A few months ago, shortly after it had become certain who was going to be the next American president, my husband sighed, “Well, there goes the doctorate.”
Even though we’re Canadian citizens, Hums’ PhD dreams have long lurked around the small streets and big name institutions of Boston’s academic hub. “No, no, of course you can still go for it! Don’t be silly!” I laughed it off then because laughing in the face of the incumbent president’s aspirations seemed far, far more reasonable than laughing off my husband’s. And also, because, I knew that marrying me had clearly given Hums something of mine. The itch underfoot. The desire to always go somewhere.
But fast forward a few months, and it is clear we are living in a strange new world, in what feels like some dark dystopian novel, where every chapter brings a new twist and cliffhangers abound. Doctorates in America seem not just out of reach but also suddenly distasteful. What?! – go there, spend our hard earned money there, leave our parents and community for the possible hatred we might encounter there? America is suddenly referred to in shadowy, vague terms, a stark departure from the golden, glowing, land of endless dreams type terminology previously encountered in our social circles. Going, there or in fact, anywhere, seems foolish. In times of uncertainty, holding on to what already is seems far more prudent, wiser than looking for gold elsewhere.
A few weeks before we got married, over eleven years ago, I remember remarking quite loftily to my soon to be husband: “I am a citizen of the world.” (When you’re in your early 20s, freshly graduated from a liberal arts university and a pretty left-leaning development degree, this is exactly the kind of grandiose, blissfully naïve statements you are bound to make.) And wasn’t it a true one, I pressed, when encountering his slightly raised eyebrow? He was just a Pakistani. I was a Canadian citizen by birth, raised in the Middle East till high school, and now, with my newly minted education and the accompanying blue passport, out to travel and subsequently, save the world and all those in it. I had no intention of living in backwards, crime ridden, junky ol’ Pakistan. I wanted to always be on the go. And since, a relatively cushy Middle Eastern life had exposed me to many things American, lovely, inspiring, artistic things, living and working in the U.S. in the near future was definitely on the bucket list.
We got married and left for Canada to pursue Hums’ citizenship and Masters. A few years later, with a son on the spectrum and pregnant with a second baby, the Canadian job market tanked. Hums new Masters degree left him horribly overqualified for whatever was available and we were newly floundering in the bewildering world of autism with government support at least three years away. Canada was untenable. We left for Dubai. Five years passed in a blur of Hums working around the clock, more babies and rising costs. When the landlord handed us the end of our lease and the revised terms of the tenancy agreement should we wish to stay on, we looked at the out of budget figures and looked at each other. Another move was on the cards. Understandable. After all, I have itchy feet.
But now, we’re in Pakistan. “Backward, junky ol’ Pakistan.” The place I never thought I would call home. Pakistan was a place to visit over summer. A place of sweltering heat and juicy mangoes, of evenings of cousins and conversations on the rooftop, a place of fun and family certainly, but because of security concerns, I’ve always felt nervous here. And because of a more international sensibility, a little out of place too. Pakistan, home? I am unsure.
What is home, anyway? Only a fellow “expat – brat” will understand how laden this question can be, has become, for me, over the years.
If home is where the heart is, is home for me Jeddah? I was born there and lived there for 19 years of my life. Memories of best friends and long phone calls, a healthy, laughing, twinkly eyed Baba who always smelled like what I assume heaven smells like and who had coined the itchy feet descriptor for us, Ramadan evenings in our living room, nights in Makkah – sitting on the cool marble under the inky black sky as the Isha’a azaan echoed around me and inside me. That was home, right? Except… not having Saudi citizenship means I can’t really enter Jeddah at will anymore.
Or is home Canada? Where, the very minute I landed there I’d felt an astounding familiarity. I remember, standing under the August sun, at the bus stop inside York University, looking at the lush green grass, the crowds of students, the iced-cappuccino in my hand, and feeling like I’d always been there. Safe. Inspired. Welcomed. This was belonging, I thought to myself. Except…with aging, unwell parents, now it feels too far.
