TO MOVE BACK OR NOT TO MOVE BACK, RANDOM ACTS OF KINDNESS IN AMERICA

                                     TO MOVE BACK OR NOT TO MOVE  BACK,                                   RANDOM ACTS OF KINDNESS IN AMERICA

For the last five years, we have been living in the Middle East, and frequently travelling to Pakistan, where I was born and raised until I was fourteen. I  enjoyed the Middle East and appreciated Pakistan, but with so much happening, the big question in our home has been whether to move back or not to move back to the United States.  I had moved to the United States with my family in the late 80’s. It was a pretty relaxing time, and modern day woes were nowhere to be found. I was a non-hijab wearing teenager in highschool, and it was easy to enjoy the U.S. People were kind, and culturally very different than Pakistan.  Allthroughout high school and college, I was a semi-practicing Muslim. I practiced certain things but avoided others.  I started covering my head in 1997 and, it felt pretty good. Finally, I felt that I had a connection with something deep. Rootlessness can sneak in if you don’t have ties anywhere.  I felt like a loose leaf blowing everywhere, but nowhere in particular. After I started wearing the hijab, I felt like I had a direction. I was still pretty liberal in my politics, but more conservative in my practices. I look back, but do not remember a harsh look or  a specific experience  that targeted my faith. However, things were changing ever so slowly even at that time. My hijab would get odd looks occasionally, and praying in a public place  would definitely get a person noticed.  Everything changed rapidly with September 11, 2001, and the world as everyone knew it, underwent phenomenal changes. Airports became scary places, and in just about every public place in America,  in numerous ways, Muslims felt the backlash of that September day. It was very tragic that many more incidents followed  9/11.  America waged war on multiple fronts, inside and outside the country. In those days, even turning on the television or reading a paper was stressful for me, and I am sure for millions of others living in Western societies. I had horns honked at me, stares directed at me while in security lines at the airport and other public places.  There were some wonderful experiences too, such as my husband’s colleagues who offered their unconditional assistance in case a need arose. The post office in Columbia, Missouri where everyone was incredibly sweet.  I hung onto my faith at that time, my scarf and kindness of my fellow Americans. It’s  a spectacularly good feeling when a stranger will be nice to you for no apparent reason.

 

However, when I compare the post 9/11 America to a pre-Trump America, I find the later to be a  much more divisive and scary place.  Even before Donald Trump came along, the climate of hate and  racial/cultural intolerance was making waves. I feel many elements exploited a variety of resentments within the public sphere to create an environment of  disharmony. In this America, it was a starightforward decision to move to Saudi Arabia in 2013. My kids were almost teenagers, and we felt that they would benefit from a worry-free atmosphere. Surpisingly, I missed America just as much as I missed Pakistan. I missed roads, people and many other small things, but again it is scary to read about incidents, events that are happening far away from you. Then you are grateful to be away from that particular situation.  Also, the political climate started looking stranger and stranger.

 

Till the election in 2016, I considered myself pretty American despite everything, and had no trouble connecting with friends  and places there. Actually, before this year’s trip, our last trip to the United States was in the Summer of 2016. Almost all magazine covers veered on the jocular and the ridiculous at the thought of a Trump presidency. Hillary Clinton was a done deal.  Then the election happened, and my sense of incredulity and sadness cannot be quantified on the morning after the elction.  The wide swath of  Repupublican red coloring America seemed to be mocking minorities, women, lgbt activists, and everyone who stood for a disadvantaged group. The sense of dread plaguing all the above mentioned groups only increased after a spectacularly dystopian picture of a country well on it’s way to ruins painted by a President Trump in his inaugural address. Hate crimes, snide victory speeches, and opinion polls pointed to a rapidly changed America.  I am an avid reader of  The Washington Post and Mother Jones. Both are fairly liberal papers with MJ being on the extreme left. Soon it became apparent that the election had freed hatred, racism, and  many elements of society felt they had permission to air their dislikes of groups unlike them. Some  groups and individuals felt  that they could act upon those negative perceptions. However, that said, I also read about large marches, sit-ins and protests held all across the United States for the rights of minorities, and it was heart warming. Still, I was afraid to go back, but we ended up visiting the States this year. This was my first trip after the election. To say I was stressed would be an understatement. When you are far away and far removed from a situation, you don’t have any idea how things  are on the ground. All you have are little snippets of information from a variety of sources, and everyone and every entity is biased in some way. People and  various news outlets all present their information according to their agenda, not precisely as it is.  So I had all this information, and I had an idea that Trump’s America would be different than the America two Summers ago.

