Giving Thanks

During the last two months of the year, we inevitably receive constant reminders to reflect on what we are thankful for. Magazine covers show perfectly roasted birds laid on fine porcelain platters in November for the Thanksgiving and transition to glossy stacks of perfectly wrapped presents in December for the holiday season. It is quite impossible not to dwell on the things you are grateful for during the few weeks that round up the year. There are naturally the obvious things one is thankful for - health, comfort, family, success, possibilities, the liberty and ability to do anything, be anything, to aim and achieve. However, when I read Rachel Ray's letter in last month's Every Day with Rachel Ray magazine, in which she talks about being thankful for "food," I wondered if it is not worth being more granular in my thinking as well. After all, the hunger statistics in the world are staggering. 

I am thankful for food, too. I have more than I need, and it is a great pleasure for me to write about it. During this season, however, it is important to observe that with my fridge bulging with leftovers after a magnificent Thanksgiving feast, I am far from the despair that is brought on by a hungry belly. If you are like me, even a quiet moment of meditation will go a long way if it results in you sharing a small slice of your pie of prosperity with the unfortunate. It is really very simple – just one recurring payment to your favorite charity hidden between the monthly evidence of a comfortable life (charges for beauty boxes, video subscriptions, book purchases, etc.). There are obviously other ways to give back. A friend of mine volunteers in soup kitchens during the holidays. Another friend is planning to capture portraits of patients to give them hope. My roommate in college used to invite all the stragglers for a Thanksgiving meal - college students who couldn't go back home and wanted a nice meal and good company...

I am thankful also for having a welcoming home, and more importantly, I am grateful for having it frequented by guests. I was talking to my sister the other day and she mentioned that in most religions and traditions, to host guests is an honor. In Islamic tradition specifically, we grew up listening to the story of Hazrat Abu-Bakr Siddiq (r.a.). He gave away all his wealth in the name of Islam. One night, he was sheltering travelers, but had very little food. He offered all of his food to his guests and lowered the flame of his lamp so his guests would not know that their host was forgoing his own rations to feed them. I had forgotten about this story until she reminded me of it. I have been guilty in the past few months of wrinkling my nose at the prospect of hosting guests. With a demanding schedule that encompasses work, family, baby, writing, studying, and teaching, I am left with very little patience to entertain – even though I feel my best when I am doing exactly that – entertaining. This story made me realize how guests really are an honor (I also agree with Benjamin Franklin that “Guests, like fish, begin to smell after three days”). Let’s face it. I am not the only person in the world with responsibilities and a grueling routine. If my guests are willing to take out the time to visit me, I should take it as the compliment it is meant to be. 

Finally, I am thankful for my friends. All of them – near and far. Some of my family members are my best friends. There are others who, over the years, have acquired a familiarity that is akin to being related by blood. We are all separated by time and distance, scattered as we are across several continents. Sometimes, we don’t speak for months, and then suddenly some kind of magic takes hold of the air around me and them at the same time, and we are propelled into the perfect harmony of “having free time” to Skype for hours (I should also offer thanks for Skype and Facetime). Speaking of friends, though, I must say that everyone should have a Rebecca in their lives. There is very little about my life that Rebecca does not know. While she does not always understand the complexities I encounter as I tread two identities in two different continents, she is always able to sympathize. Every year, she cooks me a fantastic Thanksgiving meal and has become a part of my family so completely that all you have to do is look at my baby’s big smile upon seeing Rebecca to realize how much we care for her. This year, Thanksgiving was spent with the usual preparations and piles of delicious food as you can see in the pictures. The turkey was beautiful to look at and perfectly moist and wonderfully flavorful with crisped golden-brown skin. Creamed corn, fluffy mashed potatoes and salty gravy, crisp string beans with pesto sauce, smoky roasted cauliflower and Brussels sprouts, and tangy apple pie for dessert with a flaky crust. It was a memorable dinner to say the least. 

