NOT TALKING ABOUT PAKISTAN
By TAYMIYA R. ZAMAN
Questions about Pakistan are now a fact of living here, no different from damp weather or calls from salespeople. Some I deflect, and others I frame around my own terms.
I drew a secret line around the borders of Pakistan and rarely stepped over it. In the fall of 2007, I began teaching Islamic history at a small liberal arts college in San Francisco; even though my classes on South Asia and the Middle East could easily have included Pakistan, I made sure to exclude Pakistan from all my syllabi. To avoid ever having to talk about Pakistan, I changed the name of a course a predecessor had titled “History of South and Southeast Asia,” to “Indian Civilizations.” This now meant that the course took a leisurely route through the Indus Valley Civilization, the coming of the Aryans, the spread of Jainism and Buddhism in North India, the rise of the Mughal Empire and concluded with British colonial rule and the formation of India and Pakistan in 1947. But, after an emotionally charged lecture on Partition, I would begin a section on modern India and say nothing of Pakistan after the moment of its creation. My class, “The Modern Middle East,” covered American wars in Afghanistan but my syllabus screeched to a halt at the Pakistan border. Although the country inevitably featured in class discussions about U.S. foreign policy, I assigned no readings on Pakistan. In my other classes, I stayed away from the twentieth century, which meant that the question of Pakistan never arose.
Outside the classroom too, I was something of an expert at not talking about Pakistan. This was a feat, given the interest that Pakistan generated. Being Pakistani meant that well-meaning students would frequently tackle me in corridors and ask me what I thought about “the current situation” in Pakistan. Most of the time, this was an excuse to tell me what they thought, namely that America needed to bomb the hell out of Pakistan because the country was a den for terrorists. In some instances, the student would add, as a considerate afterthought, that he hoped my family was safe. I would respond to student comments such as these with non-committal statements about the banality of the nation-state. My retreat into vagueness would diffuse the conversation, and I would hurry away. This constant bombardment and the defensive maneuvers it called for left me with little energy for words, and no space at all to know what I thought about the Pakistan in which people around me were interested. What I did know was that there was a Pakistan somewhere that belonged to me and it was under attack; this meant that I needed to protect it because doing so was the same as protecting myself.
When asked to give guest lectures on Pakistan, I would analyze the politics of talking about Pakistan instead, and refuse to discuss the place directly. Once, I was asked to make a presentation on the Pakistan Earthquake of 2005, and I agreed only because I trusted the professor who had invited me to speak to her class. I was tired of images of suffering, helpless brown people waiting for Angelina Jolie’s benevolence, and I wanted the class to know about the heroic efforts on the part of Pakistanis for their own people. I saw my talk as an offensive on behalf of Pakistan rather than the solitary, defensive war I was fighting. In another instance, at a student event focused on injustices around the world (which included the usual images of the suffering and the brown and the female and the poor), I spoke about the injustice of intervening in other countries in the name of justice, a point I would make in my own classes without directly referencing Pakistan. Both talks were well-received, and I appreciated the sensitivity and intelligence of the students with whom I spoke afterwards. Students such as these helped me remember that there were possibilities that lay outside the daily blur of pain through which I experienced my surroundings.
In those years, even among members of the South Asian and Arab diaspora, I found myself repeatedly defending Pakistan against constant attacks. I don’t remember each encounter, only a vague combination of disappointment and irritation at the end of evenings meant to be a reprieve from work, and shock that suddenly, it was perfectly appropriate for people to talk about the failures of Pakistan even in the presence of Pakistanis. I remember heated arguments with Arab men who would bleat about how “their women” had more freedom than Pakistani women. In these instances, I would refuse to back down until the man in question had conceded that he knew nothing about either women or Pakistan. The other women at the table would watch silently or make feeble attempts to change the subject. Or, there were cab rides in which I lied to cab drivers about where I was from, because there had been too many instances of being held captive audience to a stranger’s musings about how the place I called home needed to be bombed.
