“I promise there’s a reason I’m flushing my hair!” and other superstitious concerns

“I can’t help but feel that this is my fault.”

My best friends, my mother, and my therapist have all heard me say some variation of the above sentence. This tends to be in response to some kind of bad news, and no matter how much physical distance is between the epicenter of the bad news and myself, I always find some way take responsibility for the ensuing tremors. Lip-biting, hand-wringing, that sentence is both an admission of guilt and a desperate need for reassurance. Usually, the response is “Oh my god Neiha, stop!” or “Shut up. Stupid chit. (angry cat emoji)” or “Now what could make you think that?” from my best friends, mother, and therapist respectively.

The former two usually nip it in the bud. Can’t blame them. But my therapist’s open-ended question gives me – stammering, probably shaking – pause.

What could make me think that?


I’ve alluded, previously, to my superstitious inclinations, but I have never fully explored how my superstitions came to be and what role they play in my life. As with most things, I can attribute a lot of my beliefs to my Pakistani upbringing. My parents never reinforced this, being scientists, but it’s hard not to internalize what society tells you.

South Asians, in general, are an unfathomably superstitious lot. To ghair folk, that may seem absurd and yes, it totally is, but it is also as much a part of our culture as our food or clothing. Our superstitions seem to inform societal hierarchies, biases, behaviors, upbringing, schooling, even where we live. Our superstitions serve as the lens through which we perceive the world. We are morbidly fascinated with what we are, in theory, supposed to be afraid of. A lot of our superstitions stem from religion – such as reciting verses from the Quran to protect oneself, though Islam is most certainly not the only religion that guides superstition – but largely, our superstitions stem from time immemorial and have been distorted depending on the family that the superstition has circulated in and throughout generations. Even the most highly-educated members of the gentry are wont to follow some neighborhood spiritual healer. However, it is difficult to properly research the roots of South Asian – let alone Pakistani superstition – due to said distortion and lack of academic research into the topic. So for the purposes of this exploration, I will be relying largely on my memory and the iteration of superstitions that I was exposed to.

I grew up with a taweez around my little neck. Fairly innocuous, a taweez is a small leather pouch worn like a locket, with the pouch containing a verse from the Quran that is said to protect you against the evil eye. Almost every kid my age had a taweez, sometimes even older kids – but while the taweez soon disappeared from around my neck, the phenomenon it was trying to keep at bay was a ubiquitous power in my life and in that of so many others. The evil eye – nazar, in Urdu, which literally just means sight but as a noun and duly capitalized in English transliteration takes on a much more sinister meaning – has become a well-known concept by now in mainstream culture, having been attributed to a variety of cultures even outside Islamic countries. (As a quick aside, I found it funny as a kid that whenever people used to go to Turkey, they would bring back the eerie blue variations on our taweez. If nothing else, I was impressed at the utility of the evil eye: a souvenir, a protective totem, and very on-trend for the time. Besides, a literal evil eye to ward off the evil eye in addition to our own cultural attempts at warding it off? Beyond extra). For a lot of people, wearing the evil eye or hand of Fatima/hamsa as an accessory might be nothing more than cute, exotic jewelry, but it garners both an eye-roll and genuine approval from me. Hey, intentional or not, you’re protecting yourself I guess.

The evil eye is simply, intentional or otherwise, the result of someone casting a jealous or malevolent gaze on someone. This in turn means something bad happens to you; you get hurt, your finances take a hit, etc. At worst, the evil eye can be attributed to black magic (kala jadoo, a most Pakistani fear). The reason children especially are kitted out with a taweez is that younger children are quick to trust, and don’t necessarily know how to protect themselves from the evil eye; as such, adults must pick up the slack. In fact, pretty much whenever I get hurt, there’s always someone around to say, “Nazar lag gayi Neiha ko” (lit. Neiha got hit by nazar. Also, I’m 22 and this still happens). The process of avoiding the evil eye is a lesson in humility; you ascribe any talent, beauty, accomplishment, etc, to God’s will – “Mashallah, you look beautiful.” God wills it, and thus, can apparently shoulder the burden of malevolence.

Now that I think about it, the lesson is less about humility and more about displacement of responsibility. Lack of humility only attracts malevolent intent, so you make God deal with it? That doesn’t seem completely fair.

