Excerpt: “How I Became a Muslim Reformer”
My story starts with my parents. My Afghan father and Pakistani mother were living in Kabul during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. My father, Mohammad, was strong and stoic with a poor temper. He came home one night and told my mom she had two hours to pack and get on a plane to Pakistan. He was to follow. My mom – the total opposite of my father – complied. That evening, with fake Ariana Airline I.D. cards presenting her as a flight attendant, she was smuggled out of Afghanistan.
My parents settled in Karachi, Pakistan, and soon had my brother and I. Childhood in Pakistan was boring. I sensed the discrimination from my extended family, mostly from my grandmother. My mom’s family, her mother, brother and his wife and three children, and my two free-spirited uncles who later moved to the States, all lived under the same roof, in an estate two streets down from our apartment. We’d spend almost all our free time there, but it was a cold and unwelcoming place and I knew I didn’t belong there.
It’s a strange feeling to be somewhere often and know it’s alien to you, that you don’t belong and are seen as less than. If we’d spend the night, we’d all sleep in my grandmother’s room, which had the square footage of a small home. My cousin, a year older than me, would share my grandmother’s sizable bed and I’d sleep on the floor. I remember one night I’d forgotten to take off my gold ring and place it on the bedside table, following some rule about not wearing jewelry at night. Having already laid on the floor at the foot of the bed, I felt immense dread in getting up again and drawing attention to myself. I didn’t know what would “get me,” the ghost I felt lurking in the long sad hallways, or my grandmother. Either way, I wasn’t risking it. I put the ring in my mouth and went to sleep.
Another time, I remember my eldest uncle asking me to bring him a cup of tea. He had the air of a retired army general, except he’d never been in the army. He demanded impeccable presentation and wanted to be called “Sir.” I brought him tea with a saucer, walking on some imaginary tight rope, the tinkling of the tea cup teasing a spill with every step forward as a circle of guests watched to see if I could make it. I’m sure they thought it was cute. I thought it was dreadful. The only saving grace in that household was the annual mango party where we’d gorge on the most delicious mangoes with hedonistic fervor. For one evening there was a wildness and the smell of rich mangoes perfumed the air.
That was Pakistan.
I felt the tension in people as they lived day to day life. Something just didn’t fit. Nobody was really comfortable. At five, you don’t make sense of things the same way as you would an adult. You just sense things. I sensed something was not happy about Pakistan.
I wasn’t a fan of too many people at school either. I loved learning but I was bored with my school, zoning out to observe a battalion of thick black ants marching by the teacher’s foot, who was going on about the same lesson as before at a painfully dull pace. I remember thinking the other students were wild animals who couldn’t be left on their own, and that I could be learning a lot more than I was. I also hated the pointless school rules – so I’d break them often in whatever way I could, thinking, “What can they reallydo about it?” Shimmery glass bangles or a dozen clips in my hair – things that distracted from the uniform were frowned upon. But they were part of my uniform.
And I wanted to be a witch. I wasn’t quite sure what witches did, but that’s what I wanted to be when I grew up. I was about four when I decided upon it. I had a frock of silver with silver leggings and shoes to match, and I thought, “You know what’s missing? A wand with a big silver star at the end.” And that’s when it was decided. In a room full of people at yet another society dinner party, I became a witch.
It was probably a pretty spot-on thing to be. Witches are outsiders – classic outliers – and I in no way felt connected to my community. Little did I know that I was going to spend the next 25 years being an outsider because I would need to learn to become an outlier. But first we needed to leave Pakistan.
My mother was drained by the lack of economic or social mobility Pakistan offered in the 1980s:
“It was a plastic society. If you didn’t have money, you were nothing. And we were poor. I was ignored by society, and my own family. When you kids were born, my mom told me to bring you to her house to present you to society. She didn’t want her friends to know how we lived. She didn’t want them to know we were poor.”
There’s resentment in her voice and hurt and anger on her face. And if you ever saw her speaking to my grandmother, you’d think a small child was speaking to its parent. Deeper issues and past grievances aren’t discussed – and there are a lot of grievances that have stunted older generations. Stories are sometimes recounted as if you’d been through “the war.” There’s deep trauma and it’s carried with them no matter where they immigrate.
So my mom tried really hard to make sure we had the best clothes, and were always clean and presentable. It was important to her that people didn’t look down on her children or think less of them because of our status in society. The money she earned from teaching, she spent on our wardrobes with clothes from London and Canada. What she couldn’t afford to buy, she would sew herself.
In Afghanistan, my father had been a wealthy jeweler working for King Zahir Shah and a trusted close confidant in Kabul’s high society. They had a grand home, he was highly respected, and they had considerable freedom. In Pakistan, he was a tailor and we lived in a two bedroom flat above his shop, with cement walls that were often scaled by lizards. There was no hot running water – or even a shower stall. Water had to be heated up and as children we stood in a bucket to bathe. Neither parent was happy, and it was particularly hard for my dad who was a proud man. So we left when I was five years old.
Category: LETTERS TO MY SON