Short note: the fallacy of being enough

I should lead with the fact that as of beginning this blog post, it is 5:43am. I am – unshockingly, and despite my best efforts – jetlagged. I don’t feel guilty about this fact; it just is. But attempting to fall asleep in vain has meant lying awake with my intrusive thoughts. I don’t mind intrusive thoughts, really. I’ve made some pretty ground-breaking realizations in my life in the course of my intrusive thoughts. In fact, intrusive thoughts in my formative years pretty much shaped my political views – how could I fall asleep knowing x, y, z was happening in the world? How could I reconcile a, b, c with my own relative comfort? Most importantly, what would I do to ensure that every night, I went to sleep knowing that – within reason – I did what I could to leave the world slightly better?

Sometimes it’s easier to lean into the sleeplessness. There’s a lot of wisdom to be found in delirium. Worse comes to worst, there’s always Civ.

On this particular occasion, my intrusive thoughts are mostly inward-looking. I’m twenty-four now. That doesn’t mean anything by itself; everyone has their own pace in life. For me, where I am in the world, at twenty-four, I’m making certain decisions that will shape my future, probably not irrevocably, but still. Making decisions necessarily balances retrospect with speculation. This morning, and God, I can’t believe it’s morning already, the air is heavy with retrospect. I’m thinking about my identity and the decisions I have made.

I’ve always shied away from identifying with the term “diaspora.” I’m ashamed to say that in my first few months studying in the US, I saw the Pakistani diaspora in an almost disparaging manner. Please understand: this was wholly projection. I was hyper-aware of my own accent, my mannerisms, my everything in relation to the people around me. Diasporic Pakistanis could at least claim American citizenship, and the protections that came with it. I could claim nothing but my visa documents, and even that was a tenuous grasp. At the same time, I chafed at the idea of being “fresh-off-the-boat.” I had already done the big move (from Lahore to Dubai) once: how many boats was I supposed to be fresh off of?! At least this time, the big move was my decision. I would not let someone else pigeon-hole me into my movement. And so diaspora would relegate me to perpetual motion, not to the stable ground I found myself on. More than that, it took me yet another word away from Pakistan. And that has been one of the leitmotifs of my young adulthood.

I don’t need to rehash my ongoing reckoning with my Pakistaniat. I’ve talked about my relationship with Urdu plenty of times. I’ve talked about my experiences with bureaucracy as a Pakistani before. I’ve talked about a lot of facets of being Pakistani. And it may well be that over the almost ten-odd years that this blog has existed, I’ve talked about this topic as well. But jetlag demands that I discuss it again, so here we are: I’m done feeling like I have to put an asterisk next to the word “Pakistani” as it relates to me.

The other day, when I was watching a video of myself reading a poem at an open mic in Boston, I felt a familiar dullness rise up inside me. My Ts were coming across too soft; other letters, I hit too hard; the one Urdu word in my otherwise English poem was just slightly too-affected with an American accent. It was an off-day for me, accent-wise. I felt disappointed. And then annoyed. Why the hell was I annoyed at my own voice for falling into its truest manifestation: somewhere in-between? I always say that partway through reading a poem, I become possessed by the spirit of the poem I’m reading. In that possession is the most honest reflection of myself as a writer. And I guess that writer has a bit of a weird accent. Should that be a cause of shame? At what point did my own truth become something to be embarassed about?

I’ve been pulled in all different directions by my life, and that’s a beautiful thing, even if it is exhausting. For my family back home, I’m the “American” cousin/daughter/niece/grandchild; for my American friends, I will always be Pakistani – and supremely proud of it. But my American friends also claim me as an American in addition to my Pakistaniat. The latter is not mutually exclusive with the former. And I’m certainly not an American, at least not yet – but their willingness to accept me as one of them, actual nationality be damned, my political opinions be damned, my insistence on throwing Eid parties and feeding people food far too spicy for them be damned, my propensity to wear shalwar kameez whenever I feel like it be damned, lacks a counterpart in the Pakistani part of my identity.

And maybe that’s unfair to say. I’m deeply, deeply loved by my family. But sometimes it feels as if by the simple act of living in the United States, I’ve somehow parsed away my right to claim 100% Pakistaniat.

That hurts. I also don’t see myself in percentages. That one identity has to be at the expense of another is a silly idea. I’m not letting Americans off the hook here either. Despite misconceptions, my progressivism was born and raised in Pakistan, not Boston, Massachusetts. Progressivism is not an inherently American proclivity, and you can see that for yourself by looking at the state of the American nation today. At the end of the day, my politics are richer for being exposed to different countries. By assuming that I’m so suspectible to one country or the other strips me of my agency, of my ability to choose the virtues I stand for, of my multitudinousness. It is also just genuinely an insult to the years I have spent nurturing myself as a scholar of politics, a future-practitioner thereof, and as a human being.

