dear children of diaspora, i am thinking of you these days
dear children of diaspora, i am thinking of you these days
Memory has a way of being deceptive. Each time I am back in Karachi, I find myself taken aback. Things are not how I expect them to be. Somehow in my memory, our home in Karachi is always a little bigger, our street a little wider. Maybe it’s because I was younger, smaller, and so the spaces seemed bigger. Or maybe things really are shrinking as this city grows and becomes more crowded.
It still hasn’t truly hit me that I’m back and I’m not sure how I feel about it. My surroundings are coming to me in bleary, hazy doses as I drift in and out of sleep. The weeks leading up to the move, and the journey here were exhausting. My body is still recovering and adjusting.
Karachi’s On the Map
One change that has altered Karachi-life is the introduction of Google Maps. My street did not used to have an “official” name. My honours thesis in university centred around this fact, on the lack of official names for streets and how people used landmarks and anecdotes to navigate the megacity and give directions. That has changed. There is a very large blue sign denoting the name of our street; i.e, the new official name. I think this probably has to do with Google Maps. The streets need to become navigable in a way that’s not just restricted to locals or dependant on local knowledge and directions. I can now look up directions on my phone to get to places in Karachi and this certainly makes the city less daunting and more accessible (although I’ve heard the traffic is atrocious). I wonder what we are losing though, with this introduction of Google Maps. An entire culture and way of navigating spaces has now changed.
The introduction of Google Maps has also allowed different ride sharing apps to thrive here. Uber has arrived. You can order a motorcycle and the driver will arrive with an extra helmet. There’s also an app called Careem app. It kind of works like Uber, except apparently it’s safer and the drivers are all directly trained and hired by the company. I’m excited to use it and review it. I’m also curious to observe the effects of such apps and technology on local businesses and every-day life. It has a way making you feel both safer and more exposed. Nonetheless, I think the Careem app may be a way for me to see the city independently.
The most I’ve seen of Karachi so far is the route from the airport to the house at 4 in the morning, and what I’ve observed from the roof. I’ve been getting aquatinted with the neighbourhood bird life. The racket the birds make in the morning is astounding, as if there are hundreds of birds shouting at each other. There is a rooster in our neighbourhood that crows incessantly all day and has made my jet-lagged sleep very difficult. No shortage of crows here, either. They are loud, clever and obnoxious. They have a sharpness and alertness to them that catches me off guard.
The mosquitoes and flies too have advanced survival instincts. Despite wearing full length pants, covering myself with bed sheets, and having the fan on full speed when I sleep, I still wake up with mosquito bites all over my arms, legs, stomach, back, and neck. I really don’t know how they get there. I’m determined to figure out a way to outsmart these mosquitoes.
I am looking forward to recovering from my jet lag so I can get into a routine. I really do feel different here. I feel more creative, and I can feel myself wanting to write creatively again. I have different ideas of what I want to do during my time here, but I’m a little afraid of going out and about on my own because my foreignness really sticks out like a sore thumb. Or maybe it doesn’t. I’ve lived here before. I should give myself some credit. Although it doesn’t help that I’ve been mentally converting rupees to dollars to understand how much something is. I just need to get out there and adjust. But first, I must get over this jet lag.
Stay tuned, more to come.
…It’s 12:40 AM and that rooster is crowing.
More than 130 children dead. Not just numbers, but names, children, lives, futures. Dead. How are the parents processing this? The children who survived this, lying in hospital beds with bullets in their bodies, visions of death and blood, of their screaming classmates flashing before them. How are they processing this?
When they return to school, there will be empty desks and missing teachers. The playground will be emptier. How will they pick up their pencils and their books and continue? How will they console each other? How does one proceed from here? How do we gather ourselves and continue to live? There is darkness all around.
