It was July 4, 2020, around 9:00PM, and we were driving home from northern New Jersey, crossing the Platt Bridge, from which we could see the entire Philadelphia skyline. Due to covid-19, public fireworks in 80% of the country had been canceled, but we had seen, covered in the news, the long lines snaking around fireworks stores nation-wide, of people waiting to purchase their own arsenals. This year, everyone would be a pyrotechnic.
Instead of a single central exposition, hundreds of individual displays were going off at once throughout the city, mostly in South Philadelphia. A magnificent kaleidoscope of explosions hovered just above the skyline, keeping our eyes flowing eagerly from one to the next: multi-colored fountains and bouquets popped and dropped, letting their red and blue petals float down gently; peonies and chrysanthemums, those giant balls, glittered and flickered right and left; tourbillons, giant stars, spun up and down emitting showers of gold, silver and white glowing embers; sparks tumbled slowly over the skyline. The steady, continuous cascade of light continued till we had crossed the bridge and drove by the sports stadiums. There, some vehicles had even pulled off on the side of the highway, some to spectate, others to set off their own collection. I had never seen such an extensive display over an entire city.
O course, it was illegal, and had its consequential catastrophic fires and burns, but from a purely esthetic perspective, it was truly magical. It also spoke volumes. America would not be deprived of its independence fireworks display, and if their cities and townships would not provide one, then individual citizens would do it themselves. But “the show must go on!” Coinciding with the angry voices against wearing masks in the fight against covid, the voices that screamed out, “You can’t tell me what to do or wear!”, now soared these visual voices screaming equally loud, “See our show of independence!”
Pardah is a word used in the Iranian world – Iran and Afghanistan – for veil, or curtain. It also encompasses a range of social and cultural behaviors throughout the Muslim world. Other languages of the Muslim world have their own word for pardah. And although the veil type varies from culture to culture, the behavior remains the same.
Having spent a decade in the Iranian world as a participant observer ethnographer, I experienced pardah to its fullest extent. Over the decade, as my language skills neared fluency, so was the expectation that I behave according to cultural norm. When I attended university in Peshawar, Pakistan, a curtain was drawn between male students on one side of the classroom, and female students on the other so that they could observe pardah. We could hear each other, and all participate in the conversation, but could not see each other. In Iranian traditional homes, different door knockers give off sounds indicating if the visitor is male or female, so that the inhabitants can send the correct gender to welcome the guest. In my own house in Pakistan, I had to maintain certain days for male guests and others for female guests to avoid embarrassment.
Women observe pardah in public, avoiding eye or other contact with males they don’t know. While a light veil suffices inside the home, covering just the head and shoulders, women don a heavy pardah from head to toe when exiting the home. How many times, while walking along roads or paths, did I, upon seeing a male approach from the opposite direction, pull off to the side, turn my back to the road, draw my veil tight around me, and wait for the on comer to pass before resuming my own path. This gesture grew all-too-familiar to me, even in its less dramatic performance of simply lowering my eyes and turning my head away from on coming males in busy American streets.
Today, with the covid-19 pandemic entering its third month, a beautiful Saturday in May, coupled with talk of reducing lockdowns, draws out thousands of quarantine-fatigued groups. Couples, families, friends, and pet walkers pack local parks to enjoy hikes and picnics, the only leisure outing afforded to most Americans. As the morning chill wears off I cast off my long-sleeved outer layer and let it rest on my shoulders, the sleeves hanging down in front of me. The paths that meander through the park are narrow, and roughly half the hikers wear masks, acutely aware of social distancing. I begin to notice the unspoken etiquette among us: One or the other stops, faces the woods to turn their back to the path, and lets the other pass by before resuming to walk. Masks or scarves are secured before crossing paths. As for myself, as I have no mask on, I take the sleeves of the shirt hanging over my chest, crisscross them to cover my mouth and nose, and tie them in back of my head. And as the day progresses and the crowds thicken along the path, I proactively initiate the pull-off, veer far off the path and into the woods, turn my back to the path, and tighten my covering. It suddenly dawns on me; I am thrown back, with this repeated gesture, to my days in the Muslim world, of observing pardah. And all around me, Americans are doing likewise.
The family of farmers had left their destroyed village in Paktya and crossed over into the tribal Khattak region of Pakistan, where they established themselves as tenant farmers for a local wealthy landlord of Teri village. I had just arrived and was to stay with them as a guest, fulfilling my participant observation of Pashtun women’s life. I spent the afternoon talking with women while watching them fill gut skin sacks with fresh cow’s milk and churning it for cream. Evening was approaching, and one of them told me the men of the community wanted to meet me. A man came, wrapped in his blanket and turban, and the women motioned me to follow him.
