Short note: Eid blues and how to fix them

I was not excited for this Eid. For all that I was grateful to have relatives nearby in the Netherlands, I really felt the absence of all that was familiar to me. My first Eid in Boston had its bitterness undercut with new friends, an Islamic community to go to the Masjid with, and options of Eid-specific Shalwar Kameez I’d hauled across multiple seas with me. That evening, I dragged some friends to my soon-to-be-minted favorite Pakistani restaurant, and felt the emergence of a new tradition. I didn’t have the time to be homesick, because I had found another home. And that restaurant had found a new loyal patron, not that it stopped Uncle-jii from giving me crap for making him drive all the way from Brighton to Mission Hill on a delivery run…

This year, I felt my mood sour as Eid drew closer and closer. Weight restrictions necessitated leaving my heavy Pakistani clothes at home; not even my favorite kurta could make the cut. And as shallow as it sounds, Eid without clothes rings hollow when you’re already facing Eid without family, friends, food, familiarity.

This morning, after half-heartedly putting on some makeup (yes – half-heartedly putting on make up, me, half-hearted, makeup! Me! Makeup!) and getting on the train to go to work, I resolved to get some treats for my office. Without a lamb (RIP) at hand, I had to figure out some gesture of generosity…so, chocolate and buttery biscuits it was. I said Eid Mubarak to the hijabi cashier and then uncomfortably realized there was nothing in my attire to suggest that saying it back to me was warranted. I trudged off, feeling the Eid spirit slip off me like the dupatta I didn’t have.

Woof.

At work, I announced that there were chocolates and biscuits to avail. Letting the swarm descend in my wake, I went to my desk and drank my requisite two-shots-of-espresso-black-as-my-sins coffee. The perk was needed. I suddenly recoiled with disgust at my behavior.  Sick of feeling sorry for myself, I drew up a list of reasons to be grateful, viz.:

1. You worked your butt off and persisted through a quagmire of bullshit to get to where you are. Yes, you’re away from your family/friends but it’s for a very good reason.

2) On your 3rd try, also after working your butt off, you got an impossible research grant. So now you have to do your over-ambitious original research. Scary? Yep. But that’s huge and you should be proud of yourself.

3) Albeit with some pitfalls, you’re dealing with your anxiety really well. You’re learning how to care for yourself without a therapist. Good job!

4) [redacted; you didn’t think I would share all of my reasons for gratitude, did you?]

5) *points to parents* You’re going to feel guilty about this for the rest of your life but look how MUCH they love you that you are here.

6) *POINTS AGGRESSIVELY TO THE PEACE PALACE* YOU COULD GO THERE EVERY DAY IF YOU WANTED TO AND EAT ITALIAN ICE CREAM.

7) You actually have family nearby. You could have been so much more lonely. Count your blessings.

8) The McElroys exist and so does Carly Rae Jepsen.

9) [also redacted]

10) Pakistani/new clothes aren’t the be all, end all of Eid. Steel yourself: you can always celebrate another way.

11) [which I added later] You can do proper push-ups now. Upper-body strength is just around the corner!

Point number 10 gave me pause. I could always celebrate another way. If clothes were a staple of Eid in the past, what else was? Even in Dubai, cut away from the majority of our family, we found a way to celebrate; how did we do it?

It took me longer than I care to admit to realize that the common denominator throughout my life had been music. Surely it couldn’t be as easy as all that. But it was: whether it was the infamous Lasharie family concerts that every evening would give way to, or music in the background while we waited for guests to arrive (even if the artist in question was Sting, the Patron Saint of my father), or me carefully singing around my eyeliner or over whatever food I was making for my friends that day, music was the ultimate staple of Eid. It couldn’t be that easy…

…but it was. I found a random playlist on Patari and I felt my heart immediately swell. And look, I know nostalgia for the past is usually extremely contrived and only serves to create a false impression of something that only barely was, but music is practically a family heirloom. Even my non-virtuoso self has been known to hold a tune. I could extol the virtues of Pakistani music ad infinitum, but it was what I needed, and that’s that. For all that I’ve been binge-listening to Carly Rae Jepsen lately, I needed the familiarity of a musical tradition I grew up on, that comforts me when I’m miserable, that reminds me of family in a way that not even food can.

Tomorrow, I’ll get to spend the day with my uncle and aunt in Utrecht. I’ll have little cousins to talk to and play with and whom I will promise that one day maybe they’ll get Eid money out of me. They’ll probably be in traditional clothes. I’ll probably be in jeans. But at least my makeup won’t be as half-hearted; I still have to catch up on this season of Coke Studio Pakistan, after all.

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I have an ambition complex 

I love people. I really do. For better or for worse, I’m friends with a lot of incredible human beings who do wonderful things and I love delighting in their accomplishments. I don’t think I would ever wish anyone ill in regards to their careers or hopes and dreams. 

But I need to confront the fact that I let other people’s accomplishments make me think that I’m not doing enough in my own life. 