Years ago, I was asked by someone how I reconcile all my myriad identities. My answer was simple: I don’t, because I’ve never had to. I can be many things and every thing at once. I can be deeply Pakistani in Western business attire. I can be progressive in a kurta and jangly tulip pajamas. I can be jetlagged, and still write a blog post. And it doesn’t even have to be coherent! I can be whatever I decide to be, and I don’t have to justify that to anyone. I am Pakistani enough, always.

“I promise there’s a reason I’m flushing my hair!” and other superstitious concerns

“I can’t help but feel that this is my fault.”

My best friends, my mother, and my therapist have all heard me say some variation of the above sentence. This tends to be in response to some kind of bad news, and no matter how much physical distance is between the epicenter of the bad news and myself, I always find some way take responsibility for the ensuing tremors. Lip-biting, hand-wringing, that sentence is both an admission of guilt and a desperate need for reassurance. Usually, the response is “Oh my god Neiha, stop!” or “Shut up. Stupid chit. (angry cat emoji)” or “Now what could make you think that?” from my best friends, mother, and therapist respectively.

The former two usually nip it in the bud. Can’t blame them. But my therapist’s open-ended question gives me – stammering, probably shaking – pause.

What could make me think that?


I’ve alluded, previously, to my superstitious inclinations, but I have never fully explored how my superstitions came to be and what role they play in my life. As with most things, I can attribute a lot of my beliefs to my Pakistani upbringing. My parents never reinforced this, being scientists, but it’s hard not to internalize what society tells you.

South Asians, in general, are an unfathomably superstitious lot. To ghair folk, that may seem absurd and yes, it totally is, but it is also as much a part of our culture as our food or clothing. Our superstitions seem to inform societal hierarchies, biases, behaviors, upbringing, schooling, even where we live. Our superstitions serve as the lens through which we perceive the world. We are morbidly fascinated with what we are, in theory, supposed to be afraid of. A lot of our superstitions stem from religion – such as reciting verses from the Quran to protect oneself, though Islam is most certainly not the only religion that guides superstition – but largely, our superstitions stem from time immemorial and have been distorted depending on the family that the superstition has circulated in and throughout generations. Even the most highly-educated members of the gentry are wont to follow some neighborhood spiritual healer. However, it is difficult to properly research the roots of South Asian – let alone Pakistani superstition – due to said distortion and lack of academic research into the topic. So for the purposes of this exploration, I will be relying largely on my memory and the iteration of superstitions that I was exposed to.

I grew up with a taweez around my little neck. Fairly innocuous, a taweez is a small leather pouch worn like a locket, with the pouch containing a verse from the Quran that is said to protect you against the evil eye. Almost every kid my age had a taweez, sometimes even older kids – but while the taweez soon disappeared from around my neck, the phenomenon it was trying to keep at bay was a ubiquitous power in my life and in that of so many others. The evil eye – nazar, in Urdu, which literally just means sight but as a noun and duly capitalized in English transliteration takes on a much more sinister meaning – has become a well-known concept by now in mainstream culture, having been attributed to a variety of cultures even outside Islamic countries. (As a quick aside, I found it funny as a kid that whenever people used to go to Turkey, they would bring back the eerie blue variations on our taweez. If nothing else, I was impressed at the utility of the evil eye: a souvenir, a protective totem, and very on-trend for the time. Besides, a literal evil eye to ward off the evil eye in addition to our own cultural attempts at warding it off? Beyond extra). For a lot of people, wearing the evil eye or hand of Fatima/hamsa as an accessory might be nothing more than cute, exotic jewelry, but it garners both an eye-roll and genuine approval from me. Hey, intentional or not, you’re protecting yourself I guess.

The evil eye is simply, intentional or otherwise, the result of someone casting a jealous or malevolent gaze on someone. This in turn means something bad happens to you; you get hurt, your finances take a hit, etc. At worst, the evil eye can be attributed to black magic (kala jadoo, a most Pakistani fear). The reason children especially are kitted out with a taweez is that younger children are quick to trust, and don’t necessarily know how to protect themselves from the evil eye; as such, adults must pick up the slack. In fact, pretty much whenever I get hurt, there’s always someone around to say, “Nazar lag gayi Neiha ko” (lit. Neiha got hit by nazar. Also, I’m 22 and this still happens). The process of avoiding the evil eye is a lesson in humility; you ascribe any talent, beauty, accomplishment, etc, to God’s will – “Mashallah, you look beautiful.” God wills it, and thus, can apparently shoulder the burden of malevolence.

Now that I think about it, the lesson is less about humility and more about displacement of responsibility. Lack of humility only attracts malevolent intent, so you make God deal with it? That doesn’t seem completely fair.

