The Quest for Home

Zeinab Masud thinks about her own life, cosmopolitanism and belonging - in Trump's America

The Quest for Home
Research shows that having too many choices creates stress. I can totally relate to this.

In an age of confused identity where colour, religion and creed all seem to be colliding, are we spoilt for choice in terms of who we are or who we want to be?

I grew up in eight different countries, and at times my soul felt that it was stretched across endless oceans and continents. Sounds excessive – ’souls being stretched’! – but then moderation was never part of my game plan.

The fact is that I left a little part of me behind every time we moved on. I seemed passive even in pain as goodbyes often wrenched my little self into even littler bits. ‘I’m already a small person’, I would think, at the tender yet wise age of ten – why would I break into even smaller bits?

There seemed to be these different pieces of me: the part that didn’t want to leave my friends and my room and the part that wanted to follow my parents everywhere the foreign service sent them. And finally that part that betrayed me into thinking that I had a choice. Clearly, I didn’t. At least not then.

Travel has been the one consistent in my life. The other constant has been regular visits to Pakistan. These visits created an attachment: security. An understanding that there was one home in this world that was unchanging. As everything else seemed to be in constant flux.

My earliest memories are Iran in the late sixties. My world was simple. I remember a gleaming, blue swimming pool and a red plastic tea set made especially for little girls whose worlds changed often. Then there was India, warm and moist and I remember the comforting tempo of consistent noise.

I’m still a little girl but we’re in Manhattan now. The teacher speaks of Nixon’s visit to China to five-year-olds and my birthday cake has Cinderella and her carriage on it. I bask in the sweetness of Mummy’s perfume and I like the feel of her soft sari against my cheek as I lay my head in her lap. I am grateful for the story books she buys me at the school fair. They have glistening hard covers. I remember the Columbus Day parade.
Do I enjoy being the 'desi' girl in a very 'gora' room?
Can one still play the exotic card?

Good-bye, New York. We’re now In Amman, Jordan and the roses are luscious shades of shocking pink, dark red and warm yellow. Our house is nestled in a grove of rose bushes and the gorgeous foliage creates havoc with my asthma. Amman is gracefully built on seven hills, picturesque and peaceful. I wheeze my way through this cascade of scenic beauty.

We then have what is known as a ‘home posting’, I get to live in Islamabad. I go to a Pakistani school for the first time. I get mocked for my inability to write correct Urdu. But I manage to make friends and we walk around our safe little neighbourhood. Ten years old with long sticks in our hands waging wars against invisible warriors. Our home is lime green brick with a sloping roof, the neighborhood kids tell me stories of the supernatural and I shiver amongst shadows both imagined and real.

We are back in the Middle East and Kuwait City is thriving in an ‘in your face’ opulence.

The stench of money is strong and the dinar has an arrogant kind of weight. Life is air-conditioned convenience and the perplexing surge of teenage angst

Those first few months in a new place would always be lonely. I remember my nose pressed against a frosty window pane in Bruxelles, wondering why the skies were grey and the cars outside were so small. This was after years in the Middle East where oil rich citizens drove sleek Cadillacs and the guard positioned outside our house went home in his Jaguar, purring softly into the night.

So what was this small, cold continent, where people with elegant accents drove small Volvos? And then somewhat shyly, I allowed Europe to embrace me. Once the initial reserve wore off, the Europeans displayed a depth of friendship and I began to feel I belonged. Soft rain on smooth cobblestones and slate grey skies. I remember endless cups of coffee by flickering firesides, where we traded philosophies, found friendships. But every time I left a little bit of my heart behind.

In between all these treks all over the world, there were the constant visits to Pakistan.

Engulfed in the chaos of cousins and warmth of extended family, I managed to feel held – held very close each time. It was a childhood of chilli chips, Archie comics and Spinzer ice-cream. It was an injection of belonging, of confidence.

I remember Karachi summers where my Naani curled up in a sky-blue ‘gharara’ and ‘chikan ka white kurta’ would tell me stories of Gulnaar Baadshah and feed me homemade ‘khajoor’. I remember laughter and warmth as my parents bonded with their siblings, regaling us youngsters with anecdotes of their childhood exploits.

I wanted to bottle up all that love and carry it around the world with me.

Perhaps in some wonderful way, I did.

And so, as my personality continued to be shaped by influences far from my place of birth, Pakistan remained present in my life, a security blanket in the shape of a country.

