The day of and those after

The thing about bombings and terrorist attacks is that, after a little while, it’s too easy to divorce an atrocity from the monotony of the day. The horror sits heavy on your skin like a too-thick cocoa-butter moisturizer, and it’s hard to let it sink in. But, with enough time and distraction, you get used to the weight.

That happened to me just this past weekend at the International Model NATO Conference where I was representing my university. After an overnight, nine-hour train ride from Boston to DC, I found myself sleepless and exhausted in a hotel room. I heard the news right as I lay down to take a power nap.

The power nap was my first mistake. I’ve never taken a good, worthwhile power nap in my life and certainly, this one was doomed the second I decided to scroll down my Twitter timeline. I follow a lot of Pakistani political and social commentators, and what was marked about that day was the despondency and profound sadness and exhaustion writ bare in those 140 or however many characters.

I’m not unused to being able to interpret that language. It usually means something Bad happened.

Heart-pounding, I went to Dawn, and sure enough, a massive explosion had torn through the Lal Shahbaz Qalandar shrine. The number of lives taken and the name of the shrine took a second to hit me.

O lal meri pat rakhio bhala Jhulelalan

Sindhri da

Sehwan da

Sakhi Shahbaz Qalandar

Ah. Right.

Here’s the thing about Pakistanis. You can tack any Muslim label on us that you want but in our hearts, our absolute heart of hearts, we are all undeniably Sufis. We tear up listening to qawwaliyaan, we have a ferocious love for our musicians and artists, we revere poetry and dance and love itself. No matter what front the Fundos try to show you, their hearts will melt like everyone else’s over Sabri and Abida Parveen and Nusrat and Rahat.

This was a betrayal of the deepest kind. This was a betrayal of our culture, our history, our loves and lives throughout centuries of existence; more than that, it was a betrayal of 75 lives, men-women-children, who came to revel in our culture, our histories, our loves and lives throughout centuries of existence. It’s the kind of betrayal that can’t be forgiven.

We’ve all grown up listening to Dama Dam Mast Qalandar. Before I even knew all the lyrics I had an emotional connection to the qawwali. There was a visceral joy in its singing, the clapping that came along it, the family concerts that would surround the words, the often-subsequent marriage that it was contextualized in. It was important and it was necessary.

Pakistanis are used to being betrayed. Sometimes by our government, sometimes by ourselves, sometimes by the world. Music is almost a coping mechanism to that end. In troubled times, our music and art industries blossom angrily. Defiant international literary festivals, antagonistic and triumphant rock bands, scathing indie, the fusion genre that has become part and parcel of what it means to be a musician in early 21st Century South Asia, performing arts festivals – but you take that away from us and you get the wrath of a country that is simmering with rage and years’ worth of inconsolable sadness.

Our wrath is in coming back to the Lal Shahbaz Qalandar shrine the very next day and ringing the morning bells. It’s in devotees arriving proudly to carry out their prayers. It’s in the dhamaals that continued despite the bombing. Daesh in Khorasan would not have this cultural victory over us.

**

Despite this tumult of emotion, I went about my day. Embassy visits, opening ceremonies, falling asleep on my own feet, I went about my day. A friend asked me if I was okay. A single friend. But that’s neither here nor there.

Eventually, thoughts of the massacre were shipped off to the backburner of my mind, unaddressed and unprocessed. A weekend followed where I pretended to be an official from a country that did not belong to me; a conference where the organizers take gleeful joy in faking crises that are often as absurd as they are horrendous; a conference where I spent more time thinking about fake dead people than I did about my very real, very dead fellow countrymen.

I trucked on. I did my best. I pushed away the creeping horror and self-awareness because I was there as part of a team. Eventually, once the bulk of my responsibility was carried out with skill and maybe some degree of reckless bravado, I found myself sitting on the floor of our hotel bathroom, crying. My roommates eventually found me and I said what I didn’t have it in me to say before: “75 people died in my country, 13 in my hometown, and I’m here, pretending I don’t give a shit about that.”

As terrible as it sounds, I needed the breakdown. I couldn’t process my grief without it. The day-to-day compartmentalization catches up to you at some point and I’m honestly lucky it happened sooner rather than later. Grief, bottled up, is more destructive than any display of anger. I was able to process the pain without too much collateral (see also: yelling at people who may or may not have deserved it) and I’m glad for that. Of course I was – I am – still sad, but I’m sad in the way that is tucked in your heart along with all the warmth and love you hold for your people. It’s the sadness that has lived like a constant ode to Pakistan from the day I realized I was one of 180 million people and a then-some diaspora. It’s the sadness that is inherent in our national anthem. It’s what makes me Pakistani for more than just my overseas citizen ID and passport.