We entered the low-roofed dried mud brick hut, and I froze, speechless, utterly thrown off by what I saw. As in Afghan fashion, the men sat on the floor lining the walls of the room, each one wrapped in his blanket. They were moving their hand up and down underneath their blanket, so that I could only see the blanket moving. I had never been frightened or felt threatened by men in the Middle East, mostly because I had learned over the years how to behave to earn respect. But this scene completely stunned me. What was I supposed to do, say, think? I stood, frozen, unknowing where to look.
One by one, they removed their blanket to reveal the small bird they were holding, making it bounce on its legs to strengthen them. They were all professional bird catchers and trainers for the Friday fair fights, and every moment of leisure time such as this was spent training their birds’ legs. I melted to the floor to begin answering the multitude of questions launched at me in usual manner at a first introduction.
(Excerpt from Secrets From The Field, finalist for the 2019 Eric Hoffer Award)
It is time, as publication date approaches, to offer serious recognition and gratitude to the people who have made it all possible. They should not be relegated to a single read on a book’s page of acknowledgements, but over and over. They all deserve it.
First and foremost, thank you to all the incredible people from Swat, Pakistan who have shared their lives with me, either in their native home villages or in their lives as exiles. The book is about and for you. I can only hope you feel accurately represented.
Thank you to my supportive and loving husband, Paul, who not only kindled in me the newfound drive to write again but gave me the time and opportunity to do so.
Publishing today is about so much more than writing. Thank you to all those who contributed technical support to the book, Talk Till The Minutes Run Out: to the team at HigherLife, particularly Nicole who has been awesome with timely communication and keeping the ball rolling and never letting me fall behind; Colleen, who helped me launch my online presence; and to Tom and Shea, for helping me take that presence to another level.
There are so many levels of editing and critiquing, and each one enriches the finished product. Thank you to Leilani for the first reading of the novel in its skeletal form, for first driving home the need to shake the social science model if I wanted to write a fiction novel. Thank you to Beebe, whose meticulous editing and suggestions also helped the story to take shape. And to Michelle at HigherLife, with her deeper level of content editing.
My thanks go out to all you who wrote blurbs that will appear on the opening pages of the book, Talk Till The Minutes Run Out: Beebe Bahrami, John Dixon, Robert Nichols, and Whitney Azoy.
Someone recently asked me about the transformation from social science to fiction writing. It is perhaps the greatest challenge I’ve faced in my own writing. Although my journey began with creative writing in high school and college, it quickly proceeded to social science over years of grad school with all its intense reading and writing. Papers, articles, reviews, even the first book (The Performance of Emotion Among Paxtun Women) were all about mastering the social science genre, and there was a level of comfort found there: the style fit the contours of my thought process. But something was missing.
That first academic book prompted me to write a follow-up (Secrets From the Field), still in the telly social science voice, but a memoir. When it first appeared I referred to it as the fun half to the first book, the scenes behind the scenes, the side of anthropological writing we cannot include in our academic writing. Maybe that’s why I called them “secrets.” They were the personal side, the relationships, experiences and blunders which drove the information first outlined.
The idea for the current book (Talk Till The Minutes Run Out) began in 2011 when I was working as an interpreter among Swat Pashtuns in the U.S., and became immersed in their lives, in the struggles of immigrants’ life in general. I already had an intimate knowledge of Swat Valley and people’s life there and was discovering what it took to uproot that life to a new location and give it new meaning. The more people I met, the more I knew I had to somehow make their cause and story known. I decided to take all those people I knew, both from my years of ethnographic fieldwork in Swat, Pakistan, as well as all those I knew living in America, and create a single fictional character whose story would tell both sides. I know – I still think like a social scientist. But I was determined to make this a fiction novel. After all, isn’t that what a historical fiction author does? They infuse their knowledge and expertise into a fictional story.
“Show, don’t tell” is perhaps the one thing writers hear the most. Social science is all about telling, while fiction is all about showing, making it pop like the accent wall in a room, bringing the statement to life and giving it shape and meaning with something that draws the reader in to participate and invest. It turns the telly description into a showy dialog. I used to criticize our modern “dialog-driven fiction,” to pounce on authors for doing it all for the screen writers. My idols were Theodore Dreiser, Wallace Stegner, and John Dos Passos, whose mastery of descriptive writing could hold me spellbound for hours without any need for dialog. Really? Had our attention spans so reduced that our eyes could no longer handle a long break-less prose? Did everything have to be broken to short and choppy to accommodate a faster read? I’ve learned to embrace the style, to understand the difference.
