Seema looked out. Everything was covered in snow, as far as she could see. “It looks like a desert, a snow desert,” she said to herself. “Love or no love, I am not going out in this weather.” She did not go to meet Fraz. But it was not just because of snow. Her parents stopped her too, as we later learned. We were meeting again at the tavern after our shisha-bar asked “the uncle generation” to go somewhere else. The change of venue, however, did not affect our group, an informal gathering of people who had nothing in common except the desire to get together and talk about ‘home.’ Seema’s father is one of those who believe that a daughter should sit quietly at home until the father finds a “suitable boy” for her. She disagrees and whenever he gets upset, she politely reminds him that she is “a born American” and knows her rights. Then there is Mike, who was Maqsood back home. “My daughter? Yes, she must have a boyfriend too but I never bothered to ask. It is very personal,” he says. Foroud, the Iranian, is popular among both the first and second generations. The first generation often sought his help to talk to their daughters or sons who they thought were going astray. Bob D’Souza is a Goan Christian from Karachi. Manohar is an Indian whom the group calls Maharaja Ashoka because of his desire to revive Ashoka’s kingdom. And his friend Mian Saheb wants to revive an entire empire, the Muslim empire. And there is Jasmine, the only female member of the group. She is not a regular participant but comes whenever she can. We learned about Seema and Fraz when her father, Khalid, asked Foroud to talk to her. “Come now,” he said to him one evening. “Not now,” said Foroud, “I will come after the weekend.” When I asked why he didn’t go with Khalid, he said: “The problem is with Khalid, not Seema. I want to give him some time to cool off before we confront Seema.” “And why is the father a problem?” I asked. “He should have known that coming to America is not like going to Dubai. You never return home from America. The children who are born and brought up here are Americans. And it is normal for American kids to date,” he said. “Besides, she is 20 now. How can the father stop her?” Foroud asked. I had no answer. Later in the evening, Khalid spoke to Jasmine and also asked her to talk to his daughter. She flatly refused. “I am not the right person because I believe she has every right to do whatever she doing,” she said. When we met at the tavern, she asked me to write about Seema. “What is there to write about? It is such a common story,” I said. “Then write about me,” she said. “If you write, I will become a story and someone will find something useful in this story,” she said. “What’s useful in your story?” I asked. “I want people to discover real love, not just live with each other because they get used to living together,” she said. “Your story can break up marriages,” I joked. “Rubbish, I am not against marriage or family. I want them to discover real love and enjoy living with each other. But they are afraid to do so,” she said. “And in your story, do not call me Jasmine. Call me Zubaida. I love this name. It reminds me of the old Baghdad and of the Thousand and One Nights,” she said. “So you want me to write a love story from Alif Laila?” I asked. “No, no, I left all that behind when I left my home town,” she said. “What I have now is a headlong struggle.” She paused and then added, “Sometimes I wish I was born in a remote village in Pakistan and was not exposed to all this. Ignorance indeed is bliss.” “This is very atypical of you,” said Bob D’Souza. “We thought you were a rebel.” “Rebel, my foot,” said Jasmine. “You guys think I am weird but do not have the courage to say so.” Let me first explain why Northern Virginia’s Desi community – which includes Pakistanis, Indians, Bangladeshis, Afghans and their Somalians, Arabs and Iranian friends – thinks Jasmine is a rebel. Jasmine is a Muslim from a small town in Pakistan and runs a bar with a large dancing floor. Her waitresses are not shy of showing their cleavages. “You guys have fixed ideas about what a woman should or should not do. And you do not know how to relate to a woman who is different,” said Jasmine. Then she pointed at a nearby Desi eatery and said: “See that woman serving food there? All of you will be happy if I were like her, serving you guys, cleaning your tables and was paid less than the minimum wage.” She added: “I know how poor women like her also have to fight back people like you who never tire of trying to take her to bed.” There was complete silence. Then I spoke: “So what do you want me to write about you?” “I know what you want to write about me,” she said. “How I left two husbands and was living with the third. How I called the police to kick out my first husband who was also my cousin, right?” Now I was quiet too. So she spoke again. “You will not say how this cousin of mine was two-timing me and how the second husband married me just to get his green card,” she said. “One day, I caught him too with a 20-dollar prostitute.” “What you did was right,” said Mian Saheb, “you should have kicked them out but why did you open this bar?” “As if you do not know,” said Jasmine. “I was young and good looking but I had no experience. So, many in this noble community of the Desis tried to take advantage of me.” Then she explained how with the help of an American woman activist, who was also a lawyer, she forced her second husband to give her some money. The second husband, she said, was a physician and had married her to come to America and make money. “As soon as he setup his practice, he wanted to go home and bring a virgin from there,” she said. “He was very stingy and it was not easy to get money from him. But that woman angel, the American lawyer, she was very good. She gave him two options: Pay or get deported. He paid.” Jasmine had her own money too, more than what she got from the husband. She was a trained accountant and had been working since she was 18. She also inherited a townhouse from her father and used it to borrow money from the bank. “With all that money, you could have done anything. Why a bar?” Mian Saheb persisted. “Don’t you fear me? Most of the Desis do,” she said. “I do too but you are in a good mood today,” replied Mian Saheb. She laughed and said, “OK, let me explain. I tried other businesses too, with Desis. But they cheated me. I am an accountant, so I discovered their fraud.” Tired of Desis, Jasmine went to a women support group who told her about this bar. The owner was 82 and wanted to retire. “I checked it. Worked there for a month and discovered that it was doing good business. So I decided to buy it,” she said. “The old man was nice but his wife was nicer and she persuaded him to train me, which he did.” Because of this bar, she was now in a position to help others rather than seeking their help. Recently, she also gave some money to the local mosque for renovation. “Maulana Saheb knew me and he still accepted the money, so I guess it is kosher,” she said. Jasmine is very kind to her staff, almost all of whom are women. She is also strict in her own way. “I make it very clear when I hire someone that this is a bar, not a dating service. They are waitresses, not call girls. And so far no one has disappointed me,” she said. “Now, will you write my story?” she asked. “Story, I don’t know but I will reproduce your conversation,” I said. And here is a question Jasmine wanted me to ask: Did you find anything useful in this story?
The author is a correspondent for Dawn, based in Washington, DC.