**

I’ve been afraid of waking up lately, for fear of news that will hurt me. It’s the curse of living in Trump’s America as a non-resident alien (the fear of being put on a travel ban, namely) as well as the general sense of malaise I’ve had since this awful year began.

Evidently, I woke up this morning. I should have put it off.

I’m never prepared to see Lahore in the news. I was even less prepared to see Defence in the news, the neighborhood I was raised in. My family and I moved to Lahore when I was about two-years-old, and my earliest memories are of my beautiful house, my mamma’s marigolds, and the jaamun tree I was too afraid and bookish to climb. The bombing happened in the popular commercial area I had basically all my birthdays in and around. Not a week went by where we didn’t go shopping there, whether for groceries, or clothes, or pirated CDs. All my eid money was spent in those bookstores and toy-shops. My brother is in Lahore right now and the area is one of his haunts – I haven’t felt that sense of panicked “where-is-he-where-was-he” in years. The rush of nostalgia felt like bile in my throat.

And look – it’s 10:30am. I’ve been awake, in bed, trying to process for the past hour. I have an exam I’ve given up caring about in another hour, and a class after that. Invariably, I will forget about Lahore – about Y-block and Defence – and wonder why I’m so sad. Invariably, it will hit me when I least expect it and I’ll probably end up crying on someone’s couch or in a bathroom somewhere. Invariably, it will happen again.

This isn’t my first rodeo. But somewhere in the stubborn dancing, showing up to class despite my better judgment, and even in my forgetful laughter, there is resistance.

At least, I hope there is.

O lal meri, o lal meri

Voulez-vous bhangra avec moi?

I’m a little annoyed, but I’m also a little sad. And this may be elitist, but I’m Lahori. We can get elitist. But no offense meant, I promise!

I get invited to a lot of South Asia-related events on campus, and I can say that I have not been to a single one since I first went to Northeastern. A lot of people would chalk that up to self-loathing, or seeing my identity as having westernized itself, or being a nation-traitor, or just complete apathy towards my heritage in general. If you’re one of my very good friends you know all of that to be categorically untrue. I know all those accusations to be antitheses to the very person I am. And, for the record, I do bhangra/faux-kathak in my room when I’m listening to desi music.

There’s going to be a South Asia week at Northeastern. I’m not going.

Your South Asia week won’t ease the pain of not having been home in five years. It won’t make me feel like I’m back walking the main market streets of Lahore, smelling molten jalebiyaan, hearing thait Punjabi that I can just about understand. It won’t give me the excitement I felt going to the various Rafi Peer Theater’s workshops and events and the literary festivals. It won’t look like any of the things I associated with Lahore – colors and trucks and massive, ancient willows and oaks, old buildings and new buildings, colonial and mughal and modern, parks with as much litter as flowers, old movie posters and huge billboards with Brad Pitt and Victoria’s Secret Angels, graffiti, poetry, political statements splayed across walls alongside beautiful murals painted by students from art schools, museums and boutiques, innumerable bookstores, innumerable dens of debauchery, innumerable beggars on the streets, innumerable women in their sleeveless kurtas-and-jeans and in their burqas-

Your South Asia week will only break my heart. It will only feel like a gimmick to me, and I’m sorry about that. I wish you the best of luck and I hope you have fun, but my identity doesn’t hinge on attending Bollywood zumba lessons, as much as sometimes I wish it did. My identity looks to the next time I go back to Pakistan, and I don’t half-ass my wishes.

But hey, if you want a private bhangra party, I will happily arrange that.

Short note – growth and wanderlust

Image

 

I always did like that picture. I don’t think I was five yet, and certainly not pleased with the idea of having pictures taken of myself but now, 14-15 years on, I’m glad these pictures exist. That’s me, in all my thick-pig-tailed glory, in front of my old house in Lahore, a house I lived in for almost ten years. I remember living in places before we moved into that house, but nothing felt like home the way that house used to.

Used to. I’ve always had a love affair with Lahore but this blog post isn’t going to be Love Letter to Lahore #53 or whatever number I’m at now. If anything, this is an embarrassed, tail-between-my-legs confession: I’m not the little girl in that picture anymore, continued fabulous fashion sense notwithstanding. That house isn’t home anymore. I’ve grown up and grown out of the house; my bitterness at being taken away from Lahore has been replaced by finding a new home on my own terms (I have always been a fiercely independent, slightly prideful person). The hollowness I used to feel has been so thoroughly filled that Lahore feels like a first love; an old friend, a best friend, a passionate flame that has been put out since. But there is so much of the world to traverse that you cannot cling to what once was, and I’m starting to learn that. I’m making my home elsewhere, finding my life elsewhere, and though I feel ashamed to say it aloud I have to admit…it’s a huge weight off my shoulders.