And, what about America? One time, over the internet, some one snidely called me an American wannabe. She meant it meanly and my friends jumped to my defense too, but it didn’t hurt my feelings at all. In fact, I found it amusing that she would think it might. I’ve never hid my respect for how profoundly American culture has influenced my life and continues to do so. I am a lover of children’s literature – 90% of the picture books on my shelves are written, illustrated and published by Americans. I obsess over home decor and education blogs – all of the ones I follow are by American bloggers. Etsy and Amazon are my favorite places to shop. I love Facebook and Google. On Instagram, I follow about 30 illustrators, nearly all American. I read the New York Times, The Atlantic, Brain Pickings daily. Friends, Breaking Bad, Suits, How I Met Your Mother in more recent years, but Alf, Punky Brewster, Small Wonder and Full House previously provided me hours of (American) entertainment. My notions about homeschooling and teaching children have been formed by Alfie Kohn, Jim Trelease, John Holt, Tom Hobson. My writing has been cultivated by my favorite modern writers, too many to list, but all American. America has long been an intellectual home for me. A theoretical retreat and inspirational haven for my ideas, my thoughts, my creativity.
I think I’d always assumed that itchy feet would eventually lead me to America. Has what the new administration unleashed in recent weeks finally taken care of that urge – one which I had assumed was an integral part of me?
Surprisingly, there isn’t any sense of loss. Because we’re busy setting up house in Pakistan. We are painting our doors bright blue. And setting up our vintage toaster. We’re figuring out where to place the couch and exactly how to make sure all the kids sleep in their room so that after eight years, it will finally just be Hums and I in our bed. Because Beti remarked that it doesn’t look quite beautiful just yet, we decide to paint some pink and purple hearts for her room. Beta wants a blue blanket so I sew a bright navy polka dot print as his quilt backing. Birdy is scared of the little red light that flickers on the air-conditioner’s power button, so this afternoon’s activity is that we are going to put some washi tape on it together.
And that is the little trick life does, doesn’t it? When you get busy with it, being in it under the privilege of safety and security, all these questions of home and politics and belonging fade away for a bit. That fading is what reminds you precisely how blessed you are. That you can muse over these things, these things that people are dying and starving and immigrating and escaping war for, from the staying comfort of your couch and your laptop. That it is incumbent on you that you hang on to this comfort, this peace, with gratitude and for dear life because it can be snatched away without a moment’s notice. Everything you have and everything you know can change in an instant. It is staggering and it is sobering but it is essential to always remember. I know this to be as true as day.
Perhaps questions of home as a Canadian-Pakistani-Middle Eastern expat will always remain with me. Maybe that’s the (small) price of being a “citizen of the world”. Maybe as Muslims, this is what being like a traveller in this world entails. In any case, longing to belong is a universal one and sometimes I feel like I haven’t exactly found where I belong yet. But seeing what I see unfolding across the world on a daily basis, I know how lucky I am to be able to ponder over that.
And so I write. I play with my kids. I make a new quilt. I get some dahi puri chaat delivered to my doorstep. I stay in the moment. I stay.
When multiple bombs explode across Pakistan, including one at a Sufi shrine and nearly 100 people die in one week, for a minute, I feel that familiar itch on the feet. The desire to run. To go. Somewhere else.
But it passes quickly.
The blessings in my life are far too many to deny.
When I see my kids sprawled on our as-yet bare living room floor, watching a Brain Pop video on why we should visit the dentist regularly, listening to Hums in the other room sing a ghazal while he dresses, my heart feels a settling and something in me whispers, for better or worse, for a little while or a long while, “home.” I am awash with gratitude.
May I stay to this feeling and hang on to this comfort as long as it is afforded to me by His Will. Ameen.
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Hiba Masood is a storyteller and an educator. You can read more of and about her work on her page www.facebook.com/etdramamama.