Not Talking About Pakistan

Feb 2013

Pages: 1 2 3

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.

Foggy morning

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.

LUMS by night

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.

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47 Responses to Not Talking About Pakistan

  1. Aban Usmani on Feb 2013 at 12:37 AM

    I came across this article through my niece on the Facebook. I am happy to know you are living your life…sometimes we do need to escape our lover as if possessiveness and love don’t go togethor
    I am overwhelmed…hailing from Lahore having Karachi & Swat as my memorable vacations of childhood…My both were born in SFO…I have a lot of family on the Baltimore east coast to saginaw MI…
    Love the passion and the low of life
    Hope there will be a day when I could take a sabbatical like your and never return from Lahore
    It might never happen since I am in Riyadh KSA where things are different / probably more conducive towards survival than in US
    dying bit by bit is the difficult part

  2. mkz on Feb 2013 at 1:26 AM

    I felt the exact same way when I left Karachi after spending my whole life there to study abroad, and did the same things. I especially refused to talk about Pakistan. I had always thought about how stupid and foolish that was, but reading this really made it click.

  3. rizwan on Feb 2013 at 2:14 AM

    crazy good essay. moving as hell.

  4. Mohammad Khosa on Feb 2013 at 3:03 AM

    Beautifully written. I love the expression of thought which obviously comes from the heart. You’ve evoked a lot of long forgotten emotions. My compliments to the writer on both her writings and her romantacism about Pakistan.

  5. Hassan K Bajwa on Feb 2013 at 4:46 AM

    Dear Taymiya,
    Thank you for this wonderful piece of writing. I cannot tell you how much i can relate to what you have written. As a person of mixed danish and pakistani heritage i understand completely the impossibility of trying to explain or even define what it is about Pakistan that we can love and appreciate. And so few people in the world understand that loving where you come from means that you love the things that are amazing as well as the things that are terrible (even as you seek to change them). Of course most love their nation of origin without really understanding that love with the clarity that comes to those who have the benefit of the perspective that comes from being away from that place.
    And while the journey to this clarity is painful i believe that it strengthens ones love even as it lends one great patience in dealing with the attacks that come from those who simply cannot know better.
    Once again thank you

  6. Nada on Feb 2013 at 5:52 AM

    I am severely conflicted right now which is why I’ve come to write. It’s like coming home after a long day and finally collapsing in the lap of your mother where somehow things always make sense and any and all fears can be taken care of. I think about how easy it is to manipulate our emotions these days and how much information we’re all really exposed to within a span of 20 minutes. We read, we click ‘like’ and we comment on so many different things that after a point we stop realizing how these fluctuations affect our emotional mapping. I read an article about a Saudi cleric raping and torturing his 5 year old which inexplicably moves me to tears of anger, of heartbreak and grief at how everything seems to be degenerating around us. It’s like living in a house and having bits and pieces of it blown away and not being able to make it stop. So, I let the emotions engulf me and I feel all of it instead of running away. I embrace the pain, the anger and I allow myself to vent and ask questions. How much more? Is this what the world is coming to? I think and I think till my brain starts spinning and I’m not sure how to put it all together again. White, jarring light. Within the next few minutes, I come across an article written by Taymiya Zaman about Pakistan, that is all at once so beautiful it makes me happy to be alive and so heartbreaking, I wish I could somehow piece it back and fix it. Soft, glowing radiance. There is pain and there is beauty that leaves me torn between wishing I had better navigational skills because I really could use some direction right now and hoping neither my cynicism nor my idealism get the better of each other. Does one overplay the other? I feel extreme anger at this world whilst at the same time, feeling so grateful to be alive because there is someone out there called ‘Taymiya’ that took the time to write down her emotions so beautifully. Then it hits me-maybe it doesn’t have to be an ‘either’/’or’. There is both- beauty so ravishing it makes your heart burst and pain so real,it makes you wonder when it will all be over and maybe that’s what life is about. It’s a balancing act between allowing yourself to embrace all that is beautiful in people and the world whilst knowing that there exists brutality of the same degree. All within the same radius. All within 20 minutes.

  7. Danish on Feb 2013 at 8:26 AM

    Really well written. I can really relate to most of what you have written. really enjoy reading it.