Today, the world mourns with us. Tomorrow it will forget. But we won’t. We can’t. This isn’t just politics. These aren’t just numbers. These are entire lives ended forever. There will be families who will sit for dinner and think of those who will always be missing at the table. There will be notebooks and textbooks with names and doodles scrawled into them, never to be touched again. There will be uniforms hanging in the closet never to be worn again. There will be emptiness. There will be spaces filled with grief and pain rather than lives. There will be echoes of laughter and mischief, of ambitions and hopes – interrupted, halted – haunting their loved ones at every corner. There will be family photographs and school photos found in boxes and on walls and in the frames, and they will look back at us and remind us how the children once lived.
Here a few of their names. Say them out loud. Again. And again. And again. Let them sit heavy in your heart.
Saeed Ur Remham Shah
All The Rhetoric
On social media our profile pictures are turning black. We keep posting and posting and repeating words and articles. Because we do not know what else to do. We feel helpless. It is already too late. What can I do to show that I am so grieved and hurt and the tears can’t stop? What can I do to show that I am absolutely devastated? What can I do to show that I am livid with anger and horror? I want this to never have happened, but it has. And there’s no going back. And I can’t do anything. So let me offer my meagre words. Let me add more words to your outpour. Let me release the grief and pain and I will listen to your words and your grief and your pain and your anger. I will read your posts. We will discuss this again and again via texts and phone calls. We will embrace each other at vigils and stare into flickering candle flames. We will share our poems and quotes and pictures and hashtags. We will share our tears and anger. Because we need to do this. We need to vent our frustration and grapple for solutions. Let us come closer and console each other. All the rhetoric won’t bring them back. But perhaps speaking about this event in our different ways will help us wrap our heads around it. Perhaps it will help prevent future catastrophes. Speak about it. Say their names. Raise all hell. Be angry. Cry. Let all the pain out. Somehow, we will survive this.
written for my poetry workshop in the style of Nick Thran’s ‘A Working Reader’
In second grade at Ladner Elementary School, my teacher had a bookshelf of books arranged according to reading levels. There were the simple phonetic books that had more pictures than words, and then there were the chapter books that more advanced readers were encouraged to take home to read. It was 2001 and my family had just migrated to Canada. I was in ESL and I was put in the picture-book reading group.
The Junie B Jones chapter books were all the rage back in second grade. They had colourful covers and hardly stayed on the shelf. There was so much text on the pages. They felt so grownup.
I saw one of the books on the shelf—finally available. I picked it up. Mrs. Suki swooped in and looked at the book disapprovingly. “I don’t think you’re ready for those books”, she said. I put it back on the shelf. She directed me towards a picture book, humiliatingly simple. I felt small, and confused and wondered if I should be angry.
Few days later at the school library, I check out my first Junie B Jones chapter book. I like to think of it as an act of rebellion. There was a satisfying amount of text on the pages. Within months I had finished the entire collection of Junie B Jones in the library.
Take that Mrs. Suki.
The books I always return to are books in the Anne of Green Gables series. My cousin lent the first three in the series to me. The first time I read the first book, I understood perhaps half of it. Anne Shirley had a wild imagination and I liked her instantly. I was eight and still in ESL when I read them. They were a challenge, but somehow that didn’t matter. I didn’t feel like I needed to understand everything. I instantly liked the concept of kindred spirits. Lucy Maud Montgomery became a kindred spirit and her books had an almost religious appeal to me. The delicious appetite for beauty and nature in her books cultivated my own appetite and appreciation for beauty. I rejoice when I meet a kindred spirit and can recognize trees as friends. I discover that part of myself when I go back to these books. It feels like I’m surrounded by the beauty of wilderness, of the starry sky, of moonlit ocean waves, dewy forests, and branches budding with spring.
And this our life, exempt from human haunt,
Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,
Sermons in stones, and good in everything.
A week before my first day of university, I re-read Anne of the Island, in which Anne Shirley goes off to university. It fit.
It’s like that feeling when you’re searching for that poem that you really need to read, to satisfy this certain gnawing in your chest, and you can’t find that poem that puts it into the words you need, so you write that poem. Except, I often would find that poem. I would find that “poem” that I needed in the Anne of Green Gables series and the Emily of New Moon books.
