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'After 17 years in America, I'm scared of going back to Pakistan'

Updated April 03, 2015
Boarding the plane only weeks after the Peshawar school shooting, my heart was tinged with dread. —Reuters/file
Boarding the plane only weeks after the Peshawar school shooting, my heart was tinged with dread. —Reuters/file

That was me, over and over again as I obsessed with friends and strangers alike about my upcoming trip to Pakistan.

Even as I said the words, they felt strange. I am an American-born and bred Pakistani, but I visited Pakistan nearly every year of my childhood.

As an idealistic 17-year-old, I spent an entire summer trekking out to a low-income neighbourhood in Pakistan to teach English to 21-year-old college students. I still remember my prize students, Shazia and Faisal, who encouraged me to keep showing up every day, despite the taunts and hostile stares I received from other students. They nurtured my idealism even when I was ready to give it up.

I didn’t have Shazia and Faisal back home, though.

And in the 17 years since I last set foot in that college, all I knew was “terrorism” and “violence.” These were the words used to describe Pakistan in the news and even in casual conversations among Pakistani-Americans.

With my professional interest in religious freedom, came other equally troubling descriptors for Pakistan: blasphemy laws, persecution, assassinations.

Also read: The Pakistani-American dilemma: Guests or citizens?

It is no surprise, then, that it took me almost two decades to come back, and even then primarily because of parental obedience (my mother had been campaigning for over a year for me to join her during her January 2015 visit) than any sort of loyalty to the country.

In the 17 years since my last visit, I had also become a mother to two children, and was not the least bit interested in putting myself in harm’s way.

Yes, I had a vision of Pakistan as a battleground.

Boarding the plane only weeks after the Peshawar school shooting, my heart was tinged with dread. And when the plane landed in Karachi, I leaned forward into my window to take in the view of the Jinnah International Airport.

It was time to step out of my bubble, and my heart was beating just a little bit faster because of it.

My home that week was the Embassy Inn on Shahrah-e-Faisal. Conveniently located just minutes from Tariq Road, and immediately adjacent to a gas station food mart, I was able to fully indulge both my need for cheap deals on dazzling Pakistani costume jewelry and my nighttime snack cravings.

Kulchas in Karachi.
Kulchas in Karachi.
BBQ at Do Darya.
BBQ at Do Darya.

During one such snacking venture, I noticed the gas station workers pushing together wide barriers, blocking a small but rowdy group of motorcyclists from entering. “Hmm, weird,” I thought, shrugging it off and slipping past the divider on the side where the gas station met the hotel.

Read on: A Punjabi in New York: Juggling multiple identities

I proceeded to buy ice cream undeterred and then returned to my hotel room to enjoy it whilst watching, for the 30th time, the TV hysteria over Imran Khan’s marriage to Reham Khan.

It turned out the barriers were being placed to ward off mob violence. Muhammad Saeed Awan, a member of the banned Lashkar-e-Jhangvi militant group, had been hanged at Karachi's Central Jail, and the gas station was preparing for a potential torching of its premises by protesters.

Just a few days back in Pakistan, and I had already slipped into a comfortable familiarity, ignoring warning signs of impending violence. Perhaps it was the oases of calm and consumerism that had distracted me.

From the day I set foot in Pakistan, jetlagged and fearful, my mom had been eager to show me the best of Karachi: the malls.

Running on less than 1 hour of sleep in over 24 hours, I hit the mall with a vengeance. My fears were soon drowned in stylish kurtas galore.

You battle overwhelming pollution, traffic and chaos and walk into a marketplace of vibrant colour and sparkle (and more chaos).
You battle overwhelming pollution, traffic and chaos and walk into a marketplace of vibrant colour and sparkle (and more chaos).
And with the conveniently timed visit also came the second best thing Pakistan has to offer: weddings.

My third cousin, whom I’d last seen as an adolescent, was getting married, which meant that I got to bookend my Pakistan visit with lavish buffets of kulchas and kulfis. Elaborate tents crowned with cascading chandeliers, and a two-hour, professionally choreographed song and dance performance at the mehndi.

“THIS is what a Pakistani wedding looks like,” I announced triumphantly on Facebook alongside a video of the dancers performing to “Uptown Funk You Up.”

Pakistan may be failing in most other ways, but it sure knows how to throw a party.
Pakistan may be failing in most other ways, but it sure knows how to throw a party.

In the midst of festivities set to American music, I felt right at home.

But who was I kidding? In between the weddings and the malls were rickshaw rides.

In some cases, the driver drove against traffic. In all cases, we were accosted by beggars, stretching their hands into the rickshaw, oblivious to our wide-eyed stares. And if our ride seemed unsafe, what about the newborns on motorcycles or perched at the edge of pickup trucks, their guardian casually tucking them under one arm?

My emotions swung constantly from disbelief, to anger, to absolute hopelessness for Pakistan’s most vulnerable citizens – the cross-dressed beggars included.

Wearing his sunglasses at night at Port Grand.
Wearing his sunglasses at night at Port Grand.

See: If Karachi were a person, who would it be?

And the fear was still there, too. It became dormant in the confines of malls and wedding halls. But as I sat near my departure gate at the Karachi airport, I couldn’t help but feel it creep up and form a lump in my throat.

Which terminal was it that the terrorists attacked with grenades and other explosives, that fateful night of June 8, 2014? More importantly, what made me think they wouldn’t do it again, right here, right now?

Back home in my safety net, I no longer feel that fear so palpably. Instead, I choose to remember Pakistan by the photos in my phone and the latest dresses in my closet.

I remember it for the color and sparkle, the friendly helpers at the stores and in the street, for the tight hugs by family members who hadn’t seen me since I was a kid.

And I know I will return.

—Photos by author