Monday, August 28, 2017

The Big Three Oh


I can feel its presence, just around the corner, always a few steps ahead of me but in the last few months, slowing down, letting me get closer, turning back every now and then to assure me that it’s there, and eventually, I’ll be right beside it.

I can see its shadow from where it stands today, just around the bend in the road.  I can feel its eyes on me – the number 30, waiting patiently, knowingly.
Is it smirking? Will it greet me with a consolatory arm around the shoulder and a “it had to happen, mate” or is it going to utter a smug retort – “remember when you were 20 and in college, walking around campus like you owned it, like you owned the world, barely smothering your giggles at the older men and women who sat in close-knit circles on the grass, seemingly always singing With or Without You by U2, always playing an acoustic guitar? Remember how you thought they were just so lame?”

Yeah I remember, I’ll tell 30. I just didn’t realize then that those Masters’ students didn’t care what we thought.  And that to them, we were kind of like annoying bees buzzing around their orange juice.

Because who am I kidding, I don’t need to turn 30 to admit that I find 21-year olds nostalgically amusing for ten minutes and then just a bit, say, what’s the word… loud, obnoxious, self-centered? Or if I can tap into the social worker in me, I’d say they’re just not really mentally compatible anymore…   

Maybe 30 won’t say anything at all.  Maybe it will just drop itself around my head and over my shoulders like a very comfortable sweatshirt.  Or will it be like a new pair of shoes that stabs your big toe and scrapes skin off your ankle and you debate with yourself for two weeks whether you should return them, but then finally you break into the shoes and realize they fit just fine.

You know why turning 30 feels like such a big thing, don’t you?

Because of all the movies and TV shows (of course I remember that FRIENDS episode!) and Meg Cabot novels.  The sleepy little girl inside me who absorbs all media like a yellow sponge and tells me to buy white sneakers even though I know they’ll get dirty really quickly, she’s had both palms on the buzzer in my brain for a few days now – 30! You’re turning 30! Big emotions and moans of how old you are and how little you’ve accomplished, bring it on, come on!

But honestly, other than a slight discomfort, it doesn’t feel like there are going to be fireworks, of excitement or doom.

I mean, if I think about it, in so many ways I’m still the same person I was 17 years ago – I still have unruly hair, I still love to read, I still dream of writing a novel, I’m still trying to learn how to run, I’ll still crawl out of bed at 5 am to watch lightning zigzag across the Karachi sky and drink in the smell of wet earth that permeates the world before a storm … I’m still really moody and I still sink down in funks like a hen over her eggs, and I still prefer babies to older people, and I would still rather not eat teenday

In other ways, I guess I’ve changed. 

I mean you’d really hope you’re not the exact person you were at age 13, right?
I hope I’m a more empathetic person than I was ten, five, three years ago, a person who judges less and tries to understand more, who tries to find a silver pen and draws on a lining to the darkest cloud. 

The world is less black and white now, people aren’t perfect, and goodness isn’t dependent on whether you’re related to someone, or whether they follow the same religion as you or share your nationality or are lighter coloured as all the commercials would want you to believe. 

Hardly anything is unquestionable: notions of good, evil, nationalism, pride, family, feminism, rights, social justice, health, marriage, babies, food … life is so much more fluid now than it used to be when I was a child.  It is definitely not easy but I wouldn’t exchange this way of thinking and living for a comfortable existence, because really, the objective of life for me isn’t really comfort – I don’t even think its happiness (at least not happiness as we often think of it but more on that later), maybe not even peace… I guess the objective is to keep learning and experiencing and along the way, being kind to others.

I don’t think turning 30 is going to be earthshakingly tragic.  I mean, honestly, I don’t foresee any changes that will come into effect midnight of September 7 - 

Will I now finally embrace – or at least grudgingly accept – the epithet ‘auntie’, cheekily or more likely, innocently, tossed at me by 10 year boys and girls back home in Pakistan? Should I start buying anti-wrinkle cream? Should I stop wandering over to the girls’ section at H&M and should I finally start choosing somber black leather wallets over ones with tiny blue flowers on them? Is it perhaps time for me to buy an iron and stop carrying a purple backpack? Should I be spending more time in real wood furniture shops than in stationery stores?  

 I don’t really see why.  

And that’s the best part about turning 30 in 2017.  The freedom we have to be who we want or who we aspire to be. 

Not many of us are able to buy a house and settle down in one place for the next 10 years, but then, not many of us want to.

Our parents’ generation was different – they were all striding down the same path of responsibility and dependability, with stable jobs, a child or two to keep things grounded and budgets set in stone.   Everyone around them was on the same page, crowding the chapter, sharing the story, going through the same joys and pains as most of their siblings, cousins and friends.

These days, things are a bit different (much to our parents’ disappointment).  Our friends and peers are all at different stages of their lives – from married to single to being in complicated relationships, with oneself or others, from having firmly decided against having children to having more than one, to having one next month to simply not having made up their minds yet, from being housewives and entrepreneurs to academics and bankers to managing families and jobs at the same time, to switching careers or taking a break from it all. 

