I wrote the following piece a year ago with a plan for a photobook with various poems and short stories to accompany the photos. Many things have changed since then, like my mind about whether this should still be a photobook or should instead just be a novel or memoir, and, despite the title of my blog, I have yet to make that much progress on it. I figured that if I make some of the completed portions public to allow free-flowing criticism or comments, then maybe I’d be more motivated and directed towards creating something that makes remote sense. So the excerpt contained within this post starts from the beginning with a preface of the book. Some initial parts of this preface may be provocative, and if you happen to be outraged by my first two paragraphs, I implore you to just continue and finish it, because it’s likely you won’t by the end of it. Enjoy the reading! 2017 has been a year of mishaps. And despite the Trump-era chaos that embodies 2017, it’s not the reason for my dissatisfaction with the year, it’s just a supplement. More than anything, 2017 has been a year of losing some friends and even more battles. A year of bad days and even worse grades. A year of people whom I thought might not ever leave, leaving. A year of sitting and watching as one lived their dreams out in Madrid, another preparing to spend the summer in London, another in India, and DC, and lots and lots in California, and so on. And after watching all this, I’m still in Texas.
Texas has been a trap. I’ve felt stuck, enclosed, like I should be somewhere other than this state. It’s like a star dies every time you try to positively represent a state that hits the fan at least once a day. You put a smile on your face ready to go to class and breathe the fresh Texan air around you and then you find out your friend’s been arrested for possession of marijuana. He’s facing jail time, contributing to Texas’s shiny “7th highest incarceration rate in the country” honor. A star falls. You lift your head up again, though, trying to take on the next day. Now your friend’s pregnant. Just another statistic that puts Texas at #3 on the teen pregnancy rate ranking. A star falls. Move on, keep going. You made it to Social Problems class for once. The topic of the day is child marriage, and you learn that Texas has not yet banned child brides. Another star falls. Well, it can only get worse. And it does when your local public health official couldn’t save a mother from dying while delivering her baby. Texas has now become the state whose 3 largest cities are among the top 4 cities with the highest uninsured population, and the maternal mortality rate is 30 per 100,000 births. And you can’t do anything about it.
I looked these all up, obviously, to feed the already-growing animosity I had towards Texas. I’ve been finding myself in dilemma after dilemma. Stuck in a state where my gay friends are denied service at restaurants. In a state where seeking women’s health services means enduring lines of berating, threatening protestors. In a state where guns are second to Jesus and affordable health care is the spawn of Satan. In a state where Terry Jones is considered a freedom fighter and Malcolm X a terrorist. In a state where refugee labor runs the economy yet it’s the first of 50 to deny refugee entry. In a state where mosque burnings are frequent and Qur’an burnings even more frequent. In a state where, because I’m Pakistani, I’m not good for anything if it’s not giving someone surgery or fixing their computer or enduring hate crimes as a gas station clerk.
I’ve found myself in the dilemma of wanting to leave. Wanting to venture far out from the remote thought of Texas. Seattle, Portland, Santa Barbara, somewhere with coasts where your feet don’t get tangled in algae every 3 seconds and festivals where you burn 40-feet wooden statues instead of religious sites. Wanting to join my lost friends to all their aforementioned locations, where people that look like me and talk like me can be expected to be the first them the world had seen instead of what their parents’ friends would make of them.
But I couldn’t. I’d had three years. I went to California but came back. I went to Canada but came back. To Boston. DC. Spain. I could have made myself disappear in any of those places but I came back for something more than the fact that I could provide for myself here, or be provided for by my parents. Being stuck sucks because once you escape you feel uncomfortable, unaware, scared. But being stuck also feels great, because it forces you to make what you can of your resources.
