Manal Khan, taken by her husband on a day trip to Segovia.
The Displaced Nation is on a mission to celebrate the contributions made by borderless travelers and global residents to creative pursuits.
Owing to our Western bias, we tend to feature Westerners who have ventured to other parts of the world, but there are plenty of other internationals who, too, deserve kudos—I refer to our counterparts in the less developed world, many of whom flock to the United States and Europe for higher education and employment opportunities, and in the course of that, find their own creative paths.
Is that because they feel as displaced as we do?
Perhaps I’ll uncover some answers in today’s post. I’ll be talking to journalist, poet, essayist, photographer, and storyteller Manal A. Khan, who says that she lives in fact, in fiction—and everywhere in between. Born in Pakistan, Manal has a journalism degree from Berkeley and has worked for an independent news organization in New York City.
I discovered Manal’s magnificent blog, “Windswept Words.”, around the time the Displaced Nation started and have been eager to interview her ever since. But when I tried contacting her, she’d just repatriated to Pakistan. She did not see my request until recently, when she and her husband (also Pakistani) moved abroad again, this time to Europe.*
I am so pleased to be able to catch up with Manal in her latest port of call: Madrid, Spain. I predict that you, too, dear reader, will be as blown away, so to speak, as I was by her windswept words…
* Ironically, on the very day when Manal answered my request, she was awarded one of our Alices for a recent blog post that expresses, at one and the same time, her love for her native Pakistan as well as her discomfort with its social inequalities and excessive religiosity.
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Greetings, Manal. It’s so good to have the chance to catch up with you at long last. I’d like to start by quoting from one of your poems, called “Foreigner”:
sometimes, i wish
i didn’t feel like such a foreigner
in my own country
among my own people
that i wouldn’t be polite,
that punjabi or urdu would flow from my mouth
as effortlessly as english…
What led you to compose these words?
I wrote “Foreigner” eight years ago, during my college days in my hometown, Lahore. Pakistan is an extremely socially-divided country. If you happen to be born “privileged,” chances are you will get the best lifestyle, the best education, and the best work opportunities that the country has to offer. And if you happen to be born outside of that tiny privileged class—the middle-class barely exists in Pakistan—chances are you will be struggling most of your life just to put food on the table. I happened to be born into the former class, and while I know that I was fortunate, that terrible divide is something I could never reconcile myself with.
And it was not just about money, or wealth. It was about culture, and language, and a sense of belonging. Pakistan used to be a British colony, and gained independence in 1947, along with the rest of the Indian subcontinent. But in many ways, we remain “colonized” by the English language. English is still the language of the powerful, of the elite, and a huge divider of class, culture and people.
So all these different things were swimming in my head when I wrote the poem. You could say that I felt “displaced,” even when I lived in my native country.
I can relate—and I was born in America! Another poem of yours I enjoyed was this short one: “Not Being,”. Allow me to share the first two lines:
If home is where the heart is, my heart is forever moving, a gypsy
If a piece of cloth and a stadium slogan is a test of nationalism, I have no nation…
“Not Being” was written in New York. It was inspired by many different things, but the theme of not belonging, or not quite fitting in—in this case, to Pakistani society—is similar to “Foreigner.” For instance, the definition of a “good” Pakistani, according to accepted norms, is basic and black-and-white: intensely patriotic, passionate about cricket, virulent about America, and careful about fasting in Ramadan and attending Friday prayers; somebody who is dutiful to family, loyal to friends, lives up to expectations, and sticks to his or her roots. I was getting a lot of pressure, directly and indirectly, to be this sort of person from people I knew back home, and from feedback on my blogs published in The Express Tribune. I felt confused. I didn’t agree with or conform to any of those norms, so did that make me a “bad” Pakistani? The poem was an expression of that conflict.
Was the audience you intended for these poems primarily Pakistani?
To be honest, I intended no audience. I published “Foreigner” on Windswept Words a few years ago—it had been sitting in an old notebook till then; and “Not Being” only reached my regular blog readers. But now you mention it, I may submit the poems to one of the Pakistani blog sites I write for. It would be interesting to see people’s reactions.