It’s exhilarating to be able to ignore the moulds set out by society, to simply skirt the edges of a life you’re supposed to lead according to customs and traditions, and lead the life that you want, complete with its bumps and potholes and scrapes and burns.  It is a blessing that we often take for granted because we’re too distracted by Netflix and Instagram … but really, it is not a bad time to be 30.

(And I’m not just saying that to make myself feel better.)

So go ahead.  Choose the stereotypes you want to live out (a staid 30 or one who looks good in overalls or one who will always prefer posters over framed art).  Set your own boundaries but don’t be selfish and don’t be rigid.  And most importantly, don’t forget to be kind. 



Thursday, August 24, 2017

Morning Commute

The sun is bright today, 
Top right corner
Of my window. 
It's keeping pace, 
Like a competitive jogger
In bright yellow trainers

It's quiet on the bus today,
Like a museum
For adults,
Or an expensive exhibition 
For somber (but obvious)
Art lovers

Quiet - 
Except for the music notes
That escape from a young lady's
Subtle white headphones.
Would you feel a connection
If she were listening
To your second favorite song
In the world?


If you look hard enough
And squint your eyes
Just a bit
And let your mind
Breathe -
You can see the thoughts
In people's heads (mostly blond
But some brunettes) 

"Was it a mistake
To not iron my shirt 
Today
Tommy actually ate his breakfast
Thank god
Just one more day 
Of work
Of family, of love
Unmade beds and dirty dishes
Maybe he will wash them
Without me asking
Today"






Saturday, August 19, 2017

Funny Things

Sometimes I think of god as a being with a pretty decent sense of humor, someone who can laugh at others and at himself, the kind of being who waits behind a door for five minutes to pounce out at a friend and yell BOO and then finds true delight when the friend jumps a foot off the ground, someone who wouldn’t be afraid to splash some water at a colleague on a work trip to the lake … you know, someone who doesn’t want you to take life too seriously, at least not all the time.

That’s the explanation that comes to mind when I’m walking out on a beautiful sunny day with the breeze dancing around, perhaps like a semi-talented ballerina, whipping small yellow leaves off the trees and swirling them around in an animated piece of art – and for a minute I feel like I’m in the middle of a sweet romantic drama – and then suddenly a large dry leaf strikes me in the face.  Like a blooper.  The director calls CUT! And I look up and imagine god suppressing a giggle.

Or when I look out from my window to see the sky bright and blue, grab my bag, exit through the two doors, lock the door and emerge out into the world through the third door – only to find that an army of clouds had simply been keeping low and hiding behind the buildings around my flat and had now amassed above to spray us all with a sharp misty rain. If you were smart, the annoying little know-it-all who sits cross-legged on a bench in my brain reading a National Geographic magazine looks up and says, you would have brought your umbrella. Seriously. 10 months in this country and you still can’t remember to just think of the small umbrella as your third limb? And there god is again, grinning, oh how much fun it would be to control the weather!

I think it may be an attempt to convince humans to just chill the fuck out.  And these are big words from a person whose mood can light up like a bulb if the sun is out or if a good song comes on the radio, as if the world revolves around me and these are just little signs to tell me I should be happy – while on the other hand if I miss my bus by three seconds my whole world plummets to the darkest depths of humanity because that is but an omen for a horrible day to follow.  Not too proud to say I’m a bit mercurial. Outside stimuli have a strong control on my perspective on life.

I like being organized and planning things.  It saves me a lot of time and more often than not, things flow like a murky brown river, staidly on course.  But when it doesn’t, watch the creases come to crow on my forehead, like the bird feet markings on a pie baked by Snow White.  Sometimes the workings of fate (or a comical god) turn out to be a better planner than us (for example when the internet decides to stop working three days before a final exam, or a train is delayed but you end up being on the same bus as a very good looking man, when you can’t find the jeans in your size but the week after find that there is a sale in the store…).

The problem with over-thinkers is that we are always trying to figure out how things could be better, faster, smoother, more productive, more efficient and effective.  Not only does that mean we get exhausted by the end of the day, our phones also run out of battery sooner because we are constantly Google mapping the quickest route to the cutest coffee shop and the timings of the nearest grocery store.  Non-planners tend to take things easier – they don’t mind when things derail because they hadn’t anticipated them to do anything else.  So if Fahad and I arrive at a restaurant only to find that it doesn’t serve lunch and opens at 5:30 pm, I’ll be devastated and annoyed, smacking myself mentally for making such a rookie mistake, but Fahad is going to be like, oh well let’s get some fried chicken instead.

