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Question 72


Jaba was a “halwai” or sweet-maker in his family owned restaurant.  I knew him through my cousin who is a waiter there and visit from time to time.  I get the plain chickpeas mixed with boiled potatoes.  That isn’t an item on their menu but garnish for their famous “Dhaibara” which is made of chick peas, potatoes, yoghurt, and bread crumbs all mashed into one container.  Of course South Asian food wouldn’t be notorious wihtout a spice or two, so it is also topped off with red chili and jalapenos.  My tongue can’t handle spicy food, and as a vegan don’t consume any dairy, so I always take the plain peas and potatoes.

This was Jaba’s sixth year in the States.  He had been sponsored by his uncle who was the owner of the restaurant.  The best employee a business owner can have is someone trustworthy and willing to take salary under the table.  Jaba fit that profile perfectly.  A dream come true for him and his Uncle.  Jaba was a legal resident in the U.S.  He also knew that I was a certified teacher and every time I came into his restaurant, he would be in the back corner and beckon me over.  If he wasn’t in the back corner at the desk, then he would be in the kitchen.

American Citizenship Interview Practice Test” read the booklet in front of Jaba on his desk.  He requested that I prepare him as he had a week to go till the test.  I obliged.  Jaba did not speak a word of English.  He didn’t go to school in the States neither in his native Pakistan.  I loved challenges, and thought it would be a feat to “Americanize” an uneducated “halwai” from Pakistan.  All he had to do was pass the test and voila! An American citizen!  Out of the 100 questions that I asked him he got three wrong.  On the actual test he would get 10 random questions out of those 100, of which he must get at least 6 correct to pass.  He was nervous about the test even though it seemed as if he’d pass.

I asked question 3 from the booklet, “What do the stripes of the flag mean?” He stared at me for 5 seconds and with a smirk said “50 states?”  I shook my head.  Then he recalled, “oh, oh, han(yes in Urdu), 13 colonies.”  I asked question 72, “What is freedom of religion?” And like a robot with a thick Indian accent he answered, “You can practice any religion, or not practice a religion.”  It was ironic that he didn’t understand 95% of what he was answering, especially question 72.

In the majority of the Muslim countries like Pakistan, children, usually at 4-5 years old, are sent to their local mosque to learn the Quran.  Well, the word “learn” would be an overstatement here.  The imams of the mosques are staunch to have the next generation of kids memorize the Arabic verses and quick to physically punish them for slight screw-ups.  Many of the kids go on to attain the title of “hafiz”, one who memorizes all of the Quran.  A title much too glorified in the the Muslim world.  The majority of these children then adapt memorization as their only tool to read literature, be it biology, social studies, English etc.  Their minds become trained to read foreign literature without understanding it.

So Jaba could only memorize the whole test.  That’s the only way his mind could scrutinize the English text.  Other than making sweets in the kitchen, he would pray each of the five prayers at the mosque two blocks away.  According to him, he wouldn’t be a “true Muslim” if he didn’t do so, and only as a Muslim can one make it to heaven.

The day before the exam I was sitting in front of him with the practice test and this time he messed up on one question only.  The rest he had memorized completely.  He asked me, “so you think I’ll pass?” I said “yep, no doubt, there’s no reason to worry” in Urdu.  All that memorization he did as a child under some imam was going to pay-off.  He was going to memorize his way to becoming American.

I couldn’t have seen him happier the next day at the restaurant.  He had passed the test.  His father was happier than Jaba himself as he told all his friends “Mera beta citizen ban gaya.” Urdu for “my son has become an American.”  Jaba was now an American.  An…”American.”  This 29 year old couldn’t read an American word bigger than 4 letters, couldn’t speak Amercan, in fact he didn’t want to speak American, but legally became American.

Jaba had a sore throat a few weeks later.  He was taking all sorts of medicine but nothing was restoring his ailment.  I recommended he drink chicken noodle soup, which he had never heard of before.  He had no idea where the closest Chinese restaurant was either since his daily route was house to work, work to mosque, and back home.  We headed to the nearby Chinese restaurant.  It was cold outside and Jaba had wrapped his whole face with a scarf that looked like it was from Pakistan.  Only his eyes were bulging out of the gap in the scarf on his face.  I heard him mumble something from under the towel but couldn’t fathom.  We reached there and I ordered for him.

He sat in front of me with the hot chicken noodle soup that he had never tasted before.  He took one sip, two, three.  As the chicken broth went down his throat he felt soothed.  With the spoon in his mouth he showed me a thumbs up.  “Wow, this really does bring ease.”  I just sat there, nodding slowly.  He said “why don’t you get something?” Again, as a vegan there wasn’t much for me here other than the rice and steamed vegetables.  They had a vegetarian menu as well and even though I had completely stopped ordering from Chinese places, I got a small brown rice just so Jaba would shut up.

