In my mother’s kitchen, you’ll find a jar of spiced lemon rinds and spices brining in vinegar on the windowsill. Homemade achar, a South Asian style of pickled preserves. When I’m away from home, the dish I miss the most is achari dal, yellow lentils stewed with achar and topped with tempered spices and caramelized onions. I’ve recreated it often in my own kitchens throughout the years, but its magic and comfort can only be fully felt if it’s made by my mother’s hands and eaten in my childhood home.
When given the chance to define my “fromness” on my own terms, my first instinct is to turn to memories and sensations that ground me, ones akin to eating achari dal.
I drum up a list of comforts, like watching my mom wrap herself in a sari, creating ebbs and flows of pleated silk that cling faithfully to her hip. Or discomforts that in retrospect become comforts: the smelly lunch boxes, double lives, and getting waxed for the first time by an aunty in her kitchen. I feel in my knitting of these images, I’ve manufactured myself for mass consumption like a walking talking sequel to Bend it Like Beckham. My thesis perpetuates the tired mantra: too American for Pakistan and too Pakistani for America, and somewhere in the middle, lies my identity.
I come back to the question: But where are you really from? I ask myself: what does “from” even mean? My mind spirals before I turn to Google:
Maybe my fromness doesn’t originate solely in what grounds me, but also in what propels me. I feel like I’ve gotten closer, but I still draw blanks while the cursor keeps time. I do what all writers do in times of struggle: procrastinate. I escape into my online Urdu course to harvest new knowledge and write down two words.
Patta and pata.
Almost identical phonetically, these words differ only in the doubling of the t sound, rendering the former leaf and the latter address. I smile at this subtlety and how I’ll inevitably screw it up. I imagine myself holding a leaf and declaring: “This is where I live!” High off of the ticklish pleasure of discovering the quirks of a language, I return to the question and this time write it in Urdu:
آپ کہاں سے ہیں
Aap kahan se hein?
My hand moves from right to left across the page as I scribe the letters. No matter how carefully I write, my handwriting looks like it belongs to a 5-year-old. I guess that’s fitting, given that I’m one of those American-born kids of Pakistani immigrants who can understand Urdu fluently, but stumbles in reading, speaking, and writing. I haven’t earned my stripes when it comes to having experienced handwriting.
Like a dog on a leash, my mini Urdu lesson tugs me towards a realization. It’s from here where I am propelled. Here, in the folds of Urdu, is the space that started my journey. Urdu – a language rooted in Sanskrit and influenced heavily by Arabic, Farsi, and Turkish – is what I was raised in, what comforts me when I’m ill, or scolds me when I’m out of line. It’s in Urdu’s excavations of the emotional spectrum where I learn the depths of love and grief, an ache so great, we refer to our loved ones as jigar – my liver – or jaan – my whole soul.
And that’s just in everyday, colloquial, pass-the-salt kind of Urdu. There’s the Urdu of literature that ignites the synesthetic power of music and poetry, whether through the tidal wave of qawwali or the coaxing flame of the ghazal. I move through childhood chasing this high, devouring my parents’ CD collection, and getting lost in the cadence of Urdu bolstered by the reverberations of harmoniums, tablas, and sarangis. I rarely have any grasp of the poetry’s meaning, but I feel its truth in my bones. The songs that captivate me most are poems written by Urdu poet, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, famous for his ability to wield Urdu into a vehicle that inspires revolutionary fervor.
In 1986, two years after Faiz’s death, Pakistani songstress Iqbal Bano immortalizes his poem, Hum Dekhenge, through a thunderous musical rendition. With the backdrop of General Zia ul-Haq’s brutal dictatorship, she stands before a crowd of 50,000 in a stadium in Lahore, dressed in black – the color of protest – and a sari, a garment banned and deemed by the regime as “un-Islamic.”
