On the importance of memoirs

Photo Credit: Amazon

I just finished reading Leila Ahmed’s A Border Passage last night.

For those of you familiar with Leila Ahmed, you’re probably thinking “Oh no!” or “Right on!” For those unfamiliar, Leila Ahmed is a controversial figure within Islamic Studies scholarship. Or maybe just with Muslims. I don’t know. I honestly haven’t really read too much of her work. Maybe I should. I feel her views may have evolved.

In any case, I first encountered her work as a freshman in the midst of writing my very first research paper (we didn’t do that in high school – have things changed since then?). At the time, I didn’t wear the headscarf, but was still interested in the topic of Women in Islam. Leila Ahmed came up as THE scholar in this field and I basically used her arguments to justify my feelings on hijab at the time (i.e. it is not required).

Things obviously have changed since then.

Fast forward almost five years later, I felt regret and almost disgust for having taken the self-righteous and arrogant position I once had (I don’t blame Leila for this, this was all on me). For now, I had begun to don the headscarf.

So, when I came across Leila Ahmed’s memoir at Half Price Books a few months ago, I was at once intrigued and a bit hesitant. Did I want to subject myself to more orientalist drivel (I just love that phrase, btw)? But the synopsis (can it even be called a synopsis if it’s a memoir?) mentioned things like Arab nationalism and identity that I thought to myself, “Hey, it’s only $3.50.” I don’t have to buy into everything she says. So I bought the book.

And then read it (well, I read two books in between, because like I said, I was hesitant). But I have to say: since perhaps A Suitable Boy, I haven’t read a book that has caused me to ponder on so many topics on such a visceral level: manufactured nationalism (because it always is), women, feeling “home,” the “liberating” West, interfaith relations in a more pristine time, etc. I didn’t agree with everything Leila wrote, but I do appreciate her telling of history.

Whatever you think of Nasser (he’s the most prominent political figure in this memoir, Leila having grown up in Egypt in the middle of the 20th century – but you can substitute him for almost anyone), depending on what side you are on, the history book you are reading only tells you one side. We like to think of history as objective, factual, empirical in a way. But Leila’s recalling reminded me that there are many more perspectives than we are privy to. I particularly appreciated how Leila herself added many times throughout that her own memory might not have captured all that was going on. And that too reminded me of the importance of memoirs.

As someone who writes about her life with one-time plans to write a memoir, I realized that even if I don’t live an extraordinary life in the sense that I will never be recorded in “history,” that does not mean that my personal experiences don’t have something unique and needed to offer to those interested in the entirety of the human experience. As my last post almost abruptly touched on: What is it like to be a young woman who loses all that weight after the “entire world”* essentially made her feel that her weight was all that mattered? That story, as I’ve lived with for the past 8 years, does not come with a nicely packaged conclusion after that “after” shot.

But that’s not all. What is it like to be a young woman observing hijab in a world (or country) where some people feel that shariah law is going to take over the entire world? What is it like to be a Muslim from India and to be proud of this fact and yet also be concerned about what the right-wing hateful political establishment is doing to your Muslim brothers and sisters still living in the desh?

These are but some of the narratives constantly playing in my mind — and only I can weave them together in the way that I would.

In a world where individuals increasingly feel that there’s nothing we can do, that there are forces more powerful (and sinister, in many cases!) than we moving and shaping the trajectory of our lives, memoirs reminds us that our thoughts and our feelings are still within our control, and that they still matter… to at least someone.

*Remember that my telling will be subjective. But that’s fine.

Why it matters that India lost

For those of you who have no affiliation to either India or Pakistan, today’s significance may only be due to the fact that today is Father’s Day.

But for those of us who originally hail from the Indian subcontinent (don’t forget, it is the Indian subcontinent ;), depending on whether your affiliation lies with Pakistan or India, today was either a day of anticipatory celebration (y’all are supposed to be fasting, okay?) or of much irritation.

