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Entries in Pakistan (9)


World Music Wednesday: Zeb & Haniya, "Bibi Sanam" 

In all things there must be balance.

I've posted a Bollywood video, so, naturally, I've got to give a shot out to my people in Pakistan... and Afghanistan.

I'm in a unique position to have been to almost all three of these three countries. While I never entered Afghanistan, I spent several days in a border town where everyone spoke Pashtun and even those of us women who didn't cover our heads were compelled to do a little "purdah." Oh, google it.

My experience in that border town contributes as much to a contrived reality I have of Afghanistan as the one that I assume many of you have of Pakistan. Don't feel bad, it's a natural outcome. We work with the facts we experience. The last few years have done nothing for the image of fundamentalism that many associate with Pakistan, and yet the Pakistani cultural landscape is not so far from our own.

Pakistanis, and I presume Afghanis, are no less varied in their moral viewpoints than Americans. There are uptight Pakistanis and loose Pakistanis. There are Pakistani jerks and Pakistani sweethearts. I mean, think of that person on Facebook whose political posts make you roll your eyes. It's like that. Except instead of Facebook posts, those annoying Facebook guys have beards and don't think women should be educated past primary school.

There's not a much better way to illustrate this diversity of population than by highlighting one of the most gorgeous musical arrangements showcased on Pakistan's "Coke Studio". "Coke Studio" is a part of a Coca Cola branding strategy in Asia, but it began in Brazil. While the Brazillian format boasted concert like productions, Coke Studio Pakistan is more like MTV Unplugged... intimate, beautiful and subtle in its production value. It's very much like Pakistan itself.

While it may seem like just another music show to the casual observer, the musicians showcased on Coke Studio are a beautiful example of an artist's ability to weave the past with the present and act as fortresses against forces that seek to crush beauty with unchecked dogma or ignorant presumption.

This song, "Bibi Sanam," is sung in a Pashtun dialect called Rani. The description on YouTube says "Persian," but I don't think that's correct. I invite my Persian friends to speak up if I'm wrong on that.

The women singing this traditional folk song are American educated Pakistanis with strong roots in the Northwestern Frontier Province where women's roles in public life are not only limited, but on occassion violently challenged. "Bibi Sanam" is yet another example of how disparate sounds from different parts of the world can blend seamlessly to create something special. A little Asian folk, some blues... if you listen hard enough, you'll even pick up a little funk. I really hope you enjoy this as much as I do, or, at the very least, respect the process and product.

Because, I'll tell you what, friend, when I listen to this song, I remember that every battle isn't fought with guns and bombs. I think of these people creating their art and holding on to the idea that their home is still worth making beautiful and I feel a sense of hopefulness in humanity that is difficult to put into any cohesive sentence.

I cherish that there are people in this world who push back against the tide of oppression and produce peace with their sheer beauty. And their songs.

Really beautiful songs.

May you ever be victorious, janams.



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Mujahideen Plunder


It was 1996.

My father had recently returned from a trip that allowed him the unusual opportunity of venturing beyond Lahore. He and my cousin went on a road trip and wandered through Peshawar and areas bordering Afghanistan. During that excursion, my father met and conversed with some Afghani "mujahideen."

The word mujahideen has become synonymous with "Islamist" and “terrorist.” For Americans knowledgeable on the topic in 1996, though, a mujahideen was something different. Mujahideen means "one who fights in the way of jihad," and this is not the post 9/11 "jihad" that Muslims in the United States are quick to point out as a spiritual struggle. It's am actual reference to battle.

In 1979, the former Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, and Afghanis fought back. The defense of Afghanistan proved significant to Pakistan and the United States by virtue of a enemy that was perceived to be shared. Many of the young men who battled tanks  with hand held weaponry strongly felt that God had contributed to their victory. The most famous mujahideen we all know was a Yemeni man named Osama bin Laden. Bin Laden never directly fought the Soviets in combat, but instead funded and supported training facilities and medical camps during the war. In this way, he seems less representative of Afghani mujahideen than most conservative talking heads are willing to admit.

