The Ahmeds in America, Part Two
I called my mother and told her the essence of the case against Husna. In most situations of injustice, her standard response is: Tch tch, Dekho to. Aisa to nahin hona chahiyeh na - Oh my, just see. Like this, it shouldn’t be. But her reaction to Husna’s situation was radically different.
(What? This is the height of Cruelty! How can they just take the kids away?)Ma: Kia? Yeh to sarasar Zulm hai! Aisay kaisay bacchay lay liyey?
It was mad. It was incomprehensible.
Ma: Dekho to, kaisa Zalim Samaj hai! (Just See, what a Cruel Society!)
Even before learning that Paradise lies below the feet of the Mother, I must have learnt that we live in a Zalim Samaj, Cruel Society. It is a most essential term in everyday South Asian life, in our practical wisdom. The Society is Cruel primarily because it is against Love. It denies Love, it negates Love – even while culturally we preach Love and have a beautiful vocabulary for our Beloveds. Cruel Society has vicious people who are a constant source of hurt, anxiety, and fear. Cruel Society is the source of most ills.
Pudina: Zalim Samaj nahin Ma, Zalim Riyasat!(Not Cruel Society, Ma, the Cruel State!)
Cruel State really had to become as intuitive as Cruel Society in our language, I thought. In modern times, Cruel State has taken brutality to a whole new level.
Pudina: Uf Ma, mujhay to samajh hi nahin aata hai main us Ma ko kiya bolon.(Oh Ma, I don’t know what to say to that mother)
Ma: Us say kehna kay meri Ammi aap kay liyeh bauhat duain kar rahi hain.(Tell her: my mother is praying intensely for you.)
One part of my heart internally rolled her eyes, and thought: This is not the point, Ma, I am wondering about the case. Another part quietly moved, feeling the Integrity of her Intention, her Spirit.
Ma: Inshallah, aap ki mushkil bauhat jald hi aasan ho jaiy gi(Tell her: Inshallah, your problems will ease very soon.)
Pudina: Ok Ma.
I visited Husna and Jalal at their house. And I noticed that Husna only referred to me as Behan -Sister – as is often the norm amongst non-elite Pakistani women. But I was calling her by name. Jalal, I instinctively called Bhai, Brother. Once I realized my skewed instincts, I quietly switched to Husna Behan.
Husna Behan was in tears, and immediately tried to tell me the entire story of how Chotu had gotten accidentally burnt. She kept saying that Allah was her witness, that she was innocent. I told her I believed her, and that she didn’t have to explain anything to me – either way, the lawyers had said that I should not discuss the actual injury itself, since I was supposed to testify for the case. I could only visit, and make my assessment as a “cultural expert.” Mera iklota beta - my only son – Allah gave him to me after two daughters, Husna continued. It was so ridiculous – the case didn’t even fit some stereotype of domestic abuse in “backward” families from “backward” countries. How believable right, that Husna would burn her only son, personally and culturally considered to be her future caretaker?
I learnt that Husna and Jalal were related to each other, and had gotten married after falling in love. They spoke Potohari, and were from Mohalla Kashmiriyan, a neighborhood of Kashmiris in a village-town near Rawalpindi. Jalal spoke enough English to be able to earn a living as a taxi driver for many years in the Bay Area. Husna spoke little English, but could manage just fine. My friend Mimi, who once took Husna grocery shopping, said that Husna knew exactly what to get and paid easily through cash. When we think “rural” and “illiterate”, we tend to think of a lack, even incapacitation. Despite going through a tremendous crisis, Mimi and I noticed that Husna had a quiet calm around her, knew who she was, was comfortable in her skin. The lawyers had also expressed that Husna did not match their notion of a suffering victim. Perhaps because our notions of what “victims” of crisis are supposed to look like are misguided to begin with. Indeed, Roshni Behan was telling me that “victim” and “survivor” are terms that are not present in older languages like Sanskrit, and that she increasingly finds these terms unhelpful as conceptual categories for understanding people’s experiences. Of course, it’s not as if Husna and Jalal were not hurting. I learnt that since the children were taken away, Jalal had trouble working as a taxi driver because his diabetes had gotten really bad, and he was generally feeling unwell. I learnt that the couple had difficulty meeting their monthly rent, and twice, their phone connection was also cut off.