Many conversations about Pakistan would contain the expectation that perhaps I might have more to say on the failures of the country (these usually revolved around an excess of Islam and a general shortage of women’s rights) by virtue of being from there. But this would be coupled with the assumption that I could not be entirely objective about Pakistan given that I was, after all, from there. Unless I nodded and agreed like a good native informant on the failed state that was Pakistan, I was either out of touch with reality, or sentimental about the place for unknown reasons. The word “Pakistan,” itself would summon up a cluster of images with fire in them—assassinations, suicide bombs, and car burnings, and always the bearded men. But my map of everyday violence in San Francisco was populated by several actors of whom none had beards and none believed themselves to be violent, but whose attacks invaded almost every space I occupied.
Two instances of kindness stand out because each happened when I was feeling more ragged than usual. In the first, a Palestinian shopkeeper offered me his condolences on the disintegration of my country. “I’m so sorry, at what you must be going through,” he said, “being this far away from family, reading the news, and dealing with everyone’s stupid questions.” I had responded by saying that things had to be bad if a Palestinian felt sorry for me. “I had the same thought myself!” he had exclaimed, and we had both laughed uproariously. In the second, I had been at one of many gatherings in which Obama’s victory was being celebrated. I had thought about drone attacks and the escalation of American invasions into Pakistan. But the suffering of a small, distant country seemed almost inappropriate to bring up in the midst of celebration about America’s first black president. As I prepared to leave, an American colleague told me quietly that she was sorry that I had to keep hearing people celebrate. “I know what this means for your home,” she said, and for the first time, I allowed myself to tell someone about the dread in my stomach and the difficulty I was having sleeping. I left before she could see my tears.
Of the first three years I taught in San Francisco, what I remember most is the thickening of my silence, and a stubborn, bordering on outright perverse desire not to share Pakistan with anyone, as though the act of sharing the country would dilute what made it mine. I had no words for the twisting feeling in the center of my chest for Pakistan, the knot of pain in my right shoulder, homesickness so intense that it had in fact become physical pain. The more Pakistan appeared in newspapers, the more difficult it became to explain the place. Even if I tried, I would be one voice against too many burning images. I began to pretend to be on the phone when taking cabs, I avoided colleagues interested in Pakistan, and I stopped going to Muslim social gatherings after realizing that Pakistan-bashing would be a central theme in these. The sheer fatigue of deflecting questions left me with little room to know what it was I would say if allowed to speak on my own terms, or even what these terms would be. Most of the time, I maintained what looked like Pakistan-conversation to others, but involved defensive maneuvers that brought on the kind of exhaustion an athlete might feel at the end of a harrowing race she has lost despite her best efforts.
When I began to consider taking a fourth-year sabbatical to go to Pakistan, I was told, predictably, that this was a bad idea. The country was volatile and dangerous. No writing would get done and I desperately needed academic publications if I wanted tenure. I planned to teach while I was there—for both the fall semester of 2010 and the spring semester of 2011—and this would take even more time away from research and writing. Was I out of my mind to risk losing tenure at a private liberal arts college in San Francisco? But I suspected that something much larger was at stake if I didn’t leave and go back home, to the place I had surrounded by a silence so thick that I was terrified that I had lost my capacity to put feeling into words, to write anything at all. I had always been certain of my ability to write, and the loss of language was paralyzing, as was the silence into which I had retreated.
Landing in Karachi is like running into the arms of a lover you’ve been forbidden to see for years. My sabbatical leave has been granted and I’m home. No one searches me in this country. Here is the place I finally feel safe. There’s nothing menacing about the immigration officers. I laugh and joke with them, produce both my passports, the blue American one and the green Pakistani one, and eventually saunter off, grinning. I’m home. And I’m going to be home for a year, the longest time I’ve spent in Pakistan since I left for college thirteen years ago. When I was in college and the country hadn’t yet come under siege, I took it for granted and didn’t miss it much. But after I began graduate school in September 2001, it became increasingly difficult to leave and go back to the U.S. after my visits home. I would dread the interrogations of Homeland Security, the cold, long winters in Ann Arbor, and the constant feeling of alienation that comes from being asked where you are from originally and then hearing people talk about where-you-are-from-originally as a dangerous place.
