By sheer coincidence, we find a public school in Pasadena that is much like Minal’s Houston school – the program is International Baccalaureate and also offers a Spanish-English dual language stream. I drop her off in the morning. She lugs a heavy backpack, but seems calm and ready for new adventure.
As I walk out of the building, I notice how curling flags drop from the circular verandah and that the Pakistani flag dangles from one entrance. I wonder if during the course of her day Minal will hear a conversation that India is celebrating its Independence Day today and that Pakistan’s was yesterday.
Packing and dismantling objects that we have collected for decades is more exhausting than I envisioned. In the past, I have either packed a suitcase and flown, or thrown my belongings in a car and driven – though the last time René and I moved within Houston, we had acquired enough furniture and had to hire movers. Still, at the end of the day when we moved from our party-house on Charleston Street, I placed baby Minal and our cat in my car, along with pillows, sheets, towels and drove to the house we purchased on Jefferson Street, where all our belongings were assembled and boxes needed unpacking.
Shifting to Pasadena, California requires a different focus. My friend Anita Wadhwa comes over and forces me to shed more than two-thirds of the books I’ve been collecting. I comply, remembering the books that I found in February on my Karachi bookshelves, the ones had wrapped in brown paper twenty-five years ago and shipped at book-rate from South Hadley to Karachi after finishing college. Those books I donated to one of my mother’s friends who runs a literacy center. In Houston now, I pile the publications in boxes, reassured by friends, who tell me they will take the boxes to a second-hand bookstore and not just toss the boxes in recycling bins.
My mother is already in Houston – she arrived a week earlier even though I told her I didn’t need her help. She knows better. She packs our boxes even as I race to meetings where VBB creates a transition plan on how I will run the organization from afar. One night, Dean Liscum and Michael Stravato drop by and pack visual art and electronics, while Katy Fenton helps by picking pizza for Minal and her friends, who find nooks where they play together as if nothing around them is changing. Another night, Yolanda Alvarado and Carmen Peña Abrego throw a party, inviting random friends – many are left out. I can’t even begin to make a list of all my Houston friends.
On our second last day in Houston (for now), my friend and furniture designer Helmut Ehrmann comes over to dismantle the coffee table he designed for my May 2015 What Is Home? production. Later that evening, more friends – Oskar Sonnen, Marina Tristán, Christa Forster – arrive to help me sort through personal objects: which belongings can be tossed and which ones are attached to memories that must be preserved. At the end of the process, we sit down to eat our last meal prepared by Ammi at our Jefferson home.
a selfie by Christa
The evening before we leave, my friend Jacsun Shah cooks a special meal for us while Jaspal Sublok throws a small going away party. Our house has already been packed up, and everything we own will arrive in Pasadena ten days later, stuffed in two relo-cubes.
The day we fly out, I intend to take Uber to the airport because we have so much luggage, but when my friend Oui Chatwara S. Duran hears my plan, she laughs and tells me that I can’t pay money to fly out of Houston. Lauren Zentz chimes in that she will help. Oskar offers to assist since my mother will also need a ride; she flies to Boston just 20 minutes after our airplane takes off.
This time I don’t run into any friends installing art at Hobby, as I did the last time we flew out from Hobby. Holding our cat in a collapsible carrier, Minal, Ammi, and I pass through security. On the opposite side of the security zig-zag markers, Oskar, Oui, and Albert wave, making Ammi and me feel as if we’ve stepped back in time and are flying out of Karachi in the days when the entire family loaded into several cars and caravaned to the airport.
Before we walk through the tunnel, I wave back. I’m not saying goodbye because I don’t know how to leave.
Minal and Nora staring out of the airplane window
The flight that Minal and I take from LAX to Houston Hobby is delayed and lands at two in the morning. After collecting our baggage, we walk out into the steamy night to catch a taxi – I haven’t asked any friends to pick us up in the middle of the night, though if we were landing in Karachi – where most international flights land in Karachi between eleven at night and six in the morning – we would request that a family member pick us up.
But this morning is not Karachi. We are in Houston.
The taxi driver is a grumpy man from Nigeria. “You are my first customers,” he tells us. “I’ve been sitting and waiting since 8 pm!”
When I give him our address, he asks for direction. “I’m not used to driving to your neighborhood,” he says. “Most people who take taxis go to North Houston or to the Galleria.”
I ask him to turn on Broadway to get to the freeway, but he responds: “We cannot go down Broadway! Too dangerous. Too many bad people there. All these black men – they are robbers. If we stop at a traffic light, they will hold out a gun and take all your possessions.”
Minal pushes closer to me. We reach our house at 3:30 am.
- * *
A few weeks later, I have a different conversation with a rental car agency driver. He’s taking me to the rental agency, so I can have a vehicle to drive in Houston while my car is being shipped to Los Angeles.
