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Home and Belonging

smilewithsh's picture

Shamial Ahmad

ENG 216: Re-Creating Our World

January 25th, 2014

Home and Belonging

            ‘”Where are you from?””  This question no matter how often it may be asked of me always throws me off a little bit. Where am I, Shamial as a person from? Well, that could be a lot of places. I could be from the city that never sleeps, the concrete jungle that replaced my parents native land of Pakistan when they migrated to the United States. I could say I’m from New York City since that was where I was born. OR perhaps I could even say I’m from down south. Andalusia, Alabama, my home for 5 years; population 9,000.  My most distinct memory of Alabama was the pond in our backyard that I would throw things in my when parents weren’t looking. There was just something appealing to 5 year old Shamial seeing rocks, sticks, and one time my Juicy Juice juice box, be at the  top of the pond and then sink to the bottom.  And the most wonderful swing I had hanging for a large tree in our front yard.  I also vividly remember that tree having fallen on top of our garage when Hurricane Opal came through. We moved a little after that.

            And where did my family and I move to? CHRISTMAS CITY. Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, where a star of Bethlehem was placed atop Lehigh mountain. There’s also a Nazereth not too far away from. To be quite honest, I fell in love with the Lehigh Valley. Also home to the Peep factory and Quaker traditions. I went to school and lived in Bethlehem for most of life. And to this day, I still find it cute and dainty and fun and not “boring” some others may describe.

            BUT WAIT. Let’s not forget every summer where we would be shipped off to Pakistan and Dubai to spend time with our grandparents, to both sets, and my 11 aunts and uncles. I don’t even want to count how many cousins I have. Summers in Pakistan would include dinner time being at 10 pm, an integrated, collective nap time in the day where literally EVERYTHING would close, and an absolute endless supply of amazing, Pakistani food. When I was younger, I thought the “power outages” were just like the ones we would have here in the United States occasionally.  To me as a child, they seemed exciting and it allowed us cousins to have “sleepovers” in the only room with the generator. It wasn’t until I got older that I realized the political implications involved in these planned power outages, called load shedding, that sometimes would last up to 10 hours a day in the summer. On a good day.  Quite unbearable if you’re in 105 degree heat without air conditioning.  And Dubai would always either be the beginning or end of our trip, since our flight was always JFK -->DXB-->KHI or vice versa. I remember that a 7 year old, none of my classmates had heard of Dubai. They just sort of took it as being in the desert somewhere when I showed them a picture of me on a camel. Speaking of camels, EVERYTIME I go to Pakistan/Dubai, I ride a camel, I had a strange fascination with them ever since I was a child and my trips never seem to be complete without riding a camel.  (See picture below. I'm on a camel in Karachi, Pakistan with my cousin. I was very pleased :) )