I have an ambition complex. I have too many things I want to do, and not enough hours of the day. And that list of ambitions has literally no end, because every time I see someone else doing something cool, some weird switch gets turned on in my head and I go, “I can do that too.”

Maybe it isn’t an ambition complex, maybe it’s ambition envy. And maybe I’m a terrible person for internalizing other people’s capacities for brilliance and comparing them to what seems to be a meager little list of my own accomplishments. But somewhere between starry eyed, 11 year old Neiha deciding she was going to be the UN Secretary General and being the high-strung, constantly anxious overachieving 21 year old I am now, I started hating myself. And as I’m sure I’ve mentioned several times before on this blog, self-loathing and ambition do not a healthy smoothie make. 

I want to blame something for this. A week or so ago, talking to my roommate about this very issue, I used the term “commodifying success.” It was a good term. Very clinical. Très académique. Mais, it completely ignored my own insecurities in favor of coming up with a metanarrative to explain away my issues. 

Why am I never satisfied with myself? 

If you’ve seen or listened to Hamilton, you know that iconic moment in Aaron Burr, Sir, where Hamilton describing the Princeton bursor says, “He looked at me like I was stupid, I’m not stupid”? 

That’s been my issue my entire life. I will never be content until I stop believing people think I’m stupid. Every time I feel like I deserve to feel intelligent, I immediately lambast myself for my arrogance. I’ve been arrogant before, I refuse to be arrogant again, and in my very PTSD-addled mind the best way to fight arrogance is to viciously hate yourself. 

I had a breakdown in the middle of the library quad last week because I felt like I was the most unintelligent human in the world. Because somehow, needing to take on student loans made me a failure. Because not being able to complete two majors, two concentrations and a minor within 8 semesters means I’m an idiot. Because there are people who are much better than I am, so who am I to think I’m smart when I play a couple hours of Civ 5 sometimes to relax? 

I can’t just be good, I need to be fucking brilliant. And that wouldn’t be an issue if I knew where brilliance lay. Is brilliance burning out by 23 because you nearly killed yourself with anxiety over whether or not you were enough? 

I don’t know. It sounds romantic enough to be brilliant. 

 I’m not sure if I’ll ever be enough for myself. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to look around a room and think “Wow, I’m one of these really smart, cool people.” I don’t know if my to-do list will ever end. There is so much I want to do. There are so many people I want to be. And my life is so short and bookended with mental strife that a day of calm like today feels a betrayal to my parents when it was every thing I needed. 

I have an ambition complex. I also have a self-loathing complex. 

At least I fit the tragic poet bill really well. 

Note: this is not proof read yet. 

Dormant anger in the postmodern era and a music review

There are days – more realistically, nights – where I’m so overcome by my own sudden, built-up anger that I don’t know what to do with myself. It’ll come entirely out of left-field, usually while I’m working, maybe triggered by a lyric in a song or something I read. Right now I’m reading about the Security Council’s action after the Syrian Civil War began and how its major weapon – language, in the form of resolutions – began to encompass addressing radicalization as a global concern. This coincided nicely with a closer listening of Everything Everything’s 2015 album Get to Heaven and this song in particular.

The entire album is a “love” letter to the general alienation the postmodern world perpetuates, especially with an eye to British politics (note that this album dropped before Brexit was a thing; very prescient), radicalization and the rise of ISIS, and just general daily disenfranchisement juxtaposed with the notion of being humans that have inexplicably set their own trajectory for a perverse evolution.

**

I found out one of my oldest and most loved friends has cancer. The last time I found out a friend had cancer was two weeks after she died.

**

I’m trying hard to get a co-op in the Hague with a bureau that works with human trafficking and sexual violence against children. It feels fitting recompense for all the bullshit I’ve had to stomach and read about over my life. Besides, it’s the Hague and it has to do with international law and global governance. It’s everything I’ve ever wanted.

**

My friend starts chemo the same day I have my second and final interview with the above bureau.

**

I have been trying to work through a lot of the anger I’ve felt especially as a byproduct of learning too much and not being able to do enough. Writing poetry helps. Working on research for my Speakeasy Symposium helps. Actually studying and being organized helps.

But somewhere in the cockles of my otherwise warm heart is a too-hot coal that suddenly cracks violently. And when that coal cracks, I become cognizant that there is an angry, angry Pakistani that aches to rail against the system and scream her discontent. And I’m relatively privileged and lucky, so what does that say about the rest of my 180 million-odd compatriots? What does that say about the millions of Americans living under the thumb of an institution that hates them? What does that say about people being, on the one hand, constantly bombarded, and on the other, constantly instrumentalized by the same people bombarding them for liberal humanitarian points?

And where does that put my good-will and desire to be a diplomat/arbitrator if I’m still pretending that I’m not always really fucking angry (sorry mamma and dadda)?

