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.

DAMN., Goddamn.

At some point I need to admit to myself that there are so many articles about music I can get published before people start getting annoyed at me. I’m no music critic; I’m not even an upstart music industry/related field major – I’m just an upstart politics student whose entire conception of life is framed by art.

Within 12 hours of To Pimp a Butterfly being released, I had the skeleton of an article ready. Who didn’t? There was so much to analyze, so much to deconstruct, so much to contextualize. With Kendrick Lamar’s latest release, DAMN., it’s different. It’s the kind of album you mull over for hours, listening and re-listening – and that’s not to say TPAB wasn’t that way. I still realize new things about it every time I do a full-album re-listen. But with DAMN., I don’t even know where to begin.

Actually, I do: we’ve been blessed.

Kendrick Lamar is the kind of artist who has every right to disappear after one album, let alone after (give or take – but, well, mostly give) four absolutely stellar pieces of art. He could have been a one-hit wonder and we still wouldn’t have been worthy. And that’s not out of some weird celebrity-worship; he is the absolute cream of the introspective-music crop. With each album, we are given a window into the mind of an artist, watching an author write their treatise, their magnum opus right in front of us.

Every time I go to a museum, I try to stop by the conservation galleries so I can catch a glimpse of conservators working on restoring art. I have yet to be successful in catching a restoration in progress. Still, I like to read every thing; I like to look at the tools, touch all the interactive aspects of the exhibit, try to envision what it must be like to be a conservator entrusted with handling – fixing – works of art. What an absolute honor – and what an honor to be able to witness that, right?

With DAMN., I feel like I’ve finally been able to catch a conservator in action. Hell, I feel like I’m watching Langston Hughes whisper the words of a nascent poem aloud to himself to see if it sounds right. And maybe that’s dramatic, but as a poet that uses her medium to strip herself completely raw, regarding DAMN. is both somber and exhilarating. But what is it about DAMN. that makes it the prime artistry that it is?

It was hard to anticipate how Kendrick would follow up TPAB, an album so intensely political that it leaves you feeling exhausted when you’re done with it; an album so intensely political that one of its singles became the anthem for an entire anti-oppression movement. That was the power of TPAB. But DAMN. didn’t need to be a manifesto – frankly, it didn’t need to be anything. But what it became was the breathless musing of a man coming down from a protest high: slumping down into your favorite couch, the feeling of taking your shoes off after a long day, the – well – depression and malaise after you’ve emptied every reserve of your adrenaline.

Introspection. That’s what follows. As a friend noted, DAMN. is a return to Section.80, a contemplation of self, and the role of self. Kendrick positioned himself to be a messiah of sorts in To Pimp a Butterfly, but in the life of every prophet, there is a moment of doubt; a falter, a question of “Is god actually there? Do I matter? Will anyone ever stand with me?”

We caught glimpses of that in TPAB, and certainly in good kid, m.A.A.d. city, but DAMN. tackles these questions in renderings not unlike “u” or “Swimming Pools” – especially the latter with its misleadingly party-friendly vibe. I firmly believe that if you go into a Kendrick Lamar song without heavily considering that he might be talking to himself, about himself, then you have no business having an opinion about his music. Damning (hah)? Sure. But this is a rapper that means so much in today’s politically charged climate that to access him is a privilege, and we at least owe him, and ourselves, the ability to understand where he’s coming from.

“Ain’t nobody praying for me,” he declares repeatedly, and the bravado gives way to anxiety as a motif throughout the album. Kendrick Lamar has struggled with depression throughout his life, not unlike Chance the Rapper, and both young stars have been extremely public with this fact, using music as a conduit for introspection and even extrospection. The songs in this album are so raw, pained, desperately hopeful and desperately despondent at the same time. He tries to hold the world accountable, but invariably turns back at least some accountability onto himself. There are specific times in the album (the bridge in ELEMENT., the entirety of FEEL. – especially 2:50 – the intro to PRIDE., the tail-end of FEAR.) where I want to drop every thing and cry because it hits home so hard that I need it to bruise, to be sore, so that it can linger and I can remember how I felt when I first listened to DAMN. for the rest of my life.