I opened the white container of brown rice and raised a spoonful to my mouth when I noticed a brown particle inside the rice in the box.  I picked it up with the spoon and examined.  It was either some kind of cooking ingredient or………….mouse dropping.  I threw it back in the box and packed it up, telling Jaba I would finish up at home.  Eventually I was going to throw it out.  As I sat there Jaba asked me, “so you totally do not eat meat?”  I nodded.  He gestured a “why?”  I couldn’t tell him that I was a “vegan”, his religious mind wouldn’t understand that.  I’ve spoken to too many of them to have realized this.  So I said “I just don’t condone the murdering of animals”.  He promptly replied “oh then you aren’t a Muslim then.”  Me says “I am a human being.”  He just kept shaking his head.  I don’t think his Quran-indoctrinated mind was able to cognize my latter statement.

Once again, the majority of Muslims, like Jaba believe they are the chosen ones.  The right hand to their angry, fear mongering, bearded God, and if another person’s beliefs/ways aren’t identical to theirs, as in my case, they are looked down upon.  When Jaba told me that I’m not a Muslim, for which I didn’t mind at all, he was implying that I’m on my way to hell while he was on the high seat to heaven.  This mindset applies to all the major religions of the world, they are all the same.

As Jaba finished his soup I stared at him and thought to bring up question 72, “what is freedom of religion?” whose answer he had so well memorized to attain his American citizenship.  But compassion prevailed me, and deep inside I told myself “let the American live his dream.”  I walked him back to his restaurant afterwards.



The Cost of Belief

Rizana Nafeek was jailed at 17 years young in Saudi Arabia in ’05 until she was beheaded earlier this year.  Another innocent victim of the backwardness of these people.  Wait, sorry, I take that back.  Not people, but animals that happen to walk upright and  memorize a few verses to a book, and then claim righteousness. I empathized with Rizana.  I know what she went through, minus the beheading.

My bout with “backwardness” started in ’08.  It was my first time visiting Pakistan again in 11 years.  I still remembered those innocent faces of my cousins there when we played together in the village.  It was all pure love.  I expected them to be the same pure, loving beings as adults when we would reunite.

Zerash met me at the airport.  The 10+ years reunion wasn’t heartfelt at all.  In fact it felt awkward seeing him in blue jeans that didn’t fit him and dark shades that were too big for his face.  My uncle sat in the backseat of the car next to me.  Zerash was in the passenger seat in front of me as the driver stepped on the pedal.  It was going to take an hour approximately to reach the village.  The majority of the car ride was spent speaking to my uncle about family etc.  Zerash either communicated with the driver in his native Pashto or exchanged a few words with my uncle in Urdu.  I still remember his dark shades staring at me in the side view mirror throughout the ride.

After a couple of weeks, more relatives came over to my house.  It was another cousin of mine(Sara) and her brother and mother.  After they left I went next door to Zerash.  He was in his room with Amir, another cousin.  Him and Zerash were very close apparently.  As I told Zerash that “Sara” had come over a few minutes ago, I saw that Amir’s face turn blood red.  He became furious and approached me in a rush and warned me never to say that name again.  I was puzzled and intimidated at the same time.  Things were about to get ugly but Zerash came in between and broke it up.  The adhan sounded and Zerash and Amir went to the mosque to pray.  I went back home.

Never in my life had anyone approached me in that manner.  I was still puzzled.  Did I say something wrong?  I happened to speak with Sara’s mother over the phone to tell her my encounter with Amir.  She advised me to ignore it etc.

The next day Zerash took me to Amir’s home to calm things down between us I guess?  Was there even a problem to begin with?  He lived a 10 minute walk away from me.  We saw him enter into his house from the distance.  Inside, Amir’s mom made tea for us and we spoke as Zerash translated for me.  I was surprised to not see Amir in the house.  Either he ran out through the backdoor or he didn’t want to meet.

On a starry night with about a week left till my return to the States, Zerash shouted from his rooftop towards me that Amir wanted to speak over the phone and that I should call him.  I said to myself ‘hey why not? I’m about to leave soon maybe the guy came back to his senses.’  I dialed his number and on the other side heard a very feminine voice say hello first.  It was many voices I heard then, like a crowd of men speaking.  Then the feminine voice said something in Pashto.  It was a curse-word. “$#%* your sister &*(* blah blah.”  Then he passed it to another man who started cursing as well then hung up.  Then I get a call from the same number.  I pick up and this time it’s Amir.  I asked him if everything is okay?  He said “Ali the moment you step outside of your house you will be blown to bits.”  This time I didn’t hold myself back and replied “really? I’m coming out right now let’s see what happens” and hung up.  From his rooftop Zerash witnessed me rush out of the house and informed his best friend Amir.