When I  was studying sociology in high school I didn’t understand postmodernists all that much. All that talk of meta-narratives while painting their own meta-narrative seemed absolutely absurd to me, and I really enjoyed taking that “redundancy” down in my essays. But now? Actually living the postmodern? I think I get it.

Humanity has a long and storied and sometimes really shitty history. We have been through a lot to get to the point we’re at right now. But here’s what’s different about then and now:

We can actually look back at a good chunk of our past. We have painstakingly categorized and subcategorized the movements, zeitgeists, music, politics, craftsmanship, technology, literature, art of our past and after we got to the modern, we were stumped.

What does knowing what’s come before make us now? What does it mean when we have access to more information than we have ever had access to in the history of mankind?

It means a great deal of disillusionment. It means a lot of arguments about whether or not we have any freewill. It means a lot of nights being crippled by how much the world is. We have applied so much theory to our past that we start seeing ourselves within a framework and the effect is terrifying. We cope by meme-ification. By taking the mundane and making it absurd, we give something a universal yet temporary meaning; we make it our momentary zeitgeist, but what happens when your zeitgeist are fickle and somewhat superficial?

What happens when your zeitgeist is situated in the theatre of the absurd and someone else’s is steeped in tragedy and exploitation?

I don’t have an answer for this. All these questions aside, we’re still flawed and humans and in a hundred years they’ll have a category for us too. That’s comforting. We still make beautiful art and music and literature. We still have fascinating and infuriating politics. We still fight wars and make love, sometimes with the same hand. But to contemplate us is to stoke the anger.

Is this an anger that characterizes our time? Is this the anger of someone from a country that has Seen Some Shit?

Whose anger do I nurse in my breast, and why does she erupt when I am at my most desperate and helpless?

I am afraid.

In defense of the fantastic

I will be the first to admit that I read fiction far more than I read non-fiction*. In her fairly successful attempt to make sure her children turned out to be fluent in English, my mother filled every bookshelf I ever had with books either bought firsthand, secondhand, or passed down from her own childhood. After a while, I took excursions away from my own bookshelves to secretly raid hers during afternoon naps or days she ended up staying at her school late.

I’m sure if she knew the kinds of books I was sneakily reading at the time, she would have made sure I stuck to my British schoolgirl books. Alas, for better or for worse, I got to read about Alexander the Great’s various and plentiful and certainly embellished indiscretions. And Cleopatra’s. And various other historical figures whose lives were probably not quite as exciting and scandalous as Valerio Massimo Manfredi would have you think.

One of the genres I found myself gravitating to were fantasy novels. I’ve mentioned before of my great, undying love for Tamora Pierce and how her heroines taught me to be independent and strong, but beyond just that it was the candid exploration of socio-political issues set against the backdrop of a world not quite but similar enough to my own. I was forced to put aside my own reality and consider the author’s presented universe, and to put my prejudices aside meant questioning my predispositions. No matter how young my thought process, it was a necessary experiment. As I revisited the same books over the years (or, hell, sometimes in the same year) the knowledge I’d acquired in the meantime found more nuance in the books, in the characters, picked out subplots that I hadn’t even seen before. I was able to then see the similarities between my world and that of the protagonist’s. Fantasy became a little less fantastic and a little more allegorical. Even the highest of fantasies (and, it must be said, probably the highest of authors) forced me to confront political truths in my own life. I might even go as far as to say that fantasy and fiction helped influence my politics.

As absurd as that sounds, why wouldn’t that be the case? We become so invested in fiction that the experiences of the characters we read about elicit visceral reactions from us: hatred, love, empathy, sadness, grief, thoughtfulness, sometimes even horror and a sense of overwhelmedness that requires us to physically remove ourselves from the experience.

Two words to this point: Red. Wedding. If you thought the show was bad…

Another thought to the same point. A Song of Ice and Fire/A Game of Thrones: Whether you watch the tv show, read the books, or both, we all know by the now the profound cultural impact George R. R. Martin has had on us. The New Yorker publishes think pieces about the series. We debate redemption arcs, commiserate over usually gory deaths, confront the stark reality that justice is not always served and the world doesn’t owe even the most honorable people anything and what even is honor? Moreover, the universe forces you to politick in your own mind in an attempt to keep up with the characters and mechanisms presented to you. People hypothesize, argue, posit theories in a way that political scientists should be awed and probably a little annoyed by. In fact, people have managed to apply this universe’s politicking to that of the real world. This isn’t just limited to the US, although that is the example that comes most readily to mind. I’ve seen Pakistanis identify major political actors in our own realm as Cerseis and Margaerys. As mundane and even vapid as it may seem, that is a disservice to humanity. We have seen and manifested reflections of our politics in various art forms for as long as we have had said art forms. If mass deliberation by virtue of social media is somehow less meritous (is this a word? It should be), then I’m happy to be vapid.