There were other superstitions: not stepping on a pillow or you’d give your mother a headache, not stepping over someone who was reclining on the ground or they wouldn’t grow taller, making sure shoes weren’t strewn around with the soles pointing heavenward, getting rid of fallen hair and nails in a way that they couldn’t be collected by evil sorcerers (for real)…in addition to more paranormal fears, for example, that isolated, mountainous – generally veeraan – places are usually breeding grounds for jinn-bhoot (a pretty general term for any big evil phantasmal types), that resting under a tree during the night was a sure-fire way to get yourself possessed by a jinn and subsequently exorcised, or that any number of houses were haunted and that houseguests of the spirit variety could be kept away with a huge, wrought-iron “Mashallah” affixed to the facade of your house.

These are just the ones I remember off the top of my head. I remember thinking that I wasn’t completely convinced by these superstitions. I used to pride myself on that. Sure, I was afraid of jinn stories, but what Muslim kid/adult/old person in their right mind isn’t? I had no fears regarding giving my mother a headache by stepping on a pillow, or of stunting someone’s height. Besides, most people my age were tall enough and should have been grateful for what they already had that I didn’t.

It’s only really in retrospect that I realize how many superstitions I actually did internalize. I avoid lingering for too long under trees at night. I think part of my gung-ho desire to live in a city stems from avoiding the aforementioned veeraangi. But I didn’t realize just how much of the more ridiculous stuff I had internalized until, last year, a friend caught me flushing some hair I had pulled out of my hairbrush down the toilet…

That was a very strange cultural quirk to explain.

But apart from the more concrete superstitions, there is a general spirit behind superstitions that is just straight up part of being desi: this greater sense of culpability, that everyone is capable of causing harm even if they don’t necessarily intend to. It is as victim-blaming as it sounds, that people can also just put themselves up for spiritual harm – that’s a pretty toxic mentality, but it’s one that I observed in myself a lot following my burgeoning anxiety. Humility is one thing, but to be actively deserving of malevolence is kind of an alarming concept to internalize.

But as it turns out, superstition is an easy vehicle to transition into when you already have anxiety. So what could make me think that something horrible that happened so far away and is, by all accounts, unrelated to me, is actually my fault?

I expect something bad to happen after things have been going well for some time. Living in a country where people don’t necessarily say “Mashallah” a lot doesn’t help that fear; but even so, if I receive bad news following a spate of good luck, I immediately blame myself for not being humble enough. I caught someone’s nazar, but it’s ultimately my own fault, surely. Something bad happens at home? Well, that’s my fault for not being an upstanding Muslim, or for staying out too late, or for becoming too self-confident.

Okay, but what does this have to do with anxiety?

According to Kierkegaardian philosophy, “anxiety is the dizziness of freedom.” Rather than feeling as if you can do whatever you want, anxiety feels much like the way standing at the edge of a particularly long drop does – except near-constantly. The dizziness of freedom also means it’s difficult to ascribe responsibility to anything. Life just is. But life can’t simply just be; life has to have a rhyme or reason. Surely, that’s what religion is too, a desire to make sense of the dizziness of freedom, to organize yourself around something rather than constantly face off against a precipitous drop. But if existentialism is to embrace the drop, then superstition is the exact opposite. To be superstitious is to analyze every drop within an inch of its life and to assess where you stand in relation to it and – well – how that drop could actively make you and everyone around you suffer. Superstition isn’t absolution or relief or even order the way religion can be. Superstition is, as the wonderful Mashed Radish describes, all about excesses, too muches, over-s, supers – so it is excessive, too much, over-, super-absolution. In short, it is a solid crutch for anxiety to lean on and reinforce its grip on your gut and your brain. It is self-imposed punishment, it is responsibility where no responsibility needs to be taken, it is guilt in the guiltness. If anxiety’s evolutionary role is to heighten ones fight-or-flight reflex, superstition’s evolutionary role becomes what makes you stand there, pointing and screaming as something starts gnawing at your leg.

It’s hard enough balancing your identity if you moved from a more communal society to a thoroughly individualistic one. You feel guilty about something at any given point. But to be superstitious on top of that, and to have anxiety on top of that? Might as well have a flip-flop dangling around your neck that you can self-flagellate with. It’d be a quicker job.

For me, superstition reinforces my self-loathing. If nothing is immediately around to be responsible for x terrible thing that has just happened, well, then it’s my fault. If I bear a cross on my back, it is one carved out of a heinous wood comprised of both anxiety and superstition. Add to that cross various socio-cultural expectations (both communal and individualistic), burdens, pressures, etc, and it’s no wonder that I had to go the ER for back problems this past June (for real).