She sings for 11 minutes and 37 seconds, her melody bolstered by the rhythm of the tabla and the melancholy of the sarangi. Iqbal Bano’s husky voice breathes life into Faiz’s words. Together, they subversively employ Islamic imagery – imagery co-opted by Zia ul-Haq’s rule – and transform the Day of Reckoning into the Day of Revolution. Together, they paint a picture in precise detail of the day when the mountains of oppression wisp away like tufts of cotton. She pauses several times to make space for the enlivened roars of the crowd. They erupt in unison midway through the song: Inquilab Zindabad! Long live revolution! Immediately after the performance, the police undertake a campaign to destroy all audio recordings of the seditious performance. One copy of the recording is smuggled to Dubai from where it gets widely distributed, becoming an anthem of protest across the Indian subcontinent.
In my university years, I find home in my Arabic and Farsi classrooms, arriving with a small headstart bolstered by my grandmother’s childhood Qur’an lessons. The letters, sounds, and rules of how the script flows all come back to me naturally.
My eyes embrace the return of moving from right to left across the page. I bump into words I recognize, words that also live in Urdu. The delight of the interlibrary loan system of these languages is like running into an old friend over and over again. Both Arabic and Farsi teach my heart new ways to bleed. In Farsi, to tell someone you miss them, you have options: “My heart has tightened,” or “Your space is empty.” Pick your poem, it beckons.
In 2017, I uproot and repot myself in Palestine for a job with an aid agency in Gaza. For nearly five years, I immerse myself in a fractured land scarred with concrete walls and checkpoints. I soak up terraced hillsides, silver-hued olive groves, and the technicolor sunsets of the Mediterranean. I ache from the whiplash of Palestine’s maddening dichotomy: a gorgeous mosaic of nature, language, and culture studded incessantly by the brutality of colonialism.
Spending time in Palestine is like visiting a friend with a terminal illness: you savor the love, while baring your teeth through the pain of disappearance.
In Palestine, I learn more about Faiz’s life and work and discover that he spent his exile in Beirut where he develops a friendship with Palestinian poet laureate, Mahmoud Darwish. My imagination blossoms at the thought of the two of them exchanging ideas. I envision them walking along the Mediterranean, hands folded neatly behind their backs. They translate their poetry for one another, wielding scalpels to language that reveal and heal. I wonder if they, too, delight in the uncovering of words shared by both their languages.
In May 2021, war erupts and unearths ghosts of intifadas past. Protests against the forced displacement and dispossession of Palestinians from the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah boil over. The Israeli forces storm Al Aqsa in the old city of Jerusalem and barrage Palestinian worshippers with tear gas and rubber-coated bullets. In response to the violence in Al Aqsa, Hamas fires a rocket from the Gaza Strip that lands outside of Jerusalem. At this moment, I am in Ramallah standing outside my house when I hear a boom, and then another, in the distance. I look to the sky with a naive hope, knowing deep down that it will be cloudless.
Several years in Gaza has trained my ear to discern the difference between thunder and an explosion.
A few hours later, the Israeli forces initiate a brutal eleven-day aerial bombing campaign on the Gaza Strip that murders children, levels high rise residences, and assassinates doctors. I bear witness to the trauma through distressed messages from Gaza. My friend reaches out, yearning for someone to listen. He tells me his neighbor’s house has been reduced to rubble. “I can smell flesh in the air,” he writes in a text. I grasp for whatever semblance of comfort I can offer. “Just remember to keep breathing,” I reply, feeling foolish.
Those eleven days sear a hole in my soul. Intense helplessness manifests in sleepless nights, tense muscles, and shallow breaths. Grief and fury bury my tears, leaving me without an outlet to release.
Those eleven days teach me that even in collective trauma, there is an immense loneliness.
