A woman is walking in our direction, obviously agitated, pounding on car windows. She comes to Haniya’s window and raps on it. Haniya rolls her window down. The woman says her sister has been burned in an accident and she needs to get her to the hospital. Will we help her get the road open? I think of my sister Jawziya and how I would do the same for her. “Yes,” we say. Car doors open, women and men rush out into the night. The woman argues with the police. The crowd backs her up. The policemen say they are doing their job. “Is this politician’s life worth more to you than my sister’s?” she yells. They seem shamefaced. The crowd gathers momentum. A man says he is recording this because he is a journalist from GEO. The policemen open the road. This is the Pakistan I know and love, I’m thinking. These ordinary victories, nothing short of heroic. When the long-awaited winter fog descends on Lahore, I am convinced that the city is magic, and the magic is compounded because it will never make it to newspapers abroad. This magic is ours, you think, disappearing into the night with your secret lover, and no one needs to know.
Deeper into winter, Mav calls me early in the morning and says enough is enough, I am a Mughal historian and I need to go with her to the old city because what’s the point of depriving her of my expertise? I crawl out of bed and go to her apartment. She drives us to Capri, where we order halwa puri, warm and sweet and delicious. We walk through the old city and I read her the inscriptions outside the Wazir Khan mosque, relieved that she doesn’t know Farsi because I am out of practice. At night, she wants to buy flowers, and I soon learn that my new friend is the only person I know as obsessed with flowers as me. Many nights, we drive home with our arms full of heady, fragrant tuberoses, gladiolas in combinations of peach and pink, red and white, and always the motia and rose bracelets that smell like home. Mav likes mixing her colors. I like making entire combinations of one color. The man at what becomes our regular flower place loves both of us. The first time I had gone there, I had refused to buy the waxy flowers from Dubai. My flower-patriotism had made him happy, and now he goes out of his way each time Mav and I show up.
News from the other country trickles its way to me all year. There’s something about a mosque in New York that everyone is upset about. There’s someone called Peter King and there are hearings of some sort. A cab driver gets stabbed for being Muslim. Mosques are being infiltrated with FBI agents and spray-painted with hate. Muslim activism is being arranged around the premise that Muslims are American too; the premise is banal and lacks dignity, but is necessary for these times. Later there’s news of people holding a national celebration because Osama bin Laden got assassinated in a place called Pakistan. “You’re so lucky you are not here,” a friend from San Francisco says to me on the phone. “It would make you sick—the jubilation, the crowds, and all the hatred for Muslims and Pakistanis.” I imagine my office in San Francisco, and the flurry of emails asking me if I want to give a guest lecture. I think of the questions in corridors and classrooms and the burden of having to respond to those. America seems the way Pakistan does from a distance, violent and dangerous. I hang up the phone. Khayyam and Aurangzeb want to meet for dinner, the night is starry, and someone is playing the guitar outside.
That winter, my apartment-mate Ned decides that I need to learn how to drive, even though I’ve been terrified of driving for as long as I can remember. With her, I take the car out to what seems like the edge of the city and drive by fields and trees, of which there’s one that we both decide to climb. On another drive, we find the stream that feeds the fields and sit down to dip our feet in it. Or, we get lost, and feeling like Indiana Jones, I use the setting sun to navigate us back home. I thought I couldn’t drive. I thought I had no sense of direction. This is not the case in the city where anything seems possible. When we return to campus, the car is covered with dust and the tank is nearly empty, and we stumble out of it brimming with triumph and elation. When it gets warmer, there’s falsa juice at four in the morning with Haniya, who likes staying up late the way I do. We gulp down our falsa juice. “This country,” Haniya declares, “is like no place on earth.” I grin at her. “Agreed,” I say, raising my glass. The falsa juice is cool and thick and there’s nowhere else we want to be.
It’s always so with a secret love, the one of whom all your friends disapprove. They tell you about his bad track record with women, her tendency to be fickle, things that are either common knowledge, or form rumors of uncommon proportion and against those you put moments in which you know your lover the best. His hair with the sun in it, her honey-gold voice, the thing in the air that burns between you, the smell of motia at night, a season with falsa juice and a moment which turns on the figure of a woman and the crowd behind her who is willing to stand up to policemen with guns. Against all that, you hold the worry of others and their warnings, and dismiss them the way poets dismiss the nasih for the mehbub. To some invisible holy force outside yourself you offer complete surrender. No one would fault you for not accepting the invitation to heartbreak. But you would be left with a day that is exactly like the one before it and the ones after.
