a journal entry by Manal Nadeem
art by Fiza Mohsin
I know the rhythm and pulse of this country. I know the whistle and whisper of its (admittedly rare) wind. I know, at night, what the still silence of its streets sounds like. If I were to map out my memories, what you would get is a map stretching across the country: bus rides to school (E311 Road); weekends out with family and friends (City Centre Sharjah, Ibn Battuta Mall, Dubai Mall – lots of malls); long drives during vacations (Khor Fakkan, Fujairah, Jebel Jais).
For as long as I can remember, the question of belonging has primarily been a practical one for me: I live in the UAE, but I’m from Pakistan. Alternatively: I’m from Pakistan, but I live in the UAE. To-the-point and factually accurate. Part of this practical outlook stems from my wariness of mythologizing my own identity. Recently, however, this question has started to take on personal – even primal – weight for me. Why, I’m not sure: perhaps it’s an awareness of identity kindled by startlingly seeing people who look like me reflected, at last, in culture and literature; or maybe it’s more mundane than that – just another teen embarking on a coming-of-age reckoning, riding an arc of self-awareness. Either way, something has been stirred awake within me. Questions that were previously dormant are now alive and cannot be lulled back to sleep. To answer the question of where I am from, then, is to tread into personal terrain. My country of origin and country of residence, I am beginning to realise, are not merely cold, self-evident facts. They are the fault lines along which my identity fissures and frays.
I love the rich, vibrant colours of Pakistan. Rich reds and glaring greens and vivid oranges: we are not a country of meek or mellow colours. Oh, and the music: the peppy, animated pop singles that can easily rival the biggest names in world music; the intense qawwalis, the genre of spiritual music whose signature swaying, swooning chants can propel you into a trance like that of a whirling dervish. Part of identifying with a group – family or friends or country – is also having license to poke fun (benignly and bitingly) at the pesky, persistent features that constitute that group’s spirit and soul: the oil-soaked biryani and parathas and jalebi (a spiralling sweet) that simultaneously alarm and tempt you till you surrender to their greasy glory; the restaurants and malls and public spaces swelling with the maddening clamour of kids; and the eager Uncles and Aunties who intrude into everybody’s business, identifiable by their brand of prying curiosity. Visit any social media page of Pakistani satire (my favourite: The Pakistani Martha Stewart), and you’ll find an entire feed of memes immortalising each of these national idiosyncrasies. I like to scroll through them every now and then partly because the memes really are biting and brilliant, and partly because, sitting so far away from home, every meme brings with it a jolt of recognition that makes me travel miles in memories.
This is the part where I offer a resolution worth the time it took you to read this. This is the part in the piece where Confused Adolescent (henceforth, ‘CA’) arrives at Well-Worn Resolution that anyone could have predicted from a mile. The precedent for such pieces is for said CA to present her resolution as if on a plate, garnishing it with sufficient quantities of self-pity and self-confidence, and that’s it – job done. Self-Confidence Unlocked.
I will try to shirk the plotline above and say that after years of tossing and turning these thoughts in my mind, what I have arrived at is not a resolution but hopefully something nearing it: belonging is a fleeting feeling in your bones, an unforced sense of familiarity, more than any firm, resolute knowledge in your mind. I know, for instance, that home is not tangible. I also know that it is an abstract emotion. But as much as I claim to know these things, I don’t always feel them. Sometimes, despite this knowledge, I am filled with a raw urge to pin down ‘home’ to a particular place, like with a push pin on a map. I want to be one or the other. I want to be from and of here or there. But what I have instead is a straddling act between two worlds. And maybe, that’s okay. Maybe where I am is both bitter and better: in between.