I read Oliver Twist by Charles Dicken when I was eleven. It was extremely painful, yet I couldn’t put it down. It was dull and there were too many characters and the dialogue was difficult to follow. But for some reason I finished it. I think it has to do with continuing to rebel against Mrs. Suki. I eagerly took on books that looked difficult and suffered through them. I don’t remember ever abandoning books as a child, even if I didn’t like them or if didn’t understand them. I wonder why that is.
I don’t have the patience or the time to read what doesn’t interest me. This realization makes me kind of sad, but it is also a relief. I no longer feel like I have to read War and Peace. As if I have something to prove. I think I’ve already proven it.
Three Day Road by Joseph Boyden is the most recent book I’ve abandoned. I intend to go back to it. I also abandoned Anna Karenina. I also intend to read it. I don’t think I ever really abandon books fully.
I abandoned Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway during my first year of university. I had him has my creative writing 200 professor. Then last summer on a coach ride from Bristol to London I finished it. It was winter and the London streets were decked with lights and holiday fervor. Took me a year to read it. I think of cellists, Sarajevo and grief when I think of pulling into Victoria station my second time in London. My partner was reading Harry Potter and Philosopher’s Stone, which I had given him. That look on his face as he flipped through the pages intently. The story, the characters, that world, he was discovering it for the first time. There are books I wish I could forget and read all over again for the first time.
It’s interesting how memory can sort of meld everything together like the colours of the sun and sky burning together at sunset. Kind of like how a perfume can stir a specific memory of childhood, and you can’t really separate the childhood from the smell, and it’s all beautifully blended together, part of each other. That’s how I feel when I read Beverly Cleary to my little brother. He’s seven and he sees patterns everywhere. I want to have children and take them to the library and let them pick any book, no matter how fat and thick and pictureless it is, and watch them read it for the first time. I read Great Expectation a few weeks ago for a class. To my surprise I liked it. Robert Munsch and Roald Dahl are also kindred spirits.
I always feel like writing after reading a book or a poem. Because I have more to say. I feel like the world on the pages has blended with my world, and what I’ve read is now a part of me, and if I close the book, I won’t be separated from it. I have more to express because of this new growth in my world.
Rilke is another kindred spirit. He also gets it. Have a look at this excerpt from the Eight Elegy:
With all its eyes the natural world looks out
into the Open. Only our eyes are turned
backward, and surround plant, animal, child
like traps, as they emerge into their freedom.
We know what is really out there only from
the animal’s gaze; for we take the very young
child and force it around, so that it sees
objects—not the Open, which is so
deep on animals’ faces. Free from death.
I want to read more poems about the Open. I used to write a lot about the Open, trying to understand it, to access the thrill and mystery of it. It was easier when I was younger. I guess there’s been some sort of a movement against that type of exploration that has affected me—maybe not. But sometimes I feel embarrassed to share my fascination with spirituality—as someone who is fond of it, finds it very useful, and is not necessary critical of it. Being not critical of spiritualty feels like a fault somehow and it shouldn’t. I want to ACCEPT the Open rather than tear everything apart and criticize it and analyze it, which after two years of university education, I feel I ought to. I needn’t be suspicious of my own truths. Cynicism is exhausting and it makes me grumpy.
I like that Rilke is unflinchingly open about exploring the Open in his poetry. I would like to read more modern poets who are. I have a collection of poems called Nonexistent Poem & Songs of Love written in the style of Sufi poetry. Sometimes I find phrases that make the whole poem it for me.
Many of Kamila Shamsie’s books take place in Karachi. When I discovered her books, I felt that relief—the momentary fulfillment of hunger for stories of Karachi, of my stories. A quote from Broken Verses:
“Don’t you know how much I hero-worshiped you when I was a kid? You were Marie Curie crossed with Emily Bronte crossed with Joan of Arc to me when I was ten. And when I told you that, you said my cultural references were the sign of a colonized mind.”
