talking about "home" with sorayya khan...

Part of my What Is Home? project includes raising the same question (with a few more thrown in, thanks to my friends Jaspal and Yaksha) to family members, friends and others who cross my path.

Here, my friend Sorayya Khan, author of Noor and Five Queens Road, converses with me about her ideas of home. Khan’s third novel, City of Spies, (Aleph, New Delhi) will be released in January 2015.

For me, home means being around family wherever family is– and so my idea of home is open since I have family in many different locations. There is no single place where I feel completely at home. I never thought about what home was until I was 10 and we moved from Europe to Pakistan and I left the only home I knew. As I became older, I started to wonder, “What is home?” My grandparents’ house was in Lahore, but it no longer exists, and the same is true for my parents’ house in Islamabad. I was born in Vienna, Austria, which is also, as it happens, where my mother currently lives. I live with my family, Naeem and the boys, in Ithaca, NY, also my home.

Pakistan is my artistic home and source. All my writing derives from that space and my relationship to it. This home is my constant.

I lived in Pakistan from 1972-79 and I left for college until 1983. I returned, but left in 1984 for graduate school. After graduate school, I travelled once a year to Pakistan until our first child was born in 1992. Later, we spaced out our visits with the children to perhaps once every two years. I spent six months in Pakistan on a Fulbright researching my first novel in 1999, the same year my father died. Technically, however, I’ve been away from Pakistan since I left for college at age seventeen.

I no longer feel that not having a Home is problematic or that I’m missing something by not having one. My father used to tell us when we were growing up that we are lucky because we have many worlds (he was Pakistani, my mother is Dutch); I’ve now arrived at a complete understanding of this and he was, in fact, right. There was a time in my life when not having a Home was a source of sorrow, but now that space is my inspiration and my reason to write. My concept of home was fundamentally affected when my father died. We no longer had a family home and my mother left Pakistan, traumatic events that shifted everything and gave me new perspective.

My sense of loss has been filled with my writing and work. I write my home. Obviously, in a concrete sense, I have a home – a place I live with my husband and children, the family and home we have made. Yet, there’s no way to call my current city Home. It’s my home, but then it’s not. For me to call Ithaca “Home” all the parts of who I am would have to be here. My father would be alive, Islamabad and Lahore would be here, my grandparents, too …no factors can make that happen. Right now, my home is my where my husband and children are, but making Ithaca my home with a capital H is not going to happen. – Sorayya Khan

what is home?...

“When you ask the question ‘what is home?’ are you talking about a physical space or an emotional place?” asks my friend Yaksha. “Those are two different things.”

“This is not an easy question to answer,” comments my friend Jaspal with whom I’ve been discussing my project over the last year. This Sunday afternoon, we sit in Jaspal’s living room, brainstorming survey questions and social gatherings for my What Is Home? project. “The word ‘home’ can mean so many different things to people…”

Yaksha and I nod, sipping the masala tea that Jaspal prepared for us. Outside the windows, sun rays shift between patches of drizzle.

“Just drinking this tea and sitting with friends makes me feel as if I’m home,” says Yaksha. “And your question is so simple – home’s a subject we all reflect on – yet we don’t often converse with each other about this idea…”

As I work on my project, I find that even though so many anthologies and talks have been produced around the subject of home and belonging, yet the very word home generates conversation and reflection – and answers to what is home? are never monolithic.


reflections on ferguson and gaza...

In her August 28, 2014 essay “On growing up in Ferguson and Palestine” published in the Washington Post, poet Naomi Shihab Nye writes:

In Ferguson, an invisible line separated white and black communities. In Jerusalem, a no-man’s land separated people, designated by barbed wire.

She concludes with:

Things will change again in Ferguson. Historic inequities in that community will be reexamined, no one will be able to pretend they don’t exist. But will we examine them in other communities too?

Will things change for Gaza? If they don’t, this nightmare of worst selves will keep happening and happening. Look, it already has. And what gets better? Will the United States ever speak out in solidarity with scores of exhausted people burying their dead, staring up with stunned eyes, mystified?

At the end of August 2014, six weeks since the new violence unfolded, more than 2,000 Palestinians have died. As reported in Al Arabiya news, most of the lives have been those of civilians, and more than 490 children have been killed.

In the meantime, outrage continues to be expressed around the globe, but there is little sign of violence ending. Nye’s essay is one more reminder of the urgency to address to deeper issues behind the conflict so there can be resolution.

a perigee moon...

I drive along Lawndale Street, but pull over to capture an image of the perigree moon hovering above oak trees, a perfect yellow circle emanating radiance. In appreciation of the natural light, I turn off my headlights, and for a few seconds, remember how the streets looked after Hurricane Ike when there was no electricity for 10 days and there were more moments like these when life slowed down and we stopped to appreciate natural light and air.

biking along brays bayou...

On our first Saturday afternoon in Houston after a month of roaming, Minal, René and I meander on our bikes along a new trail that’s being built along Brays Bayou as part of a new initiative, trails to connect the city for walkers and bicyclists. Some paths are utilized by more people and landscaped better than others. This one, a corner of the Brays Bayou. is only just beginning to be used for biking.

a different narrative...