    • Ansar on Feb 2013 at 9:56 AM

      Oops you enjoy reading this article. There are bearded people who enjoy slaughtering our army people. Reading this article I feel sad about my country.Rather enjoying it praying which might save our country from ruins

      • Danish on Feb 2013 at 8:41 AM

        Ansar, what are you talking about? If I had not enjoyed reading it, would it automatically make things better in Pakistan?

  8. Naveen Malik on Feb 2013 at 1:21 PM

    Asslam u alaikum, I cried when i read this- hadn’t realised the tears had fallen until i saw them on the lihaaf- It is winter is lahore again – I live here- it is exactly as you descibed – People want to leave and I cannot tell anyone why I dont want to- But you have – Thank you – Jazakillah. I miss the Pakistan I grew up in – Its seems part of another world which comes back to haunt time and again. I havent a newspaper subscription and I don’t have a tv. I rarely bother listening to the news. Maybe my way of doing what you are- Of retaining the utopian dream – I dont know- All i know is maybe someday….

  9. Sanjay on Feb 2013 at 3:13 PM

    “Dying a little bit at a time” is spot on. I related very strongly to your piece and it brought up all those feelings I get whenever I’m home or leave home. While I don’t suffer the indignities as much at immigration ( I am Indian), I have realized the hard way, that there are two kinds of migrants – those who are able to throttle their nostalgia and move on with life and those – especially artists – who will drive their cars with their gazes fixed firmly in the rearview mirror. You must find your own way to address it, otherwise it will eat you “bit by bit”. Diaspora movies and books will become your bogeyman. Watching and reading about immigrants making a fetish about spirituality and cultural preservation will sicken you with guilt and anger (at yourself, mostly).

    Once you have kids this feeling grows chronic, in my experience. Then, there are two “homes”, your childhood one and their America. You will find yourself constantly battling and weighing these contrasts all the time. Taymiya is fortunate she spent her formative years in Pakistan – she has a common point of reference with her parents, siblings and close friends. Once babies arrive in an alien country, then this cross-referencing becomes acute. The “outsider” is in your own home and now you must traverse the banal middle path.

    It is for this reason I’d like to head home soon. My sons are 7 and 5 and I want them to spend their formative years there and just live ordinary days upon ordinary days. I don’t need to explain turmeric to a dinner guest and holi is not exotic. It’s that important to me that I choose to leave at least for 8-10 years. The clincher for me was when I realized that they, or even one of them, could grow up to be a writer and write an acutely felt diaspora story! Haraam!!

    It’s very hard to make a choice to to call a place home. Some do it with compunction, some suffer tiny paper cuts every single day. I wish Taymiya and many others like us good luck in navigating this road.

  10. Sadaf on Feb 2013 at 3:38 PM

    Haven’t read such a balanced, emotive piece on Pakistan in ages. Painful but wonderful! One can so relate, with each and every scenario that she has depicted. Very few ppl understands that ‘ache in the heart’, and how sick you get of those around u bashing Pak…while you can’t defend… because at times there is nothing that you can say, no excuse you can give…and sometimes you know the bashing is because they love the country too and expect it to be so much better. And you can see each and every point of view whether it is ultra-religious or ultra-liberal and you keep on vacillating between cynicism and idealism and well you know….
    Thank you for such a wonderful piece!

  11. Said Chaudhry on Feb 2013 at 3:49 PM

    Wonderful essay. Have been in the same shoes as yourself. Read my take on my time in Lahore. “There is a secret in Lahore”

  12. shivam on Feb 2013 at 4:44 PM

    What a killer piece of writing. Even though I’m Hindu and Indian and diasporic, the reflection of life here in the bay vs life in the motherland resonated powerfully. I completely understand the issues of identity that assault those of us with feet in two lands, and how there is no one place to call home–too brown for america, and too western for the ancestral home.


  13. ChiPak on Feb 2013 at 11:44 PM

    Nicely written, deeply felt, occasionally a bit obscure, but I enjoyed it. I also find it interesting that you and your sister are named after 13th century Muslim jurists. To those that use Pakistan and Islam to wound you, use your name(s) to recount the glorious intellectual and theological tradition you have inherited. It ought to be enough.

  14. Mike Cope on Feb 2013 at 1:58 AM

    Great piece! Put me in mind of Akram Kahn’s wonderful dance piece, “Desh”.

