Pakistan, A Narrative
by Umaer Basha
“Sir, please fasten your seat belt. We are about to land.”
“Yes, thank you.” I clip my belt together and set my seat back from the reclining position. My stomach leaps up into my throat every now and then as the plane begins its descent. I can't believe it; my first solo transcontinental flight is almost halfway over. Words cannot fully explain the feeling of elation and enthusiasm, brought about by thoughts of home. After living in a country built on such poverty and after experiencing third-world life, I imagine the United States of America like a distant heaven. Now I am four thousand miles closer and on my own. Ironically, I feel close to my family, although I am twenty-five thousand feet and descending. School and finals forced me to take this week-early flight home, leaving the rest of my family behind. While on one hand I'm looking forward to returning, the vivid picture of my grandfather watching me leave, with tears in his eyes, gives me a feeling of nostalgia at the same time.
Momentum pushes me forward as the back wheels make contact with the earth, and then the front. I am held there for a few more seconds as the brakes are applied, then fall back against my seat. Suddenly reality hits me as I realize that I have to be alert and cautious for the next hour. I gather my belongings and wait to get off the plane. As I enter a special elevator-bus, a cold gust of wind reminds me that I'm not in Pakistan anymore. “Bonjour, et bienvenue à Charles de Gaulle Aéroport Internationale. Hello, and welcome to Charles de Gaulle International Airport,” says an airport official at the door. By now, I am really looking forward to some rest before taking the second half of my eight thousand mile journey. After checking through with customs, I find out how to get to the hotel where I'll be spending the night.
This isn't the Paris Hilton, I think to myself, as I quickly glance around the lobby of the Hotel Mercure, but it will do for one night. Finally, after asking the front desk how to call Pakistan, I take the elevator to my floor, find my room, and throw myself onto the bed as I turn on the TV. I quickly pick up the phone to check in with my family in Pakistan.
“Hello?” my grandfather answers.
“Assalamalakum, Nan Jan,” I greet him. I can hear my voice echo across the lines.
“Umaer! How are you? Where are you calling from?” he asks, truly concerned. I can tell everyone's been waiting for my call.
“I'm fine, just fine. Everything is going well,” I reply, as the echo continues to annoy me.
“Good. Talk to your mother,” he commands. I proceed to tell my mom how good my flight was, how I found out what to do and where to go, and that I am doing fine. Click. Now that all of this is taken care of, I really sit back and relax. As strange videos flash by on French MTV in the background, I look over all of my belongings to make sure I haven't missed anything: passport, ticket--quite possibly the two most important things in my life now--wallet, money, backpack, and…what am I missing? Luggage? No, that would be taken care of by the airline. Well, then, I guess I'm all set. I look at my watch to see how much time has elapsed since I've left Quaid-e-Azam International Airport in Karachi. It's six-thirty, so about nine and a half hours have gone by. It's funny how they seem like days.
Now that I have some time, I think about what has gone by in the past three weeks. My trip had all gone by so quickly, of course. I knew it would. It suddenly seems like a dream. None of it could have really happened. But it did. Although I told my parents I was fine on the phone, now I'm suddenly not quite sure I am. Thoughts keep racing through my head; I can't control them.
“What's the meaning of this?” I ask myself. No reply. There must have been some reason I went to Pakistan. Was it to show off my American clothes, accent and attitude? Or was there some deeper, more important reason? Ideas and pictures keep popping in and out of my head.
* * *
I arrived in the newly rebuilt Karachi International Airport on December 26, 1993. Marble, abundant in Pakistan, glistened everywhere. My mother, father, sister and I walked through this large building towards the exit. We had to pass through customs, where they asked us, in Urdu of course, how long we were staying and why. My parents, fluent speakers of the language, answered that we had come to visit relatives. The official let us through, and we walked outside where we met my uncle. I could tell that he was glad to see us by his smile and enthusiastic greeting. Of course, I was also very excited to return to a country my grandfather had migrated to from India, forty-some years ago.
The first thing I noticed about the people there was the difference in height. I was a little taller than everyone else and I'm only five-seven. A few beggars flocked towards us, with no more than rags and cries for help. My mother was about to give them some money when my uncle told her not to and took us to his car. I couldn't help but notice that every car was of Japanese origin: Subaru, Toyota, Mazda, Mitsubishi, Honda, Isuzu. All of these realities seemed to say, “Welcome to Pakistan; this is our country.” But was it mine?
The drive home wasn't too long, and from what I could tell, the speed limit was about seventy-five kilometers (about forty-five miles ) per hour. One word could summarize the traffic: chaotic. Drivers didn't follow any strict rules; people switched lanes without indicators and drove through red lights. Dented cars were everywhere; insurance didn't seem to exist. The one thing I liked was the climate. It was December, and Pakistan's lows were in the sixties, quite a leap from our twenties. Of course, my relatives later remarked on how cold it was, as I laughed. (I didn't realize how hot it did get in the summer.) Also, there were palm trees everywhere, along with many desert plants. In fact, coconuts grew in my grandparents' front yard.
