I am in Karachi, the city in which I was born, and which I left to go study at Wellesley College in 1988. It has been almost thirty-two years since that departure, since then I have come and gone to this city, which I have never really stopped loving, even as other loves have come to join this one: Molivos, Lesbos, Somerville, Cambridge, the greater Boston area more generally, New York city—my home for the past twelve years. Coming into Karachi has been complex and often personally fraught. I have had a troubled relationship with my family, and in some sense the initial decision to stay on in the U.S. had something to do with getting away from them. There was also the fact that I wanted to do a Ph.D in literature and saw few prospects for the kind of research work I wanted to do back then in Pakistan. Since then things have changed, of course—with the research possibilities not the family. Over the years, reconciliations and truces have been tried, each one failing with less disappointment and with more of a sense of the absurdity of the failure, of its sheer lack of necessity. More and more, I see the failure analytically: in terms of the weaponization of a rhetoric of tradition and familial respect by people who are essentially adept at using the language of respect in order not to listen. Culture and tradition are ruses in that context, because tradition comes with mutual obligations, obligations of parenting as well as of filial respect. In this context, the language of exile, so beloved of my field, postcolonial studies, is also inadequate. I stayed away to run away from the family. And I migrated, as I often tell, friends or anyone who will listen, into downward mobility. I also tend to say that I migrated into the libraries (or as a Puerto Rican friend and colleague puts it, into interlibrary loan—we are gutting our libraries after all). To be clear, then, I’m a runaway not an exile.
Of course, as is so often the case when one talks about oneself, this is only the partial truth. My father applied for a green card in 1981, after he was dismissed from Pakistan International Airlines, under Martial Law Regulation 52—a regulation declaring people enemies of state. His crime: that he was a Muhajir (partition-era immigrant from the Indian side of the border), and not a “son of the soil,” a pro-Punjabi, anti-Muhajir dog whistle from the era of Zia-ul-Haq. His other crime: he had refused to fire people when asked to downsize, for, as people forget, Zia was not only a religionizing military dictator, he was also Margaret Thatcher’s and Ronald Reagan’s partner in the neoliberal transformation of the world. Two years before that, he had fought to regain his job from which he had been fired by Z.A Bhutto’s government. I was a child, but the story goes that his cousin’s name was on the list, but someone cut that out and put in my father’s. His cousin was a trade union leader, my father was and is (proudly) a rightist, but after his own experience could not bring himself to fire people. Bhutto was apparently some sort of socialist but his attack on the left is little discussed. The ironies are great. A committed Muslim Nationalist, invested in the idea of the national carrier as a sign of postcolonial modernity, my father was crushed. He applied for the green card through a family connection. His brother lived in New Jersey. In 1987, it came through. In 1988, I started college in Massachusetts. The rest is my life in the U.S.: Wellesley, Somerville, Ann Arbor, New York—a brief, hellish, stint on a farm in Vermont. Since 2007, a village in Lesbos has captured my heart and I spend all the time Schengen rules and my job allow there.
The first effect on the family was a complete inward turn. The house became a bubble, nurturing his grief and his rage, which grew with each year. These were usually directed at my mother, but also at the children. There was no escape and as I grew into adolescence, my father’s discomfort with my potential sexuality and my mother’s competition with me transformed into a sort of obsessive misogyny in the guise of “protecting” me. Far more confining than the way my mother and her sisters or my father’s sisters had been raised, this was in no way family tradition. My younger brother participated and saw my resistance as ingratitude for the gift of my father’s love. The rhetoric was always of his extraordinary love for me and of adoring protection: of my reputation, my virginity, me. I couldn’t visit female friends (except, with considerable pleading, a friend who was the daughter of one of my father’s powerful friends), leave the house, do anything other than go to school, and once when I confronted my father about mistreating my mother, a withdrawal from school was threatened as well. Ironically, he and I communicated quite well otherwise, and so my mother’s extraordinary jealousy, which she nurtured and passed on to my brother, whose revenge for my father’s ostensible great love for me was to cut me out of his own daughter’s life. The pretext: that I didn’t play with him as a child. The problem was apparently that I preferred to read and this, according to my mother, made me an unloving sister. We all know that girls who read are monstrous. And feminist sisters should be kept out of sight. Hilarious in some ways, pathetic too. What everyone finds baffling is that I adjusted and went along with my own life and rather like how it has turned.
I began writing this essay on the morning of March 21. I was meant to be leaving for New York on the 22nd. And the news was not good out of the city. I began to reflect on the idea that it was safer to stay in Karachi, a calculus that was usually applied the other way round in my prior travels, as American friends reached across to put their hand on mine, (or metaphorically so, looking deep into my eyes with concern and that slight prurience that comes with pity) and asked me if I really wanted to go back into Pakistan—into dangerous violent Karachi, where people still apparently don’t have internet according to a rather prestigious writer colleague, or fundamentalist Peshawar or Punjab or wherever the latest bomb had exploded. I would look at them baffled, but I grew up in Pakistan (and Singapore) and people I love are still living there. People do, you know? You don’t abandon your loves, your friends, your obligations and attachments in deference to some calculus of risk.