For an otherwise not very good class, I read literary giant Chinua Achebe’s novel Anthills of the Savannah. I had read Things Fall Apart quite a few years ago, so I knew the kind of author Achebe was and I was rightfully excited about this one. It was situated in a much more contemporary context, and unfortunately, the novel ages pretty damn well. For the corresponding essay, we had to pick our favorite passage, and mine was the following:

“Do I contradict myself?” asked Walt Whitman. “Very well, I contradict myself,” he sang defiantly. “I am large, I contain multitudes.” Every artist contains multitudes. Graham Greene is a Roman Catholic, a partisan of Rome, if you like. Why then does he write so compulsively about bad, doubtful and doubting priests? Because a genuine artist, no matter what he says he believes, must feel in his blood the ultimate enmity between art and orthodoxy […] Those who would see no blot of villainy in the beloved oppressed nor grant the faintest glimmer of humanity to the hated oppressor are partisans, patriots and party-liners.

Every artist contains multitudes. It felt incredibly timely that right after reading this novel, DAMNdropped in all of its glory, in all of its contradictions: in all of its multitudes. Kendrick Lamar is that partisan of Rome; he is that genuine artist; he is myriad and beyond. I aim to memorize that quote so I can remember the lesson inherent in it: not only is to err to be human, but to contradict oneself is to be human; to be multitudinous is to be human. What other species could carry such capacity for horror, and such unmatched capacity for beauty?

Blessed.

And maybe that’s a funny thing to say when Kendrick Lamar struggles with the concept of being blessed, or not, but regardless of whether he feels like he is god-sent, god-sped, he is for me.

There are not enough words in the world to discuss all the facets of this album that I want to. I have a feeling I will be coming back to this a lot.

Until then – I’m waiting for Sunday.

The old Lie

I imagine the hardest part of living through a war is not being able to see the enemy as anything but just that; an enemy. I imagine the other hardest part of living through a war is realizing you had no stake in it until your way of living was turned into a small pile of chips to wager.

What they don’t tell you about war in history books (that aren’t doused in Wilfred Owen) is that war turns people pathetic. It turns people into schoolyard bullies trying to prove to the other that their prepubescent chin hairs are longer. Dignity lies in the barrel of a gun…and how far you can threaten the mass annihilation of a people in a Facebook comment.

War turns people small. Not small in a cute, cuddly way. Small like a shitty chihuahua who yelps and growls and bites really irritatingly hard. You suddenly become a groupie after a government that was the bane of your existence, and forget every single valid qualm you had against it because it gave you a distraction.

War turns people short-sighted. They say retrospect is 20/20, but not during wartime! There’s a reason history repeats itself time and time and time again because the fog of war makes it really hard to actually see what’s staring back at you in the mirror unless you have the presence of mind to air out the bathroom. Everyone loves a good nuclear war.

War turns people geographically illiterate. No, really, everyone loves a good nuclear war – especially if the targets are right next door. That won’t go over badly at all.

War turns people heartless.

Everyone loves a good nuclear war.

That won’t go over badly at all.

War turns people impractical. You know how it’s really irritating to have to go through a visa process because some jerk from your country did a really horrible thing and now you have to deal with the consequences of a country that went full War on Terror?

Yeah. That really shouldn’t be relatable.

And honestly? War turns people selfish. On the scale of the effect of war being an inconvenience <-> being disastrous skews more and more towards the latter when you start tossing poverty into the mix. You know what’s hard to do when you’re homeless, internally displaced, and living day to day – sometimes hour to hour?

Changing the filter on your Facebook profile picture to your country flag.

No, but really though, that’ll show ’em!

My parents raised me too well to let my ego dictate personal foreign policy. They also raised me to not share controversial opinions but that one is a bit harder to follow.

Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.

A post written in poem

​as a child i listened to The Cranberries

singing anthems i could not grasp 

for Salvation & for Zombies, 

as Odes to my Family & to Saving Grace;

i am 21 & my heart aches as it connects

the dots a five year old in her father’s car

could not.

i cry for the Warchild, 

for Ridiculous Thoughts,

& sing my Daffodil Laments

(my anthem for Zombies is much the same). 

as a child my mother found me

watching the news with the grimness of 

a newly minted tween.  

i had tears in my eyes & what felt like 

a noose in my fists  

& an anger so new to my 4 foot 5 frame. 