By the time the Soviets were defeated, over 2 million Afghanis had died. That was the beginning of the death toll, though. In the next ten years, a complex series of battles, both physical and ideological, within Afghanistan would create circumstances that would lead to the rise of a Taliban government. Ultra-orthodox interpretations of Islam of this religio-political faction would lead to repeated violations of basic human rights to education, justice and even mobility. It also provided fertile soil for the development of an ideological movement that has contributed to the deaths of over one million people all over the world.

But back to 1996.

My nineteen year old self's sense of awe at the mujahideen victory claimed against the USSR with little more than borrowed training and ammunition from its neighboring nation of Pakistan and funding from the United States was likely naive.  I was just a kid and couldn't have foreseen how the stories of these victorious underdogs would contribute significantly to an ideology that would change us all forever.

I knew at the time that these were people who had fought to save their homeland, and that both of the countries I called home, America and Pakistan, had helped them do that.  It was childlike on my part, but when I listened to those stories in 1996, I felt whole.

One story my father told me of his visit had to do with shopping in makeshift markets that former mujahideen had set up.  Many of the goods weren't the usual fare.  When my father inquired about the origin of certain items that looked more eastern European in nature than south Asian, the sellers gave mysterious smiles and assured him that he was lucky to have the ability to acquire such quality merchandise at such a low cost.

I don't know if it was my dad's addiction to getting a good bargain or that he felt sorry for the guys, but he bought some stuff and brought it home. When he presented my mother with some of the things he had bought, my brother and I laughed at how gaudy it was, made jokes about it belonging to the Romanovs and feigned horror at my dad's purchase of what was essentially "war plunder."

After getting married, though, I took a few of the things with me. Maybe I wanted to hold on to the innocence that led me to believe that Pakistan and the U.S. had worked together to make something good happen.  Or maybe it was just that no matter how gaudy those things were, they reminded me of my parents and I wanted to take that with me to my new home.

The item deemed "most gaudy" in 1996 sits at the entrance of my home today. I don't find it tacky anymore, but tremendously beautiful and significant. On dusting days, when it’s given more attention than usual, I pass my hands over its delicately beaded surfaces and wonder how far this item has journeyed. I imagine the places and the homes that it once occupied.

I worry for the people who first owned it and I wonder what it might have meant to them. I also worry for the people who sold it (stole it?) and wonder if they are even in this world now.  I think of countless yet imagined hands that have touched this odd item and wonder about the hopefulness of the hearts to which those hands belonged.

As I wipe the dust, I think of how best laid plans and intentions often end in despair. I remember that small moment when I thought all was right in the world and then I'm suddenly shoved back into the present reality of being a grown up where nothing is ever simple and things seldom make perfect sense.

Life is tragic, fleeting, unpredictable, and yet it is, like this item, extraordinarily beautiful in the most complex of ways.

The Help... in Mississippi or in Pakistan

I finally read (and watched) The Help a few days ago, and I liked it.  Sue me. Because, apparently, the movie and book are, according to some, racist and condescending in its portrayal of African American women of the 1950s.

Our own sensibilities regarding discrimination are certainly highly informed by, if not limited to, our own experience. I may perceive something as Islamophobic whereas you might feel I'm grabbing at straws.  To deny that our identities do not play a crucial factor in that disagreement feels naive to me.

I am not an African American, I did not live through Jim Crow or the "civil rights era," so I'm not comfortable dismissing the opinions of those who find fault with this book's treatment of those subjects. Except. I do have a very unexpected and highly personal experience with one important facet that's portrayed in this book.

I spent most of my summers in Pakistan when I was growing up.  I have memories of family, laughter, lush gardens, and great food. I also have very distinct memories of the help.

