Friday, March 24, 2017

Happy Mother’s Day

It was the day I was moving into the LUMS hostel. 

Ami was there, of course.  She helped me put on the red checkered bed sheet over the single bed in that tiny cubbyhole I was to share with another girl, we set out the lamp she had helped me choose and then we opened up my suitcase.  Ami found out where the ironing table was and took it upon herself to iron my kameezs and dupattas, coming back with the clothes hung neatly on plastic hangers, with the burning August heat of Lahore drawing rivulets of perspiration down the sides of her face and back.  I didn’t know anyone in that strange, foreign university then and having my mother next to me was a comfort.  Also she had just ironed a week’s worth of outfits just so I wouldn’t have to!

I also remember exactly an year from then, at the start of my sophomore year when Ami came to drop me off to the dorms again, and I left her in the new cubbyhole, distracted by calls from friends I hadn’t seen in two months, stories to share, hugs to exchange, giggles to disperse and plans to make.  “I guess you’ll be alright to unpack yourself,” she said to me and I had nodded, “yes, definitely, you should go, I’ll be just fine!”

Ami never huffed, never puffed.  She just gave me a hug and left.

It isn’t easy to be selfless, I have discovered and continue discovering again and again. 

I always pepper my selflessness and sacrifices with meaningful looks and reminders, clearing my throat suggestively to show that I’ve cleaned the kitchen without you having to ask me to, a roundabout mention of how I let you take the first pick from the sweaters Abu bought us, demanding thank yous and gratitude, or at the very least, as I like to say, acknowledgement of my hard work, my going the extra mile, my daily grind, my time management, my project implementation, my rigorous scrubbing of the kitchen sink.

My mother, on the other hand, made it look really easy.  So easy, in fact, that we all took – and often continue, I’m afraid – to take her generosity for granted.  She has always put us, and not just us but most people, before her.  She’d always take the last piece of bread, the slice that nobody wants because it’s the thickest and gruffest, and she’d say, “it’s alright, I like it.”  What do you want to eat, where do you guys want to go, which one do you want.  She did it so completely it was easy to forget that she too has individual preferences and wants and needs and desires. 

She always put us first.  Waking up in the middle of the night to tend to a stomachache, spending hours sitting next to a fevered child to put cold, soaked cloths on their forehead, delaying her own dinner to feed her daughters or son or nephews or nieces, protecting us from stressful news and all kinds of negativity, absorbing it all as if she was a superwoman. 

And I guess she is. 

She and so many other women from her generation – I have seen how they always put their family’s needs and feelings before their own – they are the bulletproof vests we wear without knowing it, they’re the pillows our heads fall back onto at the end of long days, they always put a hand out to stop our falls, scratching and breaking their own bones and hearts just so ours will be spared.  They listen to our rants and screams and wipe away our tears and our fears without ever sharing with us their own, without ever letting us know that each scream and fear we give out isn’t just brushed away but inhaled by them, falling down their throats and landing with a thud in the deepness of their minds and souls, collecting till there is a 1,000 foot high stack of gray, black and blue thoughts teetering, and how they pray with their eyes closed and their hearts open, slowly disentangling and cutting down that grimy stack – only to have us add to it again…  

And how they never, ever demand acknowledgement.

I guess superheroes have to keep their powers hidden.

The truth, of course, is that they are not superheroes.  Not really.  And we have to stop treating them as superheroes (maybe super humans), because nobody should have to be that powerful.

When I spend hours drawing and coloring Elmo caricatures and hanging streamers on walls, I’ll have my ears tuned to a ‘great decorations, thanks so much!’  Every dinner I make, I poke around – ‘how is it? Don’t you appreciate how I take time to cook healthy meals for us?’ and the occasional ‘you realize I worked 9 to 5 today and still came back and made food? And I even exercised!”, that is I even want a little pat on the back from my husband for taking care of my own health!

“I need my me time,” I’ll tell myself to ease the guilt of watching back-to-back episodes of a TV show (a guilt, I’m sure, men have never experienced because they never heard their fathers say or demonstrate that spending time on oneself is a luxury).  You need to put yourself first, because if you’re not happy you can’t keep other people happy, I believe, because I’ve read it so many times and discussed it with other people in my classes, yet, I’ve seen women of another generation prove it wrong time and again, as they power through their sadness or anxiety with delicious meals and walks to the park, braiding our hair and patting our cheeks.

