On ricocheting between cities

NEW YORK CITY, USA — “When are you leaving?” is a question constantly thrown at her. December. May. Next month. In two weeks. Every single time she ...

Apr 18, 2015

NEW YORK CITY, USA — “When are you leaving?” is a question constantly thrown at her. December. May. Next month. In two weeks.
Every single time she lands at AUH Terminal 1, her green passport, bearing the seal of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, is scrutinized. Sometimes she enters with a form titled Entry Permit. Once a year, she has to prove that she is not pregnant and that no illegal substances run through her veins in front of Arabic-speaking officers dressed in blue cotton overalls.
Over the past two years at NYU Abu Dhabi, she became more vocal, more liberal: pro-choice, pro-abortion, pro-half-the-things-under-the-sun. She also became more conservative, realizing the importance of values and how significant it is to be comfortable with one’s own priorities. From a self-acclaimed feminist, she became Roxane Gay’s bad feminist. From someone who gave little or no heed to nationalism, she became patriotic to extents she never conceived were possible for her; the national anthem she sung at 8 a.m. every weekday for ten years of school never struck her as much as it does now. Her views on religion, individualism, society and relationships with people, places and past changed drastically.
In Abu Dhabi, she navigates between being a foreigner and a local. She can strike up conversations about Pakistan’s latest cricket screw-up with taxi drivers and talk to the security guard in her dorm about Pakistan’s eternal political crisis. If she is in the city and she is wearing shalwar qameez, she is aware of the stares thrown at her direction. What kind of a so-called shareef girl would be sitting in Mina at 2 a.m. or outside Madinat Zayed at 4 a.m. with two, three, four or five boys? At bus stations, men stare at her up and down and down and up but they also give up their seats and let her off the bus first. Almost like Pakistan, but not quite. She had only travelled once alone in Pakistan and is constantly waited upon by her father’s drivers and official cars. Privilege is a whole other subject but she will talk about that some later day.
Thus, in Abu Dhabi, she is a foreigner because of her legal status, a local because of her linguistic abilities. She is not on the same adventure as her friends because she is aware of eastern customs, well versed in gender dynamics of the streets; Abu Dhabi was not the first place she saw a woman in an abaya, Candidate Weekend was not the first time she was in the Middle East. And yet, she doesn’t know Arabic, doesn’t own a fancy car and whilst this might sound stereotypical, doesn’t own a Prada or a Louis Vuitton. Every single time she is at a school-sponsored event at Park Hyatt, or Emirates Palace, or St. Regis in red heels and black mascara and someone from South Asia offers her water or opens a door, she is embarrassed. Both she and he are in the land of Ferraris, Chanel and Burj-ul-Arab on very similar missions, yet the difference in their lives makes her less legitimate, emphasizing the gap in social statuses and her unusual disconnection from both Pakistan and Pakistanis in the UAE.
In the US, she is a student on a study-abroad program. Despite attending classes in -17 degree Celsius, she is an outsider, an NYUAD student, a student who’ll leave. Her purple NYU ID card is not enough proof of her NYU-ness. She doesn’t know Yelp or Yik Yak or Grubhub or what waiting for washing machines, elevators and iMacs at the library feels like because she is not used to a school with more than 1000 people. She doesn’t know what Greek culture is and doesn’t understand why it’s looked down upon at NYU and celebrated at other places.
But perhaps she is not an NYU student or a Pakistani student in the US. She is not working three jobs to pay off her tuition fees, she doesn’t hang out with tattoo artists and models in Brooklyn. She hasn’t even been to Chipotle. She cringes every single time someone says the word America but only means the US and she conveniently labels half the things as US-centric, relishing in the unique multiculturalism NYUAD has exposed her to. To her, Cali means a Colombian city, not California; and Georgia is a country, not a state. Whilst she is happy to have long discussions on racism, she doesn’t get riled up at the mere mention of the word Ferguson, perhaps because she is not going to fall for the nonsensical argument about how gigantic the US is and thus, how its problems are far more important than the rest of the world’s; racism, for her, is not limited to the lives of African Americans in the US.
She is somewhat offended, somewhat amused, somewhat angered that her class titled Gender, Markets and Global Cities fundamentally revolves around New York City. When she tries to bring in examples of the mall culture from Dubai or immigration outside the US, most people are either not interested, not well-versed or simply do not care because obviously the Mall of America in Minnesota is more important than the world’s largest mall, and who wants to know about the South Asian diaspora in the UK or the African diaspora in France when there so many “Asians at Stern!” She is not thinking about a green card at 20 or an H-1B. Heck, she is not even eligible for a CPT. She doesn’t do tax returns and she doesn’t have a state ID. She is a foreigner, almost a tourist.
And yet she knows now that the perfect photograph of the Freedom Tower can be taken from 6th Avenue and that the MS60-SBS takes you from Astoria Boulevard to LaGuardia Airport. With every subway route she remembers and tells a stranger to take the R, N or Q from Union Square to Times Square and then transit to the 1, 2 or 3 lines, she feels New York is becoming home. Heck, she eats bagels for breakfast now. Bit by bit as she has started to recognize smells of a thousand and one cuisines offered on the crossroads for $5.50, she feels that New York is losing its lust, its romantic charm of insomnia-ridden nights and writing poetry about the city’s loneliness, but is becoming something more concrete, more wonderful and something she can save, relish, devour, live and relive.
But time and time again, she is jolted back to her foreignness. She is reminded of her temporariness in this city, of the fact that she is living on a one-year I-20; “You should go to Boston. To Central Park. To New Orleans. To New Haven. To L.A. You don’t have a lot of time here, so you should make the most out of your year here, you know.”
