hopeful. Anger is powerful. It can be an agent of change. There’s focus. Focus that something must be done. There’s unity in the national slogan: “We will not forgive and we will not forget”. Now I’m engaged! Yes. Let’s fucking take ownership of this situation and be agents of change. Let’s be the change we want to see! Let’s Let’s!


Yep. That fucking But.
The conversation quickly devolves into conspiracies about foreign powers at play – the US, India, “Agencies”, the usual suspects. They debate the finer points of different types of Taliban (good Taliban and bad Taliban). I remain quiet but…
Inner voice: I’m sorry, there’s just no such thing as “Good” Taliban and if you think there is, you need to recognize the radical thought process that you’ve subscribed to. And wtf. How about taking some responsibility for a change instead of pointing fingers are outside interference!

Then we move on to the topic of Afghan immigrants – everyone unanimously agrees there needs to be a “clean-up” (read this as “mass deportation of millions of Afghans who moved to Pakistan after the US/Russia war and Pakistan helping to create a cluster-fuck in their country”). Fucking Afghans with their shawl markets, that suspiciously never get bombed. Now if that isn’t evidence that they’re all terrorists, what is!
Inner voice: WOW! After 9/11 Pakistanis were so critical of the US policy on immigration, the tightening of security measures, the disrespectful treatment of Pakistanis (and all of that was well-placed). Yet now, Afghans are alluded to as garbage – to be cleaned up and thrown in the dump they deserve. Where is the empathy, where is the religious piety, where is measured response? Conveniently MIA. But please leave the shawls behind, because we like those.

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Someone mentions that girls are being kidnapped by the Taliban to be treated as sex slaves. I am surprised to hear this since there’s been no news coverage of the issue. I’m told the news doesn’t cover the real stories and our friends know people in high places.
Inner voice: Lovely. Let’s boast of our contacts and let’s also start another conspiracy about how the news doesn’t cover anything real.

Someone else alludes to the fact that these girls partly deserve this fate because they step out of their colleges to go out on dates (yep, dating still equates to whoring around in this part of town and of course both deserve a life-time of servitude and slavery).
Inner voice: Right! This line of reasoning just exemplifies the level of radicalization and intolerance, and lack of awareness about it among joe-schmo civilians. No one will come out and say what happened in Peshawar was deserved but the intolerance sits right below the surface. Try asking about Veena Malik’s recent sentencing for charges of blasphemy and most people will agree with the sentence and also go as far as saying she deserved worse and she will burn in hell.

Finally, the conversation concludes with the head of the household (a well-respected religious man) declaring that men are the protectors and guardians of women, that’s how it’s always been and will always be. Our religion says so. Yes indeed it does.
Inner voice turns into a raging beast at this point. ARE YOU FUCKING KIDDING ME! Deep breaths, deep breaths. Think of the marigolds. Lovely yellow marigolds. Be the change you want to see. Try to understand his point of view without judging it or feeling the need to agree with it.

During the course of this conversation and many others during my stay here, I have been given unsolicited advice on how to lead a ‘successful’ life (code for marriage and kids) and about about morality (code for victim-mentality aka God’s will – well what about the fucking will of humans!). I listen, I observe, I retreat deeper within myself.

It’s dark out and time to go. Dense fog conceals everything, turning the city into a blank canvas, a possibility. I try to paint a different picture but it’s difficult to shake off the conversation over tea.

In the days since, I’ve found myself limiting my scope to the little private community my mother lives in. I have a quiet little routine here that starts with watching public-call-driven talk shows and having tea with my mother. My friend tells me these talk shows are the puke of Pakistani TV. Here’s the thing though – they’re primarily catering to the masses. So this “puke” represents an important and majority perspective. I love me some puke early in the morning. What I’ve gleamed from these shows (and have also seen mirrored in my own experience): the entire nation is obsessed with weddings, clothes, children, food and conspiracies. Sexism is rampant – women are only portrayed as wives and mothers, cooking for their husbands and in-laws, running after their kids, heads covered, trusting, gullible, in need of protection (just as my uncle said). The few “modern” women in dramas are a caricature of modernity – they’re all incredibly social, incredibly rich and incredibly irresponsible. Did I mention, they’re also whoring around? Oh and they only speak English and wear western clothes. Modern women! Hate em.