What often makes a poem great is that one line that just perfectly says it, exactly how you could never had said it and you feel so excited and relieved to have it recognized by another, and pinned down so perfectly on the page for you to marvel at. That one line can make the poem.
Reading feels like an exercise in accepting what is before me. Writing feels like a search to give it a name. Writing feels like a prayer. A prayer and a memory and words and a childhood rebellion and smell of chai in Karachi and holiday lights in London streets and eating apples as Jo March wrote her novel and Price Edward Island and looking out from Green Gables and Hafiz and Ghalib and listening to ghazals and finding kindred spirits in coffee shops and all of it melding together into one till you can’t separate them any longer.
I had a meeting with my poetry workshop instructor a few days ago and we talked about all the poems I’ve been working on for the workshop. She is a beautiful, insightful human being who approaches my work with so much respect and sincerity that I can’t help but believe in myself, in my words, in my capability as a poet. It is what I need. To believe that there is something unique within me that is worth telling, worth creating, and worth sharing.
She made me realize that I need to be unafraid of putting more of myself in my poetry. Of exploring my background, my experiences, my approach to life.
She suggested I take a theme and work with it, write smaller poems, a collection, explore different aspects of my experiences, my childhood, my obsessions, my histories. They don’t necessarily have to be about me, but need to be rooted within me, have a strong sense of where they are coming from and why they are being written.
I want to explore the political, the spiritual, and personal in my poetry. It is a difficult mixture, but I know it’s all connected in the way I approach the world around me.
There are memories of Pakistan, of childhood, of immigration, of longing, of being lost, of anger, of love, of discovery and of wonder. I have so many questions and fears and so many unresolved experiences to look back to. I will craft them. I will bead them into a thread gently and sincerely. I will relive. I will go back and go forward and look within. I am realizing how much more bravery it takes to write a poem that is closer to the heart, that is honest, than a poem that is merely written to play around with words for effect.
I will write ghazals and I will talk about wearing shalwar kameez on the skytrain. I will talk about the time I tried to reread the letter I had written in Urdu only to realize that I no longer could.
There is a quote from Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet that comes to mind. Rilke is a kindred spirit. He gets it. He puts to word what I didn’t even realize I was trying to say, and yet I really needed it to be said.
Write about what your everyday life offers you; describe your sorrows and desires, the thoughts that pass through your mind and your belief in some kind of beauty – describe all these with heartfelt, silent, humble sincerity and, when you express yourself, use the Things around you, the images from your dreams, and the objects that you remember. If your everyday life seems poor, don’t blame it; blame yourself; admit to yourself that you are not enough of a poet to call forth its riches; because for the creator there is not poverty and no poor, indifferent place. And even if you found yourself in some prison, whose walls let in none of the world’s sounds – wouldn’t you still have your childhood, that jewel beyond all price, that treasure house of memories?
You were born of the deserts
with dates between your lips
and desert dune air brushing your lashes.
You watch the sun dip behind the minarets and domes
and let the azaan awash your skin with the pricks of divinity
when the pigeons fluttered in a rush with the haunting call
of the day’s end.
You see the end of a symphony from the
The butcher pulls down the store window
And your neighbour’s forgotten laundry flutters,
the sun slipping away from its embrace of the clay walls.
And the fruit seller wheels back home.
The boys and girls in creased uniforms skip home.
Closing windows and doors, and skies
shifting, as if the night sky had turned from its
slumber, taking over the watch from the sun.
Awake and crisp the night will shine soon.
The minarets are pillars upholding the sky.
His voice has reached out and touched the stars.
This moment is a welcoming and a good-bye,
a closing in and an opening out.
Tonight, you will traverse the cosmos from behind your eyes.
The word ‘maghrib’ has multiple meanings. It means west. It means sunset. It is also the fourth prayer of the day that Muslims perform at sunset. This particular poem was composed during maghrib time in Karachi.