Being in the presence of other family members, I sometimes find it difficult to transition into and out of accents, inflections, and even languages. While Rebecca was busy cooking in the kitchen to prepare our feast, I was going back and forth between Urdu with my family and English with her. The juggling made me wonder, quite profoundly, if I have sometimes inadvertently left her out of conversations, and worse, if she has felt that way. 

It is one of the aspects of my personality I have struggled with. I have never been at ease with speaking a language that a part of my audience does not understand, but over and over, I fall back into this pattern, perhaps by habit or by circumstances. I noticed, for example, my mother who does not converse fluently in English shying away from the company of my American friends  and preferring to stay in her room after greeting them, because we spoke English among ourselves, and I often forgot to translate for her benefit or include her in the conversation. I wondered anxiously on Thanksgiving Day, if I had somehow alienated my best friend, too, by not having the discipline to stick to one universally understood language. I may have – I will hear about it either way after she reads this. 

For now, I am sanguine. The Saturday after Thanksgiving, we met up with Rebecca at the mall. My two-year-old daughter rushed into her arms, ran around her in circles, and stayed with her for two hours, just playing and laughing because she was so excited to see her. There is no language between them, but they understand each other perfectly. My daughter is able to communicate with everyone she loves without saying anything at all. Maybe that’s a universally understood language in itself, and I am thankful for being privy to it.

Photos by Rebecca McCue

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.

Stanford, Tokyo, London

Stanford, California, USA - 12:38PM

I am eating my lunch outside the office, where a bee is incessantly interrupting me as I finish my salad. Maybe it is the Japanese Cherry Blossom perfume I am wearing that's attracting this annoyance. It has been an exceptionally humid two days (for the Bay Area). It reminds me achingly of Lahore. This weather is comforting and disconcerting at the same time. It is comforting because my skin has memory of it. As the moist air touches me, my body remembers feeling a sensation akin to this years ago in more humid and much warmer climate. I almost expect large salty raindrops to fall on me and a wind to give the rain direction and force. The humidity is disconcerting because it seems out of place here in the bay area, and also because it only feels like a half-memory, a half-shadow of what I left behind in Lahore. The day doesn't have the same heavy, overbearing blanket of moisture that made my hair curl and chest tight back in my home city. It doesn't have the same smells, flowers blooming, pakoras frying in recycled oil of questionable origins on street corners, little boys and girls jumping in puddles on the street, smiling gleefully, cars filling up with water on roads, and always the rain, the relentless monsoon rain, which caused rivers to swell and crops to die and villages to flood. It feels wrong here, this humidity, but also like a small, unassuming gift. Like someone up there saying, "Here, have a piece of the past; a diluted, pencil-tracing-as-opposed-to-water-color-type piece, but a gift nonetheless to feed your senses." It's much appreciated.

Tokyo, Japan - 4:38AM

My middle sister, Qurat Noor, sleeps in her tiny studio apartment in the heart of Tokyo. She only just went to sleep. The Fajr (dawn) prayer happens at 2:30AM in Tokyo these days. She either stays awake for the prayer or sets an alarm to wake up at that time. We chat after she prays usually. We tell each other things about our day, which are not really that important or exciting, but we listen anyway because we are sisters. Often, I whine, and she commiserates. A few hours from now, she will wake up and get ready for work. Her husband will have left already. Qurat will lay out her clothes in her usual habit, neatly ironed, and in order. A pair of pants, a long shirt, shoes and socks, scarf and coat. Check, check, check, and check. She will make herself a small breakfast. Maybe she will walk to her balcony and look at the cherry blossom tree. Maybe she will think of me as she sips her chai or of our baby sister as she puts on the scarf they bought together in London a few years ago, without me. She will walk out and catch a train to her office where she gives English language lessons to locals. Will she notice the weather? Will the air that tingled my arms reach her in a few hours? Will she breathe it in and be surprised because it smells like Japanese Cherry Blossom perfume, or will it just mingle with the fresh fragrance of the gorgeous blooms all around her? Will she instinctively reach into her handbag for her phone to find the screen blinking, telling her that there is a new message from one of her sisters in our WhatsApp group chat (titled, very unoriginally and rather aptly, Noor Ladies Only)?