Even though I spent a great deal of time being homesick in graduate school, I wanted a PhD in history, so there wasn’t a whole lot to do but get on planes and get on with the degree. I figured that I could go home when I was done. But in my last two years of graduate school, I was told that getting a PhD in history would be a waste if I picked up and left for the homeland. Instead I needed to Get a Job, Publish Things, and Be Successful. I didn’t have a counter-argument, so I applied for jobs. On the job market, I told myself that I would go back to Pakistan unless I landed a tenure-track job at a small liberal arts college in New York, Boston, Chicago, or San Francisco. These parameters were impossible; I had only written two chapters of my dissertation and would be competing with people who had completed theirs for jobs in desirable locations. But after interviewing in San Francisco, I flew back to Ann Arbor thoroughly charmed and invested in the place. When I got a job offer, I cancelled my other interviews and accepted immediately. The academic job market crashed the next year.
The semester I began teaching in San Francisco, Pakistan had become the country around which I built walls to prevent it from being attacked in conversation. From the handyman who came to my apartment to fix a bookshelf and began ranting about terrorism when he found out where I was from, to the woman at my phone company who couldn’t give me rates to Pakistan without commenting on the place, being Pakistani meant that like the country, nothing was off limits when it came to the kinds of attacks to which I was subjected. The sense of threat would begin after I would stumble out to the airport in San Francisco, bleary-eyed and homesick, and a stranger in a uniform would take me aside, search my bags, and leave my clothes in a heap somewhere. The questioning would begin, particular in its brutality. Why was I bringing back “native costumes” to America? Why did my parents move back to a place like Pakistan when they could have lived here, in America, the country where I was born? And there would be the impossibility of saying “because of you” to the man sifting through my things. At the end of the interrogation, an immigrations officer would finally stamp my American passport and say “Welcome home.”
The threat would continue at work; a particularly vexing colleague who has now learned names like Salman Taseer and Benazir Bhutto would greet my return by drone-bombing me with his latest predictions about the steady demise of Pakistan and jokes about the duplicity of Pakistanis. Or, he would ask me about “the current situation,” the amorphous phrase that has come to represent the entire country in the inquiries of the well-meaning. The last time I spoke to him, he said I must be happy to be back in America. I had thought of the airport in Karachi, and the road to my house. I had thought of my mother’s garden at night, with flowers and pools of water, and of the peace that waits for me there. All this was safe somewhere in a place neither he nor a homeland security officer could ever reach. “Oh, sure,” I had said lightly. “I’m happy to be back.”
I’m home, I’m thinking, on the drive back from the airport in Karachi to house in which I grew up. There’s no need for evasions here, no need for silence.
In the first class I teach in Lahore, the air seems to shimmer from the beginning. That September, something knotted suddenly unfurls. I’m in Pakistan. The line around it is no longer needed. My armor clanks to the floor. “Let’s talk about Pakistan,” I say to my students. And we do. There are no secrets to protect, no fear of being hurt from a stranger’s inadvertent prodding of a private bruise. These are not strangers. I’ve never felt such complete trust while standing in front of a classroom, and it makes me remember my own years in college, and the openness with which I seemed to walk around, a product of being ten years younger, but also of being Pakistani before the country came under siege on so many fronts. My students draw out from me pain that I would not allow to see the light of day, and I trust them easily, and allow them to ask anything they like. This country belongs to all of us, and I’m not standing in front of a room alone, weighed down by belonging that no one else can understand.