I noticed that Husna and Jalal had a computer, on which two programs were running, Skype and YouTube. For millions, I think, these applications have come to sum up the very meaning of the computer. On YouTube was playing that quintessential Sufi qawwali by the Sabri Brothers - Tajdar-e-Haram. O Prophet Mohammad, O King of the House of God, I wish for your merciful gaze, Please write in my fate, a peaceful life. I learnt that Husna’s mother had visited Sufi shrines in Rawalpindi, and that her family in Pakistan had made a trip to Lahore as well to visit the shrine of Data Gunj Baksh. An amulet had also been mailed to Husna, which she religiously wore around her neck.
Before Jalal arrived and joined our conversation, Husna told me about her experience in the jail. There was a male and female police officer who were interrogating her, but the male police officer had touched her neck to take her chain away. She had fainted. We then discussed the court trials – the civil and the criminal one. We discussed how Husna should carry herself, how she should not invoke Allah in court, even what she should wear. A Muslim-lawyer friend, Mahnoor, had advised me that there is a visual aesthetic to the courtroom, and one must perform accordingly.
(You know the colors of Pakistani women’s clothes tend to be extra-vibrant and bright).Husna: Aap ko to pata hai humaray rang thoray bharkeelay hotay hain.
I joked in Urdu: And why not? Life is so colorful, why should we be colorless? Having said this, don’t you have any light color?!
Husna: Kali kameez hai, us pay bhi booti booti bani hui hai.(I have a black top, but that too has flowers all over it).
Floral embroidery and prints must account for ninety percent of women’s clothes in Pakistan, I thought. Flowers are not reserved for the islands, or the summer, they may be worn all the time. And why not?
Yes, Black should be fine, I said.
Husna: Woh Behan eik baat kehni thi.(Sister, I want to tell you something).
Pudina: Haan batain.(Sure, tell me).
Husna: Woh Behan…mera dosra mahina chal raha hai.(Umm..Sister, it’s my second month).
I paused. Then I congratulated her – we discussed how her health is so important.
(Husna, with her voice shaking: I was talking to a relative in New York who said that I should get an abortion. Else my court case will become worse, and the courts might also take my new child away. Sister, do you think I should do this?)Husna: Mein New York mein eik rishtaydaar say baat kar rahi thi, woh keh rahi thi kay mujhay is bacchay ko gira deyna chahiyeh warna case kharab ho jaiy ga. Yah yeh baccha bhi ley lain gay. Behan, aap batain kia mujhay aisa karna chahiyey?
I saw her Soul tremble in her eyes. I felt mine in my palms.
Pudina: Aap ka dil kia kehta hai?(What does your heart say?)
Husna: Rooh to Behan Allah deyta hai, Allah hi nikalta hai.(Sister, only Allah gives us the Soul, and only He takes it away).
Pudina: Please try to take care of your health. Inshallah, everything will be fine.
A few days later, the phone rang. Initial chit chat.
Husna: Woh Behan, mujhay kal bleeding ho gai thi.(Sister, yesterday I had some bleeding).
Pudina: Oho. Ab tabiat kaisi hai?(Oh no, how are you feeling now?)
Husna: Ab theek hoon.(Now I’m better).
Pudina: Kuch hua tha? Aap kuch sooch rahi theen?(Did something happen?)
(Sister, how do I tell you? Yesterday I had gone to meet the children. My eldest daughter’s private parts down there – both in front and back – were dirty. I have trained her for many years now, this has never happened. I was really worried, I cleaned her, hugged her. Then the social worker said that the father in the foster home is an alcoholic – he’s always drunk. Sister, it was as if someone had punched my body. As soon as I returned home, I felt unwell. And then the bleeding started).Husna: Woh Behan..kaisay bataon. Kal bachon say mulaqaat thi. Meri bari wali kay neechay ki jaga agay peechay dono say kharab thi. Usay to kab ka main nay sikha diya hai, aisa to us nay kabhi nahin kia. Main bauhat pareshan hui, main nay bacchi ko saaf kia, pyar kia. Phir therapeen nay bataya kay naiy ghar main jo baap hai woh har waqt sharab kay nashay main hota hai. Behan meray jism ko jaisay kisi nay punja mara ho. Ghar aatay hi meri tabiat kharab ho gai, aur khoon aanay laga.