London, UK - 8:38PM

Mahey Noor, "the fairest and youngest of them all," sits dejectedly in a small room in London. Most of her packing is done. Her suitcase lies closed but unzipped in a corner, the top flap resting like a parted lip, surly, angry. Mahey's 3-week vacation was simply not enough for her to absorb London through her skin until the next time she can visit this city that seems to thrum through her body. If she could live in this city, she would probably never miss Lahore. She has visited all the landmarks and tourist attractions. She has gone shopping, had fish and chips while traveling, and watched a Bollywood blockbuster in the theater. She was almost blown away at one of the beaches, the wind whipping her around, taking hold of her hair and her coat, making her buckle down, brace herself. She has gotten to know the London underground better than the roads of Lahore. She has also spent a lot of time just sitting in her room, sometimes writing, sometimes not, mostly just feeling  at peace with the city sprawling around her, realizing that this is where her home should be. She has loved London for years and planned this trip to revive herself, collect her thoughts and energies, detox in a more granular way than of the emotional or physical variety. She looks at her ticket and passport slipped into a red Stanford folder I sent her. Does she register the fact that I, too, touched the same piece of laminated cardboard that she has in her possession, or does she only concentrate on the sad, heavy feeling of the looming goodbye, much like the weather I am experiencing, but more like the one I am remembering, the kind we loved and lived through, all three of us, together?

The summer monsoons were important to us when we were little girls. They stood for buying new notebooks, large hardcover wide-ruled journals we called "registers," A-4 papers, folders and binders, textbooks and brown paper sheets to cover them. They made it possible to have long afternoons to read Enid Blyton’s The Enchanted Woods series. They signaled the time for our mother to spend several evenings wrapping our books for the coming school year and slapping a sticker on the front, on which I used to write the owner’s name in my neat cursive hand. "Noorulain Noor, 3-C," "Quratulain Noor, 1-B," "Mahey Noor, Prep-A." They gave us lots of time to play "teacher-teacher," in which we took turns for the role of "Miss Noor," writing on our small chalkboard, marking our pretend assignments with swooping checks or crosses and adding comments in the margins, "Good," "Excellent," "Poor," "Improvement needed." The monsoons also gave us a reason to sneak up to the roof in our sundresses and run in the rain, our mother coming upstairs with towels, wrapping us in them, our hair wet and flying every which way, our fingertips wrinkly, teeth chattering, lips blue. They meant sleeping in every day, all three of us, tiny forms huddled on the same bed, the middle sister appropriately sleeping in the middle - birth order was ever so important back then.

The summer monsoons meant so much more, too, though – mostly that we would be together all day, every day, for the next three months. Twelve weeks that almost felt like a lifetime to us. They seemed endless. Little did we know that by the time the oldest one of us turned 18, we’d be separated, our childhoods nothing more than wavering shadows in our lives.

Murree, Pakistan. 1999.
I come inside after lunch, and a wonderful thing happens. I check my phone and there are messages from both my sisters. Tokyo can’t sleep and London is still packing. I join in and type, “Hi girls!” All of us are in this virtual space together at the same time in different parts of the world. This has not happened in months. It feels almost magical. Usually we respond to each other, our messages separated by hours, sometimes days. “All three Noor sisters present! Hurray!” says Qurat. “Let’s take a picture just as we are right now and send it, OK?” This from Mahey, always wanting to hold memories and immortalize them somehow. We send our selfies: Me at my desk, Qurat standing in front of a full-length mirror, Mahey sitting on her bed. For a few minutes, we are together again, little girls in different time zones, possessing small reminders of each other, my Japanese Cherry Blossom perfume, Qurat’s scarf - the one she bought in London with Mahey, and Mahey’s red Stanford folder. We are somehow encapsulated into a long panoramic shot, spanning continents and oceans. We are three sisters in three countries, yet in one place somehow. Together. Harmonized. Synchronous.

