Where We Are From, Where We Are

Kirin Khan

Irum could recall small pieces of a home – late autumn in Pittsburgh, chest deep in orange and brown leaves not yet raked into piles, sticks poking her covertly as she toddled through the backyard, or Halloween in Knoxville, burning her tongue on her first cup of hot apple cider as the snow began to fall in the silent, heavy stillness of southern suburb, or walking to high school in Albuquerque, through the sand so fine it rose in her footfall like mist, swirling and surrounding her steps as she cut through the Spanish tile neighborhoods, goathead thorns lacing the edges of her frayed jeans, adorning her shoelaces like sequins, but she could not, when asked, say exactly where her home was, or give a simple answer to the persistent interrogation of Americans or Desis who ask “Where are you from?”

Mom tried. The move from Pakistan to Amrika was of course the big one, but it was when she had the least – two suitcases and the baby, her husband to meet her at the airport in New York. Back then they moved with more freedom, stopping in nice hotels along the way. As the family grew, Irum first, followed by three boys, the moves were harder – so many boxes, so many bodies to wrangle into the van and keep entertained as they drove from Pennsylvania to Tennessee, or from Tennessee to New Mexico, and finally New Mexico to LA after Irum started college, but while the three boys were still in high school. The hotels were cheaper, and nights that used to be spent exploring a new city in a new country were spent with pizza and a kids’ movie, the kids piled on the bed like puppies, her husband snoring softly next to her. It was a different kind of good, but a lot more work.

She tried to help them adjust, connect, as though the land could come with her from Pakistan here and then there, one house to the next. A lifetime of moving taught her well. Each time they move, Mom packs the same silk rugs, the bed sheets, the janimaz and the decorative plates, the family photos, boxed carefully. Each time, a few boxes go missing; a few dishes and small shizuna from home – which, to her, was always Pakistan – are broken in the bottom of a box no matter how carefully she packs. Each time, she unpacks to create a new home, an echo of the one she remembered from her childhood, carefully choosing exactly where each piece should go – the bronze decorative plates float against the white dining room wall, the pink and green embroidered tapestry from Kabul drapes across one side of the prayer room, the Persian rugs sprawl across the living room and dining room, the figurines and mementos from all of their trips over the years are carefully placed where the children might see them, and she hangs framed photos on the walls and the mantle, in the hallway and in between bedroom doors, to shine like beacons in the night, each photo a lighthouse to comfort and guide the children, eventually, pa ro, slowly, back to the family.

There was he, lifted up on a giant bed sheet held taut and bounced through the village, bounced among rupees thrown into the air and on the sheet, rupees falling gentle as snow; there was she, presented with the clothes and the wedding jewelry, bathed in heavy makeup and perfume and nakreezey, her hair braided and decorated with gold and flowers; there was the biryani and wakha and Coca-Cola and there was the dumman drumming and sing-shouting and there was everyone dancing in the jasmine thick air until just before sunrise. There was the short honeymoon in Abbotabad, where she cried quietly, being so far from home.  Then, finally, there was a new life together in their modest earth house and a square dusty dirt chamun. The house connects to the houses of the neighbors via short arteries, neighbors who are also his family. The conjoined houses create a square, the negative-space of individual homes, the center of the village. It is in this house that he calls her Peesho, his cat, and it is in this house that she first calls him Jaan, life, beloved.

In the yard near the front window, they plant a seedling, a wiry wisp with a few leaves, too young yet to tell if it was an umrood tree or grapevine, jumbayli flower or summer squash. The seedling fits in the palm of the woman’s hand, root ball and all. They plant it in the soil and give it water and let the sunlight kiss its feet. The months pass peacefully, and the seedling stretches out a little more and a little more. These are the things that take time: growth.

Irum tries.  At the end of her junior year at her small, predominantly white liberal arts college, she packs her duffle bag and backpack and whatever other essentials she can fit into the car her Dada had given her just two years ago, as an of-course-you-have-graduated-from-high-school-and-of-course-gotten-into-a-decent-college gift.

The Toyota was boxy and steel gray, an ’80s tin can that smelled musty but still, miraculously, ran. He had somehow maintained it for 18 years, driving it to and from work while Mom got the “nice car,” a used Dodge they bought at government auction.

Dada’s eyes shone when he handed her the key, saying, “I bought this car just two weeks before you were born, so it is only right that it is yours now.”

