I spent the first five years of my life in Charlottesville, Virginia, while my father studied for a PhD at the University of Virginia. In our family photos, I am in turns a baby in a snowsuit; a toddler in a green velvet dress; a sturdy-legged four-year-old in a white pinafore with Peter Rabbit embroidered on the pocket. Later, I am among a group of five-year-olds sitting on a bridge over a gentle stream, then in a bright classroom learning how to cut with scissors and eat peanut butter sandwiches.

My parents looked like any young couple in the early 70s; my father in flares and sideburns posing in front of his prized car, a 1967 Ford Mustang. My mother, who studied sociology at the university, slim and beautiful with long hair parted in the middle, also in bell-bottoms and kurta tops. They were surrounded by other international students who became their best friends. All of them looked like hippies, extras from Saturday Night Fever (long collared shirts, medallions and wild hair), during their get-togethers at night.

These were unusual circumstances for a man of my father’s background. His family had been landlords in Sindh, a province in the south-east of Pakistan, for seven generations. But because of the agricultural economy’s heavy dependence on manual labor, the esoteric culture and customs that had developed over centuries around this system, and the landlords’ reputation for the louche lifestyle of the rich and privileged, the Pakistani intelligentsia dubbed them ‘feudals’, like medieval European lords with serfs and vassals.

As the younger son of an influential family that claimed descent from the Prophet Mohammed, with the honorific ‘Sayed’ – which is attached to all the male members of the family – my father was not content to live the life of a landowner. He was not satisfied with farming, hunting and entertainment. He wanted to study. This odd ambition – landlords did not study, they did not need to – brought my father, his young wife and me, his infant daughter, to the alien land of America.

I did not know it as a child, but we had left behind a hard country. Six months before I was born in Karachi, Pakistan lost a war and half of its territory: the December 1971 war with India transformed East Pakistan, in a theater of blood and horror, into Bangladesh.

Life was stable and peaceful in Virginia in 1972, but the ghost of that war followed my parents to America. In one of his earliest graduate school seminars, the war came up in class. My father, who attended his first classes in a suit and tie, defended Pakistan. His lonely stance was met with cynicism from his professor and the other students. They challenged him with assertions of genocide and other atrocities committed by the Pakistani Army. They called the conflict a ‘war of liberation’. He and the entire Pakistani nation knew it as ‘the fall of Dhaka’, and thought of it as a conspiracy to weaken, if not entirely destroy, the country.

 

*

 

We returned to Pakistan in 1977, after my father had completed his doctorate. My parents enrolled me in the Karachi American School to ease my transition; I went to school with children from many different countries, American teachers and an American curriculum. But it was still hard to adjust to life in Pakistan. I could barely speak or understand Urdu or Sindhi.

The food – heavy, oiled, laden with spices and chilis – repulsed me. People were loud and overbearing; they teased me for my accent, chastised my parents because I was too shy to say Assalam aleikum – or anything else (I was a child monk under a vow of silence). My shalwar kameez itched and irritated me, and felt heavy and odd, nothing like the light summer shorts and T-shirts and sundresses I was used to wearing.

Culture shock was what they called it in those days, but to me it felt like a kidnapping. I had grown up in rural Virginia among rolling hills, horse farms and the Blue Ridge Mountains, which edged the horizon with stunning vistas of pine trees that burned red, orange, yellow in the fall. Karachi, by contrast, was dusty, dirty, ugly. Stray dogs followed me on the street when I tried to ride a bicycle. Soon, my mother deemed it too dangerous for me to play outdoors. The sun beat down on my head all year long, toasting me golden-brown, then burning me ash-grey. Everywhere men stared at me, even when I began to cover my legs, which had grown coltishly long when I was only ten. Everything felt, in some way or another, dangerous.

I did not know this then, but in those years the nation was going through a cataclysm of its own, robbed of its own freedom by General Zia’s coup against the prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. Democracy had been replaced overnight by dictatorship. Though Bhutto himself had acted as a cruel and petulant autocrat throughout his rule, Zia’s regime taught everyone how tenuous democracy could be in a country like ours. We had no institutions to stand strong against military rule; Bhutto had ruined most of them by nationalizing them, and destroyed the healthy education system by nationalizing that too.

General Zia had plans to Islamise the entire nation, turn it into his version of Saudi Arabia, enact sharia-inspired punishments for a variety of crimes (hand-cutting for thieves; jail and punishment for women caught committing adultery by admitting to being raped; whipping and flogging for protest; hanging for sedition and treason). His was an Emergency Rule, absolute and merciless, to cement his grip on power. Then, in 1979, when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, he made Pakistan the training ground for 100,000 mujahideen, armed and funded by the CIA, MI6, Saudi Arabia and China, to fight the war in Afghanistan.