My body too felt the assault of her revelation.
I held my stomach.
(It’s most likely just stress – because the kids have been taken away from their homes).Pudina: Bus ghar say alag hain itnay arsay say to stress ho gaya ho ga bacchi ko.
Husna: Haan shayad khanay main bhi kuch agaya ho.(Yes, it could be something that came in the food).
Pudina: Haan bilkul.(Yes).
Husna: Yeh kaisi aafat hai.(What a torment, it is).
Her tears. Breakdown.
Pudina: Meri Ammi nay kaha hai kay woh aap kay liyeh bauhat duain kar rahi hain. Inshallah, aap ki mushkil bauhat jald dur ho jaiy gi.(My mother has said that she is praying intensely for you. Inshallah, your problems will be eased very soon.)
Husna: Accha? Kaisi hai aapki Ammi? Mera unhay bauhat bauhat salam kahiyeh ga.(Really? How is your mother? Please give many greetings to her from me.)
From then on, Husna often asked about my mother. My mother asked about her too, and kept sending her prayers. Knowing that my mother was praying for her seemed to have a healing effect on her. She once called my mother her Saheli (friend) without even knowing her, or talking with her. But they shared a connection through the language of prayer – of feeling compassion for someone’s difficulty, and reciting blessings for them. Once I was at Husna’s house, right before the hearing of the criminal case, and Anjali texted: “Tell her that I and Aman are praying for her.” When I told Husna that my sister and her son are praying for her, she lit up with happiness. She said that she felt blessed, and wanted to know all about my sister. I was affected, too. My views on religion aside, there was something intimately moving about three generations of my family seeking and sending blessings for Husna.
I continued to ponder over the concerns that the lawyers had expressed regarding the case, some of which had to be discussed in the testimony.
Megan: “You know the social worker has been hostile towards the family not just because they were Muslim-Pakistani, looked different, talked different, but also because she felt they were illiterate and backward, and so she felt they were unfit as parents. For example, when filling out the bio-data form, she asked them their age, and they were not sure so they had to look at their IDs. She asked them the date of birth of their kids, and they didn’t remember! What kind of parents don’t know the birth dates of their children?”
Oh, the presumptions of western modernity. And the Violence of its paradigms of Schooling-Development-Progress.
Oral and indigenous cultures around the world have historically lived a cyclical notion of time – not one of linear progression – and continue to do so in places that have yet to be undone by Capitalist Modernity. What matters to them is the divine, universal calendar, the agricultural calendar, the ritual calendar, the community calendar. Not the individual calendar. A bio-data form in an oral-rural-traditional community would never read, Name, Age, Date of Birth. It might read something like: Place of origin, Ancestral lineage and ethnicity, Linguistic group, Village name, Family name, Name.
In other words, what is the tribe to which you belong? Not who are you but what are you a part of. Indeed, the word for lineage or caste group in Urdu is the same as the word for one’s own self - zaat.
In my family, we often joke about how some older family members have different birth dates on their ID cards than their actual birth date, and whether anyone can ever be sure about their “real” age. Their birth dates must have simply been invented – necessitated by the modern colonial and nation state’s desire of individualizing people for control and management. Because a personal-birthday-as-a-meaningful-occasion is a recent invention in the context that I come from, my parents never grew up celebrating birthdays. It became Modern to do so, so they started celebrating ours – but even then, not always.
It’s incredible, now that I think about it, how us-who-have-been-made-Modern obsess over and suffer the dilemmas of time and their individual age under conditions of Modernity. Oh, I’m turning 21. Oh, I’ve turned 30. Oh, now I’ll be 50. Numbers, only numbers – that we have given so much significance to. How liberating a world where one’s individual age is not really relevant. In many oral, indigenous cultures where young ones learn and work alongside adults in families and communities, children tend to become responsible and autonomous like adults while adults continue to remain playful like children. Indeed, in non-Western cosmovisions, it isn’t your individual age that matters but often the Age we are all living in.