“Do you know Mr. Khan?” is the first thing the driver asks me.
“Which Mr. Khan?”
“The one who’s been in the news.”
“No, I don’t know that Mr. Khan,” I respond. “But I’m glad people are paying attention. I can’t believe Donald Trump said what he did.”
The driver laughs. “Don’t even get me started on Mr. Trump! But “Mr. Khan… I helped him run for elections. He didn’t win, though.”
I turn to look at the driver. “The Mr. Khan in the news is not the same as the Mr. Khan, who ran for elections in Houston.”
“Really?” the driver responds. “I thought they were the same!”
“Khan is a popular name among Pakistanis and Afghans,” I say.
At Houston’s Hobby Airport, as René, Minal and I walk toward our gate, I catch sight of glass art that has been installed. Fuchsia glass streaked with yellow and purple stands out as sun rays pour through the west. I text my friend Jimmy Castillo, who works with the Houston Art Alliance’s public art department to him the name of the artist whose work is installed.
Within seconds, Jimmy’s response pops up on my phone: “Gordon Huether. Based on aerial photos of the Houston area. Are you at Hobby? I’m here working
When I ask him where he is, he texts back: I’m near the security checkpoint installing a suspended
I return toward the security gate and catch sight of Jimmy talking to workers as they plan the installation. Jimmy and I talk for a short while before I have to hurry to my departure gate – I’m flying to Los Angeles for a family wedding – and he has to return to work.
Walking away from Jimmy, I realize that as my family explores the possibility of living in Pasadena, California where René has just been offered a job, I will not bump into friends installing art at LAX. If we make the shift, I will have to stay a while before I find my groove in LA’s arts community.
Since I met Azeb in October 2015, I have enjoyed her ability to share stories and make us laugh. Last fall, we sat over several delicious meals at Lucy’s Ethiopian Restaurant as I collected material for a story that appears in the New York Times Magazine’s Lives column: “A Delicate Matter in the Examination room.”
Azeb’s story reminds us of the humor that can arise during translation, while underscoring the need for languages to adapt to medicine and science.
I’ve been using this aluminum foil for many years. Today, as the box catches light on the kitchen table, I stop chopping onions to stare at the slogan since 1947. I am struck by how reference to that year – 1947 – can have only one meaning for those of us with roots in South Asia.
Another storm strikes the city, and many nearby parts of the state receive as many as 16 inches of rain over a two hour period. But in Houston, shortly after sunset, the sun breaks out once the deluge ends. Braving high water, we head toward Uchi’s to celebrate the end of yet another school year.
Above: a swollen Buffalo Bayou two days after another “100 Year Flood”
Four days after another “100 Year Flood” hit Houston, city residents are questioning the definition of 100 Year Floods and 500 Year Floods, especially since flooding occurs every few years. In his 2015 Texas Monthly essay The Problems With 100-Year Floods” John Loma Novax argues that the very definition is deceptive since the city experiences flooding often. Some citizens, who have formed a group, Residents Against Flooding, are stating that city officials are partly responsible since developers are permitted to “use loopholes and grandfathering to avoid doing what the city’s laws require them to do” (Don’t blame Mother Nature for flooding. Blame City Council., Houston Chronicle, April 19, 2016).
In the meantime, René’s school flooded again, the second time in less than a year, and many are wondering why HISD – that owns vast amounts of land throughout Houston – cannot find another space to better serve the needs of a small campus that enrolls immigrant and refugee youth.
Today is Earth Day and the sun is out. Rising water has largely receded, even though once again, lives have been lost and countless homes damaged. This city will rebuild, but few have confidence that steps will be taken to prevent future flooding, which will occur soon – and not after a 100 year gap.
In the meantime, as Rina Chandran at the Wire reminds us, today is also the third anniversary of Dhaka’s Rana Plaza collapse when 1,135 people lost their lives and thousands more were injured.
Yesterday I stopped by the University of Houston to witness eL Seed work on his mural installation as part of the Mitchell Center’s CounterCurrent festival. As he worked high above ground, students performed dance in front of the Social Work building.
Two years ago when eL Seed flew to Houston to examine possible spaces to install his work, I chatted with him about “home” while driving him around Houston.
Now the CounterCurrent festival is in its fourth day, and in just a few hours, I’ll be speaking at a CounterCurrent panel, Home Improvement: Recreational Resistance.
An ammunition store in Houston’s Oak Forest neighborhood
Since I’ve been back in Houston, Minal and three of her classmates have been working on an International Baccalaureate (IB) project called Guns Be Gone. The project is in response to a recently-passed Texas law that allows individuals to openly carry weapons in public spaces. The “open-carry” law was discussed in Houston’s independent School District, and weapons can now be carried into school parking lots right up to building entrances. Further, starting August 1, 2016, public universities will be required to allow “concealed carry” on their campuses.
