On First Love

When I think of first love, I don’t think of him.

I don’t think about the soft bridge of his nose, or the way his eyes slanted away from each other in small, sloppy angles that I could only see if I was close enough.

I don’t remember the contours of his face, or the geography of his torso; those peaks and planes are foreign land now.

I don’t play memories in my head, like scratchy old timey movie reels with a lot of action and no sound.

I don’t try to recall the exact moment he dipped his head and told me he loved me, with no thought of what tomorrow might bring.

I don’t remember running my fingers on the back of his neck or dipping to stroke his ear, marveling at the folds and ridges that were so unlike mine, but felt like my own.

I don’t think of his voice and how it strained whenever he said I was his; the weight of loving me bore too heavily on his artist’s temperament.

I don’t remember his rounded shoulders, or how he sat slightly hunched over, as if to shield himself from the world, or vice versa.

When I think of first love, I don’t think of him. That would be like buying a map to wander through my own streets, like asking a stranger for the way home.

I can’t leave him behind: he follows, he follows, he follows.

 

Hi, could I return some of this freedom?

I grew up in Lahore, Pakistan; I grew up thinking I had no freedom.

This was because I wasn’t allowed to stay out past 6 p.m. as a teenager, I couldn’t attend after school events with my friends and whenever I wanted to go hang out with a friend at McDonald’s, I had to ask my grandmother to come with me and chaperone.

My parents explained their reasons: staying out after 6 wasn’t safe, my school was a 40 minute drive from my house and staying there after classes wasn’t safe, and being in McDonald’s on my own with a friend was definitely not safe. I could get kidnapped, mugged, raped, abducted, led astray. Some bodily harm (God forbid!) would befall me if I did all these things because we lived in an unsafe country.

I did follow the rules though. I never made a fuss (externally anyway), and continued to comply. I would politely tell my friends that no,  I wouldn’t be joining them for school bonfires or the party we had after the school play. I never said it was because my parents were worried I would be murdered or kidnapped; I just shook my head and said, sorry I have a family dinner to get to or maybe next time? I have to finish up some homework. I didn’t want them to think my parents were insane, or you know, heavens forbid, uncool.

And then I would watch my classmates have fun while I sat in the car and was driven home in the afternoon, safely.

I always wondered, didn’t the other parents care if their kids were safe? How were they so okay with exposing them to all the dangers my parents constantly warned me about? Did they not love them as much? I never brought up these points to my own mom and dad because I was a good, non questioning child.

It got worse when I grew up. I remember being in A levels, being 17 and I wasn’t allowed to attend gigs or concerts. Even if I did, I was the first to go home. At the school farewell, I’m pretty sure I was the only one who had to go home at 8 ‘o’ clock sharp because my mom sent the driver, and called me multiple times. Everyone else stayed on till later, and did really fun things, or at least that’s what I thought.

That night, I was fuming. I couldn’t understand it. If this was all for safety and security, how come nobody else had to go through it? How come I was the only one who had to say no to every second invitation my friends threw my way? Obviously, eventually, people stopped asking, and I became the person known for not being allowed out too much. What a dire situation to an 18 year old.

Maybe it had to do with the fact that my dad didn’t live in the same country and so he was extra worried about us. He saw violence and explosions on the news and automatically assumed that somehow we’d get caught up in all of it. You know, if I have to die, I’ll die even if I’m at home right? So what’s the point in restricting my freedom? I couldn’t say all that to him, but it was pretty much what I thought about.

And so then I grew up. I moved away from home, to the Middle East, for university. And suddenly, I had no limits. Turns out, my parents had actually only been worried about safety, and as I was in the safest country in the world, I had no restrictions. I could go out wherever and whenever I wanted, and they didn’t say a thing. In fact, they encouraged my growing independence. I thought this meant that I was becoming an adult and growing up and all that good stuff.

I lived in Chicago for 2 months, and am currently in London. I’ve been here for about 7 weeks now, completely on my own. No one has told me when to come home or go out for the last two years. I’ve been living in ‘safe’ countries for three years now, and I have so much “freedom”, I could wrap it around myself and stay warm in the winter.

And I hate it. I hate that I’ve grown up enough to not be told when to come home. I hate that now, I can navigate cities alone, and no one asks where I am. I hate that my parents don’t ask when I get home, or who I hang out with, or whether we’re at McDonald’s with a chaperone. It’s such a stupid contradiction. I’m having a hard time being by myself.