People might remember the birthday of their children in relation to the natural-cultural context of life at the time of birth. One might hear something like: “The first one was born when the rainy season had just begun.” Or, “this one was born when the big Eid had already passed.” When life is a cyclical infinity, it doesn’t matter which specific Eid, which particular season, what date, what year. It’s just a number. What’s in a number? It’s the context that matters. And now I have an idea. If someone were to ask me when I was born, I’ll say “When the US-Soviet war in Afghanistan had just begun, and the US-backed military dictator, General Zia-ul-Haq, was starting to murder the spirit of Pakistan.” How old are you? “Oh I’ve lived on this Planet for as long as Mumia Abu-Jamal has lived in Prison.”
Lily: “You know even if we believe that Husna is innocent, she says that Chotu had climbed up the stove and gotten his hand burnt. For the courts, this raises the question of discipline and proper upbringing. From what the social workers say, the children are always running around.”
Megan: “Yes, apparently the kids are always climbing walls. They are bound to get hurt if there is no supervision, no discipline.”
I thought back to my childhood, and how one of my favorite activities was deewar say chalang lagana - to leap from the top of a wall. I would climb the boundary wall of our house and swiftly tiptoe across its narrow strip, without shoes, so I had control over my feet. So thrilling! And after gliding from one corner to the other, with a sense of accomplishment, I’d jump back on the floor. One version of this was jumping while waving and hollering towards a crow on the tree next door, so that we would both fly together. Two-in-one action, you know. I must have done it in front of my parents too, without comment from them, but mostly without anyone’s presence or supervision. It was like that – spending hours outside, playing with friends a wide range of games, but very often, just hanging out with oneself, aimlessly exploring the world, jumping around, engaging in fun, learning activities, and inventing things to do. Like once, I had become fascinated with lying flat on the outside patio, and for what seemed like hours, observing – and interrupting with different tactics – the life of little brown ants and big black ants.
Pudina: “I loved to climb walls too when I was young. And so did a lot of kids around me. Kids very often want to to run around and explore, no? Luckily, I also grew up in a village-like neighborhood in the city where we could roam the streets, even till late at night. From the age of eight onwards, I sometimes used to return home at 10:00 p.m after playing sports. Then, I’d go to sleep – or not. Maybe I’d continue to play with my siblings. It’s not like we didn’t have any discipline – it’s just a different kind of way in which kids are treated. I learnt to baby-sit my cousin’s children when I was barely six years old. So by the age of seven or eight, I could be left alone with them in the evening, when my cousins would go out for a wedding or something. From what I have seen of village life in Pakistan, kids tend to be even more independent, responsible, and free there.”
Megan: “Yes, that’s exactly what Jalal says. That kids grow up very free in his village. And we have seen how their eldest girl, Simal, is just six but very mature, and helps her mother in taking care of the younger kids.”
Lily: “Just recently, these new esoteric charges were leveled against the parents – that their relationship is ‘intense.’ Based on how the parents are during supervised visits to the children, it was felt that Husna is ‘anxious’ and unable to handle the children while Jalal has an ‘anger’ issue – according to the social worker, he even ‘kicked’ Husna once. This counts against both parents, and they both have to go through therapy. You must communicate these charges to them, and hopefully, they’ll be more careful next time.”
Pudina: “They are without their young children for months – an enormously painful situation for anyone, and especially unnatural for anyone from Pakistan where children are the source of life, the pillar of existence. What is the mother supposed to feel, if not anxious? What is the father supposed to feel, if not anger?”
This tragedy just kept reaching new depths, I thought. Create the problem. Seize the kids, arrest the mother, Destroy a family. Then declare the effects as abnormal and incomprehensible, as nothing to do with “our” violence, just “their” uncivilized nature. Then send for Therapy. Create jihadis and bin Laden. Destroy Afghanistan, Pakistan, and other Muslim cultures from where jihadis were funded to fight the Russians. Pretend that the Taliban, Al-Qaeda, and the 9/11 Blowback are totally incomprehensible, and came from “their” 10th century Islam instead of “our” 20th century imperialism. Then create more occupations, Destroy Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, and other Muslim cultures yet again, with illegal, inhuman weapons like Drones. Then send development packages through USAID to teach the savages how to “Govern Justly and Democratically.”
In short, create the Violence. Create more Violence to deal with the violence, creating even more Violence. Then if a shoe or stone is thrown, act shocked, continue to create Violence, but to your victims, preach Non-Violence. Deny your original Violence, your constant use of Violence, your constant export of Violence. Never self-reflect. Never think about consequence.
(Part one was here, and part three will be posted on Friday.)