I’m thinking about America today.
I’m thinking of the country where I was born.
I’m thinking of the snow covered steps at the entrance of our apartment building in Jackson Heights. I can see my mom in a long black coat, struggling to keep my brother bundled and warm while he was squirming to get free and play in the cold, juggling groceries and car keys and home keys and using any free fingers to fix the scarf slipping from her head.
I’m thinking of my father and his construction crew. Most of them Latino, kind and jovial men. My brother and I spent so much time around them. They would toss us up in the air and we would squeal with joy as we flew back down. They would hand us the odd paintbrush and a tin of paint, set us straight to work and we loved it. I’m thinking of the laughter, the conversations they would have with my father,
(Instead of saying Arif)
“Ayy, that new job, no good no good.”
And I think of my father, always one to be one with the boys, replying back in any Spanish he picked up from them,
“Jose! You do this, I give you uno, dos, tres new jobs!”
I’m thinking about the Muslim school I attended till the 3rd grade. I remember my class fellows, an amalgamation of Muslims from all around the world. I’m thinking of my best friend at the time, Dahlilah from Bosnia. I always thought her name beautifully foreign, Dahlilah from Bosnia, with gorgeous brown eyes and porcelain like skin. I’m thinking of you today.
I remember once I pointed on a world map to Pakistan, a country I had (then) visited only once before, but eyes shining bright, I proudly boasted to a friend,
“That’s Pakistan! See there! That’s where my parents are from. I’m Pakistani too, you know. But I was born here. But I think that still means I’m Pakistani too”
“Pakistan? Never heard of it.”
I’m thinking of some of my closest friendships from the Muslim school, and how our moms became best friends and how our families merged immediately- as they often do when Desis find each other. I’m thinking of how dinners spanned hours, how we sat for hours watching Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham over and over and over again, fashioning saris out of our mothers’ dupattas and dancing to Bole Churiyan till our feet could hold us up no longer.
I’m remembering how we planned to rebel against our parents for denying us the opportunity to be cheerleaders, like we would have been at a public school, so we put on skirts and bunched together printer paper, cutting them into pom poms, thrusting our arms way up in the air, making up cheers as we went along.
I’m thinking of our weekly Friday prayers. Upstairs hall, where a green and pink stripped carpet covered the floor for the men. Downstairs hall for the women with a carpet rolled out and rows of shoes splayed out behind it.
Neat rows of men standing shoulder to shoulder, foot to foot, heads bowed down, following the Imam. It really is quite beautiful to see.
I remember grumbling once.
“Why can’t I pray upstairs where Baba is?”
My dad, not one to stringently follow rules and always one for giving in to his children said,
” You want to pray upstairs? No problem! Lets go. If anyone stops you, just say my Baba said I could.”
We went upstairs, I saw questioning eyes, but not unkind ones, so I went all the way to the back and had my way. Because Baba said I could.
I’m thinking of my family’s favourite restaurant in New York. A little place in Queens smushed between an Asian beauty parlour and a bridal dress store. Kabul Kabab. Hands down best Afghani/Persian food in Queens. In New York. In all of the USA. We used to take everyone there. The waiters knew us, they seated us at the same table every time we went. We still reminisce about the Kabab Barg with brown rice and white sauce. The owners boast a history of migration- from Afghani origin, to Persian heritage, and even further east to India and Pakistan while finally settling in Long Island. Their rich history is now embedded in the folds of America. They’re embedded in the folds of my America.
I’m thinking about 9/11. I’m thinking about how my brother who had started studying at a public school, PS 162 to be exact, was sitting in his class, not knowing that our mother had rushed down to the school to pick him up after the towers fell, and the T.V screens blared the words ‘Muslim’ and ‘Al-Qaeda’ and equated it with terrorism. My brother sat unknowingly in class, while my mother’s heart was racing, fearful that the american public school would somehow swallow her son whole. The principal of PS 162 told my mother to stay calm, told her that her son would be safe, that all would be fine.
