Shanaakht / Alizah Hashmi

In seventh grade I switched schools – a cultural and emotional shock that took all three years of middle school to dissipate. I had been smart in my old school, and I was still studious and scored well –but I spoke Urdu. Urdu was my first language –the language of my thoughts, emotions, expression. In class I thought of “identity” as “shanaakht” and “foreign” as “pardes”. I used to think these things, stop, translate, speak, and then stutter. I wrote down and learned speeches in debates classes because I knew I would fall apart impromptu, like cotton candy dissolving in water.

It took me a while to get accustomed to English as colloquy. I could write fluent English but when I spoke it came in grammatically fumbled wreckages, lacked the seamless cohesion of the tongue I was raised in. But if I didn’t speak English –the language of acceptance – I could only make so many friends, could only weave my way into so many clubs and societies.

When the grammar was defeated, there were the pronunciations and the accents. Was it quaran-teen or was it quarantaa-in? I would never know. Was it Ven-us or Veenus or Ven-is? I still don’t know. I use movies as a guide, when in doubt, when a word doesn’t quiet sound right.

I’m much better now, of course. I speak Urdu to my real friends, which I’ve sieved from my acquaintances by their ability –preference – to hold conversations in Urdu. But when I’m with colleagues I don’t really know, with professors, with associates I don’t really like –I’m always speaking English. Now it’s crisp and straight, I can even toss a bit of an American lilt into it, like when giving a presentation. It works. People take me seriously.

After I made an independent Facebook account, I used to get into a lot of internet fights. I was a hormonal and passionate –I spilt my inchoate outrages with the ways of the world from behind my keyboard. But I was polite, citing links, using words like “please” and “dubious sources” and “with all due respect”. I found a lot of “b*tch”, and “f*ck off” and “idiot.” For my generation, at least, social media was like a rite of passage to adulthood, we went in doe-eyed and ready to change the world –and came out diffident, wounded, stultified.

As I study to become a medical doctor, I’ve toned down my addiction to my mobile, pocket screens a lot –but the temptation is always there. A glaringly incorrect claim, an excruciatingly ridiculous take, something waving in bright red and beckoning me to drown in the cesspool of a comment thread. It’s like stepping on quick sand, you think you can quickly jump off –dignified and having made your point –but it is never like that. You’re soon knee-deep and being tugged in by abuse, struggling not to suffocate with the pile-ons, clinging to civility but close to throwing it out the window.

Some time ago a friend shared a political Facebook post –seeing it I knew immediately that her cyberspace was soon to be hijacked by the gate-keepers of political correctness –and their fan followings: high school kids, like we once were, desperate for upward mobility, networking by agreeing with anything that came out of a popular account that could shuttle them into an MUN conference or something like that. They rolled in soon enough, pitchforks in hand, with alternative facts and condescension, their ad hominem disguised as satire.

I reached out to my friend privately, handed her talking points, dropped small messages of support under her Facebook post. Naturally, we weren’t the only people in private consult –much larger mean-girl, kitty-party-esque Whatsapp groups had been activated, and were generously bestowing heart reacts and likes on the detailed censure being posted in response to her.

I told her that I’d noticed a pattern in these onsloughts –they’re often led and executed by people with no credentials outside of their social media. I told her she had better things to do with her time. We were both flustered and had headaches –it was herculean to exit the comment thread and stop responding. We took whatever consolation we could.

In the process, somewhere someone had likened us to “clueless sheep” and took offense when responded to in kind. Nothing unheard of in the realm of social media crusading –but it stuck with me because I knew this someone. I knew her from when college had just started. She –like me –hung around alone in halls, but unlike me, she made efforts to befriend others. Also unlike me, she was the sort of person you’d dread walking into in lunch breaks, because you’d have to buy them 200 rupees worth of food, and it wouldn’t be a one-off event. Soon the loans would pile up unpaid –the creditor would be too polite to ask and the debtor too insouciant to care.

For the short time we spent getting to know each other, I would think pretty about all these things. Everyone had situations at home, I ought to empathize. I wanted company and clinginess seemed a small compromise. Then we grew distant –like people often do, not because there is hostility, but because we subconsciously commit ourselves to other places and things.

I thought of that time, and I thought of now, where I was too cautious to attack a colleague so personally, unless in reciprocal –and she was doing so, so brazenly and publicly. I thought about this for some time.

I thought about how we grow –for better or worse, into more palatable versions of ourselves. I was afraid because I had no legion to back me up –she wasn’t; in the years that had passed, she had made the right connections, attended the right parties, appeased the right girls. There she was –carefree and bold, having shed her freshman skin and grown the logic-hardy scales of popularity.

And here I was, presented with the choice she must have encountered often on her journey to licensed social media haranguer –to defend yourself, or to let yourself become a casualty in the climb to the coveted peak of universal approval.

For most people like her, and there are many, social media served as a mirror to such capitulation –their Facebook profiles, their likes, reacts, comments, fights, everything –was the profiled identity they wanted to create for themselves; their most marketable digital footprint.

The greatest disappointment of that night was that my friend –the original poster –deleted her post. She, too, had cowered to the masochistic mentality of social media –realized that her posts needed a market analysis, that this one had drawn the ire of the self-asserted regulators, that it should not have passed the purity test that gauges if engagement will be favorable. Her identity –untampered in this way –was not welcome. Her own words –with which she’d annotated the post she had shared–had only been a sentence: “He needs our support!”

When I was 17 years old, I was accepted into a summer program in the US. Distant cousins lived in America, so I was granted permission to attend, provided all five members of the family travelled with me.