I watched 12 Angry Men with my parents earlier this evening. Originally, I had intended to only passively watch while tending to my farm in Stardew Valley, but somewhere between catching my largest eel yet and realizing how little hay I had to feed my chickens through the winter I realized this movie deserved my full attention. I was rapt, as were my parents, and it stood to make an emotive audience of us. We gasped, laughed incredulously, and when the movie ended we just sat in amazement. It didn’t matter that the movie was almost 60 years old, the black and white seemed a trivial thing to note; we had suspended our own notion of reality in favor of the one presented to us, and by the time we snapped back to our living room chasing the tail end of 2016 we had absorbed and harmonized the truths in 12 Angry Men with our own truths.

Or, as the case may be, our reasonable doubts.

After the movie I went and did some cursory research. As it turns out, it was the movie that influenced US Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayer’s decision to study law. Good call.

The beauty of being human is that we can find inspiration, motivation, drive, hope, outrage in so much. Fantasy for me, though, became a means of productive dissociation before I even knew what that meant. It forced me to confront difficult questions while maintaining the comfort of distance. When it did become a little too much for me, I could put down the book and mull everything over until I was ready to plunge myself back into the problems of my foster universe. And for a Pakistani kid – for a deeply traumatized 20-something year old college student – that kind of control is a savior.

And then when I’m ready, I can save entire worlds again.

*this does not make me better than anyone

At some point I’ll make a list of my favorite/most influential fantasy/fiction series 🙂 Currently reading the Mistborn trilogy by Brandon Sanderson.

The profound sadness of living in a city

There is a man who stands outside the Park Street T entrance right on the Boston Common. He is always shaven, dressed in a black windbreaker, carrying a backpack which always has a water bottle tucked into it. He carries a cardboard sign that says “My son and I are homeless” and that’s when I can’t stand to keep reading. His eyes are weary and the gray in his hair is obviously premature.

I had change on me today, thank goodness. Cents and nickels and dimes, but it is enough to ease the helplessness a little. I am guilty and i feel guiltier writing this, but it’s easier than wishing him a good day and ending compassion at that.

“How’re you doing today?”
“It’s a little cold actually – thank you.” (I dropped my shitty nickels into his cup)
“It definitely got chillier, take care.”

He was shivering outside.

He just passed me as I wait for my train home. He is counting money and looks determined, but I can’t unsee the tired look in his eyes. I don’t know where he is going, but I hope his son is with someone he trusts.

I hate that I almost exclusively use my debit card and that I rarely have spare change. I hate the tone of this entire blog post.

There are a lot of people down on their luck near where I work, the Financial District, close to beautiful Beacon Street and its wealthy occupants. Almost all have cardboard signs. A couple are younger than me at my almost 21 years. I’ve been working at my co-op since January, and I have seen a lot of new faces.

I hate the walk to and from work, through Downtown Crossing, just along the edges of the Common. I hate that my commiseration means nothing in the grand scheme of things because I am a non-resident alien in a system that only just caters to me because of my tuition dollars. I hate the uselessness of my “Have a good day, take care” even when it is accompanied with the brassy sound of coins against coins (or coins against an empty solo cup).

This isn’t preaching. This isn’t a call to mobilize. This isn’t me lamenting my privilege or reflecting on how lucky I am. The politics of space is an ugly sphere and I know not what my role in it is.

I am sad whenever I walk to the train home and that sadness means nothing.

I need to start asking for cash-back for more than laundry money.

I hope that man’s son is doing okay.

How Hamilton ruined my life

Note: At the time that I am writing this, I have hit about 1600 words. To retain my sanity and to keep some sort of end in sight, I’m going to keep my deeper analyses limited to Hamilton and Burr (and even within those constraints I am forced to limit myself: these characters are so layered and complex I would have to devote a book to their full deconstruction. …I’m a little tempted to do just that).


 

My friends have been talking about Hamilton for a long time. And by talking about it, I mean gathering in groups at parties and singing songs from the play together as if in some sort of rapture. I was always interested in listening to the soundtrack eventually, but I have a bad habit of putting things off until I’m forced to do them; inevitable, I fall in love with whatever I’m forced to do (see below).

Jemma messaged me, saying “You have to listen to Hamilton as soon as possible.”

It was a Saturday afternoon, I wanted to veg out for a few hours, the alternative was playing Stardew Valley and totally losing my soul to it (again): it was as good a time to start listening to the OST as any. Ten seconds into the first song, I sent her a message back saying “already losing my shit.” (…like I said…)

I don’t exactly know what kind of expression I had on my face, but I imagine it must have been a little alarming. I was sitting on Adam’s bed. He was busy playing a video game while I was listening to Hamilton. At some point he turned around to check on me, did a double take, asked what was wrong and I just responded with “I’m having a religious experience.” It’s that good.

Now if rap, hip hop and R&B aren’t quite your speed, you might have a hard time letting the music itself resonate with you. But it’s the ensemble, comprised mostly of people of color telling a story of a country that has historically seen racial tensions, and academia and scholarship of a primarily monochromatic palette, that should really capture your attention; if not even that, it’s the narrative of the story doing history justice and shedding light on a forgotten Founding Father and just some really dang clever writing.