I think a marriage between a planner and non-planner can be funny, sometimes explosive and frustrating (as or more frustrating than a web browser that’s been stuck for the last ten minutes) but if observed and experienced with a sense of humor, it can be quite cute and comical.  So while I plan our vacations to the minute, Fahad simply crosses out 1/3 of the list by waking up at 10 am instead of 8 am like all obsessive travelers and convincing me that a night spent in bed watching Who Wants to be A Millionaire (and The Chaser, a new favorite TV show since we came to England!) is better than walking 20 minutes to the oldest cathedral in the city.  And of course, if it wasn’t for me we wouldn’t be getting such good travel deals and seeing quirky things like Bizarre Bath – a non-historical but very funny walk around the city centre in Bath – or downloading the audio guide in museums and castles and getting the history behind weird pieces of furniture and archaic structures, but if it weren’t for him our feet would fall off and we would never get enough sleep and we wouldn’t get to see The Chaser beat12 people in one episode, and we wouldn’t sit down on random benches and parks and just soak up life.

Seeing the humor in bad situations is essential.  A trip on the curb that makes your ice cream topple off onto the gravel, your child – or husband – spilling Thai red curry onto the bedspread that you laundered a day ago, a rug that you ordered online that turns out to be made for a dollhouse …

Laughing or cracking a joke to lighten the mood or dissolve an incipient argument between your mother and sister, or between yourself and your wife, or maybe making someone who has made a mistake feel better …

I think we have a pretty good sense of humor on my father’s side of the family (the occasional humility you read is also from the same side of the family – and please insert a tongue smiley here to indicate that this is me being ironic).  We have always been able to laugh at others, and more importantly, at ourselves.  Every third sentence is a joke at each other’s expense, and, I like to believe, it makes us tougher, gives us a thicker skin and shows us that life is easier, probably better, if you can learn to laugh at even the more serious things.  When life gives you lemons, make a joke about their weird shape.  And so that’s how we dealt with everything from early balding to broken ankles to divorce to heart disease.

I think Pakistanis, overall, also have a great sense of humor.  And that’s how we survive – it makes us resilient – and maybe sometimes complacent. So while other people might organize a protest or a march against their leader’s offensive remarks, we will create a meme and write satire and joke and guffaw about it.  Because sometimes if you don’t find the humor in life, it can make you lose your mind.

Children also have a great sense of humor – have you noticed how a toddler will spill bright purple juice all over the floor and then just look up with a great cheeky grin? (How do you think most adults react to spilled juice?)

One of the greatest things about bus rides and solitary life is the amount of time and concentration I have to observe people around me as my turquoise bus rumbles by – it wasn’t supposed to rain today so a lot of people were caught a bit unprepared when it suddenly started to pour, a thin but pervasive windy rain that rendered cheap umbrellas ineffective.  Now it’s interesting to see how most British people are quite unfazed by rain (duh. Adaptation is a real phenomenon!) and will simply pop up their hoodies or speed up their walking just a little bit.  And unless the rain is at a certain speed and thickness, they don’t even bother to really open their umbrellas.  But anyways, it was definitely raining enough for you to pull your umbrella out if you had it on you but this lady walking with two of her children definitely did not have one.  And it was such a great depiction of how children are so much cooler than adults – the woman walked with her head bowed a bit, eyebrows so furrowed I could tell she was frowning from more than five feet away, looking seriously miserable.  The little boy whose hand she held, on the other hand, was skipping, with his face turned up to the rain, grinning and making sure to hop in every puddle on the sidewalk.  And as my bus zipped past them, I smiled as well because, in case you’d forgotten, smiles are contagious.


So the next time you’re caught outside without an umbrella or the grocery bag rips open and your carrots and cans tumble to the ground – take a deep breath and shake your head wryly, and then perhaps even smile, because if somebody filmed it and added a comical soundtrack to it, you know it would get a lot of likes and laughs on the internet.  And almost always, it’s better to laugh than scowl.


Tuesday, June 27, 2017

A Treatise on Grief


Is it like the ocean with its never-ending gray, blue waves, stretching as far as the eye can see, cresting and falling, persistent, enough to cover most of the globe?

Or does it run out, like water in a tap that’s been running for too long? Like puddles of rain drying up under the scorching summer sun?

Does one person have enough grief inside to mourn the loss of 3 people? What about the lives of 30? 3,000?  What about 5 lives every day of every month in a year? (That’s how many people died in terrorist-incidents in Pakistan in 2016 – see source at the end.)

Can grief peter out, like a stream in a drought-stricken village?

Or can we be more generous and dole it out as, when and where it’s needed? Does anyone really need your grief? Can you offer it like a tissue to wipe someone’s tears? Maybe cancel out a small part of their grief by showing them yours, like same signs in an equation?

When people point out that a tragedy somewhere is equally tragic as those occurring in other parts of the world, I wonder what that means.  How do we equate tragedy?  Is it the number of casualties?  Is it the age of the victims?  Is it the location – a market, a mosque, a festival, a bar, a concert arena, a street, a bridge?  What about frequency?  Isn’t is more tragic when one after another attack happens in the same 100 mile radius for days, weeks, months, years? 