The country celebrates weddings yet love is forbidden in real life, “love marriage” is still taboo and any displays of affection are met with strong discouragement. The country is coming apart at the seams with over population, yet any talk of birth control or family planning is heresy. Everyone blames the government for poor planning. Yet the microcosm of the family unit represents the same “God Willing” carefree attitude. Talk shows are the best mouth piece of the nation and the people that lead it – God Provides, who needs planning. Guess what, that’s not working out all that well anymore.

Anyway, I digress. After my morning puke, I spend hours texting and emailing with friends and my sister back in the US because they offer a counter and keep me balanced. We speak of plans in 2015. I rant and rave about women’s rights and nightmares and whine about power outages. They put up with grace and generosity. They tell me it’s time to come home. Home. 15 years ago Lahore was the only home I’d known. I say goodbye to my glimmers of light in the US for the day and go down this rabbit hole of Homelessness as I work out. Then it’s time for my daily walk.

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There are very few women in the park. Just boys playing cricket and the occasional older gentleman flexing his arthritic legs. I think of how sedentary life is for people with cars in this city. Physical fitness is an afterthought and even then, a pure vanity play. Some people have come up to me, wondering why I walk for so long. One boy reminded me that I didn’t look like I needed to walk since I wasn’t healthy, in fact I was quite smart. This might be confusing. I’ll explain. In Pakistan, Healthy means Fat. And Smart means Skinny. So generally when someone wants to say “her child is fat”, she’ll say “her child is quite Healthy, praise be to Allah”. Praise be to Allah and to McDonalds.

Another comment I’ve received is that I am so child like. Let me decode this as well. The timeline people hold is squished and a little distorted. Teens are for friends, adventures and smartness (read: skinny). 20s are for marriage, kids and healthiness (read: slow decline into obesity), 40s are for showing off wealth, kids’ achievements and more healthiness. 50s on is for religion, piety (and insisting others follow as well), harassing 20s regarding marriage and kids and waiting to die. Assume death at 60 (and if not dead, then wait until it finally arrives). Everyone complains of high blood pressure, cholesterol, diabetes and arthritis but with a complacence that’s beyond me. So when I’m told I’m child like it’s because I defy the timeline (unintentionally, of course) along many dimensions.

Anyway, back to walking…

My attention is diverted to the eagles and vultures that dot the sky. They are a permanent fixture of Lahore and a reminder of the superstition that shrouds people’s lives (there’s a general belief that feeding vultures meat will dispel bad energy and bring good luck and years of implementing this has led to a serious over-population of these birds – my condolences to the rats of Lahore).
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Then it’s back home for some divine lunch prepared by my mother. This is one of the few things about my ex-home (ugh, weird to say it!) that has only gotten better with time and never ceases to delight me. Fried fish, spinach with goat, hoof stew, and daal, daal and more daal. So fucking good!
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Once that’s done and my mother’s busy with her afternoon prayers (that have only gotten longer with time), I mop around the house and look for clues about my former self. Perhaps she was different. Perhaps if I saw the world through her eyes, I’d see the beauty once again. I come across some of my books in a book shelf in my childhood room.
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Foundational books.

History books – to find meaning in the past to make sense of the present.

Books on individualism – vindication to a younger mind, desperately seeking kinship in ideals and values that were so opposed to the environment it was in. I find an underlined passage that sums up the me of 15 years ago:

Do not let your fire go out,
Spark by irreplaceable spark,
in the hopeless swamps of the approximate,
the not-quite, the not-yet, the not-at-all.

Do not let the hero in your soul perish,
in lonely frustration for the life you
deserved but have never been able to reach.

Check your road and the nature of your battle
the world you desired can be won. it exists.
it is real, it is possible, it is yours.

Lahore gave me that. I lied when I said at the beginning of this post that Lahore and I are indifferent acquaintances. We’ve known each other too intimately to ever achieve indifference. I realize I am, in large part, a reaction to Lahore. Our differences, now stark (because of the extreme contrast circumstance has created in our respective evolution) have always been there, always infringing on my sense of independent thought and action.