The greatest challenge, again, has been this transformation. And what I’ve learned from it in this debut novel, I am now transposing into my next novel, a family history told by its heirlooms.
In 2011, following the massive floods that devastated northern Pakistan, I wrote an article, “Remembering Swat Valley’s Madyan,” which was published in the online Pakistan Forum. Among other things, the article spoke about Moambar Khan, the man in Madyan who owned a shop and also rented rooms to foreigners in 1978, when I first discovered the village on the Swat River. The article was written in memory of not only the location, but of Moambar Khan and his family, who were my gateway into understanding Pashtun culture. I came and went to Madyan intermittently throughout the 1980s, to 1990.
One day in 2019, as I happened to check my Facebook Notifications page, which I was only just discovering, I found a message: “Hello, I am Naveed Khan, son of Moambar Khan from Madyan. I would like to meet you.” The message had been sitting there over a year.
My article had found its way to the Madyan school teacher, who stopped Naveed Khan to tell him about it, saying that the author had spoken highly of his father, and asking if he knew me. Naveed was born after 1990, so I never met him, although I had known his older siblings as children. He brought the news home, where his siblings recognized my name, and showed him an old photo they had kept of me with their father, taken in 1988.
We began communicating, and I learned that both of Naveed’s parents had passed away, and that his older brother had married a French woman and was living in Switzerland. I even spoke over VOIP with his older sister, who is now a grandmother like me. It was truly a heartwarming reconnection.
The long and short of it is that, insh’Allah, Naveed Khan will visit the U.S. this summer and visit with us in Pennsylvania. Despite all that you read about Pakistan in the Media, the country is made up of real people. This exchange remains, and if anyone ever wants to visit the beautiful Swat Valley of Pakistan, I can guarantee you a warm welcome and hospitality to make your experience memorable.
NOT ALL IMMIGRANTS ARE CREATED EQUAL: THE OTHER STORY
We encounter this underworld of unauthorized immigrants daily in our busy lives: cab drivers, convenience store and fast food employees, gas station attendants, food truck servers, cleaning staff, and farm laborers. We just don’t stop to ask their stories. They are often too busy on their phones talking with family back home or furiously passing news about their exile community, warning each other of raids and deportations, like stalked prey, ever on the lookout for the hawk.
At a time when sparks are flying over building walls and immigration policy, and bias has infiltrated our political and cultural environment to the disadvantage of outsiders, it is high time to consider the other side of immigration. The “melting pot” theory used to be the standard, with immigrants flocking from Europe, then China, etc., blended with slaves from Africa, combined to create a homogenous society, based on language, culture, and a fervent belief that America was the place to flourish.
A plethora of immigrant literature surfaced, success stories with firsthand accounts of immigrants who struggled to achieve assimilation into American society. Education and a strong work ethic were key to rising above and “making it.” First generation immigrants ensured that their children became fully Americanized - language, sports, jobs, friends – sometimes at the expense of their original cultural heritage.
But 9/11 brought this to a halt. Suddenly all Muslims became the enemy, associated with al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and terrorism in general. There is no need to repeat the stories we’ve all read of violent acts performed against Muslims for no other reason than bias. “All Muslims are terrorists,” the FBI was found teaching its trainees in 2009. The more it could identify, round up and deport potential terrorists, the more efficient the government could appear in keeping the nation secure.
The blatant xenophobia demonstrated in the U.S. government has spurred a different group of temporary unauthorized immigrants, who hate back, who harbor no desire to assimilate in any manner, who are fully aware that they can never flourish in America. They settle wherever their ethnic group has already established permanency, even in prior times. They live as cheaply as possible, hustle to work for cash in whatever manner they can, often balancing multiple jobs, and send as much of that cash home to support their family. They know they are disadvantaged and unprivileged economically, but they accept this to maintain anonymity and remain under the government’s radar. In many cases, it’s still better than what they could be earning back home, often under oppressive conditions. They rely on the exiled group’s in-house resources: doctors, lawyers, and service specialists. Nothing can persuade them to turn to local authorities for advice or assistance. On the contrary, they are forever looking over their shoulder for these authorities; they live in fear of deportation. Apart from laboring to send money home, they aspire only to quietly and anonymously live out their term and then return to retire.
Today’s arguments focus on immigrants seeking to settle in America, a threat to our social services, but this other group, comprising some 140,000 unauthorized individuals from the Middle East alone, have quite another agenda we tend to ignore.