For 20 years Rashid waited for this day. But instead of boarding the plane, he returned his tickets. It all seemed so meaningless to him after reading how a 14-year old girl, Malala Yousufzai, was gunned down for seeking education.
Rashid’s daughter always wanted to visit his village with him but he always said no. “Complete your education, get a nice job and then come with me,” he argued.
She did as he desired: a master’s degree, in economics, from an Ivy League college and a job with the World Bank. Now he was ready to take her along.
Shamila was 5 when she came to America. Her father, Rashid Ahmed Khan came to this country on a visit visa but never went back. There was nothing to go back to.
In the village he was known as Sheeda but once he became a successful realtor in America, he repossessed the name his father gave him, Rashid Ahmed. He added Khan too because his mother once told him they were known as Khans before they were poor.
And when somebody calls him Khan Sahib – as most of his new friends do – he feels good.
But for him going back to the village with his daughter was more significant than being called Khan Sahib.
He wanted the whole village to see that the granddaughter of a woman who washed their dishes had graduated from an American university. She spoke better English than the sons of the local zamindars and also had a better job.
His village did not have big land lords. Most were middle class people who made enough to live comfortably. But because he was the son of a farm worker and a dishwasher, he was looked down upon.
His desire to take his daughter back to the village was linked to the way his mother was treated by these people.
Although her parents named her Fatima, everybody called his mother Phataan, as they called him Sheeda. People of their social status were not called by their proper names.
I first met Rashid Khan at Islamabad’s Marriot Hotel. I was waiting for a friend in the restaurant when I heard a loud noise. It startled everyone. When we searched for the source, we saw pieces of a plate on the floor. We also saw the man who threw it on the floor.
The waiter came running and asked what was wrong. Rashid asked for the manager and when the manager came, he picked one of the pieces and showed him.
“See these spots? You are charging hundred dollars a person for dinner and this is how you wash your dishes?” he shouted.
The manager calmed him down and brought him a clean plate.
But his action intrigued me. So I went to him while he was waiting for food and asked if I could share the table with him.
When he asked why, I said I guessed from his accent that he was from America. Since I also lived there, I wanted to join him.
“Where in America do you live?” he asked.
“In Virginia, near Washington,” I said.
“Oh, I live nearby. In Baltimore,” he said and asked me to join him.
By the time we finished our dinner, we were friends.
He said he wanted to have tea, and not the “gora chai” the hotel served but the real “doodh patti.”
I said I knew a place where they served the best ‘doodh patti’ in town and I that I could take him there if he did not mind my old Volkswagen.
On the way to the chai shop, he asked me: “Do you know why I threw the plate on the floor?”
I said I wanted to but did not know how to ask.
He chuckled and said: “Before going to America, I came here once. I was wearing clean clothes but not clean enough for them, so they threw me out. Today, I got even with them.”
“That you did,” I said.
While having tea, we exchanged phone numbers and addresses and stayed in touch in America too, particularly after he too moved to Northern Virginia.
He often said he was grateful to God for giving him a daughter, his only child. “I see my mother in her. And it makes me very happy when I see her going to school. I want her to be the most educated woman in our village and the best too.”
So I was surprised when he came to our travel agency to return the tickets he had purchased to take his daughter to his village.
“Yaar, I am sorry but I do not want to visit my village. Actually, I do not want to go to that country with my daughter,” he said.
“Why?” I asked.
He put a copy of the New York Times on my table and said: “Check the lead story.”
I read the headline: “Taliban Gun Down Girl Who Spoke Up for Rights.”
“Did it scare you?” I asked.
“Scared me? Yes, it did,” he said. “But it is not about fear.”
“What else then?” I asked.
“I think Shamila will not be respected there, no,” he said. “It remains the place where my mother was reduced from Fatima to Phataan. I thought all that had changed but it did not.”
I said he was paranoid. There were no Taliban in his village and his daughter will enjoy the trip. So he must go.
He disagreed and said I did not understand him. “Come over to my place this evening and we will talk.”
When I arrived, he asked his daughter to make tea. I was surprised because usually he did not like his daughter to do such chores.
When Shamila left after putting the tea on the table, he asked: “Isn’t she graceful?”
I said, “Yes, she is and I have always said that she looks like a scholar.”
“She is a scholar. She knows the law of diminishing return,” he said.
I laughed and said: “That is very basic. You learn that at school. She knows much more.”
He laughed too and said, “Yes, but that’s all I know about economics.”
Then Rashid began his story. He said it was an ‘aalim,’ a religious scholar from his village who encouraged him to study. This ‘aalim,’ known as Shah Sahib, had two sons; one was a doctor and the other a government official.
They provided the financial support Rashid needed to do his high school and two years of college.
“He was a great man. When he recited the Holy Quran, his face emitted light. My mother used to help his wife twice a week and they always gave us fresh food, not the leftovers.
“He did so much for us. But we were too poor to return his favors and he died before I came to America.”
Unlike other religious scholars, Shah Sahib also encouraged girls to go to school. “Our Prophet (PBUH) wanted women to study, who are we to deny education to them?” he would often say.
So Rashid had two reasons for sending her daughter to school, his mother and also he believed it would have pleased Shah Sahib if he were alive.
Rashid said the day his daughter came home with her degree, he saw the same light, same grace on her face that he had seen emitting from Shah Sahib. He wanted to show this to his villagers and also wanted them to respect her, as they respected Shah Sahib.
“But after I read what the Taliban did to Malala, I thought those people are not yet ready to respect a woman. So I decided I will not take Shamila to my village,” he said.
“Because of Shah Sahib, I have always associated religion with knowledge, light and emancipation. But now when I see it being used to promote ignorance and intolerance, it hurts me.
“I taught my daughter what I learned from Shah Sahib. And I want her to continue to believe in him too. But I fear that if she goes there, she may change. That’s why I do not want to take her with me.”