Does this answer my therapist’s question? At least in part, yes it does. And, well, you don’t have to but if you wouldn’t mind, throw in a Mashallah at me every now and then, yeah?

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Somewhere between Pakistan and America, you’ll find my discomfit heart

A short note spurred by some mixed emotions over the 70th year of my country’s independence and the tumult in Charlottesville this past weekend, as well as the rather political music of The Cranberries.

I’ve often struggled with my not-quite diasporic identity and have written about it ad nauseum in the past 7 years of this blog’s existence. As a non-resident Pakistani, I find myself often at a loss for whether or not I have the right to certain opinions and feelings; and yet, as an aspiring political scientist and maybe-one-day arbitrator, the foundation of my education and career has been holding those opinions. I didn’t realize just how long I had lived away from Pakistan until I went back last year for my brother’s nikkah. The Pakistan I had missed desperately was different – and I realized, no one has a claim on a place. The places you love do not stagnate in your absence. You can exist disparately from what you love. And I have grown away from Pakistan; Pakistan has grown away from me. It wasn’t a sad realization, but it was an important one. I’ll always be Pakistani, but that doesn’t mean Pakistan will remain mine. That’s okay. If I do decide to come back, there will always be a place for me, should I choose to reckon with those changes.

But this isn’t about Pakistan, not exactly. This is about my adopted country. I love America so very much, and will always consider Boston home, but I could not even pretend to call it mine. America is never truly yours until you have that hallowed blue passport and even then, the caveats are immense and dangerous. Just look at Charlottesville this past weekend; that’s just the latest iteration of the United (with caveats) States of America and its tradition of picking and choosing what Americanism is. The fine-print has never been set in stone, and certainly, my non-resident alien behind does not beget many rights. Yet I miss America whenever I’m away from it, and I truly feel more myself there than I do anywhere else in the world…but I am reminded in ways – sometimes small, sometimes larger – that I don’t fully belong. Whether in the exorbitant tuition I pay, whether through the loopholes I need to jump when it comes to dealing with any bureaucracy, in the white nationalist movements that have become normalized, in the way that my friends talk about foreign policy that makes my stomach churn, in the way I feel myself rapidly reformulating my opinions in sudden paranoia, in the way that a certain elected official I met once joking asked me to tell him Pakistan’s nuclear secrets (even if I did know any, hell no, people like you, Mr. Senator, bring out the angry realist in me), in the way I don’t know whether I’ll be able to qualify for an H1B visa to stay after I graduate…

And despite this seemingly endless list, I find it hard to imagine living anywhere else for a prolonged period of time. Under the dense, black boot of an ugly, resurgent past, I thrive despite myself, and my anger and hurt only serves to reinforce my desire to live in the United States.

Maybe that’s what it is; my contrary heart, this Pakistaniat that has chiseled my stubborn nose and my set jaw, has primed me so fully to embrace that American boot and not let go. Either you crush me good, or the boot comes off – and under the mother’s foot lies paradise, so one way or another, it’s on my own terms. My upbringing and nationality under igneous conditions have made me a match for America, and so it has any victim of oppression; your caveats pile up but there is brilliance and resilience unlike any other to be found in volcanic conditions. Pakistanis, we’re a self-destructive lot, but we carve beauty out of destruction like any old Sylvia Plath poem. And I suppose that is true for any people that survive doomsday over and over and over again; the next boot is always around the corner, and despite our discomfit hearts, we’re ready to climb through the fine-print and into the world proper.

The old Lie

I imagine the hardest part of living through a war is not being able to see the enemy as anything but just that; an enemy. I imagine the other hardest part of living through a war is realizing you had no stake in it until your way of living was turned into a small pile of chips to wager.

What they don’t tell you about war in history books (that aren’t doused in Wilfred Owen) is that war turns people pathetic. It turns people into schoolyard bullies trying to prove to the other that their prepubescent chin hairs are longer. Dignity lies in the barrel of a gun…and how far you can threaten the mass annihilation of a people in a Facebook comment.

War turns people small. Not small in a cute, cuddly way. Small like a shitty chihuahua who yelps and growls and bites really irritatingly hard. You suddenly become a groupie after a government that was the bane of your existence, and forget every single valid qualm you had against it because it gave you a distraction.

War turns people short-sighted. They say retrospect is 20/20, but not during wartime! There’s a reason history repeats itself time and time and time again because the fog of war makes it really hard to actually see what’s staring back at you in the mirror unless you have the presence of mind to air out the bathroom. Everyone loves a good nuclear war.