Only the security guard was out there with his gun and cup of tea.  He asked me to come sit and have some chai.  I went back inside.

The next morning I had just woken up and came out of the bathroom when Amir’s mother paid a visit.  I was just about to greet her when she summoned me over to the living room.  She had come with a bunch of other people who I had never seen before.  They were probably friends and neighbors I assumed.  I stood there in front of her waiting to hear what she had to say.  A marriage proposal maybe?  Suddenly her face transformed from being serous to distraught.  It was as if she had lost a loved one the way she was forcibly weeping.  Again, I was in shock, puzzled.  In front of so many elders and family she confidently accused me of threatening and confronting her son Amir at gunpoint last night.  I couldn’t believe this was happening.  I wanted to wake up and find myself in the window seat of the Emirates flight back home with my vegetarian meal in front of me hoping that was just a nightmare.  But it wasn’t.  I turned to the people and spoke in broken pashto/urdu.  I told them this was all made up. It was bogus!  I don’t own a gun, never did.  But of course the village was going to believe the halal-eating, five time praying, head scarfed, mother of seven over the Swiss born, mid 20’s ‘foreigner’.  Amir’s mom believed the bullshit story her son narrated to her just as she or anyone believed in their religion and acted up on it.  Now the whole village was becoming hostile towards me.  Although a few close relatives of mine did not show it face to face, I could feel it all around.  Later that night broken bricks and rocks were thrown into the house from outside.  I was getting more anonymous phone calls and death threats constantly.  Word was that Amir had lined up three or four witnesses to testify against me which would land me in jail.  All Amir had to do was shoot himself in the foot or hurt himself and I would be sentenced.

I was escorted to a car and left to the city of Peshawar early next morning where I stayed one night before catching the next flight to Dubai.

A teenager from Sri Lanka who lived in a hut made from hay and bricks left to oil rich Saudi Arabia to make a better life.  Over there she was accused of murdering an infant of which there was no physical proof(see link) and found guilty by coerced confession.

Like Rizana, my plea of innocence had no weight in that backward society.  Unfortunately Rizana had no means to escape that hell.  I, on the other hand, was fortunate to do so before the situation escalated.  The mother of the dead baby was adamant to have poor Rizana’s head chopped off. She believed the teenager strangled her baby to death. Amir’s mother’s(who happened to be my Aunt) tears were determined to land me in jail which would have led to my demise.  She believed I threatened her son at gunpoint.

Both of us tasted the brunt of a heedless people.  A people still waiting for their savior to appear from the clouds.

As for the baby, I’m sure he will reveal the truth of what happened that day to his mother once they reunite in Janat, or so they believe.

Coerced confession:

“The madam came home at about 1.30 p.m. and after having seen the infant, she assaulted me with slippers and hands and took the infant away. Blood oozed from my nose. Thereafter police came and took me into their custody. I was assaulted at the police station too. They assaulted me with belt and coerced me for a statement stating that I had strangled the infant. They intimidated me that I would have been killed in the event I was adamant not to give a statement to the effect that I strangled the infant and electrocuted, I would be killed.
In these circumstances, I under duress placed my signature on the written paper they gave to me. They took me to another place and asked a question, As I was virtually in a state with loss of memory and in fear and frightened mood, I had happened to tell them that I strangled the infant. In the name of Allah, I swear and aver that I never strangled the infant.”

R.I.P Rizana Nafeek

Imaginary Lines

Award-winning author Sherman Alexie known for his writings on experiences as a modern Native American in the United States puts together a masterpiece novel named “Indian Killer.”  In this book Alexie exposes the social issues facing Native Americans living in America.  John Smith, the main character, adopted as a child, struggles to find his true self in this world.  Although John’s experience is the focus of the story, it is not the heart of the tale; his struggle definitely makes the reader question oneself.  John’s entire struggle in the story is to know who is responsible for the way he is, and his confused and schizophrenic views, of himself especially, sculpt his outlook towards society.  Although John was Indian by blood and appearance, he was not raised in that “Indian” environment.  He grew up detached from his roots, his culture; his heritage.  He never fit in the ‘white’ society that he was raised in nor in the ‘Indian’ society that was his lineage.  Did John Smith have a choice? Was it his fault?  Is anyone to blame for John’s torment?  John’s search for his identity is one of the most crucial themes of “The Indian Killer.”  The reader is tackled with questions of self-realization, and identity.  Do you know your history?  More so, is it important for you to know it?  Your roots, heritage, and culture?  Do they play any part in how we live our lives today?  In this paper, John’s search for his identity from “Indian Killer” will be used as a paradigm to ‘unfold’ the significance of personal identity, or ‘self-identity’, why we need one, and how it plays a major role in our lives from the beginning to the end.