But those are just all places I have grown up around and have memories of. Places I can say I am from in a way, places that have been sprinkled on to me and intertwined in my memories, that come rushing back at the sight, sound, or smell of something to trigger these said places.  These are all places I could say that I am from, but where I am from doesn’t necessarily make that home.  Though my birthplace of New York City will never change, I definitely don’t think that’s where I belong. Home to me is a feeling. That feeling of complete and utter relief. Home is a combination of so many things, that Í’m struggling a little but to articulate. The feeling of crawling into bed after a long day, pulling the covers up over your head and letting the humming silence envelop you is like finally being able to breathe. I think the feeling of home gives me the ability to breathe.  Home is also waking up to Urdu and Bollywood music blasting in the kitchen with a mix of spices encircling the air. My nose has become so good at deciphering the different smells, that I can tell you exactly whether my mother is cooking Chicken Biryani or Aloo Bhindi Masala. All before I even open my eyes.  Home is hearing my dad speaking on the phone in hushed tones sometimes in the middle of the night or early morning hours when he’s on call. Though I am not a light sleeper, there have been times I’ve randomly awoken in the middle of the night and I can hear my dad in the guest room on the phone speaking softly to a nurse or another doctor on call. It’s usually at that moment I say a prayer for my dad, for I do not know a harder working and more compassionate person.   Once I asked him whether getting calls in the middle of the night and sometimes even having to go to the hospital to check on a patient got frustrating or annoying. What my daddy did next is something that I grew up with him doing, and probably one of my most favorite things in the world.  My dad leans over and kisses the top of my head softly, as he so often did whenever he would drop me off at school or say goodnight. He looks at me with a loving smile and says, “Anything for you my jaan.” Jaan, beta, rani, all terms of endearment in Urdu the equivalent of honey, sweety, darling, etc. but he chose to use the word “jaan” which literally means life. And the word life isn’t even a strong enough word to describe the sentiments “jaan” expresses. Your “jaan” is something inside of you, literally a part of you, if you do not have jaan within you, you cease to live, if we are looking at the word quite literally.  To my father, his family is his jaan. His life. He’s worked his whole life for his family. Starting all the way from Pakistan in a small village, working his way up in the schooling system, getting the marks and scholarships to keep going to school, all the way to medical school.  I think about my dad coming alone to America, applying for residencies, hoping for the best, all for the sake of his family. To my father, his family is his jaan.  And to me, I think my family is my jaan  too. And in this case, jaan is home also. It’s where I belong.  I think of times where I have been the most comfortable, the most relief I have felt in a sense, has been with my family. My jaan, my life, my home, all mix together in my head. I think places are incredibly important and all the places I have been to and lived in have affected me in a way, but something that complimented all those places was the way I felt. My home in a way is where my jaan is, and my jaan lies within my family.  Because my family has shaped me in so many ways, they have raised me to always try my best, to be proud of who I am, and to always do the right thing, even if it is the hard thing to do. My family has inspired me and encouraged me and brought me up in ways that I will forever hold with me. My family are the ones who showed me that I can be proud to be an American, a Pakistani, and a Muslim. So whether it be New York, Pakistan, or Alabama, my parents have showed me that every part of my life, every experience I have had, is part of my story.  That feeling of relief and belonging they fostered in whatever environment I was in or raised in is exactly what allowed me to stand on my own feet when I wasn’t in that environment. They perfected the dichotomy between raising me and guiding, and allowing me to explore and find my own path and own way and learn from my own mistakes.

            When people ask me where I am from, I can tell them, Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, or even Pakistan if they ask where my family is from. But where home is? Home is wherever my jaan is and there is so much that has contributed to that.   


Anne Dalke's picture

“Crawling into bed, pulling the covers up….”

You offer us a new vocabulary word here, jaan, or life, as a definition of (or synonym for?) home, a feeling of belonging, of being guided and loved. You can access this feeling wherever you may be, in all the “places that have been sprinkled on to you”: NYC, Alabama, Bethlehem, Dubai, Pakistan…

You offer some vivid accounts of those places—of camel riding; of “integrated, collective nap times”: and—most resonant for our eco-literate explorations, of the “political implications of power outages/load shedding.” You enable us to smell your mother’s spicy cooking, and to hear the soft sounds of your father’s voice.

What strikes me most, amid these stories, though, is the keynote of “relief”: you say that home is “that feeling of complete and utter relief”; that the “times where I have felt the most relief has been with my family”;  that the “feeling of relief and belonging they fostered is what allowed me to stand on my own feet.”

What is home a relief from? What is the nature of the world, as you understand and experience it, for which home is needed relief? For which “crawling into bed, pulling the covers up over your head” is your most striking image?

“Relief” means a feeling of reassurance and relaxation, following release from anxiety or distress; and/but it’s also a sculptural term  that gives the impression that the sculpted material has been raised above the plane, when actually the field has been lowered. This technique, and this image, seems to me resonant, somehow, to the story you are telling: What is background, what the “ground” or “plane” on which relief appears for you?

Read, please, the essays written by Jessica and Sophia. Make a private post, Sunday evening, about where you see exile in their stories of home (as well as in your own), and bring copies of all three with you, for discussion in Monday’s class.  Thanks!