  15. olaki on Feb 2013 at 2:07 AM

    this is a moving article but in this entire article, there is no sense of how much pain your country and its policies have caused others. the mumbai attacks, the involvement in afghanistan – these have destroyed lives. murdered innocent children. your pain is understandable but the pain of the others who frisk you, send drones to your country is also equally real and deep

  16. gurjit singh cheema on Feb 2013 at 4:19 AM

    A delightful and heartwarming essay. Although I’m niether Muslim, nor from Pakistan but one of those guys from the wrong side of the line, I can empathise with you. No place like home. And it certainly puts Pakistan in perspective. No place is as bad as they make it out to be in the papers.

  17. Nigel Foster on Feb 2013 at 5:35 AM

    Beautifully written. Thank you – Andre Aciman has a rival! Perhaps only a small consolation, but I’ve found that America in general can be as ignorant – often unpleasantly so – about my own country, England, as about Pakistan. I’ve lived in the Middle East, working both with and for Pakistani companies and hope to have a better understanding of your country than the average person. If I may a few brief points, hopefully not too obvious. Pakistan is still a very young country, a fact easily forgotten given the antiquity of those societies and beliefs that constitute it; unrealistic to expect an adolescent to behave like an adult. That isn’t meant as a slighting comment, only that Pakistan has yet to develop those societal checks and balances, institutions and controls, that make a country viable for all its citizens. And can any country really be founded on a religious principle? My own experience is that Pakistani people identify more closely with their home Province, their clan or tribe and with their own school of Islam, than with the country as a whole. In other words, their sense of nationhood is based on personal values and loyalties that may coincide with others, but are just as likely to conflict. Pakistan now seems less like a country than a collection of fiefdoms, all with different agendas and not even one school of Islam becoming totally dominant will ever unite them. My overall point is that Partition was a mistake. Sadly, I can’t think of the alternative. Thanks again for the beautifully written essay, both a joy to read and very informative. The link came from

  18. Utkarsh on Feb 2013 at 11:07 AM

    So moving and beautiful. Frankly, I feel a lot of that pain for the country I’ve unofficially disowned, India, because though it may not have a violent image internationally, I do not see it having a good future with all the fundamentalism and corruption.

  19. Bilal Abbas on Feb 2013 at 12:21 PM

    Beautiful and sad, haven’t read something of this depth in a long time. I went to Lahore for college too, the experience was truly amazing. Best wishes in SFC

  20. Elavame on Feb 2013 at 3:23 AM

    I felt like you did. And I came back to my country. And it was the best decision I ever made.
    When I read this, all the sickening memories of having to defend my Pakistan against callous intrusive questioning in America came back and I am so glad I am not there anymore. I feel so protective about it, it was like every little cell was screaming each time anyone bashed Pakistan. I was sick of it, it was too traumatic. So I left. For a place that is like no other on this Earth: my Pakistan.

  21. Maddie on Feb 2013 at 7:10 AM

    This was absolutely beautiful and captured the entirety of the essence of being a Pakistani abroad. It feels like loving Pakistan is taboo, and admitting to that love makes you certifiably insane. But I love my Pakistan, even if she is the secret lover that might break my heart.
    Thank you for this, I literally have tears rolling uncontrollably down my face because every word brought back such bittersweet memories.
    Oh my Pakistan, I miss you so

  22. Aditya Dev Sood on Feb 2013 at 9:54 AM

    It’s been several days I’ve been reading your piece, only to realise its tropologies have infected my imagination, colouring the everyday things I talk and think about with such cadences as wafa and baemani and muhabbat. Extraordinary. Not that old-time love, but something deeper and even more painful.

  23. Madeeha on Feb 2013 at 9:29 PM

    It’s hard, being caught between extremes. But am glad you’ve come away with the Pakistan that you can own 🙂

  24. Farhana on Feb 2013 at 12:12 AM

    MashaAllah, wonderfully written. I am a Kashmiri living away from home and can relate to every bit so well. So many similar feelings , maybe more intense at times. What impresses me is the way you writers can put thoughts into words so beautifully. I’m sure there are millions across the globe who have similar feelings, but don’t have the ability/means to express. Your contribution to their feelings is invaluable!! God bless.

  25. Syed Faisal imam on Feb 2013 at 6:58 AM

    You are Pakistan,the Pakistan you left when you came to the U.S.
    Pakistan is changing and fast . Dimensions are changing and values are changing.
    Two factors,population and lack of resources, especially management.
    The land is there, the history is there; we are not able to gel it together to design our future.