Finally at home, I didn't know what to expect. I met all of my relatives from both sides of my family. This amounted to almost thirty people. Ironically, in a country without much food, couples usually had anywhere from five to fifteen children. There were my mother's parents, brother, and sister-in-law, and my father's brothers, sisters, and of course, all of my cousins. I felt sort of awkward, as I knew that if I tried speaking Urdu, it would come out all wrong. So instead, I just sat there with that “I'm glad to be here” smile wide across my face. Looking around, I saw that everything was pretty much the same as it had been two years ago…and six years before that. I also knew that I'd been there as an infant as well. Just looking at the marble and concrete floor brought back memories of my cousins, uncles, aunts and grandparents. It's funny how sometimes what one remembers about others can be very misleading. In my mind, I pictured my grandfather as being tall, towering, kingly and majestic. All of this was still true, but I had also grown since then, and I was taller than he was!
The first thing I wanted to do was go up on the roof. These houses were made out of concrete, and there was always a sort of balcony-roof. I went up with my eleven-year-old cousin, Ahson, who lived there with his two younger sisters, parents, and grandparents. There was a great view of the surrounding village from atop the house. The sky seems to be an eternal mix of pink, yellow, and blue. I remembered that I had engraved my name somewhere on one of the ledges two years ago, but as I searched, I couldn't find it. I realized that it was probably painted over.
In the following two weeks, I realized that it was truly a whole different world from the U.S. “Unbelievable,” I thought, “no supermarkets, fast food chains, warehouse stores, or shopping malls--nothing, except people along the sidewalk selling food, clothes, shoes, and electronics; lines of small stores along fly-infested streets with people yelling at you to please come into their store and buy something.” Five times a day, the Adhan, or prayer call, was cried from many different minarets across the city. Although Karachi is one city, it has several little “towns” within it. For example, my grandparents live in Bangalore Town, Karachi. (Maybe that's why they always mailed letters to us at Lake Forest, Chicago, IL.) Each town has its own community, and there are two or three different social classes. My father's side of the family was in a little poorer community, where the houses were built so close that it looked as if one was on top of another, whereas my mother's family had a small front yard. I was torn between the two, with the majority of my cousins from my father's side, ranging in ages from ten to twenty-one, to my cousin, Ahson. I later fell sick, so I stayed mostly at my mother's house, as there was less dust and air pollution.
This raises another sad aspect of the city. Smog was everywhere. There weren't any EPA, FDA, or FCC regulations to stop people from pumping potentially hazardous gases into the atmosphere. I couldn't believe how bad it was; it seemed to be worse than two years earlier. My father had to hold a handkerchief in front of his mouth when we drove into the center of town. I kept asking myself: did my parents really live here?
The town marketplace was the most fantastic place of all. Hundreds of people, bumping into me wherever I went, made it difficult for me to keep up with my uncle as he guided me through the twists and turns of the bazaar. There were several little clusters of merchants throughout the city. The most popular was called Saddar, where we went almost every other day. Another uncle of mine was visiting from Los Angeles. As he was native to Pakistan, he adapted perfectly to the environment with his fluent Urdu and old “connections.” It was great fun to go out with him and my other uncle who lived in Pakistan and watch their bargaining skills at work.
“Five hundred rupees,” the enthusiastic salesman would tell my uncle.
“Four hundred,” my uncle would answer back.
“Four-fifty-final,” the salesman would offer.
“Okay, well, we'll look around some more,” my uncle would say as we began to walk away.
“Okay, okay, four hundred.”
It was in this manner that we wandered the various shops, checking off items we needed and things we wanted. I got a new leather wallet with my name printed on it, while my uncle purchased snakeskin purses (yes, it sounds scary) and decorated pillowcases. The goods throughout the city were usually very shiny and colorful, yet they sold for almost nothing in comparison to the same items selling in the U.S. For example, a leather jacket sold for about two thousand rupees, or sixty dollars there, while they can cost up to a couple hundred or more here. When I asked my uncles why this was, they explained that labor was not worth as much as it is in the U.S.
I kept thinking about Pakistan's economic and social conditions. The more I thought about it, the more I felt sorry for the everyday worker. These feelings of sympathy for people who worked hard and received little really gave me a sense of perspective. Looking back at my true birthplace, the nickname “Land of Opportunity” was given a new meaning.
At the same time, as I thought about the poor condition of the country I was in, I also thought long about its place in my life. I came to the conclusion that it was definitely my heritage and that it must be preserved. I should never try to forget it or put it aside.
Finally the two weeks' time was up. That deep-down feeling of sorrow filled my stomach, overshadowed by the optimism of going home. Lake Forest—the name almost had an echo to it—sounded so far away. After I packed my belongings along with everything I was planning to keep to remember Pakistan by, I kept wondering how my parents and grandparents would react. I knew that my uncles would come off as feeling indifferent—they always looked forward to the next time we would meet. But this wasn't the case with my grandparents. Through their eyes, I could see that my presence truly had affected them; my parents were also very worried as I prepared to step off onto a lonely sixteen hour journey. My father kept going over every aspect of my flight, as well as every possible scenario that could take place, while my mother just gave me that “you can do it” look.
All of these images--mosques and marble, merchants and beggars, friends and family--make up Pakistan for me, blurred together like a collage in my mind. I try to organize and analyze these thoughts. Even as I know that this place was my origin, it seems so distant and almost alienated from me. More than anything else, what pulls me close--very close--to this otherwise run-down country is love. This flowing love came from all around. Maybe this was because I had hundreds of near and distant relatives who visited me, but even these people, whose faces I did not know or recognize, cared for me.