“Look Taymiya, I know you love this place,” says Khadija, who I’ve known since I was thirteen. She’s come to visit me in Lahore, and we are walking around on campus. “But you don’t know how hard it is to live here. Pakistan has a way of wringing us of the well-intentioned idealism we come back with. Trust me. It’s not the country we grew up in.” I know what she means. There seems to be a collective trauma that has settled over Pakistan like a fog, and stories keep surfacing in everyday conversation—the house that washed away in the floods, the cousin blown up at a marketplace, the uncle who was shot, the father detained in prison in the U.S. somewhere because he was at the wrong place at the wrong time. Another close friend tells me that her biggest heartbreak isn’t a person, it’s Pakistan. “Be careful,” she says. “You come back, this place welcomes you with open arms, and then it knifes you.”
There’s a kind of lover you meet late at night even though your head is full of your friends’ warnings and their concern. But then his car pulls up, silver and smooth and full of possibility, and you swear you’ve never felt more alive as you do in this instant. You join the world of other people in daylight, you pour tea and meet guests and go to your office, but there are hidden scratches on your arm, which you grazed when you ran out hurriedly to meet him, and you think of the open road and his sidelong glance and your heart speeds up. You forget about the warnings. Maybe he breaks everyone else’s heart, but he won’t break yours. And even if he does, you’re not sure you care. I don’t want to think about the damage Pakistan can cause me. I’m already damaged. And being here is the balm.
In late October, the moon hangs impossibly low. At night, the canal is gleaming moonlight and the reflections of trees. The air is beginning to cool down. It’s soon going to be the season for steaming bowls of soup in cars, shawls and sweaters. Gas heaters will burn orange in darkened rooms. Later there’s going to be the mist that envelops the city. Haniya, who I’ve known since college, is driving us to dinner at a restaurant she loves. But we have been stuck in traffic jam for half an hour and I know she is annoyed. This kind of traffic jam is the bane of Pakistanis everywhere. A politician has blocked the road and no one can move. Haniya fiddles with the music. I peer out onto the road.
A woman is walking in our direction, obviously agitated, pounding on car windows. She comes to Haniya’s window and raps on it. Haniya rolls her window down. The woman says her sister has been burned in an accident and she needs to get her to the hospital. Will we help her get the road open? I think of my sister Jawziya and how I would do the same for her. “Yes,” we say. Car doors open, women and men rush out into the night. The woman argues with the police. The crowd backs her up. The policemen say they are doing their job. “Is this politician’s life worth more to you than my sister’s?” she yells. They seem shamefaced. The crowd gathers momentum. A man says he is recording this because he is a journalist from GEO. The policemen open the road. This is the Pakistan I know and love, I’m thinking. These ordinary victories, nothing short of heroic. When the long-awaited winter fog descends on Lahore, I am convinced that the city is magic, and the magic is compounded because it will never make it to newspapers abroad. This magic is ours, you think, disappearing into the night with your secret lover, and no one needs to know.
Deeper into winter, Mav calls me early in the morning and says enough is enough, I am a Mughal historian and I need to go with her to the old city because what’s the point of depriving her of my expertise? I crawl out of bed and go to her apartment. She drives us to Capri, where we order halwa puri, warm and sweet and delicious. We walk through the old city and I read her the inscriptions outside the Wazir Khan mosque, relieved that she doesn’t know Farsi because I am out of practice. At night, she wants to buy flowers, and I soon learn that my new friend is the only person I know as obsessed with flowers as me. Many nights, we drive home with our arms full of heady, fragrant tuberoses, gladiolas in combinations of peach and pink, red and white, and always the motia and rose bracelets that smell like home. Mav likes mixing her colors. I like making entire combinations of one color. The man at what becomes our regular flower place loves both of us. The first time I had gone there, I had refused to buy the waxy flowers from Dubai. My flower-patriotism had made him happy, and now he goes out of his way each time Mav and I show up.