Karachi, which had been so vibrant and alive in the 1950s and 60s, felt like a garrison by the late 70s: soldiers and spies on the streets, enforcing new rules and repressions, bars and nightclubs closed. At home, our entertainment options had become limited: state television broadcast speeches by Zia that seemed to go on for hours, where he would talk about Islam and sharia in a sonorous voice that sent me straight to sleep. Instead of the singing and dancing I remembered, now there were only broadcasts of qawwali singing, devotional music, with the qawwals dressed in black and prohibited from moving to the music or swaying too much. All I had to keep me amused were a few books from school, the records I’d brought from America, and the occasional MAD magazine I found at the only English-language bookstore in Karachi.

When we went for drives along Clifton Beach at Seaview, I was fascinated by the giant casino, pink-coloured and triangular-shaped, with long sweeping roofs meant to evoke sails that I imagined sledding down and then flying off, sailing into the blue horizon. It was built to attract Arab sheikhs to Karachi after the Lebanese civil war closed Beirut to the world. But a huge opposition protest by religious right-wingers prompted Bhutto to ban nightclubs, alcohol and gambling, on the very day the casino was meant to open. Instead of shimmering like a pink pearl on the ocean, the casino was a shipwreck, desolate and abandoned on the murky shoreline, the Arabian sea behind it, Zia’s Pakistan in front.

A dark cloud settled over the country, a huge depression that everyone felt but I could not yet understand. Pakistanis were traumatized by the theft of democracy, brutalized by the harshness of the new regime. Newspapers were censored, dissent and discourse criminalized, civil society frozen almost cryogenically. On the day Bhutto was hanged, 4 April 1979, his political party the PPP, now led by his wife and daughter, believed thousands of people would pour onto the streets in protest. I was six and a half then, old enough to remember how the streets of Karachi lay completely deserted as I came home from school. Only the stray dogs trotted up and down the streets, masters of everything on that black day.

 

*

 

It was more than food, clothes or language that confused me as a child in this new Pakistan. In America, life was expansive: our small university town was relaxed and open, people tolerant and broad-minded. Pakistan had a different feel, a different ethos: closed, secret, suffocating. People lived as if they were afraid of independence. They seemed glad to be bossed around by parents, elders, teachers, strangers: authorities of any kind. My father had exchanged the freedom we’d known in America for the security of being in our own land, but it didn’t feel like it was mine at all.

Too young for teenage rebellion, I retreated into books, stories, anything that could take me away from the reality of my surroundings. I thought my parents were just being cruel to me by bringing me back to Pakistan, but what I did not know or understand was how coming from a Sayed family was supposed to shape a girl’s life. Even small freedoms threatened to break our traditions down bit by bit, until, in the eyes of the elders, chaos and dishonor would ensue. My mother did not agree with the tight strictures they suggested; she wanted to give me liberty within limits, as she had been raised. My father had stricter ideas, instilled upon him since childhood, as to just how much liberty I should be granted.

Traditionally, Sayed women lived in ‘purdah’ – a system of segregation and seclusion where the women did not leave the house except in the company of a male relative, and did not meet men from outside the family. This was in emulation of the wives of the Prophet Muhammed, peace be upon him, who only spoke to men from behind a curtain and after his death never remarried.

Many of my father’s female relatives – mother, aunts and sisters – never received a formal education, as there was no question of them going to school. Some were illiterate. They wore black burqas when outside the house, and traveled in a car with curtains on the windows. They only mingled with women from other highborn families. They lived separately from the men in a haveli, while the men conducted their business during the day in the outside house, the autaq, and only came back to the haveli at night.

The Sayed ladies lived lives of quiet, insular desperation, watching television dramas, gossiping, celebrating when they gave birth to sons, mourning the birth of daughters. Their own husbands could marry again if they wanted to: they secretly married smarter, more modern women that they met in the city, but the Sayed ladies were trapped, with only the comfort of birthing and raising their sons, the satisfaction of getting their daughters married to other suitable Sayeds, and the knowledge that they were superior because of their holy bloodline. Controlling family matters, with minimal deference to the men, was the only power they held.

Prisons after prisons after prisons: my mother sensed this, was warned about this, but she still plunged into marriage with my father. She was modern, educated, Sindhi but not Sayed, raised and schooled in Karachi, Hyderabad and Lahore. She had not grown up with his traditions. She graduated from Kinnaird, an all-women’s liberal arts college in Lahore, with a bachelor’s degree in psychology. My father was different, he promised her, he would not hold her to the Sayed restrictions, he felt suffocated by them too. His own extended family had been displeased with their match, having picked out a cousin for him when he was barely in his teens. But with my mother beside him, he could live his life differently, loosened from tradition and family customs.