  26. Summer on Feb 2013 at 5:23 PM

    Thank you for sharing your story. It was beautifully written. I go to school at San Francisco State University where there are many students from other countries. They too experience the complexity from being from misunderstood places while trying to form identities of their own. It’s a lot to ask from a 20 year old, to process international relations, family pressures, and the full time struggle of surviving an underfunded and crumbling public university system. We all have to be as kind as we can to each other to thrive and grow a better future.

  27. Omar Chughtai on Feb 2013 at 1:00 AM

    Thank you so much for writing this. I can relate with this hopeless love of Pakistan.

    I especially loved how you didn’t paint Pakistan as the opposite of the headlines. Pakistan is difficult, complex, scary, and home all at the same time.

    Thank you again for writing this brilliant piece.

  28. Anjum Hameed on Feb 2013 at 1:43 AM

    I could not figure out the point of this article. The very fact that the lady went back to the US, and was easily able to, shows the strength of her feelings for her motherland. I have lived abroad for 23 years, but I have never felt shy of proclaiming where I come from to foreigners. The look on their faces gives me satisfaction, they should know that our country doesn’t only exist of hijabs, or AK-47’s, or unkempt beards. I have never, and will never claim to be anything but, even though I now hold a passport that does not allow me dual nationality. I am extremely proud of this present passport, I will fight for the rights of the country it represents as is my sworn duty. But I will never be embarrassed to belong to where I was born, grew up, and what gave me my identity. “Pakistan” is what gave us the means and rights to go live abroad, study there, be what we are. Those with the beards and “Allah hafiz” issues are only representative of a fraction of a percentage of the country, as are those of us English educated, and bred ones. Both sides are polarized into believing they are right, while our words and deeds plunder the rest of the nation. I will discuss my birth country with love and affection with anyone, and if the argument gets heated, I will probably yell back. But I will never feel the need to shy away from it.

  29. Habib Qureshi on Feb 2013 at 3:48 AM

    I absolutely loved your article. And it makes me feel jealous and guilty. Jealous because I have never actually lived in Pakistan, but rather visit it rarely. Like one night stands, where the experience is fantastic but you have a guilt that you never really got to know the person. And guilty because now I don’t care to be honest. I used to read up on Pakistani politics and actively engage in conversations but like you, I live in a city where Pakistan-bashing is the norm & I got tired of the my constant yet feeble attempts at trying to explain to people how I think I might have just fallen in love with my one night stand. Now, I just don’t and can’t care. I am glad you feel this way about your home country.

    And I hope I do too.

    Habib Q

  30. israr on Feb 2013 at 6:31 AM

    many of the feelings explained in this articles are mine!! but i couldn’t write them down! brilliant one!

  31. Saeed Akhtar Malik on Feb 2013 at 12:46 PM

    M speechless. My eyes welled up number of times overwhelmed by the romanticism about Pakistan. Its rare that words fail me as they do right now. I just cant think or write enough. I know its far short of what I would have liked to offer, just not enough, but still, “My salute to my compatriot”.

  32. chris on Feb 2013 at 4:23 PM

    Comeuppance for Pakistanis. Pakistanis are pretending to be Indians In western countries and even in Afghanistan. Indians their sworn enemies! What a rotten, 2 faced people! The world knows about your realities now. After failing to bleed India through thousand cuts you low lives have been reduced to pretending that you are Indians! What indignity and insult! After trying to demonize Hindus, it is you who are demons and evil in eyes of whole world! Shame on you.

  33. Faheem on Feb 2013 at 4:35 AM

    This article is bullshit to begin with. The author writes she presented both Pakistani and USA passports to the immigration officer at Karachi. Then later on she states that she was born in USA. Thats a contradiction and it seems like this article is made up. I have lived in USA for 20 yrs and I dont know a single Pakistani american who was born in US who went thru the trouble of getting a Pakistani passport.

  34. Laiq Chughtai on Feb 2013 at 4:47 PM

    I hope more of us can come to terms with the entirety of Pakistan, all its lows and the highs, the retrogressive fundamentalism of conservatives and liberals alike and the sublime compassion of its people that makes life possible for its teeming masses. Only someone who has lived there knows Pakistan, and only someone who has left, truly appreciates it…

  35. mahmood anwar on Feb 2013 at 11:45 AM

    I started reading it while working late but couldn’t finish it. But it was on mind throughout the night & this morning, until I finished reading it just now. Very well written, thought provoking and deeply inspiring for people like me who have burning desire to go back home & “do something for the motherland”. It only added to my conviction and thank you Ms Zaman for that.

