Beauty and the Cliche’

“You is Kind. You is Smart. You is Important,” said Aibileen Clark as she wiped the little girl’s tears; a girl she looked after as a black maid in Mississippi, United States in the 1920’s. I gulped back tears every time she said those words in the movie, ‘The Help’ (originally a book).

I remember when I finished watching the movie I wanted to tell my daughter the exact same words. My kindergartner is indeed kind, smart and important. And so are all the daughters of every man and woman who ever lived, or will live.

My thoughts take me back to Pakistan in the mid-nineties. I was the pretzel-skinned twelve-year old with hair-in-perpetual-tornado and oversized shirts. Yes, a sight for sore eyes indeed. I wasn’t perturbed at my appearance then. That included my close friends who are still inseparable entities in my life. The cool, disheveled group of kids who felt invincible. Now when I look at my old pictures I try not to have a silent heart attack. But then almost immediately, I feel a spurt of joy and gratitude. For the childhood I had. The lifelong friends I made. And most importantly, for my parents who worked on my heart foremost. Everything came second. My skin. My hands. My hair.

When I had my daughter, I knew she was the most beautiful baby I had ever seen. Because she was ours. Our flesh and blood. Because she was God’s greatest blessings. People came to congratulate us. They all commented on her looks. The intricacies of her miniature features that even I hadn’t noticed yet. Some were ecstatic that she was fair-skinned and made sure I realized the importance of that detail.

It makes me wonder. The comments never end do they? Not for boys either, but especially not for girls. And most opinions revolving around girls tend to focus on appearance. The outward flesh almost always overpowers the flesh of the heart, the blood of the soul. So yes, looks do matter. It will be a naive denial if I said otherwise. But to what extent?

With each passing year, I see an explosion of vanity. The sickening cliche’s on materialism don’t end. In fact they develop minds of their own and come back to haunt us, ever-more powerful. At almost 35 years of age, I still try to wrestle with these cliche’s. I try to burn them. Forever wary that the ashes don’t smear my children. I have my demons. Little or more. The old times of feeling insecure in my pimple infested skin and trying to please people are gone…mostly. But some morphed heads do appear time and again. I see my children already beginning to care about their clothes. Their hair. Their shoes. They are only 8 and 5. I don’t remember even bothering to look in the mirror at that age. But maybe it’s all the same as when I was a child. Maybe now, everything just started earlier.

This foreboding list is bound to increase. Body issues. Self-esteem issues. Blending in VS standing out. In a world that systematically works to make our children feel ‘not-good-enough’, instilling the core concept of self-preservation is going to be tricky to pull off. But not impossible.

I don’t have a plan. I don’t have any parenting articles mastered. But I do have a hopeful yet frightened heart that calls out to its Creator for help.

Allah says in the Quran (95:4)

“Surely We created man in the best mould.”

Who else has the right to determine our beauty but HIM? Who else tells us we are worthy but HIM? The reason of our existence reaches to horizons that are way beyond the skin.

That’s really it. That’s how I start. By always reminding my children how their hearts will always be most important. And that its purification is the epitome of beaty. That is beauty to aim for. Old cliche’ right?

A cliche’ I’ll happily pass down to my children.


On manmade standards and true measure of a person…

I wrote these words a few years ago. Now I know what they truly mean. Allah is THE GREATEST. The only one worthy of creating standards for us.


I always thought life was about living. But its not.It’s about almost getting there. It’s never about contentment with one’s self at that exact moment. It’s about coming up to some particular standard set by other people and thinking to yourself, ‘Now, I think I will be happy!’ But that’s the thing, that moment never comes. Those imposed criteria are like mirages; they disappear right when you think you have it all figured out.

Standards. The minute you are born, an invisible yardstick miraculously appears like one of the ordained angels on our shoulders, following us around everywhere we go. After a painful labor the exhausted mother sighs with relief as the doctor confirms the baby is normal and healthy. Check or Cross – depending on what your expectation is. Of course in this case, a normal healthy baby should be the final check. But it’s not. What comes next…

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Reassessing what it means to be a Pakistani Muslim Immigrant in Canada

Originally published on The Express Tribune Blogs

While I sip tea and watch my children play around in our almost four-year-old home in Canada, I can’t help but reassess what it means to be me, as 2016 comes to an end – a Pakistani Muslim immigrant in Canada.

I can’t help but feel gratitude for this great nation’s hospitality and heart. At the same time, like an itchy throat signalling the onset of a ruthless flu, I shift uncomfortably in my seat as corroborated stats show the rise and effect of hate crimes across Canada. I can’t help but remember last year’s shootings in Ottawa and how Canadian Muslims were shoved under unwanted limelight. I can’t help but think about our neighbouring country’s recent abomination, the Trump effect, and its poison trickling across the borders. I can’t help but think about the unsaid nervousness and fear that some immigrants around Canada may be harbouring. With negativity and hate dominating our mind-sets under the guise of free speech and the uncanny right to be inhuman, it’s impossible to stay aloof.