There were other superstitions: not stepping on a pillow or you’d give your mother a headache, not stepping over someone who was reclining on the ground or they wouldn’t grow taller, making sure shoes weren’t strewn around with the soles pointing heavenward, getting rid of fallen hair and nails in a way that they couldn’t be collected by evil sorcerers (for real)…in addition to more paranormal fears, for example, that isolated, mountainous – generally veeraan – places are usually breeding grounds for jinn-bhoot (a pretty general term for any big evil phantasmal types), that resting under a tree during the night was a sure-fire way to get yourself possessed by a jinn and subsequently exorcised, or that any number of houses were haunted and that houseguests of the spirit variety could be kept away with a huge, wrought-iron “Mashallah” affixed to the facade of your house.

These are just the ones I remember off the top of my head. I remember thinking that I wasn’t completely convinced by these superstitions. I used to pride myself on that. Sure, I was afraid of jinn stories, but what Muslim kid/adult/old person in their right mind isn’t? I had no fears regarding giving my mother a headache by stepping on a pillow, or of stunting someone’s height. Besides, most people my age were tall enough and should have been grateful for what they already had that I didn’t.

It’s only really in retrospect that I realize how many superstitions I actually did internalize. I avoid lingering for too long under trees at night. I think part of my gung-ho desire to live in a city stems from avoiding the aforementioned veeraangi. But I didn’t realize just how much of the more ridiculous stuff I had internalized until, last year, a friend caught me flushing some hair I had pulled out of my hairbrush down the toilet…

That was a very strange cultural quirk to explain.

But apart from the more concrete superstitions, there is a general spirit behind superstitions that is just straight up part of being desi: this greater sense of culpability, that everyone is capable of causing harm even if they don’t necessarily intend to. It is as victim-blaming as it sounds, that people can also just put themselves up for spiritual harm – that’s a pretty toxic mentality, but it’s one that I observed in myself a lot following my burgeoning anxiety. Humility is one thing, but to be actively deserving of malevolence is kind of an alarming concept to internalize.

But as it turns out, superstition is an easy vehicle to transition into when you already have anxiety. So what could make me think that something horrible that happened so far away and is, by all accounts, unrelated to me, is actually my fault?

I expect something bad to happen after things have been going well for some time. Living in a country where people don’t necessarily say “Mashallah” a lot doesn’t help that fear; but even so, if I receive bad news following a spate of good luck, I immediately blame myself for not being humble enough. I caught someone’s nazar, but it’s ultimately my own fault, surely. Something bad happens at home? Well, that’s my fault for not being an upstanding Muslim, or for staying out too late, or for becoming too self-confident.

Okay, but what does this have to do with anxiety?

According to Kierkegaardian philosophy, “anxiety is the dizziness of freedom.” Rather than feeling as if you can do whatever you want, anxiety feels much like the way standing at the edge of a particularly long drop does – except near-constantly. The dizziness of freedom also means it’s difficult to ascribe responsibility to anything. Life just is. But life can’t simply just be; life has to have a rhyme or reason. Surely, that’s what religion is too, a desire to make sense of the dizziness of freedom, to organize yourself around something rather than constantly face off against a precipitous drop. But if existentialism is to embrace the drop, then superstition is the exact opposite. To be superstitious is to analyze every drop within an inch of its life and to assess where you stand in relation to it and – well – how that drop could actively make you and everyone around you suffer. Superstition isn’t absolution or relief or even order the way religion can be. Superstition is, as the wonderful Mashed Radish describes, all about excesses, too muches, over-s, supers – so it is excessive, too much, over-, super-absolution. In short, it is a solid crutch for anxiety to lean on and reinforce its grip on your gut and your brain. It is self-imposed punishment, it is responsibility where no responsibility needs to be taken, it is guilt in the guiltness. If anxiety’s evolutionary role is to heighten ones fight-or-flight reflex, superstition’s evolutionary role becomes what makes you stand there, pointing and screaming as something starts gnawing at your leg.

It’s hard enough balancing your identity if you moved from a more communal society to a thoroughly individualistic one. You feel guilty about something at any given point. But to be superstitious on top of that, and to have anxiety on top of that? Might as well have a flip-flop dangling around your neck that you can self-flagellate with. It’d be a quicker job.

For me, superstition reinforces my self-loathing. If nothing is immediately around to be responsible for x terrible thing that has just happened, well, then it’s my fault. If I bear a cross on my back, it is one carved out of a heinous wood comprised of both anxiety and superstition. Add to that cross various socio-cultural expectations (both communal and individualistic), burdens, pressures, etc, and it’s no wonder that I had to go the ER for back problems this past June (for real).

Does this answer my therapist’s question? At least in part, yes it does. And, well, you don’t have to but if you wouldn’t mind, throw in a Mashallah at me every now and then, yeah?

Somewhere between Pakistan and America, you’ll find my discomfit heart

A short note spurred by some mixed emotions over the 70th year of my country’s independence and the tumult in Charlottesville this past weekend, as well as the rather political music of The Cranberries.

