For a long time, I took for granted that a country was supposed to protect its citizens from violence. For me—raised in the safety of American citizenship, cocooned in its suburbs—normalized brutality felt like a distant concept. Understanding that violence could be a predictable, mundane part of daily existence was a difficult and meandering lesson, one that took me time to absorb.
When I packed my suitcase to leave Dallas for Lahore three and a half years ago, I didn’t really know what I was running toward. I had some idea, an alienated, diasporic kaleidoscope of images: the old city filled with ancient spices; the green fields of Sindh opening up for me; a brown people, who looked like me, among whom I could finally be fully welcomed. I’d spent many fractured summers in Pakistan as a child, marveling over the spontaneity of the culture, the rawness, so different from the sterilized suburbs near Dallas where I grew up.
I’d grown up in a nice, quiet town where there was no shortage of organic stores; the kind of place where a power outage would have been a major event. Like all young suburbans who have read some Hemingway and consider themselves above their surroundings, I wanted to escape, to “see the world.” What better place to start than the backyard of my immigrant imagination?
As a child of the Pakistani diaspora, I lived in limbo, between worlds. And so at twenty I decided to leave behind everyone I knew well and most of my possessions to begin a university course in Pakistan, which would give me time to explore the nation of my birth. I was supremely confident of my decision in the weeks leading up to my move, even as I felt the friendships I’d spent years taking care of slipping from my grasp. It wasn’t until I was actually on the plane that I realized, with a shock, the depth of my decision. For nine hours above the Atlantic, I sobbed and sobbed. But when the plane touched down on Lahori soil and I stepped off the plane and inhaled the unmistakable scent of the land, I heard homecoming music playing in the back of my head.
Homeland. Roots. Identity. These were the words I used to describe Pakistan back then.
Blast. Paranoia. Enforced disappearance. These are the words I’ve added to the list.
The first time the extremists shut down the city, college was cancelled. My extended family—with whom I was staying while I took classes in biology—huddled in fear in the drawing room, eyes fixed on the TV programs showing rickshaws set on fire. I was finally beginning to adjust to life in the city, making new friends and venturing out. Maybe I was feeling reckless, or maybe I just couldn’t believe that what I was seeing had anything to do with me.
Excellent, I decided; no traffic.
I drove across the city to my new best friend’s house. Lahore was a ghost town. The air was silent and buzzing with fear.
My friend, concerned about the roads, met me halfway. On the road to the house, we were met with an ominous barrier. All the cars next to us were turning around and driving away from it, unwilling to face whatever unrest we were being blocked off from.
But there was no other way to get to her house. We held our breath, then drove right past the two tanks parked in the middle of the road. My stomach flipped as we passed a gang of bearded armed men surrounding them—jihadis for hire. They raised their weapons for a moment, but then, suddenly, they changed their minds. They waved us past.
My heart leapt and I turned to look at my friend, who exhaled and kept driving, eyes fixed on the road. “What was that?” I said. “That was why we shouldn’t have left our houses today, you idiot.” I understood, belatedly, why the rest of my family had chosen to stay indoors. I had overestimated the value of my favorite task, sticking it to the man, and underestimated the danger at hand. I was left shaken by the experience, and reminded of where I was really living. My parents often reminisced about their childhoods growing up in Pakistan, where they roamed freely without fear of crime or terror attacks. Now it was clear to me that those days were long gone; it was a starkly different country that greeted me, one steeped in and paralyzed by a climate of fear.
In American suburbia, I had come to expect a certain sense of entitlement to the space around me, an assumption that I could live as I chose and face no violence for doing so. I didn’t realize the value of this public space in my life until it was taken from me. Things I had hated doing or thought nothing of in Dallas, like jogging or picking up my own groceries, now meant the world to me in their absence. It is a complicated thing to live as a woman in Pakistan. Though as a woman from an upper-class family I have relatively little to complain about, the sense of not being seen, or not being able to reach out and touch the city in front of me made me feel as though I had disappeared. It was a cold and prickly sensation, like an egg that had been cracked onto my head.
Knowing, theoretically, that you live in a violent place is different from accepting that violence can strike at any time. I often reacted with disbelief to my new Pakistani friends’ suspicions that progressive civil society groups were being targeted by the state and extremist groups. Over the months, though, I watched, stunned, as violence in all its incarnations—the subtle, the implied, the virtual—wormed its way through society.
Groups like the Lahore-based Progressive Students Collective—which organizes around issues like fee hikes, unsafe hostel conditions, sexual harassment by professors, and student mental health—have been subject to mass arrests at demonstrations over the past year.
Similarly, the Pashtun Tahafaz Movement (PTM) is a social movement advocating for the rights of the country’s Pashtun population, which frequently faces ethnic violence and rampant discrimination. When my new friends described the organization, I found myself agreeing with PTM’s aims, finding them commonsensical. Yet the measures taken to squash it have been extraordinary and brutal, extending to a national media blackout. The night before a peaceful protest in Lahore, five of the organizing members were arrested and held for hours without being charged, and the protest grounds were strewn with raw sewage. Individuals involved in the PTM movement, such as Raza Wazir, are constantly harassed and suppressed by authorities. Wazir and Ammar Ali Jan of the Progressive Students Collective were barred from speaking at the Faiz Festival, a progressive conference held in November. The Festival organizers received a call from shadowy higher-ups giving direct orders to prevent the activists from speaking on their scheduled panels. The risks of disobeying such orders are clear. In 2015, prominent social activist Sabeen Mahmud ignored such a call by going ahead with a controversial event at a community space in Karachi. She was shot in the head at a traffic light on her way home from the event.