It’s a new semester and classes begin in late January. February ends with a hailstorm that coats the city in white, and after that, everyone feels the warmth in the air. The winter in Lahore is coming to an end. Ned and I have bought a takht for the balcony, perfect for chai in the evenings, and for breakfast in the mornings, which are still pleasant. There are few evenings left when sitting outside will be bearable, and we cherish each one. The sun is going to bear down on us, the electricity will go, petrol will run out, and everyone will want to emigrate. Days get warmer and warmer, but nights are still cool. The winter fog is the first to leave. I miss looking outside my window and watching couples walk through it, hand in hand early in the morning and late in the evening. I miss how it whittled down all the sharp edges of the sun and made mornings softer. After the fog leaves, the coolness of the air follows fast, and one morning, I wake up hot and uncomfortable. The heat makes the winter seem distant, as though it never happened.
Days in April begin too early, and their brightness is monotonous. Each day begins with the realization that I can’t hide from the things about being here that leave me troubled and edgy. Getting out of bed is an effort, the way it used to be in San Francisco, when each day felt like an assault from many sides. This semester, I realize I have lost some of the openness with which I began my first class. After Salman Taseer’s death, we’ve been told to stay away from the topic of religion and blasphemy in the classroom and I am tense and anxious because there have been too many instances in which I have either been accused of attacking Islam or of defending Muslim fundamentalists.
At a conference, where I am presenting a paper on the pre-modern Muslim past, a young bearded student who has heckled every single female speaker begins to shout at me. He tells me I should be ashamed of myself for teaching students about the Mughals, who were bad Muslims. The stereotypes that both of us represent are staggering. I am an America-returned woman speaking in English about gender. He is a bearded Muslim male yelling at the woman for attacking Islam. What I feel, strangely enough, is betrayal. I’m on your side, I want to tell him. I’ve been threatened with violence, spat on, yelled at, and called names for being a Muslim. If anyone in my classrooms abroad says anything derogatory about angry, misogynistic Muslim men, I don’t let them get away with it. My heart starts pounding and my hands and feet are cold. I respond by making fun of him, and I know that the sympathies of the room are with me. Now, I am angry at myself. He is a minority here by virtue of having a beard and he believes that something precious to him—Islam—is being attacked by me and he needs to defend it at all costs in a hostile environment. Don’t I know that feeling? The reason I retreated into silence about Pakistan when it was being attacked was because I knew that if I started speaking, I would sound exactly like him.
I think of going to him and saying I’m sorry. But there’s a chasm between us, and I’m not sure I can offer him anything for the kind of pain from which his anger springs. I express my discomfort to an old family friend who has been a professor for twenty five years. He tells me that despite his silver hair, newly-bearded students feel quite comfortable coming up to him and asking them why he has not been seen at Friday prayers. In my time, he tells me, it would have been inconceivable for a student to question his elder like this. But, he says, mazhab now trumps adab even though for him and his teachers, each was part of the other. “It’s what these kids see around them,” he tells me. “We grew up in less turbulent times.” He says it helps to have one thing that stays still and unchanging within you when everything around you is on fire and you feel attacked from all sides. This, I understand. His eyes are sad. He has lived his life and doesn’t regret spending it in Pakistan. But he worries about the country his generation has left behind.
That night, I’m at a dinner party and a feminist activist who has lived through the Zia years expresses interest in my work. I like her immediately, and we begin a long conversation about how literature has shaped our worldviews. The younger brother of a friend comes up to us and I introduce him to her. I tell him we were talking about poetry. He says that he would like to read more contemporary poetry from South Asia, and asks her for recommendations. Something freezes in the air. She stares at him coldly, and I see him through her eyes. He has a beard. He is wearing shalwar- kameez. Nothing else about him is relevant. “Why do you want to read poetry?” she says. “Isn’t that against Islam? Just stick to the Quran.” He tries to engage her in conversation, and she turns away. She is also no longer interested in talking to me. “I can’t believe this!” I say to him later. He smiles. “It happens all the time,” he says. “Just chill. Or, if you really want to show me solidarity, start wearing the hijab. People who thought you were intelligent and cool won’t want to be seen with you in public. I never thought I’d lose friends if I grew a beard but I did. Even if I shaved it off now, I don’t know how I’d be friends with people whose loyalty to me was conditional in the first place.”