I’m grateful that I was told that the world I’ve desired was beyond my reach. It has made me want to reach higher, push farther. In some strange way, Lahore feels like a worthy opponent, an ideal worth beating. An ideal I beat every day with the life I live and the choices I make. All the chaos and confusion I’ve been feeling the last two weeks has distilled into sharp focus. Drive. Passion. Reach. I feel like I did 15 years ago, eager to get out there and win.

On independence, aliens and the immigrant journey

It’s July – the month of Independence for the United States. July 2014 is also the first month of my life as a US citizen, a milestone 14 years in the making and a journey that’s definitely been about personal independence. It has also been the ultimate mind-fuck (by that I mean a physical, emotional, cultural and spiritual roller coaster worthy of Six Flags).

Home & Independence
These two words don’t have to imply opposing forces, yet in the way I defined them and how my life played out, that’s exactly what they were. To me, home was spatially defined i.e. it was a place. You could Google the instructions to get to it. And my home was Canal Bank, Lahore Pakistan. Tied to these geographic coordinates was a feeling of familiarity, knowing-ness, family, acceptance and love.
Then there was independence, a strong need I’d always aimed to fulfill. It represented the ability to define myself and live my life with zero dependence on anything and anyone. The decision to move to the United States was one of choosing a shot at independence over the warm feeling of home. And for your sake, I hope you never have to make that choice.

Landing at SeaTac airport for the first time, I remember being flooded with observations about the tall, white (and some black), happy and loud alien nation I was surrounded by. I tried to make sense of it with the few reference points I had from movies, music and CNN. They sounded like MacGyver, they looked like the cast of American Pie. I remember meeting the first black person in my life (my immigration officer) and thinking “Sam Jackson would look something like this”. (No, that’s not racist so calm down). Everyone looked rich with their Nike backpacks, Uggs and long boots, airplane pillows and laptop bags. They were familiar and yet very foreign.
As I made my way through immigration, I was asked to stand in a line labelled “Alien Registration” which struck me as odd. I did not identify with that word. But over the next few weeks, months, years, that changed.
That day at the airport, my view of the world came from a Me that was grounded in her identity as a Pakistani girl who functioned in a Pakistani context. So all I experienced was curiosity about the Other, which was the Alien. Living among them on a permanent basis led to the realization that I was now a Pakistani girl who functioned in an American context. That made me the Alien to them, and surprisingly it also made me the Alien to myself because I didn’t know who I was outside of the context I’d grown up in. All that was left was a disorienting sense of being out of place, of being cut off from my own mother-ship, of alienation.

My world, Their world
Not sure about you, but I have yet to come across a step-by-step guide on how to deal with an identity crisis brought on by a deep sense of alienation due to immigration. I have contemplated writing one and maybe someday I will. In the absence of that, I did what most good avoiders do – I pretended like I didn’t live in the United States. I wore a traditional Pakistani shawl to work everyday. Within it’s folds existed my old world, my home. I insisted on wearing my Peshawari chappals because as long as I walked in them, I was reminded of walking on my own soil and not this foreign mulch. I sought out Pakistani restaurants, Pakistani people (regardless of who they were or whether I liked them) and my trips home started to feel like religious pilgrimages.
9/11 changed all that. The afternoon the towers fell, a coworker sent me a mail that started a decade long process of rediscovery. It read “You should apologize for your people and what they’ve done to my people. I hope you feel ashamed and sorry for what’s happened”. In that moment, my carefully built walls came crashing down and in came the world I was hiding from along with every self-doubt and every challenge to my deep held beliefs about my identity as a Pakistani representing Pakistan. Why was I being asked to apologize? Because I was a Pakistani or a Muslim or both? What did that even mean? Did I know or represent an average Pakistani or an average Muslim? Was there even such a thing as an average Pakistani or Muslim? Did I relate with those identifiers? Did I relate with myself as a Pakistani or Muslim? If not, then who the fuck was I? I had many questions and very few answers. This time, instead of making my world small, I decided to make it big.

