The day of and those after

The thing about bombings and terrorist attacks is that, after a little while, it’s too easy to divorce an atrocity from the monotony of the day. The horror sits heavy on your skin like a too-thick cocoa-butter moisturizer, and it’s hard to let it sink in. But, with enough time and distraction, you get used to the weight.

That happened to me just this past weekend at the International Model NATO Conference where I was representing my university. After an overnight, nine-hour train ride from Boston to DC, I found myself sleepless and exhausted in a hotel room. I heard the news right as I lay down to take a power nap.

The power nap was my first mistake. I’ve never taken a good, worthwhile power nap in my life and certainly, this one was doomed the second I decided to scroll down my Twitter timeline. I follow a lot of Pakistani political and social commentators, and what was marked about that day was the despondency and profound sadness and exhaustion writ bare in those 140 or however many characters.

I’m not unused to being able to interpret that language. It usually means something Bad happened.

Heart-pounding, I went to Dawn, and sure enough, a massive explosion had torn through the Lal Shahbaz Qalandar shrine. The number of lives taken and the name of the shrine took a second to hit me.

O lal meri pat rakhio bhala Jhulelalan

Sindhri da

Sehwan da

Sakhi Shahbaz Qalandar

Ah. Right.

Here’s the thing about Pakistanis. You can tack any Muslim label on us that you want but in our hearts, our absolute heart of hearts, we are all undeniably Sufis. We tear up listening to qawwaliyaan, we have a ferocious love for our musicians and artists, we revere poetry and dance and love itself. No matter what front the Fundos try to show you, their hearts will melt like everyone else’s over Sabri and Abida Parveen and Nusrat and Rahat.

This was a betrayal of the deepest kind. This was a betrayal of our culture, our history, our loves and lives throughout centuries of existence; more than that, it was a betrayal of 75 lives, men-women-children, who came to revel in our culture, our histories, our loves and lives throughout centuries of existence. It’s the kind of betrayal that can’t be forgiven.

We’ve all grown up listening to Dama Dam Mast Qalandar. Before I even knew all the lyrics I had an emotional connection to the qawwali. There was a visceral joy in its singing, the clapping that came along it, the family concerts that would surround the words, the often-subsequent marriage that it was contextualized in. It was important and it was necessary.

Pakistanis are used to being betrayed. Sometimes by our government, sometimes by ourselves, sometimes by the world. Music is almost a coping mechanism to that end. In troubled times, our music and art industries blossom angrily. Defiant international literary festivals, antagonistic and triumphant rock bands, scathing indie, the fusion genre that has become part and parcel of what it means to be a musician in early 21st Century South Asia, performing arts festivals – but you take that away from us and you get the wrath of a country that is simmering with rage and years’ worth of inconsolable sadness.

Our wrath is in coming back to the Lal Shahbaz Qalandar shrine the very next day and ringing the morning bells. It’s in devotees arriving proudly to carry out their prayers. It’s in the dhamaals that continued despite the bombing. Daesh in Khorasan would not have this cultural victory over us.

**

Despite this tumult of emotion, I went about my day. Embassy visits, opening ceremonies, falling asleep on my own feet, I went about my day. A friend asked me if I was okay. A single friend. But that’s neither here nor there.

Eventually, thoughts of the massacre were shipped off to the backburner of my mind, unaddressed and unprocessed. A weekend followed where I pretended to be an official from a country that did not belong to me; a conference where the organizers take gleeful joy in faking crises that are often as absurd as they are horrendous; a conference where I spent more time thinking about fake dead people than I did about my very real, very dead fellow countrymen.

I trucked on. I did my best. I pushed away the creeping horror and self-awareness because I was there as part of a team. Eventually, once the bulk of my responsibility was carried out with skill and maybe some degree of reckless bravado, I found myself sitting on the floor of our hotel bathroom, crying. My roommates eventually found me and I said what I didn’t have it in me to say before: “75 people died in my country, 13 in my hometown, and I’m here, pretending I don’t give a shit about that.”