 

I didn’t know  how I would feel walking the malls, stores in a Trumpian land, in a country that I grew up in and considered mine. I had read about rising hate crimes, and the fact that hijab wearing Muslim women are easy targets because of their head coverings. My fifteen-year-old daughter and I both cover our heads. Through out the years I had dealt with occasional slurs, horns and instances where people would make their feelings about Islam known to me. However, the positives always outweighed the negatives. There was the postal  worker in Columbia, MO who knew me, and always greeted me with a  huge smile. There were the drivers who would give right of way, even though they didn’t have to.  Then were the clerks, cashiers and other service workers who would always greet with a smile, and do their their best to provide assistance. I always felt that Americans have mastered the art of providing kindness to random strangers, and this kindness can materialize anywhere in any situation. It can be a person giving you space in a security line at the airport, in a check out line at the grocery store, or it can be a person stopping to give you car assistance in pouring rain. I have been at the receiving end of many of these random acts of kindnesses over the years, and it is one of the reasons I fell in love with America. My first experience was as a seventeen year old.  It was raining cats and dogs, my car broke down on the way to school, and a woman named Robin stopped by to provide me with help.  She helped a total stranger without asking questions, and was on her way. I never saw her agin, but I have an unending litany of stories similar to the one I shared above. Then there was my college English teacher, Timoth Allan Peeples, who was undoubtedly one of the kindest souls I knew. He was always available for tutoring, and for encouraging a nineteen-year-old freshman. I don’t remember Tim ever saying no to my endless requests for help.  I have so many more stories to share, but not enough space.

 

This time, one story that stands out is when I stayed in Horsham, Pennsylvania. I went to the local Walmart to buy things to bring back to Doha. We shop as if we are shopping for a starving third world country. After pushing my stuff laden cart to the check-out counter, I realized I had forgotten something, and told the cashier that I would go grab it quickly.  When I returned, a stranger named Tara had bagged all my groceries carefully, and there were atleast twenty bags. I was simply overcome with joy, partly because of what she had done, but also because the stock of American kindness was as full as ever. Another incident that I’ll share with my readers is when I stayed in Centerville, Ohio. I was staying with long time friends, Chanda and Naveed-ul-Haq. Chanda, despite having had surgery on her wrist, was hosting about 10-15 guests in her house.  Chanda introduced us to Bill’s Donuts that are the last word in donuts, the holy grail of donuts, the  champions of all the donuts. Everything they had was so heavenly that I wouldn’t have minded moving to Centerville to work at Bill’s Donuts. One day when we went to pick up the donuts, I voiced out loud my desire to eat a fresh donut. As we were walking out, we passed by the kitchen, and we told the young man working there. He smiled and handed us three, huge, fresh donuts that tasted more amazing than they looked.

Towards the end of my trip, I realized that America was as unique as it has always been, and nothing will change it. Kind people, selfless people, ready to put a bit of joy in a stranger’s life, willing to provide assistance where needed will always be there. They are the guardians of the American greatness, the gatekeepers of the values that make the poor, the unwanted, the persecuted populations from all across the world risk  everything, even their lives to want to make a life in this special America. I would be perfectly okay with moving back because I feel that for better or for worse, it is my country.

 

 

 

 

MALLS, MALLS AND MORE MALLS

 

 

I hate going to the mall, it’s so boring and not fun at all. I hate the stuff they sell there, it’s a visual assault on my finer senses. The clothing is so ugly, gaudy and poorly manufactured that it manages to make a person look ugly and fat simultaneously, now that’s what I would call killing two birds with one stone. However, at this point in my life I’d prefer to be neither. The only way I would wear the clothing is if I was about to be executed in the most painful manner possible, (like being thrown in a cage full of lions or dropped in a pit full of poisonous snakes…you get the gist of it), and only wearing those hideous blots on fashion would grant me a stay of execution. Apart from few choice brands, shoes aren’t much different from clothes. They are uncomfortable, expensive, and, tasteless, (again not something I wish to even contemplate buying.) Any piece of clothing or shoes remotely presentable is so outrageously overpriced that they can feed a family of five for a week. However, as a mother of two teenagers, I do have to make those dreaded mall trips just about every other week. Although my daughter would totally disagree with this frequency, “you never take me to the mall” or “we never do anything”, ‘doing anything’ in her language is another euphemism for going to the mall. I manage to give a few feeble responses, but the result is inevitable. Usually the one tactic that works, and I capitulate is when those Machiavellian teenagers tell me that my refusal has more to do with being tired which is a sure fire sign of advanced age. Needless to say, after this dirty trick, I find myself giving in, meekly led to the mall.