But you know what I figured out? Now that I’ve moved away, it takes every muscle in my body to stop myself from asking my sister what time she’s coming home. I worry about her constantly. I worry that there will be a blast or a kidnapping or something dangerous wherever she goes, when she goes out. I know it’s unfounded; I lived there and I know that this stuff doesn’t happen regularly, but I’m worried. And I finally understand why my parents did what they did. I get it.

And I really really miss my grandmother taking me to McDonald’s.

Adulting is not working out for me.

On Katniss and Tampons

Whenever I read a book, I think of the strangest things.

For example, when I read Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, I kept thinking about Hermione and what she would do when she got her period. Out there in the woods with two boys for company, freezing in the snow. Did she have tampons? A magical menstruation-away spell? Was she PMS-ing at any time? Was Ron, when he left them in the middle?

Or let’s talk about Katniss. Okay, Hermione had magical powers with which she straightened out her hair and shrunk her front teeth, but Katniss didn’t. What did she do, during the Hunger Games? Was it just like, “Oh, Katniss is about to get her period, get the sparkly tampons that also shoot fire and put on a show…” I don’t know.

Alright so writers can’t exactly cover all their bases but forget this specific girl issue. What about shaving, waxing, plucking, threading and the myriad of other real-life procedures that all girls I know have to have at least every two weeks? I mean, have you thought about it?

Imagine Ginny with a bushy unibrow that sprouted while she was busy running Dumbledore’s Army. Or Hermione with leg stubble because she forgot to pack her razor. Or Katniss with a furry upper lip because who can afford to get threaded in District 13?

I barely manage to shave my legs once in two weeks and that’s if I need to go out, or wear something that’ll show my legs. I often forget to get my eyebrows threaded – an unfortunate occurrence at best – or get my arms waxed because I have so many other things to do. Imagine just being hairless, period less, PMS-less, basically, just a genetically modified pristine human being always. But I guess that’s why fiction exists. Because who wants to imagine Hermione fussing around with a tampon, or trying to soothe razor bumps?

Actually, that would make for a good, albeit different, read.

 

 

Super Brown Girls, You Have No Future

Not too long ago, a well meaning woman came up to me, fervently elbowing her way through a throng of wedding guests. She planted herself in front of me, all 4 feet 9 inches draped in shiny purple chiffon, and said,

Beta, what happened to you? Last time I saw you, you looked so pretty. Have you been sick? Have you started eating a lot? Stressed out, huh?”

I didn’t get it right away. Nodding emphatically, she continued,

“I mean the taaaan na, beta. You used to be so gori (fair), what have you done? Does your mother let you go out into the sun aiween (carelessly)?!”

“Aunty, I live in Qatar. It’s a desert. It gets sunny,” I offered helpfully.

“There is no excuse for a pretty girl like you to get tanned. You need to get married one day, don’t you? Who will fall in love with you if you have this kaali (black/brown) complexion? You need to think about it,” she warned.

I smiled politely as I’d been taught to do in reply to nosy ridiculous questions, and was about to walk away when she said,

“Oh and one more thing. I understand that college studies are stressful, but there’s no reason to gain so much weight around that area na. It’s vulgar.”

This was said with not-so-subtle glances at my chest. Now this was too much. I had splurged on this gorgeous blue and black push up bra the week before and had practically planned my outfit around it.To me, sporting curves was a sign of my femininity, and hey, I liked when my clothes fit in just the right places.

“You need to be skinny beta. Boys will not like all this chest business. They like the patli (skinny) ones, so no need to be vulgar,” she declared.

“Oh and one more thing. I hear about all these modern girls doing silly exercises. Squats I think. You don’t do it okay? You already have a peechay wali (behind) that you need to get rid of. Remember: boys will not like all this sticking out business.”

She walked away, swinging her own huge and very sticking-out rear end from side to side. Like an elephant butt draped in purple.

I had no words. Of course this had happened before. I’d seen girls with birthmarks being verbally flayed alive by these women. Girls with acne. Girls with short legs. Girls with long legs. Girls with teeth that were too white. Girls who wore heels and girls who did not.

In a lot of ways, when a girl gets married in Pakistan, or at least the part where I’m from, she marries the whole society of women who surround the boy. The aunties pick her out, not the boy himself, poor thing. And girls diet, girls get skinny, girls deliberately lose their curves, mess about with whitening creams and expensive facials, to be the ideals for these women.