As terrible as it sounds, I needed the breakdown. I couldn’t process my grief without it. The day-to-day compartmentalization catches up to you at some point and I’m honestly lucky it happened sooner rather than later. Grief, bottled up, is more destructive than any display of anger. I was able to process the pain without too much collateral (see also: yelling at people who may or may not have deserved it) and I’m glad for that. Of course I was – I am – still sad, but I’m sad in the way that is tucked in your heart along with all the warmth and love you hold for your people. It’s the sadness that has lived like a constant ode to Pakistan from the day I realized I was one of 180 million people and a then-some diaspora. It’s the sadness that is inherent in our national anthem. It’s what makes me Pakistani for more than just my overseas citizen ID and passport.

**

I’ve been afraid of waking up lately, for fear of news that will hurt me. It’s the curse of living in Trump’s America as a non-resident alien (the fear of being put on a travel ban, namely) as well as the general sense of malaise I’ve had since this awful year began.

Evidently, I woke up this morning. I should have put it off.

I’m never prepared to see Lahore in the news. I was even less prepared to see Defence in the news, the neighborhood I was raised in. My family and I moved to Lahore when I was about two-years-old, and my earliest memories are of my beautiful house, my mamma’s marigolds, and the jaamun tree I was too afraid and bookish to climb. The bombing happened in the popular commercial area I had basically all my birthdays in and around. Not a week went by where we didn’t go shopping there, whether for groceries, or clothes, or pirated CDs. All my eid money was spent in those bookstores and toy-shops. My brother is in Lahore right now and the area is one of his haunts – I haven’t felt that sense of panicked “where-is-he-where-was-he” in years. The rush of nostalgia felt like bile in my throat.

And look – it’s 10:30am. I’ve been awake, in bed, trying to process for the past hour. I have an exam I’ve given up caring about in another hour, and a class after that. Invariably, I will forget about Lahore – about Y-block and Defence – and wonder why I’m so sad. Invariably, it will hit me when I least expect it and I’ll probably end up crying on someone’s couch or in a bathroom somewhere. Invariably, it will happen again.

This isn’t my first rodeo. But somewhere in the stubborn dancing, showing up to class despite my better judgment, and even in my forgetful laughter, there is resistance.

At least, I hope there is.

O lal meri, o lal meri

Edhi

I don’t know when I became aware of Abdul Sattar Edhi. I guess that’s the thing about “givens” – they have no origin, there is no place in time to which they belong, they simply are and Edhi simply was in a way we could only hope to be. Edhi was a fixture for every Pakistani. Not a day went by where you wouldn’t see an Edhi ambulance weaving its way through dusty, dangerous Pakistani traffic presumably to save a life. The stout little vans with Edhi’s name in red emblazoned across them were a sign of hope and life in a country where the former was in short supply and the latter could be construed as a lottery or a game of roulette. If anyone ever asked what they could do to change anything in Pakistan, why, donate to the Edhi Foundation of course. Whenever there was a crisis, a disaster, Edhi was one of the first to respond, casting the widest net with the least fanfare. Edhi was a reflection of the best of Pakistan.

Someone on Twitter said that Edhi was one of the few who has left behind a working institution, and not only that, but he left behind one of the few institutions anyone could trust, and so wholly at that. He created his foundation, his network of ambulances from the ground up, with hands that wanted nothing more than to service humanity for the sake of humanity. It’s no coincidence that his humanist institution was oiled better than any other institution sanctioned by the Islamic Republic; the oil he used to make the cogs turn wasn’t cut with corruption, brick dust and tribalism.

But then, this is not the time to be cynical. Using Edhi’s death to criticize inaction is not what he would have wanted. He was critical of religion as it manifested itself in Pakistan, critical of the kind of education that blew rose and jade tinted glasses for the wealthy, but he never let that criticism defeat him. He was not an exception; he was only exceptional because we chose to defer all action to people like him. He merely showed himself to be the kind of person we could all be. He showed that he could be the rule.

Past tense is unique in its ability to make one despondent. Edhi was, yes, but he will always be. He created the foundation – literally – for something beautiful.

The world has been truly horrible lately. Edhi’s passing is too much to bear in the wake of all that has happened. But maybe his death, his life, were meant to cauterize the wound. He was a beacon of hope, and even in his passing he is magnificent and benevolent in his reminder that we can be BETTER than we are.