War turns people geographically illiterate. No, really, everyone loves a good nuclear war – especially if the targets are right next door. That won’t go over badly at all.

War turns people heartless.

Everyone loves a good nuclear war.

That won’t go over badly at all.

War turns people impractical. You know how it’s really irritating to have to go through a visa process because some jerk from your country did a really horrible thing and now you have to deal with the consequences of a country that went full War on Terror?

Yeah. That really shouldn’t be relatable.

And honestly? War turns people selfish. On the scale of the effect of war being an inconvenience <-> being disastrous skews more and more towards the latter when you start tossing poverty into the mix. You know what’s hard to do when you’re homeless, internally displaced, and living day to day – sometimes hour to hour?

Changing the filter on your Facebook profile picture to your country flag.

No, but really though, that’ll show ’em!

My parents raised me too well to let my ego dictate personal foreign policy. They also raised me to not share controversial opinions but that one is a bit harder to follow.

Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.

Long note: honest despair

I realize my last few blog posts have been a little more depressing than I usually put out. I try and imbue optimism in everything I write, because there’s enough sadness going around without me adding to it. And yet, here I am.

I forced myself to take a social media hiatus after some encouragement from friends. There is such a thing as too much engagement, and I had overextended my capacity to that end. That…was a sucky realization to say the least. I always thought of myself – forced the view of myself – as being impervious to emotional exhaustion. I feel, therefore I am, and I am lucky to be around so why ever stop feeling? If I want to give my life to some sort of public service, then I need to be able to power through the fatigue, muster every ounce of energy and positivity in me and somehow add to humanity’s global reserves of drive and perseverance.

Perseverance. Fortitude. Resilience.

Resilience.

Is there such a thing as being too resilient? is a question I’ve asked of Pakistan as a whole many times before. I look at when this debate first began – the night of the APS massacre – and wonder why it took that long for me to begin considering that question. As was at my emotional worst – and also at my angriest. The emotional wreckage felt welcome because of my physical distance from Pakistan. It felt like I was doing something if I was in so much pain – that there was a connection that mattered so much that it bruised no matter how far I was from home. It was comforting and despite the despair that still itched at my heart, it helped me heal.

At some point, we need to break down our shell and allow ourselves to feel the heft of lives lost and lives scattered, of normalcy shattered and routine decimated. We risk losing our humanity and capacity to empathize and mourn if we don’t let our walls down; we risk losing the opportunity to recharge.

I think I have let myself feel too much. I think I pushed myself to take in so much sorrow that I burnt myself out. Sometimes when I’m alone and I let myself be vulnerable, I cry for myself, for my family, for families I do not know, for people who have cried like I have. I cry for my own little microcosmic problems, and I cry at the sheer scale of the chaos I cannot even begin to comprehend.

And when I’m not crying, I try to fight a battle I’m not sure I picked wisely. We are all guilty of that. We pick fights out of self-righteousness in an attempt to feel vindicated, to feel any sort of productivity in the face of helplessness. We try to educate and inform, when we are the ones who want so desperately to be sat down and educated and informed. We project our own confusion, hurt, chaos of mind and heart onto others and I’m not sure if that heals anything.

And what we all need right now is to heal. Whether the wounds are global, local, personal, we need healing and kindness. Taking part in the “right” discourse can only help so much.

I suppose that’s what I’m tired of. I used to think that argument was the basis of all knowledge, and I still do believe that, but an argument requires some desire to find understanding. The dialogue I attempted to engage in was for the wrong reasons. And so I never truly let myself heal. I just held myself together with spit and gum and pretended I had recharged.

None of us really let ourselves recharge. We have forced ourself to always be “on” and ready to engage.

Screw engaging.

We have outsourced interaction unto words that are cold and impersonal.

I turned the pursuit of kindness into a game of skirmishes that I decided to ascribe intellectual properties unto.

We are – I am – so busy talking that we forget how to really feel, when our guard is down, we are broken and raw. That’s no way to recharge. You do not heal a wound by exposing it to the elements when it needs to be tended to overtime.

I’m tired, and that’s okay, but I need to do something about the fact that I exhausted all of my facilities in self-destructive perseverance.

Being too resilient is a bad thing.

At the time of writing this, I feel smaller and more helpless than I ever have. I don’t think that’s an uncommon sentiment lately, regardless of where you’re from. I find myself turning to art, music, writing but at the time of finishing this draft, an artistic Giant has been assassinated in Pakistan, and rather than taking the time to mourn him, I see my countrymen sharing videos and pictures of his ruined body. There is nothing sacred left about the horrors we as a world are facing. We have monotonized what should be held as unusual and unwelcome, for whatever reason (I have my own theories as to that).

