We have always died.

There is natural death of old age, then there is sudden accidental death; there is slow death of terminal illness, then then there is suicide – a different kind of illness; there is the glorified, meaningful death in the form of sacrifice, then there is mere casualty – a killing; there is brain-death, then there is body death; there is the angry death brought on by drought, famine, starvation and then there is the muffled death of disease, a pandemic.

There are many ways to die, the latest in trend is with the novel Corona Virus (COVID-19).

In the case of death and dying, religion has preceded and exceeded in dialogue while science has lagged behind in understanding and conversation. Thanatology, the scientific study of death and dying, emerged relatively recently around the 1960s. Sigmund Freud explained the “phenomena of life” in Civilization and its Discontents as “Eros,” God of love and “Thanatos,” God of death – working together as two opposing forces. In the contemporary Marvel Universe, “Thanos” was conceived by writer-artist Jim Starlin as a supervillain, destroyer of all life in the universe, and brother of “Eros of Titan”. His character first made its appearance in the 1970s and has been depicted as strong and formidable, a nihilist – who worships death and falls in love with its physical embodiment, Mistress of Death.

As the modern world grapples with new images of death in the forms of supervillains such as Thanos, some religions have already defeated death through reincarnation. In Bhagavat Gita, it is written, “Death is certain for one who has been reborn, and rebirth is inevitable for one who has died. Therefore, you should not lament over the inevitable” (Ch.2, Verse 27). In Bhuddism, everything goes through a natural cycle that involves birth, growth, and death; however, death is not final. After death emerges new life through karmic conditions and a person experiences rebirth until Nirvana is reached. Christianity talks about death in terms of the “resurrection of Christ” – again, challenging the finality of death. Religions emphasize the concept of life after death – again, life. In contrast, science has offered mushy explanations, resulting in further questions, that basically explain nothing.

Time and again, death has been perceived as a destroyer, understandably because of the loss associated with it. Despite the inevitability of death, there have been conquests to find the Holy Grail, to mutate that aging gene, to become immortal. Time and again, there has been a constant losing battle against death and at most, in cases of terminal illness, science has only managed to prolong life, not defeat death. Time and again, every supervillain’s goal has been to end life and the superhero’s to save it. The fear of death has left imaginations bereft of forms of villainy – surely, there are other ways to destroy than to end life? Is it possible that religion, not science whose focus has primarily been on the care of terminally ill patients and bereavement, has actually managed to mitigate the psychological trauma of loss that death brings by making people believe that there is rebirth or another place after death?

Bhuddism, in its understanding of life and death as a cycle of karmic chain reactions, believes life to be a process of death. But why think about death when you’re alive? There is inhibiting fear of processing death while alive so that when it actually comes, it is without any emotional, psychological, cognitive or physiological preparation. Instead, it is always irrational, unfair, too soon, extremely painful, immensely petrifying.

About 60 years ago, Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, an American-Swiss Psychiatrist worked with terminally ill patients and published a book, “On Death and Dying.” She outlined the 5 stages involved in the process of death in the dying patients: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance though not necessarily experienced in that order. David Kessler co-authored a book with Kubler-Ross called “Life Lessons,”* and explains that when people are at the end of their lives, they reveal their “deepest truths,” and talk about what was either regretful or meaningful to them. He says there is much to be learned “at the end of life, when it is too late to apply.”  With the arrival of sudden potential death of pandemic, a possible existential crisis emerges as individuals become entangled in fear and anxiety. Our mood exhibits significant aspects of our self. According to Jean-Paul Sartre and Martin Heidegger, fear exposes self as vulnerable and anxiety as threatened by the unpresence of anything tangible. The anxiety removes self from the comfort of what is deemed meaningful leading to a loss of “basic sense of who I am.” Moreover, according to Heidegger, “nothingness” is indicative of self that emerges from a state of anxiety when the identity was engaged in different practices that collapse causing the self to believe to be nothing**.

The thanotophobia, fear of death and dying, experienced by most is further exacerbated by this pandemic. It implies an indefinite and inexplicable loss, though which will inevitably and ultimately be experienced regardless of situation or circumstance. In an effort to understand this process, the subject of death and dying started being offered as a course in Western universities towards the end of the 20th century. There is some data that shows that with certain catastrophes, student interest in these courses have hiked – e.g. after 9/11 – implying that psychological and physical proximity may be a requirement to process death and dying, with or without fear and anxiety.