Aunties don’t like our butts, they don’t like our boobs, and they don’t like our blemishes. A well endowed girl is vulgar, a well made up one is a slut, and tanned girls have no marriageable prospects.

Aunties, check yourselves before you wreck yourselves (and us).

“Let’s Break Up Today!” or you know, How To Not Do That

How many articles/advice columns have you read about relationships? Dating in college/high school etc.? How many of those have told you the most essential thing? How to actually make them work.

Dating tips invariably end with warnings that say: “He/she doesn’t have to be the one!”, “Just have fun while you’re in it!”, “Don’t date someone who lives close by, because when it ends, it’ll be much harder to get over!”, “If they hold you back, leave them immediately!” and more and more. Stupid, stupid.

So we get into relationships just to get out of them? Is that what this has come to? Our grandparents and great grandparents didn’t have social media or a sheaf of online articles that told them How To Have The Best College Experience and Is He The One?!?! Take This Quiz To Find Out!

They just…did stuff you know. Showed up. Wrote letters. Said hello. Looked at each other.

Making any sort of relationship work is hard enough nowadays, what with college, family, social media, money worries, media and more. But if I were to give some advice, it would be this*:

1. When you feel butterflies, flutter with them. This might seem like nonsense, but there is someone who shall make you feel like you’re floating just by looking at you. When you absolutely cannot stop thinking about somebody like that, you know it’s right, for you.

2. Be ‘old fashioned.’ Set aside your phone when you meet your SO. Engage them in conversation, hear about their day and so on. Genuinely enjoy their company; be friends.

3. Don’t get into a relationship with the end in sight. When things last, they can be beautiful. Don’t think about the ending before you’ve reached the middle. There shouldn’t be spoilers in relationships…

4. If you’re not invested, they won’t want to be either. Give as much as you can, and if it ends, you’ll know it just wasn’t meant to be. Show up, be there for them, be a solid person who can be relied upon.

5. There’s no right or wrong time. Whether you meet them in college or high school or the 3rd grade, there’s no right or wrong time. It’s only what you make of it, I promise.

Relationships aren’t easy experiences; a lot of work goes into them. People don’t seem to want to put the work in: there are barriers and boundaries that they erect. And if it doesn’t work out with one, it’s on to the next. Dating isn’t as serious a commitment as marriage, but being committed to another human being simply because they’re another human being is a lovely thing in itself.

Making it work takes time and effort. Don’t give up!

Unlikely friendship...and zebra butt
Unlikely friendship…and zebra butt

*This article was written with only amusement and sunshine on the author’s part and it addresses people in serious, committed relationships. If you’re not the serious relationshippy kind, that works too! These tips work with best friends, boyfriends, girlfriends, and pets, you name it.

Musings: It’s Good To Be A Girl in Qatar

I had an afternoon class today and decided to make an effort, which loosely translated into smoothing out my hair and colouring my lips with a splash of bright pink. Happy with my look, I walked out into the reception area of the student housing main building. Here, I noticed three Filipino men sitting on the seats across reception. They seemed innocuous; they were texting and talking to each other.

As I walked by, I saw the man in the middle nudge his friends, who immediately looked at me. They started smiling, their eyes clearly roving up and down down on my person. While this was clearly ogling, it didn’t bother me as much as what I did next.

Knowing these men were smiling and staring, I slipped on a stern expression, kept my head down, ignored them and walked out the door. For heaven’s sake, WHY did I do that? In my head I heard my mother and grandmother’s words, “Let them look. Why increase it by paying attention to them? Keep your head down and pretend nothing happened.”

While that approach may help women avoid unnecessary trouble, it doesn’t do much to change the rhetoric. If I still lived at home in Pakistan, I would excuse my response because if a girl acknowledges or responds to teasing, things get worse. There is danger of being mugged, physically harassed and raped, among other things and also, the police force doesn’t back you up. In that society, it’s practical to keep your head down and say nothing; I mean why risk being raped over pretending to ignore a few verbal comments?

I live in Qatar now, and it is a world apart from Pakistan. This is a country where the law is properly enforced and there are severe consequences for any sort of lewd behaviour. I should adopt a different rhetoric. Contrary to the typical Middle Eastern impression where Westerners often regard women as being oppressed, this country gives its female citizens significant autonomy. The fact that a woman can speak up against harassment is such a powerful privilege that I’m astounded more people haven’t noticed.