            In “Indian Killer,” many attacks on Indian culture in America are pointed out.  Alexie’s gist is that these attacks are happening due to the ignorance and heedlessness of Americans.  One example of this ignorance and the vital reason for John’s traumatized saga is his adoption at birth.  Snatched from his mother at birth, John was literally kidnapped by a “man in a jumpsuit” and taken away in a helicopter to a white couple that adopted him.   “Olivia and Daniel Smith look at the jumpsuit man, who is holding a camera.  Flash, flash… All of them wait for a photograph to form.”(Alexie 8)  Of course the two new parents, Olivia and Daniel, extraordinarily happy for their first child, could care less of his origin.  They simply left it to the adoption agency to find them a baby. Legal or not, his adoption shows the tragedy that can come from cross-cultural adoption. Bottom line is that this had an immense affect on John’s life.  Not even an hour old, John felt that something wasn’t right. “John can feel the distance between the helicopter and the ground below…He somehow loves his new fear.  He wants to fall.  He wants the jumpsuit man to release him, let him fall from the helicopter…” (Alexie 7)
            John was pretty much screwed right after his birth.  Raised in a rich environment, everything was there for him.  He was never in need of anything, material, but was stuck with an agony.  Never getting to know his blood-mother, John concluded that someone had to be responsible for this agony of his.  The question to ponder on is why did John feel his life incomplete?  Why wasn’t he happy?  What more can an individual ask for?  Even though he was raised by white parents in a ‘white’ environment, one thing that was inevitable was his appearance.  John was Indian.  His height, hair, skin color, you name it.  Indian.  “No one even noticed John…A few people looked up from their books and a couple drivers looked away from the street long enough to notice John…White people no longer feared Indians…Somehow, near the end of the twentieth century, Indians had become invisible, docile. John wanted to change that.” (Alexie 30)  On top of his tragic ‘separation’ at birth and his learning of vanquished Indian civilizations in America, John took notice of random ‘white’ people that perceived him as ‘Indian’.  These mentioned factors fueled John’s inner fire.  This is what initiated John’s quest to find his true self because so far, he only knew himself as Indian by his appearance.  “John only knew that he was Indian in the most generic sense.  Black hair, brown skin and eyes, Tall and muscular, and constantly intimidated people with his presence.” (Alexie 32)  So what is John? Is he as Indian as he looks?  And what does it mean to be Indian, or any other ethnicity?
            We all are born into a culture.  Someone, one way or another will label you.  That is something we do not have control over.  Whether in a country, tribe, cult, or the most general, family, they will give you the name that will stick with you for the rest of your life.  That is pretty much how things have been running for generations and generations among humans on planet Earth.  Now whether you are American, Chinese, Arab, Indian, Thai, Bengali, African, or for humor’s sake, whichever passport identifies your nationality, bottom-line is that you are a human being.  The one thing that has separated us humans is ethnicity, characteristics, looks, race etc.  That is something all of human civilization is stuck with.  We all have our own separate cultures, religions, etc based on our similar characteristics.  If that is right or not, we cannot argue.  It’s just something we imperfect humans cannot grasp.  “We are all made of essentially the same DNA, the same genetic material…. People of different races, such as Native Americans and European Americans, also share about ninety-nine percent… That might be true, Arthur had thought, but that one percent makes all the difference.” (Alexie 175)  So is there any justification in John’s case, or for that matter, your case?  Once again, Indian by blood and adopted by whites.  What is John? What are you?
                    It’s upon the individual to know who he is in this world.  Other than what society will label you, every individual has a quest to realize his true self.  Although John’s affliction is due to a prejudice, as far as humanity is concerned, it exposes an aspect of human beings that tends to be ignored.  John was pure Indian.  In other words, he wasn’t just Indian because of the way other people perceived him; he didn’t define himself through society’s eyes.  John was Indian at heart.  He was the only Indian in his catholic school among the white majority and did act like a normal high school kid would but never integrated.  “John knew that he was more simple and shallow than other boys, and less than real…. John felt insignificant at those times and retreated into a small place inside of himself, until the girls confused his painful silence with rapt interest.” (Alexie 17)  In other words, he didn’t become like every other ‘white’ boy in school.  Although he felt ‘less than real’ among them, at that age, he was coping with that inner affliction of his instead of ignoring it.
