Wednesday, July 9, 2008

In the Blood

I was searching for an old cover story I did for the Kolachi pages to use as a writing sample, and found this instead (why is Yahoo! search suddenly more effective than Google? This is highly disturbing). I think I wrote this after a visit to Macchar Colony in July last year, during the shooting of a documentary with some friends. This forgotten piece is making me a little nostalgic, and a little amused by my own reluctant love for the city of candle lights (courtesy Tazeen):

In the Blood

By Madiha Waris

A recent cartoon in a local daily depicted a man's family drenched in unspeakable gloom because he had just been posted to the city of Karachi. Very funny, you'd say, if you didn't yourself happen to be a resident of 'the city of candle lights', as a friend refers to it. Although we have been used to being an object of fear and wariness for the world for decades, it seems like derision and ridicule are the latest emotion our city evokes in the hearts of the world. No worries -- we shall take that, too, in a rain-sodden stride.

Someone said the other day, and this is no science but purely an individual's own philosophy, that when things can't get any worse, there's only one way to go from there: to get better. You can easily counter that by saying they could also remain where they are and not get better at all. However, despite cynicism pouring in like the cyclone that just touched the coast, I'm going to stick with that lone ranger's philosophy and be optimistic. Things can't get any worse for Karachi right now, they can only get better.

Last week, my family finally suffered the 'real' thing, which (as we had always assumed earlier) only happened to the less privileged. We had no electricity for 32 hours. Things weren't all dark -- thank God for generators. However, as the hours slipped by and the generator threatened to die, a strong premonition gripped us. Have they forgotten us? Did they really just switch our power off and go off on a vacation? Where the heck are 'they'? This was the real thing. That feeling of abandonment that most Karachiites have experienced at some point of their lives: we finally felt as if we had really crossed the hallowed gates to the land of the forsaken.

Make no mistake: I have been through adversities that only happen to Karachi residents before. I've been abandoned at Numaish Chowk by my rickshaw driver amidst burning tires and petrol pumps following a bomb blast; I have suffered with millions others through the man-killing rollercoaster that is this city's public transport system. I've even taken up a futile fight outside my house with a long haired MQM worker who led a slogan-painting drive on our freshly painted wall in broad daylight. The phrases 'only in Karachi could this go unchecked' and 'only in Karachi could this idiot drive' have graced my mind more times than I can count. The only number that exceeds that is the times I have planned to escape this city forever and never come back.

However, I am astonished and a little betrayed by own sense of justice to find, that like some of your blood relations who annoy, degrade and hurt you again and again and yet find a place in your heart, I can't shun Karachi. Karachi is, alas, in my blood. With its screaming bus horns, pain-in-the-butt motorcyclists, silencer free rickshaws, ubiquitous potholes, waterless tanks, ugly as hell apartment complexes and countless other vices, this city is a permanent splotch on my life that I cannot remove.

It may sound naïve, but each time an outsider condemns, ridicules or dismisses Karachi my dormant patriotism comes into action and I become the optimist that I don't really feel like being most of the time. I think it's the same feeling that engulfs a lot of Pakistanis when Pakistan is dismissed as a failed nation -- which is often. It's a mulish disregard for intelligent forecasts of doom by the global pundits that is shared by the light sufferers to the worst inflicted in this country, and most of all by the often forsaken Karachiites.

Some friends and I got a chance to speak to a few groups of children living in several shanty towns in Karachi lately, during the making of a documentary. These children, all studying in schools run by different non-profit organizations, were refreshingly articulate, intelligent and ambitious. They all wanted to do great things in life, and they all had a unanimous agreement on the fact that Karachi, and by association Pakistan, was a difficult place to live in. They named a host of problems to prove this, ranging from poorly made roads to load-shedding, water shortages, and nobody ever cleaning the streets. Most were especially sick of the frequent strikes (which force their schools to close), and people burning tires and blocking the roads all the time. One of them especially hated the fact that people are not 'nice and respectful' to each other and are always fighting in the streets.

However, when asked if they would like to move out of Pakistan and live somewhere else in the future, surprisingly, only two raised their hands. They all wanted to travel of course; see new places, sit in (and preferably fly) a plane. Popular places to visit included Saudi Arab (where some of the children had relatives living) and the U.S. -- but then they wanted to come back and live here. When we wondered why, one of them, 11 year old Habib, smiled and answered sagely, "Yehan sab apney hain. Bahir waley kabhi apnon jaisay tou nahin hosaktey na."

And that, fellow Karachiite, is about the only explanation I can think of for this wretched city having forced its way into my once happily unpatriotic mind. There is no explanation this article can offer for the KESC's uselessness, for the murderous falls of the city's hoardings, for the hundreds of deaths in the past week, for the lawlessness and despair that rules this city right now. Affinity to lost causes, rooting for the underdog or idealism -- call it what you may -- but we all need something to get by.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Yet Another Immigrant Story

I arrived in the US about eight months ago, to get married in Houston and move to Maryland, where I live now. My last visit had been less than a year ago, during which I met my husband. The one before that was when I was seven years old. My memories of that visit constitute mainly of Disney Land and my first snow outside the tiny New York apartment belonging to my dad's friend, where we stayed for a week.

