Tuesday, October 31, 2017

A Broken Young Man

One of my more recent dreams in life was to die in action and be remembered for being an epic human rights activist; remembered for at least 5 minutes in a world with a very short concentration span. That dream, in time, gave way to a fiery passion for contributing to change and receiving glory in life – not posthumously. Eventually vanity and incessant need for validation in life or death washed away and I was left with the realization that if I can truly find my centre, feel real empathy without seeking approval, and contribute somehow to even one person, I may be able to fulfill my mysterious and unknown purpose in life.

With my newly found clarity still fresh in its grave, I fled to live my North American dream. I was intermittently ashamed that my new purpose in life would be to think mortgage and credit cards, and deal with a daily albeit wavering dose of racial profiling.

And then I walked past a young white man – sitting outside a depressing Pizza Pizza franchise – with his filthy hands lying in his tattered lap, and eyes that had died a long time ago.  The poster child for homelessness, mental illness, and downtown Toronto.

Little did I know that you could instantly feel connected to human misery, even in a new country where you still feel like you don’t belong. The difference in the colour of your skin, or the dissimilarities in your cultural past or present becomes irrelevant. Your loyalty is not to a country’s pain, but to the pain of its humans. Having said that, I am glad I am not in Syria having this epiphany.

I walk past him many times each day. I walk through the city that sometimes smells of piss but only in certain parts.  Although I never see 4-year old battered souls selling wilting flowers for pennies, I do see young folks carrying loud anger, hopelessness, and needle marks. Some on the street have come very close to me and screamed threats like ‘I am going to kill you cunt’, except they didn’t. They were merely victims of chronic poverty – not religious or racial dogma.

This is my fleeting and probably a fraction-of-the-real-reality experience of an underground sub-city in Toronto that lives over the ground.  

A couple of summers ago during the holy month, more than 2000 people died in Pakistan from excessive heat, power outages and religious zeal – mostly from the unknown poor. The ensuing year, the government dug precautionary mass graves in preparation.

This year as the harsh winter approaches, the homeless death toll in Toronto has reached 70. A number not comparable as a number, but a significant tragedy in a country with a world life expectancy ranking of 12 (versus the 127th ranking Pakistan), and a landscape devoid of massive slums and powerful warlords. I wonder how this poverty that stands out against relative prosperity will be dealt with, if at all. Digging mass graves would certainly be overkill.

I revert to my lost purpose of treasuring my empathy as I hand out one of my cigarettes to the broken young man.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

A Father’s Long Distance Obituary – From His Daughter, With Love

I grieve in words. For I did not witness the physical agony he was in. For I was unable to imagine my fierce Abbu not being able to speak or move despite trying. For I will not be able to touch his cold veined hands tomorrow and say goodbye as he is laid to rest. For I will not be able to hug my brother as I cry silently – the only way I know how to cry.  Today I grieve the death of my father, in words.

From making an elaborate sketch of his face in pencil and always keeping it with me in my bag like a treasure – as I was in complete awe of him even when I was afraid of him – to tearing that sketch in anguish many years later, to finally reaching a moment when I wished I hadn’t torn it to pieces, many more years later.

From him banishing me because I chose to study business over home economics like all his other daughters, to him insisting on driving me loudly and proudly to my first day at my job.

From his rage over my ‘immodest’ sleeveless shirt, to us having a smoke together, me in another one of my immodest sleeveless shirts and him advising me earnestly to quit smoking.

It was a relationship that survived the test of anger, pain, and time, leaving only love and mutual respect behind. Whether that survival was a biological eventuality or a real bond, I don’t know, and I don’t care. It was, it is, worth so much.

We were so much alike. He was a male chauvinist. I was a female chauvinist. He had his pride. I had mine. But somewhere along the road, he lost his chauvinism – albeit I didn’t entirely lose mine – and we both relinquished our pride. We became friends who finally realized, accepted and almost cherished how alike they were.

I truly loved him. And I believe he truly loved me. Something we never really expressed in words –until our last words. Before he lost consciousness, I sent him a text message thanking him for teaching me even when he was not trying to teach me. For making me, even when he was not trying to make me. I told him I loved him. He told me he loved me. Can that be considered a worthy goodbye? It will have to be for me to not harbor regrets.

Grieving from a distance is a different and new experience for me.  When I received the text informing me of my father’s death – in another part of the world, in another time zone – I didn’t know what to do with myself. I didn’t know where to put my hands, where to look as I cry. Do I continue looking at my laptop screen and keep responding to that email, do I look outside the window, or do I simply walk out. Who do I look at when crying? And why does it matter so much that I am fixated on trying to find the right answer to this ludicrous question? There are no arrangements that I have to make, there is no one I must offer comfort to right away, there is nothing I have to do. 

And then I suddenly looked at the world’s clock to confirm which day and time it was in Pakistan so I would remember his day of death. It reminded me of the time when he told us that his real birth date was not May 15, the only birthday of his we had always known. After Indo-Pak partition and his migration, due to some erroneous paper work, his real date of birth was misplaced in the system. I would insist to know of his real birth date each year. He would tell me a different date each time– for he did not remember. How incessantly I obsessed about it for years – feeling like the cheap perfume I would buy him each year would somehow mean less, not because it was awful, but because it would not be given on his ‘real’ birthday.

I catch myself as I start to obsess about not being there on his real death day.