Personally, I am in a somewhat similar situation as John Smith.  I wasn’t ‘kidnapped’ at birth or anything of that sort, but do have a sophisticated and sometimes problematic story, as far as identity is concerned.  Born in Berne, Switzerland, to Pakistani parents, mother being from Kashmir, which is a disputed territory, and a father who isn’t too proud of his roots, I myself can say that I have a quest like John to know what my ‘true’ identity is.  I’m always finding it hard to answer one of the most elementary questions out there, “Where are you from?”  Usually I think for a few seconds and either say “Pakistan” or “Afghanistan” as the reply, since I can speak the languages of those countries. I could even say “India” or “Iran”.  In this age and time, with all the naturalization processes, immigration, legal rights, laws etc.  Anyone could be anything.  John could’ve been American like his friends in catholic school if he just acted like it but he knew he wasn’t so inside.  Legally he was ‘American’.  Hell, even his ‘snatched away from his mom’ adoption was legal in terms of the system.  I lived in Swiss for five years and then shifted to Norway where I went to a British international school in Oslo.  In that school environment there wasn’t one major ethnicity, like John’s school, disregarding race, so all my friends and classmates were from different parts of the world.  For example there was a child in there from Zimbabwe and then you would have another from the Wales.  Of course, from my appearance, I was perceived as South Asian.  I viewed myself as ‘Pakistani’ because of my parents even though I had never lived there or knew its history.
We live in a world of imaginary borders.  In most countries such as America, if you are born within these imaginary lines, you are automatically a citizen.  You become part of that land and its people.  That’s the system.  Who are you in this world?  Do you realize after looking at the passport(s) you possess or what your heart tells you?  Unfortunately, the majority of humans that I have come across define themselves by the former.  Now, every human has the right to choose what he wants to be.  In other words, he can settle wherever he feels fits best.  People usually are forced to do so mainly due to economic circumstances of their country etc.  I’ve always wanted to connect with someone sharing my Pashtun roots since Kashmiris are kind of hard to find in America.  After meeting a few pashtuns I realized that they, being born and raised in their countries, contrary to my situation, were less ‘Pashtun’ than me.  These fellows of mine were fluent in their native language of Pashto but would rather speak in‘crippled’ English because they wanted to be American or at least viewed as one.  It’s their choice however they want to be viewed as or what they feel like.  Evidently they are Pashtun, but by utilizing their rights as humans, I guess they are American?  Deep inside they know what they truly are and by being something other than their true-selves, I personally think they are at war with themselves.  The funny thing is that they do not know that or just don’t care.  It’s a war ladies and gentlemen.  Never mind the artillery, nukes, tanks, and bombers.  This is cultural warfare.
Not everyone is going to view this as a war because they either haven’t taken interest in his or her own history or are just ignorant.  It’s mainly an internal affair.  People tend to build on the exterior that is apparent rather than what’s on the inside.  The western/American culture and lifestyle has been the dominant wave for the past century or so and it’s the one people are inclined towards nowadays.  When an individual’s choice of language, expressions, views, and aims etc are the same as that of the ‘reigning’ culture then he is simply ‘jumping the bandwagon.’  Whether he was forced to, or not, due to the circumstances.  Most of the people I’ve come across have either been ‘forced’ or just blindly following ‘Goliath.’  Hey, did I mention this is was war?
You know what you really are, whether you act like something else or not, as in my Pashtun friends’ case.  John knew what he really was but wasn’t able to unite with his culture because he had been wronged from the very start.  He was an Indian by heart and a victim of the system.  “John knew if he were a real Indian, he could have called the wind.  He could have called a crosscutting wind that would’ve sliced through the fortieth floor” (Alexie 24) “If I were dressed like a real Indian, John thought, I could rule the world.” (Alexie 40)
            Knowing yourself is critical to advance in life.  John Smith is an example of how an individual can be torn apart because of an identity crisis.  Alexie is targeting the system of cross-cultural adoption in that particular case.  John wasn’t able to recoup because only revenge was on his mind.  I wouldn’t advise to anyone on seeking revenge like John did but uniting with your true self, your true identity, and be aware that you stand on a battlefield.  Your arms are your history, your voice.  What you stand up for, if you haven’t figured out by yourself, or in some cases, don’t want to, is your choice.  Once again, we live in a world of imaginary lines, borders, which are filled with tribes and cultures etc that separate us.  That will not change fellow humans.  There is nobody without a tribe or any kind of association.  If someone like that exists he either has a conflict similar to John Smith’s or just doesn’t know why he exists.  In this appointed lifetime of ours, what are you? What do you stand up for?