Seabirds


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Mama is inconsolable toward the end of our summer trips to Pakistan. It is as painful as watching a child getting ripped from the hands of her mother, except my mother is the child and her mother is Lahore, the only home she had ever known until she was 24. Back to a country thousands of miles away from her loved ones, a land of opportunity but one that was devastatingly lonely. In Lahore, my Nani, uncles, aunts, great aunts and cousins lived together in a compound across the street from a mosque. In Florida, our nearest relative lived in Houston.

The flight to Dubai always leaves at dawn. One by one she goes down the line of relatives, who stand outside the gates of her childhood home as the sun rises over the jasmine tree. She kisses my nani on one cheek, whom she will see in Florida in a few months. Her uncle gently pats the pashmina draped over her hair, whispering prayers for a safe journey. Another aunt hugs her and then Mama addresses all my young cousins, bending down to their level and making them promise they will work hard so they can study in America one day. When she finally reaches her oldest brother at the end of the line, she collapses into his arms. This is when she loses her composure, begging not to go back like a child. My uncle stands at six feet, unusual for a Pakistani man, and is holding my petite mother like one of those porcelain dolls she collects, as if she will shatter at any moment.

And I always find myself crying not because I’ll miss Lahore, a city I only come to know for a few months at a time, but because of the pain I feel for Mama; the guilt in that she is exiled in a strange country so my brother and I can receive an American passport and a western education. All I can do in this moment is hold my brother, who can barely walk, and watch. And by the time I am sitting in the back of the hatchback, squeezed between my brother and Mama on top of a suitcase, I am sobbing. And Mama is sobbing too, and we look at each other as the sky turns from indigo to mustard and cry even more.

Before I left for Pakistan that summer, my third grade class would sing patriotic songs every morning, lined up in the courtyard outside our classrooms. We learned there was no other country like the United States. We could love no other country like the United States. Then why was Mama so upset to go back to her home?

I realized many years later that my family has no home. Home has been in the trade ships of Calcutta, the wheat fields of Bihar, the cosmopolitan cities of Lahore and Karachi and the sleepy suburbs of Miami. On the flight to Dubai, we were floating again somewhere over the Arabian Sea, in between the many places we have called home. My family lineage is like the seabirds we feed off the shores of Florida — we are aerial beings unable to establish family roots in one place. Like the seabirds, we follow our people. But the ghosts of my ancestry still draw me back to a homeland I barely know, a homeland which militarized borders and drone bombings prevent me from entering again.

It wasn’t until years later that I asked Papa why he chose to leave everything behind in Pakistan. It is not my parents’ fault that years of colonialism robbed our natural resources and kept us as their servants. It is our tanned shoulders upon which the entire Western world stands, from the horn of Africa to the Subcontinent to East Asia. And now it is our turn to move from under the feet of the West and climb the ladder ourselves, and so Papa said, where else would we go but West? It’s the very place that hoards the wealth they stole from my people not even a generation ago. It is not our fault the western world has no legs to stand upon its own. And when we came here and formed our own businesses to serve them, or went to school and became doctors to treat them, or invested in a taxi cab to drive them, we became the parasite. A seabird, at least, is better than a parasite.
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