My mother went back home. She, like everyone else on that horrible day, was glued to the television set. When she went back to pick up my brother, she could sense the change. The air was palpable with tension. She felt a hand touch her. It was my brothers friends mother who walked across the school yard with mom, shoulder to shoulder, picked up the boys together and walked back to their cars.
I’m thinking of the days right after the attack. My siblings and I wanted to play outside. My mom was busy working in the kitchen and couldn’t watch us, so she told us to wait. We, of course, didn’t. We raced outside with mom behind us asking us to wait a while. She was anxious. She didn’t need to be. We lived in suburbia. She was still anxious. I’m thinking of the gay couple who lived next door, (we didn’t know they were gay because of course, we were sheltered little Muslim kids, so our parents told us they were two girl best friends living together), who said to mom,
“Don’t worry honey! You go do what you were doing. We’ll look after the kids. We all need to stick together these days Sweets”
My favourite grade was the 4th grade. Why? That’s easy. I had the best teacher in the world. Ms.Mattioli. Jacquie Mattioli. She was half Italian. She was beautiful. And kind. I loved her. Short of bringing her an apple every day, I was ready to do anything she asked. Tidy the bookshelves, be line monitor, fix a chart, bring a book, do extra homework- I was in it to win it (her affections, of course.) My class was pretty amazing too. Nicholas was Irish, Samuel was from the Dominican Republic, Karen from Korea and so many more amazing students from diverse backgrounds. You know what we all loved doing every morning? Recite the Pledge of Allegiance.
“I pledge allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands, one Nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”
I’m thinking about the beard my dad had. I remember overhearing him tell someone how he went into the city and saw people stop, stare at him, stare at a Wanted Al-Qaeda poster, stare at him, stare at the poster, stare at him stare at the poster.
We decided to move back to Pakistan soon after that. It didn’t change my fathers level of patriotism. Far from it. Moving back to Pakistan made my father more American, if that was possible. He once got a cake made for my sisters birthday with half of it being a Pakistan flag, and half being an American flag. My sister was 6 and she was thrilled. The same 6 year old is now 18, pinned with aspirations from my father to go on and become a lawyer, a congresswoman and the first woman President of America. We have pointed out the vast improbability of this dream ever becoming a reality, but after this election, anything is possible.
I’m thinking about 2008, talking to my aunt who volunteered with the Obama campaign, her pouring excitement about attending the inauguration, hours that she spent in the cold, face numb with happiness. I’m thinking about how I proudly told all my friends that my aunt was there, that Obama was my president and come 2012, I was gonna be there too. All those miles away, I think my aunt and I had the same expression on our faces the whole time.
I’m thinking about my grandparents today. My Abba lived through Partition when he was just a child, Nani born in the newly created country of Pakistan. Abba, the eternal student travelled widely to study, travelled even more extensively as a professor. My grandparents called many places home- Karachi, Islamabad, Peshawar, Scotland, Bangladesh, Malaysia. And now they call America home.
I’m thinking of all the family members in Pakistan who said,
“Trump should be president! Serves them right! Now everyone will see!”
The whole time thinking to myself,
He can’t be my president! He won’t be my president.
I’m thinking of my 13 year old cousin who attended her first protest last week. She marched with thousands of women. My Aunts marched with them. My friends and cousins all marched with millions of people. I’m going to be right there with you.
I’m thinking about all those who were ‘banned’, detained from entering the country. My mom asked me if it would affect those citizens born outside America, I replied vehemently,
“Of course not Mom!”
I’m thinking of sitting in a coffee shop with my friends who were discussing the ban, and how it affects green card holders and students in the midst of their degrees.
My friend said,
“You still want to go back? You want to go back to America even after what’s happening?”
I was listening to them quietly and said,
“The ban won’t affect me going back, its not for me”
But even my heart fluttered.