I’ve often struggled with my not-quite diasporic identity and have written about it ad nauseum in the past 7 years of this blog’s existence. As a non-resident Pakistani, I find myself often at a loss for whether or not I have the right to certain opinions and feelings; and yet, as an aspiring political scientist and maybe-one-day arbitrator, the foundation of my education and career has been holding those opinions. I didn’t realize just how long I had lived away from Pakistan until I went back last year for my brother’s nikkah. The Pakistan I had missed desperately was different – and I realized, no one has a claim on a place. The places you love do not stagnate in your absence. You can exist disparately from what you love. And I have grown away from Pakistan; Pakistan has grown away from me. It wasn’t a sad realization, but it was an important one. I’ll always be Pakistani, but that doesn’t mean Pakistan will remain mine. That’s okay. If I do decide to come back, there will always be a place for me, should I choose to reckon with those changes.

But this isn’t about Pakistan, not exactly. This is about my adopted country. I love America so very much, and will always consider Boston home, but I could not even pretend to call it mine. America is never truly yours until you have that hallowed blue passport and even then, the caveats are immense and dangerous. Just look at Charlottesville this past weekend; that’s just the latest iteration of the United (with caveats) States of America and its tradition of picking and choosing what Americanism is. The fine-print has never been set in stone, and certainly, my non-resident alien behind does not beget many rights. Yet I miss America whenever I’m away from it, and I truly feel more myself there than I do anywhere else in the world…but I am reminded in ways – sometimes small, sometimes larger – that I don’t fully belong. Whether in the exorbitant tuition I pay, whether through the loopholes I need to jump when it comes to dealing with any bureaucracy, in the white nationalist movements that have become normalized, in the way that my friends talk about foreign policy that makes my stomach churn, in the way I feel myself rapidly reformulating my opinions in sudden paranoia, in the way that a certain elected official I met once joking asked me to tell him Pakistan’s nuclear secrets (even if I did know any, hell no, people like you, Mr. Senator, bring out the angry realist in me), in the way I don’t know whether I’ll be able to qualify for an H1B visa to stay after I graduate…

And despite this seemingly endless list, I find it hard to imagine living anywhere else for a prolonged period of time. Under the dense, black boot of an ugly, resurgent past, I thrive despite myself, and my anger and hurt only serves to reinforce my desire to live in the United States.

Maybe that’s what it is; my contrary heart, this Pakistaniat that has chiseled my stubborn nose and my set jaw, has primed me so fully to embrace that American boot and not let go. Either you crush me good, or the boot comes off – and under the mother’s foot lies paradise, so one way or another, it’s on my own terms. My upbringing and nationality under igneous conditions have made me a match for America, and so it has any victim of oppression; your caveats pile up but there is brilliance and resilience unlike any other to be found in volcanic conditions. Pakistanis, we’re a self-destructive lot, but we carve beauty out of destruction like any old Sylvia Plath poem. And I suppose that is true for any people that survive doomsday over and over and over again; the next boot is always around the corner, and despite our discomfit hearts, we’re ready to climb through the fine-print and into the world proper.

Max Weber should have lied

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Pictured: Rotterdam’s City Hall which, I soon realized, has a statue of Hugo Grotius, who lay the foundations of international law – of which individual dignity is a cornerstone. Not pictured: me crying at the statue a little.

I’ve written pretty extensively about my horror, anger, and fear at the American attempts at a Muslim ban and its various iterations. But aside from the practical shortcomings and moral depravity of such an attempt, there was always another layer of outrage towards it:

How the hell can they make the visa process any harder and nerve-wracking than it already is?
Growing up brown and especially Muslim, there has always been a degree of solemnity attached to traveling. To be able to hop on a plane, with little to no paperwork required beforehand, is a distinct privilege that those of us with Certain Passports will never experience – and similar to how in some cultures learning to drive a car is a rite of passage, where I grew up? Your first visit to the consular services of a foreign country was about as important as learning how to make doodh patti chai right. Being granted a visa was something to celebrate. Commiseration over a more-likely-than-not visa denial was a week-long affair. Angry declarations of “I have a case, I’ll appeal their decision!” were, although well-intentioned, usually not pursued – and if pursued, doomed. No word of a lie, all the stages of grief were present in the aftermath of a visa denial.

I wish I could make light of this reality. But the fact of the matter is, realizing how little other countries want you is scarring. I have friends who have traveled all over the world, and it’s something I could never dream of doing simply because the process to get there is harrowing and exhausting. You need to steel yourself for a trip to the embassy. Every relative and family friend that has experienced the process even once will inundate you with tips: make sure you smile a lot, be as deferential as possible, try not to stutter or betray your anxiety, do NOT raise your voice, memorize the address for every location you’ll be staying at, have bank statements ready…on and on and on, until your brain is cacophonous with mantras. My A levels were nowhere near as stressful as the lead-up to my appointment with the American consulate in Dubai for my student visa.