At another party, a woman becomes belligerent when I refuse a drink. She starts telling me about how “the mullahs” are destroying Pakistan. She is proud, she says, of finding people who fast in Ramzan and eating in front of them. “If I could have my way, I would shave every beard and rip off every hijab and drag the country into being secular and tolerant like myself.” I make a dig at her by saying something about secular fundamentalism. She dismisses me and says there is no such thing. She asks me why I don’t drink. The skill with which I lied to cab drivers about where I was from comes back to me. “I’m a recovering alcoholic,” I say. She doesn’t believe me. I tell her I am sticking with my story because it’s more acceptable to her than commitments to religion. This has an impact, and she doesn’t ask me about drinking again.
The next time I meet her, she’s talking about how the mullahs hate women. She’s happy that Veena Malik told a mullah off on T.V. I’m irritated and wonder if I can leave early. People like her are generic. They come to parties and you can’t pass them a plate without them saying something or the other about the mullahs. I go out into the garden. It’s nearing summer, the air is hot and still, and mosquitoes buzz around us. She follows me outside and lights a cigarette. “Why do you hate mullahs?” I ask impulsively. She tells me she was married to one. She met her husband in college and they fell in love over the kinds of revolutionary plans students hatch late at night. But after they got married, her husband joined the Tabligh. “It was worse than seeing him with another woman,” she says, lighting another. “They took him away from me. Nothing I did was right. My hair was uncovered so I was shaming him in public, music was haram and I couldn’t sing anymore even though he used to love my voice, and I was just an obstacle on his path to God. It was either me or God. Guess who won?” Again, I’m ashamed of myself. “I’m sorry,” I fumble, “I know you must have loved him and—.” She cuts me off. “You can’t love someone like that,” she says. She tells me she used to be religious too but bits of her faith kept disappearing until there was nothing left.
There’s a god who lives here in Pakistan, who used to be khuda around the time I left for college, but who is now Allah. His name is etched onto the Mughal monuments of the city. Or, it’s written in the leaves of the tree outside my window, and in the patterns the stars make at night. When I pray to him, I ask for forgiveness. Sometimes it’s because someone’s pain has been thrown in my direction in the form of anger, and I’ve been unable to separate the two. Or, I’ve been angry and trampled over another person’s sacred and then caused them pain. There are minefields in this place, and I respond by doing what I did in San Francisco. I draw a line around something I want to protect, and in Lahore, this is my classroom. In the class I am teaching now, I tell my students that we are living under siege, but this room is safe. We are going to have difficult conversations, and no one is allowed to disengage, not even me. This is the only way we can prepare for the country outside, and the attacks to which it subjects everyone who lives in it.
The trust that sustains the imaginary line around our classroom is difficult to build. Sometimes, we are angry with one another and confused about ourselves. The pain in the room is tangible when one person’s sense of threat clashes with another’s. I know there are times I’ve been irreverent towards things my students hold sacred, and I love them for the generosity with which they tolerate this. We talk about Pakistan, even when it gets difficult to reconcile one person’s Pakistan with another’s. And we talk about blasphemy, even when it means flooding the room with religious beliefs and their opposite and bracing ourselves for more hurt. We talk about how much we hate this place and we hurl our rage at each other and expect to be forgiven. Or, there are periods of calm in which we remember that we hate this place because we feel betrayed by it, and because somewhere underneath anger, there’s love. I read them poetry from the Divan-i Shams-i Tabriz. The room is divided on the question of love and the price it extracts. On some days, there is laughter in the room, and complete understanding between us. Other days, in and out of the classroom, are exhausting, and I have to force myself to get through them.
I was naïve to think I would remain unaffected by the place I read about in newspapers. It has affected me. I am wracked with doubt, and often apprehensive and afraid. Did I come here like any other deluded expatriate, hoping to “do something” for the country? What was I thinking? Your lover with the silver car is going to drive away and leave you devastated, and you won’t be the first or the last. You may have defended him to your friends but he is in fact, exactly as they warned he would be—dangerous and unpredictable, entirely unconcerned about you—and your heart sinks when he drives away for the last time.
For the first time in years, I did not cry when I left Pakistan. I arrived in San Francisco on a characteristically cold day in June, and this time, when I was pulled aside and questioned by Homeland Security, I didn’t feel angry or helpless. The questions seemed innocuous; they were just the questions of people who believed they were protecting their country, as though such a thing is even possible, as though a land enclosed by imaginary lines can ever belong to you or be yours to protect. My father jokes that wanting to emigrate is central to the experience of being Pakistani, and I understand this now. The indignity of being Muslim in America is still better, for many, than living in a country where either religion or its opposite is constantly being rammed down their throats. I understand the appeal of safe roads and electricity and running water, and of shiny, promising lives in peaceful cities abroad. I understand too many things I wish I didn’t.
