En route to Frankfurt

December 13, 2020

A journey of existence spanning years of unforgettable memories

Life is weird. I just had a nap after a cup of coffee. A little expensive, but I love German trains. En route to Frankfurt, wide awake, I look out the window. The scenes running past give way to other scenes.

I sit back and see the fault lines across my face, the lines that I get to knit now and then. Some event, the birth of a child, a baby boy, in the early ’80s somewhere outside Lahore in Pakistan. The advent of electric wires, a decade later, across the skyline of my village (that was); and then the enthusiasm of climbing up the wall of youth, and the ladder of success. Moments of love and loss (that stretch to this day); punctuated by the sting of thoughts from the people I had only heard/read about but never met; never actually ‘knew’ what they meant. Finally, the culmination of the long journey to the other side of the globe, the crossing over to what I had (already) become – leaving behind what I was, in my heart of hearts.

I remember seeing the email that night in 2012 in Islamabad, and the sense of relief for being invited to participate in a pre-doctoral course at the Centre of Development Research, University of Bonn, Germany. I also remember my friends advising me to develop a thick skin, as they heard my complaints of being subjected to the scrutinising gaze of the visa process. I remember it took me a whole week to prepare for the trip. Years down the line, all it takes is an hour or so to have it all packed up. All it takes is a passport, a ticket and some money (debit/credit card) and I am good to go. At the time, I prepared myself to the minutest detail, so much so that my mother even put small pieces of dried meat (saved from Eid) in my bag, should I feel the need to eat meat ‘there’.

I remember the moment when we entered the lounge for the passengers waiting to board on the flight to Frankfurt. I remember the feeling that washed through my body. A pin-drop silence. Seated at a distance, everyone is staring at the screens. Such a stark contrast to the ‘disorganised mess’ of brown/black bodies’, and the hustle and bustle that accompanies it, that we were a part of, after landing at Abu Dhabi airport. In the lounge, nobody said or did anything for me to feel like an ‘outsider’ but something in the space was quite (dis)quietening.

The moment slides past in the anticipation and excitement of what’s to come. Up in the air, there is the delicious food served by beautiful hosts, ‘elevating’ drinks, all kinds of movies, and hours of sleep. Then the announcement that we are going to land soon.

I clearly remember looking out the window and feeling what it actually looks like. Down there is the expanse of the airport: a mix of concrete and earthly soil. The fantasy world brushes against the real, and I remember a sense of disenchantment. I remember us – Danish and me – getting on and off the escalators, parsing through the airport crowd, and making it to the metro terminal. Tickets in hand, we wait for the train that’s coming soon. I happen to look down and see a crack in the floor near my feet, and I remember feeling the first crack in the mirror reflecting the picture-perfect ‘western’ world.

In the days that follow, I remember us posing for photographs with almost everything as the background, I remember us telling a German friend how (all) women are so beautiful, and him laughing the exotic experience away. It was the coldest winter in decades in Germany, and I remember the pure white scenes of swaths of snow; from streets to footpaths to the rooftops, everything covered with snow. I remember the long coat I had on, and the hat I bought the very next day after arriving in Bonn. I also remember the evenings setting in too soon – at five – and with everyone gone to their homes during the weekdays, a sense of loneliness piercing through the bones.

Sacre Coeur, Paris, 2012.

It is the December holidays. For €20 each, Mitfahrgelegenheit (share-your-car-ride) takes and drops me, Aftab and Danish in the outskirts of Paris. We are walking down a footpath, looking for the hotel the driver had said would cost €20 each night. The dilapidated road, graffiti and an overhead bridge remind me of Shahdra of Lahore. “Is this Paris?”, a clear voice echoes in my mind. The scene changes. A long underground metro route. Off the train, out in the open, I encounter the first “Oh my God” moment. There is the Champs-Élysées of Paris. We take all the photos one can take, and tick mark all the places in the three days one can possibly tick mark. I have coffee in Cafe de Flore, the cafe Simone and Sartre would visit. In Louvre, I too want to set eyes on the Mona Lisa smile. No matter which section of the museum you are in, people are heading a certain direction like ants in a queue. Once there, I am discouraged to see that everyone is interested in taking selfies, nobody really cares about the Mona Lissa smile. I make my way through the crowd; (try to) savour the moment looking at the painting, and take a selfie with Mona Lissa in the background.

One can’t dismiss the comparison and contrast of places in the mind. Maybe that is how images travel, that is how some dominant images and narratives come to draw curtains before our eyes. On Champs-Elysees, I remember thinking of the grandeur of the Lahore Fort. And years later, back in Pakistan, I see the efforts to repair the Fort, and the overall ‘museumification’ of Androon Shehr (the Inner City), in continuity with the ongoing large-scale efforts at the “face-lift” of Lahore – all to make the capital of Punjab the “Paris of Pakistan”.

A political reading of things aside, there is a sense of creative irregularity and vibrancy in the less-than-perfect look of the walls, trains and trains stations in Paris, which I missed in the otherwise prim and proper scheme of things in Germany. From the trip, some ordinary scenes stick longer than the images of the royal avenues and palaces, and the scenic view from the top of the Eiffel Tower. A woman comes and stands in front of us as we are waiting for another train. Full to capacity, the train arrives, I can see her (reflection) in the glass door before it shuts. People get in and off the train, the door closes, and the train is gone; but the image remains.

