We deplaned just as I remembered. Down a flight of stairs in the brisk March morning, well before dawn, and onto a waiting bus. The airport, too, was exactly as I recalled: An afterthought alongside the Air Force Base. Obstinately I have refused to amend my passport, though the picture of me, from eight years ago, indicates a man twice my size; the customs officer experienced a painful double-take, and then much mirth at my expense. Yes, I was fatter then. I was still me though.
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But it was not until I retrieved my baggage and emerged outdoors that I smelled it. Exhaust fumes and wet earth, too much traffic and the springtime flowers in bloom. It had been several years, but it all came back to me, suddenly, unexpectedly, too powerfully. Before I knew it, and thankfully before the driver arranged to pick me up had spotted me, I found myself crying. Because I was home. Which, of course, Islamabad hardly was.
I grew up in New England, but every other year my father would fly us back to the fatherland (and motherland); his family was in Rawalpindi, the St. Paul to Islamabad’s Minneapolis. We’d spent much of winter vacation there, usually at my nana’s. The address rolls off my tongue: A combination of letters and numbers, like living on a Borg ship overrun by Punjabis. The city of Islam - that is her name in Urdu and Persian - was founded in the early 1960s, because the current capital, Karachi, was found wanting.
The country’s founder, long deceased, had warned of the influence of commercial interests on politics; Karachi, on the shore of the Arabian Sea, was already the center of finance and trade. The weather was deemed wanting by many, tired of the stifling heat. The rest of the country felt neglected, seeing as every major activity was concentrated in the country’s primary seaport. (Par for the course, the planners entirely ignored the sentiments of the eastern wing of the country, which had the majority of Pakistan’s population.) And there was a fear that Karachi, separated from India by easily passable plains, was vulnerable.
So a new city was built where the flatness of Punjab smacks into the first Margalla Hills, in the north, on the road to Kashmir.
When we started going, the city was only a few decades old, and mostly empty. It has since filled in considerably, although the capital still feels like a village that has gotten lost in a forest. Some see this as impossibly dull – many compared it to a cemetery – while others are charmed by the rich vegetation, the evergreens and the palm trees, flowers everywhere, gardens upon gardens. I only lived in Islamabad for a few months one spring. I was 24, and looking to apply to graduate school, hoping to get a leg up on my language requirements. My mother spent much of that time with me, and her family, all of which was there. Two years later, on Valentine’s Day, she died.
She was long ill, and then suddenly getting better, and then it was over. My father gave up his home; like Islamabad, it was far too big, only ever filled by a handful of people. He moved in with my brother, and Connecticut faded away. Now I live in New York. I do not own a car. I haven’t seen my hometown for years. The last place that connects me to my mother, that I might visit – short of trespassing on someone else’s property – is Islamabad. I had expected to feel many things. Jet lag. Exhaustion. Anticipation. Confusion. Probably an upset stomach. (As it turns out, I was spared.)
But not to cry because of the gasoline, the nicotine, the jasmine.
My mother was an infant when her family migrated from one side of the Punjab to another, across which a line had been hastily and criminally drawn. From India to Pakistan. Of course, when she was born, there was neither an India as we know it, nor a Pakistan. She was a subject of the British Empire. Her father and many of his relatives served in the army. The Allies would have never defeated Nazi Germany were it not for these tens of thousands of mostly Muslim subalterns, who served in silence, rarely acknowledged, whose descendants are condemned for their purported backwardness, though were it not for them, hundreds of thousands of them, often cheap labor or cannon fodder, London might be speaking German, Paris might still be occupied. You’re welcome.
When she was in her late twenties, she married my father and they spent two years in the United Kingdom. They hardly spoke of it, which suggests to me there wasn’t much worth talking about. And then they landed in Brooklyn (where I now live). America would be their home for the rest of their lives. My father became a surgeon, my mother became an oncologist. She was well-educated, thanks to her father, who insisted his daughters receive an education. He was enlightened, but he didn’t require a Western enlightenment. Her fluency in English, love for poetry and literature, and her headscarf, seemed to confuse most observers, who wanted so badly to believe that absent them, we would be lost in the dark.
When Donald Trump said he might ban Muslims from arriving in America, at least until we could figure out what is going on, as he so eloquently put it – I cannot imagine a candidate less likely to ever understand what is going on – he quickly created an exception for American citizens. In response to the bankruptcy, terrorism and global decline unleashed by their own party’s war-mongering, many Republicans have sought refuge in a naive and crude nativism that is as impossible as it is dangerous. Then they have the audacity to blame Muslims, as if America’s Muslims had conceived, supported and demanded the Iraq War, which has done more to aid global terrorism and defeat our prestige than anything we could.
I don’t believe nations and states contain us. They help to define us, but everything about us is so much smaller – we live on the scale of individuals, families, tiny communities – and so much vaster. On the right we witness an angry mood, people enraged that the world does not, as it turns out, revolve around them, who believe that being forced to compete fairly with others unlike themselves is unfair, who find menace and mendacity in hyphenated identities, who believe everything should be reduced to them. I will not yield my hyphens, my commas, my semicolons, my dashes, my scare quotes. That is perhaps why they started their American journey in New York, and why I have embraced New York.
It is the only part of the country where I do not have to say Pakistani-American, or American-Muslim, or South Asian American, or Asian American, or what have you. New York is neither a city nor a nation. It is the world on a scale we can embrace. I wonder if, in Brooklyn, she missed Pakistan. If in Connecticut she missed Brooklyn. If in the next life she misses this life. I wonder what she would make of where I live. Not far from Little Pakistan, a neighborhood dominated by Syrian and Egyptian Jews, abutting Russians, Tatars, Turks, where everything that is not kosher is halal, and which is neither doesn’t last for much longer. I see double-headed Albanian eagle decals, Ukrainian coats-of-arms.
I look at the kids raised here, who might feel so distant from the world their parents came from, who know each of them is from somewhere the other has never been, who see this as entirely and fully normal, and I wonder if they will one day soon be forced to choose between their identities, made to pick sides, split themselves apart, if they will be allowed to say their hearts and souls belong to different places and all those places, that the parts are greater than the sum, or whether they will be forced to deny who they are by people who have forgotten how their own forefathers once moved and found welcome, once rebuilt their lives, and return the favor now by slamming the door shut on someone else.
Haroon Moghul is a Fellow at the Institute of Social Policy and Understanding. He is a President of Avenue Meem, a new media company. Follow him on Twitter: @hsmoghul