03. July 2017 · 1 comment · Categories: Memories

As a white skinned, blonde haired boy growing up in Pakistan I always wanted to be American. Most of the people I was around were Pakistani, naturally, while my friends at school and the children of my parents’ coworkers were British, Scottish, Korean, Australian, Kiwi, Canadian, and American. Being American in Pakistan seemed to mean something, give me some kind of identity. It was the opposite during the few widely-spaced years we were actually in America. I didn’t understand what kind of clothes to wear, what kind of haircut to have, how to say certain words correctly. While we were in America I wanted to be Pakistani; looking back I’m not sure I knew exactly what that meant, but I knew I wanted to have some kind of concrete identity.


Holding a snake at a beach near Karachi, in the early 1990’s. The mongoose, which would fight a snake for a small fee, is not pictured.

One of the most American things we got to do in Pakistan was go to the American Embassy for the Fourth of July. We would go occasionally to swim in the pool and eat at the American Club (about the only place to get American food in those days). But on the Fourth of July we got to go for a huge party, with hot dogs and hamburgers, lots of people, and a spectacular fireworks show set against the backdrop of the Margalla Hills at the northern edge of Islamabad. I have vague, ephemeral memories of those parties, and of the intense feelings of patriotism I experienced celebrating my country in a different country.

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I landed in Rawalpindi at 2:50 am the morning of Wednesday, November 9. I had been in the air or wandering airports for the last 24 hours, with limited access to news of the election. By the time I fell asleep around 4:30 am, results in America hadn’t started to be reported yet (the ten hour time difference meant it was still 8:30 pm on Tuesday, east coast time). I woke up five hours later at 9:30 am to a mixture of the morning sounds of my hosts waking up and passing rairdi wallas. Still groggy, I had hoped to sleep for another few hours before getting up for the day. But my phone, now connected to WiFi, had received several BBC news alerts. My heart skipped a beat as I saw the first results. More »

01. March 2016 · 1 comment · Categories: Memories

We woke up at four in the morning, hoping to make it up the hill before the sun had been up too long and cast a haze through the mountains. We gathered, my sisters, father, wife and I, and headed down the hill from the guest house to meet our driver. Saboor, wearing a starched-white shalwar kameez, plastic chupples and sporting a handsome dark beard, was excited that these white people he had been driving around wanted to climb Miranjani, a slightly more difficult and longer trek than the more popular walk up Mukeshpuri.

The six of us started the climb up Miranjani. Within a couple of minutes those of us unaccustomed to the altitude were starting to feel its effects. Saboor continued on unhindered. I was much thinner than I had been on our last trip to Pakistan six months earlier, as an encounter with E. coli (from a chili pepper in India) helped me shed fifty pounds. A slimmer frame didn’t mean that I was anymore fit than I had been previously, however.

Hiking slowly

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Laden with cameras and backpacks, and the ladies additionally by their shalwar kameez and dupattas, we trudged up the ridge, occasionally sighting the top of Miranjani in the distance. Every once in a while we would spot a figure clad in white, hands tucked behind his back, plastic sandals none the worse for wear, carrying on a considerable distance ahead of us.

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It had already been a bad month. Several people we knew, connected to the school at which my father taught or other family friends, had already died. Two had been on motorcycles, in accidents with no helmets. One, we called him the “Tickle Monster,” had been one of our favorites of dad’s students. Another had been a leader in his community for several decades, and many called him the “Peanut Butter Man.” My grandfather has written a book on his life.

Our family would gather together, it seemed, every time we heard news of someone else dying. “Family meetings” would later become something that we would not do, or at least not the name by which we called them.

I don’t remember the order in which everyone passed away. I do remember one family meeting, though. The girls and I were gathered together by our parents, and told that something bad might have happened, and one (or both, my memory is fuzzy) of my parents had to go away for a bit and then would come back and tell us what happened. When they came back they let us know that Dr. Fazal had been killed.

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I’ve just finished reading Mohsin Hamid’s How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, and just started I Am Malala (Malala Yousafzai with Christina Lamb). I’m not far enough along to compare the two books (the former stirred conflicted emotions in me, though it is definitely an insightful read even if the prose at times is a tad pretentious) but Malala’s initial descriptions of the Swat Valley took me back to the mid 1990’s.

Oddly enough, and as a brief aside, passages mentioning the history of Swat recall two other books I’ve read recently: Winston Churchill’s Malakand Field Force (Malala notes that “he was not very complimentary about our people” while not shying away from some of the less flattering characteristics of Pashtuns herself. Churchill is quite racist, and not just in a condescendingly colonial manner, in his memoir) and Marc Aurel Stein’s On Alexander’s Track to the Indus: Personal Narrative of Explorations on the North-West Frontier of India, in which the author explores the archaeological ruins of ancient Buddhist stupas in Swat, following Alexander the Great’s path of destruction.

But it is Malala’s description of her home valley that brought back old memories. She describes the valley in broad, superlative terms, and although she uses some hyperbole it is generally fitting. I have very fond memories of Swat, from brief visits with my family years ago. It is an incredibly beautiful part of the world, and I remember the mountains and the greenness, and the rushing torrents of water. The Swat River was horrifying in its tremendous speed and violence, and the rickety cable cages that spanned the river only intensified the feeling. Other streams were joyful, and I remember sliding off of large, slick rocks into placid pools of cool water. Pakistani boys blew air into their shalwars to create makeshift water wings, puffing up their legs into huge balloons.

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I looked around, trying to locate the uniquely shaped creature I had seen in my picture books. Dad repeated, “Duck! Get down,” and threw me into the back seat of the car. I remember people running on the edge of the park near where the car was parked. I’m not sure if I remember the explosions. I was three; “Duck!” my first memory.

The details came over twenty years later, finding out what Dad remembered. By then I knew what had happened, generally speaking. Dad’s not normally the best at remembering details, but he remembered a great deal about April 10, 1988. Almost like how his parents remember November 22, 1963, and my generation remembers September 11, 2001.

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