Exploration – looking for myself and home
What followed was a broad and deep experiential exploration of my identity and the American culture. I HAD to understand America for for what it was (and not just via movies) if there was any chance of it ever becoming Home. This meant saying Yes more often than No, even if it led to awkward and scary experiences. Through these I learnt many things that you may take for granted. For instance, did you know that

  • it’s not immediately obvious to an immigrant that “assisted living” is not just for senior citizens? I wish someone had told me because it would have saved me and the lady at the Sunrise of Bellevue a wasted tour of the facilities and mutual embarrassment and confusion at my application. I do believe there’s a great business idea here though – assisted living for lazy, lost immigrants 🙂
  • showing up as a small brown girl from Pakistan for an NRA-organized weekend workshop freaks out the other attendees? (For what it’s worth, they were gracious and kind, and I learnt a lot about guns and my hidden talent as a marksman)
  • it’s not common knowledge that if you’re shopping at Sears, you’re not exactly following western fashion trends, so it’s best to keep quiet about it. Nor is it known that the novelty of Jerry Springer to an immigrant is not shared by most locals
  • it’s a daunting task to select cereal from an entire aisle of options when you come from a country where there’s only one cereal brand and it comes in one flavor (Fauji Corn Flakes, I still love you!)
  • when you’re coming from a world where R, MA, NC-17 mean nothing, it doesn’t occur to you to check the rating of the movie you invite coworkers of the opposite sex to watch with you (and for that reason I will always remember Original Sin)
  • Swinging is a misleading term because to many of us (who don’t claim to have English as their first language) it means free motion through air, as if on a swing! Good thing I have the word No in my vocabulary and know how to use it in a sentence
  • an immigrant wearing a sweater in 72 degree weather doesn’t make them crazy, even though they look crazy – they just happen to come from a country where it’s 110 degrees right now
  • the idea of a couch potato is not universally known. So when someone asks you what you did over the weekend and you (the immigrant) tell them you watched TV and ate cereal, you don’t even realize that you’ve just been judged harshly for your lazy, sedentary lifestyle. Next time, make shit up! Lie, because it’s better than the truth
  • dating and it’s rules (e.g. what’s acceptable on a 1st, 3rd, 5th date), courtship and expressions of love are highly culture-specific – that’s material for the book so I’m not sharing it here 🙂

Lessons learnt!
On a more serious note, I find this (i.e. exploration) is the pivotal point where most immigrants bow out of the assimilation process. They are so scared of being shamed and found-out to for not knowing the fundamentals of how society works that they never get down and dirty and just give it a try. I empathize and relate. It’s fucking hard! Having a sense of humor helps. And remembering that there’s a reason all of us severed the umbilical from our place of origin and moved here helps. Why not take the few more steps needed to really embrace the change we made the choice to bring to our lives?

Loss & Gain
For a while it felt like the more I explored, the more I lost and the more I lost, the more lost I felt. Detours within detours with no destination in mind. But I’m so glad I stayed with it because loss is just a gain waiting to happen.

  • Losses: The feeling of Home, Islam and the concept of organized religion and the community and sense of belonging it represents, many friends from the past, tolerance for spicy food, indoor focused sedentary life-style, doubts about my ability to succeed in my career relative to all these people that I perceived as having a head start, Peshawari chappals and traditional shawls, and the sense of safety that’s unique to a small and familiar world view
  • Gains: Independence, Spirituality and the One, many friends from here, the concept of self-development and healing, love and understanding of western fashion, yoga, pilates and hitting the gym, a more refined palette, and comfort with not knowing more than I know

Independence & Home – Revisited
Going to back to visit Canal Bank, Lahore Pakistan remind me of home but it is not home. Coming back to Kirkland WA reminds me of comfort and familiarity but it is also not home. I suspect that home will never be defined with the simplicity and certainty that it was before the year 2000. In the absence of that, I have chosen to come up with a poor man’s version of Home, a tofurkey version if you will, and this is a dynamic sense of being at home within myself.
I’ve questioned and recognized that my pursuit of Independence as I had defined it (i.e. negation of dependence) had enslaved me. Dependence on others (people, ideals, organizations, concepts) creates a sense of connection and well-being. It’s the freedom to choose who and what to depend on that I’ve been seeking this entire time. For all the criticism the US gets, I have yet to find a place that provides the space to explore, express and pursue freedom as she does. Perhaps in that sense the land of the free calls to it those that pursue freedom and in some deep way is the home they were always looking for.