We have not lost him. He saw to that. We can mourn his passing but he’d want us to pick ourselves up and affirm life. There is so much more we can do if only we stopped deferring to the Edhis of the world and internalized what it was that actually set him apart for ourselves.

Thank you, Edhi. May your spirit live on in the actions of the country you nurtured.

The peculiar chivalry of Pakistani men

Before I begin: I don’t want to seem as if I’m singling Pakistan out as a means to condescend the country that reared me. Pakistan as a “case study” is the terrain I’m most familiar with and, therefore, most comfortable with discussing. Anything else would be irresponsible. Moreover, this is a legitimate problem in Pakistan that is important to highlight in light of recent…regressions…regarding the status of women in Pakistan’s upper decision-making echelons. My own experiences and the stories I’ve heard from friends further underscore why I’m writing this in specific reference to Pakistan.

I’ve noted before (a generalization that I am absolutely willing to make) that Pakistanis are, on the whole, a hot-blooded people. My city in general is known for having the kind of people who put up their fists first, then think to argue, and then think to think. It is easy to romanticize and even exalt this sort of “passionate” behavior. I should know, I always did.

In dramas, you always have the emotional male lead who is protective and possessive, with little attention paid to the fine-line between. Any backlash he receives for being abusive or being smothering gets quickly fixed with a sloppy redemption arc, and his previous actions are never mentioned again (if they are corrected to begin with). More often than not his possessiveness is billed as desirable. Who wouldn’t want a man that would go to jail for them? Who wouldn’t want a husband that would kill for them? Who wouldn’t want a man who takes their wife/significant other’s honor so seriously?

“But those are dramas and steeped in fantasy” – if only. Real life isn’t much different, even if men don’t have quite the same nicely groomed eyebrows. Any young relationship between a Pakistani woman and a Pakistani man is laced with this almost paranoid consideration of your girlfriend’s honor. “Who are you going out with? Kaun hai? Pehlay kyun nahin bataya? How long have you known him? If he tries anything…”

This behavior is expected. When you’re a teenager, it’s cute. And then it stops being cute when the motions become rote and internalized. That’s how you get entitlement.

Women and children often hold their feelings and experiences close to their chest for fear of provoking an emotional outburst from the males in their life. The infamous socio-historical construct of “honor” comes into play here. Offense towards a woman or a child is no longer their offense; it is an offense that must be taken up by the men in her/their life.

An all too common example: a young girl is sexually assaulted. She weighs her options, and opts for silence because if she tells the male members of her family, they would take matters into their own hands and honor codes would suggest a violent beating is in order, at the very least. Not wanting blood on her conscience, the young girl considers telling the female members of her family. That particular honor code would lead to either complete silence, stories of “This happens to every little girl” normalizing what should never be normalized, shaming (depending on the age of the young girl and the nature of the act) or a pained admission of what the young girl already knew: “You know what your (male family member) would do if they found out.”

At best, accommodations may be made to spare the young girl the anxiety of seeing the perpetrator again. Some accommodations may be more stifling than others depending on the proximity of the perpetrator and the frequency of their interactions.

The young girl makes her decision. Her own silence is better than the silence of others, and vastly preferable to the grating of broken bones.

Autonomy is an incredibly underrated possession. Sexual assault is an act of violence on ones bodily autonomy. Consent is the ultimate act of autonomy, and the younger you are, the more volatile your grip on autonomy is. For a child coming into adolescence, autonomy is especially important – and for a girl in a (conservative) cross-section of Pakistani society, autonomy is a precious commodity. Reacting to what was told to you in confidence and trust with a declaration of violence and vigilante justice is never helpful. The problem with this usurpation of justice is that it takes the autonomy that was already stolen from the survivor and adds a deeper disconnect. It is incredibly important to support survivors and honor their wishes after they have their agency taken from them and to – despite all your instincts and protective urges – understand where they are coming from. Your violent justice is a retraumatization at best, and a heavy burden the survivor will carry for the rest of their life at worst. Your chivalry and honor have no place in the healing of a sexual assault survivor. Besides, are you really going to practice vigilante justice and then complain about mob mentality in the same breath?

Sexual assault is not the only realm where outdated practices of chivalry must end, but it is the most urgent territory. Parents express horror that their survivor child kept their experience from them for so long, but when your first instinct is towards punitive violence rather than truly nurturing and understanding, somewhere along the way you did something wrong. The message you are telling your child/friend/sibling/significant other/etc is that you are just another person who doesn’t care about their wishes.