Yes, all of us would love to talk about how these privileges shouldn’t be necessary; women shouldn’t need to tell off men from teasing/staring/ogling, but these are unfortunate realities.

I should have gone up to those men, asked them what their problem was and also threatened to call security just to wipe off their self satisfied smiles (you see, they knew I wouldn’t do anything!). Especially because I live in a country that gives me the resources I need to assert my power as a woman who should be respected. It’s ironic that my own “democratic” country forced me into a boxed approach to dealing with harassment and an Arab country deemed ‘backward’ by some, allows me to break free of it; Qatar has a soft spot for the women in it.

Women have a place of unmatched respect in this country; it would be good if they and the world learn to recognize it.

*Disclaimer: These are views based on my personal experiences. Other women in Qatar might or might not have these opinions!

Like Blood From A Tap: Let 2015 Flow In

I woke to 2015 and read about a baby girl who died because her parents starved her to death. And I thought of the parents of the children in Peshawar who will never sleep again. What do they care of the new year? A new date to write at the top of our school notebooks. Not for their children.

There are police officers who died and planes that crashed; our peoples’ blood washing over ice bergs and dropping into the sea bed, creating red burrows in the sand.

Blood is running thinner than water. And people have lost words. There’s blood on classroom walls, on whiteboards that previously felt only the wet tip of innocent Sharpies. (Our) Blood runs through cracks in the sidewalks and drips drips drips into the sewers below, mixing with the mulch that is later recycled for tap water. Do you know what you’re drinking?

We have continued to underestimate the lengths that mankind will go to. Forget the slaughter out there. When was the last time you ran in the house with scissors? Or didn’t wince when water washed over a paper cut? Do you understand what it must feel like? Serrated knives ripping your flesh apart, striking in the most vulnerable places, where cloth or skin fail to protect. Or the ones who’s lives left them before they could turn around. The piercing siren and then the explosion they couldn’t hear because their ears just gave out.

It’s tragic, really. Because if everyone could feel everybody else’s pain, the world would be a much different place.

I won’t forget how lucky I am to have made it through this year of smoke and screams. And neither should you. So if you need a resolution this year, steer away from petty problems, other people’s hypocrisy and what you did with whom back then that everyone now knows about. Think about them. All the ones who lie dead, starlight pooled in their eyes, because their souls couldn’t stay. Save them.

Humanity might just be at breaking point. End the indifference.

The 8 Kinds Of Lists I Hate

Are you annoyed by all these lists floating around in the Internet’s cosmos? They tell you what to do, what to buy, how to think, even what sort of person you are! As if one person compiling a list can box everyone into neat little squares.

Isn’t that just ridiculous though? These are the kinds of lists that really annoy me.

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Five Reasons To Fall In Love With Christmas (Again)

I love Christmas.

I’m a 20 year old, Pakistani Muslim girl, and I love celebrating Christmas, just like I’ve always done. What I don’t understand is why it has to be about religion. I’ll tell you some ofwhat Christmas means to me:

The Tree… Who doesn’t like Christmas trees? I grew up decorating weathered evergreens with red and green globes, hanging tiny presents strung with rainbow ribbons, stringing fairy lights on the branches, and spraying a blanket of dazzling white, albeit fake, snow all around. I should explain: I went to a Convent for the first 13 years of my academic life, and picked up certain traditions that have stayed with me throughout.

The Gifts… If you’ve never had presents on Christmas, you’re missing out. I’ve never shied away from any excuse to get presents from friends and family. What’s more, at school we used to exchange gifts with class mates during Christmas week. I’ve never been more excited than when I went to do my all important ‘Christmas shopping’; I would buy scented pink and green erasers and think myself the Queen of Christmas Cheer.

The Carols… Sometimes, when I’m sitting studying, I’ll play carols to myself. Silent Night, Joy to the World, and Jingle Bells have threaded their way through the background of all my childhood years. And at Christmas time, they’re all the more promising. The music and lyrics make me feel at peace on long winter nights.

The Books… If you’re a reader, you have to love Christmas. I have a ritual. Every December, I snuggle up in my fleecy purple blanket and spend nights reading. I read Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities, A Christmas Carol,  and Bronte’s Wuthering Heights. These three always get me in a rustic winter holiday cheer mood.

and…The People: You don’t have to be Muslim or Christian or Jewish or Hindu or more to appreciate a holiday where people in the world come together and tell tales about Santa Claus to shiny eyed children. Or where families gather around a tree with hot cocoa and excitement for presents. Most importantly, you don’t need religion to look at the goodness around you: when people who celebrate Christmas are eager to give back, do charity, feed other people, and work for the less privileged.