I retreat to my bedroom exhausted. Knowing that sleep is beyond my grasp, I reach for my headphones and press play on a playlist of Urdu songs that I’ve named achari dal. The sarangi begins its violinic lament. The tabla canters in, leaving its hoof prints on my heart. Iqbal Bano enters:
|Hum Dekhenge, Hum Dekhenge
Wo din ke jis ka wada hai
Jo lauh-e-azl mein likha hai, Hum Dekhenge
Hum bhi dekhenge, Hum bhi dekhenge
Jab zulm-o-sitam ke koh-e-garan
Rooi ki tarha ur jaenge,
Hum mehkoomon ke paaon tale
Ye dharti dhar dhar dharkegi
Aur ahl-e-hakam ke sar oopar
Jab bijli kar kar karkegi
Hum Dekhenge, Hum Dekhenge
|We shall see, we shall see
The day that has been promised
That is etched in the tablet of eternity
We shall see. We too shall see
When the mountains of tyranny and cruelty
Will wisp away like tufts of cotton
We shall see
Under the feet of we the ruled
The earth will quake like a thunderous heartbeat.
And upon the heads of the rulers
Bolts of crackling, crashing lightning will strike.
We shall see, We shall see.
The slightest creation of expansion emerges in my lungs as my sinuses sting with the arrival of long lost tears. As if hearing it for the first time, I realize what this poem really is: a promise. A cosmic promise that injustice doesn’t go unnoticed, and that pain doesn’t go unheard. Within this realization sparkles the slightest glimmer of hope, the kind of hope that only a restoration of faith can bring about.
The drums of war are overpowered by the heartbeat of resistance as I take stock of the moment.
Palestinians across Palestine take to the streets in protest against their occupier in a beautiful display of unity. Palestinian refugees in Lebanon and Jordan march to the border in a sweeping reminder of their right of return. Footage of protests from New York to Karachi to Tokyo fill my newsfeed in an unprecedented, staggering show of worldwide solidarity with the Palestinian cause. Throughout these scenes, I hear the roar of the crowd in that stadium in Lahore 35 years ago, their chants of Inquilab Zindabad echoing across time and space.
My time in Palestine lives in me in ways I have yet to fully know. One thing I am certain of is that Palestine nurtures a certain strain of love, a spiritual love that exists in its own category. A love that inspires poetry. A love for being on the side of truth. A love for rootedness to land and ancestors. A love to uphold generosity of spirit, even when the world returns pittances. Even when the world returns missiles.
I am often asked what brought me to Palestine in the first place. “Language,” I reply, starting my story.
It’s been five months since I’ve left Palestine and returned to my New Jersey hometown. Still a foreigner, still on stolen land. I visit the Watchung Reservation, recalling the school trips we would take here to learn a watered down history of the Lenape people. Lenape, we learned, translates roughly to “original people.” It is autumn here in the land of the original people and the trees are ablaze. Jewel toned leaves sparkle with dew drops on the forest floor. The sight reminds me of a line penned by Mahmoud Darwish:
If the olive trees knew the hands that planted them, their oil would become tears.
I think of the disturbing fact that Urdu is dying a slow death. I hear that these days in Pakistan, it’s not stylish to speak Urdu, and schools are taught almost fully in English. And here in the diaspora, Urdu’s wingspan is cramped in spaces like Ubers or the hole-in-the-wall kebab shop. I realize I take for granted the bond between home and Urdu. Preservation requires contribution.
The words of my writing mentor come to my mind: Language is a form of biodiversity. When it gets erased, so does its memory.
I pick up a leaf from the reservation and return home, taping it onto a fresh page of my journal. On the opposite page I write Lesson One and draw a single vertical line, the first letter of the Urdu alphabet. The letter where Arabic and Farsi also begin. I’ve been here before, a feeling akin to the butterflies of new romance. In my case, a rekindled romance. I click the speaker icon and listen to the robotic voice articulate the name of the letter. I repeat after her:
Originally commissioned/published as part of T A P E Collective’s But Where Are You Really From? season.
Anam is a writer and social & economic justice activist. Most recently, she spent 5 years in Palestine where she led coding bootcamps in Gaza and the West Bank, enabling Palestinians access and space within the global tech industry. She has since returned to the States and is writing creatively to explore identity through the lenses of self, memory, belonging, nature, spirituality, love, South Asia, and Palestine. She is a first generation American and the youngest daughter of Pakistani immigrants. IG: @rhm.nm Twitter: @rhm_nm