Important: I’m not American, and I know little about American history before the 20th century beyond a cursory familiarity with its founding. This musical has made me emotionally invested in long-dead historical figures. It’s a travesty.

In any case, I was straight up crying by the time “Satisfied” rolled around. It was around then that I realized this play was far more than just a fun (hah, so I thought) musical about history for me. I know I’m an emotional person – I cry at the drop of a hat over most things, particularly fictional works (you can ask basically anyone who has watched a movie with me, or watched me read books). But Hamilton touched me in a way that left me feeling like I had the wind knocked out of me. It was the spiritual equivalent of my eyes widening in realization. (Pretentiously) so much of Hamilton’s own experience resonates with me.

There’s a line in “Satisfied” where Angelica Schyler asks Hamilton where he came from, and his response is, “Unimportant, there’s a million things I haven’t done.” When I first heard that line, it made me hold my head in my hands. I was openly sobbing throughout that song. I often say I’m an easily satisfied person, and I suppose I am: all I need is good friends, good conversation, fulfilling work and I am content. But that song reminded me that true satisfaction is service, it is the pursuit of knowledge to the point of exhaustion – and for me, it is “Writing like it’s going out of style.”

And I think that’s why Hamilton struck such a chord with me. It is the story of a man who built his life from the ground up out of a hunger to be something, to do something, to stand for something or die trying; it is the story of a man who realizes that living is much harder than dying, but it is worth it so long as you live for a cause. It is the story of a man whose passion and drive nearly destroys him, and in many ways does destroy him when he has to choose between love for family and public service. It reminds me of my own fears and the human mortality of ambition.

The future excites me but often leaves me feeling grave. I cannot imagine a life where I live only for myself. I was born to do “a million things” and I am terrified there is not enough time. What do you pick when it all matters so much? Is pure drive enough? You can stand up for the right thing but not have people rallying behind you until long after you’re dead.

Is glory in life the reward? Or is it the legacy you leave behind?

And what if you become the villain of the story?

“Non-stop,” the final song of the first act, has me grinning and/or near tears for eight entire minutes. It is an exhilarating song for those of us who are relentless in our desire to work for the greater good. It is both anthem and counsel, a rallying cry and a warning: Hamilton is both soothsayer and harbinger, and that dichotomy is frightening and awesome.

Hamilton was a war vet, a politician, an economist, a lawyer, but through it all he was a writer and the most prolific of writers at that. Though he resisted it at times, writing was his strength and it was what propelled him from the slums through to New York City when he was a broken young man.

“Alexander Hamilton embodies the written word,” said the play’s creator (and Hamilton himself) Lin-Manuel Miranda [paraphrased]. That theme is echoed in the play itself, particularly in “Non-stop,” when Aaron Burr and the Company demand of Hamilton:

How do you write like tomorrow won’t arrive?
How do you write like you need it to survive?
How do you write ev’ry second you’re alive?

(PS: Definitely click through to the lyrics, they’re worth reading)

At the risk of sounding self-important, I see myself in Hamilton the character/person a lot. My friend Alex asked who I was in the play and my immediate response was, “Oh, definitely one of the Schyler sisters.” And while certainly, I adore the Schyler sisters (particularly Angelica), I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t anything like Alexander Hamilton at my worst. I have to be mindful to not monopolize my time with work – “Look around, look around, how lucky we are to be alive right now” – or I risk isolating myself; but I have to remember not to completely mantle myself in people or I risk feeling like I’m losing my willpower and drive.

How lucky we are to be alive right now. But to what end does this luck serve us? What will we accomplish, in the small blip of time that we are present for in the grand scheme of things?

And what if we forget, one day, to look around because we are too busy looking forward?

In short, Hamilton brings up a lot of questions inherent to the life of a political science/IR student, or someone who wishes to enter public service or governance in any capacity.

And then there’s Aaron Burr whom all I knew about prior to this play was that he was kind of a dick. Don’t get me wrong, he still is kind of a dick, but he’s one of the most human characters in a play all about humanizing historical figures. The same friend who asked me who I was professed that he was Aaron Burr – the most Slytherin of Slytherins. Maybe that was one of the reasons I found myself focusing on Burr’s lines on my multiple re-listens of the album:

“Talk less / Smile more / Don’t let them know what you’re against or what you’re for / You want to get ahead? / Fools that run their mouths off wind up dead.”

I almost always re-listen to that entire part of the song. Beyond the fact that it sets up Hamilton and Burr as foils to one another throughout the play, and that Leslie Odom Jr.’s voice is absolute silk, it has some personal resonance. Before I gave myself the right of passage into waxing poetic (I still say mostly fluff, but at least I’m somewhat eloquent now?) I firmly believed I was always running my mouth. And really, at the end of the day my waxing is a mask; I still run my mouth.

