Run or Hide
by HAFSA ARAIN
I left a ten-day long stay in Turkey almost as soon as the protests had begun there. I traveled with a group of fellow graduate students and our Turkish-American hosts who had set up a series of informational meetings and tourist activities so that we could learn more about the country. On our boat ride on the Bosphorus, we saw bright red flares reach the sky. The morning earlier, on a bus ride to a mosque for the dawn prayers, we saw about a hundred young men chanting and waving the red Turkish flag. I saw no gun-toting men, no real indication that danger was ahead.
And yet, I told the others on the bus, “The Pakistani instinct in me is telling me to run and hide. To get away from protests – this is how people get killed.”
According to my parents, a large gathering of people for political demonstration will inevitably turn out violent. They have told me this on the phone as I made my way to Occupy Chicago demonstrations, as I rallied to save the job of a professor in college, even as we watched Obama’s election on television witnessing strangers hug one another in Grant Park.
It is something my parents always say with a little bit of shame in their voices. That we should come from a place like Pakistan – with all its corrupt politicians, bomb blasts, and rivalry with the bigger, richer India – and not from somewhere else. They have only ever wanted us to feel proud of where we came from.
My flight from Istanbul to Karachi was shorter than I had imagined it would feel. Out the window, I watched the blinking lights of Iranian cities flash as the sun set behind us. I left California a month and a half ago, eagerly making my way farther and farther east. Karachi is my last stop before I go back. It is the farthest east I have ever been.
It is also the city in which I was born. When we came back to visit Pakistan as children – with our full American accents – my parents drove us past our old apartment building in Gulshan-e-Iqbal. I saw from the car a shattered window pane on the top floor. I drove past it again, more recently. My cousin Sara, who is years older than me, pointed out the building to me from the road – the brown earth and the brown buildings sometimes blend into one. I looked at it but did not recognize anything. It has been nearly 23 years since we lived there.
“This one?” I pointed at the building next to it.
“Yeah, it was one of these. I think that one over there,” she said, “I remember when you guys used to live there. Your taya and taijan [uncle and aunt] lived just upstairs.”
I told her I wanted to take a picture the next time we drove past.
A computerized image of a drone flashes on the television as we flip through channels. We never rest on the bad news – we almost reel past it. I sometimes will myself to forget that it exists. I will myself in the way I did when I lived in Chicago – when I heard of dozens of murders happening just miles away from me, I would will myself to think of something else. My first week back in Pakistan, I thought of myself as cruel for attempting to forget the innocent lives lost. By my second week I had decided it was the only way to keep going.
Occasionally, I will see an advertisement on television for USAID’s educational facilities in Pakistan. I have not seen any public mention of programs like this in Pakistan any other time I have visited, even though they have existed for a long time. In the commercial, a brown man dressed in shalwar kameez escorts a young girl wearing a school uniform into a brightly lit classroom. The entire ad is in Urdu, emphasizing that the curriculum is all Pakistani. I have seen this advertisement appear on the news networks mostly, after mentions of drone attacks in the north or when a news anchor reports on Taliban activities.
I spend my days studying languages – Arabic and Urdu – with private tutors, and my evenings accompanying Sara to the various bazaars to buy fabric and appliques for her clothing business. She is often telling me to avoid the puddles of brown spit on the ground – stains from paan, sweet chewing tobacco – and placing brightly colored fabric against my skin to see how it would look on me. My sister is getting married in autumn, and Sara is making nearly all of my outfits. We travel from one bazaar to another, meeting with tailors and the men who will sew all of the beads by hand onto my outfits. In their little shops, I fan myself as I am measured. As a reward for our hard work, we eat street food in the car with the air conditioning on full blast.
As we wind through traffic on the streets, I look closely at the Urdu script on the buildings and medians. Since the reason I am in Pakistan to begin with is to learn to read and write Urdu, I attempt to take some pictures of the graffiti so that I can read it as practice later. I mostly end up with snapshots of the political signs that line the medians on the roads. Benazir Bhutto’s face is still everywhere. I saw a particularly large poster of her, her eyes glinting with a faraway look and her white dupatta draped loosely over her head. The last time I was in Pakistan, in December of 2007, she had been assassinated brutally during a political parade in Rawalpindi.
When a bomb goes off in Boston, the world is shaken up. I had stared at my laptop all day when it happened, asked all of my friends in the area if they were okay. The days that they had shut down the entire city, I was glued to my twitter feed, unable to accomplish any of the tasks I had meant to do that day.
When a bomb goes off in Quetta, a city on the border with Iran in Pakistan, and 12 young women on their way to university die tragically, no one looks, notices, or even cares.
“We are used to it,” we tell each other as much as we tell ourselves. What else are we to expect of the rest of the world?
Hafsa Arain is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Los Angeles. You can find an archive of her writing for This Recording here.
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