“how do i fix it?” “you don’t.” “why?”

“you talk to others about fixing it. you trust 

others to help you do what you can’t do 

alone.”

mamma bade me speak with the softness 

of water & watch the ripples flow from me. 

with their tanks 

and their bombs  

and their bombs  

and their guns,  

watch them die in a treacherous mind’s eye. 

& spill forth water from open arms.

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.

How Hamilton ruined my life

Note: At the time that I am writing this, I have hit about 1600 words. To retain my sanity and to keep some sort of end in sight, I’m going to keep my deeper analyses limited to Hamilton and Burr (and even within those constraints I am forced to limit myself: these characters are so layered and complex I would have to devote a book to their full deconstruction. …I’m a little tempted to do just that).


 

My friends have been talking about Hamilton for a long time. And by talking about it, I mean gathering in groups at parties and singing songs from the play together as if in some sort of rapture. I was always interested in listening to the soundtrack eventually, but I have a bad habit of putting things off until I’m forced to do them; inevitable, I fall in love with whatever I’m forced to do (see below).

Jemma messaged me, saying “You have to listen to Hamilton as soon as possible.”

It was a Saturday afternoon, I wanted to veg out for a few hours, the alternative was playing Stardew Valley and totally losing my soul to it (again): it was as good a time to start listening to the OST as any. Ten seconds into the first song, I sent her a message back saying “already losing my shit.” (…like I said…)

I don’t exactly know what kind of expression I had on my face, but I imagine it must have been a little alarming. I was sitting on Adam’s bed. He was busy playing a video game while I was listening to Hamilton. At some point he turned around to check on me, did a double take, asked what was wrong and I just responded with “I’m having a religious experience.” It’s that good.

Now if rap, hip hop and R&B aren’t quite your speed, you might have a hard time letting the music itself resonate with you. But it’s the ensemble, comprised mostly of people of color telling a story of a country that has historically seen racial tensions, and academia and scholarship of a primarily monochromatic palette, that should really capture your attention; if not even that, it’s the narrative of the story doing history justice and shedding light on a forgotten Founding Father and just some really dang clever writing.

Important: I’m not American, and I know little about American history before the 20th century beyond a cursory familiarity with its founding. This musical has made me emotionally invested in long-dead historical figures. It’s a travesty.

In any case, I was straight up crying by the time “Satisfied” rolled around. It was around then that I realized this play was far more than just a fun (hah, so I thought) musical about history for me. I know I’m an emotional person – I cry at the drop of a hat over most things, particularly fictional works (you can ask basically anyone who has watched a movie with me, or watched me read books). But Hamilton touched me in a way that left me feeling like I had the wind knocked out of me. It was the spiritual equivalent of my eyes widening in realization. (Pretentiously) so much of Hamilton’s own experience resonates with me.

There’s a line in “Satisfied” where Angelica Schyler asks Hamilton where he came from, and his response is, “Unimportant, there’s a million things I haven’t done.” When I first heard that line, it made me hold my head in my hands. I was openly sobbing throughout that song. I often say I’m an easily satisfied person, and I suppose I am: all I need is good friends, good conversation, fulfilling work and I am content. But that song reminded me that true satisfaction is service, it is the pursuit of knowledge to the point of exhaustion – and for me, it is “Writing like it’s going out of style.”

And I think that’s why Hamilton struck such a chord with me. It is the story of a man who built his life from the ground up out of a hunger to be something, to do something, to stand for something or die trying; it is the story of a man who realizes that living is much harder than dying, but it is worth it so long as you live for a cause. It is the story of a man whose passion and drive nearly destroys him, and in many ways does destroy him when he has to choose between love for family and public service. It reminds me of my own fears and the human mortality of ambition.

The future excites me but often leaves me feeling grave. I cannot imagine a life where I live only for myself. I was born to do “a million things” and I am terrified there is not enough time. What do you pick when it all matters so much? Is pure drive enough? You can stand up for the right thing but not have people rallying behind you until long after you’re dead.