It’s hard to imagine a world without you Abbu. I grieve you in distance, I grieve you in isolation. I grieve you in words.

Rest in peace. You have bloody well earned it.

Mahmood Ahmed, May 15, 1938 – September 27, 2017

Monday, September 4, 2017

Erasing My Brown

When you immigrate, you bring with yourself a lot of baggage. Your belongings are more than your clothes and other items you travel with. They include memories of your culture, weight of your history of colonization in your DNA, your third world mind and heart.

You carry things that provide a semblance of familiarity, before you start letting them go to catch the subway in time, to finish your 40-hour week, to be an immigration survivor, in hopes to be an immigrant success.

You try hard to leave behind the tragedies and trauma your third world inflicted on you, and start anew. You want to integrate into a secular, modern society where the presence and ownership of your female genitals won’t put you in the line of fire, at least in your daily life. But you continue to remain in the margins. Even if you have abandoned your beliefs, you still carry your brown colour. You still carry the smell of henna that you loved applying on your hands on Eid. You still hold the taste of warm rotis in your mouth. Your tongue still craves for those words of Urdu. Some things will never become unfamiliar, no matter how much your familiarity adapts to another life.

You want to remember the henna, colourful dupattas, and the fragile glass bangles but want to forget the greeting hand of your molester on your head in a house full of family. You wish to remember your achievements of the past without reminding yourself of the social cost at which they were gained. You want to identify with how you stood tall in the face of adversity but shiver at the thought of standing in front of a judge trembling uncontrollably when he refused to help you get your child back. 

Selective memory is an art. Embracing the good and banishing the bad in that one moment in time is hard. Integrating in a new Western culture with your skin that is not brown but identifies as such is some times perplexing. 

You remain torn – stuck in between, trying to only remember the taste of warm roti's you had while licking the curry off your fingers, and reminding yourself that you still enjoy the foreign cornbread because now you can have it shamelessly with a glass of wine.

Monday, June 5, 2017

Lemon Tarts

If you hate lemons, that’s what you will often get from life. Then one day, you learn to make delicious chicken curry with them and suddenly don’t hate them anymore.

The lemons still keep coming. But their acidity stands interrupted.  These are my very deep thoughts as I stare at buckets and buckets full of lemons in my current world view. Such deep thoughts that eventually transform into unrelenting apathy, or vivid fantasies about becoming a world famous juggler who juggles expertly while standing on a single steady foot. 

The lemons in this analogy are caustic emotions.

I used to think of emotions as natural and valuable – as long as they were mine – as long as their pitch was not so high – as long as their expression not so dramatic and repetitive.

It was the “as long as” that got me into trouble each time. Lo and behold, a regular influx of drama queens in my life, who are bursting through their fragile skins with abundant sour emotions – tasting bitter and sending unwanted and rapidly dissipating shivers down my hidden places.

The need for relentless attention. The want for undeserving appreciation. The fragility of core existence. The victims of every interaction.

Yawn. Burp. 

Is it too much, or is it too much for me? Am I simply too arrogant of my adversities – faced and overcome without organized crime, religion or therapy? 

Did I lose my vulnerability with pride, like young lovers lose their virginity?

And when the fuck would I learn to make delicious chicken curry?

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Visible Minority Report

Neither Black Nor White - 2017
"Are you a member of a visible minority?" The first time I was asked this question, it left me perplexed and curious. It was a very new term for me, and raised a very pertinent question as a new immigrant – who am I in the official definitions of visibility and vulnerability.

Google has all the answers, although they often raise even more questions. 

"A visible minority is defined by the Canadian government as "persons, other than Aboriginal people, who are non-Caucasian in race or non-white in colour". (Source: Wikipedia)

As a South Asian woman, I could never really figure out the colour of my skin. In Pakistan, I was considered an acceptable level of 'fair'. Fair enough to get a sufficient number of arranged marriage proposals.

It was a briefly refreshing change in issues to move from my gender to race when I arrived here. Race is something I had never really thought about in the context of my own life. In our country, we hate (and sometimes kill) people based on their religious sects, and/or religious expressions. Race is primarily a cause of intellectual discrimination based on our origins. Skin colour is not associated with race, but often with beauty. It is ironic to know that 'white' is considered the epitome of beauty.

In Canada, race is relevant. And the most popular and common identity of race is colour, or in some cases visual features - causing even more confusion for me. I am neither black nor white. I don't have a history of marginalization, or notions of supremacy based on the colour of my skin. I don't have powerful voices fighting for my colour kind and making the world listen. And I don't have the privilege of belonging to the majority that can naively claim that 'all lives matter'. My eyes are very ordinary and do not offer any visible identification. I don't think I am even brown, a race colour I am supposed to identify with. 

It was only in recent times that my kind was categorically associated with terrorism and orthodox life views – but that too has more to do with your garb, language or lifestyle. With my short short hair, multiple facial piercings, Western clothes, and non-peculiar English accent that cannot be easily placed, I am a visible enigma, for people and frankly sometimes for my own self. 

There is no one fighting for the rights of my race of colour. There is no slogan that defines my history or struggle. I cannot even rightfully claim 'Islamophobia' because I occasionally suffer from it myself.

So I continue to wonder: 

What is my colour?

Does my life and lives of my kind matter?

Does my colour make me visible?

Or am I an invisible minority in Canada? 

When will we create a world where all that becomes inconsequential?