It’s not a feeling of homeliness vs. unhomeliness; it’s something bigger. There must have been something I enjoyed about myself in Texas. And I found it being stuck here in the year of mishaps. For every burnt mosque I found, I found a Jewish temple willing to rebuild it. For every Qur’an a zealous pastor tried to burn there was a hero on a skateboard who snatched it from the fire. I found my joy in the South Asian enclaves of DFW and Houston and, yes, surprisingly, Amarillo, where I’ve tasted some of the best chicken karahi and chicken tikka and fried paneer of my life. I found my joy in a dorm room where a Pakistani, Indian, Bangladeshi, Sudanese, Iraqi, Saudi, Palestinian, Jewish, Chinese, Vietnamese, Mexican and American group of friends set aside their differences because that’s what they’ve had to do their entire lives to make friends. I found joy in the rolling hills and the red canyons and the greenbelts and the blue holes and the cornfields and the wind farms and the riverbeds of this prolific state. I found joy in the fact that being one of the only kids of Pakistani descent in my school only meant being one of the first to do something spectacular for those that came before and those who will come after. And I, surprisingly enough, found lots of joy in Texas blue grass music.
Studying literature, I became fascinated with the concept of identity, namely that of diasporic identity. And I missed a major aspect of diasporic identity when it finally came to me determining my own. An identity is one that the identity-seeker creates and the heritage embraces, and vice versa. In other words, I had to accept my identity internally as well as in accordance with my surroundings. All my surroundings. That is what I failed to do since I became sentient. I am American; my country claimed me as its citizen. I am Pakistani, my parents made sure to pass that heritage down to me as I grew up. But almost always, I am only one of those at a time. Other times, I am neither. Rarely was I ever both. In America people ask, “So what are you? Where are you from?” In America, I am presumably not American. I’m Pakistani. But my Urdu has become broken, my knowledge of Pakistani politics has almost zero value, when I go to my parents’ homeland I’m told not to talk to people because they’ll know I’m American. Because when I’m in Pakistan, I’m American. But I’m not both at the same time until I meet other people who experience the same thing. So I’ve come to terms with making that part of my psyche flexible. Some parts of my identity I’ve claimed, but they haven’t claimed me, and vice versa. But by being stuck here yet finding that joy in things, I’ve found that reciprocity in Texas.
I am a Pakistani-American Texan. I bask in chicken tikka and American patriotism and southern hospitality all at once. I find solace in the red-pink sunsets across the Amarillo sky, relaxation in the swims in the Barton Creek greenbelt, excitement in SXSW and ACL and all the other musical acts Austin offers, meditation in the 6000-foot deep Palo Duro Canyon, reflection in the icy grasps of Texas’s historic blizzards and the chokehold of its historic floods and the sweaty embrace of its heatwaves. I find inspiration in the ones that get out and give back—in Beyoncé, in Cary Fagan, in Hakeem Olajuwon, in Wes Anderson, in Rick Husband, in Matthew McConaughey, and so many more.
I can attribute Texas’s setbacks to the many negative experiences I’ve had my entire life: bullying, Islamophobia, drought, isolation. Yet it would be wrong to discredit the places and people in Texas that have put a genuine smile across my face the past 18 years. I find being Texan to be a challenge every day, but I find that every day I complete that challenge it brings me closer to claiming the place as my own. Every day I mourn a fallen star for every time a Texan or a group of Texans screws something up, but every day I also find a Texan or group of Texans who have stayed long enough to pick up those fallen stars. And that’s the Texan I’ve become. Not one who turns their face away from a dire situation just to be free from Texas’s setbacks, but one who stays long enough to fix those setbacks and free Texas of dire situations.
“Chala Vahi Des” is a song by a group of musicians who met in Rajasthan, India to record an album called Junun. The album featured Urdu, Hindi, Hebrew and English singers, who sought to turn the borders that were being fought over in Rajasthan into a place for ghazal, the “poetic expression of both the pain of loss or separation and the beauty of love in spite of that pain.” “Chala Vahi Des” literally means “let’s go to that country,” and I found it fit to use such a phrase as the title of this book to invite others into my personal Texan heritage, which spans much broader than state politics and rodeos and southern accents. This book is meant to acknowledge Texas’s fallen stars, celebrate the reignited ones, and illuminate entirely new ones as we progress. It’s somewhat sad and realistic to say that I’ll eventually leave Texas, but before I depart I hope to go so far as encapsulate the glamorous yet rigorous upbringing that I and many others have had for the past 20, 30, 40-something years of our lives here.
Fort Worth, TX