From cooking food to the basics of rearing children, young women and sometimes young boys participate in the management of Pakistani homes to the extent that daily life for the families who inhabit those homes would be near impossible without these individuals.  By my last count, my paternal home in Pakistan had about twelve "domestics" working in it.  These people clean the house, cook the food, buy the groceries, do the laundry, and tend the gardens. As much as my own family, these people are an intrinsic part of what I associate with Pakistan.

There is a scene in The Help where Minnie, a woman incidentally deemed a neo-Mammy character, is reminding her daughter that as a domestic in a white household that she should quickly establish a cupboard with her own plate, cup and silverware.  As I watched that scene in the movie, a long forgotten memory that took place in a humid Pakistani kitchen nearly sixteen years ago rushed to the forefront of my mind.

It was a hot summer day, and I was thirsty. One of my favorite things about drinking water in the subcontinent is that when folks want to be real casual, they use cups made of polished steel.  There's something about grabbing that shiny cup and filling it with cold water that acts as a sensory appetizer to the refreshment that will soon be eradicating the dry, dusty feeling that only a Lahori summer seems to be able to infuse into your bones.

I grabbed a steel glass on top of the fridge, poured out cool water from the fridge into the glass and relished the coolness on my fingertips as I slowly drew the steel to my mouth. And then I heard my aunt scream like someone had pulled out a gun, "Noooo!! Not that one!!"

My older cousin was also in the kitchen and immediately solved the problem.  She grabbed the glass from my hand.  "That's Tahira's glass....  don't use that one."

"No, I'm fine. I like drinking out of steel." I thought they were trying to tell me it was gauche to drink from a steel cup or something. I think I assumed they thought I was American and somehow I should drink out of glass instead.

My cousin took the steel cup from my hand and replaced it with a glass of water.  Then without the slightest hint of subtlety, I looked directly at Tahira, a girl three maybe four years younger than me, and mumbled, "Oh, unless, I'm sorry, do you mind, Tahira... I didn't mean..."

I thought maybe she was one of those people that are particular about who drinks out of their special glass or something. Yes, people like that exist.  I happen to be married to one. Tahira just smiled sheepishly at me and looked away.

My cousin who is an extremely intelligent and astute young woman approached me later to discuss the incident. "See, Faiqa," she looked into my eyes earnestly , "I know it's different in America, but you don't know about these people that work in our homes.  They have different personal habits than us, it's better that they use their own glasses and such."

I wasn't sure how to respond, but I will tell you this: I was not angered by this when it was explained to me.  Maybe it was because I was only 19.  Maybe it was because the young woman who was explaining it to me was a person I loved and a person who I have seen engage in some of the kindest acts that I have ever seen human beings perform. Maybe because the way it was explained to me was with such a sense of certainty.

I watched that "neo-Mammy" remind her daughter about having her own glass and plate and I began to remember more things.

I remember one of the girls being sent home because her clothes looked like they hadn't been washed properly, and I distinctly remember the look in her eye right before she walked out.  I remember the woman who gave her baby up to American missionaries so that he would have a chance to become educated. I remember being told to lock my things away when a servant who had worked in a home for over twelve years cleaned my room.

I remember not feeling right about these things.

And, yes, I remember these people having their own bathrooms in homes wealthy enough to accommodate that.

Up until that scene, I basked in the righteous indignation that many of us whose parents were not born here feel when we watch these movies about racism and injustice.  As if this is something that is exclusive to the history of the new land that we inhabit and that our pasts are somehow unsullied by the extreme unpleasantness of it all.

In my family's defense, they are not the exception -- they are most definitely the rule in this part of the world.  As a matter of fact, servants in our home are treated so well, that some of them have been with the family for decades, and, again, I would not presume to postulate on the emotions between African American maids in the 50s and the women they served.  However, I do remember that when I got married, Tahira, the little girl who stood in that kitchen years ago hugged me the day I got married and asked me to please not forget to come back to Pakistan.