“Embrace the day with laughing heart…”
Did writing about these themes help you to process the peripatetic life you’ve led as a young Pakistani woman who went to j-school in California and has lived in New York City?
Not only the poems, but most of the writing on my blog over the past few years has revolved around these themes. It’s interesting to see how one’s feelings of displacement evolve over time. Initially, when you are “fresh off the boat,” a foreigner in a foreign land, you feel compelled to uphold a sense of distinction, your separate identity (see my post “When in America, do as the Americans don’t”). At another level, you also want to assimilate, because you don’t to be viewed as an outsider forever (“Change”). And then there is that other level, when you stop waxing nostalgic and start viewing your own country critically (“The Freedom to Be”).
Is writing therapeutic?
Oh yes, definitely. My experience living abroad has changed me inalterably, and writing about it helps to make sense of things, to sift through the good and the bad of places, situations.
Photo credit: Manal Khan
You also translate Pakistani stories into English: I’m thinking of your work-in-progress “The Legend of Saif-ul-Malook.” Can you tell us how that got started, and the audience you hope to reach with these tales?
Oh yes! Saif-ul-Malook is the name of a beautiful lake located in the Himalayas, in the northwestern province of Pakistan. It’s a breathtaking region, full of snow-capped mountains, lush pine forests, and startlingly blue lakes. When I was growing up, our family would travel to the mountains every summer, driving from the torrid heat of flat and dusty Lahore to the cool green valleys of Kaghan, Swat, Nathiagali. I first visited Saif-ul-Malook when I was 12 and fell in love with the place for its beauty and for the enchanting legend associated with it, a fairytale that has been penned in several local languages but never in English. So, the next time I went there (four years ago), I was sure to take an audio recorder and capture the full version of the story in the words of the resident raconteur.
This I transcribed, translated into English, and re-wrote with my own little additions (see “The Legend of Saif-ul-Malook Part I”). I have still to write the last part, the epilogue.
But the response I’ve received to the story has been truly wonderful, and so encouraging. English-speaking Pakistanis are thrilled to find this favorite tale of theirs in an accessible form.
I want to continue this sort of storytelling, translating and transforming Pakistani fairytales, many of them unwritten, into English, for an English-speaking audience. I have a few stories in mind, told to me in childhood by an old lady called Bua, who used to work for my grandmother and later lived with my family for many years. She was the quintessential storyteller, silver-haired and toothless, with fabulous tales at the tip of her tongue and a different twist each time she narrated one. (See my profile of Bua.)
Where did you meet your husband, and does he share your feelings of being between cultures?
I met my husband in Lahore many years ago. Like me, he grew up in Lahore, though his family is originally from a Pashtu-speaking tribal region of northwest Pakistan. He also studied in the U.S., and we both lived and worked there together, so, yes, he does share many of my feelings about being in between cultures. But he does not dwell on it as much as I do; he is quite at peace with himself, wherever he is and whatever he is doing. I, on the other hand, have to think and think and write and write before I am able to find that peace, that balance, the position where I stand and where I am comfortable! Still, it helps a lot to be able to discuss these things with him. He is also always my first reader!
“My heart is forever moving…”
In your search for that peace and balance, as you put it, do you recall one moment in particular when living in America that stands out as your most displaced?
I can’t think of any one moment in the U.S. when I felt especially displaced. I think it’s because I lived in such big, multicultural cities (San Francisco Bay Area and New York City), where people were mostly very tolerant and open-minded, and where there were always so many “ethnic” options. In New York if I missed Pakistani food, I could quickly hop over to Haandi or Lahori Kabab Restaurant on Lexington Ave for a hearty, spicy, almost-authentic meal; if I missed the music and dancing, there was no shortage of Bhaṅgṛā– or Bollywood-themed dance clubs; and if I missed Urdu conversation, Pakistani jokes, or just reminiscing about home, there were many lovely people from Pakistan whom I knew from before or had met in the U.S.; and we congregated quite regularly for these chai-biscuit sessions.
