A little over two years ago I hopped on a plane in Washington DC to go back to Pakistan. After four years, I was going home.
I remember looking out the plane window when we were in sight of Islamabad and seeing the darkness below. Just a few lights glowed in the black murk. It reminded me of a Stephen King book. The Langoliers, maybe.
I remember offering the security clearance fellow a broad smile, a mistake which kept me waiting for fifteen minutes as he chatted with his cronies, because I was clearly not a ‘saab’ so not deserving of his attention.
I remember seeing an old man sitting on the floor outside the airport terminal, blind and begging for alms, a mangy dog sniffing at his feet.
There was a gloom in the air, a despondency, thick and heavy like tar, through which everyone struggled without realizing it. Family members told me their tales of woe. Friends who I reconnected with were not the same. People were confidently spouting whichever lie they could best use to reconcile their lot in life. Everything was different from what I remembered. Or maybe it was me who had changed.
I remember driving through Peshawar and seeing utter despair on everyone’s face. This was back when suicide bombings were rampant. Two days in the city, and the only smile I saw was one a mother gave to her infant child in the back of a van as I drove past. That gave me some hope: mankind may fuck itself up, but the things that really matter will still prevail.
I remember standing at a red light in Islamabad and being jarred out of my train of thought by the beggar with the hunchback and deformed arms, or the other one with no legs who ‘walked’ on his hands. I looked around to see what other people in other cars were doing about this. Seems like pokerfaced ignorance was the call of the day. I remember the little Pathan beggar girls, the youngest no older than 3, scurrying around stopped cars with palms raised, like Munchkins. I remember a statistic someone had mentioned to me about beggars and child rape. I drove out of there as fast as I could.
Every street, every shopping mall, every fancy cafe, every pocket of affluence was marked by the simple, silent demands of the masses. An old man here, a little girl there, their clothes ragged and torn, their eyes hollow, constantly keeping us from reveling in our upper-class excesses. I looked around at others my age, my status, and realized that no one had any real answers. Ignorance was bliss. Everyone focused on their little lives and lost themselves to unnecessary intricacies. People lost themselves to whichever addiction kept them from facing it all. The women here live lives of quiet desperation. The men keep their heads down and plod along like mules, not daring to draw attention to themselves. The dream for women is to find decent men and have babies. The dream for men is to become corporate wage-slaves and make do. Its a bullshit system, but many accept it because that’s just how it goes over here.
And a simple question haunted me relentlessly: Is this it?
My soul was dying. Not only because things were so bad here, but because everyone had so readily accepted it all.
It took me months to heal. Months spent in solitary confinement, reading books and digesting information and looking for answers, occasionally meeting up with friends to keep from going totally insane. I was sick for a long time, over five weeks, bedridden, disoriented, in the fucking pits. There were times I would wake up in cold sweats, screaming.
I was the eldest son, the smart kid with the bright future, the PhD student in America. Now I was the has-been, the quitter, the loner who hides in his room all day, the anti-social asshole. No one here could possibly understand. And this place, with its contradictions and despair and sadness, a struggling, lumbering, diseased beast upon which I now rode, I could not possibly understand.
So I moved deeper into my solitude. I studied meditation and religion and psychology and neuro-linguistic programming. I connected with like-minded people, people who were rising above their circumstances and doing something with their lives. Inch by little inch, I found my basic freedom. I moved to Abbottabad and got lost to the ambivalent silence of nature. I returned to my most primal humanity and disconnected from this dualistic, broken society. I sat in green fields and observed the simple beauty of nature, the perfection with which every blade of grass and flower and leaf and bee conducted themselves, and I wept because I thought I mattered. I climbed the mountain behind my home and looked out at the white, dirty, concrete maze which was the city, and the bright, secretive, non-judgmental blue sky above, and I laughed at the folly of all men, confident and secure in their boxes, oblivious to reality.
I lost myself and got that much closer to salvation.
Out there in the wilderness I learned that love conquers all. Love of one’s true nature, of other beings, of everything perceptible and imperceptible, of the moment. Like the woman smiling at her child in the back of a van while all else is in turmoil.
I realigned myself with those ancient forces. With the grass beneath my feet and the stars above my head. Everything man-made ceased to matter. Both the excessive bling of the States and the base despair of Pakistan. The question had been answered: the world is a sum total of what you are able to perceive. More importantly, it is a sum total of what you choose to perceive. Nothing more, nothing less.
I gave myself up to the absolute fundamentals of life. If I were to die today, it would not matter.
Now I chat with beggars with abandon. We share food. I high-five the little girls. One day one of them offered me ice cream. One day I offered one of them coffee. I can not solve anyone’s problems for them, but I can still offer them my love.
I wanted to have these conversations with people. I wanted people to know that there are other ways out of the apathy. They just have to be brave enough to find them. But it is difficult discussing these things in person; people are too set in this ways. So I started this blog. I wanted to share my little story, hoping that it may inspire people to find theirs.
And it has been two years since I’ve been back.
I’m not fully there yet, but I’m close. Every morning I wake up with a sense of adventure. I can’t be bothered with social drama anymore. I can’t be bothered with upperclassmen’s complaints about their petty problems. I no longer watch TV. I can’t be bothered with fear, danger, harm, threat. All I have is my work. All I have is right now, and whether I can fight off the hate for another moment.
Back to work I go. =)