Maybe the book "The Help" is racist and condescending.  I have no idea.  All I know is that as I read that book, I walked away from it understanding that discrimination does not only victimize the people who are on its receiving end.

There is a price that your soul pays, I think, for believing that because someone is poor, black, whatever that somehow they are unclean, untrustworthy or unable to take care of themselves. There is something very sad about observing people who have read many books, have been afforded so many opportunities and possess such goodness in their hearts as they lie to themselves about the fact that things are the way they are because this is the way they have always been.

Books and movies are valuable for many reasons, and while I appreciate the criticisms of this book as valid identity based positions, I am grateful for what the book taught me about my own.

Photo Credit

Eid-ul-Fitr 2011! Or is It? Yes, it Is. Or it Was.

Eid Mubarak from your friendly Internet neighborhood Muslims.

Just look at those smiles.


So, yesterday was Eid-ul-Fitr, unanimously agreed amongst Muslims as the biggest day of the year.  The significance of the day is simply the end of Ramadan, the month in which we fast for various reasons.

Eid-ul-Fitr basically means "Festival of the Fast."  It falls on the first day of Shawwal, the month after Ramadan, both of which are months in the Islamic lunar calendar.  Like Eid ul Adha, Eid actually begins after sunset because it depends on the moon.

More on that in a minute.

We celebrate Eid-ul-Fitr by doing the things most other religious communities do when they have a holiday... eat food, visit family, eat more food, visit more family... and give gifts.




Anyway.  Back to multicultural education.

The funny thing about Eid-ul-Fitr is that it's always kind of a guessing game.  See, the end of the lunar month for Muslims depends on the sighting of a new moon.

And this is where it gets confusing.

What, in 2011, constitutes a "moon sighting"?

Furthermore, with the advent of connectivity all over the world, do you celebrate when the moon is sighted in your country, in Mecca (the spiritual epicenter of Islam), or anywhere on Earth?

And, wow, if we end up populating Mars, what would Muslims who live THERE do ...

Some Islamic scholars, particularly those in Saudi Arabia, insist that the sighting must be an actual sighting with the naked eye while others are okay with using a telescope.  Either way, a person has to actually see the new moon for it to be Eid.

Others, specifically associations in North America, have postulated that since a new moon can be scientifically calculated, we can determine the occurrence of Eid-ul-Fitr through that.

And then in South Asia, they generally celebrate Eid-ul-Fitr a day later than whenever Saudi does because... honestly, I don't know why.

Something about geographic location and the sighting being off due to that.  Or just being ornery.  And also because desis are always late to everything.  I made that last part up, but it's highly logical if you think about it.

And THEN there are people all over the world that don't care whether they see the moon in their country or not, only if people in Saudi Arabia were able to see the moon and they celebrate when Saudis celebrate.

The point being that not every Muslim in the world celebrates Eid-ul-Fitr on the same day and that the reasons for that are different.

That's because we are a diverse community.  With different opinions.

Who knew?  Apparently, less people than I wish.

I only tell you all this to illustrate one point.

You know how people think "we" are trying to take over in some secret Muslim ninja plot to institute Sharia Law in the United States?

People, we can't even seem to figure out how to celebrate Eid, a holiday that has been around since the inception of our religion, on the same day as each other.

I don't think you have anything to worry about, Ms. Coulter.


I bet you want to know when I celebrated Eid.

Of course you do.

I, personally, don't think there's anything wrong with the scientific calculation.


I happen to be part of a local community that follows when Eid occurs in Saudi Arabia.  So we celebrate, as a family, when they celebrate in Saudi.

So, anyway, Tuesday was Eid-ul-Fitr.

For me.

In India and Pakistan, it's today.

I think.


Eid Mubarak!

(Belated for North America & the Middle East).

Move Over Evil White Men, Now There's Something Browner 

I finally watched The Social Network last week and decided the whole thing needs a rewrite.

You can read about that here.