To Bottle Up Some Happiness

It was about two months ago. I came to work really early in my exercise clothes and went out for a walk soon after my cup of coffee. Even now, as I attempt to reconstruct the feeling I had on that morning - of pure, reckless joy, a perfect abandonment of all negativity that so often permeates through and out of my body, the wind slapping me across the face, not harshly, but playfully, like a jab in response to a joke, not a rebuke, the tall weeds of the Matadero Creek Trail brushing against my legs making me only peripherally aware of the presence of critters or ticks around me - it's all completely diluted. It is not possible to capture everything I felt on that morning, the rush from being on my feet, walking up the trail with breathtaking views around me, as a reconstruction. Margaret Atwood says it best in The Handmaid's Tale, "It's impossible to say a thing exactly the way it was, because what you say can never be exact, you always have to leave something out, there are too many parts, sides, crosscurrents, nuances; too many gestures, which could mean this or that, too many shapes which can never be fully described, too many flavors, in the air or on the tongue, half-colors, too many."
What I can reconstruct with reasonable assurance that I am in fact describing the very heart of everything I felt that morning is in one simple, unassuming word: happiness. Two months later, I continue to sit at my desk every morning, enjoying my cup of dark roast coffee and my solitude. In the quiet lull of this office with glass walls and sharp white light, before footsteps and voices and keyboards begin to register on my consciousness, I try to conjure the feelings of that morning. I try to will myself to wear my hiking shoes, rise from my desk, feel the breeze of the peninsula before this summer's solstice, but all I get in return from myself is a rigid kind of complacency. Sitting still in this stillness is oddly satisfying, but it never evokes the unadulterated happiness I felt on the trail. Yet, I stay here, morning after morning, simply thinking about happiness and not actually doing anything to feel it again. 

If only there were a way to bottle up happiness. Then I would grab some from the air, pluck small droplets of it, gingerly, and pour them in a bottle. I would take a whiff of it every morning or drink it like Harry's Felix Felicis for luck. And then I would go out on the trail again, fueled by this happiness - a gold elixir, the consistency of molten metal - to collect more, always, always, more, more, more. I would have all kinds of bottles containing all kinds of happiness then. The happiness of walking barefoot on a beach at Half Moon Bay, far enough from the icy water of the Pacific that it doesn't touch my feet, but close enough to smell the ocean. The happiness of jasmines blooming on ordinary streets of Lahore, full-mouthed, drooping, their fragrance almost tangible. The happiness of the cool stone floors of the Lahore Fort and that of taking my shoes off and feeling it strong and stoic under my feet. The happiness of running across the roof-top in fierce monsoon downpours in the summers of my childhood and that of eating sliced oranges on the same roof-top on dry, sunny winter afternoons. The happiness of looking at the Golden Gate Bridge from a distance, the topmost spires hiding behind floating clouds that sometimes look like scattered petals of a jasmine plucked from Lahore. The happiness of having looked at the Badshahi mosque, no clouds covering its minarets, but majestic all the same. The happiness of my baby's untamed giggle and mother's startling poetry. The happiness of holding a fountain pen for the first time in Class 4B and graduating from using lead pencils. The happiness of walking on stage after working harder than ever before in my life, in my cap and gown, and graduating from UC Davis. The happiness of new, forbidden, precocious love in the corridors of high-ceilinged houses in Lahore. The happiness of old, trusting, giving love in the look exchanged over my glass-top dining table in San Jose surrounded by people yet solitary in the confines of this moment. The happiness of having true, lasting friendships on both sides of an ocean. The happiness of being a hybrid, of being here and there, of loving California and Lahore, of belonging to both places in some ways, and belonging nowhere in others, of being a mother and a daughter, of endless possibilities. And of the ability to choose.