I know that I’ve landed in the US when I absorb mainstream news and find barely any mention of the 1,500 women, children and men killed in Gaza.

streets of toronto...

After visiting with Sharlene Bamboat at the South Asian Visual Arts Center (SAVAC), a 20-year-old arts organization, I wander down the streets of downtown Toronto with my friend Salma. Next to a street stall displaying batik skirts and jewelry, I stop to admire a tree sculpture.

A little further down, I capture an image of “borderline” on a store window, a very different interpretation of the word from one that we’re exploring for VBB’s Borderlines production series.

landing on water...

Minal and I press close to the airplane window as we watch the airplane drop closer toward Lake Ontario’s blue water. In the background is Toronto’s skyline.

At customs, after responding to questions such as why I’m visiting Toronto and where’s Minal’s father, we walk over to the conveyer belt to pick up our luggage. Once we have our baggage, we load the trolley and head toward an exit, but the only sign we see is one that leads to a ferry. With some assistance, we learn that Billy Bishop Airport is on an island, and to reach the shore, we have to wheel our baggage onto a ferry, which will drop us off into the passenger pickup area.

beets in boston...

My sister, Beena Sarwar, has a spate of snack-recipes to share: baked beets, sauteed carrots and baked cauliflowers – to name just a few.

window-shopping at the forum...

The pre-Eid shopping frenzy has already begun in Karachi, and shopping centers remain open after iftari. One night, my mother Zakia Sarwar and I wander over to the Forum, so I can purchase some books, and after entering the shopping center, we find ourselves walking past a window displaying lingerie. Further down is some music and drumming and we stumble onto a breakdancer holding audience beneath the escalators.

sneaking a cup of coffee during an islamabad ramzan morning...

My friend Ilona Yusuf sneaks me into a café in Islamabad.

They may throw us out, she says. But let’s try anyway.

She shares the story of how she and her son tried to visit the café during the first few days of Ramzan earlier this month, but they weren’t allowed up the stairs where non-Pakistanis were being served beverages and food. I’ve been spending time with friends and family with little desire to dine anywhere but at residential homes, so the reminder of General Zia’s Ramzan Ordinance is jarring.

This morning, though, we are permitted inside, and we spend our morning imbibing coffee and catching up.

another border...

I take a drive up to the Wagah border to experience the raising of flags ceremony that has been documented many times over. The afternoon is humid and hot, and the soldiers dressed in black, are streaming strands of sweat even as they march across the steaming asphalt.

The ceremony is a performance that takes place every single day as both Indian and Pakistani soldiers march, kick up legs and raise and lower the flags, but with ramzaan underway, the Pakistani crowds are thin. On the Indian side, though, across the gates are compressed bodies packed on cement stairs, and men walk through the crowd, selling flags. After the ceremony ends, a couple of clowns on the Pakistan side pound on drums and wave flags.

As we walk away, I know that this act of daily patriotism is one that I can only bear to witness once.

a grant award for my "what is home?" project...

I learn via email that I’ve been awarded an artist innovations grant through the Mid-America Arts Alliance for my What is Home? project, one that I started eighteen months ago during my residency with the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Center for the Arts.

a visit to rohtas 2 in lahore...

Thanks to Salima Hashmi, I spend the evening iftar with a group of artists at Rohtas 2, a gallery on one side of Professor Hashmi’s house as we discuss Voices Breaking Boundaries’ Borderlines project.

dubai airport again...

Dubai airport continues to expand, getting increasingly glamorous with little credit given to men from different parts of Asia who provide hard labor yet live outside the city’s air-conditioned glass bubble.

a panel discussion for the mitchell center...

As part of my residency with the Mitchell Center for the Arts, I participate at CounterCurrents 2014 in a panel discussion, Challenging the Boundaries: Collaboration Among the Arts, and about my residency itself, for which I’m creating a memoir What Is Home?. As the conversation closes out, Daniel Romain improvises a short piece in response to one of my images.

IMG 2552 from sehba sarwar on Vimeo.

home-cooked puri...

I wake up late this Sunday morning, and when I wander into the kitchen, I find that my mother Zakia Sarwar and Minal have kneaded whole-wheat flour to create dough for fresh-fried puris. While I make a desi-omelette with cillantro, jalapeños, onions and tomatoes, Ammi fries the puris. The crispy bread tastes as delicious in Houston as it does in Karachi.

on air with david barsamian...

David Barsamian from Alternative Radio visits Houston to give a talk, and I manage to pin him down for a live conversation on KPFT Pacifica Radio 90.1 FM. To listen, click here.

a frosty morning minal-ism..

We’re listening to Patti Smith’s song, “1959”, as I drive Minal to school this frosty morning. Because of the song, our conversation moves toward student activism.

Minal: I predict there won’t be war in one century.

Me: Why do you say that?

Minal: Because there are so many children in this world who don’t believe in war, Ammi!

Me: So, will you be around?

Minal: I don’t think so…

year of the horse celebration...

A lion at Houston’s Chinese Cultural Center’s Year of the Horse celebration.