I didn't have to go through the usual hassles of visa because about 17 years ago, I had become a US Citizen courtesy of my father, who lived in America during the eighties but later chose to settle in Karachi. But the hassle-free traveling was perhaps the only real advantage I gained from my citizenship in the soon to come adjustment process. Among all the 'real' American citizens who've either lived here all or at least a greater part of their lives, here I was, with my American passport, Pakistani National ID, and a bit of irony. My 22 years of Karachi-based education, my proudly displayed IBA degree and occasional use of the expression 'Kia Scene hai' were in stark contrast to others with that claim.

I experienced pretty much the same learning curve as any other freshly arrived immigrant would have. Self-checkout at supermarkets, recognizing the pedestrian crossing signal on the road, the works. And so, as I think of what to write about my transition from Technically American-but-Really-Just-Pakistani to plain old Pakistani-American, so many things rush to mind that my mind is rapidly going blank (a predicament I’m commonly inflicted with). Let me just pick at random.

I'm still referring to that neat row house in Askari that I left in October, for example, when I say the word Home and Missing in the same sentence - but home in the real --brick, mortar and heart-- sense of the word now is the Silver Spring condo which I can’t wait to reach every evening when standing outside the Metro Station, waiting to cross the road. For all the jokes my boss, Travis, makes to me about my being too suspiciously well-adjusted in the American society for him to believe that I didn’t just land here less than a year ago, I still might pronounce words like Thirty like...well, like a full-blown desi would pronounce. And having lived in the dusty, smoky desert of Karachi has given me what can only be called a perverse sensitivity to trees, cleaner air and prolonged air-conditioning. Henceforth, I am wheezing and sneezing as I write and have been for the past several months.

Of course, there are more thought provoking consequences to migration. It’s surprising how little effort it really takes for a person to readjust, make daily compromises and adapt to new situations if the person isn’t change-averse and just lets nature take its course. It definitely makes the transition much easier if the person has been brought up in an environment more connected to the rest of the world. Being city-educated and media savvy helps undeniably. But still, here’s my theory: Post-migration happiness is directly proportional to pre-migration dissatisfaction with your previous environment in one way or another. Factors that sway this equation include one’s perception of personal growth and success in previous environment and relationships, and in some cases... the highly significant phenomenon of Domestic Help(!).

My pseudo-philosophizing aside, the reason for mentioning the adaptability of the human nature is to counter the myth that for someone born and bred in a wildly different and restrictive culture like Pakistan’s, it is hard to adapt well to the freedom-loving American culture. It’s actually a little uncomfortable to see how fast the un-learning process is for cultural notions and traditions that took years and years of instilling and breeding. Unless you live in desi paradises like Edison (NJ) or Sugarland (Houston), holding on to what are now seemingly-archaic notions such as shunning anyone who drinks alcohol or half-naked women (and men depending on your location) seem so, so very hard.

And yet some people do hold on. For all those who succumb to the temptation of non-halal beef and chicken, there are still those who don’t. How do they do it? Perhaps because I am no longer surrounded by parents who would serve as stern reminders, and have too much resting on my own free will, I feel it harder to not succumb to what I consider lesser vices. I don’t drink, for instance, but I wouldn’t avoid someone drinking anymore. I always cook Halal meat in my own home, but every now and then I’d eat chicken or beef outside. I still pray as regularly as I used to and try to do good in all the ways I tried to back in Pakistan, but occasionally, I would wear the sleeves shorter than I would ever have worn just a year ago (because I feel the skin on my arms gets rather buried in the sheer abundance).

And it’s happened so fast, my un-learning, that it's unnerving. On the other hand, I feel more responsible for my choices, and can’t blame my parents or environment anymore for the person I am (shoot). We all grow as individuals all our lives, after all – not just in certain formative years as the myth goes. We reinvent ourselves again and again based on our experiences so this person I am today, is most probably not the person I am going to be for the rest of my life.

Yet I do think that being in a less restrictive society is a good start for the person that I’m going to be as time goes. Why? Because I can finally challenge myself with this lack of cultural and traditional restrictions and act on my free will -- whether I want to or not. And this I can do while taking into account the values that have been instilled into me, weighing them, analyzing them as I have never had to before for lack of stimulus or need, and then embrace them as I grow. Perhaps it may mean discarding some of them along the way, but it will also mean maintaining the rest not because I have to, but because I want to.

Of course, not everyone goes through some sort of hardcore self-discovery each time they make a move. Many of them may just resort to two common paths: blocking outside influence and staying in a cocoon (note the article on living in Bradford below), or finding a complete, no-return escape from the past. Once again, this varies from person to person based on factors of pre and post migration happiness (refer to my lame philosophizing above). So much is the variation that I must refrain from any generalization, and describe this as solely my own experience, my own transition, and my very own moral to a really ordinary story of migration.

An abridged version of this was printed on Chowk and Dawn