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Friday, 21 August 2015

Scattered like Seed Pods

   I did most of my growing up in Pakistan. It was not the Pakistan that you find today in the media. It was not the land that housed Osama Bin Laden, or the country besieged by drone attacks, and suicide bombings. Handsome cricketers turned politicians did not stand on containers making speeches. Back then, Zia-ul-Haq was in power and anyone with an opinion either had the sense to keep quiet or was rendered silent. America back then, was not fighting the War on Terror on our soil, it was fighting the Russians in Afghanistan by funding our intelligence agency which funneled money to the mujahedeen. Back then, Muslim boys and men laying down their lives in the name of Allah were romanticized, not condemned. After all, it served America well at that point to have rugged Muslim guerrillas fight off the evil Russians. Never mind that every other street corner had Afghani children rifling through the trash looking for food to eat, their blue/green eyes weary, their pink complexions dust and tear stained, their dirty blond hair matted and stringy. Pakistan was America's friend and our dictator smiled benevolently at us from the screen of our one state run television channel. It was a time when TV actresses always had their heads covered and love scenes were blurred out because what could be worse than lovemaking viewed publicly. Zia's Islamic nation did not have sex. We collectively shuddered at the thought of such corruption while our birth rates soared. Yet, the sight of young children eating from trash heaps did not faze us.
    In our schools we learnt of our glorious Muslim heritage linking us to the wider Muslim Ummah. Whether it was physics, biology, or chemistry, the first chapter was always on our Muslim heritage. It never occurred to me to wonder what my Christian and Parsi friends thought about all this. We were taught so much: Ahmedis were non- Muslims and alcohol was the route to all evil - drunk people had sex. But so many of the male members of my extended family drank quietly in their homes. The women did not drink. The women, dressed in traditional clothes, discussed their children and religion, while their men lounged in trousers and polo shirts, imbibed strange smelling drinks, and discussed ways to improve Pakistan, win wars lost to India, and establish the country as an economic powerhouse.
    The country of my childhood was a strange one, but my childhood itself was happy. My father was in the Navy and we moved vagabond-like from city to city, country to country, always returning home to our family. And it was a large family on both sides, my father's and my mother's. My mother's immediate family was tiny, just a mother and a brother, and yet the extended family network was so extensive and close that we were always surrounded by relatives. My father's family consisted of his mother, a strong, spirited lady and his seven brothers, all military men. My paternal uncles scared me more than just a little. They were macho men with deep voices and deeper laughs. Their forthrightness was both comforting and intimidating. I was a mouse and snuck around, always watching. In my mother's family, the men were gentler, their voices quieter, almost muted by the loud opinions of the women. Some of these women, may have covered their heads, but Allah help any man idiot enough to try to silence their minds.
     I had many cousins from both sides. Numerous first cousins from my father's side, and uncountable numbers of first, second, and third cousins from my mother's side, but it is impossible to form a close connection with so many. My sister, brother, and I spent our time either in our maternal grandmother's and uncle's home or in the homes of two of our paternal uncles. Their homes were our home and our cousins, an extension of ourselves. The adults were there in the background but it was each other that we sought out. We had sleepovers that went on for weeks, we laughed together, and at times, we cried together. Somehow, we all grew up and grew apart. Life scattered us like seed pods in the wind, each of us setting roots in different cities, countries, continents. We all have our own little families now. We like where we live.
     I like where I live. I know my neighbours, I volunteer at the local school, I am friendly with all the local shopkeepers and these relationships mean the world to me. When I walk down my street I feel I belong. Canada is my home by choice and I am proud to call myself Canadian. It is the only home my children know. I have even come to enjoy the long winters, taking joy in fresh layers of snow and pride in my ability to shovel it (it is a good workout).
     But there are moments when my mind imagines another life; a life where we all still lived on the shores of the coastal city of Karachi, a life where our footsteps led us to each other's doors at times intentionally, and other times, simply out of habit, ingrained from years of repetition. I wish my kids had what I had; cousins, uncles and aunts who interfered in their lives, lived in their homes, laughed at their jokes, fought over trivial things, and patted them on their backs when needed.
I had a glimpse of such a life for two short weeks in Turkey. I saw my children playing with their cousins, staying up way past all bedtimes, jumping in the pool at night for a splash, watching videos and movies together, and singing songs. Just the sight of them enjoying each other's company made me wish for a different Pakistan; a land where we could have remained and brought up our kids in a safe environment, a land where our children would have known and loved each other.
    I was one grape of a bunch nestled on a vine, the stems interlacing and supporting each other, web-like. My children are trees carried far afield from the orchard by the wind. I hope their roots take hold, that the soil that they have been planted in, nourishes and sustains them, adopts them as it's own. I hope my children grow their own orchards and they never have to learn the trauma of being transplanted, uprooted from the orchard, away from the whispers of the trees that once surrounded them.
    Today was our first day back from our vacation, and so many times during the day, I thought to pick up the phone and call my cousin and my sister to tell them that I did four loads of laundry, grocery shopping, and made daal and murghi ka korma, and that tomorrow, I will make machli ka salaan, aloo baigan ki bhujia, and pizza for the kids. These are the things we talk about. We talk about nothing. Yet, this nothing is everything to me.
But I never picked up that phone; they have lives to lead, busy lives, overwrought with work and family, and I have errands to run, the home to clean, and the five pounds that I gained during the two and half weeks of vacation, to work off.