It’s a different era, I realize that.  My generation grew up questioning the values and beliefs that were ingrained in the women born in the 1950s and 60s.  And accepted by them; if there was resistance to those ideals of patriarchy it was muted and swallowed, enough for these beautiful women to ask us to replicate the same principles, principles of tolerance and patience and sacrifice that are the sole (or at best, the greater) burden of women, the price to silently pay for a successful marriage (and a successful marriage is one that stays – happiness was never a right, nor a requirement).  

And then there we came, poking and prodding at these beliefs, bursting bubbles with the prick of a why, providing alternatives to the life where men live on pedestals, being served on hand and foot, silencing women’s ideas and phrases with a shake of their head or a short, abrupt ‘no’.  But critical and clever as we may be with our shouts for equality, I have never seen, and could never be, as courageous and as kind as my mother (as my mother-in-law, as my aunts).  They have made us strong but compassionate, brave but kind; they have taught us how to weather the darkest of storms and how to look for the light that’s trying to break through the clouds.  They have been the wall that we slump against when we’re tired, they’re the blanket that envelops us when we’re too cold, they’re the arms that encircle us when we cannot stop crying, knowing when to ask why and knowing when to just hold in complete, warm, comforting silence.  They’re the ones who have taught us how to tie knots on flat a bed sheet so that it’s easier to spread on the bed and the ones who trained us in generosity and giving to the poor, in treating others with kindness and love, in always offering the best to visitors, in always being patient with the young, and respectful to the elders.  And most of all, they have always made us feel loved.

And while I can never have a heart as big as my mother’s, nor be as generous and giving as her, I’m grateful because I know there is at least a little bit of that in me, and it makes me who I am today.

Happy mother’s day to all the beautiful mothers I know.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Look for the Daffodils

It felt really good to step outside and not freeze.

And it was even more liberating to be able to take off my coat and sit under the open sky – I realized I hadn’t been able to do that in around five months.  I turned my face up towards the sun and felt a strange, almost foreign sensation … warmth, almost heat, really, almost enough to want to turn my face away but I didn’t because it had been SO LONG since I felt that!

It was truly a beautiful day – a whopping 16 °C.  Pretty much the same temperature I would whine about in September when we initially arrived in England.  How we adapt and forget and then remember again… the mystery of the human brain.

Memory can be quite erratic, faulty, like a sieve really, things slipping through and disappearing.  Images stick much better than sensations like pain.  That’s why women have more than one baby – (I read that or saw that somewhere – can’t remember exactly … see what I did there?), because they forget the excruciating pain of childbirth they suffered the first time.  Or maybe the joys that come with a new baby make the pain worth it … or not, or maybe a bit of both.  The same reason why we promise to visit the doctor when we’re gripped in the throes of stomach cramps or fever or some other recurring ache, but after it’s over, we keep shrugging off the visit to the clinic. 

Wednesday dawned bright, the early clouds were swept away like someone whipping curtains aside to let in the light, the perfect day to have breakfast at the cute yellow bakery near my work, a deliciously soft cinnamon croissant-roll and a big white mug of hot black coffee.  It was the kind of day that reminds you take in a deep breath, the kind that gently presses the tips of your lips up into a faint smile.  As I walked towards my office I saw a mom bending down to help a toddler with his cardigan, “hold your sleeves,” she told him as his tiny fists curled tightly over his shirt’s long sleeves so that they wouldn’t hike up under the sweater, and I remember how my mother taught me the same thing decades ago some few thousand miles away.  Little things that connect us through the ages and across the continents, feels like a small miracle.  A little tap on the back of your head from God, hey, things aren’t so bad.

Of course, this is still England and it’s been cloudy since the day before yesterday and rainy all of today too.  Temperatures dropped to single digits again and although it hasn’t been as mortifyingly cold as in the east coast, US, or Canada, etc., I want to gently remind you that I am from the balmy city by the sea where the coldest it gets is “let’s switch off our fans now”.

I can hear the sound of rain when the cars slow down, and it’s dim and gray outside. People here are so used to the constant consistent drizzle that they don’t seem too bothered about it.  You hardly see umbrellas.  I guess they’ve accepted the weather and so they go on with it, just whip their jacket’s hood on and continue with their lives – you even spot the runners with their toned legs and puffy faces, headphones plugged in, splashing through puddles and swerving to avoid prams and old people. 

But I needn’t mope too much because there are flowers popping up everywhere. The papery pale pink, lavender and white blossoms that have brought the straggly naked trees back to life, scattering petals on the pavement below as if in preparation for a bride to walk down.  Then there are the bright yellow daffodils.  They’re so stark against the usually gray and white English background that your eyes are really drawn towards them, and they grow in groups from trios to large gatherings sprawled in the grassy patch by the road.  You can find them pretty cheap in all the flower shops and I’ve seen them growing in neater beds in people’s gardens, but the ones I love the best are those growing wild, scattered down a green slope outside a church or clumped cheerfully around the base of a lamp post.  They seem to wave at me I roll past them on the bus.