News from the other country trickles its way to me all year. There’s something about a mosque in New York that everyone is upset about. There’s someone called Peter King and there are hearings of some sort. A cab driver gets stabbed for being Muslim. Mosques are being infiltrated with FBI agents and spray-painted with hate. Muslim activism is being arranged around the premise that Muslims are American too; the premise is banal and lacks dignity, but is necessary for these times. Later there’s news of people holding a national celebration because Osama bin Laden got assassinated in a place called Pakistan. “You’re so lucky you are not here,” a friend from San Francisco says to me on the phone. “It would make you sick—the jubilation, the crowds, and all the hatred for Muslims and Pakistanis.” I imagine my office in San Francisco, and the flurry of emails asking me if I want to give a guest lecture. I think of the questions in corridors and classrooms and the burden of having to respond to those. America seems the way Pakistan does from a distance, violent and dangerous. I hang up the phone. Khayyam and Aurangzeb want to meet for dinner, the night is starry, and someone is playing the guitar outside.
That winter, my apartment-mate Ned decides that I need to learn how to drive, even though I’ve been terrified of driving for as long as I can remember. With her, I take the car out to what seems like the edge of the city and drive by fields and trees, of which there’s one that we both decide to climb. On another drive, we find the stream that feeds the fields and sit down to dip our feet in it. Or, we get lost, and feeling like Indiana Jones, I use the setting sun to navigate us back home. I thought I couldn’t drive. I thought I had no sense of direction. This is not the case in the city where anything seems possible. When we return to campus, the car is covered with dust and the tank is nearly empty, and we stumble out of it brimming with triumph and elation. When it gets warmer, there’s falsa juice at four in the morning with Haniya, who likes staying up late the way I do. We gulp down our falsa juice. “This country,” Haniya declares, “is like no place on earth.” I grin at her. “Agreed,” I say, raising my glass. The falsa juice is cool and thick and there’s nowhere else we want to be.
It’s always so with a secret love, the one of whom all your friends disapprove. They tell you about his bad track record with women, her tendency to be fickle, things that are either common knowledge, or form rumors of uncommon proportion and against those you put moments in which you know your lover the best. His hair with the sun in it, her honey-gold voice, the thing in the air that burns between you, the smell of motia at night, a season with falsa juice and a moment which turns on the figure of a woman and the crowd behind her who is willing to stand up to policemen with guns. Against all that, you hold the worry of others and their warnings, and dismiss them the way poets dismiss the nasih for the mehbub. To some invisible holy force outside yourself you offer complete surrender. No one would fault you for not accepting the invitation to heartbreak. But you would be left with a day that is exactly like the one before it and the ones after.
It’s a new semester and classes begin in late January. February ends with a hailstorm that coats the city in white, and after that, everyone feels the warmth in the air. The winter in Lahore is coming to an end. Ned and I have bought a takht for the balcony, perfect for chai in the evenings, and for breakfast in the mornings, which are still pleasant. There are few evenings left when sitting outside will be bearable, and we cherish each one. The sun is going to bear down on us, the electricity will go, petrol will run out, and everyone will want to emigrate. Days get warmer and warmer, but nights are still cool. The winter fog is the first to leave. I miss looking outside my window and watching couples walk through it, hand in hand early in the morning and late in the evening. I miss how it whittled down all the sharp edges of the sun and made mornings softer. After the fog leaves, the coolness of the air follows fast, and one morning, I wake up hot and uncomfortable. The heat makes the winter seem distant, as though it never happened.
Days in April begin too early, and their brightness is monotonous. Each day begins with the realization that I can’t hide from the things about being here that leave me troubled and edgy. Getting out of bed is an effort, the way it used to be in San Francisco, when each day felt like an assault from many sides. This semester, I realize I have lost some of the openness with which I began my first class. After Salman Taseer’s death, we’ve been told to stay away from the topic of religion and blasphemy in the classroom and I am tense and anxious because there have been too many instances in which I have either been accused of attacking Islam or of defending Muslim fundamentalists.