How about in Madrid?
In Spain, the experience has been a little bit different. There is hardly any Pakistani or Indian community in Madrid. The American or British expats mostly hang out within their own cliques. Madrilenos are very warm and welcoming, but language is the biggest barrier to cross before you can really feel like a part of the city. Still, we are very new, I’ve started learning Spanish, and we’ve already met some terrific people. So I am not too worried about settling in!
And during your repatriation?
During our recent year and a half in Pakistan, one thing I could not bring myself to get accustomed to was our culture of live-in servants. Even though I had grown up in that environment—and we were always taught to be extremely courteous with the domestic staff—it was very difficult to go back to it after living independently for so long. I think I experienced moments of displacement every single day, in my interaction with the servants in my parents’-in-laws home, where we lived. A part of me abhorred the idea of making a distinction between “them” and “us”—the employers, the masters. But the practical part of me knew that even the servants would consider it wrong, or strange and awkward, if I was to behave in any other way, outside of the conventional master-servant relationship.
I also remember certain conversations, with friends or family, in which somebody would innocently discuss: “Where should the new servant girl sleep? Not in that empty bedroom upstairs, no—she may steal something. Perhaps in the hallway?” To be followed by: “I bought a gorgeous new outfit from so-and-so designer’s store the other day—only Rs. 30,000 (US$280) on sale!”—probably ten times the servant girl’s monthly salary. I always felt so uncomfortable, and so out-of-place, for feeling uncomfortable—yet powerless to do anything or say anything that would make any difference.
What was your least displaced moment, when the peripatetic life made sense, and you felt as though you belonged in the Western world?
For me, feeling at home somewhere is all about making meaningful connections with people, and being free to be yourself. It doesn’t matter where you are, and it need not necessarily be the land of your birth.
One of the places I felt most at home at was the International House in Berkeley, California. A six-story dormitory for both American and foreign students at UC Berkeley, the I-house was a cozy, colorful, microcosmic universe in itself. There we were, young people from every corner of the world, each with our own unique culture, language, background, story, sharing the singular experience of studying and learning in a foreign land, a new place; a place that was beautiful and accepting of our differences, that celebrated our diversity. Even an ordinary meal in the I-house cafeteria—notorious for its tasteless food—was an adventure. I could be sitting next to a Lebanese civil engineer on one side, a Japanese-American graphic artist on the other; an Italian composer and a Korean mathematician in front; and conversation never ran dry. We laughed a lot, and learnt much from each other; and we never felt alone. That life wasn’t “real,” I know; it was and could only be a temporary phase. But I cherish those memories everyday. My one-year fellowship at Democracy Now in New York was a similar experience. We were a diverse, energetic team, united by a shared vision; and we all loved our fair-trade coffee and double-chocolate cupcakes!
How about during your recent sojourn in Pakistan: despite your conflicted feelings, were there moments when you felt entirely at home?
As for Pakistan—it is and always will be home, home at the end of the day. What I loved most during our recent sojourn was traveling within Pakistan. We explored the Karakorum Mountains, the Hindukush, the Himalayas, the Salt Range. We camped by flowing white rivers, under dazzlingly starry skies. We ate unbelievably delicious chapli kababs at nameless roadside restaurants, washing them down with steaming cups of sweet kaava. We tracked brown bears and chased golden marmots in the second-highest plateau in the world. We had tea with a jeep-driver and his eight daughters in their warm three-room cottage on the hillside. I discovered a Pakistan that I had never known before—a Hindu Pakistan, a Buddhist Pakistan, an animist Pakistan, the ancient Pakistan of the Indus Valley Civilization. A much richer Pakistan. And being outside of Lahore, outside of the noisy, constricted city, I felt at home. I felt like another character in the sweeping history of this aged and beautiful land that I loved, yet did not conventionally fit into.
