Amna Ahmad — “Claiming Desiland”

We skirted the village in a direction I didn’t recognize and turned left onto a track lined with twin rows of mesquite trees. They were rangy and not over-tall, their delicate-looking canopies feathery, durable – made to withstand long seasons of no rain. Our car crept along the humped road, made that way so that rainwater would flow off onto the surrounding fields. The wheat was foot-high in February, a vibrant springy green, uniform in height, with each little plant starting to make its sheaf of seeds. We pulled partway off the road and parked next to a buffalo heifer tethered to a wooden donkey-cart. The cart wasn’t hitched to anything – the platform’s back edge sat on the ground and its parallel bars (between which the donkey would trot) pointed up into the air. The calf stood with her front feet near the cart and her back feet up higher, on the shoulder of the road, in an uncomfortable-looking posture. She rolled the whites of her eyes at us and lowed. To our right lay a cracked plain of reddish-tan earth, broad and dotted with more mesquite trees, flat except for the mounds of soil marking the graves of the late people of Mirpur.

We trooped onto the plain, following a path between the last mud puddles of winter. My mother first, then Khala Bina, then me. They both walked with what I privately call their ‘village walk’: scarves wrapped tightly to cover their heads, eyes ahead, making efficient progress, one behind the other, not talking. It was the walk of grown women on a mission, on their way to take care of important business. I took pictures as I walked behind them, pointing my little silver camera sometimes at the backs of their heads, bobbing along in parallel like the heads of ducklings, and sometimes at the sister shadows they cast, shapes like nuns in their wimples. I felt torn between inhabiting the moment with all my attention and thoroughly documenting it. Imperfect sentimental memory fought with the documentarian’s urge to capture everything As It Really Happened. In the end, I alternated. When I needed to see where to step to avoid the worn graves, I stopped snapping. I lowered the camera completely when we stopped at a group of graves that was better tended and less ancient looking than the rest.

Without pausing to explain anything to me, they faced the graves, raised their palms to chest height, lowered their heads and recited a prayer in a murmur. I didn’t remember what was the appropriate thing to recite on the occasion of visiting graves – either Sura Al-Fatiha or Sura Yaseen. I only knew Fatiha. Luckily it is an all-purpose verse, and one I hadn’t forgotten since childhood because I use it reflexively whenever I’m in a plane that’s taking off or landing. Though I had seen adults recite a prayer when they visited each other to condole after a death, I’d never taken part before. But I was 32 years old, and I supposed I didn’t have to wait for someone to issue me an invitation. I followed their example.

Al hamdu-lillah he rabbi l-alamin. Praise be to God, the Lord of the universe. Ar rahman ir-rahim. The Most Gracious, the Most Merciful. Malik e yawm iddin. King of the Day of Judgment. Iyyaka na’budu iyyaka nasta’in. You alone we worship, and You alone we ask for help. Ihdinas sirat al mustaqim. Guide us to the straight way. Sirat al lazeena an’amta alayhim gayril magdubi alayhim walad dualin, amin. The way of those whom you have blessed, not of those who have deserved anger, nor of those who stray. Amen.

Fatiha asks for mercy – obliquely, by reminding God that we remember him as the creator of all things and their master. Who else would you appeal to for mercy but the one who made all, including the Day of Judgment?  The grave in Muslim thought is meant to be practice for that day – a proximate accounting for the ultimate accounting to come. And graves are not meant to ornamented and fussed over and visited ritually, but kept tidy and otherwise left alone.

When I finished and ran my hands over my face, I noticed them both watching me.     My mother looked at me for a long time. To deflect her attention, I took up my camera again and starting framing close-up shots of the red earth of the graves. They clustered together without any space between, a mound of soil covering each one. Two of the older graves were edged with unbaked bricks and low headstones; the rest were unmarked except for the raised soil. There was no way to walk between the graves in a Pakistani cemetery, unlike in an American one. Space in the plot was limited, and meant to be used again and again for generations. On occasion, people digging a grave would unearth the bones of someone already buried there; they were supposed to respectfully move the bones to one side of the pit and keep digging. Sometimes, in crowded urban cemeteries, bones would make their way to the surface because of the continual reuse and churning of the same small piece of earth, and one could see the ground littered with femurs and jawbones.