But then where does she have time? Where?
When she goes back to Pakistan, her mother already has a list of places to go and people to meet. She marvels at the wonders of finding ironed clothes and ready-made beds — things she never spared two thoughts for. She wonders how there is new shampoo in the bathroom despite her not having to run to the nearest Al Safa on a steamy Abu Dhabi night. She avoids questions about alcohol and all things male because those are topics not to be touched upon over samosas and post-Maghrib chai. Every time an uncle asks her, “Beta, girls have separate hostels, right?” she nods. And every time someone says, “Of course, college students don’t smoke,” she counts the number of cigarette brands she can identify in her sleep and everything from dokha to birri, but says, “Of course not;” reminiscing about countless nights spent talking about orientalism and racism and Islamophobia and homophobia in rooftop shisha cafes, bar-hopping on Istiklal Caddesi in Istanbul and every day’s chai-cigarette runs — things she would never do in Pakistan because she associates a certain kind of snobbery with the shisha crowds of Rawalpindi/Islamabad, and because her father would never let her go on chai-cigarette runs. Or to bars, for that matter.
She marvels at how daal-chawal-achar can encapsulate worlds of taste, home, family and nostalgia. On meeting old friends at new restaurants, she feels left out. She doesn’t know if kameezain are supposed to be worn with shalwars or palazzos. She hasn’t watched the latest Fawad Khan serial, doesn’t know who went to Spain on their honeymoon, who had a baby and whose brother married the Fatima who “wore a lot of foundation and straightened her hair.” Societal expectations have lost their importance — or perhaps those were never important to her; with every wedding photo on her Facebook timeline, a part of her freaks out, but the other part smiles. Whilst her priorities might not be better or more rational, she feels eternally indebted to life and God for giving her the freedom and the opportunity to live her crazy life.
She has become fully aware of the disjoint between her and her friends so instead of talking about the multitudinous -isms college taught her and the extraordinary amount of opportunities life has thrown her undeserving way, she resorts to the uncomforting but safe rhetoric of remember-whens. Talking about things like class trips, spring breaks, research work and internships sounds far-fetched and foreign so instead she pretends she understands how hard medicine courses are. “Is your kurta from Khaadi’s fall collection 2013 or spring’s?” She doesn’t know and frankly doesn’t care. Brands have lost their appeal — perhaps this is what happens when you live in a city of malls. She can talk about detergent brands though. “I like your earrings; where did you get these from?” To such questions, she normally says Lahore because she is mortified by the idea of sounding obnoxious and horribly privileged and doesn’t say Venice or Doha or London or Dubai.
She feels like a stranger in her own city, marveling at the new two-story buildings, the new underpass, the new coffee shops. She is the kid from the vilayt, showered with gifts and dinners and keep-in-touch’s. Instead of sharing books and getting wedding invites, she now exchanges Skype names and WhatsApp numbers.
In constantly ricocheting between cities and finding boarding passes in the back pockets of my jeans, I don’t know where home is anymore. My Facebook still says Lahore, Pakistan, but I am in Lahore, Pakistan for about seven days per year and don’t remember how to get from Faisal Town to Kalma Chowk. I know how to get from Electra Street to AUH though. So is Lahore home, I agonize? Or is Pakistan home, even though I will be in Pakistan for about 45 days this year and sometimes forget the address of my father’s house. 4H, 4G or 4F? Have I become the Instagram cliché of quotes written in French script plastered over pretty pictures of European streets such as, “Home is not a place” and “I leave pieces of myself wherever I go?" Nobody leaves pieces of themselves where they go. Cities forget people faster than people do.
In making me “in and of the world,” college has stripped me from the very things that defined home. In the past two years, I’ve lost my Pakistan-iat in ways I never thought I would and haven’t attained the right to call either New York or Abu Dhabi home, despite having the convenience and the added thrill of changing my Facebook location. I sometimes get homesick for Abu Dhabi, sometimes for Rawalpindi/Lahore and in a few months, I’ll probably get homesick for walking down Broadway, dodging strollers and tourists in New York City. I wonder how this lifestyle comprised of a backpack and a 23/32 kg suitcase will eventually evolve. Whilst I can compare prices of a bread loaf across cities from Florence to London to New York, I do not know how much it costs at my local Bread ‘n’ Butter.
Heck, I don’t even know what local is anymore. I know now that thank you is shukran in Arabic, gracias in Spanish, dhanyabad in Nepalese, tesshakur-e-diram in Turkish and grazie in Italian; however, I have forgotten how to spell it in Urdu. I have been stripped of identity. I have lost connections to cities, to places, to houses. Whilst I am eternally grateful for this rollercoaster of a life, I have developed a sense of self, or rather, a lack of sense of self, that’s so divided by time zones and continents that I am a different person depending on where I am on the map, and calling any particular city home feels dishonest. I am yet to become a global citizen — whatever that is — as defined by the hundred or so NYUAD brochures. So far, I’ve only become a foreigner; a foreigner displaced, confused and removed. A foreigner who is grateful for knowing the excitement and charm of sleeping in freezing airport basements, on transatlantic flights, in three-euro trains, in cheap hostels and under the Himalayan sun, but one who has desperately started to crave the familiarity of her nonexistent bedroom at home, wherever that may be. A foreigner who is forever in transit.
I shall leave you with this rant now. Meanwhile, I have to go search for an apartment in Berkeley, California. Any leads would be appreciated.
Khadeeja Farooqui is editor at large. Email her at
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