I might not have had a fulfilling life as a writer had a 'Muslim ban' been in place at the timeBlogs
When I was 10, my father brought home a copy of Time magazine. On its cover, a man with shoulder-length hair, clad in a black shirt and bell bottom slacks, was walking across a high wire between two skyscrapers.
The twin buildings were so high that their tops dwarfed the surroundings. The ground lay far below, wreathed in the haze of distance.There was no netting beneath the man, a slip meant certain death. The image mesmerised me.
That evening at dinner, I placed my finger upon the magazine and declared that I wanted to live there. My father laughed: “You’re going to live on a tightrope? You mean the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center, but you can’t live there, they are office buildings, the tallest in the world.”
I would copy pictures of Philippe Petit, the Frenchman on the tightrope, into my sketchpad. I was studying Impressionism as part of my A Levels and I wanted to be able to draw fluid, seemingly effortless lines like Matisse, to depict the body, unencumbered by anything, as glorious as Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.
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However, this was 1981 and the clampdown on artistic expression in Pakistan was in full force. A major artist like Colin David, whose semi-nude portraits of women had been published in Jang just a few years ago, was banned from public exhibition.
David taught at the National College of Arts in Lahore where I was assured a scholarship, but instead I had to go to work full-time as a flight attendant at the age of 19 in order to support my family after my father was forced out of the army by the retrogressive Zia regime.
I continued my figurative work, using myself as a model, even though there was no scope for exhibition. The sketches and studies piled up silently in my sketchbooks and canvases below my bed, unseen.
At the same time, I also started writing short stories highlighting the sufferings of minorities and the violence suffered by women in a society that stifled their choices.
The Black Car is about an Ahmedi girl’s doomed love affair with a fellow student. Farida is the story of a Bangladeshi girl trafficked into forced labour at a brick kiln by day and prostitution at night. The stories too, piled up, unpublished.
I was falling into a deep depression, as public avenues to share my creative output were virtually nonexistent. These were the days when the misogynistic Hudood Ordinance was in force and public whippings took place in stadiums.
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I decided to apply for an outside posting with my airline job. New York was my dream destination but it had a wait list of several years. So in 1986, I left Pakistan for my airline’s Bangkok base, while waiting my turn for the Big Apple.
Finally, in 1988, my New York posting came through and I landed in the city with the tallest buildings in the world.
The age of the internet had not yet dawned and even cell phones were rare. Calling home was an expensive affair that usually involved an operator, crackling long distance lines and dropped calls.
Most of my colleagues and the majority of Indians and Pakistanis lived in the outer boroughs, mostly Queens, sharing apartments or houses to make the rent.
I had always wanted to live by myself in the West Village, legendary home of bohemians, Beats and hippies.
Everyone I knew said that was an impossible dream since there was no way I could afford the pricey rents in Lower Manhattan on my meager salary.
Amazingly, a chance encounter in Thailand with Patrice Braun, a Dutch-American journalist who was aspiring to be a screenwriter in Los Angeles, spawned a lifelong friendship and also a rent-controlled sublet in the West Village on MacDougal Street above the aptly named Cafe Danté, where on my days off, I would be writing and daydreaming.
You could stay as long as you liked at the cafe and the staff would not bother you, as long as you stayed away from the one table by the window which was reserved for the mafia boss John Gotti.
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I was loving New York and hating my job with its long hours, constant jet lag and daily doses of sexism and misogyny.
However, I was in a bind. In those days, rules governing flight attendants in the US guaranteed them the right to join a union and since the Middle Eastern airline I worked for did not want its employees to be union members, they got around this rule by arranging a ‘D’ visa instead.
What this meant was that I was only allowed to stay in the US for a maximum of 30 days between my work flights.
The choice was stark: either continue working in a job I hated or join the millions of undocumented people living in the shadows.
I was weighing my options when I met Bina Sharif, a Pakistani-American playwright who offered me a lead role in her production of The Watchman, a drama about the lives of immigrants in the US.
The role required three months of rehearsals. I decided to accept, which meant handing in my resignation. The play had a critically acclaimed run at The Theater For The New City. My new life had begun in earnest.
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Being undocumented in America was challenging to say the least, but it was considerably freer than the Pakistan I left.
I could no longer imagine a life circumscribed by the dictates of a conservative society. Going back was unthinkable, staying was fraught with constant dread of deportation.
Five years passed in this state of limbo, until one day I was reading the newspaper and happened to see a news story about the creation of a new class of political asylum, specifically for feminists.
I decided to apply in this category and, two years later, I was at an interview explaining my views on art, literature and feminism.
Two applicants out of 600 hundred that day were granted asylum. I was lucky to be one of them.
Since then, I have gone on to become a director at a non-profit and a creatively fulfilling life as a writer.
It’s hard to imagine the direction my life would have taken had there been a travel ban on people from Muslim countries in place at the time and had I been from a country whose name was on that list.
Pakistan is not on the list of countries that are facing the consequences of Trump’s travel ban today, but there are many migrants in positions similar and much worse than mine who are seeing avenues to a better life close simply because they happen to be from the ‘wrong’ country.
My heart goes out to them in solidarity.
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