A picture says…
Photo credit: Manal Khan
I understand you also use photography as a creative outlet. Can you share some examples with us?
I took this photo in the Old City of Lahore last summer. It was early evening, and the moon had just come up. All the different sources of light—the full moon, the halogen lights in the shops, the headlights of the motorbike behind the tonga—gave the scene a very magical, unreal feel. I love the lights, the shadows and silhouettes in this photo, as well as the depth of the crisscrossing cables overhead, fading away into mist.
Photo credit: Manal Khan
I agree, it’s enchanting, and the cables are an amazing juxtaposition. I believe you have one more photo to share?
Yes, one that I took this summer in Deosai Plains, the second-highest plateau in the world, located in the remote Baltistan region of Pakistan. This region is also home to K2, second-highest mountain in the world. We were crossing the plains in jeeps, when we came upon a caravan of gypsies, traveling in the opposite direction with their children, mules, dogs and horses. I cannot find any information about these people, where they come from, what their destination is, even what language they speak. But they make the trek across Deosai Plains every summer. I love the clarity of this photo, the crispness of the colors; and generally I loved the mystery of these people, in this remote, unpeopled part of the world.
What are your writing plans for the coming year? Will you attempt to put some of your writings together in a book?
I wish! Writing a book, either a novel or a collection or short stories or essays, is definitely something I hope to achieve within the next five years. For the coming year, I want to focus on writing regularly on my blog, about my adventures and experiences in Spain, from multiple perspectives of displacement! I also want to continue the translation, or “transformation” of Pakistani fairy tales into English.
10 Questions for Manal A. Khan
Finally, I’d like to ask a series of questions that I’ve asked some of our other featured authors, about your reading and writing habits:
1. Last truly great book you read: Samarkand, by French-Lebanese writer Amin Maalouf
2. Favorite literary genre: Magical realism, historical and fantasy fiction, creative nonfiction, short stories
3. Reading habits on a plane: I always take one book with me, normally a novel, slim enough to stuff into a handbag, easily readable but thought-provoking: e.g., The White Tiger, by Aravind Adiga.
4. The one book you’d require Mamnoon Hussain to read, and why: He is so new to the Pakistani political scene that I really don’t know much about him! But I would recommend every Pakistani leader to read Jinnah, Pakistan and Islamic Identity, a revisionist biography of Pakistan’s founding father, by Akbar S. Ahmed.
5. Favorite books as a child: The Anne of Green Gables series, by L.M. Montgomery; The Faraway Tree Stories and The Famous Five series, by Enid Blyton; Chronicles of Narnia, by C.S. Lewis; all of Road Dahl; abridged versions of Jules Verne.
6. Favorite heroines: Anne Shirley of Anne of Green Gables and Scheherazade of The Arabian Nights.
7. The writers, alive or dead, you’d most like to meet: Gabriel García Marquez, J.R.R. Tolkien, Ismat Chughtai
8. Your reading habits: I read mostly at night, before bed, or while traveling, or on lazy afternoons curled up on the sofa with a cup of tea.
9. The books you’d most like to see made as a film: One is a novella by celebrated Indian-Muslim authoress Ismat Chughtai, translated from Urdu as The Heart Breaks Free. The other is a collection of satirical short stories by Naguib Mahfouz, titled Arabian Nights & Days. I would love to see both these works as short films, and maybe even produce them myself one day!
10. The book you plan to read next: Don Quixote—because I am in Spain!
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Thank you, Manal! I must say, I love how you combine the spirit and creativity of Anne of Green Gables with the story-telling power of Scheherazade! Like most gifted writers, you are still a child at heart!
Readers, do you have any further questions or comments for Manal? Once again, if you want to read more of her insights, be sure to check out her blog, Windswept Words.
STAY TUNED for Monday’s post, another episode in the life of Libby, our fictional expat heroine…
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Main image at top of page: Manal Khan, taken by her husband on a day trip to Segovia. All other images are by Manal Khan, and are posted here with her permission.