Corona comes and many a friend put on the look of Tom Hanks in Cast Away. Culture recedes, nature takes over, and the global security concerns become the least of the issues. But on the borders, at the airports, the stereotypes stick, they have grown roots deeper than the real.

A year and a half after the ‘European’ trip, I land in the US on a Fulbright scholarship for a PhD in anthropology but my love for Germany remains. This is not the space to delve deep in comparing and contrasting the two Western societies but there is something in the air, in the overall landscape, and the social scheme of things, that I love about being in Germany. Despite the strong (intellectual-emotional) remnants of the past philosophical-instrumental rationality, which mark every day and the mundane, I share the Germans’ sense of grief when they can’t have their bread when abroad. The quality of food in America and Deutschland is virtually polls apart.

Some moments survive their limits, spillover their circle. In the wee hours of the night at a party in Bonn, I ‘rescue’ a girl from a drunk Indian guy, one of our group fellows. I excuse myself for the embarrassment and express gratitude for the calm and graceful manner in which she handles the situation. Not knowing who or where she is from, we are back into the anonymity of the foreign land. The next day a FB friend request actually feels like a miracle. I don’t know if it’s the foreign lands or her, but something about it sets the poetic space within me free.

Years down the line, Jennifer and I have Khayam, our over two and a half years old son. We have had to cross borders, get past security checks to keep intact our home(s). In 2015 in America, after her ESTA Visa ends, she flies to Belize to be ‘eligible’ to re-enter the States. Crossing over continents might not be difficult for the (privileged) young and free, but a child needs a place: to grow up smoothly, to grow roots.

Tomb of Bulleh Shah

I find myself in Koblenz, the city where rivers Rhein and Mossel meet. Playing with sand or/and his toys, Khayam talks to me in his proper (two- or three-word long) sentences in German. Not understanding a word, I respond with a ja (yes). “No, that’s not the answer”, he seems to react in his mind. Next time, I speak Urdu, and with a j‘ he responds. Despite the linguistic divide, ja (yes) is our mutual ground.

I listen and have learnt more German with him in a few weeks than I did in years. As I listen to him, I experience how the fluidity of identities feels. Ich bin Sardar Hussain (I am Sardar Hussain). Nein, du bist Papa! (No, you are Papa). Du bist mein Sohn (You are my son). Nein! Ich bin Khayam (No, I am Khayam).

Other than sharing Germans’ love for their bread, there is also this street life in German cities that’s missing in Austin, Texas; the state that’s famous for “everything big”. In Koblenz, the streets/bazaars, with hardly any or no cars, are the places where Khayam is playing with his “roller” (skateboard) or “Fussball” (football). Afraid he might run into a car on a particular street-cum-road leading to his spielplatz (playground), I plead. With one foot on the roller and the other on the ground, he slows down: Das ist fur Auto; das ist fur Khayam’s roller (This is for cars, and that [footpath] is for Khayam). Repeating my words, he nods.

At times, I zone out. There is a rakhri, a chatyal maidan (a barren ground) outside our home, located on the edge of the village, Dharor Hindkey. It is the unoccupied place where buffalos roam freely, and boys play cricket and other games. Early morning, my mother is getting Dildar Bhai ready, who, just out of the village’s primary school, has started going to the nearby Dharor Muslim with a Middle School. He is anxious to go join the boys who are moving their bicycles in slow motion to make circles, some are even trying to do skidding. It is the late ’80s.

Lahore was a distant dream then.

Now as the provincial capital is on its way to becoming fit for the idea of “Paris of Pakistan”, the people of the village (with undertones of pride) say, Aeh vi L[ah]ore ee ban gya ae hun (This too has become Lahore now). The ground where the boys would skid with their bicycles in the morning is no more. In retrospect, modernity reached the threshold of my eyes way before my village started to cave into the postcolonial state’s desire to catch up with the West (Global North). As globalised capital encroaches upon every inch of the space, the planet is en route to being fully urbanised.

Time away from Khayam entails sensing out deeply the hurdles to keeping my home(s) and staying human in this increasingly connected but differentially divisive globe, marked by such a selective flow of ideas, bodies and things up and down the North. The German consulate in Houston opens after a few months but the embassy in Islamabad remains closed, even though the number of Corona cases is far higher in the US than in Pakistan. My visa ends, my time in Koblenz is up, and I’ve to leave.

I get special treatment at the airports since I have kept some distance from barbers since I have got fond of facial hair on my face and the pitch dark aura around my neck. That’s how the larger politics feeds on, and into the ordinary. Jesus had a long beard, Tolstoy had it too. Shakespeare too had a beard. Except for Brad Pit and Tom Cruise, many historical, literary and scientific figures were great despite beards. Walt Whitman, the beloved American poet, had it; he didn’t look very different from the ones with beards. Haqanis invited by Reagan to the White House too were not clean shaved. Marx, the Godless prophet, comes and they are welcome to the Statehouse. I am from the land of Baba Farid and Bulleh Shah, the all-encompassing Sufi poet with beards, the research on whose words are confined only to the epistemic hubs like Harvard.

Turn of events. Corona comes and many a friend put on the look of Tom Hanks in Cast Away. Culture recedes, nature takes over, and the global security concerns become the least of the issues. But on the borders, at the airports, the stereotypes stick, they have grown roots deeper than the real.

Past the security protocol, I head for the smokers’ room and cast it away.

The writer is doing a PhD in socio-cultural anthropology at the University of Texas at Austin, USA

En route to Frankfurt