I don’t really have a solution to my own despair, but maybe that’s the point.

Maybe there is no point, but maybe the point is loving fearlessly, whether that’s yourself or others.

There is some comfort in platitude.

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.

Short note: Jihad

The world wants Muslims to distance themselves from jihad. To legitimize our claims of being a peaceful religion, to be more authentic in our self-moderation. Something like that, anyway. And yet, how can I distance myself from jihad when I declare jihad every single day?

I declare jihad when I decide to smile at someone I make eye contact with despite being in a terrible mood. I declare jihad when I leave an extra tip, or fish out change for a man on the street. I declare jihad when I join my friends in protests against injustice. Sometimes I declare jihad just by studying what I study. I declare jihad by reminding myself, in the worst of times, that God is always with me. I declare jihad when I peel myself out of bed on days where my anxiety is an ugly black ingot crushing my ribcage. And the scariest part? I’m declaring jihad right now by writing this out.

So please do not expect Muslims to separate themselves from jihad. Your intentions may be good, but they are misguided. Give us the courtesy of nuance and educate yourself on what jihad actually means. Empower us with your own honest-to-goodness understanding of Islam. Reclamation is part of jihad; so help us reclaim our Struggle, in all its truth, and take the power of setting a mainstream narrative back from those that misrepresent us – “avowedly Muslim” or otherwise.

From K-Dot to Kunta: the New Fate of Kendrick Lamar

First published in the Northeastern University Political Review

Photo by John Francis Peters for the New York Times

Compton, California has birthed its fair share of artists who have gone on to make a mark in the rap and hip hop industry, but it’s Dr. Dre’s protege, Kendrick Lamar who has taken the industry by storm. Formerly known as K-Dot,  the rapper’s Section.80, and good kid, m.A.A.d city have all been critically acclaimed. good kid, M.A.A.d city was dubbed an instant classic by many, and the album went platinum. According fellow singer-songwriter and producer Erykah Badu, good kid is, “…an album that not only tells a compelling story, but a near-definitive one of a specific time and place, offering a window on the varying complexities of turn-of-the-century Compton.”[1] An important observation; like most rappers, Lamar waxes lyrical about his upbringing, his hometown – struggling Compton – and his desire to,  in the words of the character playing his mother at a skit at the end of “Real,” “Come back a man, tell your story to these black and brown kids in Compton.” These words, taking into consideration the current context of race relations in the United States, are extremely powerful.

That brings us to his most recent release To Pimp a Butterfly, an intentional reference to To Kill a Mockingbird – appropriate, given the racially-charged content of the album. The anticipation was cultivated almost tenderly, with singles dropped periodically and the release date left unannounced until three weeks before the official launch date – March 23rd. The first single released off the album was “i,” divisive in that it deviates from the dark, cinematic undertones of Lamar’s usual fare. The single is inundated with confidence and optimism, self-love that can only be forged in the smithy of racial empowerment. Undeniably funky, it foreshadowed the jazziness that plays Atlas to Kendrick Lamar’s world in Butterfly. The second single off the album was a divergence from the uplifting message of the first, a track called “The Blacker the Berry” presumably in response to the controversial Azealia Banks’ criticism over Lamar’s comments regarding Ferguson.[2] Addressing the looting and violent rioting that some protesters following the grand jury decision were accused of, Lamar emphasized the importance of black self-respect: “[change] don’t start with just a rally, don’t start from looting — it starts from within.”[3]

“The Blacker the Berry” is scathing, and Lamar is as accusatory of America’s institutionalized racism as he is of himself, spitting, “I’m the biggest hypocrite of 2015” and weaving the theme of hypocrisy throughout the song. He explores his identity as a black man, struggling with the label of African-American, his African heritage, speaking to the “institutionalized manipulations and lies” perpetuated by the system, demanding the listener admit, “You hate me, don’t you? You hate my people […]” Anti-black slurs ricochet: “I want you to recognize that I’m a proud monkey.” At the very end of the song, he turns the mirror back towards himself, recalling his own history of gang violence – almost lambasting himself. “So why did I weep when Trayvon Martin was in the street, when gangbanging made me kill a ni**a blacker than me? Hypocrite!”

The explosive last line is unapologetically difficult to swallow, and Lamar has no intention of making Butterfly easy to swallow. Layers upon layers of historically black musicality in every song; a cacophony, if not for the masterful way in which brass, wind and bass weave together.