“Fools that run their mouths off wind up dead.”

Neither Hamilton nor I know when to shut up. I all but aspire to have Aaron Burr’s self-restraint. I’m good at that when I’m in conference, representing someone else’s policy, being a politician to boot – but maaaan, my mouth is non-stop. I mentioned earlier that “Non-stop” is a warning message as well as an anthem, and Burr himself underscores this when he says “Why do you always say what you believe? / Every proclamation guarantees / Free ammunition for your enemies.”

Whoops, I’m screwed. But anyway, Burr wasn’t wrong – Hamilton made a lot of enemies with his mouth, and ensured that his own legacy would be a niche historical interest (until Lin-Manuel Miranda came around anyway).

“Wait For It”, in particular, is a beautiful testament to Aaron Burr’s entire philosophy. His sense of self-preservation is the guiding force of his life, but it doesn’t mean he does not have values and opinions he believes in; he warns Mulligan, Laurens and Lafayette to lower their voices in “My Shot” to ensure that no loyalists hear of their plot; he signs up to become George Washington’s right-hand man, only to be shoved aside in favor of Hamilton; and when he finally sees that the playing field is safe enough for him to pursue his desire to become President of the United States, he is foiled by Hamilton who mistakes his self-preservation for disinterest (for lack of a better word).

Aaron Burr at his softest is divine to listen to. The tenderness with which he sings of Theodosia (R&B at its finest in this play) segues into a broader narrative on life. It is a three-part soliloquy on love, death and Hamilton, the first two of which don’t “… discriminate / between the sinners and the saints” but all of whom “take and [they] take and [they] take.” Love, death and Hamilton: forces of nature in Aaron Burr’s world, a world where he is willing to hold his plans close to his chest. As he sees it, the fact that Theodosia is with him and no one else, and that he outlived his family – that he is even alive right now – proves he has a moment coming. He will just bide his time until he can safely secure that moment for himself. Burr does have a cause, it is just one that doesn’t manifest as chaotically tangible as Hamilton’s does. And the cherry on top of the humanity sundae?:

“I am the one thing in life I can control … I am inimitable, I am an original … I am not falling behind or running late … I’m not standing, I am lying in wait.”

If that isn’t inspirational, I don’t know what is. The entire song is Burr’s way of saying “Look around, look around, how lucky we are to be alive right now.” He has passions and opinions and ambitions like everyone else, he is just restrained and contained and so deeply R&B in a play full of rappers and beat-boxers.

I love Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr’s initial friendship. Their playful banter up until “Story of Tonight (Reprise)” is frankly adorable, particularly when Hamilton tries to encourage him to pursue Theodosia and when Aaron Burr, without any spitefulness, tells Hamilton to “smile more” – on the occasion of Alexander’s wedding, it’s sweet, kind, friendly advice.

Their former friendship culminates in the infamous duel where Aaron Burr shoots to kill and Hamilton raises his gun to the sky – showing restraint, where Burr is the one who channels death and takes, and takes, and takes. Hamilton had finally decided to slow down after his son’s death and truly look around, look around at his wife and family; Burr sees his moment and attempts to seize the Presidency, only to have it taken away from him by Hamilton’s vote. It is a scene heartbreakingly rendered. So much so that I refuse to go into it in more detail than I already have.

It is also the one song I haven’t been able to bring myself to listen to again.

Description cannot do Hamilton justice. I haven’t even watched the play and it was able to garner such a visceral reaction from me. I don’t recall the last time I became so enamored of something so quickly. It has been two and a half days since I first started listening to Hamilton, and I find myself desperately trying to wrap up a 2000+ word essay because if I don’t stop myself now, I won’t stop at all.

So I will end on this abrupt note: do yourself a favor and listen to Hamilton, because 200 years from now they will remember Lin-Manuel Miranda’s genius – and how lucky we are to be alive right now.

Resisting

When fending off darkness and jadedness is resistance, you walk as if your joints are sandpaper.

There’s a constant ache in a part of your body you can’t quite pinpoint. Every time you smile, you throw the bags under your eyes into relief. You still smile with your eyes, though.

There’s tension in the tangling vines that grow in your core and stand sentry against any creeping despondence whenever you read the news. The knot murmurs nervously and your heart sinks a little, but you always make room for it to sink a little more. So long as there is room for your heart to sink, the fight against cynicism can keep on going. You can keep resisting. So you force your rib-cage to accommodate the shifting real estate. Your sentries hold vigil.

The walk from my workplace to my subway stop is about five minutes. It was raining when I left work; not pouring, not drizzling, just raining in that straightforward way you see in movies. I did not think to bring an umbrella with me.

I tend to forget my umbrella a lot.

For five minutes, I listened to Pure Heroine (two songs filled that journey: Bravado and A World Alone) and walked with my hood down. At some point I decided to unbraid my hair. I tried to imagine what a sight I must be, a small woman in a puffy jacket, dressed ostensibly in work clothes from the hips down, with damp, wild curls everywhere.