I live in Mississauga, one of the main cities in the Greater Toronto Area, aka GTA – a city so exhilaratingly multicultural and cohesive that sometimes it is hard to imagine a world at war. I live in a city where I see turbans, hijabs, beards and all sorts of individualised traits that people feel pride in, and adopt because of their beliefs. I see Irish pubs, tattoo parlours, Italian bakeries, desi stores carrying everything from Tibet Snow to Everyday tea whitener. I see the latest trends of western clothes at H&M, Zara, and thriving Nishat Linen and Junaid Jamshed stores in the same vicinity. I see mosques, churches, synagogues and temples. I see halal food being introduced and served in the best Canadian restaurants.

I see a Pakistani Canadian woman as the currently elected MP of this city. I see Muslim men’s baseball and Muslim women’s softball leagues. I see some public schools that have a provision for Friday prayers. I see calendars from my children’s schools highlighting all important days of major religions and cultures in the city. I see lavish Eid celebrations in local public school grounds. I see Muslims feeling festive during the Christmas season. I see neighbours sending treats to each other on special occasions. I see annual Islamic gatherings like the MuslimFest and the Reviving the Islamic Spirit (RIS) convention where thousands gather to celebrate with soulful discussions and food.

I see Canada’s 150th birthday celebrations entailing a new version of the national anthem in 12 commonly spoken languages. I see so much love and acceptance that it is hard to force this hateful lump of fear and scorn down my throat.

While some don’t see all the colours in the rainbow, I still choose to believe in this country’s inbred goodness. I choose to sympathise with those suffering but still look ahead. I choose not to burst my bubble because of a few thorns. Even when I hear about a Muslim woman being called a terrorist in a super market. Even when a poor teenager is attacked on the pretext of a hate crime. Even when a mosque is vandalised. Even when 49% of Canadians feel that Canada is inviting too many immigrants. Even when certain places in Quebec are famous for their xenophobic views. Even when some parents feel uncomfortable letting their children go out alone at night. Even when for some Canadians, bigotry is the new black.
Why so much hope, some may ask? I’ll admit, it’s not just my experience. It’s a subtle, collective feeling of strength and togetherness that I feel every day. Canada recently became the first western country to have passed an anti-Islamophobia motion that openly denounces all forms of Islam-directed hate. Public campaigns like “Toronto for All” are shining examples of efforts to curb racism. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau doesn’t hesitate to tear up when talking to Syrian immigrants during a radio show.

Sure, opposition doesn’t leave any chance to challenge his honesty, but for many Muslim Canadians his kind words make the difference. There is a surge of people who are as proud to be Canadian as they are to be Muslim. These are people of action as opposed to being propagators of self-pity or the ‘why me?’ syndrome. From charity, community help, and other volunteering work to improve the society, they are the real deal.

I remember reading Warsan Shire’s chilling lines and trembling to the core,
“Later that night
I held an atlas in my lap ran my fingers across the whole world and whispered where does it hurt? It answered everywhere, everywhere, everywhere.”

The world is bleeding and stains are splashing across all our faces. No one is immune and no one can hide. Whether it’s Pakistan, France or Canada, safety and security are now relative terms. And the quicker we let go of crippling negativity, the better it will be.

So while some of us do fear an outbreak of irrational hate towards immigrants, it is not a deal breaker. We will continue to stand on guard for this country and while we’re at it, we’ll have each other’s backs too.
This is what will continue to make Canada the glorious nation that it promises to be.

Canada for all.

Short story: Lappitop

Rich. That’s what they are. Terribly, horribly stuffed with things they don’t need. Like my grandmother’s brother’s plastic bag suffocating with free rice every Friday outside the mosque in Malpur, my village. My dado always spoke about luscious green giants of the Marghala Hills that protected our homes from the Djinns. I remember thinking about whether they’d protect us from the humans too.

My heart runs fast, almost like it’ll die if it doesn’t escape. I don’t like to wash these deeshes that baji ji’s(madam boss) sister brought from Englaaand. I also don’t like to dust the creepy faces baji ji’s uncle collected from Afreeka. My baji ji makes it a point to remind me every day. “I will throw you to the dogs if you break anything!!!” I always smile my big smile, but in my head when she threatens me. Everything gets worse when she sees me smile. Back home, we have plenty of fur-scratching homefull dogs. They have no home, but they have me and my sister.

Then there are the children. Ali is ten, a year younger than I am. Sara is only five and she is my secret city sister. That’s what she and I whisper to each other when I braid her hair or play hide ‘n seek. I don’t know what my ‘baji ji’ will do if she ever found out. Probably throw me to the dogs. I can’t help but smile again, but inside my head.