Is glory in life the reward? Or is it the legacy you leave behind?

And what if you become the villain of the story?

“Non-stop,” the final song of the first act, has me grinning and/or near tears for eight entire minutes. It is an exhilarating song for those of us who are relentless in our desire to work for the greater good. It is both anthem and counsel, a rallying cry and a warning: Hamilton is both soothsayer and harbinger, and that dichotomy is frightening and awesome.

Hamilton was a war vet, a politician, an economist, a lawyer, but through it all he was a writer and the most prolific of writers at that. Though he resisted it at times, writing was his strength and it was what propelled him from the slums through to New York City when he was a broken young man.

“Alexander Hamilton embodies the written word,” said the play’s creator (and Hamilton himself) Lin-Manuel Miranda [paraphrased]. That theme is echoed in the play itself, particularly in “Non-stop,” when Aaron Burr and the Company demand of Hamilton:

How do you write like tomorrow won’t arrive?
How do you write like you need it to survive?
How do you write ev’ry second you’re alive?

(PS: Definitely click through to the lyrics, they’re worth reading)

At the risk of sounding self-important, I see myself in Hamilton the character/person a lot. My friend Alex asked who I was in the play and my immediate response was, “Oh, definitely one of the Schyler sisters.” And while certainly, I adore the Schyler sisters (particularly Angelica), I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t anything like Alexander Hamilton at my worst. I have to be mindful to not monopolize my time with work – “Look around, look around, how lucky we are to be alive right now” – or I risk isolating myself; but I have to remember not to completely mantle myself in people or I risk feeling like I’m losing my willpower and drive.

How lucky we are to be alive right now. But to what end does this luck serve us? What will we accomplish, in the small blip of time that we are present for in the grand scheme of things?

And what if we forget, one day, to look around because we are too busy looking forward?

In short, Hamilton brings up a lot of questions inherent to the life of a political science/IR student, or someone who wishes to enter public service or governance in any capacity.

And then there’s Aaron Burr whom all I knew about prior to this play was that he was kind of a dick. Don’t get me wrong, he still is kind of a dick, but he’s one of the most human characters in a play all about humanizing historical figures. The same friend who asked me who I was professed that he was Aaron Burr – the most Slytherin of Slytherins. Maybe that was one of the reasons I found myself focusing on Burr’s lines on my multiple re-listens of the album:

“Talk less / Smile more / Don’t let them know what you’re against or what you’re for / You want to get ahead? / Fools that run their mouths off wind up dead.”

I almost always re-listen to that entire part of the song. Beyond the fact that it sets up Hamilton and Burr as foils to one another throughout the play, and that Leslie Odom Jr.’s voice is absolute silk, it has some personal resonance. Before I gave myself the right of passage into waxing poetic (I still say mostly fluff, but at least I’m somewhat eloquent now?) I firmly believed I was always running my mouth. And really, at the end of the day my waxing is a mask; I still run my mouth.

“Fools that run their mouths off wind up dead.”

Neither Hamilton nor I know when to shut up. I all but aspire to have Aaron Burr’s self-restraint. I’m good at that when I’m in conference, representing someone else’s policy, being a politician to boot – but maaaan, my mouth is non-stop. I mentioned earlier that “Non-stop” is a warning message as well as an anthem, and Burr himself underscores this when he says “Why do you always say what you believe? / Every proclamation guarantees / Free ammunition for your enemies.”

Whoops, I’m screwed. But anyway, Burr wasn’t wrong – Hamilton made a lot of enemies with his mouth, and ensured that his own legacy would be a niche historical interest (until Lin-Manuel Miranda came around anyway).

“Wait For It”, in particular, is a beautiful testament to Aaron Burr’s entire philosophy. His sense of self-preservation is the guiding force of his life, but it doesn’t mean he does not have values and opinions he believes in; he warns Mulligan, Laurens and Lafayette to lower their voices in “My Shot” to ensure that no loyalists hear of their plot; he signs up to become George Washington’s right-hand man, only to be shoved aside in favor of Hamilton; and when he finally sees that the playing field is safe enough for him to pursue his desire to become President of the United States, he is foiled by Hamilton who mistakes his self-preservation for disinterest (for lack of a better word).