One day I’ll return to Lahore. That has always been endgame. But until then, the world is large and full of wonder and opportunities and I’ve discovered a thirst in me that cannot be quenched by pining for what once was. As strange and exhilarating as it is, I think I’ve unlocked a wanderlust in myself and I can’t wait to foster and nurture this evolution, in Boston and elsewhere.

The Walled City of Lahore

In lieu of having the time to write an actual blog post, I’m just going to go ahead and put up an essay I wrote about Lahore (naturally) for a class. Edited slightly to turn it from a photo essay that it originally was to a legit essay. Also, disclaimer, any disjointedness in the essay is because it’s meant to be styled after an Edward Said essay (college, man). 

This was a really emotional essay to write and that made it all the more rewarding in the end, and I do hope y’all enjoy it.


 

Andheroon Shehr

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​The Heart of Pakistan. Along the perennially tense border between India and Pakishan lies a city so old its beginnings are lost to myth and legend; the historic capital of the land of Five Rivers, the province Punjab. Some legends, such as those in the Ramayana epic, suggest Lahore was known in olden days as Lavapuri, founded by Prince Lava, a son of the Hindu god and goddess Rama and Sita; other historical accounts of the city date back to the 1st Century AD, where it is referred to as Labokla. But whether two thousand years old, or 4000 years old, Lahore is a city unlike any other, a testament to the glory of truly organic, truly city-cities. So perhaps it is a little jarring that you arrive in Lahore the way anyone would to a big city in this day and age. Navigating your way though Allama Iqbal International Airport, you can see the city lights in the distance, but first you attempt to get out of the airport. Gently – and then slightly more forcefully – you shrug off the laymen-porters’ offers to load up a taxi with your luggage. You look back at the airport, in its vaguely modern glory, and note the inherent Mughal influences – Lahore can’t seem to divorce itself from that part of its history.

Allama Iqbal International Airport, named after the poet-philosopher Sir Muhammad Iqbal, one of the visionaries behind what is now Pakistan. I have visited his grave before, a red brick structure in the Old City of Lahore, within what is called the Lahore Fort. The entire area is a United Nations World Heritage Site and the heritage of Lahore runs thick in the narrow alleys, squat buildings, and the ground of baked earth – just as its heritage runs thick through me. It was in that moment that I realized just how privileged I was to grow up in a city with as much rich history as Lahore.

Old City; Andheroon Shehr; the Walled City of Lahore: this particular part of Lahore is known by many names, but the feeling it evokes from its Lahoris is the same: a nostalgia for a time long gone, but one known intimately to us. It hosts much of the heart of the Heart of Pakistan. Most importantly, it hosts one of many food streets across the city. For some, this particular food street – Gawalmandi Food Street – is the center of life in Lahore. Irresistible aromas beckon the wanderer; vendors stand above large cauldrons, stirring a thick, viscous liquid that will soon become the popular confection known as jalebi. In a corner, you see an extravagant booth. A young teenager, perhaps fifteen years old, sits cross-legged, a slightly morose expression on his face. His elaborate garb is likely meant to mimic Mughal costume (again, the city finds it hard to divorce itself from its history). The flower garlands around his neck are heavy – he finds it hard to be attentive while his patron orders paan, an admittedly addictive delicacy made out of betel leaves, cured tobacco, or areca nuts.

​The majority of Lahore’s population is Muslim, of either Sunni or Shiite persuasion, yet food is the true religion of the city. At any and all hours of the day the streets of the city will be vibrant with restaurants, street vendors, and off-the-wall corner shops only the true food-lover – the true Lahori – knows about: khokay as they are called in the strange amalgam of Urdu and Punjabi that is unique to Lahore. The food street is frequented by a cross-section of socio-economic backgrounds, and even those at the lower rungs of society can indulge themselves. The food is cheap, rustic, and quintessentially Lahori. It speaks of tradition that transcends class, a love for food both emic and etic, lit by street lamps and lanterns; gas flames against midnight sky. Crudely put-together banners offset 18th century havelis (a mansion of historical resonance); these structures, with their low-lying balconies, are not uncommon in the Old City.

