12+ hour flights have a way of disorienting you. Your legs, asleep from their cramped position behind someone else’s seat, take a few minutes to wake back up as you mentally instruct them: walk, forward, left, right, left right. You walk past fellow passengers in line for immigration, for baggage claim, sheepishly practicing non-acknowledgement of people you’ve spent the last entire half day with, 12 hours of non-intimacy in an intimate space. Airports in foreign countries ooze difference, subtle. Like a color-blind person who knows something is slightly off, you navigate the throng of people, of new faces and different languages.
But in Pakistan, the language is yours, and you are both a tourist and a native. And when you step outside and smell that first whiff of familiar earthy Pakistan air, warmth hitting your face with the same shock as ice water, a sort of comfort settles itself in the pit of your heart, one that transmits signals to your brain: here is where you came from, this earth runs through your veins, these rivers through your arteries. You are home. But you are not.
“Who do you think I would be if I had grown up here instead of there?” I mused to a dear friend 3 days later, sipping lattes at a café in Islamabad late at night.
He leans back and grins that lopsided grin I know so well. “You’d probably have gone to school, gone to college, gotten arranged marriaged to some boring guy and been a good little wife by now.”
My trip to Pakistan this year, after ten years, has been more thought-provoking than ever. In America, I feel my Pakistaniness more, in an effort to remember where I come from. In Pakistan, I feel my Americanness, and the fundamental differences of my life and ways. The split is never more defined than when I’m in Pakistan itself, and the tangle of complicated explanations, of gray areas that fit neither black nor white, confuse me. Answers to questions, to problems, and to the global situation that connects these two countries split off into many pathways. There is no one straight line to follow, no singular answer: possibilities branch out ceaselessly, like a crack in a windshield which splinters out, spiderwebbing across the glass into larger cracks and smaller ones, some barely perceptible.
There are the beautiful things. Getting off the domestic flight from Lahore to Islamabad, passengers descended a flight of stairs from the plane and clustered at the bottom of the steps, waiting for our handbags to be offloaded from the rear storage. The mostly male flight crew stood with us, waiting to grab handbags and hand them off. A 3-year-old began gingerly to descend the stairs, little legs unsure of the height, and one crewmember swiftly picked him up in his arms mid-step, unselfconsciously holding the child until the mother descended right behind him. Another crew member offered to hold a baby while the yet another helped the child’s mother with her handbags. I saw male family members unabashedly showing their emotions, unafraid of vulnerability, of love and affection, of tears. I shared delayed grief with family I hadn’t seen since my brother passed, who held pent-up sadness at his loss inside of them and let it out once we had transcended the boundaries of distance and time. We celebrated and danced and sang. We smelled monsoon earth and the particular smell and celebration of rain, we tasted mangos and guava. I saw a country whose elite class has emerged (finally) into true political and civic engagement. Voting has become a point of pride instead of a point of scorn, many are working to encourage action, art, and a positive vision of the future.
I saw also the madness that the last ten years has wrought: security checkpoints on every road, triple checks before entering the lavish hotel where the family wedding was being held. Flashlights, armed guards, “open your trunk and your hood please thank you,” obstacle courses made of barriers and orange cones. Certain areas can be visited at your own risk on certain days, security alerts littered across days like a weather report. No you can’t hike the Marghalla Hills for the next three days until the alert clears. No the naval base isn’t safe because it’s currently under threat. Don’t go to the Blue Area today because a mad man with guns is holding up traffic and half the police in Islamabad is busy trying to talk him down. There is a subdued look in people’s eyes, resignation to the situation they’ve found themselves in and the compromises they make.
The thoughts swirling around my head are confusing, and I find it hard to pin them down in one blog post. So I will work through this, through the next days and weeks and months. Every few years, I need this reminder of who I am and where I come from. I need to see the generosity of spirit and warmth of affection. I need to smell the earth and feel the rain. I need to remember the supreme confusion of a split life in order to find the muses necessary to creativity. As writers, we are told to write the stories we want to read and can find nowhere else. May this be the beginning of rediscovering more of these stories.