“Thank you Dada, der marabani.” Irum received the Toyota with the mixture of mortification and gratitude– not wanting to be a “spoiled American girl,” she could never ask for a newer car, could not explain how embarrassing the ride was, how it’s look and smell guaranteed she would not be offering her friends a ride, and at the same time, because she was so frequently reminded, she knew exactly how much sacrifice went into giving her a car, and how many others would love to be in her shoes. She shook it off – her father’s glowing face, his eyes sparking with excitement at the gift, electric with anticipation and expectation of her reciprocal thrill was contagious; she threw her arms around his neck and thanked him.

When the explosions cast gravel and dust in large plumes outside the village, the man tells his new bride not to worry, they are safe. After all, they have never hurt anyone. No one really knows their home exists; it is not on maps, and the Other men, the ones who are not his brothers, few of them could read a map anyway. Besides, they are not enemies, more cautious co-inhabitants. They are mountain people, warriors, sure. Although, he thinks, he has never fought in a war, and is only a warrior in that all Pukhtuns are warriors, really. He hopes he can be brave. He hopes he will not need to be brave.

He wakes up early, before the morning prayer, well before sunrise. He makes tea himself, lets his wife sleep. In the gray morning light, he dresses warmly and puts on his black leather chuparray, uses a muswak to clean his teeth, applies a lightly scented oil to his hair and here and there under his camise. He walks out, careful not to wake her, shutting the front door softly, and heads to his shop, which was once his father’s. Mylar and cellophane party decorations for weddings or Eid sparkle and glint from the ceiling, and various shelves contain aluminum nakreezey cones, plastic jewelry, various cheap toys from China. Snacks, sodas, cigarettes, and cassette tapes of old Pukhto and Sindhi songs are closer to the register.

Three years later it was still kicking. She can’t quite believe it, but she packs the gray metal box up anyway for the annual summer drive home. The car is too old for mp3s or even a CD player. It has a small rectangle where her father used to insert Pukhto audiocassettes, which he blared as the kids in the back groaned and begged, “Dada! Put on the radio kana!”

He would sing along, sometimes Mom would too, and as a child, Irum judged whether or not the songs were happy or sad based on her parents’ eyes. She couldn’t tell by the speed of a song, some slow songs recalled happier days and thus were sad songs too, some fast songs reminded Dada of home and made him happy-sad, but something in how the weight of their bodies shifted from their shoulders to their chests and curved their spines as a song pulled them into its sadness, or from the tension in their backs as their chests filled and expanded from the happy ones told her too how to feel. Her parents sang to each other and could not hear their whining American mashuman in the backseat asking for Madonna and Michael Jackson over the wall of sound from tabla and harmonium and rabab.

The day starts like every day, the early morning like every early morning, and he is almost there when his shop explodes in a burst of noise and smoke and gray stone dust. He is almost there, close enough to be thrown back, close enough to have his ears seal over and hear nothing but a high pitch whistle as though he is under water and someone is trying to pierce the depths to reach him, and one ear is bleeding and dust covers him as though he is being buried.  He lies on the ground and he stares at where he almost was. A warning. Or an accident. He decides not to find out. He stares at where he almost was. No one is hurt badly. There is trembling inside and outside of him. It does not even make the news. He does not cry. His zra drums loud and strong and tells him he is alive.  After a few hours of checking in with others, he goes back to the village and the dirt chamun and the house and his wife. He walks back slowly thinks about where he was, about where he almost was, about his father’s shop. The shop is gone, what has been is not, what will be will be.

Little Irum could only understand some of the words – something about going to Pekhawar and bringing back something, but she couldn’t make out what, something else about three or four flowers. Another one calling someone a liar for coming home with empty, empty hands, which was maybe an angry song – Irum would be angry if her Dada said he would bring her presents and then didn’t – but it had a good beat and music that she would sometimes hum to herself when playing by alone, when her American or Urdu-speaking friends were not around.  Even now, in college, she has no Pukhtun friends; she doesn’t know where to find them.

On her drive from Oakland, where she goes to school, to LA, where her parents now live, she wants to listen the music her father played in the car on their many road trips, but of course, she can’t find it on radio stations, and she doesn’t have his old tapes. She isn’t sure if he still had them either, for that matter.  Her Pukhto is not so good anyway, it makes her tongue feel too big for her mouth, the words make her stumble and she runs out of breath from all the kha’s and gha’s, and wre’s. Her cousins in Pakistan would laugh at her, until eventually she started just answering her parents in English. She cannot sing her way home; she turns the radio off. She refuses to let herself feel sad. She hums the parts of a song she can’t quite remember, and shouts the few parts she does know extra loud, drumming on the steering wheel,


I am missing your black eyes.