At a conference, where I am presenting a paper on the pre-modern Muslim past, a young bearded student who has heckled every single female speaker begins to shout at me. He tells me I should be ashamed of myself for teaching students about the Mughals, who were bad Muslims. The stereotypes that both of us represent are staggering. I am an America-returned woman speaking in English about gender. He is a bearded Muslim male yelling at the woman for attacking Islam. What I feel, strangely enough, is betrayal. I’m on your side, I want to tell him. I’ve been threatened with violence, spat on, yelled at, and called names for being a Muslim. If anyone in my classrooms abroad says anything derogatory about angry, misogynistic Muslim men, I don’t let them get away with it. My heart starts pounding and my hands and feet are cold. I respond by making fun of him, and I know that the sympathies of the room are with me. Now, I am angry at myself. He is a minority here by virtue of having a beard and he believes that something precious to him—Islam—is being attacked by me and he needs to defend it at all costs in a hostile environment. Don’t I know that feeling? The reason I retreated into silence about Pakistan when it was being attacked was because I knew that if I started speaking, I would sound exactly like him.
I think of going to him and saying I’m sorry. But there’s a chasm between us, and I’m not sure I can offer him anything for the kind of pain from which his anger springs. I express my discomfort to an old family friend who has been a professor for twenty five years. He tells me that despite his silver hair, newly-bearded students feel quite comfortable coming up to him and asking them why he has not been seen at Friday prayers. In my time, he tells me, it would have been inconceivable for a student to question his elder like this. But, he says, mazhab now trumps adab even though for him and his teachers, each was part of the other. “It’s what these kids see around them,” he tells me. “We grew up in less turbulent times.” He says it helps to have one thing that stays still and unchanging within you when everything around you is on fire and you feel attacked from all sides. This, I understand. His eyes are sad. He has lived his life and doesn’t regret spending it in Pakistan. But he worries about the country his generation has left behind.
That night, I’m at a dinner party and a feminist activist who has lived through the Zia years expresses interest in my work. I like her immediately, and we begin a long conversation about how literature has shaped our worldviews. The younger brother of a friend comes up to us and I introduce him to her. I tell him we were talking about poetry. He says that he would like to read more contemporary poetry from South Asia, and asks her for recommendations. Something freezes in the air. She stares at him coldly, and I see him through her eyes. He has a beard. He is wearing shalwar- kameez. Nothing else about him is relevant. “Why do you want to read poetry?” she says. “Isn’t that against Islam? Just stick to the Quran.” He tries to engage her in conversation, and she turns away. She is also no longer interested in talking to me. “I can’t believe this!” I say to him later. He smiles. “It happens all the time,” he says. “Just chill. Or, if you really want to show me solidarity, start wearing the hijab. People who thought you were intelligent and cool won’t want to be seen with you in public. I never thought I’d lose friends if I grew a beard but I did. Even if I shaved it off now, I don’t know how I’d be friends with people whose loyalty to me was conditional in the first place.”
At another party, a woman becomes belligerent when I refuse a drink. She starts telling me about how “the mullahs” are destroying Pakistan. She is proud, she says, of finding people who fast in Ramzan and eating in front of them. “If I could have my way, I would shave every beard and rip off every hijab and drag the country into being secular and tolerant like myself.” I make a dig at her by saying something about secular fundamentalism. She dismisses me and says there is no such thing. She asks me why I don’t drink. The skill with which I lied to cab drivers about where I was from comes back to me. “I’m a recovering alcoholic,” I say. She doesn’t believe me. I tell her I am sticking with my story because it’s more acceptable to her than commitments to religion. This has an impact, and she doesn’t ask me about drinking again.