"You grieve for those who call for no grief
And yet you utter words of wisdom
And yet you utter words of wisdom.
The wise grieve neither for the dead
Or the living.
There was never a time
When you or I did not exist."
(Bhagawat Gita)

* Life Lessons: Two Experts on Death and Dying Teach Us About the Mysteries of Life and Living by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, M.D. and David Kessler. Publisher: Scribner, 2000. 

** (https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/existentialism/#AnxNotAbs)

Note: My knowledge of both religion and philosophy is extremely limited. These are just musings on what little I remember and understand.

I recently finished reading “Americanah,” by Chimiamanda Ngozi Adichie and the migratory experience of the Nigerian Ifemelu could not have resonated with me more – so much so that I had dreams about Nigeria without actually ever been there.

Reading this book made me revisit thoughts I haven’t had in many years. Like Ifemelu, I also migrated to America in my mid-teens. I moved to a university town that was whiter in the summers than when semesters were in session. The number of brown kids in my high school could be counted on my fingers, and my brother and cousins were inclusive of that count. Soon after I migrated to the United States, 9/11 happened. I remember being in my Driver’s Ed. class when suddenly chaos broke loose and there were students crying and classes were cancelled. As an immigrant, the significance of this incident was lost on me for quite some time. It was hard to understand why this was so upsetting to sixteen-year-old students, sitting somewhere in Pennsylvania, crying about an incident that was so far removed from them when in Pakistan, countless people die from hunger, poverty, gun and explosive crimes, electrocution, etc. every day. This, of course, does not make any lives lost anywhere any less significant – this was just my pubescent brain failing to understand.

I had only seen the Twin Towers once before and that, too, while sitting in a moving car. That day became significant for me because that was the day I truly became brown – and have remained brown since. Ngozi also talks about this realization of becoming black once she reaches America, for black did not exist in Nigeria.

Though I became conscious of the color of my skin, I was never one to lose my “identity.” I never tried to become “American” and neither did I suddenly acquire an American accent that so many people I know acquire after a week’s visit abroad – and it sticks! When I started school, I was immediately enrolled in ESL despite being fluent in English – since, you know, only Americans can speak what they call English. I was allowed to switch to AP English in a couple of weeks after I had sufficiently learned how to formulate sentences, ask questions in English, count to hundred, etc. Once in high school, I was asked by a kid in P.E. if there were TVs in Pakistan since we were still shitting in a hole somewhere in the middle of a cotton field. Perhaps because I wasn’t brown enough in so many ways, people were always surprised when I told them I was from Pakistan. They said I didn’t look Pakistani – as if they’d ever been to Pakistan and before 9/11 didn’t even know that Pakistan was a country on the world map.

A few years ago, I’d moved to Newfoundland, Canada. Newfoundland is a rock where nothing grows and nobody really goes – but I did. If Canadians are known to be friendly, Newfoundlanders are the friendliest of Canadians. But Newfoundland is also very, very white. Once, I went to a wine gala with some close friends (all white) and D. (very brown). We were to taste different kinds of wine and the rule was that you couldn’t sample a wine more than once. This is why I love Newfoundlanders – they repeatedly went to get second and third and fourth samples of the same wine pretending it was their first. They were all white – everyone in that room was white apart from D. and I. We could only have one sample of each wine.

Both in America and Canada, when I’m talking to a person, I am talking as me. I have no sense of color, but only a sense of conversation. But to a person who’s never met diversity, they are not conversing with just a person, they are conversing with a person who is brown. You can tell because sometimes they’ll say something that would reflect this awareness. D. and I went to an arts and crafts festival once, where he bought me big beady jewelry I love to wear. We chit chatted with strangers and made small conversations and then, one of the women we’d been laughing with said to us, “You speak very good English.” Without skipping a beat, D. said, “So do you.” More laughter.

To this day, I’m not sure if this experience would qualify as discriminatory or prejudicial. There was no harm intended and no offence was taken. D. said these are the “ignorant nice racists.” Ignorant not just of other cultures and peoples, but ignorant of their own racism, but nice and mean no harm. He said we are not brown, we are “exotic” to them and again, that makes what they say more forgivable. I like the thought of being exotic and special, but doesn’t it sound like we’d be accompanying kids to schools for show and tell?