I consider myself lucky. I’m a tiny woman, I look harmless. Others? Men? They don’t get the sympathetic looks and reassuring smiles I may sometimes (sometimes) receive. The first time I traveled to American with my family, my brother was detained by virtue of being a 20-something Muslim, Pakistani man, even though he had a freshly shorn face. Yes, you have to look the part too. Sufficiently western, your face hairless as the day you hopped out the womb. Hopefully, your parents had the foresight to give you a name that isn’t threatening or that – given the ubiquity of names that have Islamic connotations – doesn’t have Islamic connotations. My grandfather and grandmother, despite having a son who is an American citizen (a son they visit annually and stay with for basically half the year), get routinely pulled aside because my grandfather’s name is Aziz.

Look upon the cosmic injustice of a system wherein your name is looked at with suspicion because you share it with some shitty terrorist, ye mighty, and despair.

I thought I was a veteran when it came to foreign bureaucracies. Since I study in the United States, I’ve had to deal with all kinds of bureaucracy, and I’ve learnt to take the anxiety in stride. I thought this meant that I was set – talk less, smile more, laugh at their jokes, get waved through without a fuss. But my passport does weigh heavy in my hand, and I expect the worst no matter where I am. At least that way the cacophony of advice given to me throughout the years is quick to return to my head – like a rolodex, arrogantly waiting for me to flip through it.

So imagine my horror when I wake up to get registered at the city municipality where I live in the Netherlands and I find that I am quivering with a bureacracy-anticipating anxiety I thought I’d outgrown. I check, double-check that I have the right documents. I realize that I don’t know where to print the documents I only have digital copies of. I’m so anxious that instead of refunding the 1 euro credit I still have in the coffee machine at the City Spar downstairs, I just buy myself another coffee and walk around lamely with two burning, sleeveless coffee cups in my hands. I tell my mother I’m going to take the 30 minute commute to work, print my documents at the office, and then travel the 30 minutes back home – this is at 9:30am. My appointment was at 11am. I very quickly realized the stupidity of my plan, and also threw away the second cup of coffee.

While waiting for a floormate to print out my documents, I thought I was going to vomit. I felt dizzy. I was genuinely afraid that I was going to be sent back to Dubai, or Boston, or wherever, and my kindly co-op advisor would use my story as a warning to other students: “Don’t be like that girl. Bring an actual copy of your birth certificate when you go abroad. Jeez.”

So much for the hallowed professionalism of Northeastern students.

More than that, I was afraid to become a cautionary tale told to other young Pakistanis looking forward to traveling. I have had the opportunity to do so much more than is expected from my little green book – to be relegated to “Look, opportunities don’t pan out sometimes”? I couldn’t. I can’t.

I speedwalked the 10-minute route to the municipality in 5 minutes. I was there 40 minutes early. So I started writing this blog, to process this residual trauma from one-too-many cautionary tales. And I started thinking about Max Weber, one of my favorite sociologists. He was wary of modernity and the automation inherent in it; not in the sense of robots or artificial intelligence, but in the sense of humans not being able to realize their natural autonomy. In political science, we are taught the three Weberian features of modern states in the post-industrial era: territoriality, violence, and legitimacy. All these elements feed and reinforce one another. From these elements come further factors such as a monopoly on the use of force, and, for our purposes, bureaucracy. It is essential for a modern state to use its legitimacy to create a central government efficient enough to maintain things like censuses, be able to levy taxes, and, well, make the lives of Pakistanis & Co. really rather miserable. The United States of God’s Good America is (are? I’ve been staring at the plural too long) uniquely talented in this regard. And I recognize the need for it, truly I do. I study international security and from an objective standpoint, I get it, you have to be careful – but there are now entire populations terrified of the act of traveling, or have otherwise relegated themselves to not traveling. Dignity is the cornerstone of human rights; it is the central, foundational component in every treaty, statute, convention, etc, that comprises the human rights regime of our (post)modern reality. And one of the main push factors towards radicalisation of every sort is indignation: shame, degradation, isolation, all go against this foundational understanding of dignity. Being detained because your name happens to be Osama, named after one of the original Muslim Caliphs? That does not security make.

The proto-existentialist, Søren Kierkegaard (one of my favorite philosophers) characterizes anxiety as being the natural state of mankind in the face of possibilities. There is So Much in the world, therefore I am anxious. The world is composed of plurals, therefore I am anxious. We are multitudinous, therefore I am anxious. Bureaucracy, that central component of statehood, is itself sprawling and full of indefinites and unknowables. Therefore, I am anxious.

All the opportunities I have before me, in their glory and their hope, are overwhelming, and a good 60% of those opportunities require navigating the indefinites of bureaucracies.

I got lucky today. The bureaucrat I dealt with was a lovely man, and I was registered with the municipality before my appointment time even technically came around. But this anxiety will live with me for as long as my passport (the loaded entity that it is) bears potentialities…and I will carry the indignity in my heart forever, and unwittingly pass it on to my children. Iyad El-Baghdadi, an Arab Spring activist-turned-asylum seeker, talks about how his “[his] statelessness makes [him] fall between the cracks of this world order.” I can’t relate to that – but what I know is that, conversely, my statefulness (state-fullness), this Pakistaniat and all that is perceived as being packaged with this country of 180 million and counting, has me wedged in the cracks of a world order I have dedicated my life to understanding. What a truly postmodern heritage.