Being on campus, though, was a first. I had stepped out of my parent’s tutelage and was forced to put together an identity –words, actions, decisions –that were not vetted and approved by my mother. On the plane and in the time before the two-week program I searched for what I wanted to be during my time here, where so many people and so many identities would be juxtaposed. Did I want to stand out? Did I want to be a nerd? A Pakistani, Alizah? Who even was Alizah?

In our ice-breaking session, an instructor told us to be the best ambassadors we could be for our cultures. I’d read somewhere that America was a burial ground for culture –and I felt I was carrying the weight of a cultural identity I had, over the years, sought to distance myself from.

I had specifically packed a green and white shalwar kameez to don as something emblematically Pakistani, should the opportunity present itself. But during the course of my stay in New Haven, there was really no clash of culture. There was only a motley of cultures, where most people strove to accelerate themselves to the pinnacle of civilization: looking, being American. Some were farther ahead along the way than others.

So when the opportunity presented itself, I didn’t wear my purpose-picked dress. Instead I wore a business blazer and dress pants. I had auditioned and been chosen for their signature student speaker series –the topic of my talk was The War on Terror, and how it had affected the country I call home. It was a distinctly anti-American talk –and to deliver it in alien attire would be picking too many battles at the same time. Perhaps I felt, again, that if I postured as one of them, if I downplayed my Pakistani-ness and assured them that I was as enlightened as they come, my words of dissent would carry more weight. I needed to tone down my identity, to make it feel less threatening.

My fears were misplaced. People were overwhelmingly empathetic –the next morning two girls I hadn’t spoken to before came up to me and told me that was the best thing they’d ever heard. Another student, who had travelled from Pakistan with me, told me that he was pleasantly surprised –I didn’t look the sort of person who could defend herself.

I knew I wasn’t. I’d lost myself a long time ago –this modicum of who I could’ve been was more of a moment of compunction than a moment of epiphany.

In the first year on medical school, when we were only opening up to the curriculum, and to each other, a classmate who had said hello to me here and there asked me to have lunch with him. Over boiled rice and soya-sauce-deluged Manchurian, he told me he was a palm-reader.

“Really?” I probed, my face probably giving away that I didn’t quite believe in the credibility of chiromancy. I’m learning, slowly, that I should have said “that’s fantastic!” or “wowza!” instead.

“I can read yours.” It sounded like a challenge. I accepted.

He scowled, running his fingertips over my palm, red from holding the spoon. His eyebrows shot up and down, as if in the midst of divine admission.

“What?” I had to know now.

“Your husband is going to die,” he blurted, sympathetic.

I was unperturbed. Matrimony was a long way off and the proposition looked more comical than tragic. I smirked.

“You’re going to marry the Governor…of something,” he paced himself, “but he’ll be shot dead.”

Me? Governor? After he had made his first comment, I’d been making a mental tally of my distant cousins, also quickly running through the male faces I’d seen on campus, trying to assess if they could ever be governors of anything.

“Governor of what?”

He had me hooked and he knew it. “That I can’t say. Maybe a more qualified palmist can.”

I snorted, but my faith was shaken. I realized I wasn’t as disturbed by the governor’s death than I was with the notion of a governor being my husband. A British-style governor, ripped from a history textbook, being carried on a loft on the back of black men? Or a rotund local politician lounging away in a provincial Governor house –trying to emulate the colonial paradigm? Or perhaps the sleek, Ivy-educated Governor of the State Bank?

I shouldn’t have been rationalizing any of this –convinced the whole thing was a hoax—but I was, concerned that should this come true, would I ever fit in into the world of a governor? I had squirmed some way away from who I’d been when we lived in our two-bedroom apartment in Gulshan-e-Iqbal, Karachi –but to be the wife of a powerful, entitled man would need vaulting over the boundaries of my present reality. Before the governor died, I –as I was right now –would have to die too.

Would I become one of those girls that carried Michael Kors bags to field work and made sure everyone knew they were the real brand? Would I have to choose who I engaged on social media based on the protocols of my husband’s position, and not who I wanted to speak to? Would I be laughed at if, at a gathering, I didn’t know the meaning of an English word somebody said to me, or if I couldn’t think of an easier synonym fast enough and pronounced the word wrong? Ate up a preposition, or used an incorrect pronoun? Would I too become that person that liberally accused others of privilege and insulation if they did not put out every small and large hardship they faced on all their social media? Would I finally become that girl that commented “aww, queeeen!” on a decidedly terrible photo of a friend, instead of telling them privately to go easy on the editing?

Identity is fluid, as some would argue it should be, but it shouldn’t be expendable. We walk on water, watch our reflections turn murky and unrecognizable. We try to be our best selves but define best by acceptability. Most of our lives are lived, increasingly, to the beat and approbation of an imagined audience; we are a lot of things, but not enough of any one thing.

Identities should be shaped organically, not surgically carved with a scalpel. People are parodies because we make them be –we prefer cosmetics to competence, recognition to originality. Everyday we be people we are not, watch others succeed living by this didactic. Sometimes, we think of the cost: who we really were.

Alizah Hashmi is based in Karachi, Pakistan. Her work has appeared in Entropy Magazine, Litbreak, The Young Adult Review Network (YARN), Five on the Fifth, the RIC Journal, The Aleph Review, Reclamation Magazine, and Academia Magazine. She was a finalist for the 2020 Curt Johnson Prose Award and was longlisted for the 2019 Zeenat Haroon Rashid Writing Prize. She likes cricket, telling stories, and never losing faith in the country she calls home.

This essay was a finalist for the Curt Johnson Prose Award 2020 run by December Magazine.

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