I smiled. I smelled the air and I kept walking. I never stopped smiling.

“I feel awake for the first time in days,” I texted. I cried a little on the train from how overwhelmed I was.

When pushing away futility, you try not to question why you feel the way you do. Feeling is enough; feeling is resistance.

I realized a few weeks ago that I never mourn losses or traumatic experiences. I grit my teeth, wipe a few tears that had the audacity to leak, and go straight to autopilot mode as if my productivity is more important than feeling. What this, of course, means is that whenever the emotions do come out they’re never apropos to the given situation.

The only thing worse than not feeling is misguided feeling.

I am scared of the future. I am cautiously optimistic in my generation. I am angry at the generations that have come before me. I am nervous about my place in the world, but I am sure about my purpose. I cry freely when I read news of death and destruction, I seethe in the face of injustice.

I’m afraid to say I’m sad, but I think I’m just tired.

I am fighting the impulse to numb myself as a person because I fear death; not the death of a mortal vessel, but the death of my personhood.

It seems like an exaggeration to say being jaded against the darker aspects of the world is the same as death, but I spent years in the shoes of my Pakistaniat, knowing people die because the world is cultivated by the jaded.

My feet hurt. It is a reassuring ache.

Stranger in a Strange Election

I make no secret of how invested I am in American politics. No matter how you look at it, the entire world is affected by American policymakers (much to my chagrin – I am nothing if not a proud denouncer of American exceptionalism) and considering I live in the United States, partake in this country’s social security, insurance system, higher education system, and so on, it matters less and less that I’m not American; the domestic politics of this country are to a fairly considerable extent applicable to me. And it was really exciting to realize I would be in the US – Boston, no less – during election season, surrounded by people with a vested interest in who would herald a key four years (roundabout, anyway) in America’s indefinite future.

Politics, as I should know by rote at this point, is a two-level game; the domestic and the international are the simultaneous playing fields that must be honored no matter what country you represent. I’m embarrassed at how often political plurality can elude me considering I study the damn field, but it’s easy to be taken in by fervor especially when people like Trump and Cruz are skidding around the arena leaving strategic vitriol in their wake. It’s easy to be taken in by apparent revolutionaries such as Bernie Sanders who appear to be scions of a socialism I would love to see become the status quo.

And then I remember that I am not, in fact, American. I can escape the domestic politics whenever I want. I cannot escape foreign policy; and therein lies my conundrum. I cannot become wholly invested in the internal politics of a country whose foreign policy will only churn out chaos in mine. No matter what way I look, be it a left after my own heart, worrisome right, or that increasingly elusive moderate, their foreign policies spell the misery of my own people. Even if the elections weren’t a complete shit show (I am an academic), I would  still be thoroughly disenchanted. I refuse to support the onset of an administration that, although progressive domestically, will continue the interventionist policies that have caused coups around the world and the low-key decimation of sovereignty that has killed my very own.

I suppose an alternate title for this blog post could be “How Bernie Sanders Broke My Heart” but I will not give that notion more satisfaction than I have already granted it. Us third culture kids in the US, we will have our politics and our opinions torn asunder again and again. May as well steel myself now so that when next November rolls around, I’m ready for whatever comes next in my adoptive country’s future.

NOTE: I know I’ve been inactive, but I’ve been bouncing countries for around a month – I’m back in Boston though after a much-needed holiday from life!

Walking alone

Sexual harassment, or straight-up unwanted attention is a reality for almost every woman. It’s also incredibly frustrating to be walking or be sitting somewhere by yourself and have someone approach you. I don’t need to extrapolate very much – there’s a line between friendly and uncomfortable. Friendly makes eye contact. Friendly has a sincere, sometimes sheepish smile. Friendly doesn’t make your skin crawl or make your heart beat hard. Friendly makes you want to reciprocate. Friendly is a time and a place.

Uncomfortable, on the other hand, is an older man making an odd request, or a complete stranger asking your name out of the blue when you’re by yourself. Uncomfortable never comes when you have men with you, funnily enough, and Uncomfortable strips away a woman’s right to be by herself on her own terms.

I’ve lived 7 years in Dubai, and Uncomfortable has become a bosom friend in that time. From 13 to 19 I went through various stages when confronted with Uncomfortable: fear, panic, anxiety, confusion, annoyance – and as of late – anger with a heavy dose of impatience.

Perhaps it’s the conviction and confidence that college + independence have nurtured in me, or maybe my meter’s just been overshot and my bullshit threshold has been lowered markedly – whatever it is, I find myself not being able to stomach Uncomfortable.
Day after day, catcalls and unwelcome “compliments,” cowardly solicitations behind tinted windows, and I finally thought to myself: enough. If a scene is warranted, a scene will be made.