Reality proves otherwise.  Theoretically, we might say that the latter is true, but we all live in the same world and we all know how our brains work.  It’s shameful but maybe we can blame god for creating the human brain in a way that makes us get used to anything.  It’s really like putting your foot into a tub of piping hot water – it burns for a few minutes and then you get used to the temperature.  And that’s how it is for me as a Pakistani – enough bombs and explosions, deaths and injuries, attacks and invasions and after a while, it starts to pinch a bit less each time.  It has to, of course, because otherwise we would have all died of grief long ago, bled out, hollow, unable to go on.

Is that the real tragedy? 

The phenomenon of becoming numb to pain, of seeing and hearing something so frequently that it becomes the norm, part of your everyday life, another headline you skim quickly over breakfast, sad, yes, but nothing to shatter your life, nothing that makes you give up what you’re doing, throw up your hands and sink into a pool of tears.

I remember I was in the US when the Boston marathon attack took place, and I remember watching scores of people in my university stricken with grief and horror, frozen in front of their televisions, and I remember how starkly I felt the difference.  The difference between people living in developed countries (whose governments simply attacked far-off countries or pointed accusatory fingers at their developing ‘allies’ to attack their neighbours, regardless of the ensuing mess that would wrap the latter’s region for years to come) and people like me who had to get used to grief, who had to teach themselves to devalue human life, to detach, to move away, to see casualties as numbers rather than individual persons with real lives and families that live on with broken minds and hurting hearts.

In the last few months, there have been a series of terrorist incidents in England and I remember thinking to myself, oh my god, it almost feels like things are as bad here as they were back home.  I remember looking up online to compare the tragedies in Pakistan to the ones in UK and feeling my heart shrivel up like paper burning in a fire, because in May, I had already forgotten about the attacks that killed 88 people in Sehwan at a shrine, and 14 people in Lahore at a protest in February.  I reread the articles with tears of shame and grief streaming down my face.  How could I have forgotten it?

But that is the ugly confession of a Pakistani.

When people are killed at that frequency, your mind starts to pick and choose – portioning out grief depending on the death toll – anything above 20 feels like a punch in your chest, anything above 50 chokes your throat.  And then there are cities and towns that have been showing up in the news for so long that the tragedies there have dulled for us – and the nails only dig deeper when a different target shows up – a shrine closer to the city where I grew up, a park in a city where I did my undergraduate degree, a market in the town where my family has moved to, a resort in a village where I thought things were improving.

It is such an ugly reality, but one that I have to live with.

After the attacks in the UK, I saw how communities here came together (exceptions always exist but the larger reaction was one of strength and harmony), the concert, One Love Manchester, such a beautiful show of solidarity and courage, with songs of hope and beauty being sung by thousands of people together, the memorials that sprung up in cities across the country, roses and candles and hugs and hands held together in strength and in prayer …

And I wondered if people who live here realize how lucky they are to live in a place where the value of a human life is so great, where people have enough grief to spread over all their pain and heal together.

And a part of my heart wrenches in pain, and in envy, wondering if there will ever come a time when it can be the same in my country.  A time when bombs and explosions are a thing of the past, an anomaly that shakes the entire country rather than something part of everyday reality that is swallowed like an inevitable bitter pill.  When the loss of even a single life can be felt, can be mourned, and grieved for, deeply, sincerely, by our politicians and our leaders, by our neighbours and our people, and by us.




Sunday, June 18, 2017

Thank you, Pakistan!


It’s hard for other people to understand what a victory in cricket means to us.  Why there will be hundreds of thousands of people out in the streets of our cities and in the dirt lanes of our villages, dancing, celebrating, causing traffic jams and shouting their hearts out, why fans across the world glued to their 52 inch TVs or their cracked 14 inch laptops vacillated between high pitched screaming and cheering, and crying (tears of joy, of course) – I mean, great match and all, you might say, but aren’t these Pakistanis kind of going a bit overboard?

And I’ll tell you, after I’ve wiped my red sniffling nose on my sleeve, that no, we are not.  This victory (in the ICC Champions Trophy FINAL, against INDIA who we never beat in finals, INDIA a team much better and more experienced than our fledgling one ranked the lowest at the start of the tournament) is not just about cricket. 

Don’t get me wrong.  Pakistanis love cricket.  There are many things that divide our nation – religion, politics, ethnicity, language – but our love for cricket falls in silky folds like a great green flag over these differences, covering the gaps, smoothing the creases and binding us together in shiny goodwill and patriotism. 

On my travels around the country for work, I spotted it everywhere: from the slightly terrifying games being played at the edge of mountains along narrow roads in Kashmir to the matches in the smooth green fields of Islamabad, from the slightly sacrilegious one I saw in Sialkot at the edge of a small cemetery to the ones that take place in the sewer-strewn grounds in slums in Karachi – you’ll find cricket everywhere.  It brings us together, and that’s no small thing for a country like ours where our political and religious leaders try very hard to do just the opposite. 