The next time I meet her, she’s talking about how the mullahs hate women. She’s happy that Veena Malik told a mullah off on T.V. I’m irritated and wonder if I can leave early. People like her are generic. They come to parties and you can’t pass them a plate without them saying something or the other about the mullahs. I go out into the garden. It’s nearing summer, the air is hot and still, and mosquitoes buzz around us. She follows me outside and lights a cigarette. “Why do you hate mullahs?” I ask impulsively. She tells me she was married to one. She met her husband in college and they fell in love over the kinds of revolutionary plans students hatch late at night. But after they got married, her husband joined the Tabligh. “It was worse than seeing him with another woman,” she says, lighting another. “They took him away from me. Nothing I did was right. My hair was uncovered so I was shaming him in public, music was haram and I couldn’t sing anymore even though he used to love my voice, and I was just an obstacle on his path to God. It was either me or God. Guess who won?” Again, I’m ashamed of myself. “I’m sorry,” I fumble, “I know you must have loved him and—.” She cuts me off. “You can’t love someone like that,” she says. She tells me she used to be religious too but bits of her faith kept disappearing until there was nothing left.
There’s a god who lives here in Pakistan, who used to be khuda around the time I left for college, but who is now Allah. His name is etched onto the Mughal monuments of the city. Or, it’s written in the leaves of the tree outside my window, and in the patterns the stars make at night. When I pray to him, I ask for forgiveness. Sometimes it’s because someone’s pain has been thrown in my direction in the form of anger, and I’ve been unable to separate the two. Or, I’ve been angry and trampled over another person’s sacred and then caused them pain. There are minefields in this place, and I respond by doing what I did in San Francisco. I draw a line around something I want to protect, and in Lahore, this is my classroom. In the class I am teaching now, I tell my students that we are living under siege, but this room is safe. We are going to have difficult conversations, and no one is allowed to disengage, not even me. This is the only way we can prepare for the country outside, and the attacks to which it subjects everyone who lives in it.
The trust that sustains the imaginary line around our classroom is difficult to build. Sometimes, we are angry with one another and confused about ourselves. The pain in the room is tangible when one person’s sense of threat clashes with another’s. I know there are times I’ve been irreverent towards things my students hold sacred, and I love them for the generosity with which they tolerate this. We talk about Pakistan, even when it gets difficult to reconcile one person’s Pakistan with another’s. And we talk about blasphemy, even when it means flooding the room with religious beliefs and their opposite and bracing ourselves for more hurt. We talk about how much we hate this place and we hurl our rage at each other and expect to be forgiven. Or, there are periods of calm in which we remember that we hate this place because we feel betrayed by it, and because somewhere underneath anger, there’s love. I read them poetry from the Divan-i Shams-i Tabriz. The room is divided on the question of love and the price it extracts. On some days, there is laughter in the room, and complete understanding between us. Other days, in and out of the classroom, are exhausting, and I have to force myself to get through them.
I was naïve to think I would remain unaffected by the place I read about in newspapers. It has affected me. I am wracked with doubt, and often apprehensive and afraid. Did I come here like any other deluded expatriate, hoping to “do something” for the country? What was I thinking? Your lover with the silver car is going to drive away and leave you devastated, and you won’t be the first or the last. You may have defended him to your friends but he is in fact, exactly as they warned he would be—dangerous and unpredictable, entirely unconcerned about you—and your heart sinks when he drives away for the last time.
For the first time in years, I did not cry when I left Pakistan. I arrived in San Francisco on a characteristically cold day in June, and this time, when I was pulled aside and questioned by Homeland Security, I didn’t feel angry or helpless. The questions seemed innocuous; they were just the questions of people who believed they were protecting their country, as though such a thing is even possible, as though a land enclosed by imaginary lines can ever belong to you or be yours to protect. My father jokes that wanting to emigrate is central to the experience of being Pakistani, and I understand this now. The indignity of being Muslim in America is still better, for many, than living in a country where either religion or its opposite is constantly being rammed down their throats. I understand the appeal of safe roads and electricity and running water, and of shiny, promising lives in peaceful cities abroad. I understand too many things I wish I didn’t.
