“What shall I take with me when I return home after so many years?” wrote Shabbir. He died before he could return. He jumped from a bridge into the Potomac and had sailed to another world before they brought him out.
And what he called ‘home’ was not his home. Shabbir had no home. He was born in America but his parents always wanted him to believe Pakistan was home. His heart told him otherwise, but his parents forced him to deny his heart and it killed him.
Shabbir’s father arranged my first meeting with him several years ago, when he found out that his son wanted to marry a Sikh girl, instead of ‘someone back home.’
When I met Shabbir, he was able to convince me, so I left without asking him not to marry his Sikh girlfriend. However, they did not marry. Her parents were against the marriage too and she did not have the courage to defy them. So she left Shabbir.
When I met him again, Shabbir was deeply under his father’s influence: saying prayers five times a day, no girlfriends, no alcohol. But he also had a strong sense of guilt for doing all these in the past. So I knew he will have a relapse.
I tried to argue with his father not to instil this guilt in him but he did not understand me. So one day Shabbir rebelled. Then I heard from some friends that Shabbir had become a drug addict. I met him. He was no addict. He was not a rebel either. He was an ordinary American kid who wanted to live like most Americans do.
His father did not understand him. He also did not understand why having fun was so important for his son. “We did not have this kind of fun back home,” he argued.
He told me that they had only one TV in the entire village and no cricket ground. He and his siblings grew up in dusty, dirty streets. “But we had a sense of purpose. We wanted to do something for our family,” he said.
Shabbir did not understand why it was important to have an extended family. He wanted to live for himself, “not for 500 relatives back home.”
I asked Shabbir if he was having problems with his father. “Yes, plenty,” he said. “My father needs to understand this is not a Punjabi village. This is Washington, DC, the capital of the United States of America.” He paused and then said: “My father should know I am not an FOB (freshly off the boat). I was born here. I am an American.”
American he was but his father turned him into an ABCD, an American born confused desi. The tussle between the father and the son continued. And neither side was willing to give the other any breathing space.
Once, a Muslim scholar came to town on the moon night, the night before Eid. His father wanted to take Shabbir to the scholar’s lecture. Shabbir had other plans. So they had a huge fight. Shabbir did not spend the Eid with his family.
Meanwhile, his father’s niece was growing up fast in the village. Her parents wanted an answer: yes or no. So one day his father told Shabbir to get ready. “We are going back to the village to find a bride for you,” he said.
“Me, marrying a village girl from Punjab?” asked Shabbir. “No way, not me.”
“Yes, you. Even your father will have to say yes,” said the father, using a Punjabi proverb.
“OK, then. Let my father marry her,” Shabbir said. The father slapped him across his face. The slap broke something inside Shabbir. He never recovered from the shock.
He left home. I never met him again but kept hearing bits and pieces from others: he is back with his family, he left again, he is living with a girl, he has become an addict again, he has reformed, goes to mosque five times a day, etc.
And then one day, I read a small news item in a Pakistani newspaper: “Young man jumps into the Potomac.” I put down the cup of tea I was holding and cried. But I also understood why Shabbir had to do it.
His father did not. “What did I do wrong?” he asked everybody at the funeral. “Nothing,” his friends said. “You did what a father should.” He asked me too. I did not answer. I did not want to.
I went to the funeral, saw his smiling face and said to him, in a fake British accent that he always found funny, “rest in peace, mate.”
I returned without saying goodbye to his father.
When driving home, I recalled a conversation I had with his father when Shabbir was in his religious phase and his father loved to show off how good a Muslim his son was.
“What will you do if your son turns into a rebel?” the father asked me.”
“I will let him be. After all, it is his life,” I said. The father looked at me hard and said: “I know you would. Someone was telling me that you said you will keep your child home even if he becomes a gay.”
“Yes, it will remain his home, gay or no gay,” I said. “You liberals,” he said and then cursed me. “I will slaughter him with these hands if my son becomes a gay,” he added.
“I will not be happy either if my son becomes gay,” I said. “But I will still hug him and take him home with me. And I will always love him.”
As I moved away from their car, Shabbir came to me and asked: “Do they still make fathers like you in Pakistan?”