If only there were a way, I would bottle it all up to remind myself on the bleakest of days that even when I write in one of my poems, "I am not made of permanence," that is a certain kind of happiness, too. 

Photos by Rebecca McCue

The closer you pull me, the farther I run

When you have lived alone for a long time, it is the little things in the company of family or visitors that make you realize how obsessively you guard your independence. You want your spice jars lined a certain way, but every time you open the cabinet, something is misplaced. It's not wrong, and everything is still there, but you know that the large jar with cinnamon sticks and black cardamom is supposed to be in the left corner, and the small bottle of thyme should be in front of it. It isn't annoying that they are all in the wrong place, just disconcerting, like someone else lived your life for a second and changed things around on you. 

You look up from what you're doing and are momentarily surprised by things that are not familiar to you: a ring on the table, argyle socks on the floor, small colored bottles of medicine arranged on the kitchen counter, a dupatta draped around a chair, wallets lining a ledge in the living room. It is especially disorienting in the morning when you realize there is activity in the house, people moving around, doors closing, water running, pot clanking, kettle whistling. You lie in bed for a few seconds and try to assess how you feel, really feel. You have forgotten what it is like to have people around you - people you love. It is a strange state of mind you are in - unsettled, continually surprised by the realization of being once again

You try to be careful in conversations, but you fail. Invariably, you are abrasive and harsh. Sometimes even critical. Your baby brother marches out of the room because you try to correct his behavior. Your mother mutters that you need to ease up under her breath. Your sister-in-law drags you aside and asks you, "Are you nuts?" She is floundering to help you, and you are floundering, period. 

One morning you realize you have not had a meaningful conversation with your husband in over a week. You roll this fact around in your mouth like candy, taste it, decide you will deal with it later, and swallow without biting into it. 

Your father calls you five times in the space of 48 hours. That number is higher than the frequency of you finding his voice at the other end of the line in the last 10 years put together. You observe this distantly, scientifically, and decide not to be upset about it. He is calling for mundane things - to ask your brother how his visit is going, to talk to your mother so he can find keys or cameras or something equally unimportant to you, he says things like "Where are you lost?" You smile into the phone, make sure he can hear it in your voice, and tell him about his granddaughter whom he has never met. You pretend that he loves you and you him. 

You realize that your mother has aged and your brother is on the cusp of adulthood. When you left him behind, he was only five years old. When you close your eyes, you see him standing at the airport, waving, smiling, you hear your sob catching in your throat, you feel your heart tightening, breaking, in that moment when you left the one person who meant the world to you - your baby brother. Now, when he talks about girls, casually, as expected by his age, you physically shake yourself out of the shock, take a few moments to respond, try to adjust to the fact that he is a teenager. 

You try to find dark corners of the house and quiet ones, too. You carry your daughter there. For a few moments, it's just you and her. She looks up at you with her shining eyes and plops down into your lap, or rises up and gives you a kiss. You cover your face with your hands and say in a sing-song way, "Where's Mommy?" After a few seconds you move your hands away and say, "Here she is!" She cackles with delight and you laugh with her. She is so tiny, but she personifies the monumental change you have gone through. You are not the eighteen year old girl who flew from Lahore International Airport on the surprisingly wet afternoon of February 1, 2003, wearing a navy blue shalwar kameez, with tearful goodbyes and hugs and promises to come back soon. You don't even like navy blue anymore. And you hate crying. You tense up when people hug you. You like matter-of-fact, no-nonsense greetings. Maybe you have become cold and distant, but you like it this way.