This might be a romantic portrayal of the holiday, but if we can’t get together and look at the romance in our lives once in a while, how will the human race continue to hold their heads high above everyday misery and sorrow?

Get into the Christmas mood and gather up some holiday cheer!

My countdown to Christmas has begun.

I See Dead People Every Night

At night, I lie in terror.

The clock ticks its way to 3 a.m. and all my ghosts stand tall, surrounding the place of my dreams.

I see feathery carcasses on the floor: mangled remains of monstrous black birds, their wings slashed and guts spilling onto the grey marble.

I see what looks like a woman, with a powdered face and rust painted lips. Then she opens her mouth and out comes a deafening voice, not man nor woman, not human. She keeps her vigil every night, right next to me.

I hear the lock of the door snap open and shut throughout the long night. Visitors come and go and leave trails of hellfire behind. I hear them working on the formica counter: do demons need food too?

And often times, one of them stays behind and sits on the sofa next to my bed. He stares. When I lie paralyzed by sleep, my own body betraying me, his blank eyes like windows are all that I see. The darkness in them cuts off my air.

They make sure I can’t breathe.

I feel them on me. A silky haired head next to my feet. A ceramic white skinned child flops and rolls under my yellow quilt. I’ve never seen its jet hair but I feel the inky colour stain my legs. I can never see it come daylight.

I smell them. It’s a sticky grey vapor, like congealed wet cement. Come night time, it starts hardening around me; poured into the fissures of my subconscious.

Do good dreams stand a chance?

I don’t think I’ll make it through another night.

I Won’t Sit In Grass But I’ll Eat It (‘long as it’s organic)

i just read the allegations against Bill Cosby. Three very famous women accused him of drugging and raping them.

What is the world we live in? Rape, trauma, globalization, elections, cheap burgers, expensive salads, two story planes, the ebola virus, acne medication, daddy’s credit cards, abandoned castles, automatic traffic lights, endless highways, and amidst all of these, people who don’t know where they’re going.

There’s something called nature deficit disorderIn case you didn’t know, it’s a disorder that affects children when they don’t get to spend enough down time with Mother Nature. What I don’t understand though, is why everyone is scrambling for reasons. The truth couldn’t be more in your face.

Children are growing up with digital companions. Where are the kids who found comfort in Meg and Jo’s hard working lives? Or the ones who spent every Sunday afternoon diving into the yellowed pages of the Famous Five’s adventures? When I was younger, I would take my little blanket, spread it out on the grass and spend hours just reading. Those were my winter mornings.

I remember I used to eat dirt. And plaster off of the walls. And chalk. Basically any powdery, chewy substances I could find. Laugh all you want, but I’m convinced they built up my immunity. I would throw it all up and go again. And thankfully, I have had no major illnesses. My mashed peas and carrots never came in plastic baggies labelled “STRICTLY ORGANIC PRODUCE!’ Because of course, if I ate anything else, I would have fallen prey to gastroenteritis and cancer and a violent disposition.

My play time included hours of garden time. To this day, I spend time under the lemon tree at the foot of my backyard. There’s nothing that compares to the smell of fresh dirt and sunshine.

If you find your children lying around in a lackluster fashion, drooling and tapping away on their tablets or phones, you know you have a problem. And all the organically expensively particularly grown vegetables won’t help you.

You can’t dance in the rain with a roof over your head. So be kind to the children and take away their gadgets!

Watermelon for breakfast

Today I had watermelon for breakfast.

I had eggs in the morning

– but that was a year ago.

Yellow omelette with green pepper flecks;

the ting of the toaster

the maid’s brown hands on the crusty bread.

Baba at the table:

two silver forks on his plate;

one waiting for me.

*

I flew 2000 miles

to eat watermelon for breakfast;

buried myself in a sea of paper.

I drink coffee as dark as ink

in the yellow mug that travelled with me.

– I chipped the rim last week

and the Badshahi Mosque has almost faded.

I might eat eggs for breakfast

on a Styrofoam plate with a plastic fork;

my mornings don’t have pinstriped shirts

or lingering aftershave-smell.

*

Baba, I miss eating from your plate.