Land of the Free

Fayes T Kantawala marks the 4th of July in an angry new America

Land of the Free
I know that it is in poor taste to complain about the weather in New York when I know that in Pakistan it currently feels like you’ve been slapped across the face with a moist heater, but I can’t help it. It is so hot here – so glaringly, cancerously hot. The kind of hot where you have to lift your man-breasts and wipe away the slick of sweat that gathers in the fold of your skin because otherwise it looks like you’re lactating into your linen. The fact that I know that particularly graphic insight into anatomy should convince the doubters among you that I was fat once too. The upside it that it is too hot to eat, and also that because of a combination of calorie counting and running, I am gladly unable to pull off that particular move anymore.

The Americans love the summer, and already most of them are sprawled naked on blankets strewn haphazardly over any tiny green patch they can find in the city. It helps that it was recently July the 4th, which (to those of you who missed the 1996 Will Smith blockbuster or generally just have a busy life) is American Independence Day. It’s a holiday where people have barbecues and try to stay beside a body of water. I am sadly doing none of these things, unless you count the 24-hour McDonalds opposite my house and the puddle of urine in front of it – but somehow people never do.

Nationalistic jogger pants?

In the spirit of the holiday, American flags have begun popping up, and seeing them makes me nervous now because of the conflation of patriotic zeal and nationalistic xenophobic racism that has become the hallmark of the Orange House. I have seen the flag on cars, trucks, buses, store fronts and even – in the case of one woman – a flowing floating summer headscarf. I’ve always been a fan of some good flag fashion, and the first time I bought clothes with flags on them was in Zainab Market in Karachi.

In the cramped stalls lit by naked bulbs, bursting with sparkling clothes, fake designer t-shirts and low-end Disney toy knockoffs, I found a whole store devoted to flag clothing. I bought lots of stuff there that I regret. I got a Union Jack t-shirt that made me look like sandwich label. And also a white and green shirt of the Pakistani flag, its crescent placed in an unfortunate position that made it look like it was carrying the weight of my voluminous tummy. (I realised the star appeared right over my right nipple only after being photographed in it.) But I don’t regret buying a pair of shorts of the American flag in which the right leg was all stars and the left all stripes – because loud prints are slimming. I was so proud of those shorts, especially because I was about to go to America for the first time ever, later that year, and those shorts would be perfect statement piece. I landed in Washington D.C. and plotted where I could wear my own fashionable homage. And then came July the 4th. “You my friend,” I said to my shorts, carefully ironing out the creases, “are going to be such a hit.”

My mother was hesitant to let me wear them on July 4th, fearing perhaps that some might take it as offensive that I used a flag to literally cover my posterior, but I insisted. A little while later we were all on our way to watch the Independence Day fireworks at the Washington Monument, which, next to buying a gun at Walmart, is the most American thing that anyone can ever do. On the way I saw lots of other kids wearing flag caps, t-shirts, shoes and a Statue of Liberty headdresses (bit of a cop-out TBH).

The Washington monument is the large white obelisk that stands straight in the middle of the White House and the Lincoln Monument. You may recognise it from TV shows but I knew from the movie Forrest Gump, where after he gives a peace rally speech, Tom Hanks’ character wades through the reflecting pool to kiss Jennie. But then, as now, it was so damn hot and muggy that the romanticism of standing outside in a crowd of strangers to watch things explode in the sky for a country that was not mine became real old, real fast. So I did what any kid would do and, inspired by the movie industry, waded in my star-spangled shorts right into the wading pool. A few people even joined, but let me tell you: that pool is gross. It’s stagnant and full of slime. The water is filled with years of algae and I came out from there with a layer of scum all over that eventually ruined my shorts as well as any wish to recreate movie moments. (I have since skipped seeing the Eiffel Tower when I had the chance, out of the rational fear that someone up top might slip while proposing and drop a diamond ring to the ground, killing me where I stood.)

But this time, the stars and stripes that I see around me make me feel uneasy. In an age where the pronouncement of who or what America is comes across as a threat more than a celebration, seeing the flag doesn’t make me feel safe. It doesn’t make me think, as it did on that muggy day in D.C., of inclusion and hope and togetherness and movies moments and nostalgia. No, it makes me think of anger, fear, aggression and vulnerability – so much so that I sometimes I have to wipe the sweat out from under my phantom man-boobs all the same.

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