Aaron Burr at his softest is divine to listen to. The tenderness with which he sings of Theodosia (R&B at its finest in this play) segues into a broader narrative on life. It is a three-part soliloquy on love, death and Hamilton, the first two of which don’t “… discriminate / between the sinners and the saints” but all of whom “take and [they] take and [they] take.” Love, death and Hamilton: forces of nature in Aaron Burr’s world, a world where he is willing to hold his plans close to his chest. As he sees it, the fact that Theodosia is with him and no one else, and that he outlived his family – that he is even alive right now – proves he has a moment coming. He will just bide his time until he can safely secure that moment for himself. Burr does have a cause, it is just one that doesn’t manifest as chaotically tangible as Hamilton’s does. And the cherry on top of the humanity sundae?:

“I am the one thing in life I can control … I am inimitable, I am an original … I am not falling behind or running late … I’m not standing, I am lying in wait.”

If that isn’t inspirational, I don’t know what is. The entire song is Burr’s way of saying “Look around, look around, how lucky we are to be alive right now.” He has passions and opinions and ambitions like everyone else, he is just restrained and contained and so deeply R&B in a play full of rappers and beat-boxers.

I love Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr’s initial friendship. Their playful banter up until “Story of Tonight (Reprise)” is frankly adorable, particularly when Hamilton tries to encourage him to pursue Theodosia and when Aaron Burr, without any spitefulness, tells Hamilton to “smile more” – on the occasion of Alexander’s wedding, it’s sweet, kind, friendly advice.

Their former friendship culminates in the infamous duel where Aaron Burr shoots to kill and Hamilton raises his gun to the sky – showing restraint, where Burr is the one who channels death and takes, and takes, and takes. Hamilton had finally decided to slow down after his son’s death and truly look around, look around at his wife and family; Burr sees his moment and attempts to seize the Presidency, only to have it taken away from him by Hamilton’s vote. It is a scene heartbreakingly rendered. So much so that I refuse to go into it in more detail than I already have.

It is also the one song I haven’t been able to bring myself to listen to again.

Description cannot do Hamilton justice. I haven’t even watched the play and it was able to garner such a visceral reaction from me. I don’t recall the last time I became so enamored of something so quickly. It has been two and a half days since I first started listening to Hamilton, and I find myself desperately trying to wrap up a 2000+ word essay because if I don’t stop myself now, I won’t stop at all.

So I will end on this abrupt note: do yourself a favor and listen to Hamilton, because 200 years from now they will remember Lin-Manuel Miranda’s genius – and how lucky we are to be alive right now.

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!

Shame and retrospect

I don’t like admitting to it but I was frankly far more imbued in the Western than I was in the local growing up in Pakistan. American cartoons, British books, English music – hell, even Japanese media – were a staple of my early life far more so than my own culture or the immediacy of my surroundings. There’s obvious advantages to that of course: I grew up a globalized person with a great deal of general knowledge and trivia about the world around me, and (it has to be said) my English skills wouldn’t be as accomplished as they are if I hadn’t been so invested in Western media.

And that isn’t to imply that an appreciation of Pakistani culture has to exist in a vacuum – my own parents are testaments otherwise, being the widely learned yet rooted people they are – but it does shame me that for many years of my life I almost, almost looked down upon my culture for being paindoo¹. I didn’t pay attention in Urdu class and considered it a frankly useless subject and that’s a bloody misfortune, one that I will regret for the rest of my life. So much beautiful text ignored, so many stories and little quirks of the language that I went without understanding the nuances of…

Until, of course, I left Pakistan and felt that deep cultural void in me, the nostalgia that comes as punishment for the formerly disparaging displaced. That’s when I opened myself up to the history of my country, to its present, and to the possibility of a future back in it. I still have a huge gap in my understanding of it (small, silly things like gun control in Pakistan or public administration services, policy things).  But that attempt to understand changed me. It continues to change me as I learn more and more about my homeland and heritage. Nothing hits me quite as viscerally as its music and poetry, and through those channels I’ve been able to build upon my fluency in Urdu and hopefully guide it in a direction that can be beautiful, not just utilitarian.