He hopes this is the brave thing to do. Should he stay and fight? Who would he fight? Explosives are for cowards; it could have been anyone. Russians, Afghans, Americans. Even another Pukhtun, avenging some old family dishonor. They decide to leave, to find work in a bigger village. They cannot take the house, so they roll up what they can stuff into an old Daewoo, wrapping each piece in brastuns made from old camisuna –pots and shoes, herbs and books, clothes and the wedding jewelry hidden a little bit here and a little bit there, and few photos that will get broken and torn and stained along the way. As they are leaving, she stops in the entryway and stares at the seedling. She slowly pulls the sprout out of the chamun, grabbing it by the base of the stem and pulling gently and evenly, shaking the earth from the roots, wrapping the root ball in an old dupatta. They carry it with them. So long as they have the seedling, she assures him, they will be able to build a new home anywhere. It will sink its roots in the new land and grow with them, until they belong.

Six hours later, she arrives tired and with cramping legs. She rings the doorbell.

“JAAAAAN! Irum ralal! Raza, ra dun a sha!” her mother announces Irum’s arrival to her father and in the same breath shouts from the kitchen at Irum to come in. The house smells strongly of onions, sweating on the stove as always, and garam masala, the mustard colored powder particles filling the air, scent soaking into couch cushions and carpet, adding a vibrant undertone to the air freshener and cleaning products her mother scoured the house with in anticipation of Irum’s arrival.

Pukhtuns don’t use masala that much compared to other people of the Subcontinent, but what her mother used accumulated in her body, only to film over the surface of her skin on sticky, sweaty days. She didn’t even realize it was there until one day in middle school, opening her locker while talking to her friend Tiffany, Tiffany exclaimed,

“Whoa, your locker smells like you!”

“Smells like me? What do you mean?”

“You know, like Indian food.” Irum did not know, not until Tiffany said it. The battle was on. She showered daily, long complicated affairs with various soaps and creams and lots of scrubbing and shaving.  She used cucumber scented or apple scented body wash in the summer, and pumpkin spice or ginger cookie body wash in the winter, and she used body sprays, and she used lotions, and of course she used deodorant. Just like the other American girls. She even tried to stop eating Pakistani food, asking her mother for spaghetti or pizza. But it was useless. Under the deodorant and shampoo and conditioner and lotion and body spray, hiding in her very sweat glands, the masala waited, seeping through her armpits, through her scalp, nesting in her thick hair, lining the creases of her upper thigh and knees, whether she was in the gym or just a humid classroom. She couldn’t always smell it, but she knew immediately when the masala broke through her assorted scents barrier by the wrinkling of upturned button noses and not-so-covert looks exchanged among smirking pale eyes.

The next new job is not as good. He has to start as a low- level assistant to the main shopkeeper, instead of having his own store. The townspeople would not trust a new store with new owners anyway. The next new home is found on the razor edge of town among strangers, among the other wanderers, among the others searching, where the hunger-struck, grief-struck, desperate face of each man begins to blend together. It is sometimes safer that way. She plants the seedling outside the shack, but close enough for her to glance out and see that she has something special and alive.

College provided a masala reprieve, not only for her nose but also for her taste buds – the institution’s kitchen regarded salt extravagant, other spices suspect. She finds herself missing the flavor, and even missing the scent she was so recently embarrassed by.

“Pa khair! Pa khair! Sunga ay, Irum?” her mother greets her with one hand stirring the onions, the other outstretched for a hug and two kisses, one on each cheek.

“Za teek yam. Taso sungay?” she kisses Mom in the kitchen, dropping her bags in the hallway to retrieve later, and shouts her salam to Dada, who is absorbed in the evening news on TV. Irum returns to inspect the bubbling pot in the kitchen.

“TAso SUH…paKHHakay?” she loudly over-pronounces the words to hide her American accent, hoping her mom won’t notice her struggle as each word bubbles to her mouth from her throat as she searches for the next one. Her chest hollow and pulling her inward, knowing she sounds wrong. Knowing she is wrong.

“Bas, karayla. Moong sara pulao shta, chi thu nor suh waary, mah thu uhwaya kana,” Mom plays along with Irum, mercifully ignores the flustered girl. She’s making bitter squash, Irum’s favorite. Spiced rice with meat cooked in it. Anything else provided on request, the fridge and freezer stocked. Mom never stopped cooking for five.