Photo Credit: IndiĀ  Samarajiva

As a child of Indian immigrants, I am not elated by Pakistan’s victory over India in today’s cricket match. It is not the #RamadanMiracle I was praying for, nope. It’s not that I am a huge fan of India’s cricket team – I don’t even follow the sport – and two years ago, I probably would not have cared enough to even write this post. But much like the country my parents left over 40 years ago, I too have witnessed a surge in patriotism (or at least interest, in my case) for the Motherland, or I guess, given today – Fatherland.

Of course, my surge is very different from the one we see in India today.

To put it bluntly: Being an Indian Muslim (Muslim-Indian?) often comes with a lot of justifications and explanations… to those who don’t understand that it is possible to be both Muslim and Indian; and to those who think just because I am Indian, I must therefore love EVERYTHING about the country. It’s difficult to be an Indian Muslim, especially now. A part of me wants to blame the BJP for all of the country’s woes (including its loss today, lol). But the truth of the matter is: much like Trump is not solely to blame for all of America’s woes, neither is the Modi government. Both Trump and Modi do however signify a disturbing geopolitical trend in our time – an upswing in right-wing nationalistic, even violent, partisanship that just so happens to also be very anti-Islam.

Suffice it to say, I am not a fan of either administrations – and that’s putting it nicely.

Still, India’s loss today reminded me of the difficulty I find in navigating what it means to be a Muslim who also happens to be Indian. I’ve been reading a lot about Partition lately (I can has PhD?), so that might explain why today’s match aftermath has had a greater impact on me than just wanting to post a “What would Gandhi have thought?” social media update.

Perhaps, it’s all in my head. I don’t live in India, never have, nor do I ever intend to. But I am undeniably Indian. When people assume I am Pakistani, I always correct them. And even if they don’t, I always manage to insert that I am Indian (and Canadian!). I love Indian food, I love (to hate) Bollywood films, I love all the inside jokes, I love the unique culture resulting from the contributions of different ethnic & religious groups, and its history is quite fascinating (I am particularly beholden to Partition and post-Partition because its effects can still be felt today). And of course, Rajinikanth. He is, for me, Richard Simmons’s counterpart from the East. It’s reductionist to call him the “Brown Richard Simmons”. Maybe Richard Simmons is the “White Rajinikanth”? Perhaps both are equally true. I don’t mind partaking in this debate (with myself).

What are your thoughts, whether you are Pakistani, Indian, or neither? I’m particularly interested in hearing from intra-ethnic (Indian and Pakistani) couples like myself. Am I the only one who grapples with such questions as nationalism and feeling conflicted over its ramifications? Should this be the subject of my doctoral dissertation I may or may not ever write?

P.S. I am well aware that I did not answer the title of this post.

Hyderabad: A Different Kind of Love Story

It recently came to my attention that people might not know what Hyderabad is.

In the short story that I just submitted for publication last Thursday (pray for me!), I decided to make the protagonist a Hyderabadi Muslim girl, not unlike myself. Fiction does not come easily to me. In fact, the only kind of writing I can do with much confidence is writing that comes from a place of experience. I was asked to consider changing to a more well-known Indian city like Delhi or Bombay (I got post-colonial daddy issues, aight?). But I just couldn’t do it. To me, being Indian means being Hyderabadi. I don’t know an India outside of Hyderabad, and as I’ve gotten older, I’m more than okay with that.

Hyderabadi Mickey! My sister is a genius. Check out her IG if you haven’t already!

I wasn’t always this way. There was a time when I wouldn’t want anyone to know I’m Hyderabadi. But today, being married to a non-Hyderabadi (Mr. Rafia’s family is from Lahore, Pakistan – very different from Hyderabad, India; don’t let the non-white skin fool you!), displaced from my Hyderabadi roots, whenever I chance upon a fellow Hydro I latch onto them like life support. Because, in many ways, they are.

It was only after I got married and moved away from home that I realized just how much of Hyderabad lives within me. When you’re surrounded by fellow Hyderabadis, you don’t notice it. You can even ignore it. But when it’s been months since you’ve eaten khatti daal, you begin to feel lonely in a way you’ve never felt before. It doesn’t matter if you don’t even like khatti daal. Something is missing. Something is wrong.

