To Lahore, With Love: Musings of a Traveling Feminista, From Pakistan to Palestine

Photograph Source: Fassifarooq – CC BY-SA 4.0

So many trips back and forth from the US to Pakistan ever since I “left” Lahore on Sep 12th, 1979. My 21st birthday. I was off to conquer the world, become the free and independent woman I had always dreamt of being, away from the strictures of desi patriarchy- or so I imagined. So many tearful and joyful reunions, departures, and arrivals over four and a half decades that now appear to have passed in the blink of an eye.

This visit around, six glorious weeks in the middle of my 6th decade of life, felt, somehow, different. Perhaps because I am now a late middle-aged woman, I’ve come into my own in a way that no longer threatens anyone nor am I interested in doing things to please or impress others. Being comfortable in my own skin, finally, has made me accept and share with deep honesty all of myself, my experiences, my political and artistic passions, my ever-sharpening zest for life, fun, adventure, with all whom I come across in both my personal and professional lives. Perhaps that is why I felt more loved and accepted for who I am, and who I’ve become, this time around. Or maybe it’s my own gaze that has changed.

I now feel things, people, ideas more intensely than ever, perhaps because intimations of mortality fluttering on the edge of consciousness have moved firmly into center stage. And so, my life has become a vessel filled to the brim with precious cargo. The only cargo I now realize as being worthy of its weight on this journey of life: love. Love’s heaviness paradoxically helps life become a lighter burden, but as I have now realized, Kundera got it right: this lightness has an unbearable quality: the unbearable lightness of Being. Of Becoming. And Loving.

What is this unbearable lightness that shakes me to my core each time I land on the tarmac of Lahore’s Allama Iqbal International Airport, in the city of my birth, my childhood and adolescence? I ran away at 21 from what I now see as the burden of an excessive love, loving/being loved by the mother/land, a too-constricted notion of patria and its maternal patriarchy. Mothers can be patriarchs too.

Escape. Flight. Even over 40 years of married life and raising two children, far away from my native land, my obsession with running away, with challenging norms and expectations, has continued to shape the land(e)scape of my mind. I have been a wife without being wifely, a mother without the patriarchal baggage of maternalism. Above all, I have tried to be a Friend (which might be the reason Forster’s paen to a failed friendship, Passage to India, still has the power to move me to tears). Friendship has fueled solidarity, and solidarity has been key to unlocking the kinds of progressive political commitments that have kept the flame of a justice-seeking love alive in my heart, keeping me connected across the many borders I continue to cross. Escape has not meant turning away from the demands of loving; rather, it is a running toward a vision of the world where all types of borders can be erased—or at least, negotiated. The loving pursuit of justice demands nothing less.

And so, perhaps the border crossing this time from the US into Pakistan, in the midst of a genocidal war on Palestinians in Gaza backed by the country I ran away to as an escape from certain unjust strictures in my birth country, took on a weightier shape.

I got the chance to share my school activism in solidarity with Palestinian resistance to Zionist colonialism, a battle I’ve fought over a four-decades-long academic career in the US on my campus dominated by Zionist faculty and administrators. This is the case across academia in the USA, now laid bare for all to witness during the grotesque crackdowns on students and faculty who are speaking out and organizing for justice for Palestine in the face of the ongoing slaughter of by now, over 40,000 innocent civilians, a majority of them women and children, in the Gaza strip.

Despite the Pakistani state’s lack of overt support for Palestine and the other politically repressive measures in place and evident economic frustrations and anxieties besetting the citizenry, the students I interacted with at several institutions I spoke at, gave me–like my students back in New Jersey– great hope for the victory of Love over Hate, for activist engagement over a politics of despair and cynicism. For instance, at one of the universities where I gave a talk on pro-Palestine protests on various university campuses and the many marches and rallies I had participated in that took place in New York City, students expressed their interest in forming an SJP (Students for Justice in Palestine) chapter at their school, and on another campus, students chanted “Free, free Palestine” at the conclusion of my presentation.

So– back to border-crossing.

I am on the proverbial jet plane heading “home” to the USA, having sung the “pardesi, jana nahin” song at several occasions in Lahore, without the audience realizing how hard it was for me to perform it without choking up. “Dont go, O my Beloved who is now a Foreigner, don’t go and leave those who love you here, behind.”

I now understand there is no escape. We carry our loves with us, even as we fly far, far away. The moving finger writes, and having writ moves on. And so we must live with the choices we have made. But we can nonetheless, within the confines of whichever space-time we find ourselves, and despite the unsatisfactoriness of our choices, exercise our will to love, to connect to others, to build solidarities that rest on our capacity to will into being a better, more just world. Whether here, there, or else/where, I will, in the words of the famous Punjabi mystic poet Bulleh Shah, keep casting my spell, in hopes to win my lost Beloved back:  ik toona achambaan gawan gee, mein ruthra yaar manawaan gee. And in the process of casting that spell, if I should light a fire in the heart of the blazing sun, mein agan jalaawan gee—well, then, wouldn’t that be a step toward justice?

These powerful words I sang at Times Square to express my Punjabi Pakistani solidarity with the imprisoned leaders of the Jenin Freedom Theatre Troupe as I marched in Manhattan to protest the many different oppressive tactics of the Israeli militarist state against not just the people of Gaza but also the Palestinians of the West Bank. As the Vietnam war protestors knew, and now all those around the world protesting Israeli genocide of Palestinians also understand: there can be no love, no peace, without justice. And from justice, there is no escape. Or as Martin Luther King Jr reminded us, the arc of the moral universe may be long, but it bends toward justice.

Fawzia Afzal-Khan is University Distinguished Scholar at Montclair State University in NJ. Her latest book is Siren Song:Understanding Pakistan Though it’s Women Singers. She can be reached at:  fak0912@yahoo.com