Survivors suffer in silence for far too long. Take the first step towards their security: tone down your self-righteous outrage long enough to actually listen.

Chivalry ought to be dead.

Shame and retrospect

I don’t like admitting to it but I was frankly far more imbued in the Western than I was in the local growing up in Pakistan. American cartoons, British books, English music – hell, even Japanese media – were a staple of my early life far more so than my own culture or the immediacy of my surroundings. There’s obvious advantages to that of course: I grew up a globalized person with a great deal of general knowledge and trivia about the world around me, and (it has to be said) my English skills wouldn’t be as accomplished as they are if I hadn’t been so invested in Western media.

And that isn’t to imply that an appreciation of Pakistani culture has to exist in a vacuum – my own parents are testaments otherwise, being the widely learned yet rooted people they are – but it does shame me that for many years of my life I almost, almost looked down upon my culture for being paindoo¹. I didn’t pay attention in Urdu class and considered it a frankly useless subject and that’s a bloody misfortune, one that I will regret for the rest of my life. So much beautiful text ignored, so many stories and little quirks of the language that I went without understanding the nuances of…

Until, of course, I left Pakistan and felt that deep cultural void in me, the nostalgia that comes as punishment for the formerly disparaging displaced. That’s when I opened myself up to the history of my country, to its present, and to the possibility of a future back in it. I still have a huge gap in my understanding of it (small, silly things like gun control in Pakistan or public administration services, policy things).  But that attempt to understand changed me. It continues to change me as I learn more and more about my homeland and heritage. Nothing hits me quite as viscerally as its music and poetry, and through those channels I’ve been able to build upon my fluency in Urdu and hopefully guide it in a direction that can be beautiful, not just utilitarian.

Frankly, the day I realized I was taking my dad’s suggestions of taking my politics back home seriously was when I realized I was, mentally, back home. Now it’s just a matter of actually going back home.

I’ve come a long way from the girl who used to feel like a stranger in a shalwar kameez and scoffed at braided hair.  The universe has a way of turning you on your head – and my suddenly braided head is full of foreign service studies in Pakistan and echoes of Sunn Ve Balori.

To you, motherland – A Nation of Chronic Belittlers

Some things are so deeply ingrained in you that you do not become aware of them until you are faced with some kind of frame of reference. I always knew how deeply unequal Pakistan was – in a country where class is as apparent and omnipresent as rickety rickshaws alongside shiny new Mercedeses, you’d have to be deeply, deeply sheltered not to see that. But inequality also lies in the seemingly innocuous, the “take-for-granteds” of middle class and upwards society (and the fringe pretenders, the for better or for worse aspirants) and the language they use to describe those socially beneath them.

Paindoo.

It makes me wince, thinking back on how often I have used that word casually, callously. It wasn’t even aimed at a specific person most of the time: paindoo was a way of life, a conscious decision to be backwards, uneducated, illiterate, jaahil. Backwater villagers along the motorway, speaking thet Punjabi, with parandas in their hair and their dupattas tied at their hips and carrying water vessels on their heads. Or, worse, the paindoo log who had always had communities alongside the upper middle class – preexistent localities which were there long before Pakistan’s military elite gentrified the outskirts of their cities.

As if we, with our salaries and seasonally changing carpets, have a stake more concrete than their galling, preternatural claim to the city.

Paindoo. Said with a tongue resting briefly on the roof of your mouth, lazily lashing the bare, too-brown backs.

The colonizers never truly left. They were kind enough to teach us their ways so that we would continue the job of categorizing brown bodies – bodies as brown as yours, Fair & Lovely notwithstanding – for them.

If I sound bitter, it’s because I’m angry at myself for playing into classism-inherent. What right did I have to look down at the pedestrians from my Honda Civic ’95, when my parents have grounded me with stories of buying diapers with scrounged-up rupee coins?