This graveyard was not of that type. It had been in use since the early 1900s, when Mirpur was founded, and the people of the village maintained it. I asked my mother which grave was whose. The farthest one, with a brick headstone and some Urdu text on a broken glass pane, was my great-grandmother’s, she thought – Amna Bibi, the one I was named for. The grave of her son, my grandfather, was next to hers, and her husband’s just beyond. My mother’s uncle was also among them; my mother wasn’t sure which was his and which was her grandmother’s, and I found this vastly irritating. How does one forget which grave belongs to which person?  It didn’t matter, I told myself: they all rested within feet of each other, buried in shrouds without coffins and turned on their right sides to face the Ka’aba. Their molecules had surely been moved around and redistributed by now, so that the inhabitant of each grave held atoms that had been part of all the others. But I was most interested in the graves of my grandfather and his mother, who I imagined I would love best, if I had known them.

The only photograph I have of my great-grandmother – as far as I know, the only one of her that exists – was taken after her death. I imagine that it was taken in the instant before her sons lifted her into the air and carried her to the edge of the village for burial. It is a picture of her looking asleep, with the peaceful expression of the virtuous on her face and a garland of jasmine and roses around her head. Her garment is unsown white fabric as prescribed. The picture is crooked, her orientation in the frame not aligned with either edge. I wondered if the person who took it was too shaken to compose the shot properly, or if the camera had been shoved into the hands of some inexperienced person because the elders couldn’t bear to do it themselves. She looks just like her son, my grandfather, and when I saw the picture my dream of my namesake was shattered and rebuilt in an instant. From my mother’s stories, I’d constructed a picture of a frail, pretty, saintly woman, wise and imperturbable. But my great-grandmother was sturdy and handsome, with the arrogant nose and determined chin of my mother’s father’s people. From her face in death I gathered that she had been beautiful, but not in the delicate way I had imagined: more in the way of a dappled mare or a weathered piece of well-built furniture – beautiful to a purpose. Her family left Jalandhar in a bullock-cart when she was a girl to settle a new village in Punjab, where water came from far away and the crops they planted ruled the cycles of life.

image(1)

My parents’ house in Arizona was a little enclave of Pakistani culture, and we visited the mother country on summer vacations, spending three or four months at a time with my grandmother and aunts and uncles and cousins. I call it Desiland, after desi, a word used to describe South Asian people, places, and things. Arizona was where we spent most of our time, but Pakistan was where we lived. I spoke Urdu first and didn’t learn English until I started school. I wore shalwar-kameez to school on days when I had to dress up. Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches alternated with parathas in my lunchbox. Since halal meat wasn’t available in our little town, my father bought live animals and butchered them himself in the side yard, including goats for Eid and turkeys on Thanksgiving. My mother and I skinned the chickens in the stainless steel sink, me holding the legs and her wielding the knife.

I didn’t find it strange. Maybe because I was born in the era of “free to be you and me,” and this had pervaded the ethos of even our little town. Whatever the mechanism, I grew up thinking of myself as Pakistani. So through going was this identity that when I hit adolescence, I didn’t have any secret boyfriends (boyfriends were not allowed), or even any dates. This state of affairs persisted even after I left for college. I told myself that I was open to an arranged marriage or to finding my mate myself – whichever happened first. But the reality was that my inculcation in traditional ways was thorough. I had no idea how to go about it for myself. So when my parents introduced me to a handsome, sanctioned prospect when I was 23, I married him. Born and raised in Pakistan until he came to the U.S. for college, he and I, it turned out, had very different ideas of what our marriage would be, and within the year, we divorced.