Still, when my father told her half-jokingly (perhaps testing the waters) that after marrying him she would also have to wear a burqa, she refused outright. ‘Either you will wear one, or your daughters will,’ he pronounced in jest (knowing nothing about how women think, and less still about my mother’s strength of will). ‘My daughters can . . . if they want to,’ my mother responded breezily. We never did.

Instead, we went to America, where my being a girl (and my mother being a woman) did not matter. When we came back, it suddenly did. Karachi still had freedoms for me: school, friends, books, my cousins. But the haveli in Hyderabad, where some of the female relatives still lived, was where my mother and I, her adolescent daughter, were relegated while the men and my younger siblings and cousins romped happily all over the compound.

When in Karachi, we lived ‘normally’; when in Hyderabad, we had to behave like Sayed ladies, even though I was still only a child. I remember sitting in closed, airless rooms, glued to my mother’s side, while older women fussed and backbit and spoke of the importance of respecting Sayed traditions. They may have been calculating, even then, which cousin I could marry from the Sayed clan. Buried in my books, I blocked it all out, but the memory lingers like a dark stain on a page where I wanted to write my own words.

 

*

 

By the time I was a teenager, Pakistan was an established player in the Soviet–Afghan War. Karachi had become a major CIA station for Operation Cyclone, where intelligence agents came and went between Pakistan and Afghanistan, funneling money and weapons to the mujahideen. The newspapers told us that the brave mujahideen were defeating the godless Soviets with the help of our strong friends and allies, the Americans.

I was in school with many American children, sons and daughters of consulate employees, some of whom had to be cogs in the war. We heard weird stories, some of them false, some of them true: the CIA station chief was throwing decadent parties in a huge house on the hill near our school where he lived with his partner, the school librarian; my classmate’s father had been killed in the hijacking of a Pan Am jet at Karachi airport; the son of the DEA officer at the consulate was in trouble for smoking marijuana and coming to campus high as a kite.

As I grew older I became increasingly aware of the constraints of Pakistani life. I could not spend the night at friends’ houses because it wasn’t appropriate. I wasn’t allowed to go to parties because that wasn’t what young girls from good (Sayed) families did. School trips and dances were hotly contested issues in my household. It was difficult for me to see friends with more liberal Pakistani or foreign parents, as they were allowed freedoms I was constantly denied as a (Sayed) girl. So I studied fiercely and competitively, determined to win admission to an American university and go away for good, where I could do what I wanted.

My whole life was about striking inconsistent bargains with my parents, especially my father, who feared what his extended family would say if I were allowed too much freedom. What is too much freedom? I sulked, fumed, wept at every refusal, held every liberty big or small to my chest like a glowing ember, and accumulated academic triumphs with which to make my case.

All the while I planned for the escape of the thing I could not name: the burden of being a girl from a conservative family in a country that treats you like an aberration, a mistake, a thing to be corrected and controlled at all times. I joined the basketball team (I could wear the team uniform with shorts at school, but had to keep my legs covered everywhere else). I learned to play the flute (okay) and acted in a play (not okay). I promised my parents that I would become a doctor if they let me go to college in America (my father wanted me to stay close to home and attend medical school in the city).

In my junior year of high school the American ambassador came to speak at the graduation ceremony of the senior class. As part of the school band, I played ‘Pomp and Circumstance’ as he walked onto the stage (we were horrible); and we were allowed to stick around and eat the cake at the reception afterward. I listened to the ambassador as he spoke about duties, responsibilities, freedom and the future. Three months later Ambassador Arnold Raphael died in the mysterious plane crash that took the life of General Zia, ending his eleven-year regime and putting the country on a different course: elections and political parties and a female prime minister called Benazir Bhutto.

In 1989, I would be the first woman in my Sayed family to go to America to study. Eventually I would be the second Sindhi woman to go to Harvard, after Benazir Bhutto. My father was reluctant to allow me to go (What would the family think? Would so much freedom ruin his daughter?), but my mother convinced him that I should be allowed to achieve my own goals. They had taught me well enough about the limits to trust me to respect them (too well – I was scared of drugs, alcohol and boys, in that order, so my future plans didn’t include any of those).

But it was more than that. My parents had already changed and overcome so much tradition in their own lifetime; why should I, their daughter, be hampered and held back just because I was a girl? Sometimes change takes generations. In my case it took one generation, an unusual marriage and five years in America.

I still find it painful to look at photographs of myself in 1977, the year we returned to Pakistan. The round, large brown eyes are still there, and the unbrushable mane of hair, but there is a smaller smile, a sadder mien. I am now the adult that the child wished was around back then, who would tell her that she would be more than all right: she would thrive. I am the only person who knows how difficult it was for me, and my parents, to be young in Pakistan.

Three Poems
Imperium