  36. tariq on Feb 2013 at 4:08 AM

    I am pleasantly amazed to see the love of Pakistan in so many hearts .. all well educated and well versed in the worldly affairs.

    I can some how feel what you feel in the Pakistan bashing sessions but I would suggest two things here
    * Do we justify as why we love someone? In love, you look at your beloved beauty and rest is out of focus. Tell them that I love Pakistan out of no reason and I refuse to give justify various acts/issues etc.
    * Fault finding is easy. Small people do it. We should sympathize with such people for being the inconspicuous specs of dust in the whole of humanity. Great people find positives and help shine & fly. You and most here are Great. Salute to all.

  37. Taymiya R. Zaman on Feb 2013 at 3:40 AM

    I never imagined that “Not Talking About Pakistan” would reach so many people; nor did I anticipate the emotion it has generated, of which much appears to stem from a sense of recognition–of being Pakistani and feeling similarly beleaguered, or of being someone all too familiar with love in other contexts! Thank you all truly for your thoughtful and generous responses to this essay.

  38. I Wish on Feb 2013 at 3:48 PM

    Beautiful article. No one else to blame. We Pakistanis have made Pakistan what it is. The present by their presence and the absent by their absence. I have been absent since 1969, but Pakistan continues to dwell in the heart. The heart sinks when Pakistan sinks which is most of the time. Not much to make the heart soar, a lot to make it sore. Same with Islam. We Muslims have made Islam into a sorry caricature of what it is; a great, liberating world-view which is meant to bring happiness and peace to people, not small-mindedness, intolerance, nit-picking, and suffering. Pakistan is an unfulfilled potential, hence the pain

  39. Enjum on May 2013 at 12:13 AM

    Thanks for a lovely essay. I’m sixty five and have lived with nostalgia for a large part of my life. In Pakistan in the fifties and sixties I longed to get away from the limitations of my society (and it was FREE SOCIETY in those days!), then I moved to Europe and learnt about their admirable preservation of their heritage, went back to Pakistan, had a blast like Taymiya working there, then migrated to America and felt nostalgic about Pakistan and Europe, then: uff, I grew up and stopped sitting between two chairs or driving with my eyes on the rear view mirror. I look ahead and enjoy everything around me: weather, people, food, culture, whatever… a place is what you make of it, period

  40. ikhlas fatima on May 2013 at 1:50 PM

    Very emotional article. My experience is a bit different, though similar feeling. When people learn where I am from they avoid discussing politics, any politics, even current affairs where these days Pakistan surfaces all the time. Sometimes I feel that they are waiting for me to leave so they can talk more openly. Sometimes they can be overly patronizing. Either way you know you are being singled out as an outsider.

  41. Shen on May 2013 at 5:00 PM

    Taymiya, thank you for writing such a brilliant essay. This resonates with me on so many levels – living in the US and the UK, moving back to Pakistan, then getting disillusioned and moving back to Dubai. Khadija and I have had the same discussions that you and she had, particularly about the increasing polarization of society – on being too conservative for the so-called liberals, and too liberal for the “conservatives”. One winds up being a stranger in one’s own land.

  42. Balam on Oct 2014 at 2:23 PM

    I read your post and I saw your pain and your joy of Pakistan through your eyes. You have great talent as a writer.

    I learned one thing and thanks for opening my mind — I will never ask questions to folks if I will they may not be comfortable (I felt your pain and its an eye opener …)

    But I am going to give my 2 cents which will hurt you (pls do not read bellow unless you can digest it):

    But I am disappointed mainly for your students. Imagine the pity of students that their teacher, a PHD doctor of History who is supposed to open their minds…is a coward who hides and runs for cover. Worst South Asia is supposed to be her main area of research!

    My 2nd disappointment is how can a girl/women who loves your native-country(pakistan) as much as you do…become an american citizen? You do not seem to share a single american value (other than the minor ones which you personally enjoy) …will you fight and die for America?

    You come across as someone wealthy who had all the money to study in US and become a “doctor” .. who really is no intellectual or has no passion for history other than the fact she is good at writing. You moved to US, became a doctor , took a job…because its the “in” thing to do?

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