Tuesday, 18 August 2015

Sapadere Canyon

The water is loud and angry, streaming down rocks, spluttering at nooks, gushing down the canyon. The cicadas are just as furious, chirping, screaming. Is it the heat that set their tempers aflame? Or the sheer impossibility of the rock faces on either side of the gorge?
If I lived here, would I too, lose the ability to feel joy at the fresh beauty of this place and instead focus on the desolate nature of the cliff faces, the height of the Taurus mountains, and the frigid temperature of the stream? Would the thunder of the waterfall strike fear in my heart so that I would shudder and collapse into myself?
Is beauty two-faced, aspiring joy one day and desperation the next?


I am a early riser. Comes from being the daughter of a mother who wakes up at five every morning. She wakes up to read the Quran. I wake up early because I like being alone. I like mornings- a fresh start to each day. To me, this is a blessing. My mother thanks Allah for His blessings. I am non-religious. I believe Allah, God, Bhagwan didn't just create me. He/She is in me and therefore knows I am grateful.
This morning, I read Zaheer Kidwai's blog "Windmills of My Mind." I read his posts about Sabeen Mahmud. Sabeen was a year senior to me at Kinnaird. I didn't know her. From a distance, I saw a girl who wasn't afraid to be different. I liked that. A mutual friend brought her into my room one day and had her read one of my poems. Sabeen was kind.
Seems to me that she had enormous courage and for that she was killed in the most cowardly way. I wish some things could be undone. Bullets not fired and a life not extinguished. I love my mornings but I wonder how hard mornings must be for people who have lost someone so close to them. Another morning, just means another day without them.

Friday, 14 August 2015

Happy birthday, Ami!

It is my mother's birthday today. It is also Pakistan's Independence day,  which makes it impossible to forget the day my mother was born.
I wish I could wish her, but we are driving through the Taurus Mountains in Turkey from Alanya to Konya and then on to Cappadocia. The road snakes through the pine covered mountains, the tops of which are rocky and naked. I feel a little car sick, not enough though, to not notice the fruit stalls on the side of the road.
"Let's stop at the next one," I suggest to Nasir from the back seat of the car - my front seat spot having been commandeered by our 14 year old.
Nasir gets out to translate for me but the shop keeper speaks fluent English. I feel ashamed. I wish I could speak his language the way Nasir does. I buy half a dozen baby bananas. Alanya was full of banana plantations so I know the fruit is fresh. I splurge on green figs buying a full dozen. I am sad. I wish I could share these figs with my cousin who loves them as much as I do. We just parted company an hour back. She is heading back to San Francisco with her family. We had an amazing two weeks together but my heart is greedy and can't have enough. I miss her, and her beautiful family. I miss my sister and her crazy pack. If we were still together, I would have opened my heart and bought two dozen figs for the 14 of us. Fine. I won't lie. I would still buy just a dozen.
At the back of the stall, I spy bottles of myriad colours; olive oil, jams, honey, honey comb, and marmalades. I pick up a bottle.
"What's this?"
"Fig jam. My mother made it."
I buy it for my mother. I tell him it's my mother's birthday. I like this gift - this jam made by this polite shop keeper's mother will in five days fly across the Atlantic to find it's place on my mother's breakfast table.
And me, still slightly car sick on the Taurus Mountains and yet able to post this blog for my mom an ocean away. Happy birthday, Ami.
The Turkish word for mother is Anne. What a beautiful sound! I love you, my Anne.

Sunday, 9 August 2015

Playing the Fool

We were told that we can use our phones on the plane, but though I turned my phone back on, and even WhatsApped my brother, I did so with the conviction that we will crash.
We are flying to Istanbul. This is our third trip there with our kids. The first time around, Ali was just two and Zara was growing in my belly, undiscovered by anyone, even myself. Ali has no recollection of visiting Topkapi, where a handsome Turkish man, delighted at discovering that they shared a name, picked Ali up, and carried him around the library.
The next visit was two years back, on route to my brother's wedding in Lahore, Pakistan. Both children recall this trip. They narrate to anyone who gives them a ear, that our hotel was terrible; the room tiny with no walking space, the window drafty, the blankets threadbare, the bathroom moldy, and finally, that Ali lost his footing on the slippery, winding staircase and rolled all the way to the bottom. They forget to mention the much nicer hotel, which we stayed at, on the way back or the beauty of the city.
This time, we are meeting up with my sister, my cousin, and their families in Turkey. We spend three days together in Istanbul, then the four of us, fly to Izmir from where we rent a car and drive to Ephesus, Pamukkale, Antalya and then Alanya. We have rented a villa in Alanya where we will all spend a week together.
I admire the generosity of spirit with which, both my sister's husband and my cousin's husband, agreed to this two week trip with people whom to them are little more than strangers, just so that we may reconnect and that our children might form a bond with each other.
Modern technology is fabulous. Where we live in distant lands, and have scarce opportunity to meet up, phones and computers help us stay in touch. Still the thought of seeing my loved ones in flesh after so long, makes me tear up. I am a sentimental sort, emotional and silly, but this affection makes me happy and for that, I would gladly play the fool any day.
Would be such a shame if the plane crashes now before they have even served the in-flight meal.

Wednesday, 5 August 2015

Ephesus, even the name evokes a place of beauty. The garden of our boutique hotel is lush; the roses in bloom, the cannas over six feet tall, clusters of grapes nod in the breeze. Gilbert, our hosts' cat is curled asleep on the chair next to me. The cicadas have finally ceased their nattering to allow the sun it's moment as it prepares to set behind the humps of the distant hills. After the hustle of Istanbul, the lazy village air of this place is soothing. I am not a city person, being happiest under the wide sky, drinking in fresh air, far from the crowds and the fumes of the big cities. The best things in life are for free, though, we will need our Visa to pay for the hotel.