A woman leans on one of the balconies. It is difficult to spot her at first – in fact, you could likely miss her on the street too if it wasn’t for the expression on her face; a look of strangely resigned tenacity. The building is brightly colored for all that the paint has faded over the years. Women’s laundry is draped over the bannisters. In fact, a lot of women live here; they are likely all prostitutes, and this is Heera Mandi – Diamond Market – the red-light district of Lahore. There is a perverse poetry in its profane location right beside the most distinctive mosque in Lahore, the Badshahi Masjid, but Heera Mandi too has a historical presence in the Old City of Lahore. The women in this locale during Mughal times had a high status in society, often tasked with the job of imparting knowledge of South Asian heritage and culture to the children of the elite. Through dance, they ensured the longevity of South Asian literature, poetry, and music. The term “prostitute” was never associated with Heera Mandi in those days. Even if so, it certainly was not in a disparaging light. This, like many things in Lahore, changed upon the arrival of the British. Brothels were set up. The status of these women was reduced. Over time, they resorted to sex work – the British, in their wake, left a district of ill-repute, an illicit profession, and a disenfranchised industry greeted now with distaste, if not ignored entirely. It is the elephant in the room no one wants to talk about, and yet its existence stands as a testament to Lahore’s past – to its historic role as the cultural capital of whatever dynasty the Indian Subcontinent was subordinate to. To capture Lahore was to win – or hold refuge – the heart of the region. And to colonize Lahore was to colonize the heart of India. But to split it was impossible, and despite the scars that mar the city and the violence that it witnessed during the partition of India and Pakistan, it ended up wholly in the hands of Pakistan and, as such, became known as dil-e-Pakistan – the heart of Pakistan.

Lahore is rife with Mughal influences and those pre-dating the 15th Century, but it’s important to remember the colonial British influences that have shaped the city as well, culturally and aesthetically. The Lahore Railway Station is an example of this, along with the General Post Office, as well as many other monuments. Culturally, the incrimination of prostitutes and Third Gender individuals (known as hijra or khwaja sira) was transculturated into society as a result of British colonization as well. Before the colonization, the hijra were employed often as guards to protect women in harems. Some were even granted esteemed administrative positions. And then, just as with the women of Heera Mandi, they were suddenly ostracized. Unwanted by women, unwanted by men. Yet another subculture created in the Old City.

However, it is the influence of South Asian culture that has perpetuated some of the most distinctive landmarks in Lahore. The aforementioned Badshahi Masjid – the King’s Mosque – is one of them. Red brick, distinctly Mughal: I have prayed in the expansive courtyards before, as a young girl, and I vividly remember feeling one with the people praying around me, feeling one with the city. I often mention how cities like Lahore – unbearably old cities that have seen a lot – fill you with nostalgia when you no more than walk through the streets; but in that moment of prayer, of prostration, I could feel the city itself inside me, and its history – for the briefest of moments – rushed through my veins instead of blood.

Lahore is a beautiful city, an old city. Most of it has modernized, with brands like McDonalds, Hardees, and others having opened franchises in the “new” city. Teenagers in t-shirts and jeans walking out of frozen yogurt joints are not an uncommon sight, nor are businessmen talking on their iPhones in BMWs, driving through traffic on the highways. But despite these modernizations, the juxtaposition between the old city and the new city – the KFCs against Gawalmandi; the underground nightclubs verses long-established, run-down brothels; the 21st Century glass offices as well as 17th Century mosques – does not take away from the beauty of Lahore as a whole. On the contrary, the inherent contradictions are what keep the Walled City so close to the heart of Lahoris everywhere. It is a phoenix that rises time and time again from the ashes, and as Farhan Ahmed Shah writes in The Express Tribune, “[…] at its heart, Lahore is a survivor. All of its bittersweet history is there to be seen in its tombs, mosques, palaces, fortresses, museums and gardens. It has seen ages of war and devastation, as well as periods of cultural, intellectual, musical, literary and humanistic evolution. […] For those who know how to listen, every place in Lahore — from the most monumental structure to the most ordinary street — has a story to tell.”

It is this inherent love of the city as a whole, the unmarred, unadulterated adoration of the citizens of their city, which preserves, more than any renovations or reconstructions, the Andheroon Shehr. Lahore Lahore Hai, as the oft-quoted saying goes:

Lahore is Lahore.

 

Works Cited

Shah, Farhan A. “Legends of Lahore.” The Express Tribune. International New York Times, 26    Oct. 2012. Web. 24 Feb. 2014. <http://tribune.com.pk/story/455157/legends-of-lahore/&gt;.