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

Edhi

I don’t know when I became aware of Abdul Sattar Edhi. I guess that’s the thing about “givens” – they have no origin, there is no place in time to which they belong, they simply are and Edhi simply was in a way we could only hope to be. Edhi was a fixture for every Pakistani. Not a day went by where you wouldn’t see an Edhi ambulance weaving its way through dusty, dangerous Pakistani traffic presumably to save a life. The stout little vans with Edhi’s name in red emblazoned across them were a sign of hope and life in a country where the former was in short supply and the latter could be construed as a lottery or a game of roulette. If anyone ever asked what they could do to change anything in Pakistan, why, donate to the Edhi Foundation of course. Whenever there was a crisis, a disaster, Edhi was one of the first to respond, casting the widest net with the least fanfare. Edhi was a reflection of the best of Pakistan.

Someone on Twitter said that Edhi was one of the few who has left behind a working institution, and not only that, but he left behind one of the few institutions anyone could trust, and so wholly at that. He created his foundation, his network of ambulances from the ground up, with hands that wanted nothing more than to service humanity for the sake of humanity. It’s no coincidence that his humanist institution was oiled better than any other institution sanctioned by the Islamic Republic; the oil he used to make the cogs turn wasn’t cut with corruption, brick dust and tribalism.

But then, this is not the time to be cynical. Using Edhi’s death to criticize inaction is not what he would have wanted. He was critical of religion as it manifested itself in Pakistan, critical of the kind of education that blew rose and jade tinted glasses for the wealthy, but he never let that criticism defeat him. He was not an exception; he was only exceptional because we chose to defer all action to people like him. He merely showed himself to be the kind of person we could all be. He showed that he could be the rule.

Past tense is unique in its ability to make one despondent. Edhi was, yes, but he will always be. He created the foundation – literally – for something beautiful.

The world has been truly horrible lately. Edhi’s passing is too much to bear in the wake of all that has happened. But maybe his death, his life, were meant to cauterize the wound. He was a beacon of hope, and even in his passing he is magnificent and benevolent in his reminder that we can be BETTER than we are.

We have not lost him. He saw to that. We can mourn his passing but he’d want us to pick ourselves up and affirm life. There is so much more we can do if only we stopped deferring to the Edhis of the world and internalized what it was that actually set him apart for ourselves.

Thank you, Edhi. May your spirit live on in the actions of the country you nurtured.

Long note: honest despair

I realize my last few blog posts have been a little more depressing than I usually put out. I try and imbue optimism in everything I write, because there’s enough sadness going around without me adding to it. And yet, here I am.

I forced myself to take a social media hiatus after some encouragement from friends. There is such a thing as too much engagement, and I had overextended my capacity to that end. That…was a sucky realization to say the least. I always thought of myself – forced the view of myself – as being impervious to emotional exhaustion. I feel, therefore I am, and I am lucky to be around so why ever stop feeling? If I want to give my life to some sort of public service, then I need to be able to power through the fatigue, muster every ounce of energy and positivity in me and somehow add to humanity’s global reserves of drive and perseverance.

Perseverance. Fortitude. Resilience.

Resilience.

Is there such a thing as being too resilient? is a question I’ve asked of Pakistan as a whole many times before. I look at when this debate first began – the night of the APS massacre – and wonder why it took that long for me to begin considering that question. As was at my emotional worst – and also at my angriest. The emotional wreckage felt welcome because of my physical distance from Pakistan. It felt like I was doing something if I was in so much pain – that there was a connection that mattered so much that it bruised no matter how far I was from home. It was comforting and despite the despair that still itched at my heart, it helped me heal.

At some point, we need to break down our shell and allow ourselves to feel the heft of lives lost and lives scattered, of normalcy shattered and routine decimated. We risk losing our humanity and capacity to empathize and mourn if we don’t let our walls down; we risk losing the opportunity to recharge.

I think I have let myself feel too much. I think I pushed myself to take in so much sorrow that I burnt myself out. Sometimes when I’m alone and I let myself be vulnerable, I cry for myself, for my family, for families I do not know, for people who have cried like I have. I cry for my own little microcosmic problems, and I cry at the sheer scale of the chaos I cannot even begin to comprehend.

And when I’m not crying, I try to fight a battle I’m not sure I picked wisely. We are all guilty of that. We pick fights out of self-righteousness in an attempt to feel vindicated, to feel any sort of productivity in the face of helplessness. We try to educate and inform, when we are the ones who want so desperately to be sat down and educated and informed. We project our own confusion, hurt, chaos of mind and heart onto others and I’m not sure if that heals anything.

And what we all need right now is to heal. Whether the wounds are global, local, personal, we need healing and kindness. Taking part in the “right” discourse can only help so much.