The daffodils don’t like the rain too much either.  It’s been drizzling, accompanied by short spurts of wind, and I saw them with their heads hanging down, pouting and moping.  Keep your hopes up, daffodils, I tell them, I checked the weather forecast and the sun is supposed to come visit in three days!

I was listening to a podcast the other day on memory and forgetting, and apparently scientists have an interesting theory about how memory works.  I’d always thought (based on high school psychology lessons) that the more you think about a memory, the more you ingrain it in your mind and it lives for longer.  But apparently, there’s an interesting twist to recalling past moments – the more you remember a particular memory, the more you change it.  We change a little bit of it every time we think about it.  Think of it like smudging a painting with your thumb every time you take it out of your memorabilia box, or like exposing a photograph to the sun – it gets fainter every time.

So in essence, the most perfectly untouched memory is the one that you don’t think about.  But then, what’s the point of a memory you never visit? I think I’ll have to run this risk.  I’ll take it on as a creative project, especially if it brings me joy, holding an image in my hand and turning it over, even if that means I’m adding in little details that weren’t there before.  

Maybe there’s some logic to the way our minds work, things we forget, memories of pain dulling with time, and the starkness of happier moments fading enough so that we miss them just a bit less, just a bit less frequently, but still tangible enough so that we can hold on to them on dreary days as well as on days when the sun breaks through and envelops you in a soft, warm hug.   

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Invisible Connections

I’ve always found it interesting how human nature skirts around logic sometimes, simply striding past without so much as a glance at it – like the motes of dust that swirl around us, that we brush off our cheeks and inhale into our bodies, invisible to us except when a stray ray of light falls across them at an angle, and suddenly there they are, slow, hypnotic, afloat, little specks of dust.

Maybe it’s not logic- maybe the idea I’m looking for is empathy.  I don’t think empathy is as innate in humans as we would hope it to be.  Which is why women who internally rage at their husbands for never pitching in with the housework always ask their daughters or daughters in law – never their sons - to bring the forgotten water bottle from the kitchen; which is why when we’re crossing the road and a car honks at us, we shake our fists at them and think ‘people in cars are such schmucks’ and when we’re the ones in the car and somebody takes too long to move from one end of the road to the other or suddenly darts across (after having waited 25 minutes for a car to pause for just 15 seconds), we think ‘stupid pedestrians!’; which is why when we’re the boss, we always glance notably at our watches when employees come in late, and when our boss tosses that disapproving look at us for being late, we grit out teeth and think: it’s just four minutes!

To be in someone else’s shoes we first have to pause long enough to take ours off and reach for theirs, and then too, put them on, wiggle our toes for a bit and pause again, long enough to think, oh, that’s how it feels.  Ain’t nobody got time for that, especially if my smart phone still has enough battery for me to browse pretty pictures of beaches and artificially arranged dry flowers around hardback books and coffee cups that never go cold.

When we were studying about privilege and oppression during my Master’s, I was intrigued how people can be oppressed in one category (say gender, for example) and continue to oppress people of another category.  In other words, a woman who knows firsthand what it feels to be shut up by men all the time, to be paid less for the same job or expected to give up the last cupcake on the plate for her husband or her son, will not bat an eye while glancing at another woman wearing a burqa and saying, “I don’t understand why she wants to spend so much money on buying clothes that she’s just going to hide under a giant black gown”. 

It’s the same principle, really, when a person of color exasperated by the salesgirl following her every move in a jewelry store storms out of the shop, and then flips her hair and rolls her eyes at a gay couple holding hands by the pretzel kiosk.

The same line of thought that we don’t pick up on when we bristle at the news story of armed Americans protesting the building of a mosque somewhere in Texas but nod along to the Friday sermon that brands the Shia community as evil or the Ahmaddis as non-Muslims.

I always thought that we would be able to empathize better, that we would see the connections shimmering like so many silver threads all around us and tug on them, letting each other know, hey, I get it, it sucks when people do that to me so I will never, ever do that to you.

But of course, it doesn’t work that way.  For some reason, God decided that logic and empathy, love and tolerance, understanding and support, won’t come to us like gravity does, and in the process, made everything so difficult.

I’m vary of making generalizations, so I’ll only talk about what I’ve had experience of, namely the Pakistani Muslim communities that I have spent my life in and with.  Hypocrisy is the snake that slithers in all our gardens, hiding beneath overgrown weeds and general frustrations like potholed roads, gas shortage, bad traffic and humidity, and the more worrying insidious news stories of bombs and explosions and deaths that don’t piece our hearts that sharply anymore because we’ve almost bled out by now, but they quietly slip into our minds, adding to the weight on our souls and shoulders.