Irum inhales the steam, “Mmmm, you have to give me some recipes, I’m dying over there!” She tries to say it playfully, but there is a desperation that catches the edge of her mouth. Her mother looks at her closely.

“Come home more, I will show you how! Every day we can cook together! Look, this much thora zeera, just drop it in the pyaz, oogara,” Mom holds out her hand with a small circle of brown powder in the center and drops it in the pot of onions.

“Mom, how much was that? A tablespoon? Two?”

“Oh I don’t know, just watch me kana!”

“Okay, but what was that, cumin?”

“Huh. Ma tha patha nishta chi tha suh thuh weh Engrezi ki.” I don’t know what you call these things in English.  Irum cannot cook her mother’s food without her mother tongue.

Safer is not the same as safe. The mountains rumble with bombs and rumors of bombs. The sky cracks with gunfire that could mean death, or could mean a wedding, or could mean a first-born son. Among strangers, it is even harder to know. They find a new small, square yard and plant the seedling, only to dig it up again a few months later, as howling hunger chases them, as gunshots crack in the distance, as whispers of better jobs, better homes, a better square yard just ahead push them to keep going.

Each time they dig up the seedling, the root ball is a little smaller, roots breaking off here and there.

Irum sleeps deeply that night, her brastun heavy and quilted and scented slightly like lavender and slightly like dust and slightly like mothballs. Mom must have pulled it out just for Irum’s homecoming. She wakes up as gleaming nwar fills the sky over the Sandias, flooding her bedroom with coruscating golden light impossible to sleep through. She throws on a camise partoogh and sweatshirt and heads downstairs to make coffee for herself and her littlest brother, the only one still home since the other two are also in college, and che for her parents who, 35 years in America, still don’t really like coffee.

She is surprised to see Dada up and drinking tea already.

“Salam aleikum, Dada” she says, passing him to get the coffee brewing.

“Wa aleikum as-salam. Did you sleep well, peeshungay?” he asks, calling her kitten, her childhood nickname.

“Ao, gi. I slept hard, but I had weird dreams.”

“What kind of weird dream? What happened?” He sits at the kitchen table with his hands wrapped around his mug, the cardamom scented steam rising in gentle clouds.

“I dunno, Dada. Just weird, not bad. I dreamt I was standing on a cliff, screaming at the ocean.”

“Screaming? At the ocean? What were you saying?”

“Hm, I don’t really remember. I was lonely, I remember feeling kinda sad, and there was no one else around. What’s weird is, I could hear the ocean screaming back.”

“Screaming back? The ocean?”

“Yeah, the ocean, but it was yelling in Pukhto and I couldn’t understand what it was saying.”

He looks at her for a moment.

“Huh.” He pauses, thinking.

“Peeshungay, when you dream, do you dream in English, or Pukhto?”

Irum ponders this while pouring herself a cup of coffee.

“English, almost always. You?”

“Even after all this time, I dream in Pukhto.”

He works where he can, sometimes a laborer, sometimes working in a factory if the town is big enough to have one. She helps, cleans houses, takes in sewing. They stay for a year or two and then move on. A new job, a tent at first and then a small house.  Each place has less and less to keep them.

When they realize she is expecting a child, they talk about Amrika. It’s safer; they could go. They know people who went. They could live among people they know again. They save. They don’t have much money, but they do know the right people – one of the benefits of the tribe. He has to go first, to find work; maybe he can work for her uncle, long settled there. He has to go first, to save, but it will go faster if he makes dollars, he tells her. It will be easier to send for her once he has gotten established. It is easier to do some things alone.

These are the things that take time: growth. Their savings grow slowly. She takes on more work. He asks for loans, calling his father and her father and explaining; her father sends them money, his father says he cannot. He calls her uncle in Amrika. The uncle answers the phone with an American accent, a loud “Hello!” and an, “of course you can come.”

And then he is gone.

She takes whatever they have left and goes back to her mother’s house. She waits.

She plants the seedling outside her mother’s house and is not sure why she cares anymore. The stem struggles to support the weight of yellowing leaves. It holds on, but it does not flourish. It does not fruit.

A child is born in a town full of strangers; her father hears her cries through the telephone. They name her Irum, a heavenly garden. They name her Irum, which also means a landmark, something that tells people where they are.

Kirin Khan is a Pashtuna, first-generation Pakistani-American writer currently living in the Bay Area. Her work explores issues of womanhood, identities in conflict and flux, grief, violence and safety, immigration and immigration trauma, non-White/non-American queer sexuality, isolation and belonging. She is fascinated by monsters and losers more than heroes, small people caught between worlds.

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