I suppose that’s what I’m tired of. I used to think that argument was the basis of all knowledge, and I still do believe that, but an argument requires some desire to find understanding. The dialogue I attempted to engage in was for the wrong reasons. And so I never truly let myself heal. I just held myself together with spit and gum and pretended I had recharged.

None of us really let ourselves recharge. We have forced ourself to always be “on” and ready to engage.

Screw engaging.

We have outsourced interaction unto words that are cold and impersonal.

I turned the pursuit of kindness into a game of skirmishes that I decided to ascribe intellectual properties unto.

We are – I am – so busy talking that we forget how to really feel, when our guard is down, we are broken and raw. That’s no way to recharge. You do not heal a wound by exposing it to the elements when it needs to be tended to overtime.

I’m tired, and that’s okay, but I need to do something about the fact that I exhausted all of my facilities in self-destructive perseverance.

Being too resilient is a bad thing.

At the time of writing this, I feel smaller and more helpless than I ever have. I don’t think that’s an uncommon sentiment lately, regardless of where you’re from. I find myself turning to art, music, writing but at the time of finishing this draft, an artistic Giant has been assassinated in Pakistan, and rather than taking the time to mourn him, I see my countrymen sharing videos and pictures of his ruined body. There is nothing sacred left about the horrors we as a world are facing. We have monotonized what should be held as unusual and unwelcome, for whatever reason (I have my own theories as to that).

I don’t really have a solution to my own despair, but maybe that’s the point.

Maybe there is no point, but maybe the point is loving fearlessly, whether that’s yourself or others.

There is some comfort in platitude.

The peculiar chivalry of Pakistani men

Before I begin: I don’t want to seem as if I’m singling Pakistan out as a means to condescend the country that reared me. Pakistan as a “case study” is the terrain I’m most familiar with and, therefore, most comfortable with discussing. Anything else would be irresponsible. Moreover, this is a legitimate problem in Pakistan that is important to highlight in light of recent…regressions…regarding the status of women in Pakistan’s upper decision-making echelons. My own experiences and the stories I’ve heard from friends further underscore why I’m writing this in specific reference to Pakistan.

I’ve noted before (a generalization that I am absolutely willing to make) that Pakistanis are, on the whole, a hot-blooded people. My city in general is known for having the kind of people who put up their fists first, then think to argue, and then think to think. It is easy to romanticize and even exalt this sort of “passionate” behavior. I should know, I always did.

In dramas, you always have the emotional male lead who is protective and possessive, with little attention paid to the fine-line between. Any backlash he receives for being abusive or being smothering gets quickly fixed with a sloppy redemption arc, and his previous actions are never mentioned again (if they are corrected to begin with). More often than not his possessiveness is billed as desirable. Who wouldn’t want a man that would go to jail for them? Who wouldn’t want a husband that would kill for them? Who wouldn’t want a man who takes their wife/significant other’s honor so seriously?

“But those are dramas and steeped in fantasy” – if only. Real life isn’t much different, even if men don’t have quite the same nicely groomed eyebrows. Any young relationship between a Pakistani woman and a Pakistani man is laced with this almost paranoid consideration of your girlfriend’s honor. “Who are you going out with? Kaun hai? Pehlay kyun nahin bataya? How long have you known him? If he tries anything…”

This behavior is expected. When you’re a teenager, it’s cute. And then it stops being cute when the motions become rote and internalized. That’s how you get entitlement.

Women and children often hold their feelings and experiences close to their chest for fear of provoking an emotional outburst from the males in their life. The infamous socio-historical construct of “honor” comes into play here. Offense towards a woman or a child is no longer their offense; it is an offense that must be taken up by the men in her/their life.

An all too common example: a young girl is sexually assaulted. She weighs her options, and opts for silence because if she tells the male members of her family, they would take matters into their own hands and honor codes would suggest a violent beating is in order, at the very least. Not wanting blood on her conscience, the young girl considers telling the female members of her family. That particular honor code would lead to either complete silence, stories of “This happens to every little girl” normalizing what should never be normalized, shaming (depending on the age of the young girl and the nature of the act) or a pained admission of what the young girl already knew: “You know what your (male family member) would do if they found out.”

At best, accommodations may be made to spare the young girl the anxiety of seeing the perpetrator again. Some accommodations may be more stifling than others depending on the proximity of the perpetrator and the frequency of their interactions.

The young girl makes her decision. Her own silence is better than the silence of others, and vastly preferable to the grating of broken bones.

Autonomy is an incredibly underrated possession. Sexual assault is an act of violence on ones bodily autonomy. Consent is the ultimate act of autonomy, and the younger you are, the more volatile your grip on autonomy is. For a child coming into adolescence, autonomy is especially important – and for a girl in a (conservative) cross-section of Pakistani society, autonomy is a precious commodity. Reacting to what was told to you in confidence and trust with a declaration of violence and vigilante justice is never helpful. The problem with this usurpation of justice is that it takes the autonomy that was already stolen from the survivor and adds a deeper disconnect. It is incredibly important to support survivors and honor their wishes after they have their agency taken from them and to – despite all your instincts and protective urges – understand where they are coming from. Your violent justice is a retraumatization at best, and a heavy burden the survivor will carry for the rest of their life at worst. Your chivalry and honor have no place in the healing of a sexual assault survivor. Besides, are you really going to practice vigilante justice and then complain about mob mentality in the same breath?