I remember sitting on the same friend’s bed one afternoon early in my stay, listening to the monsoon pour down and talking about the most recent progressive protest. He thought there would be violent backlash from the authorities, but I couldn’t understand it. Why would they? I asked again and again. It’s not like these groups are trying to overthrow the government. They just want basic rights. I couldn’t reconcile my abstract understanding of politics with the reality in front of me. I understood that the Pakistani state was dictatorial and had many heads, but I could not understand it’s predilection to act with swift violence towards its citizens for minor offenses, like exercising constitutionally mandated free speech.
During my second year in Pakistan, there was an explosion in an affluent neighborhood close to my family’s home. I was at university when the unverified news hit the WhatsApp groups I had joined. Those texts were followed by others reporting another bomb in Gulberg, a third bomb in Johar Town, then, finally, there were six bombs reportedly placed in random locations across the city, all set to explode that day. Later, I found out these were rumors, but when we ran over to the TV in the lobby to watch the news during our tea break, I felt increasing panic as anchors reported the WhatsApp theories as fact.
When we returned to the classroom at the end of our break, our professor sighed, as though annoyed by the interruption. “I’ll give you all a minute to call your families and check that they’re safe,” she said, “but after that we’re moving on to our lesson.” As I frantically dialed my family, I thought about how in America, such an event would lead to a lockdown, not to mention constant news coverage. But for many in Lahore, this was business as usual: it happened yesterday. It will happen tomorrow, too. Why fret?
I realized that many of the people around me didn’t bat an eye at the occasional bomb or shooting or abduction of a journalist because they had all adjusted, in one way or another, to the realities of living in a state of heightened terror. It had been only a few years since terrorists affiliated with Tehrik-i-Taliban had killed scores of children in an attack on an Army school in Peshawar, leaving a deep wound in the national psyche. Ever since, many schools had posted snipers out front. I had often observed as the sniper dressed in khaki perched on the roof of our college swayed in the hot sun, fighting off bored sleep.
When the city burst into riots this year, I felt somewhat more prepared for the public violence. By then, I had read about journalists disappearing into thin air; I had seen photos of bloody carcasses left out as a message to the rest of us. My illusion that nothing really bad would happen—that I and the people I knew were somehow immune from all the violence—had been shattered. The extremists who overtook the nation in October, shutting down schools, business, and hospitals, were gripped by fury over the release of Asia Bibi, a Christian women who spent ten years on death row on trumped-up charges. In the furor over her supposed blasphemy, and the government’s supposed lenience in letting her go, the governor of Punjab himself had been assassinated shortly after voicing caution. The governor’s murderer was found, arrested, and executed, but thousands turned out to revere the killer as a hero, turning his grave into a holy site of sorts. This time, I knew better; I stayed inside.
When I left Texas in 2015, I believed Hillary Clinton would win the election so easily that I didn’t bother going through the hassle of sending an overseas ballot. I expected to become accustomed to the chaos in Pakistan, but what I did not expect was that as I changed, my other home would change with me, that both of the places I loved would grow flanked by fear and brutality.
Growing up as a Muslim in Texas, I knew that I had to watch out for myself, but I felt that my US citizenship provided me with a thin film which seemed to protect me from the outside world’s violence. The world was a dangerous and unstable place, I knew, but the real danger always seems to happen to someone else, in some other place. But once I moved and began to watch the news from back home as an outsider, I realized that the chaos I was experiencing in Pakistan wasn’t new, or even all that special: it was happening in Las Vegas, Charlottesville, Dallas, Pittsburgh, Thousand Oaks.
When I return to America for the holidays now I feel a sense of unease, as though I’m watching the opening sequence of a movie I’ve already seen. While the Thousand Oaks shooting in November dominated headlines for a few days, I watched as the media soon swiveled their focus to the upcoming elections. I thought of that professor, pulling down the projector and continuing along with the lesson, business as usual.
Living in Pakistan has taught me that political change is not as sexy or dramatic as I had envisioned it as a teenager. Civil society doesn’t die at the moment of panic or the moment of clear defeat. Its unrelenting loss comes in all of the quiet moments after that: the mother choosing to stay quiet in order to save her own neck, the harangued members of government feeling as though they might as well go along with the latest package of hateful legislation, the young man sighing and switching the channel away from the day’s news.
In the face of repeated and unrelenting horror, perhaps that’s all that can be done, but it leads to a hardening. I learned to desensitize myself to violence in Lahore, but I didn’t expect the skill set to come in so handy in Trump’s America, as we watch mass shooting after mass shooting with increasing despair and detachment. When I was living in the United States, I was taught that inhumanity and brutality lived elsewhere. Now, I see it jumping out in every aspect of “our” society—from children being separated from their families at the border to the continuous police brutality faced by poor communities of color. One of the victims in the Santa Fe High School shooting earlier this year was Sabika Sheikh, a 17-year old Pakistani exchange student. “We thought she would be safe over there,” her father, Abdul Aziz Sheikh said. “We didn’t realize that my daughter would have been safer here.”