Married life turned out to be nomadic too. From the shores of the Mississippi in New Orleans to the monsoon warmth of my native Karachi and then onwards to the turquoise beauty of Mozambique’s blue skies. And everytime it was the same.

Goodbyes were teary and new destinations seemed desolate.

And now I find myself in the North-West. The city of Seattle arches gracefully between the majesty of mountains and the warmth of deep blue waters. Seattle holds you spellbound in the summertime. However this season is brief and suddenly the grip of gorgeous scenery loosens its hold and there I find myself cloaked in the grey of a Washington winter. Crazy, dipping Vitamin D levels and an ache for a glimpse of the sun.

Its easy to stand out in Washington State, I feel like the brown girl in a very white ring.

And in Trump’s America this is an interesting phenomenon. Do I enjoy being the ‘desi’ girl in a very ‘gora’ room? Can one still play the exotic card?

The issue of ‘foreignness’ has taken on new meaning and when I walked out of my home almost a year ago, on November 9th, I felt distinctly different.

Over the years I had come to believe that moving countries, embracing new cultures eventually made one a richer person, despite the sadness involved in leaving friends and a home behind.

I ended up feeling empowered, a combination of different cultures and experiences. I spoke some Arabic, some French, understood Hegel’s dialectic and other German Idealists, adored Keats and the eighteenth century Romantics.

I had grown up feeling whole despite the disparate bits in me. And I know what kept me together. It was the comfort of knowing that there was that one place that was still constant. The loyal lover, if you will, cloaked in a Casanova-esque facade: my Karachi enjoys the nefarious reputation of being one of the most dangerous cities in the world. But to me it is a place of unconditional warmth. Rich or poor, I am always struck by the joy on the streets. The clatter of the rickshaw, the swaying tongas, and the roar of the motor-bikes. And today more than ever, I feel grateful for the Pakistan in my life. Everyone should have one.

Because today is different.

The last time, I lived in the U.S, more than ten years ago, it still felt like the America that thrived on diversity. The land of opportunity for all, where a black man with a Muslim name could be elected President.

“Difference” has taken on a whole new meaning, and some of this is sinister.

Race relations in the U.S that I live in, are in tumultuous conflict. As are issues of religion.

Black, Hispanic or Muslim, do we belong? There was always a glorified aspect to the ‘melting-pot’ synonymous with the concept of the U.S. But today with white supremacists marching down the street, it doesn’t seem so glorious.

What expectations does this melting pot have? That we melt to such a degree that our essence disappears? Our original colours, flavours, idelogies all turn into murky shades, losing shape and identity? Makes you wonder if Pierrre Trudeau’s concept of a ‘cultural mosaic’, in terms of immigrants settling into Canada makes more sense. The immigrant is not expected to melt in but instead ‘fit’ in as part of a mosaic, all the while retaining one’s own shape and identity. The nation consists of people from a multitude. of racial, religious and cultural backgrounds and is open to cultural pluralism.

While I live in one of the most liberal cities in the West and have not felt answerable or confronted with any kind of racism, the fact is that there is a reoccurring dialogue around us. If one is brown or Muslim, for example, does a certain depth of loyalty have to be proven?

I see children of Pakistani immigrants finding themselves questioning the nature of belonging, of what is home. My friend’s fifteen year old son is told “terrorist, go home.” He is stunned, American is all he has ever felt. So where is home?

The U.S is the only home they know and while for many it is a wonderful one, the fact remains that it is a time for reflection.

There are those who find their faith and their loyalty being questioned.

It is Trump’s America and the day after the election, I feel uncertain as I walk out.

Problem is, ‘I see myself in the eyes of the beholder’. Move over, Lacan, I have theories so deep, your sense of self would sink in their quicksand. The election results are making me wonder whether I will be judged?

My favourite coffee shop greets me with acute enthusiasm. They offered me a free croissant the other day, claiming that it was ‘croissant’ day. Confused, I accepted somewhat graciously. But I found myself wondering if they were just trying to be nice because I was so obviously a foreigner. I generally accept gestures of generosity in the spirit that they are given.

So where does this questioning come from?

It’s the unforgiving glare of an uncertain present.

Today more than ever before, I feel grateful that I do not have to search for home.

I may be incredibly far from my polluted, unpredictable, impassioned Pakistan but I found it long ago and despite all the distances travelled, I plan to never let it go.