Today’s match, though, was not just about cricket.

It was much more than that, and if you listened to the Pakistani cricketers after the match, they said it quite simply, succinctly, sincerely – ‘our nation needed it’.

For Pakistani Muslims living in this era, pride in our identity isn’t something that is being handed around freely.  We’re constantly bombarded with negative news about who we are and where we’re from – every time there is a terrorist incident, our hearts constrict as we obsessively refresh the news pages and hope that it’s not a Muslim, and then when it inevitably is (because if the media brands it as terrorism then it is always Islamic extremism and if it’s some white guy then it’s not really terrorism and the news slides out from media focus very soon), and then we hope that there are no links, no matter how tenuous or old, to Pakistan, and then if there are, then we cringe and sigh and hope nobody starts yelling at us on a bus in London or some street in Philadelphia.  Every other month a confidence-boosting article comes up, telling us that our country is the fourth-worst in the world for tourists, the second worst passport to have, poor, corrupt, performing terribly on this indicator and even worse on that one.  A decade ago people had no idea where Pakistan is on the map – “middle east, right?” “oh, yeah, near India!”, and now they have a better idea about where the country is located but a much narrower perception of how it is – unsafe, primitive, poor, tragic.

And of course, it isn’t just the media.  I’m not an ostrich with my head stuck in the sand – there are many times when my heart weeps and bleeds at things that happen in my country – hate speech being spewed through the public speakers of mosques, virulent intolerance against any perceived or real difference in thoughts and beliefs, mass blind following of coldblooded murderers, corrupt laws that are abused to persecute minorities, and the list goes on …

So no, we’re a developing country and we have our problems – illiteracy, poverty, inequality, take your pick, and yes, sometimes the positives get drowned by the negatives, special thanks to internal and external media…

And then there comes a day like today, when millions of viewers are rewarded for their resilience, their will to survive and persist, to smile and exist, rewarded for their faith in the team (because while many of us try to delude ourselves before every cricket match – especially matches against archrivals India – that we don’t care, saying out loud nonchalantly, pessimistically, oh, we’ll probably lose anyways, in vain attempts to mentally prepare ourselves for heartbreak – deep down, all of us always believe, and fervently hope for our team’s success). 

I used to be a passionate cricket fan till the World Cup of 2003, in which Pakistan performed abysmally and I took it so personally that I pretty much stopped watching the sport.  I would see matches sporadically and every now and then, get invested in a series against my better judgment, but largely, I’ve managed to stay at the outskirts of true fandom, the periphery of passion.

Today was different.

I knew about three of the 11 players in our team but by the end of the match, I was in love with about 7 of them.  I have never been so proud of how we played.  Absolute perfection – I cannot remember a performance as flawless as this (in my less than impressive decade of following cricket).  We were so professional – combining the stereotypical raw talent of Pakistani players with the less familiar discipline, patience and calmness of great teams who stand firm through storms and blast their way forward, seizing every opportunity and creating it when it doesn’t quite appear.  And we played like a TEAM.  Rather than having one or two stars supporting a sagging midline batting order or atrocious fielders or haywire bowlers, absolutely each and every player put in their 110% and carried us through to a heartwarming, throat-burning, tear-jerking incredibly impressive victory.

And to top off the brilliant performance, at the end of the match all our prayers were so humble, crediting one another and their managers and coaches, displaying great sportsmanship, and fully recognizing the impact of their success on their country and their countrymen…


So really, hats off to you, Pakistan.  You gave us a fantastic game of cricket, a superb victory, and most importantly, you gave us something that’s hard to come by these days – you made us feel proud to be Pakistani. 


Photo source: Getty Images

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Ramazan, Ramadan, but more importantly, mubarak!


Some people have excellent memories – like my younger sister who claims to remember details from family holidays when she would be 2 years old, bringing to mind the concept of fake and made-up memories, however, too often her words are corroborated by someone else, someone who wasn’t 2 back then, or maybe a photograph or something harder to ridicule than a younger sister...

My mind, on the other hand, is like a sieve, and while most slips through the small holes and disappears into the fading black of my unconscious, some memories remain, sloshing about silently till a random stimulus from the present dives in, hook, line and sinker, and slowly swivels it up into the bright light of now.  These memories exist like snapshots rather than film, like a 2-second clip you’ve accidentally trimmed and then, even worse, deleted the rest of the video, so I won’t remember what happened before or after, but I’ll remember that precise moment.

One of these Polaroids from the past is of curly-haired little me sitting half way down the staircase in my house in Karachi, probably 5 or 6 years old, looking at my family eating sehri, the pre-dawn meal which starts off our fast, and I look dramatically sad with my chin tucked into my knuckles, elbow on knee, classic philosopher/mopey damsel style. 

