It's a Free Country

My sisters and I walked to the small corner store at the end of our lane on a sweltering August afternoon. We purchased a medium sized fabric flag, and three packets of small flags printed on cheap paper strung together with a length of twine. We came home and wedged the medium sized flag made with a polyester blend fabric between the curves in the wrought-iron fence circling our rooftop terrace. We tied the makeshift paper banner of flags across the fence, too, end to end. That night it rained and in the morning there was only twine left, the paper flags had dissolved away in the downpour. The one printed on fabric swayed on its flagpole for a few weeks, fading away under the relentless sun, until 15-year-old Javaid, an orphaned immigrant from Kabul who had shown up at our house one day asking for help and eventually moved in to help with household chores, took it down and taped it to the wall above his bed.

We didn't really understand the meaning of Independence Day. To us, it was a good day because it was a holiday. It wasn't until I actually moved to America that I started to celebrate the day of Pakistan's creation, 14th of August, in my own quiet way. I wore green and white, changed the desktop picture on my computer to one of the Pakistani flag, wrote about Lahore. One year, I went to the azaadi mela in San Francisco, which was disappointing. Women sized each other up, the food at all the little stalls was underwhelming and overpriced, an unremarkable musical band played Mehdi Hassan songs lazily.

When you are living away from Pakistan, sometimes the realization of being Pakistani, no matter how long it has been since you've been away, creeps upon you and suddenly pounces. It takes your breath away. Other times, it descends upon you fluidly, serves as an anchor. There are other times still, when your origin makes for a damn good story.

When I traveled with my green passport prior to getting my California ID, I knew I'd be pulled out of line randomly for secondary checking. The realization steadied me, prepared me. It became perfectly acceptable, familiar even. Just routine.

While being patted down by the TSA seemed entirely ordinary, conversely, a visit to the Pakistani Consulate in Los Angeles staggered me. Seven months pregnant, I showed up at the Pakistani Consulate with my husband at 8:30 in the morning to get my passport renewed. A middle-aged man unlocked the office doors at 9AM and we were allowed to go in and retrieve a ticket with a number on it. We were the first clients of the morning. The double doors of the office opened up into a narrow rectangular room with uncomfortable metal chairs on one side, a desktop computer and camera equipment set up in a corner, and a set of three windows directly in front of the door. There was nobody behind the windows. There were two beautiful prints on the wall, a photograph of a grassy knoll somewhere in Pakistan and one of its snow-capped mountains. On the opposite wall was a poster-sized sketch of the Quaid-e-Azam next to an 11x17 framed portrait of President Asif Ali Zardari.

Gradually, the room began to fill in. Women in chaddars came in and took their seats. One man walked in with his wife and two daughters. There was a bone-tired couple who had driven all the way from Texas. They all took their numbers and waited in their seats. A man in a suit, who looked like he took himself way too seriously, emerged from the back door of the office and started tinkering with the camera equipment. His jaw was clenched. He did not make eye contact with the waiting crowd of people. By this time, we had been waiting for almost two hours. My feet were beginning to swell and form a hillock of flesh around the band of my flip-flops. Some more consulate officers began to make appearances behind the windows. It looked like they were shuffling through papers, opening mail. Someone asked how long it would be before they started to call out numbers. There was a vague answer from one of the officers that I did not hear.

Around this time, a family of four walked in: middle-aged parents, a young college-age daughter, a school-age son. There was no room to sit so they huddled next to the door. The father walked up to the man in the suit who was still working with the camera. Since the room was so small, everyone could hear the conversation that took place. The new arrival introduced himself. The man in the suit said, "Oh yes, we've been expecting you for your passports. I will take you back directly." With this, they disappeared behind the back doors of the office and emerged twenty minutes later. The man in the suit led the family outside, all the way to the elevator, saying his goodbyes. I sat in my chair, stunned, feeling bereft of words and fiercely betrayed, the pain in my back radiating towards my knee, my feet already out of my slippers. I stared daggers at Jinnah's sketch and then scowled at the man in the suit. I had been waiting for almost three hours.

Without a warning, my husband got out of his chair and in two strides he was towering over the man in the suit. "Look, I have been waiting for three hours. We were the first ones here. What is going on? Why are other people being helped before us?" The man in the suit told my husband to take a seat. He said we'd be seen when the staff members were ready. "See, here's the thing," boomed my husband so the whole room would hear him. "My wife is seven months pregnant and she is not feeling well. Unfortunately for you, we are not actually in Pakistan. If someone doesn't help us in the next ten minutes, I am calling an ambulance to take her to the ER and asking your inefficient office to pocket the bill. Am I making myself clear?" The man in the suit told my husband to take a seat again and scurried away. The woman who had driven from Texas with her husband whispered in my ear, "Congratulations!" I never got a chance to ask her what she was congratulating me for - for the baby, or for the fact that my husband got the Pakistani Consulate staff to attend to the citizens of their country who had been waiting in line all morning. We were out of there in the next ten minutes.

We carry our country with us wherever we go. The family that arrived after us and were shepherded to the back office carried a sense of entitlement with them. It must have traveled here from the old country with the father, confident in his handshake with the consulate officer, a tight smile indicating he meant business. The man in the suit - what did he carry? Self-importance? Resentment? Apathy? My husband brought out the bully he held inside him, because no one was following the rules in that small office. The rules had been left at the threshold. Even though my husband had threatened the officer to achieve our goal, he had erroneously invoked our physical location - Los Angeles - to do so, because within the confines of that poorly designed, stuffy room, we were on Pakistani soil. And I... I was carrying a baby who would be Pakistani and American, who maybe wouldn't understand the nuances of this precariously guarded identity.

I carry that incident with me now. The shock. The disappointment. The yearning to run out of that room.

But I also remember that August morning years ago on which I walked to the corner store with my sisters to buy flags for the simple reason that we were celebrating our freedom. Even if I didn't understand the meaning of what it was to be the citizen of a free country, I knew it was something to be celebrated. How free my country is today is up for debate, and the Internet is aflame with memes and commentaries on this subject. 

Despite everything, however, the most heartening image I carry within me is of 15-year-old Javaid, orphaned in Afghanistan, but humming the national anthem of Pakistan while drifting off to sleep in a small room in Lahore, the Pakistani flag taped on his wall flapping, undulating, in time with the rotation of a creaking pedestal fan.