In those years, even among members of the South Asian and Arab diaspora, I found myself repeatedly defending Pakistan against constant attacks. I don’t remember each encounter, only a vague combination of disappointment and irritation at the end of evenings meant to be a reprieve from work, and shock that suddenly, it was perfectly appropriate for people to talk about the failures of Pakistan even in the presence of Pakistanis. I remember heated arguments with Arab men who would bleat about how “their women” had more freedom than Pakistani women. In these instances, I would refuse to back down until the man in question had conceded that he knew nothing about either women or Pakistan. The other women at the table would watch silently or make feeble attempts to change the subject. Or, there were cab rides in which I lied to cab drivers about where I was from, because there had been too many instances of being held captive audience to a stranger’s musings about how the place I called home needed to be bombed.
Many conversations about Pakistan would contain the expectation that perhaps I might have more to say on the failures of the country (these usually revolved around an excess of Islam and a general shortage of women’s rights) by virtue of being from there. But this would be coupled with the assumption that I could not be entirely objective about Pakistan given that I was, after all, from there. Unless I nodded and agreed like a good native informant on the failed state that was Pakistan, I was either out of touch with reality, or sentimental about the place for unknown reasons. The word “Pakistan,” itself would summon up a cluster of images with fire in them—assassinations, suicide bombs, and car burnings, and always the bearded men. But my map of everyday violence in San Francisco was populated by several actors of whom none had beards and none believed themselves to be violent, but whose attacks invaded almost every space I occupied.
Two instances of kindness stand out because each happened when I was feeling more ragged than usual. In the first, a Palestinian shopkeeper offered me his condolences on the disintegration of my country. “I’m so sorry, at what you must be going through,” he said, “being this far away from family, reading the news, and dealing with everyone’s stupid questions.” I had responded by saying that things had to be bad if a Palestinian felt sorry for me. “I had the same thought myself!” he had exclaimed, and we had both laughed uproariously. In the second, I had been at one of many gatherings in which Obama’s victory was being celebrated. I had thought about drone attacks and the escalation of American invasions into Pakistan. But the suffering of a small, distant country seemed almost inappropriate to bring up in the midst of celebration about America’s first black president. As I prepared to leave, an American colleague told me quietly that she was sorry that I had to keep hearing people celebrate. “I know what this means for your home,” she said, and for the first time, I allowed myself to tell someone about the dread in my stomach and the difficulty I was having sleeping. I left before she could see my tears.
Of the first three years I taught in San Francisco, what I remember most is the thickening of my silence, and a stubborn, bordering on outright perverse desire not to share Pakistan with anyone, as though the act of sharing the country would dilute what made it mine. I had no words for the twisting feeling in the center of my chest for Pakistan, the knot of pain in my right shoulder, homesickness so intense that it had in fact become physical pain. The more Pakistan appeared in newspapers, the more difficult it became to explain the place. Even if I tried, I would be one voice against too many burning images. I began to pretend to be on the phone when taking cabs, I avoided colleagues interested in Pakistan, and I stopped going to Muslim social gatherings after realizing that Pakistan-bashing would be a central theme in these. The sheer fatigue of deflecting questions left me with little room to know what it was I would say if allowed to speak on my own terms, or even what these terms would be. Most of the time, I maintained what looked like Pakistan-conversation to others, but involved defensive maneuvers that brought on the kind of exhaustion an athlete might feel at the end of a harrowing race she has lost despite her best efforts.
When I began to consider taking a fourth-year sabbatical to go to Pakistan, I was told, predictably, that this was a bad idea. The country was volatile and dangerous. No writing would get done and I desperately needed academic publications if I wanted tenure. I planned to teach while I was there—for both the fall semester of 2010 and the spring semester of 2011—and this would take even more time away from research and writing. Was I out of my mind to risk losing tenure at a private liberal arts college in San Francisco? But I suspected that something much larger was at stake if I didn’t leave and go back home, to the place I had surrounded by a silence so thick that I was terrified that I had lost my capacity to put feeling into words, to write anything at all. I had always been certain of my ability to write, and the loss of language was paralyzing, as was the silence into which I had retreated.
Landing in Karachi is like running into the arms of a lover you’ve been forbidden to see for years. My sabbatical leave has been granted and I’m home. No one searches me in this country. Here is the place I finally feel safe. There’s nothing menacing about the immigration officers. I laugh and joke with them, produce both my passports, the blue American one and the green Pakistani one, and eventually saunter off, grinning. I’m home. And I’m going to be home for a year, the longest time I’ve spent in Pakistan since I left for college thirteen years ago. When I was in college and the country hadn’t yet come under siege, I took it for granted and didn’t miss it much. But after I began graduate school in September 2001, it became increasingly difficult to leave and go back to the U.S. after my visits home. I would dread the interrogations of Homeland Security, the cold, long winters in Ann Arbor, and the constant feeling of alienation that comes from being asked where you are from originally and then hearing people talk about where-you-are-from-originally as a dangerous place.