The failure of the marriage, and the smaller failures of communication and understanding within it, underscored for me how essentially American I was. I had certain (Western) expectations from life that could not be met in so traditional a framework. After the divorce, I let myself drift from desi people and social situations. I saw these ways as being in conflict with my adult human need to choose my path for myself. I couldn’t see a meaningful way to access the positive aspects of my cultural inheritance and get away from the patriarchal ones I found so odious – they were bound up together in my mind, so that if I wanted one I had to take the other as well. So I let it go. I didn’t visit Pakistan for eight years – the longest I’d ever been away. My cousins grew up; my aunts and uncles grew old. My relatives opened businesses, built houses, left the country for more options. Parcels of my grandfather’s land were sold off to settle disputes among my uncles, and the cities of Punjab encroached inexorably on formerly agricultural lands. Pakistan’s first motorway was built, allowing travelers to whiz from Faisalabad to Lahore without ever having to slow down to let a donkey-cart cross the road.

Through all these changes, I kept my distance. For those years, I avoided even desi music. It hurt too much to hear it; in its bittersweet evocation I felt the beautiful imperfection of all that I was cut off from in my self-imposed exile from desi culture. I listened to it in the occasional nostalgic mood with a pit of longing in my stomach, and some other feeling like guilt. I figured out that I felt to blame for letting my grasp of my Desiland slip, like I should have done something to prevent the loss.

I eventually became aware that this distance was costing me too much. I made a plan to visit, with the intention of collecting and documenting the stories of my family and their geography as a way of situating myself within them, and to give myself a project—legitimate cover for asking some of the questions I had never thought to ask. My first time back I went in the winter. I sat with my grandmother and collected and recorded all the family stories I could pry out. As part of my desi-ness reclamation project, my aunt arranged for me to see the traditional production of sugar, from the sugar cane being crushed in iron mashing jaws powered by bell-wearing, curved-horned oxen, all the way to the final step of cooking the juice for hours on a cane-fed fire and skimming it all the while. We sat on a charpai and watched the process from just outside the circular path of the oxen, their nailed-on shoes glinting through the dust with each step of cloven feet. We talked about everything I could remember to ask her: why villages in Punjab were identified by a name as well as a number, from the days when the British divided up Punjab for cultivation (the village we were sitting in was referred to as “Banwa,” or 92nd); how drinking water used to be delivered by the maashki in a water-skin (the maashk), and how he was also called behishti because he would go to heaven for quenching peoples’ thirst; how she made her radish parathas; and how I might be able to grow the special radishes in my Brooklyn backyard if I could figure out the difference in growing seasons. I left Pakistan relieved to be connected again, and with a trunk full of stories and images to fortify me until the next time.

image(1)

The homeland for me is a different one than for my immigrant parents. I go there and feel the novel, unsettling feeling of looking just like everyone else. No one there would pick me out as anything but Pakistani. Being an anonymous part of the majority is a peaceful and delicious experience for me, used to being a novelty most everywhere else. Before I moved to New York City, I hadn’t experienced anything like it in the U.S., and even here in my beloved city, I’m a minority. Looking like everyone else gives me access to an experience I can only have in that part of the world, and I like knowing I have this option. Walking the streets in Lahore, I look like everyone else, utterly in place in that ancient, dusty cosmopolis, and no one glances twice. If the people thronging the streets look like me, and indeed many Punjabis are my blood relatives (as we would find if we stopped someone on the street and parsed our reticulating web of relations), then the symbols and culture they take for granted are my birthright too, reminders of the past I also inherited.

Yet I recognize that it’s this distance, this not being swaddled in desi culture, that makes me see it as something elusive and precious. If I had followed a more traditional path, I might be living in a little pocket of Pakistan right here, in an old-fashioned family that conflated caring and controlling in one big paternalistic stew. It would bear down on me so hard that I wouldn’t think to miss it. As much as I’ve lamented my distance from the motherland, in this way I believe I dodged a bullet: as an educated North American woman living in New York City, I can do whatever the hell I want. The city confers freedom from the Desi-net – that chain-mail network of aunties and uncles who are everywhere you go, no matter how old you are, and who will call your parents as soon as they get home to share information on your whereabouts and whether there were boys in the vicinity. In Brooklyn, no one bats an eye when I walk next to a boy. The feeling of being always under observation carries autonomy costs too heavy to bear, and I am grateful for the absence of this tension. Still, total separation from all aspects of the homeland was not what I wanted. My ideal was to be free to live a grown-up Western life and still integrate the homeland into myself, so the journey home would be a short one I could take whenever I want.