Unlike Teenage Rafia, Married Rafia relishes her Hyderabadiness at every opportunity she gets. But I recently realized my blog has been bereft. As readers of my blog, I have been doing you all a disservice by not sharing this part of me with you. What follows below is an insider’s guide to the city I have never lived in and frankly never want to live in, yet still, strangely enough, consider home. Let’s start from the beginning!

Hyderabad is a city located in central India. I like to say ‘south central,’ because everyone knows South Indians > North Indians. Superstar Rajinikanth is all the proof you’ll ever need. Hyderabad is known as the “City of Peals,” despite being completely landlocked (Tank Bund, which Wikipedia tells me is actually named Hussain Sagarbut what does Wikipedia know? – is a man-made lake), because we are prized for our jewelry-making skills. You’d think this bride was going for the whole retro look, but no; it’s a requirement for Hyderabadi brides to be decked in jewelry that weighs twice as much as she does. Fun Fact: Did you know that the Kohinoor Diamond that sits on the Queen of England’s crown was stolen by the Brits from Golconda Fort, situated in… well, close enough to Hyderabad? Damn right!

But I don’t care for jewelry and I’m thinking most of you don’t either. What Hyderabad is perhaps best known for is our food, particularly Hyderabadi Biryani. Don’t believe it when some other South Asian says that the biryani from their region is the best. They’re lying. Unfortunately, most Indian restaurants in North America feature either North Indian food or, if you’re lucky, South Indian – but never Hyderabadi. You have to personally know a Hyderabadi if you want authentic Hyderabadi food. If you don’t, well, sucks to be you. Hyderabadi Biryani is so good, it’s the only non-dessert item I have cravings for on a regular basis. When my mom says she’ll freeze some biryani for me, I just can’t get myself to say “No.” I know it’ll be months until I get that stuff in my hands and down my mouth, but just the thought of eating good biryani makes me happy. My husband and I went to this one place in Indiana that marketed itself as serving Hyderabadi Biryani, but within a second inside the restaurant I knew I was being lied to. My husband thought I was being unnecessarily skeptical. But I was right! If you ever see Butter Chicken in close sight, you’re being duped. Hyderabadis do not eat Butter Chicken.

Sure, our food is great, but what are Hyderabadis actually like? Ask a Hyderabadi and he/she will say they are the nicest, most hospitable people you will ever meet. Ask a non-Hyderabadi South Asian, and they’ll tell you that they are super traditional and clannish. Both are true. Hyderabadis are proud people and rightly so. I think we’re the only Indian city that can claim independence during the time of the British Raj. Sure, the Princes of Hyderabad (or Nizams, as they were called) most likely made some sort of deal with the Brits, but in the end, we got the bragging rights. So, who cares?

To me, what distinguishes Hyderabadis from other South Asians is our distinctive way of speaking. If you can get past our paan-stained teeth, you’ll fall in love with the utter poetry of our words. Real Hyderabadis speak a dialect of Urdu known as Dakhini. Urdu-speakers from other regions like to disparage Hyderabadi Urdu for being a bastardization of what they deem real or asli Urdu, but I say: language is fluid. We all don’t speak the same kind of English, do we? Also, they’re jealous. I like to call Hyderabadi Urdu the Ebonics of Urdu, but it can actually be likened more to Southern English. This video visualizes some of the stereotypical profiling of Hyderabadis (I’m referring to the man, in case that’s not already clear). But (most) Hyderabadis don’t mind this lampooning; we love to laugh at ourselves. In fact, nothing pleases us more than watching videos on YouTube that remind us how awesome we are. One way to tell if you’re speaking to a Hyderabadi is if he/she adds the suffix -koo to common words, like “Nakoo,” which is an emphatic way of saying “No,” and “Kaikoo,” which can be translated to “What the hell are you talking about, foo?” We like to add -koo to many words that don’t grammatically need them. Why? Because we’re Hyderabadi!

I hope I answered some of your questions that you never had until now. I fear that I most likely have left more people mystified than informed, but that’s okay. As Mr. Rafia has come to learn, you’ll never stop being amazed by us Hyderabadis. As I like to say, “Once you go Hydro, you’ll be wishing you had said, ‘Nakoo,’ but it’ll be too late!” Okay, I’ve never said that before. But I needed a neat way to end this ramble of a post.