 

Although I must say the one thing I really enjoy is watching people. Sometimes I go to City Center on the weekend, and the visual, auditory overload is simply over-whelming. The diversity in people, religions, languages and ages is nothing short of phenomenal. There are rich people, poor people, brown people, white people, Arab people, Asian people. There are mixed couples and non-mixed couples, and single people. There are hijabis and non-hijabis. There are hijabis who you can tell don’t really want to be hijabis, but are covering under duress. Then there are the censorious hijabis looking at non-hijabi world with tight lipped judgment. There are the nervous looking white people, the confident Indian and Pakistani people passing each other with casual indifference, the perpetually smiling Filipinos. Then there are the uniformed maids looking sad and dejected, taking care of multiple kids, and my heart goes out to them.

 

I must say that the couples are fun to watch too. There are so many fascinating power dynamics in couples, I can tell by observation. My kids call this observation ‘stalking’. Did you guys know that power couples are present in every age, race, religion and economic strata? You can tell by looking at the way the couples are walking and interacting with one another as to who wears the pants in the house. Although some homes can have a partner who wears two pairs of pants, (another little gem from my two gems). Or in some relationships, each partner has one leg of the same pant, you know everything is shared fifty-fifty.

 

There are the couples where one spouse is just barely walking behind their other half with all the kids in tow, and you can see the defeat in their faces and the triumph in other’s face. It’s almost like witnessing a prisoner being led by a noose around their neck. There are the couples who are walking together and the kids are equally distributed too. It is fairly obvious that they have a power sharing agreement. Also, there are those who can barely wait to get away from each other, but the kids are keeping them together. Then there are the couples without the kids, and they appear to be quite happy to me, although not in all cases. Finally, happiest are the single men and women spanning across age, race and religion. I am not saying that because I am with two temperamental girls who are pulling my arms in opposite directions. I am certainly not envying the childless couples because I have constant verbal disagreements with both of the girls about the stuff that they’d like to buy and the stuff that they can buy. And I certainly do not eye the childless couples with any longing because I am stuck with two opinionated girls who don’t and I do mean don’t take no for answer. Also, I don’t entertain the thought of running into the crowd and never be seen or heard from again.

Another place I truly enjoy in the mall is Sephora, the makeup store. It’s so much fun to go inside Sephora. I feel like a child in a toy shop, or like a poodle rolling around in treats, well you get the picture. Now to afford something in Sephora is entirely another matter. The fact is that there are very few items priced at less than 100 riyals. I do enjoy looking at makeup and people who are trying the makeup. There are the ladies with pouty lips so wide that the lips practically have a postal code of their own. I mean how do women get lips like that, and are they natural or not? I can’t tell and I am sure touching someone else’s lips can land a person in trouble. Although I have wondered on occasion if someone’s very, very pouty lips were poked, would they bounce back or not? You know like a child inside a bouncy castle or on a trampoline. I am so eager to have pouty lips that anytime I go outside I put on a lip treatment called Fresh Sugar, and then stand in front of the mirror to make a pout, (I think a temporary pout would be better than none). Everyone in my family has learned of this pout exercise, and my son has actually learned to pout better than me.

 

The next thing I am so curious about are the eyes. The eye-brows are so perfect on some ladies, it’s as if God is devoting extra time and effort especially for making those amazing eye brows. Honestly, the curvature on those brows puts the St. Louis arch to shame, they are simply spectacular. Also, lets not forget the shoes, the heels that some women wear can practically be a murder weapon in a pinch, or can be used as intravenous needles in case of emergency surgery. I love those heels, and gaze at them longingly in the stores, but if I wore those, not only would I fall flat on my face and cause some serious damage to myself which in turn could lead to permanent mental and physical harm. Although sustaining serious harm in order to avoid shopping is certainly food for thought.

 

Finally, I’d like to share a few products that I bought from Sephora on my latest mall excursion and truly enjoy using them. I bought an eye pencil and a liquid lipstick by Marc Jacobs, and four matte, liquid lipsticks in various shades of beige by Huda Beauty. I bought these products because I had read good reviews about them, and when I tried them inside Sephora, they looked nice. Upon reaching home, I realized maybe I could’ve done without couple of the liquid lipsticks, but again impulse buying is a big problem for me. I try and buy products after reading their reviews on a blog or a magazine, and in my opinion, best buys are those that we use often even if expensive.