The third single released, “King Kunta,” was quickly overshadowed by the arrival of something far bigger than it: the album itself. Accidentally released March 15 on iTunes, it was fully released on March 16th, taking many fans by surprise and setting a Spotify record with 9.6 million streams in a day.[4] Right off the bat, with “Wesley’s Theory,” you are taken on a ride akin to Jay-Z and Kanye West’s Watch the Throne: a celebration of black excellence, as Jay-Z would put it, “opulence, decadence.” A critic called Butterfly “[…] black insomuch as the album is a cosmic slop of nearly every musical movement that we Negroes have founded on this continent.”[5] The album opens with a sample of “Every Ni**er is a Star” by Boris Gardiner, and features George Clinton of the Parliaments, an avowed inspiration.[6] “King Kunta” is deceptively evocative beneath unabashed rhythm – Kendrick Lamar often refers to himself as “King Kendrick” but in this subversion he relates to Kunta Kinte, a Gambian slave who had the front part of his foot cut off as punishment for trying to escape slavery in the burgeoning United States. The next few tracks follow with similar funkadelic allusions to the race conversation that will proliferate the latter part of the album; but the arrival of “u” radically changes everything and jolts a new perspective into “i.” The outro to “These Walls” preludes “u,” with a spoken word piece by Lamar that transitions one song into the next throughout the album:

I remember you was conflicted

Misusing your influence

Sometimes I did the same

Abusing my power full of resentment

Resentment that turned into a deep depression

Found myself screaming in a hotel room…

“u,” appropriately, begins with Lamar screaming and repeating “Loving you is complicated” ten times in a frantic voice. “Complicated—” an Atlantic piece submits, “not impossible, not difficult, but complicated. Everything in Lamar’s world is complicated, probably because everything in the real world is.”[7] He stumbles through the song, crying, drinking, eviscerating himself with cruelty: he wasn’t there for his sister, he wasn’t there for his city, he wasn’t even there for his friend Chad while he died in a hospital bed save for a Facetime call.[8] The last lines in the song are jarring: “And if I told your secrets/The world’ll know money can’t stop a suicidal weakness” and lead into the cautiously optimistic “Alright” with Kendrick singing against a broken, brassy backdrop, “I’m f*cked up/homie, you f*cked up/but if God got us/then we gon’ be alright.”

Not enough can be said about the juxtaposition of “u” against “i,” but it is necessary to know that these existential questions are a pivotal part of the black experience. Kanye West explored these questions in Yeezus, and Watch the Throne is a twelve-song testament; Frank Ocean alludes to it in “Swim Good” (referenced by Kendrick in “These Walls”), Janelle Monae actively preaches against it in The Electric Lady.[9] Even the September-released “i” receives a facelift inButterfly. It gets stripped down to seem like it’s being performed live, but retains its optimism until a fight breaks out in the crowd. Kendrick stops immediately, exclaiming “Not on my time – not on my time!” and demands of the crowd, “How many ni**as we done lost, bro, this year alone?” He continues, trying to silence the arguing and instill a sense of camaraderie amongst them with an a capella verse and a lesson in linguistics: “N-E-G-U-S, definition: Royalty; King Royalty.” Instead of the “n” word – the turn of tongue that has damned so many black people to slavery, and that renders many, like Oprah who condemns the use of the “n” word, uncomfortable – he encourages the use of this word of black excellence, validating Oprah and offering an olive branch in the form of a word that only has empowering connotations.[10]

“Kendrick Lamar, by far, realest Negus alive.”

There is no way to dissect, discuss and lampshade every single track on this album under a word limit. But the last track of the album demands a paragraph of its own.