It hurts me to say it but there is a stringent lack of tolerance and empathy in our society.  We shout for rights that we rip out of other people’s hands.  From the lower end of the spectrum, where we complain about the unruly traffic but break the light when we want, to the more terrifying end where we want fair immigration policies in the US, the UK and European Union while not even glancing at our own country’s treatment of immigrants and refugees, where we want our religious freedoms safeguarded hundreds and thousands of miles across the ocean in a country that we left our own for just because we wanted more, but God forbid we talk of secularism in Pakistan that might pave the way for a more tolerant society (without ridding you (and me) of your (and my) right to pray and practice Islam, seriously, secularism is not a war on religion, please, jeez, Louise, would you get a grip and stop jumping a mile into the air at the mere enunciation of words.)

We don’t like being subjected to the carefully organized ‘random’ checks at airports, and the double glances or scowls received on buses or in shops on our trips abroad, but we don’t even notice racial slurs and thoughts that form part of our everyday conversations. 

One of the reasons why it’s easy for us to hate, or at the very least not care about, other communities is simply because we’ve never spent time with them.  Who knew one of the easiest ways to care is share a class or a joke or a piece of gum with someone? 
Another one of God’s little tricks is our tendency to stick to things and people we know, especially when in a new or unfamiliar territory.  Which is why we see groups of Asian teenagers hanging out or entire neighborhoods of desi families living together;  which is why when we attend a college reunion or an office party, we immediately look for a familiar face and then beeline for people we already know and like.  The downside to this is that we end up reliving our lives and missing the opportunity to learn about new people, how they live, their talents and their fears, their secrets and their burdens.

I don’t think our elders did it consciously, but when they told us to make the ‘right friends’ and choose ‘good people’ to hang out with, they automatically assumed that the good ones were those who were similar – from sharing the same sex to the same religion, from the same race and ethnicity to the same socio-economic background. 

It’s easier to exist in your homogenous bubble in a country like Pakistan, where the majority is Sunni Muslim (Wikipedia says between 75-95%) and there is relatively less diversity (say compared to places like Nottingham where I am now, or even St. Louis, let alone cities like New York and London), where people exist in silos and with the exception of larger cities like Karachi and Lahore, you can go for days without meeting people from different backgrounds.

It is incredibly important for us to burst this bubble and step out.  It might hurt our egos and it might challenge our faith, it might be harder to convince ourselves of the absolute rightness of our beliefs and way of life when we sit next to people who are wildly different in their ideas and practices and realize they’re good mothers and fathers, hardworking doctors, talented artists and caring neighbors, that they also love doing barbecues with their families and arranging yellow tulips on their kitchen windows, that they also worry about their aging mother’s health and their son’s Math results, that they like their apple pie without ice cream but definitely need a spoon of sugar in their tea too.

It’s when we break our invisible barriers and remember that we carry the keys to our shackles in our own pockets and unlock ourselves, that we realize how much in common we have with people we thought are so foreign and different and unworthy of our thoughts and support.  That the labels we’ve pasted on their foreheads are as rude and unfair as the ones they’ve stuck to our backs, that our mutters about their way of dressing and sleeping and eating are as hurtful as theirs about our decisions and prohibitions. 

I watched a really good documentary called 13th, and it made me realize how our (and by our I mean the Muslim community in general and the Pakistani Muslim community in particular) feathers are so ruffled by the current political climate in America, while we feel it is so easy to ignore the injustice that has been going on against other communities of color in the US for so many years. 

I think there is a general lack of empathy in our community for causes we don’t realize are similar to our own, and a more damaging hypocrisy that makes us blind to our own prejudices.

I’ve never been the one to nag people about changing their statuses to remember deaths in Syria if they did so about deaths in France – we need to do so much more about our own thoughts and actions than keep count of what other people say on social media.  But I do think when something terrible is going on in our own backyards then we should at least acknowledge it before picking up the binoculars to look across the border and point fingers at others for their wrongs.

And I encourage you to broaden your horizons – to travel to other countries and take the time to talk to people you’ve condemned to hell, to watch documentaries on civil rights movements across the world, watch films about difficulties that people of different income groups, races, religions and sexualities go through, to read articles about perspectives other than your own, to challenge yourself, to shake ideas and perceptions that you think are made of pure gold but are actually socially constructed, and to glance down and spot the sun rays light up the countless invisible threads that bind us all together.