Unhappy. That’s what they are. Terribly, horribly unhappy. Baji’s husband, the rich man who gives me money at the end of the month is stranger than our village crazy person who goes around with a half moustache and screams that the world is going to end soon. Baji ji’s husband has angry eyebrows, like they will jump right out and smack you. He rarely speaks, even to his children. When he is at home, which is not often, he sits in his room, staring at something called a lattpop…lappitop or something like that. I think it’s what they call a baby compooter.

Once I was sent by baji to give him tea. It was a rare occasion when I saw his eyebrows at peace, while crazily punching the buttons on that thing. Like his fingers were tiny fly swatters and the keys, flies. We don’t have fly killers in the village. We roll up old papers and practice our aiming skills. He has tie-dyed marble eyes and a grey-greenish shaved face that reminds me of the sticky lizards swimming on our roof back home. Our roof with all the patchy cement looks like snake skin. Snake Vs. Lizard. I’d like the front seats to that show. Wrestling is serious business in my village. You can joke about the Mosque’s Imam’s crooked eyes, or about the neighbor aunti’s monkeyish screams at night, but never about wrestling.

Baji ji mostly speaks on four occasions. First, when she is scolding me. Second, when she is scolding her children. Third, when she is fighting with her husband. And fourth, when she is talking to faces on her lappitop or the phone. Ali stays in his room after school. His fingers crawling all over gadgets like spider legs. I once woke up to a spider scurrying across my face when I was six. My sister came to the rescue and smashed it on my nose, then ran away crying. Another time she cried till she couldn’t breath was when I was leaving for Islamabad. Abba didn’t say goodbye. I blamed his gangerine-infested leg.

I can’t talk to a ‘box’ like they do. I can’t even watch TV for long. The TV at my parents’ place doesn’t have a remote control. So my sister and I run to adjust the volume or change the channels more than we actually sit down to watch. One time, we were in such a hurry to win our abba’s praise and see who turned it off first, we almost knocked it off from the stack of faded beetroot coloured bricks used as its table. My amma had spread her favourite embroidered dupatta over the bricks to make the table look pretty. Abba didn’t mind the almost-accident and just muttered something about it being a good riddance. And that, “…it creates unhappy minds and unsatisfied hearts. ” I wonder how he came up with that. Baji ji never gives away anything until her husband forces it out of her. Like he did with this TV. It’s just her bad words that she can’t keep inside her teeth-brimming mouth. I’ve never seen so much white in one mouth. It reminds me of my dado’s funeral.

A light bulb hangs in the centre of our main room that’s the size of baji ji’s kitchen. I feel sad for the bulb, alone and hanging upside down like a post-sacrificial goat.But I like electricity. It lets me see my family’s faces when the sky tucks itself into its favourite black blanket. We only have one blanket. Baji’s husband gave it to us one winter morning after I heard her scream like a cat who’s tail got caught in the door and then the whole house caught fire. Fire does’t scare me. It lets me see my family’s faces when there’s no electricity. Amma says that the fire makes her see greenish-brown fairies of Malpur dancing in my eyes. I have my abba’s skinny arms, legs and broad feet. Amma says she only gave me her best, her perky nose with a bump at the end. The sort that would break the fall when rolling down a steep hill. And her almond-coloured skin.

We like to sit and talk around the fire that abba builds for us. We all merge into each other and form a giant sunflower, huddled towards the warm light. They are the happiest flowers I know. My mother doesn’t talk much when we gather. She just smiles wide enough for her thin lips to disappear between each other. Instead, she prefers stringing together colourful beads on weak threads that she sells outside our village’s one-door girls’ school. Colourful, small, round, shiny beaded bracelets are a hit with young school girls.

“Salma!” I hear Baji ji shouting my name. I try to numb by head by thinking of abba. Nights when he’d take me out for walks after a meal of lentils and roti. Nights when Abba still had his good leg, he gathered wood with hands that had veins protruding like roots from our Malpur trees. I’d tag along and watch the stars. My abba never went to school. But he knew his specks in the sky. An old employer when abba worked as a driver in the city taught him about the faraway worlds. The stars are the same here in the city. But they don’t seem as bright as my village stars.


My ears warn me about Baji ji stomping towards me with her noisy shoes. I don’t think I will last long here. I say this every other month. I think I will go back home. I say this every other day. But then I think about Sara. And how few years from now she’ll be sitting locked in her room, getting sucked into a star-less world, with no light except from the TV or lappitop machines. That thought makes it hard to breathe. Like someone just sneaked in and strangled my neck from the inside.

“I am done with you! I will surely throw you to the dogs today!” Baji ji digs her nails into my arms and drags me. I remember the colourful beads nudging each other to keep hanging, keep shining, keep being. I remember my mother’s lip-lost face. I smile my big smile again, but inside my head.