Realizing all that I love about Pakistan from afar

By ZUBIA HASAN | April 11, 2019

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COURTESY OF PBALLYAN/ CC BY-SA 4.0

Hasan has come to miss the seviyan, which she would have for dessert.

Pakistan was long warm nights. Pakistan was roadside cafes. Pakistan was pebbled streets and pavements merging into one another. Pakistan was friends and family and colored, dirty cloth on a table. Pakistan was chai made right. Pakistan was greasy nutella paratha and greasier fries. Pakistan was eating food that you knew would give you an upset stomach.

Pakistan was people. So many people. Pakistan was open houses. Pakistan was walking into friend’s homes and flopping on couches made your own by sweat stains and laughter. Pakistan was more than words can describe. 

Distance changes so much. Roads transform and become straight arrows pointing in one direction. Laws become ordered. Buildings become aligned. Trees that line the pavement are pruned. Distance changes so much, but I never thought it would change me. But it has. I have stored warm nights and yellow lights in my memory. I have stored the taste of chai on my lips.

Things that I never thought that I would miss, I now long for. I miss my mom nagging me to pray. I miss the loud, loud azaan waking me up from my evening nap. I miss Ramadan at home — how before we broke our fast everyone would gather in the kitchen entrusted with a specific task — my sister the sherbet-maker, my mom the fryer and me perpetually lazy, doing something but really nothing. 

Eid at home was special. I always complained about it, about the long drive to my grandmother's house, the small rooms and cramped quarters. I whined about meeting relatives and shaking hands and exchanging formalities. I hated the food which was so repetitive, always the same — biryani with korma and finally seviyan for dessert. 

How was I to know there was comfort in repetition, something special about tradition? How was I to know that my grandmother’s special Eid recipe for seviyan was impossible to replicate thousands of miles away? How was I to know that the secret ingredient wasn’t ‘put in twice the amount of sugar you would and then triple it,’ but the place it was made?

It’s the simple, ordinary moments that have stuck with me. I remember my friend dropping me off at home. I remember how the yellow light dappled with black shadows of trees spotted my street. I remember the song that we played. I remember how my heart was full and life was suffused with completeness. I remember sitting outside ChaiWala, shawl wrapped around my shoulders, chai in hand and cheese paratha on the table in front of me. Those nights were made of conversations and friendships. They were molded by laughter. There is a certain timelessness about them. I will store them with me always. 

I do not mean to romanticize Pakistan. I guess my mind has just romanticized memories of something that I can no longer have. Nights that I can no longer go back to. But I still carry Pakistan with me. Little tells in my accent — like the way I pronounce my v’s as w’s. The way I emphasize my d’s and my t’s a little more, so that the end of the sentence is more important than the beginning. The way friendly banter implies repeating words with different first letters, so that “chai” becomes “chai shai” and “khana” (food) becomes “khana wana”. 

Can Baltimore compare? No. Comparisons aren’t fair though. America never stood a chance against a place molded by memories. But the longer I stay here, the closer I come to those nights in Karachi. Sure, America will never have chai, America will never have roadside cafes and America will still never know how to season her food, but America has other things. America has my best friend Kavya. America has nights watching movies in our dorm room. America has midnight karaoke sessions and Ben and Jerry’s at 3 a.m. 

I don’t know what makes a place home. I don’t know if Baltimore ever will be, but there is a little Pakistan here in my little dorm room and my little chai cooking saucepan. 

And tomorrow I will wake up and I will wear my most Pakistani dress and wear the most Pakistani jewelry and I will know that I have brought a little of Pakistan here. And until then Pakistan will have to wait for me, and long nights in my dorm room blasting Urdu music will have to do.

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