Here, in this semi-lit room, with your baby and her kisses, you feel like you're home. She loves her mama, you, now, here, as you are. Everywhere else, you find reminders of the person you were, the daughter your mother is still searching for when she looks into your face, the sister your brother waved goodbye to ten years ago, the best friend your sister-in-law had when she sat with you for hours in your room and you planned to be together for the rest of your lives no matter what - promises of childhood and naivete that destiny has in fact brought to fruition. But you are not that girl anymore. And you don't know where she went and how to get her back. You have decided already that you don't even want her back. She weakens you. She feels too much.

You love all of them fiercely. But they loved her and still do. In her place, you feel like an imposter. And so, you run away, and keep running and running and running and running.

All Kinds of Crisis

Over the last two days, there have been a lot of different opinions on the underlying racism and prejudice in America that have come forth as very broad and bold overtones in the media coverage.

I have thought a lot about this today, and spent some time sifting through my tangled thoughts. I debated on whether or not to write this, but feel that I must. When I first heard news of the explosions in Boston, my immediate thought was, "They've done it again." I had to take a few deep breaths at the heel of this thought and admonish myself. Let me explain. I am a Muslim. I am also Pakistani. These two very significant aspects of my identity are often proceeded by the word "terrorist" in the news. Islamist terrorist. Muslim terrorist. Pakistani terrorist. Pakistani Muslim terrorist. When I thought, "They've done it again," I did two things at once. I reacted exactly the way the media has trained me to: This must be the work of a Muslim terrorist group; and I divorced myself from my identity by employing the pronoun "they." Without proof, without question, without reason, I, a Pakistani Muslim woman who is ordinarily rather well-adjusted as an immigrant in California, decided to extricate myself from "my people" because I demonized all of them collectively. 

My second reaction to this news was fear. "What does this mean for me?" Yes, I am in California, the liberal wild-child of America. Yes, I have been so lucky as not to have faced, experienced, or witnessed any overt actions of prejudice or racism. But what if speculations feed the media frenzy? Worse, what if this terrible crime was indeed committed by a Muslim? It was a selfish thought, but this is a place to tell the truth. The fact is, I don't know what it means to be a Muslim in this country, or anywhere in the world anymore. It is unpredictable. You have a last name like "Saeed" and you're held in immigration for five hours because they need to run a background check on your name. "Do they know how many Saeeds there are in the world," you wonder. When you get randomly selected to be patted down at the airport enough times, even when you are visibly pregnant, and the "female assist" asks you to hold out the elastic waistband of your maternity pants so she can look down just to be sure, only because you had the audacity (and the pregnancy hormones) to be irritated with this secondary security check, you internalize a kind of fear for how others view your identity. 

I digress. 

The last two days have been hard on a hidden level. Life goes on as usual, but in quiet moments, when I am doing the dishes, or trying to sleep, or driving home, thoughts and feelings ebb and flow and whisper to me. 

Today, I saw the smiling faces of three people who lost their lives in Boston, two women and one eight year-old-child. The shock I felt was real and strong. Is it because I live in this country? Or is it because I think it is a bigger crime for a bomb to go off amidst civilians in America than in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Palestine, or anywhere else in the world? Is it because I have seen so many pictures of funeral biers and fathers carrying bloody corpses of their children in all these other countries that I have begun to think that it's simply something that happens there, to those people? And now all of a sudden, it is happening here, to me. Is death on this continent more meaningful and more heart-breaking? No, any loss of life is expensive - I don't use that term crassly, I use it thoughtfully - for life should be treated as such. So, I cried today for Boston. And for Sandy Hook. And also for Pakistan and Iraq.

Whenever I think about the aftermath of the Boston explosions, a cold fear ripples through my spine. What if we find out that the perpetrators of this incident had skin the color of mine? What if they call God by the same name as I do? What if they look like me? 

But then I think that this courageous young woman also looks like me. She, too, has a green passport. She tells the truth with her pen. She wears her faith with pride around her head. I also remind myself that the true legacy of my country comes from this man. And he needs no words.