It’s hard not to be a hypocrite sometimes. Good people, well-meaning people are hypocrites all the time. Moral absolutism is a farce. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t strive to decolonize our minds; it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be mindful of how we see our own countrymen. They are not props to your elitism; they are not fun themes to be used at graduation parties or fancy-dress shows. They are living breathing members of a dynamic society that we have ignorantly eschewed over and over again, that we neglect, that we employ as “the help.” They are the foundation of hundreds of thousands of lower-middle and upwards households in this country, the ones on whose knees your children bounce. Ayahs and bajis and uncles.

The next time you haw-haye over the countrymen you suddenly care about being exploited in the UAE, think about the countrymen you never cared about in your community that you belittled and othered.

Paindoo.  How many of them are killed, are martyred when extremist factions target low-income neighbourhoods and transportation most commonly used by those you would lump together under the category of “Can’t Even Afford A Mehran?”

Have some respect.

Crowdfund “Zunn: Showgirls of Pakistan”

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The creators of a documentary called Zunn: Showgirls of Pakistan are looking to crowdfund their post-production efforts.

Showgirls of Pakistan is a documentary feature on the lives of dancing girls in Punjab, Pakistan. It unveils a world of smut theater and strip-shows in small towns and villages through the eyes of the women that are profited from but are never heard. These showgirls are managed by a violent mafia, pimps, boyfriends and promoters who regularly export them to the UAE club scene.

As a society, we Pakistanis have a strange obsession with damning entire swaths of people under the guise of “morality.” This documentary is one of the gradually increasing number of projects trying to bring attention to Pakistan’s seedy underbelly. In doing so they’re doing the incredibly important job of re-humanizing the disenfranchised and the outcast. Unfortunately, the morality policy has in fact struck this project; the producers of Showgirls of Pakistan have had to take their trailer offline in response to threats from certain parties who disapprove the message this documentary is trying to convey. And yet, the filming is complete; all that’s left now is the post-production.

The endeavor is an expensive one, but it isn’t unattainable. The producers of Showgirls only have a few more weeks to accomplish their goal of $15000, and right now they only have a little more than $2500.

This project has the potential to go a long way in addressing many dangerously – intentionally – ignored issues in Pakistan and so many other countries around the world – mental illness, sexuality, gender identity, abuse. If you are able, I beseech you to go support it. A dollar can go such a long way in making sure the voices of Nadia, Afreen and Reema Jan and so, so many others are heard.

image taken from Showgirls of Pakistan’s Facebook page

Voulez-vous bhangra avec moi?

I’m a little annoyed, but I’m also a little sad. And this may be elitist, but I’m Lahori. We can get elitist. But no offense meant, I promise!

I get invited to a lot of South Asia-related events on campus, and I can say that I have not been to a single one since I first went to Northeastern. A lot of people would chalk that up to self-loathing, or seeing my identity as having westernized itself, or being a nation-traitor, or just complete apathy towards my heritage in general. If you’re one of my very good friends you know all of that to be categorically untrue. I know all those accusations to be antitheses to the very person I am. And, for the record, I do bhangra/faux-kathak in my room when I’m listening to desi music.

There’s going to be a South Asia week at Northeastern. I’m not going.

Your South Asia week won’t ease the pain of not having been home in five years. It won’t make me feel like I’m back walking the main market streets of Lahore, smelling molten jalebiyaan, hearing thait Punjabi that I can just about understand. It won’t give me the excitement I felt going to the various Rafi Peer Theater’s workshops and events and the literary festivals. It won’t look like any of the things I associated with Lahore – colors and trucks and massive, ancient willows and oaks, old buildings and new buildings, colonial and mughal and modern, parks with as much litter as flowers, old movie posters and huge billboards with Brad Pitt and Victoria’s Secret Angels, graffiti, poetry, political statements splayed across walls alongside beautiful murals painted by students from art schools, museums and boutiques, innumerable bookstores, innumerable dens of debauchery, innumerable beggars on the streets, innumerable women in their sleeveless kurtas-and-jeans and in their burqas-

Your South Asia week will only break my heart. It will only feel like a gimmick to me, and I’m sorry about that. I wish you the best of luck and I hope you have fun, but my identity doesn’t hinge on attending Bollywood zumba lessons, as much as sometimes I wish it did. My identity looks to the next time I go back to Pakistan, and I don’t half-ass my wishes.

But hey, if you want a private bhangra party, I will happily arrange that.