How also to explain the padded class privilege of existence here? The wealth disparities, the strange, gated—unconscionable—but unmistakable privilege of my class. The bourgeoisie in Pakistan has extraordinary cultural capital and extraordinary power over other people’s lives. How also to explain to people who thought I was being rescued from Muslim femalehood that my mother’s youngest sister was one of the most powerful bureaucrats in Pakistan or that she’s not in any way a feminist, or that part of my estrangement from my mother’s family has to do with my mother’s family’s cover up after her serial philanderer of a husband sexually harassed me. She’s still in denial—the retired, powerful bureaucrat sometimes called the Condoleeza Rice of Pakistan. Zardari (Benazir Bhutto’s widower) I have been told (apocryphally perhaps) called her Condy. However, if we must translate this into Americanese, I would call her Hilary Clinton—although she’s more powerful than the husband she protects to protect her own power. Power, privilege, gender make a very strange mix in Pakistan, no less than in the United States. The underpaid chauffeurs, the exploited servants, the gated walls of Defense Housing Society are all there, waiting to add more to the ranks of the exploiters if one would only accept the bargain. I refused and continue to do so… Walking away was walking away from the bargains women make for class privilege. The US, then, was not so much a place of greater opportunity as of greater anonymity.
Today, April 2nd, as I wait for flights out to resume, President Arif Alvi has announced that Pakistanis should take the lockdown as a time to stay home and bond with their families. I wonder: does this apply to Pakistani-Americans (I don’t often use the hyphen), what about Americans who can’t get home because there are no flights and the State department seems unable (and very possibly unwilling) to get its act together? What about Americans (or Pakistani-Americans) who came to give a series of lectures and to do some research on the connections between Greek and Indian archaeology as they could be found in the Peshawar museum and archaeological site at Taxila and got stranded? What about those Pakistanis, or Pakistani-Americans or Americans for whom the past month feels like a final ungluing of all familial bonds?
It’s probably a fantasy to think of it as final; families have a way of returning, usually with the offer of more damage in my experience, but I think this ungluing was precipitated by my exhaustion with the narrative that I scare the family. Of course, independent women who are vocal and intellectual are monstrous and terrifying, monstrously terrifying—anyone who has been on a date in the U.S. knows that, but still….
The conversation unfolds:
Me: “You say I’m scary, but your son said he’d kill me if I fought with you when he was fifteen.”
My father: “Well, maybe he said that, but that’s just a manner of speaking. However, you are scary.”
It was certainly a manner of speaking, but can we discuss the manner? What allows a fifteen-year old boy to tell his older sister he’ll kill her? I’m not talking about casual bickering but an anger in service of a family that was not under threat. It’s true: he didn’t mean to. This wasn’t about honour killing or some such thing. We are not that sort of family. Just the sort where my father could routinely disown me and refuse to sign my college forms and send them in late over minor disagreements, and my mother could say I was the troublemaker because I said men and women are equal, and families that don’t want their dirty laundry aired should keep it clean. So, in that sense, of course, I am a troublemaker and probably terrifying—after all, the laundry’s the thing isn’t it? So is the withholding and dispensing of money. There is so much more, but I am done with this story.
Seriously, I read books and wanted to stay a nerd and didn’t want the philandering uncle (who also told me, with the kind of malice that so many members of dysfunctional families reserve for each other, that the ISI had a fat, nasty file on my father. I must remember to congratulate the one person in Pakistan on whom the ISI doesn’t have a fat, nasty file) to grope me—parenthetical detail, of which I have so much, has a way of losing the action. And so it goes, but, sorry, President Alvi, bonding in sheltered place with family in Karachi is most definitely… not… an… option.
Which brings me back to the question of home. For twelve years, I have lived in New York City. I have wonderful neighbours. Coming out of the subway, I see the Cloisters on a hill at dusk. There is a particular beauty to that sight. Every now and then, when I’m exhausted from my commute and want a special treat, I stop to say hello to Bob—my neighbourhood butcher—and to get a freshly cut bone in rib-eye. The parks in Inwood are gorgeous. It’s a quiet, wonderful corner of the city. And I am lucky and privileged to live there. I have students at Rutgers about whom I am concerned, a chancellor who talks about the inequities of the digital divide, and other inequities too, and the importance of overcoming them. I have colleagues and friends across the country doing great work. There is the man I love, who lives in another city, a wonderful thoughtful father and caring decent person, and, of course, it’s a particular sort of irony, given the history of the violence inflicted on the black family in America, that it took a black man in America to teach me the possibilities of care and attention in family. Bonding with him under lockdown, would mean skyping while being in quarantine in New York much as I do from Karachi. But I don’t think that’s what President Alvi had in mind.
Americans seem unable to engage with non-white compatriots without making them talk about being immigrants. I call it the American bildungsroman of immigrant redemption and have always stayed away from it; it is so horribly bound up with a narrative of upward mobility and improvement and privilege and so often used to mask the originary (and ongoing) violence of racialized capitalism in America. Look at us: nation of immigrants; let’s not talk about native Americans, or African Americans, or the Chinese Exclusion Act, or… For the first time, I am willing or perhaps able to think about the question of being an immigrant without wincing. People have asked repeatedly if I want to go/or come back to New York. Why fly into the American pandemonium, which the world watches in disbelief as if it were, as a friend at Oxford described it, a “horror show?” Pakistanis glued to CNN are stunned by what they see. And repeatedly they say with a kind of bemused awe: they are just like us. We thought we were a mess. Their surprise amuses me. I work on race and empire and colonial capitalism. Yes, this is America today and, let’s be honest (about race and exclusion and inequity and guns as essential services), yesterday. Then I say: of course, I want to go back, if only to quarantine. It’s my home.
Bio: Sadia Abbas grew up in Karachi and Singapore, lives in New York and spends all the time she can in Lesbos, Greece. She is associate professor of postcolonial studies at Rutgers University-Newark and the author of At Freedom’s Limit: Islam and the Postcolonial Predicament, winner of the MLA first book award and the novel The Empty Room, shortlisted for the DSC prize for South Asian Literature.She is currently completing a co-edited (with Jan Howard of the RISD museum) volume on Shahzia Sikander’s art, working on her next two novels and an academic book, Space in Another Time: An Essay on Ruins, Monuments and the Management of Modern Life.