Now, I visit every year or two (though two years feels like too long). I drink up the place greedily.  I let myself get sentimental over the fields of yellow mustard flowers in bloom. I listen to ghazals with no more sorrow than their poetry demands, and if I don’t understand some of the words, I don’t lament my two-sided past. Home has become a path instead of a destination. The longing for home hasn’t subsided, but the ache now is more sweet than bitter. I understand that I will never get there, because “there,” the place where I fit perfectly, doesn’t exist. I am a true hybrid, distinct from both my homes and a wholehearted belonger to neither. They combined to make me, and there’s no aspect of me that isn’t influenced by the dual legacy.

image(1)

We filed out of the graveyard in the same way we’d gone in: by rank. My mother, the general, led the queue; my aunt (her lieutenant) followed; and I, foot soldier and brave archivist, brought up the rear, photographing their silhouettes against the emerald backdrop of baby wheat. We piled in the car and drove into the village, where we had plans to call on relatives and visit the abandoned wells and giant banyan trees that were characters in their stories, and in mine.

I want to be buried there, in that graveyard. It may be impossible for me to claim Desiland while my identity lives: I am, after all, a hybrid, and there’s no escaping all the forces that shaped me. But what about after death?  When I die, I will be beyond categories and compartments and partial allegiances. How better to claim the land than to be buried there and let the land claim me? My molecules will go back to the earth – completing the nutrient cycle, commingling with my relative-particles underground. Being buried without a coffin, with only a shroud separating me from the earth, I would very soon be returned to the raw materials that made me. I will belong wholly to that ground in a way that escapes me now. And knowing that I will go back there in the end, no matter what, frees me of having to connect to it too tryingly in the meantime. I am of it, and it is of me, and there I will return. The inevitability is beautiful to me, and makes me want to write my last will and testament more than anything ever has – to specify that I wish to be buried in Mirpur, among my ancestors. It comforts me to imagine it: my body would be flown there immediately, if the three-day burial rule were to be met. I would be laid out in the courtyard of the house where my mother was born, in a white shroud, and lamented over until it was time to bury me. I can imagine it: at some moment in the afternoon, well before sunset and the time for maghrib prayers, a male elder says it’s time to go. And the women mourn, and they gather around while the men move in close to lift the platform with its burden into the air and out of the courtyard on their shoulders, to the graveyard where the earth awaits with its open hands.

I know very little about the rest of my life. I intend to live in Brooklyn for a good part of it, and someday I might move to the country, perhaps to the desert, or maybe to a little village near the Mediterranean. I don’t know if I will marry again, have children, live near my family. Nothing about my future is certain, except that I will die. When I do, that graveyard where my ancestors rest will still exist. And the final thing I know with any surety is that my atoms come from that earth and want to return. My particles don’t experience my ambivalence – they interact with other particles wherever they find themselves and call it home. In returning to that soil, I imagine contaminating things a little bit in the opposite direction – stirring up some ambivalence in the molecules that were formerly my relatives, widening their once-eyes with my foreign ways, compelling them to consider the wide world of their descendants, so much grander and better and worse than the one they lived in – and letting their particles influence mine. When I am finally returned to that dusty red plain in Mirpur where my grandfather and great-grandmother rest, I will again be a daughter of the soil, and the grubs and roots and leaves that spring from me will be native of that earth.

image(1)


Amna Ahmad’s heart belongs to the Sonoran Desert, a habitat she fell in love with while studying in Tucson and that inspired her graduate degree in biology. Her writing has appeared in Adbusters MagazineYou Are Here: A Journal of Creative Geography, and other publications. She has been awarded an NYC Emerging Writers Fellowship by the Center for Fiction and a residency at Caldera Arts.  Raised in Arizona and Pakistan, she lives in Brooklyn.