My Rock Star Khala

Taimur Ali Ahmed goes back to a time when Asma Jahangir was his neighbour for a few weeks

My Rock Star Khala
One afternoon, in May of 2015, my wife and I stood anxiously at Chicago’s O’Hare airport, waiting for Asma Jahangir – the world-renowned human rights lawyer and activist, a household name in Pakistan and champion of women’s and minorities’ rights – to emerge from Arrivals. Outside, my freshly detailed car was waiting to take her into the city. I turned and noticed Abbe, my wife, biting her nails. I too was nervous, like I was going to meet a rock star, someone I had idolised all my life. She was one of my mother’s oldest friends but for a variety of reasons, we’d never really gotten to know each other. I referred to her as Asma Khala – Asma Auntie – but really she was unfamiliar and unlike any aunt I’d known. But things were even more complicated than that.

A few days earlier, my mother had called me from Toronto in distress. Asma had been diagnosed with cancer. She was coming to Chicago for treatment from a leading cancer specialist. “Please email her and let her know that you’ll be there to pick her up at the airport,” mother said. “And that you’ll be at her disposal for the duration of her stay. I’ve already told her that you are.”

Waiting for Asma to arrive, I recalled my earliest memory ofher. The year was 1983. I was seven years old and at home when the phone rang, followed by an anxious discussion between my parents about what was happening in the city that day. Asma and members of her Women’s Action Forum (WAF) had taken to the streets protesting the discriminatory laws that Zia, Pakistan’s military dictator, had instituted against women. The police had tear-gassed and charged the protestors with batons to break up the rally. A heavy silence hung in the room as I learnt that Asma had been injured and was now behind bars. I remember thinking, “Who is this crazy and daring woman? I want to know her.”

Our paths did cross, every time she’d come to meet my mother. But I was too young to engage with her in a meaningful way. I moved abroad as an adult, and during my wedding in Lahore fifteen years later, I was deeply touched when Asma and TJ hosted my American mother-in-law and several friends as guests in their home. But somehow we never got a chance to connect one-on-one then, either, given the madness of the wedding.

As I stood at the airport, nervous, thinking about Asma’s cancer diagnosis, it didn’t feel like a wish coming true to see her now due to this troubling circumstance. Yet my wish would be answered – just not in the way I expected, and not for another couple of weeks.

When Asma emerged, she had a calm energy about her, and greeted me with a hug. “Kaisey ho baita?” she said.How are you, son? These words, and her natural warmth,put me instantly at ease.Her husband, TJ uncle,was with her. As we drove into the city together,the trees were still bare, the skies grey; spring was still a few weeks away. Asma paid no attention. Her focus was on her treatment and the logistics of her stay. She discussed treatment options, medical tests, appointment dates and times. Relatives and friends called her cell phone. She asked them not to worry, to please not show up in Chicago, and that everything was under control. It was going to be fine. She was like a general getting ready for battle. There was no fear or anxiety, at least none that showed. I briefly mentioned some sightseeing and entertainment options, but she was not interested. I dropped her and TJ off at their friend’s house, where they planned to stay until they found a hotel.

As Abbe and I helped search for a hotel room for them, preferably close to our condo, we had an amazing stroke of luck. Airbnb showed a listing that looked oddly familiar… in fact, it was directly below us, in our very same building! Upon inquiring, we learned that our downstairs neighbour was headed off to travel in Europe for several months. We locked in the rental for his one-bedroom apartment, and Asma and TJ moved in.

Over the course of three weeks, Asma and TJ became our real-life neighbors. Abbe and I dropped in to see them, before and after work, to say hello and help with any small tasks. When Abbe baked, she dropped off cinnamon rolls, brownies and other treats for the Jahangirs. We made arrangements for our maid to help clean their apartment too. Like two Lahori Aunties, Asma and I occasionally griped about certain details of her work but also expressed our deep appreciation. Uncle TJ and I worked together to master the new apartment’s cable TV and air-conditioning system. We loved our new neighbours.