As a child I remember thinking of fasting as a mysterious, exciting privilege available just to adults.  It was equated with waking up in the middle of the night and eating hot, crispy parathas.  What’s not to love about that? And I remember my first roza, I remember feeling pretty special, skating in my terrace an hour before iftaar (ah those white roller skates with the bright pink laces and pink wheels and that pink front brake that I never learnt to use…), leaning over the banister to watch my mamu and his family pull up at the gate, here to join us on this special day – I got little gifts and big praise, I definitely felt very cool.

Growing up in a culture where most people around me fast, it never seemed like a particularly gasp-worthy feat, that is till I would tell my non-Muslim friends or colleagues and they would gasp, and from St Louis to Nottingham to Rome and Barcelona (the latter added just for dramatic effect), always ask the same question (it’s in their handbook; the first FAQ) – ‘but you can drink water, right?’ and when I’d shake my head and smile, bigger gasp, and I’d feel like a superhero.

Except, not really.

I mean, we kinda just grew up doing this, you know.  It’s like the children in Northern Pakistan who scamper up and down mountains in rubber flip-flops as if they were playing hopscotch on the sidewalk, or people who wake up at 5:30 am and go for a refreshing morning jog (if I’m ever be out of bed at that time, sleepily holding onto a mug of coffee, I look at these superstars and am so drowsily envious.  I mean, wow! That’s definitely more amazing to me than going without food and water for a few hours).

Of course our fasts in the UK are just a bit longer than ‘a few hours’.  The roza doesn’t really breeze by but I must say I thought it was much easier on the first day than I had anticipated, but like always, there are phases of a roza…

2:50 am: sudden realization of lingering thirst and quick drink of water

2:56 am: sudden panic about not having drunk enough water and feeling a ghost thirst tickle my throat and a little demon in my head throwing his head back and laughing ‘it’s too late!’

8:30 am: wake up with a dry throat, slightly thirsty, thinking: why am I thirsty just a few hours after I had five glasses of water? And then forgetting about water and start obsessing about caffeine – what, addicted to coffee/chai, me? No! is my happiness really tied up to consuming things … brief introspection … shaking of head and feeling stronger.  I’m glad I’m doing this!

10:00 am: opened windows, cool breeze dancing in, tidy house, the smell of vanilla from a burning candle – utter peace and solitude.  This isn’t so hard after all…

12:00 pm: soft, clean bed, feeling a bit drowsy – seriously, fasting is such a cleanse.  Really feels good to challenge our dependence on food and beverages, think about how much time we spend on cooking and buying and ingesting…

Nap break … naps during fasting are the most delicious because you’re usually really tired and you just melt into the arms of sleep, cosy, soft embrace like sinking into a bed of cottony clouds …

1:00 pm: what the … STILL EIGHT HOURS TO GO? Slight headache.  Need for tea… addicted, me, caffeine? Come on!

And so it goes on, from periods of peace and tranquility, especially when after months of hurried prayers and rushed duas, you take some time out and actually think about the verses you’re reciting during namaz, breathe deeply, realize how similar this feels to yoga, to moments of thirst and more than hunger, boredom. 

Time gets drowsy during Ramazan too and sort of drags its feet, sluggishly moving from 1 to 2pm, pausing, yawning, and then trudging forward again…

I think the busier you are (unless its manual labour or business out in the sun), the quicker time passes by, and usually the last couple of hours go by pretty quickly for me – right till the fifteen minute mark, when time suddenly comes to a sudden stop, digs its heels in and stands with its arms crossed like a sulky 4 year old in a toy store.

And then iftaar, when the best moment is drinking your first glass of water, and food is usually an anticlimax.  But that long awaited cup of chai after namaz! Oh, hot, sweet tea…!

I can’t say I’m a huge fan of what Ramazan has become in Pakistan.  I’ve heard of how it’s celebrated – yes, the key word is celebrated, not enforced or mourned or feared – in other countries and it sounds so much nicer…

Imagine this – a Ramazan in which prices of fruits and milk and yogurt don’t shoot off into space, a Ramazan in which ridiculous draconian laws banning eating in public and forcing restaurants to shut down aren’t passed and enforced, a Ramazan in which people don’t turn into devil incarnates on the roads near Iftar time (seriously, if the devil is supposed to be locked up during this month then it’s a little frightening how similar humans are to Iblees and his companions…) …

Imagine, instead, a Ramazan in which we decorate our homes with flowers and stencil in red, yellow, green letters to spell out Ramazan Mubarak and hang streamers in our windows, in which we break our fast with khajoors and family and friends at home, a month in which we spend more frugally on ourselves and more generously on the less-privileged, hosting iftaars for the poor and donating time and money in charity, a month in which we practice self-restraint and pinch out the mean little thoughts from our minds, shake out the habit of judging others and making declamations of who’s fasting and who’s not and who’s a good Muslim and who’s not, shake it out like sharp pebbles from your shoes, and instead, walk comfortably on a silky smooth path of love and acceptance.