This phenomenon, whatever you want to call it, is perpetuated by silence. And sure, I sympathize and empathize deeply – sometimes you just want to grit your teeth and ignore something because it’s not as scary as letting the bubbling of emotions gush from between your lips. You don’t want to entertain the thought of what would happen if your bravado turns the situation even more sour. Your mind flicks through its catalogue of “worst-case-scenarios” and that’s enough to ensure your silence.

At worst you internalize the toxicity and begin to believe that somehow you brought this upon yourself.

And I cannot speak for everyone, but I can speak for myself when I say that there is nothing more satisfying than looking at Uncomfortable coldly and saying, “I don’t want to have this conversation right now, sorry.”

Granted, it isn’t tried and tested – I gave that strategy a shot about thirty minutes ago, and I was amazed at how well it worked. And the look of embarrassment and sudden self-awareness on Uncomfortable’s face was heartening. In that one short, curt sentence, I felt 10 years of complacence disappear from my conscience – and it felt like cool water against chapped lips.

That’s my way of taking back my right to walk alone, unfettered and undisturbed by Uncomfortable. And it feels really, really good.

Note: This is more a spiel than anything else, and I apologize for how gendered this is, but I can only speak of what I’ve experienced as a cis-woman, and what I’ve experienced myself and in my life.

Calm yo shish

Picture this: the mood is like that of any other shisha joint in Dubai. Warm lighting, Arabic music in all its glory, moroccan tea in abundance, and the smell of scented tobacco smoke in the air: a universal retreat for adults across the city, regardless of nationality, citizenship status, and culture; a respite from the daily grind, and most certainly shelter from the heat. At present, for a good few hours, your primary goal is to socialize and slowly char your lungs. I’m not judging – I’ve done it myself. There is a rose-tinted, lemon-mint scented smokescreen in the way of our better judgment, but we are adults; we make autonomous decisions regarding what goes into our body.

Once you’ve filled your socialization quota (or wish to move on to bigger, better, and perhaps more alcoholic things) and are all shisha’d out, you get up from the sprawling cushions and sluggishly adjust to the real world. The thought of fresh air is incredibly appealing. You notice, for the first time, the table next to you. You notice, for the first time, a toddler. You clear your hookah-borne swampy throat and realize with a jolt that there is a pretty decent chance this Mothercare-wearing, tiny, minor of a human being has been inhaling the same shit you’ve been.

Horror enters, stage left. Shock soon follows. Guilt brings up the rear, but at the head of everything is confusion. Many restaurants that serve shisha will ask you for identification, ensuring you’re of legal age before you are served. Often, this gets waived for larger parties, simply because of the hassle that is ID’ing each and every person in the party – but toddlers, bouncing five year olds, susceptible preteens and even babies in their mothers’ arms are not hard to miss. Now I’m not trying to be the morality police here, but surely children should not have to be exposed to the health hazards of hookah, especially if they aren’t educated on the harmful effects of what is, quite honestly, a huge cultural staple here in the Middle East, and a trend which is gaining traction in the rest of the world as well.

Everyone knows how gross smoking is. Anti-smoking campaigns have been growing more and more common, and even cigarette boxes are sweetly decorated with damning, hard-to-stomach images of Smoker X’s future lungs, unborn child, decayed teeth and gums, et cetera. This person has lung cancer – and so can you! Even in the Middle East people are being educated and advised against smoking hookah. Shisha has many of the same health hazards as cigarettes do, and then some: keep in mind that for most people, smoking is a lengthy affair, and a Dhs50 hookah (a reasonably hefty sum) can last you for as long as you want it to, provided that there is someone to change the coals – and there always is. According to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Mayo Clinic, and other organizations well-versed in such things, it’s reasonable to assume that smoking hookah is more dangerous than smoking cigarettes considering the average cigarette requires 20 puffs, where an hour long session of shisha can see the user taking about 100 puffs. Caveat to this stipulation: research about smoking hookah is still on-going.

Once again, this isn’t a call for everyone to get up, roll up their sleeves, and smash their shishas to the ground, throw their hookahs off their 34th floor balcony (I respect your passion, but please don’t do this) or put that spankin’, “slightly worn” product up for sale on Dubizzle. It’s your body, you do what you want, you’re an adult – or at least capable of making independent decisions once you know the facts. My only concern is for the children whom you take to restaurants that are ignorant of what they are inhaling. Until they know, they can’t make a reasonable assessment as to whether or not they should go. Your two year old will not be spewing facts against being taken out for family dinner. And (hopefully) they won’t be smoking themselves but what about that ever-present second-hand smoke circulating around your table? You don’t have to be smoking shisha yourself, I can assure you, there are plenty of people doing that for you.

I’m not here to tell you how to parent. I have no parenting experience and as far as my mother is concerned my business is to be parented and go to college like a good daughter. All I request is a bit of cognizance, some careful thinking before you pack your child in a car seat and make the drive to Dubai Marina. You may think you’re in the clear if you yourself are not smoking but a hookah-devoid table in the midst of a restaurant filled with smoke does not a healthy oasis make.