My parents come from Karachi to visit me in San Francisco the first winter I’m back—December 2011. Jawziya and I drive with our parents down Highway 1, from San Francisco to Santa Cruz, and the ocean gleams up at us, cold and blue. Driving in Pakistan did not scare me, but here I’m afraid of these long, isolated highways, and I’m afraid of accidents and insurance companies. I trust Jawziya at the wheel. We drive through vineyards and pumpkin fields. “There’s so much land here,” my mother says, with sadness in her voice. I know she’s thinking of the refugee camps she visits outside Karachi, where people are piled on top of each other, and there isn’t enough to eat. She’s thinking of Pakistan. And I’m thinking of it too. News is never good. Pakistani soldiers are dead at American hands. There’s Memogate and Husain Haqqani. There’s Baluchistan. And there are the northern areas of the country, where we spent many family vacations, and which are no longer safe to visit. I wish I had saved more pictures; I thought we’d always be able to go up north, just as I thought I’d always be able to go back home. Pain the shape of Pakistan catches in my chest. It’s only love, I tell myself. Nothing else can cut with such precision.
Either there is the news and my mother’s sadness, or there are emails such as the one Khayyam sends me. Lahore is dreamy this time of year, he writes and the winter of a year ago comes back, haunting and soft. I think of breakfast with Ned and Haniya on the balcony of what used to be my apartment and of buying flowers with Mav late at night. I think of the evening my students came over to say goodbye, and the signed picture frame with all of us together that I left in Karachi because I couldn’t fit it into my suitcase. And I think of the old city is waking up, and Badshahi mosque at night, moments in which I felt the kind of joy that borders on otherworldly. Outside my office, the San Francisco fog is cold and damp. I wish I could be back in Lahore and I envy Khayyam for being there. The city is a silver car speeding through the night with someone in it who isn’t me. That the joy I felt in Lahore should necessarily have contained its opposite, from this distance, does not feel any more personal than the changing of a season.
There are loves about which people think the end was inevitable, and you were a fool, like all the others, for thinking you could change him. Finally, they think, you’ve come to your senses, and bitterness sets in when you agree with their judgment. But if you don’t, you know you didn’t choose him despite the certainty that he would break your heart; you chose him because of it. You had built a wall around your heart to protect yourself, but then you found yourself trapped behind it, afraid of suffocating, and your wall put you in greater danger than you were in the first place. So you chose him. He smashed the wall and broke your heart open, as you knew he would. He was being himself. You were the one who needed to change.
Questions about Pakistan are now a fact of living here, no different from damp weather or calls from salespeople. Some I deflect, and others I frame around my own terms. It always helps to ask people who know names like Salman Taseer if they can name Pakistan’s four provinces or its major political parties. Pakistan makes its way into my classrooms, and I assign Sara Suleri for a course on autobiography. And when a student wants to interview me about my sabbatical year in Pakistan, I don’t refuse, even though I talk only about teaching history in the city that I came to love, and not about the country that appears in newspapers. And at a gathering of the same Muslims I had begun to hide from because of their Pakistan-bashing, I am asked what it was like being in Lahore. The disparaging nature of the curiosity is obvious. “It was glorious,” I reply. “Weren’t you afraid of dying in a suicide bomb?” someone says, and others laugh and agree. Snide comments about terrorism follow. “Not at all,” I say. Then I ask him, “Aren’t you afraid of dying slowly, a little bit at a time? That’s a lot worse.” He laughs nervously and changes the subject.
I can see Pakistan from his eyes, and I know the newspaper images that fuel Pakistan-bashing. I know the minefields of personal sorrow and betrayal that don’t make it to newspapers. I also know a Pakistan beneath these images that is rich with extraordinary possibilities, in which I made friends from whom I could ask more after a month of knowing them then I could ask of people I’ve known here for years. That place is unlike anywhere else on earth. I walk back to my apartment and realize that for the first time, words that would once have bruised are easy to dust off and walk away from. It’s as though Pakistan has sent me back with something that remains, like the place, difficult to translate but that acts slowly on my silence, thinning it when necessary, and giving me words when needed. It’s only love. Nothing can mend with such precision.
* This essay originally appeared in Critical Muslim 4: Pakistan?