In which we realize that fasting is not an excuse to be grumpy and miserable and shouting at other people, it’s not a pedestal that you’re supposed to look down from at other people and turn up your nose on, it’s not an excuse for bad breath and bad driving and it’s as important to restrain yourself from saying something mean to someone as it is to restrain yourself from popping a sweet grape into your mouth!

Imagine a Ramazan in which people fast because they want to, out of love for Allah, out of a desire to rid themselves of their dependencies on material things, out of an effort to realize how blessed they are and to empathize with people who cannot afford to eat and drink what they want when they want … not out of fear of being told off or judged by the auntie next door or the uncle at work, not in pretense of piety or out of habit …

Imagine a Ramazan in which restaurants and cafes don’t have to shut down during the day, imagine a Ramazan in which the elderly, the young, the non-Muslims, the sick, the women feeding babies or on their period and the people who simply choose not to fast, can eat what, when and where they want, where people in office aren’t forced to eat a packet of biscuits furtively in a corner or forgo their cups of tea and coffee just because our faith is so fragile and our resolve so weak that a whiff of a kabab roll or the sound of a tea bag dipping in hot water will drive us over the edge and destroy our fast…

Imagine a Ramazan of love and hope and charity and good thoughts and good deeds … of Eid prayers in which thousands of people pray side by side in their bright new clothes under an arch of a thousand bright balloons filled with candy and confetti (taken from my friend’s story of Eid namaz in Egypt where this actually happens!), yellow, pink, blue balloons that are released after the namaz and flutter slowly to the ground, bumping into heads and smiling faces …

Imagine.

… wouldn’t it be nice …


Ramazan Mubarak and Ramadan Kareem.  May it be full of love and peace and joy.\


Saturday, May 20, 2017

Go Easy On Stereotypin’


Let’s paint a picture. 

You’re sitting in a small waiting room at a train station in a global, multicultural city like, say not Charleston, South Carolina, and there are people of different ethnicity around you – an African American man reading a book, a couple of white ladies listening to something on their respective iPhones, an Asian couple wearing matching Adidas sneakers with a very cute very chubby baby sleeping in a pram in front of them, and a Pakistani (or maybe Indian – let’s say South Asianish?) woman in her late 50’s.

You’re scrolling through pretty photographs of everyone in the world who has a better life than you on Instagram when suddenly you smell a strong spicy, garlicky scent emanate from somewhere in the room.

Instant reaction – before you look up to see who has opened up the Tupperware of spicy curry- what comes to your mind?

(If you're honest you'll admit:) You think about that Pakistani lady in the corner and wonder why she had to open her lunch in a small contained waiting room where the smell is going to sneak into everyone’s hair and luggage.

Let’s wipe away this sketch and come up with another one.

You turn a corner and see that someone’s thrown their rather giant plastic cup of Coca Cola outside a perfectly usable trash can.  The white cup lies broken on its side, its transparent lid and yellow-striped straw having slipped off like an old man’s toupee, just to the side, and a small puddle of brown liquid slowly turning into a lake for mice.  You look up and see a young man with a baseball cap and very low-slung cargo pants walking a few feet ahead, you barely notice the older lady with white hair and a cane cross from this pavement onto the other side – does your mind automatically label the young man as the coke-spilling culprit?

Is that us stereotyping Pakistanis and young people?
Is it wrong to do that?
Factually wrong or morally wrong? 

Maybe it is just a harmless working of our mind based on our experiences and actual facts, such as Pakistani cuisine involves a lot of garlic, and young people tend to consume Coca Cola more than 75-year-old women?  

I studied Social Work in the US a few years ago, and there were definitely times in the program when I chose not to say anything for fear of hurting someone, or something.  We were tightly fenced in by the tall looming poles of political correctness and you had to choose your words carefully or simply not share a thought or sentiment because you weren’t up to date with a swiftly changing vocabulary, with words introduced to replace other words that had been rendered too callous by society because of the tones in which they were uttered and the circumstances and sentences they were added to.

I understand the importance of language and the role it plays in creating and perpetuating harmful beliefs and customs.  But I also believe in a bit of forgiveness, and coming from a society such as ours, I think it is important to have a sense of humor, and be able to take a joke and laugh at things about myself that ring (perhaps only partially) true.  I admit it is a fine balance and I also acknowledge that this balance is different for different people, something that annoys or angers or at times just disappoints me (such as people using the word ‘raped’ to replace the word ‘defeated’ while referring to the result of some sport; the phrase ‘make me a sandwich, bitch’ no matter how jolly the tone in which it’s uttered, the word ‘bitch’ itself – and how it pains me when other women use it … 

Maybe we just need to read more and expand our vocabulary, understand that hey, there are actually words out there to convey that exact sentiment, that precise idea).