While our family hasn’t seen any change in Houston’s public landscape since open-carry went into effect, we have certainly seen many signs in restaurants, shops and museums forbidding weapons on their premises (see below).
In response to these new laws, Minal and her classmates visited the University of Houston campus for their IB project, where they interviewed faculty and staff members and passed out surveys; they also conducted surveys at their school.
Last week, alongside their fifth grade classmates, they presented their findings at a formal school presentation. Majority of the people they surveyed were opposed to “open-carry” as well as “concealed-carry” (phrases I’d never heard till this year), but according to their findings, university students were largely in support of weapons – both concealed and open.
After watching Minal’s team and other groups in action, I pondered over how – though I grew up in a politicized family – I was in college before I studied contemporary issues with the kind of focus and consciousness that Minal and her classmates displayed.
A scene from Karachi’s Zamzama Street – one not too different from ammunition stores visible around Texas
Two images from a wall created by VASL, a Karachi-based arts collective, for a project called I Am Karachi. The project’s Walls for Peace initiative aims to replace “negative and politically charged graffiti covered walls with visual images and messages that illustrate positive values such as peace, tolerance and diversity… The target is to undertake 100 negative graffiti covered walls at a time from across Karachi and convert them into 100 Walls of peace and art.”
Back in 2010, I participated in the first Karachi Literature Festival (KLF), and this year, I am back for the seventh annual festival that has surged from 10,000 audience members (the first year) to more than 70,000 this year. Today, VBB launched the first two volumes of our Borderlines publications, with a panel that featured readings by contributors Tehmina Ahmed, Naila Mahmood and Noor Zaheer and myself. The session was moderated by Ghazi Salahuddin.
I read an excerpt from my memoir, one that appeared in Houston Chronicle’s Gray Matters; only when I began reading, did I appreciate how many family members and family friends joined us for the session.
Tehmina and Naila’s readings were perfect as was Noor Zaheer and Ghazi Salahuddin’s last-minute participation. The discussion was rich, and the documentation by photographer Akbar Baloch made the morning even more memorable.
The rest of the festival was packed with exciting panels and readings. For a full list, please visit the KLF website.
(left) A packed session with writer Laxmi Narayan Tripathi; (right) guards patrolling the grounds.
Watts Towers; photo by Minal
René, Minal and I make a trek to Watts, one of LA’s oldest neighborhoods, where we manage to catch sunset at Watts Towers (Simon Rodia, the artist who created the structure, called the work “Nuestro Pueblo”). Though the towers are lower than they appear in photographs, I’m still stunned by how one man – using found objects (glass, bottle-tops, steel, scrap metal etc.) – created these structures over a span of thirty years. Rodia’s house no longer exists but one of the arches (see photo below) marks what was once the entrance to his home.
Though I’m generally drawn to art that has direct relationship to social justice issues – such as Tropical America (1932) by David Alfaro Siqueiros that I experience thanks to my friend Veronica Reyes – I still appreciate the creation Rodia’s installation. As we peer at the mosaic through the fences, I’m reminded of Houston’s Orange Show and the Beer Can House.
On our second day in Los Angeles, René, Minal and I wake up early, so we can get to Disneyland before a crowd builds up. However, the battle to enter the amusement park without struggle is a lost cause. We have long waits at the entrance tunnel, at the park’s train shuttle, and at the park’s entrance gate. Even when inside, we face 90-minute lines that wrap around entrances to rides.
By the end of the day, exhausted from weaving between throngs of adults and children, René and I ponder over whether the experience was worth our time and money. We drive away from the park in agreement that Minal can now say she’s been to to Disneyland in its original format. In January 2016, one section of the park will be closed off so the amusement park’s Star Wars section can be further developed, and old sections of the park will be permanently removed.
As the bank teller processes my check, she asks: “You have a show tomorrow, don’t you?”
I look up from my phone, noticing her face for the first time. “Yes. We do. Are you on VBB’s mailing list?”
She nods. “I came to the show you did on the eastside. About women and Planned Parenthood. I’ve followed your work ever since.”
I have talked to this teller before. This time, I take her name, and thank her for following the work that I do through VBB. Even though the issues we explored through Women Under Siege – religious extremism and the impact on women’s lives – were frightening, I’m glad that the art we created three years ago still resonates with her.
And driving away, I marvel at how in just the space of a month I’ve had two conversations with young women of color in different parts of Houston, and they have talked with me about Planned Parenthood.