In Pakistan, there is no brown just like in Nigeria there’s no black. We have other kinds of discrimination and reasons for prejudice. We have a class system, a caste system, religion, etc. but no color. We may have different shades of brown, and obviously, remnants of the British colonial rule reside in our innate national preference for the lighter shade of brown. The whiter you are, the more beautiful you are; the whiter you are, the more ‘marriageable’ you are; the whiter you are, the more popular you are. Companies make huge profits selling whitening creams to every Pakistani of every age. We have “Fair & Lovely” for women and “Fair & Handsome” for men; we have the “Snow White Bleach Cream” with promises to make the user as “Fair as Snow White” (we, too, in Pakistan have seen Disney’s racist Snow White cartoon and been fairly influenced by it). I’ve met people who actively avoid stepping out into the sun or doing anything outdoors because they worry they’d turn brown –we’re an equatorial country and the sun is our forever friend. Dear Pakistanis, we are brown and we will forever remain brown – try as you might.

After moving back to Pakistan from America, I started teaching secondary school Psychology. My students casually and playfully used the word “N****” with each other. To them, it was just a word that had no derogatory or discriminatory meaning. It was a word they’d heard in movies and it sounded cool when they used it in jest – just like in the movies. The first time I heard them use it, I cringed. I had, after all, taken American History in school and read some of Howard Zinn. I told them that globally, it is deemed to be derogatory. They continued using it. They don’t have a history with this word and neither do they understand the struggles it connotes. Nor had they experienced discrimination or prejudice based on skin color. To them it was just a “cool” word to address their friends – like you’d say “Bro.” That’s the interesting thing about globalization – it communicates the language, but fails to communicate the history, meaning, and experience of that language. In Pakistan, ironically, the derogatory word would be if someone called you “brown.” This is funny because it’s brown calling the brown, brown.

When I read “Americanah,” I believed myself to be reliving those experiences and thoughts all over again. I’ve had many sleepless nights going back in time – when I didn’t understand what I was really experiencing and didn’t think of it as discrimination. When I didn’t know that color made you a full person or a half person. I don’t know how my experiences would be different if I wasn’t brown or if I was any browner. Until I started traveling with D., I’d never truly experienced color discrimination blatantly, in my face. My experience had always been subtle, sometimes so subtle that it took me a while to realize what had just happened. But he gets searched and pulled over at every security point; has been shouted at in the face for “the massacre in 1940s” (mind you, he was born some 40 years later).

Me? I’m usually taken for being Turkish for not being brown enough (there’s apparently such a thing).

Thank you, Chimiamanda Ngozi Adichie, for writing this book and showing me how we snip a bit of human away every time we look at color and not the person.

The rain changes everything.

It is hard to explain my love-hate relationship with rain in Karachi, which feels so different from rain anywhere else in the world. It doesn’t come often and every Karachiite looks forward to (and dreads) the monsoon season. It comes as relief, yet a destroyer; it creates puddles to play in, but also floods homes; it washes away the dust otherwise blatantly visible to the naked eye, but also brings injury. I remember once discussing the appropriate amount of time taken for a shower with a Canadian friend – my 10 to his 30 minutes. He had never known what it is like to not have access to water. He was amazed I had had this problem – I was amazed he had not. In a water scarce city, seeing water fall from the sky feels almost holy.

Over the last year, my never before realized sense of adventure awoke and I started taking road trips to the outskirts of Balochistan with a group of wanderers. For someone who’s spent the better half of my childhood in Balochistan, it is only now in my thirties that I have actually found it. These are dry barren lands with little shrubbery and you have to wonder why anyone would live there. Once you get off the road, there are people residing in tiny shacks with even tinier windows. There is no electricity and no cell phone signal. On an average day, as you drive off road into the austere lands, over big boulders and rocks, small dirt passages, skirting through deep mud, and sometimes crossing Olympian pool-sized water bodies, all you feel is the sun and ubiquitous dust on your face. Your body sways violently and without control in the car as if you’re on a sinking ship caught in a storm. In spite of this, there is a sense of serenity in being away from the city of lights. Sometimes, when camping the night in the middle of dry Kherari river, attention diverted from the phone screen, you can see the Milky Way and stars shining ever so brightly in the pitch black.