But at the same time, not being offended by the more innocuous stereotypes.  Let's take the one about Punjabis being loud, because, I mean I can remember our large family dinners at restaurants where as kids we didn’t notice and then as teenagers we cringed because of the raucous laughter that erupted and caused everyone at all the other tables to stare at us (or so it seemed) – and now, as sophisticated mature adults (ha!), we’ve accepted, owned and even come to love.

To come back to what I was actually thinking a while ago, is it wrong to have stereotypes or is it inevitable and sometimes even useful? Because often, stereotypes don’t just arise out of nothing.  They’re based on actual experiences and facts, at least partially.

And when you think about it, really, it is just how our minds work – our past experiences, our friends and family’s stories about their experiences, social media, old-fashioned newspapers and giant billboards, everything around us shapes our thoughts and helps create ideas that we store in neat compartments in our minds, almost forgetting that these are creations, taking them as innate, super truths that have always existed.

I saw this really interesting Ted Talk (link given below) and the speaker explains how these preconceived notions help us function efficiently in society.

So let’s move away from preconceived notions about people and ethnicity and nationalities and think of things like preconceived notions about objects such as umbrellas (they help us stay somewhat dry in rain) and sneakers (they make long walks more fun), to our ideas about activities like painting (linked to creativity) and kick-boxing (strength, power).  Our preconceived notions about bosses and how to talk to them, of queuing in England compared to queuing in Pakistan, of shopping in Sunday Bazaar in Karachi as opposed to shopping in Dolmen or a shopping mall in Dubai (how much money will you take, will you bargain, what are you looking to shop for?).
  
How about preconceived notions of neighbourhoods? Is it stereotyping if we think it is more important to lock your car in Karachi than in Islamabad or is it simply being smart? It’s a relative example, because these days you should lock your car anywhere in Pakistan but you get the drift?

We almost always have a preconceived notion that jumps up involuntarily, ready to guide our thoughts and actions.

It is just how our minds work.

Then is it right to blame one another for stereotyping others? I mean, everyone does it.
I will put forward a cautious ‘no’ (it’s not right to blame people for stereotyping) and quickly add in a ‘not always’. 

There are situations innocuous like moths – for example, if an elderly person gets onto the bus and you get up to give them your seat (based on the stereotype that elderly people find it more difficult to stand in a wobbly bus for long periods of time).  Or buying a doll for your friend’s 4-year-old daughter even though you’ve never met her (based on the stereotype that the little girl will prefer a doll in a frilly dress more than a small plastic baseball bat). 

The trouble, of course, is when we use stereotypes to pin people down or put them where we think they belong.  So on one hand, you take the doll for your friend’s little girl but she tosses it aside and takes out her toy trains to run them up and down the coffee table, and you say, ‘but girls don’t play with trains!’.  Prejudice leads to people expecting they’re going to talk to a man when they call for an electrician or a woman when they ring up a doctor’s receptionist.  Prejudice leads to men giving more weight to their son’s opinion than their daughter’s, prejudice leads to husbands cutting off their wife’s sentence, prejudice leads to expecting less of children belonging to a certain ethnicity or race, prejudice leads to choosing a CV over others because of the name on it and the connotations the name holds – Arabic, Persian or someone nice and sweet called Jill?      

At a more insidious level, these stereotypes help support systems of patriarchy and racism (and all the other –isms).  They construct a world in which a woman will automatically be paid less than a man for the same job (stereotypes of women as inferior, weaker, less intelligent than men – which knowing all the women I know in my life and all the men I know, really does astound me. I mean. Please.),  a country where a black man committing a crime will get a more serious sentence than a white man committing the same act…  It’s the same mode of thinking that will lead a passenger on a plane to report another passenger talking in a loud voice just because the latter is brown-skinned and speaking Arabic, and the same mode of thinking that will lead the airline personnel to kick the brown-skinned person off the plane.

Stereotypes, in this case, can be quite dangerous.

The TED Talk I mentioned above is along these lines – listen to https://www.ted.com/talks/paul_bloom_can_prejudice_ever_be_a_good_thing for a conversation about when and how stereotypes can be effective and how to contain them through reason.  It’s quite fascinating to delve into our natural predisposition to prejudice.

I’m guilty of doing it like anyone else but I do try to question myself and my thoughts and that helps.


There’s also something about people who are blatant breaches to stereotypes – a woman in a hijab pulling deeply on a rolled cigarette, a man in his late 60s with a ‘Game of Thrones’ ringtone on his phone, a little boy happily picking out a pink-coloured dinosaur as his favourite toy, a husband bringing his wife a cup of tea – and I always feel happy when I see them, as if they’re doing me a secret favor, jostling others out of their hackneyed ways of thinking, grabbing the neatly-stored away prejudices in people’s minds and tossing them away, forcing them to recognize uniqueness and individuality ... 

I guess the rambling essay is just about that - rely on stereotypes when you need to, but just know you're doing it and be open to challenges to your notions and accept your mistakes, and when in doubt - instead of assuming, just ask!