Frankly, the day I realized I was taking my dad’s suggestions of taking my politics back home seriously was when I realized I was, mentally, back home. Now it’s just a matter of actually going back home.

I’ve come a long way from the girl who used to feel like a stranger in a shalwar kameez and scoffed at braided hair.  The universe has a way of turning you on your head – and my suddenly braided head is full of foreign service studies in Pakistan and echoes of Sunn Ve Balori.

I got off the armchair

My grandfather passed away when I was 14 years old. I may not have been as close to him as my brother was but I’d like to think my dada – Urdu for grandfather – was privy to the moment every star in my figurative sky aligned and made me recognize what I wanted from my life.

To recognize: to reacquaint someone or something – concrete or abstract, take your pick – with your cognition. The facts are all there, lined up finely like topiaries; what is left is to blindly stumble into one of the bushes.

Allow me to line up the facts, then, as there are a few to be acknowledged here: to be born Pakistani is an inherently political act. It follows, then, that your life is steeped in the political no matter what route you assume. You could be an engineer, a computer scientist, the most domestic of housewives but when society calls and you find yourself sitting around a coffee table or dinner table, cradling a cup of tea, there is only one real topic of conversation. That was my childhood. Continue reading “I got off the armchair”

Short note: Musings on make up

If you follow me on any kind of social media, chances are you’ll see some variation of the following, “I like politics and make up.” Granted, sometimes the variations are very varied, but the point remains the same: I have two great loves in the world and those are politics and make up, or international relations and fashion, whichever I choose to broadcast more. On its own it seems plenty innocent, but I can feel an occasional eyebrow being raised at the dual assertions. What place does make up – and, indeed, extravagant aesthetic – have among the grand schisms of the world? What use of eyeliner and lipstick in the perusal of policy and social thought? Ribbons and frills, UV lit lipstick and rouge cheeks, against the monochrome backdrop of writings established in political canon, where does the connection lie?

I guess there’s a greater meaning underneath the wonder: does something as superficial as make up deserve to be spake in the same breath as international affairs?

Sure. I don’t see why not. But there is one contention – make up is not inherently superficial. It can made to be such, but so can all things (in fact, could one not argue that much of politics is vanity and rhetoric?); but neither is make up inherently revolutionary either. Certainly, it masks and conceals and can become a tool of self-suppression, but there is a glory in it as well, an artistic pleasure in the careful brush strokes, the contouring: matte against shimmer, highlighting, defining, understating, emphasizing, a reclamation of ones own body – ones own face – that suggests confidence. Or just some high quality make up.

But I do recognize that I can sometimes subscribe to the same pretenses I eschew in this post. There is something defensive in the way I assert my loves. Politics and make up: two ends of a spectrum, contradictions (or at the very least, superb contrasts), the worldly and the vain, the masculine and the feminine, and my subconscious assertion that I embody both. That there is some kind of unique Greatness in my polar nature. Is that not a pretense of its own?

I am by no means the only one. Certainly, there is a massive population of women who study the political sciences, who take part in political processes, and who – pretty freakin’ often – slick on lipstick and have perfectly coiffed hair. Admittedly, these women may not always be taken with the same seriousness as their heteronormative, male counterparts and I guess that’s why I wax poetic about cosmetics and fashion, a testament that two seemingly polar things can exist in the same sphere without causing conflict, without spreading one too thin. There is no shame in the feminine, and certainly none when femininity and politics occupy the same framework, the same person. The two are not mutually exclusive – few things are, really. The sooner we can (the sooner can) come around to the fact that humans are nuanced creatures, the sooner we can stop creating artificial divides based on something as arbitrary as gender roles and norms.

In the meantime, I’ll be cradling my Naked 3 palette and reading about the Eurozone.

 

UPDATE: I’m done with my first year of college! Hanging out in Dubai until about mid-August, when I return to Boston. Also, as of two days ago, I’m 19 so there’s that.