Today, I finally eat lunch at Lucy’s Ethiopian Restaurant, and I understand why I have heard so many rave reviews. The two platters I share with a friend contain four different kinds of meats and four different vegetables, accompanied by injera. Each bite is delicious.
installation of interviews from my blog
Last month, I led a storytelling workshop for women, where we talked, ate, and shared narratives about issues of displacement, the state of being transnational, and the loss one faces when attempting to come to terms with being in-between.
The workshop culminated yesterday at Houston Public Library’s second floor. Participants Sukhada Tatke and Azeb Yusuf shared their own stories and read narratives by Zema Kelleta, Tanya Jackson, Muna Tamang. Additionally, Purnima and Hemangi, students who participated in my spring 2015 workshops, performed their stories that were published in Voices Breaking Boundaries’ Borderlines Volume 2. I also read an excerpt, “Skyping My Father Goodbye” from my memoir-in-progress, one that was published in Houston’ Chronicle’s Gray Matters column.
As part of the project, I installed images from my blog that will be on view till December 29, 2015.
The reading and exhibition are part of Building Bridges: Poetic Voices of the Muslim World, presented by Poets House and City Lore, in partnership with the American Library Association and the Houston Public Library.
Once again, just a week after the bombings in Lebanon and Paris, the anti-refugee and anti-Muslim hype in Europe and the US is escalating. In the meantime, Amy Goodman’s Democracy Now! radio show announced the premier of a new documentary, Drone, and she interviewed four US army veterans who are speaking out against using drone attacks as weapons, actions that have led to the deaths of not just marked “terrorists”, but also innocent civilians.
Stephen Lewis, a former US Air Force office who spoke out against using drones said: And there’s an old saying in Texas: You don’t back a scared animal up against the wall. And if you do that, he’s going to come out fighting. And that’s exactly, I think, what’s happening now.
As I reflect on the cycle of violence erupting around the globe, I’m thinking about the remembrance that will be held in one month in Peshawar to mourn the lives of 141 people, including 132 school children who were killed when suicide bombers stormed a military school. I also reflect on how Boko Haram’s violence and torture of women often goes unreported while the Palestinian death count continues to rise.
As a reaction to one wave of violence, an entire group of people, who have no connection to each other – let alone to the extremists – are lambasted when the US Senate votes to block Syrian refugees from entering the US. And smaller petty actions increase such as the vandalizing of a mosque outside Austin, Texas, and the burning of another one in Toronto.
This is just one short list of incidents. Many more die every day, and mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers are left grieving for the rest of their lives, while their losses are unreported. Most of us know that the killings have little to do with religion, and are about complex issues that cannot be explained with a simple hashtag.
Today, I’m reminded of what Minal said a few months ago. She and her friends are ten and eleven years old, but she can express wisdom when she comments on the difference between grownups and children: “We own up and apologize, but grownups get mad and start wars…”
When I first told Minal that our friends Oskar and René were getting married and that Oskar invited me to serve as his Best Wo-Man, her first response was: “What’s the big deal?”
I had to spell it out to her that the US Supreme Court had made a ruling for sex marriage to be legalized around the US: “That’s a big deal. That means that GLBT couples can offer health insurance to each other, and they can legally parent the same child.”
She thought for a moment and nodded. “Yes, that’s a big deal.”
The wedding took place yesterday and I haven’t had time to reflect on the experience of immersing myself in a western wedding: co-hosting the bachelor party, being part of a “wedding party”, standing at the altar with Oskar and René passing the ring to the pastor, joining the other best men/women at the party and making a toast to the married couple, decorating their car with shoe polish, and so much more.
Though their wedding was nontraditional – just because two men were getting married – in other ways, Oskar and René held close to western rituals for their ceremony. And even though I’ve been in the US for half my life, I had never until now experienced a Christian wedding from so close. Through the entire experience, Harbeer, Oskar’s other best man, and I kept joking with Oskar: “Why did you pick two desis to plan everything for you? We’re clueless!”
I don’t go to Home Depot very often, but I dropped by today to exchange a toilet seat.
As the woman behind the counter processed my exchange, she threw out a comment to another woman working behind her: “I heard they closed down Planned Parenthood!”
“Really?” responded the other woman. “I think the federal government cut the funding, but I don’t think Planned Parenthood is closed.”
I jumped into the conversation: “I’ve been involved with Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast. They’re not closed – they’ve lost federal funding. And many women around Texas don’t have access to safe reproductive care. They have to drive hours before they can get support.”
Both cashiers were young women of color. They shook their heads at the same time. “That’s terrible,” they said.
I didn’t want to lecture, but I couldn’t stop myself: “It’s urgent that young women like you take action. You can sign petitions, join protests, writer letters – visit the Planned Parenthood website to learn more.”
Again, both women nodded. “We’ll do something.”
I drove away, feeling hopeful after listening to two women discuss Planned Parenthood, an organization that’s almost taboo to mention in US public spaces.