Sexual assault is not the only realm where outdated practices of chivalry must end, but it is the most urgent territory. Parents express horror that their survivor child kept their experience from them for so long, but when your first instinct is towards punitive violence rather than truly nurturing and understanding, somewhere along the way you did something wrong. The message you are telling your child/friend/sibling/significant other/etc is that you are just another person who doesn’t care about their wishes.

Survivors suffer in silence for far too long. Take the first step towards their security: tone down your self-righteous outrage long enough to actually listen.

Chivalry ought to be dead.

Stranger in a Strange Election

I make no secret of how invested I am in American politics. No matter how you look at it, the entire world is affected by American policymakers (much to my chagrin – I am nothing if not a proud denouncer of American exceptionalism) and considering I live in the United States, partake in this country’s social security, insurance system, higher education system, and so on, it matters less and less that I’m not American; the domestic politics of this country are to a fairly considerable extent applicable to me. And it was really exciting to realize I would be in the US – Boston, no less – during election season, surrounded by people with a vested interest in who would herald a key four years (roundabout, anyway) in America’s indefinite future.

Politics, as I should know by rote at this point, is a two-level game; the domestic and the international are the simultaneous playing fields that must be honored no matter what country you represent. I’m embarrassed at how often political plurality can elude me considering I study the damn field, but it’s easy to be taken in by fervor especially when people like Trump and Cruz are skidding around the arena leaving strategic vitriol in their wake. It’s easy to be taken in by apparent revolutionaries such as Bernie Sanders who appear to be scions of a socialism I would love to see become the status quo.

And then I remember that I am not, in fact, American. I can escape the domestic politics whenever I want. I cannot escape foreign policy; and therein lies my conundrum. I cannot become wholly invested in the internal politics of a country whose foreign policy will only churn out chaos in mine. No matter what way I look, be it a left after my own heart, worrisome right, or that increasingly elusive moderate, their foreign policies spell the misery of my own people. Even if the elections weren’t a complete shit show (I am an academic), I would  still be thoroughly disenchanted. I refuse to support the onset of an administration that, although progressive domestically, will continue the interventionist policies that have caused coups around the world and the low-key decimation of sovereignty that has killed my very own.

I suppose an alternate title for this blog post could be “How Bernie Sanders Broke My Heart” but I will not give that notion more satisfaction than I have already granted it. Us third culture kids in the US, we will have our politics and our opinions torn asunder again and again. May as well steel myself now so that when next November rolls around, I’m ready for whatever comes next in my adoptive country’s future.

NOTE: I know I’ve been inactive, but I’ve been bouncing countries for around a month – I’m back in Boston though after a much-needed holiday from life!

Constructing the Molotov Cocktail: Nationalism and Kashmir (dec. 2014)

12/4/2014 – International Relations @ Northeastern University
 Aaj woh Kashmir hai Mehkoom-o-Majboor-o-Faqir
Kal jise Ahl-e-Nazar kehte thay Iran-e-Sagheer
Today is a Kashmir subordinate, obligated, beggared
Which yesterday the wise called Little Iran
– Allama Iqbal

At first glance, South Asia since its inception may seem like a behemoth with realist tenets where there are meant to be tendrils. Pakistan and India’s enduring rivalry is one that seems to be perpetuating an endless struggle for domination – not regional domination, at least on Pakistan’s part. It is a quest to “one-up” the other and glean victories in small doses, if the slews of wars within the first 45 years after India and Pakistan’s independence are any indication. The four wars (1947, 1965, 1971, 1999) officially fought by the two countries do not include crossfires and standoffs. Most of these wars have been over Kashmir – with the exception of the War of ’71, which resulted in the independence of Bangladesh, formerly known as East Pakistan. One could even point out that the Nuclear arms race between India and Pakistan (1974-1998) is the perfect example of realism in the Nuclear age – but this would undermine the very tenets upon which the two countries were created, and upon which they still function and create foreign policy to this day. As the prime catalyst for conflict between the two nations, Kashmir is the perfect case study to assess the applicability of international relations theory. My hypothesis, and what I will be attempting to prove through this essay, is that constructivism is the most closely applicable theory to the conflict over Kashmir. It should be noted that for the purposes of this essay, any references to Kashmir includes the territories of Jammu & Kashmir, Azad Kashmir, Gilgit-Baltistan, as well as Aksai-Chin, with distinctions made when needed. Continue reading “Constructing the Molotov Cocktail: Nationalism and Kashmir (dec. 2014)”