“They call me sissy,” I said. He squeezed my hand and said: “Uncle, if this is being sissy, please stay one.” Shabbir’s death ended my contact with his family. But I often thought about him. Last night, while driving by the Potomac, a friend pointed at a bridge and said: “This is the bridge Shabbir jumped from.”
I looked back and saw the silhouette of a young man, bending over the fence. He waved at me and swam back into the river. The moon was big and bright but had a reddish shade. The wind passed gently through the leaves, unsettling them a little. The waves of the Potomac covered my grief.
I returned home and searched my e-mail. I found a little message Shabbir had sent me before one of his visits to Pakistan: “What shall I take with me when I return home after so many years?” he asked.
I remember reading somewhere that a man received a Facebook message from a dead friend. I knew this was not true but I posted Shabbir’s message anyway. He did not write to me but others did.
“Bring your heart,” commented a friend, Sue Thompson, not knowing that the message was from a dead man. “Bring the commitment that you will not bear the brunt of estrangement alone,” wrote Murad Ali Khan. “Come full of smile and love,” said Iftikhar Ifti. Another friend, Ali Arman, warned: “Don’t come with raised expectations because things have changed. People have changed.” “Do not expect people to return your favours,” wrote Ramanuj Ghosh. “Bring your sanity,” wrote Gibran Syed. “Come with honesty, peace and common sense,” advised M. Ismail Khan. “Take a fresh mind and some boxes of chocolates with you,” wrote Orna Wiseman. “A gun and plenty of dollars,” said Taz Khan. “Good wishes and prayers for the motherland,” wrote Saeed Rana. “If I could, I would give you Hawaiian lei made of sweetly fragrant leaves to wear on the long flight,” wrote Carolyn Lee. “You take yourself and nothing else, because everything else will be provided for,” wrote Shihoko Goto.
All sound advises and sincere wishes. But I want to quote here a Persian poem that I know Shabbir would have loved:
“I want to return with a message of love, I want to return to pour light into your veins. And cry out: ‘O those whose baskets are full of sleep, I brought you an apple, red like the sun,” wrote poet Sohrab Sepehri.
“I want to bring flowers for the beggar, gift earrings to the pretty leper woman of my old neighbourhood. I want to share the beauty of the garden with the blind.”
“I want to be a peddler, peddling through streets, shouting: ‘Dew, I brought dew for you.”
“And when the passer-by says: ‘How dark is the night,’ I will gift her the milky way. Put a constellation of stars around the neck of the legless girl on the bridge near my old home.”
“And those who curse others, I want to grow flowers on their lips.
Wherever there is a wall of separation, I want to tear it down.”
Commentary from MM Writers:
I found this column to be very moving and poignant. Some might find the writing choppy but it appears to me that it was by design. The story-line developed slowly and let the readers immerse themselves within it.There were many truths in this story. There are far too many kids in America (and elsewhere in the West) like Shabbir, whose minds are torn between two worlds. They were not raised in Pakistan and don’t relate to Pakistanis completely, but they are not allowed to be Americans either. The identity crisis becomes firmly lodged in their psyche leaving them neither here or there.Integration and providing the feeling of “home” does not obviously mean that kids can do whatever they want. They cannot drink, they cannot date, they cannot marry non ahl-kitaab. But I wonder if instead of embedding Pakistan in Shabbir’s (or any other like Shabbir) heart, had the father embedded Islam within the American context, perhaps the results would have been different. Wallahualam.
While the article did a great job bringing to life the ongoing culture / identity crisis faced by some immigrant Muslims and their second generation children, it also appeared to use these tensions to both justify and approve of Shabbir’s suicide as acceptable behavior. Perhaps the most appalling quote from the piece was the author’s own words, “I understood why he had to do it” (emphasis mine), as though the whole episode was some cheap Bollywood drama.
When discussing these problems, it is downright irresponsible to write pieces that communicate to those struggling that it’s ok continue wallowing in victimhood and romanticize the suicide of the “tragic hero”. I would expect a piece from a Muslim reflecting on suicide would first remind others going through a similar situation that suicide is not the only option, and in fact, it is not one at all.
Instead, it should be a time to remind the audience, and those still alive dealing with these struggles that they should persevere and turn to Allah for guidance, and to know that Allah will answer their du’as, that they should take the means to help themselves through counseling and therapy if necessary, and that there are resources aplenty in the Western world for helping cope with emotional difficulties.