Looking back, the three weeks that we spent with them had three distinct flavours. The first was pre-surgery, with Asma and TJ settling into the new apartment and getting ready for the surgery. This period, starting from Asma’s arrival in Chicago and ending with her surgery, was practical and efficient, although not without its moments of humour. One evening, laughing and a little chagrined, Asma told us, how she was stunned at discovering a stash of sex toys and S&M paraphernalia in one of the cupboards of her apartment, belonging, presumably, to our neighbour from whom we had rented the apartment. I felt a pang of guilt and embarrassment, since we had found the apartment for her. But seeing Asma laugh heartily put my mind at ease.

After the surgery, Asma’s apartment lay mostly silent and dark. After an anxiety-filled wait of 6+ hours of surgery, it would take several more days to learn if the cancer was completely removed or if chemo would be needed.She dealt with the pain and uncertainty stoically. I didn’t hear her complain once.

The intense recovery period morphed slowly into a more regular pace of life, as Asma healed.

One evening, when she had regained some strength, I walked into the apartment and saw her sitting in the living room with TJ. She looked a little tired, speaking more softly than she usually did. We decided to have dinner together and ordered food from Chicago’s Devon Street, famous for its desi restaurants. We talked politics and as the evening progressed, she gained more energy. As she ridiculed Pakistan’s politics and its corrupt system with choice Urdu and Punjabi phrases, I discovered Asma was a wonderful mimic, extremely witty, and she giggled at times like a happy schoolgirl. The doctor also called that evening to give us the fantastic news: there was no need for chemo. Asma said, “We should celebrate. Let’s plan an outing.” Abbe came up with several options and an ebullient Asma decided on a night of jazz music. We would celebrate her recovery at The Green Mill, one of Chicago’s best and oldest jazz venues.

When the day arrived, I entered Asma’s apartment and saw her standing near the kitchen counter making tea, wearing a colorful shalwar kameez.

“Kaisey ho baita?” she said, using the same words as when I’d picked her up at the airport. In the weeks since, I discovered she was indeed a rockstar, just even more courageous, resilient, and humorous than I had imagined. And our time together had flown by. She was leaving the next day for Lahore.

“I’m good, Asma Khala,” I replied. As we hugged, I felt a tinge of sadness at her impending departure. Still, we had the whole evening before us, for which I was excited. “Where is Uncle TJ?”

“He is getting ready,” she said, “Where is Abbe?”

“She’s getting ready too.”

“Good. We have some time to chat. Would you like some tea?”

I realised, even then, how special this moment was, when I got a chance to chat with her one-on-one. First, she asked me about my work and our life in Chicago, and listened intently, asking questions. She was visibly pleased that I was doing well. Then, I asked her: what was she looking forward to when she got back to Pakistan? It was a simple question, asked casually, unthinkingly.

As she spoke, it dawned on me that my simple question had been asked to someone who had just battled cancer and got a new lease on life. The clarity of her vision, her purpose, was evident in her every word and gesture. She explained how she felt she had gotten a bit sidetracked with all kinds of conferences, special positions and honorary stuff like PhDs from universities. She wasn’t going to waste any more time on such things.

“Now, when I go back,” she said, fervidly, “I want to really focus on what I’m most passionate about. It’s what started me down this road. To help the women of Pakistan.”

She explained all the things she wanted to do, and in the way her eyes narrowed and sparkled, in turn pained,hopeful, dismayed and ultimately defiant, I saw not a woman in her sixties, but someone much younger: a 30-something idealistic lawyer, who had marched down the streets of Lahore, facing teargas, batons and imprisonment. The person I had heard of as a seven-year-old boy and wanted to know, had appeared.

Our teacups empty, Asma, TJ, Abbe and I all walked out together from the apartment and stepped into a balmy Chicago evening. Strolling down the leafy streets, we chatted and laughed, Asma and TJ walking in a pair, ahead of us. Fifteen minutes later, we were at The Green Mill. And the jazz club didn’t disappoint. At one point in the evening, as the piano and trombone grew to a fevered pitch, I turned and looked at Asma. She was gazing up at the musicians on stage, smilingand shaking her head to the beat of the music. She noticed me looking at her, and gave me a quick smile – no longer my unfamiliar khala.