My most recent off-road trip was to Sassi right after it had rained. Mounds of dry dust had been replaced by little sprouting greens. The cacti, commonly found all over the dry land, were no longer a shade of brown; the sun hiding behind the clouds and a cool breeze blowing. It was the same place I had visited many times before, but this landscape and experience was new. It took me some time to fall in love with the endless scorched grounds of Balochistan, but the love I felt for such green, especially when it’s usually so sparsely found, was without effort. I have always perceived of these harsh places I so frequently visit as struggling – to grow, to survive, to thrive and deprived of their full potential. Now, just after a little rainfall, these same acrid grounds gave a glimpse of their bountiful potential to flourish.

This journey, now made almost every other week, is not without the pains of preparations. It starts with concerns of health for the car (I refer to it as the Beast) – deemed very important to get to a destination unknown. Immense deliberation is given to bedtime and setting an alarm to get the maximum amount of sleep. Arguments ensue about Lara’s (the dog) hair infestation that would occur if she were to accompany and further arguments about shaving her for the trip and yet further arguments about how many seats should be removed to make this old dog sit comfortably. Lengthy discussions are held on the menu and how many Hobbit meals will be consumed. In reality, hours slept amount to 5; frantic activity to get to the closest select shop at the gas station for snacks and drinks; menu includes McDonald’s and then some more McDonald’s; Lara is shoved into the car with a compromised one seat removed (for now) and, of course, unshaved.

Once, for an overnight camping trip, we forgot to take our tent.

The journey to witness the glamor of Balochistan regions is also not without lethargy. The drive takes hours and landscapes after landscapes merge into each other. I normally sit with an open book in my lap, but captivated by the scenery, I never actually get around to reading anything. Thought after thought rolls out and yet, if anyone were to ask me what I think about on these drives, I wouldn’t be able to answer. It is on these trips that I realize how important is it to periodically cut myself from my every day life; work, endless whapsapp messages, netflix binges, breaking news stories, mindless chatter and instead to connect with another human being sitting next to me before resuming the same mechanical cycle.

Everything about these excursions, rain or not, is an experience to be cherished and remembered. I have witnessed a flash flood and a whole river come to life when the river itself didn’t have a clue that it was supposed to be filled with water. I have swum in rivers and dams; seen strange insects and other wildlife; sat with my feet in water watching sunsets; been a part of an otherwise unlikely community that formed simply through a collection and connection of people present in that time and space.

I have loved every minute of it because out there, every minute is truly mine.

A few days ago I decided I was going to start exploring St. John’s to its full extent (with my added limiting factors). Of the numerous places I’ve lived in and visited, I’ve never taken the time nor made the effort to really get to know any of those places. So my resolve affirmed I started like any normal person would: by posting on Facebook for suggestions. Then I did my own research and made a comprehensive list of all the places I wanted to visit and all the things that interested me.

Today I went to the Social House downtown to listen to some blues and jazz, and I dragged my friend A. along. Despite being from St. John’s, she’d never been to this place either so neither of us really knew what to expect. When we walked into its piano bar, the first thing I noticed were the low tables and chairs and I instantly fell in love with the place. I’m easy to please. The band was still tuning while we settled in and ordered some drinks and appetizers. I had a Luis Felipe Melbec and it was absolutely delicious. I also had poutine and it was the worst poutine I’ve ever had. I would most certainly not order any food there next time, but would highly recommend the wine.

I was filled with awe once the band started playing. People slowly started trickling in, most of them regulars and well-known to the band. It was busy, but not crowded. Looking at the people around me, I realized almost everyone looked like they had a serious day job and yet they were still able to make time to do something like this. It made me realize how lazy I am and perhaps the one reason why I don’t explore or try new things is that my initial automatic assumption is it’s probably not going to be something I’m going to enjoy. Tonight was an attempt to break that pattern and to try something new before making that assumption. And enjoy I did! There was a sign-up sheet by the door where customers could sign up to play with the band. I sat through two amazing singers and one pianist. Some of the pieces the band played were original and one of them that I particularly loved was a South African inspired rhythm.

I took a lot of pictures (like a typical tourist) and made videos for D. He loves blues and jazz and I cannot wait to bring him here. His suit style would fit right into this place. Tonight’s experience has inspired me to explore more of St. John’s and get uncomfortable to be comfortable.