Even though I spent a great deal of time being homesick in graduate school, I wanted a PhD in history, so there wasn’t a whole lot to do but get on planes and get on with the degree. I figured that I could go home when I was done. But in my last two years of graduate school, I was told that getting a PhD in history would be a waste if I picked up and left for the homeland. Instead I needed to Get a Job, Publish Things, and Be Successful. I didn’t have a counter-argument, so I applied for jobs. On the job market, I told myself that I would go back to Pakistan unless I landed a tenure-track job at a small liberal arts college in New York, Boston, Chicago, or San Francisco. These parameters were impossible; I had only written two chapters of my dissertation and would be competing with people who had completed theirs for jobs in desirable locations. But after interviewing in San Francisco, I flew back to Ann Arbor thoroughly charmed and invested in the place. When I got a job offer, I cancelled my other interviews and accepted immediately. The academic job market crashed the next year.
The semester I began teaching in San Francisco, Pakistan had become the country around which I built walls to prevent it from being attacked in conversation. From the handyman who came to my apartment to fix a bookshelf and began ranting about terrorism when he found out where I was from, to the woman at my phone company who couldn’t give me rates to Pakistan without commenting on the place, being Pakistani meant that like the country, nothing was off limits when it came to the kinds of attacks to which I was subjected. The sense of threat would begin after I would stumble out to the airport in San Francisco, bleary-eyed and homesick, and a stranger in a uniform would take me aside, search my bags, and leave my clothes in a heap somewhere. The questioning would begin, particular in its brutality. Why was I bringing back “native costumes” to America? Why did my parents move back to a place like Pakistan when they could have lived here, in America, the country where I was born? And there would be the impossibility of saying “because of you” to the man sifting through my things. At the end of the interrogation, an immigrations officer would finally stamp my American passport and say “Welcome home.”
The threat would continue at work; a particularly vexing colleague who has now learned names like Salman Taseer and Benazir Bhutto would greet my return by drone-bombing me with his latest predictions about the steady demise of Pakistan and jokes about the duplicity of Pakistanis. Or, he would ask me about “the current situation,” the amorphous phrase that has come to represent the entire country in the inquiries of the well-meaning. The last time I spoke to him, he said I must be happy to be back in America. I had thought of the airport in Karachi, and the road to my house. I had thought of my mother’s garden at night, with flowers and pools of water, and of the peace that waits for me there. All this was safe somewhere in a place neither he nor a homeland security officer could ever reach. “Oh, sure,” I had said lightly. “I’m happy to be back.”
I’m home, I’m thinking, on the drive back from the airport in Karachi to house in which I grew up. There’s no need for evasions here, no need for silence.
In the first class I teach in Lahore, the air seems to shimmer from the beginning. That September, something knotted suddenly unfurls. I’m in Pakistan. The line around it is no longer needed. My armor clanks to the floor. “Let’s talk about Pakistan,” I say to my students. And we do. There are no secrets to protect, no fear of being hurt from a stranger’s inadvertent prodding of a private bruise. These are not strangers. I’ve never felt such complete trust while standing in front of a classroom, and it makes me remember my own years in college, and the openness with which I seemed to walk around, a product of being ten years younger, but also of being Pakistani before the country came under siege on so many fronts. My students draw out from me pain that I would not allow to see the light of day, and I trust them easily, and allow them to ask anything they like. This country belongs to all of us, and I’m not standing in front of a room alone, weighed down by belonging that no one else can understand.
“Look Taymiya, I know you love this place,” says Khadija, who I’ve known since I was thirteen. She’s come to visit me in Lahore, and we are walking around on campus. “But you don’t know how hard it is to live here. Pakistan has a way of wringing us of the well-intentioned idealism we come back with. Trust me. It’s not the country we grew up in.” I know what she means. There seems to be a collective trauma that has settled over Pakistan like a fog, and stories keep surfacing in everyday conversation—the house that washed away in the floods, the cousin blown up at a marketplace, the uncle who was shot, the father detained in prison in the U.S. somewhere because he was at the wrong place at the wrong time. Another close friend tells me that her biggest heartbreak isn’t a person, it’s Pakistan. “Be careful,” she says. “You come back, this place welcomes you with open arms, and then it knifes you.”
There’s a kind of lover you meet late at night even though your head is full of your friends’ warnings and their concern. But then his car pulls up, silver and smooth and full of possibility, and you swear you’ve never felt more alive as you do in this instant. You join the world of other people in daylight, you pour tea and meet guests and go to your office, but there are hidden scratches on your arm, which you grazed when you ran out hurriedly to meet him, and you think of the open road and his sidelong glance and your heart speeds up. You forget about the warnings. Maybe he breaks everyone else’s heart, but he won’t break yours. And even if he does, you’re not sure you care. I don’t want to think about the damage Pakistan can cause me. I’m already damaged. And being here is the balm.
In late October, the moon hangs impossibly low. At night, the canal is gleaming moonlight and the reflections of trees. The air is beginning to cool down. It’s soon going to be the season for steaming bowls of soup in cars, shawls and sweaters. Gas heaters will burn orange in darkened rooms. Later there’s going to be the mist that envelops the city. Haniya, who I’ve known since college, is driving us to dinner at a restaurant she loves. But we have been stuck in traffic jam for half an hour and I know she is annoyed. This kind of traffic jam is the bane of Pakistanis everywhere. A politician has blocked the road and no one can move. Haniya fiddles with the music. I peer out onto the road. Read on >>