Tupac “2Pac” Shakur is regarded by many as being the most influential rapper of all time; Lamar has repeatedly mentioned 2Pac as one of his greatest influences, and it stands to reason.[11] 2Pac’s legacy is controversial but it is undeniable. His music is influenced by his family’s Black Panther notoriety, including his step-aunt Assata Shakur, the first woman to be added to the FBI’s most wanted list.[12] “Mortal Man” is to this album what “Real” was for good kid: putting lessons learnt throughout the album into perspective, to realize oneself in the grand scheme of things. Kendrick Lamar asks of the listener, “When shit hit the fan, is you still a fan?” citing all the ways in which he could get in trouble over the course of his lifetime: being framed for crimes he did not commit, arrested on exaggerated charges to fit the agenda of institutionalized racism. Not unlikely scenarios given the backdrop of continued, arguably escalated, police brutality against black people and people of color. He invokes the legacy of Nelson Mandela, a man jailed for more than two decades for his commitment against apartheid – it’s not just homage, it is a statement of intent, a promise to fight the good fight, working for justice and peace. It is a bold promise, and one that he obviously wants to be held to. But it is the outro of the song that leaves the most lasting impression. He starts reciting the poem that has laced one song to another in its totality. Blackness must unite to prevail; blackness must forget the colors of gangs; blackness must forgive itself and reject the evils of “Lucy” – Lucifer, who has haunted Kendrick through his career. “If I respect you, we unify and stop the enemy from killing us/But I don’t know, I’m no mortal man, maybe I’m just another ni**a.”

Paper crumples, and you can almost visualize Lamar looking up with an almost sheepish look on his face, “Sh*t and that’s all I wrote.” The outro quickly establishes itself as a conversation between two people: Kendrick Lamar and his idol, Tupac Shakur. The late Shakur’s words are taken from his 1994 interview with a Swedish radio station, but it doesn’t seem like a conversation with a ghost. He may as well have been talking to Dr. Dre with the familiarity and slight awe that is in Lamar’s voice.[13] They contemplate poverty, impending revolution, the future of black youth: and isn’t it natural for a 27 year-old black man against the background of Ferguson, “I Can’t Breathe,” and #BlackLivesMatter to be asking such questions of his idol? Butterfly is an album for disenfranchised youth of color struggling to find a voice in a society that purports to be post-racial and is anything but.

Perhaps Kendrick Lamar is a butterfly, and his discography is his evolution. Section.80 wove together a setting for the story of Kendrick’s Compton; good kid, m.A.A.d city was a memoir, one teeming with his experience of racism and exploring vice along the way; but To Pimp a Butterfly is bigger than Compton: it’s America. It’s Kendrick Lamar exploring his role as a black man with a voice that is becoming increasingly influential; it is the narrative of a man terrified and insecure of the temptation that surrounds him in his new-found fame, and – and perhaps most importantly – it is the manifesto of an apostle. In his words, Lamar is doing “god’s work” on earth; how timely, this album, given what is essentially the reinvocation of the civil rights movement.[14] If to To Pimp a Butterfly is a “75-minute story of “survivor’s guilt” that finds some sort of resolution at the end, the question must be begged: what is next for Kendrick Lamar?[15] Activism has always manifested itself through multiple mediums and Lamar joins the ever-increasing number of black artists that have anointed themselves activists. Will he work through musicianship? Or will he step out from behind the curtain of artistry and take the helm of the resurging civil rights movement? Continue reading “From K-Dot to Kunta: the New Fate of Kendrick Lamar”

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.

Deah, Yusor, Razan

Another day, another tragedy, and it seems like the tragedies keep hitting closer and closer to home. I have always identified first and foremost as a Muslim, and you can debate my religiosity all you want but it doesn’t take away from the fact that I’m a fervent Muslim and a vocal one at that. Being a Muslim means every death hurts; every single life on this planet taken away is like all of humanity being systematically destroyed. All murder is personal, but the murders at Chapel Hill feels like someone dropped a gauntlet right in front of every Muslim.

“Pick it up. Aren’t you going to duel with me? Isn’t that what Muslims want, to fight and to kill?”

Man, all we want is to finish school and procrastinate on our readings and eat ice cream because we’re sad that our boyfriend/girlfriend is being a jerk, or because our crush won’t notice us. All my parents want is for me to clean my damn room once in a while and not discard my clothes onto the floor. All we want to do is deal with our own issues, like the inkling of OCD that still plagues us, or that the more snow days we get here in Boston, the less we get paid while we’re on co-op, or that it’s been so long since we’ve watched a movie or read a good book, or that we really want to travel someday soon.

Or that we’d really like to go to school and not sit scared behind our desks because the Peshawar Massacre was only two months ago.

Or that our children, two of them newly-wed, were just killed and we’re trying to make sense of the world as a result of it.

Or that all we want is to hold onto hope and look towards a better, brighter future – not just for ourselves, but for the rest of humanity.

We just want what all humans want. We’re just trying to perceive ourselves as we stand in the grand scheme of things…and it’s hard to see the grand scheme of things as anything but against us lately. Death hurts equivocally. A life taken away is painful across the board. Don’t make it any harder by making assumptions against us or by peddling conspiracy theories. Don’t perpetuate a system of oppression by vilifying black youth and people of color. Don’t make living more of a challenge than it should be by telling someone they’re not allowed to love how they wish or dress how they please.