These last few days I’ve also been thinking a lot about Viktor Frankl’s “Man’s search for meaning.” In one of his lectures he talked about students he’d surveyed and found that 60% of the students said their main goal in life was to make money. But that was not the top category. The top category was that 78% of these students were concerned with finding meaning and purpose in their lives. I am not particularly looking to find meaning and purpose, but I do feel that the meaning and purpose of my life would be enhanced if I could experience new things. Lately, I’ve also found inspiration to push myself because of my good friend Hajra. Talking to her always makes me feel like I can do anything and that anything is possible as long as I am adamant to not let it go. It has been a long time since I’ve been inspired like this.

It seems appropriate to quote Viktor Frankl to end this note: “If we take man as he really is we make him worse, but if we overestimate him…we promote him to what he really can be. We have to be idealistic and we end up to be realists.”

I love technology

Posted: June 25, 2014 in Travel
Tags: , , , , ,

Sometimes it’s really confusing juggling all my blessings. Between the laptop, netbook, ipad, phone, and kindle it’s hard to decide which I should use for what. So I’ve got skype on the ipad, books on the kindle, whatsapp on the phone, downloads on the netbook, and for everything else laptop is awesome.

It’s going to be one heavy carry-on.

Who’s the crate for?

Posted: June 23, 2014 in Travel

imageI put together Lara’s crate today. Her vet said she needs to start getting used to the crate and start thinking of it as her home. Home away from home. Once I put it together, I had to sit inside it for a while to show her how much fun it was. Yay… so much fun. Then I put in all her favorite toys and she had to go inside to fetch them. She seemed very comfortable inside the crate by the time my attention waned, which really didn’t take that long.

Half an hour later I passed by the crate and saw D. sitting inside it. Lara stood outside with head tilted: “Whaaaaaaat is wrong with you freaks today?”

Countdown: 35 days.

The Countdown Begins

Posted: June 19, 2014 in Travel
Tags: ,

The idea of writing a blog emerged when my husband, D., started rampaging chat roulette to talk to Canadians. We’re moving to Canada in a few weeks so I can go to graduate school, and it seemed like a good idea to ask Canadians what Canada was like. We met this amazing girl online who had a good laugh at our ‘from’ departure and ‘to’ destination. She said if we started a blog about how we moved from Karachi to St. John’s NL, she would read it.

These are those blogs.

Whenever I tell anyone where we are going, the first reaction is to laugh. Newfoundland is like the Peshawar of Canada. And it’s freezing cold especially for someone who lives in equatorial temperatures. Their warmest days are equivalent to my Karachi winters. For the past few weeks, I have been following the weather in St. John’s. Yesterday it said, 18 C. On the university facebook page it said, ‘it’s hot and sunny today.’ Haha! In Karachi it was 37 C. Even though I lived in Pennsylvania for many years, I’m absolutely terrified of the Canadian cold. I’m told it doesn’t compare.

Yesterday, we went to get our polio vaccination now mandatory for anyone traveling internationally from Pakistan. Long story that involves one of many disease stricken problems of a third world country. For more information on this, check WHO. We thought we were being super efficient, getting things done ahead of time (usually very unlike us). When we got there, we were turned away because it was apparently too early and we were advised to come back a week or a day before departure. If we got the vaccine now, it’s possible it might not be recognized in a few weeks and we’d have to get it done again. Medically, that makes no sense since the vaccine is supposed to be valid for a year. We looked at the guy giving the vaccines as if he was insane and he looked at us as if we were his joke of the day. Vaccination has now been moved into list of things to get done last minute. We shall never make the mistake of being eager to get vaccinated again.

On this huge adventure, Lara (our dog), will hopefully accompany us or follow us. I’ll most likely have to put her in some sort of obedience school to socialize her. Pakistan is not a very animal friendly country and there are no outlets where one can socialize pets, especially with other animals. And since she is a german shepherd, who looks daunting and ready to eat you (even though she won’t), she barely gets to meet anyone. As part of her training to relocate, I’ve been trying to get her to stop barking when there’s somebody at the front door. We tried ‘Lara, quiet!’ ‘Lara, sshhhh!’ ‘Lara, shut up!’ ‘Lara, shut the f**k up!’ But what strangely worked was ‘Lara, Canada!’

Countdown: 40 days.