Lahore Lahore hai…

…and there’s no two ways about it. I often say that my heart is split in three – one part is in Boston, where I left it last summer. One part is, obviously, in my body, where it beats a melancholy rhythm, hoping to be reunited with at least one of its sisters. And the other is in Lahore, where it has been for the last 15 years, since I moved there at the age of two with my family and even after I moved to Dubai nearly 6 years ago, resting amongst the history, culture and fast-paced present.

I’ve been spending the past 20 or so minutes reminiscing about Lahore with my fellow Lahori-away-from-Lahore, Rameesa. It’s strange and wonderful, how we have the same fond memories, the same notions of nostalgia, the same remembrance of certain places and areas – we aren’t an isolated case either. Every Lahori will have experienced the H block food street, the midnight drives to Iceland for fruit juice and ice cream, the paanwaalay in front of Gaddafi stadium, the festivals at Alhambra, splurging at Readings and Variety – just to name a few things.

I think that’s the beauty of being from a city as vibrant and wonderful as Lahore – the solidarity between city people is something incredible. It’s a weird thing to draw inspiration from, but it is genuinely so inspiring.

It’s bittersweet, though. Nostalgia can only take you so far down memory lane before you meet a junction that puts you on a track to wistfulness. I recognize my privilege – it’s hard to ignore that when you life in a place like Dubai where you’re reminded day in and day out of luxury and extravagance and all the things that Lahore…frankly, lacks in (at least in the modern day – Lahore in its Heart of the Mughal Empire (TM) days could give Dubai a run for its borrowed money).

It’s true – I do have more comfort and freedom here than I would in Lahore. I mean, I just got back for, dinner at 11pm on a weekday – the idea would be inconceivable back home!

And yet, there it is: Lahore is still “back home” for me. That’s where a piece of my heart remains. And that’s where it will always remain, as long as I live.

Lahore Lahore beshak hai. Nothing and nowhere I go can ever change that fact.

Short Note: November

I’ve always loved November. The promise of cold mornings and nights, of incoming desert winters, the crunchtime in regards to exams, a general nostalgia that lingers in the air.

The smell of the beach. The fog over Marina. The signs of which are already so apparent this morning, at 7:30am, in October. My favorite sight in the world after the pinks rays of sunlight that flaunt themselves from behind a veil of clouds.

Snuggle-weather. New Years. Winter break. Thoughts of Lahore and, newly, promises of Boston. Good music and good company and nights out in the Marina, the scent of minty, grape-y shisha and distant chattering.

I can’t wait.

Hometown Glory

There’s something about your hometown that’ll always hold your heart. It doesn’t matter what your relationship with the damned place is – it always holds a piece of you in itself, a piece that you can never get back, for better or for worse.

Lahore doesn’t just have a piece of me. It has my heart. It isn’t just me, though. With a city like Lahore, you have to step but one foot into it, and it’ll reach out and grab hold of a part of you faster than you can leg it out of there. There’s something about it that no one can put a name to, but it’s so overwhelmingly existent that you seem to drown in the spirit it exudes.

And it’s beautiful.

You feel alive. You feel centuries of history, of culture, of art just rush through you; it’s as if someone injected the entire timeline of Lahore into your veins and you feel like you’ve lived through it all and the subsequent sensation of love, of joie de vivre suffocates you in the most incredible way possible.

Lahore is art. It’s modernity. It’s the aroma of Pakistani cuisine. It is the neverending struggle to keep a country afloat in a time where everything seems to be disintegrating. It is the heart of a nation of sheer, passionate willpower. It’s everything a city should be and yet so ethereally different in its inherent Lahoriness.

I have so many memories in that city. Of huddling close under the shelter of our car porch, eating warm shawarmas from Cock n Bull while the monsoon rains rage and thunder for our entertainment; of going out at midnight to McDonald’s for food because why the heck not?; of driving past the anderoon shehr and marvelling at the sheer grandeur of a city that was the seat of an extravagant, powerful empire; and of simply breathing the air of the city where the Land of the Pure was brought into conception. Heartland. The cultural capital. That dialect. The poor and the elite. Paan-stained sidewalks and willow-adorned roads.

Hometown.

I want so dearly to go back so the rest of my body can reunite with my heart. I have learnt to make do, and I aspire to go elsewhere, but I will never forget where I’m from. And I will live in my Lahore someday.

My children will breathe the air of a city so old that the very trees whisper stories of the trademark Mughal flamboyances and the mystics’ songs.

I promise I will be back, as long as Lahore pumps blood into the country it loves.

Lahore Lahore hai.