Spread kindness, spread words of support, share your condolences and your stories. It matters more than we can articulate when non-Muslims stand in solidarity with us. Make things a little brighter. Take away some of this malaise and persistent sadness that hounds our footsteps and makes our shadows feel like a burden to carry.

Help us because we need to stand together to fight off this ignorance. We owe it to our humanity.

Everything hurts.

Two and a half thoughts from Thanksgiving eve

  1. I always get a little bit emotional whenever I watch Hook. It reminds me far too much of my own childhood, where I could spend endless hours with my own imagination. I’d make a laptop out of my heavy blue notebook, following my mother around and pulling out it out whenever we had even a few minutes to sit down; I would daydream for ages, thinking of all my favorite characters from TV shows, books and cartoons, creating scenarios where I would save the day and be the heroine to end all heroines. I would frolic – like, literally frolic – in my garden in Lahore and pluck flowers, grass, seeds and berries, mashing them into elixirs that I would then taste-test. I determined that elixirs are naturally bad-tasting things, and that simply the act of making them was enough. Actually imbibing in my potions was optional. But here’s the part in Hook that really got to me: when Maggie sings, and sings with all her heart out at the moon. Goosebumps. I always tell people that I used to sing a lot as a kid, that I used to be a really good singer. Truth is, I was just less inhibited as a child, because I didn’t hold myself to standards that either I had set for me or that I had cultivated for myself based on the world around me. I could sing my heart out, forget about whether it was good or bad, and the confidence was all I needed. Now, even when I’m alone, I police my own singing. How ridiculous is that? I police my singing, my drawing, my writing, and in doing so, I run the risk of taking the fun out of my own hobbies. Refining your skills is extremely important, don’t get me wrong, but it’s not as important as remembering how to enjoy the things you love doing. I nearly ruined drawing for myself; I still love singing in a group and aggressively screaming the lyrics to Bohemian Rhapsody or Vienna during karaoke nights; and writing is still my one of my greatest joys in life. Keep what you love close to your heart, and improve on it every day, but never compromise love for expertise.
  2. This is a slightly darker thought. In a way, I feel like I’m exposing certain people by writing this but the hope is that we are far too old to remember minute details of our childhood at this point. Pakistan’s demographics lean heavily towards the Muslim majority side. Only 1.8% of our population is Christian, but then, that’s a nice, solid 2,700,000 people. Pakistan’s a pretty big country. Anyway, I must have been 11 years old. I had a pretty good awareness of the world around me, being the budding future political science major that I was. I was also a voracious reader and pretty damn observant. So, I observed that a classmate of mine (who incidentally had the same name as me) wore the same necklace everyday to class. I had a feeling. One day, as we were playing during our recess, I noticed that it had slipped out from underneath the kameez of her uniform: a green, beautiful cross. I absolutely loved it. I wanted to know more. I had been reading a lot about Christianity and was fascinated by the religion. I’m not sure exactly what I said, it was either a really excited and sincere “Is that a cross?” or a nonchalant, feigning-at-tacit “What is that?” Immediately, her hand went to the cross, and her body language changed to a defensive one. Her voice didn’t change, but I knew the stream of conversation wasn’t going to put her at ease and make her feel as open as I was hoping it would. “It’s a medal,” she said, hurriedly. “…a medal?” “Yes.” I knew not to pry any further. Eventually, I think she became more open with me about her religion as we got to know each other better, but that was the day I realized what being marginalized meant. You could approach someone with the most sincere of intentions, but that doesn’t matter if you’ve been raised being told to be careful about your words and to keep your identity on the down-low. I understand that a lot better now, because it’s something I’ve been forced to experience. But back in Pakistan, I was supremely privileged – a Sunni-raised Muslim girl (albeit with strange Sufi family traditions) who fit the right demographics and had a family name that didn’t make people raise their eyebrows.
    1. I don’t think I have to explain what has happened recently to make me think along these lines, but I have just one thing to contribute: since coming to America, every time I see a police officer, my heart beats a little bit faster. I put on my most gracious smile, chirp a friendly “Thank you, officer! Have a good day, officer!” and put my head down to keep walking. I’m obviously brown, and that already puts me in a neat box to be scrutinized in. But I have the distinction of not being black. And that’s where my right to chip into the conversation ends.

That is all. Have a good day, everyone. Be careful, be kind.