My parents come from Karachi to visit me in San Francisco the first winter I’m back—December 2011. Jawziya and I drive with our parents down Highway 1, from San Francisco to Santa Cruz, and the ocean gleams up at us, cold and blue. Driving in Pakistan did not scare me, but here I’m afraid of these long, isolated highways, and I’m afraid of accidents and insurance companies. I trust Jawziya at the wheel. We drive through vineyards and pumpkin fields. “There’s so much land here,” my mother says, with sadness in her voice. I know she’s thinking of the refugee camps she visits outside Karachi, where people are piled on top of each other, and there isn’t enough to eat. She’s thinking of Pakistan. And I’m thinking of it too. News is never good. Pakistani soldiers are dead at American hands. There’s Memogate and Husain Haqqani. There’s Baluchistan. And there are the northern areas of the country, where we spent many family vacations, and which are no longer safe to visit. I wish I had saved more pictures; I thought we’d always be able to go up north, just as I thought I’d always be able to go back home. Pain the shape of Pakistan catches in my chest. It’s only love, I tell myself. Nothing else can cut with such precision.
Either there is the news and my mother’s sadness, or there are emails such as the one Khayyam sends me. Lahore is dreamy this time of year, he writes and the winter of a year ago comes back, haunting and soft. I think of breakfast with Ned and Haniya on the balcony of what used to be my apartment and of buying flowers with Mav late at night. I think of the evening my students came over to say goodbye, and the signed picture frame with all of us together that I left in Karachi because I couldn’t fit it into my suitcase. And I think of the old city is waking up, and Badshahi mosque at night, moments in which I felt the kind of joy that borders on otherworldly. Outside my office, the San Francisco fog is cold and damp. I wish I could be back in Lahore and I envy Khayyam for being there. The city is a silver car speeding through the night with someone in it who isn’t me. That the joy I felt in Lahore should necessarily have contained its opposite, from this distance, does not feel any more personal than the changing of a season.
There are loves about which people think the end was inevitable, and you were a fool, like all the others, for thinking you could change him. Finally, they think, you’ve come to your senses, and bitterness sets in when you agree with their judgment. But if you don’t, you know you didn’t choose him despite the certainty that he would break your heart; you chose him because of it. You had built a wall around your heart to protect yourself, but then you found yourself trapped behind it, afraid of suffocating, and your wall put you in greater danger than you were in the first place. So you chose him. He smashed the wall and broke your heart open, as you knew he would. He was being himself. You were the one who needed to change.
Questions about Pakistan are now a fact of living here, no different from damp weather or calls from salespeople. Some I deflect, and others I frame around my own terms. It always helps to ask people who know names like Salman Taseer if they can name Pakistan’s four provinces or its major political parties. Pakistan makes its way into my classrooms, and I assign Sara Suleri for a course on autobiography. And when a student wants to interview me about my sabbatical year in Pakistan, I don’t refuse, even though I talk only about teaching history in the city that I came to love, and not about the country that appears in newspapers. And at a gathering of the same Muslims I had begun to hide from because of their Pakistan-bashing, I am asked what it was like being in Lahore. The disparaging nature of the curiosity is obvious. “It was glorious,” I reply. “Weren’t you afraid of dying in a suicide bomb?” someone says, and others laugh and agree. Snide comments about terrorism follow. “Not at all,” I say. Then I ask him, “Aren’t you afraid of dying slowly, a little bit at a time? That’s a lot worse.” He laughs nervously and changes the subject.
I can see Pakistan from his eyes, and I know the newspaper images that fuel Pakistan-bashing. I know the minefields of personal sorrow and betrayal that don’t make it to newspapers. I also know a Pakistan beneath these images that is rich with extraordinary possibilities, in which I made friends from whom I could ask more after a month of knowing them then I could ask of people I’ve known here for years. That place is unlike anywhere else on earth. I walk back to my apartment and realize that for the first time, words that would once have bruised are easy to dust off and walk away from. It’s as though Pakistan has sent me back with something that remains, like the place, difficult to translate but that acts slowly on my silence, thinning it when necessary, and giving me words when needed. It’s only love. Nothing can mend with such precision.
* This essay originally appeared in Critical Muslim 4: Pakistan? (London: Hurst & Co, 2012). Critical Muslim is a quarterly magazine of ideas and issues showcasing ground-breaking thinking on Islam and what it means to be Muslim in a rapidly changing, inter-connected world.
Photography by Haniya Aslam.
Taymiya Zaman is a writer and an Assistant Professor of Islamic History at the University of San Francisco.