by Maz Halima – Follow @browngirlmag Some Pakistanis – at least in London where I am – pretend that they have Arab heritage. This is a fact that I’ve never really questioned until recent years when I became more curious, confident and knowledgeable of my own lineage. Why do some of us lie about our bloodline?
This is extremely embarrassing to me now but, in high school, I used to call myself Lady Cairo (I won’t delve into my wish for a rap career). I’d never been to Egypt. I didn’t know anyone from Cairo. But hey, it sounded like an exotic place. When I was a child, I was called the word ‘Paki’ – and not in an endearing way – a fair bit. Somewhere down the line, it was eventually drilled into me that a Pakistani wasn’t a desirable thing to be, and subconsciously, I realize now, I didn’t want to be associated with it anymore. I wanted to be seen as exotic, not dirty.
At the time, I truly didn’t realize this was a common phenomenon amongst those who share my ethnicity. I went to college and became friends with an absolutely stunning girl. I asked her where she was from one day; she said her mother was from Saudi Arabia and her father was from Pakistan. But I went to her home, it was clear that both her parents were definitely Pakistani. I never questioned it, but I knew the truth. Furthermore, how could I question it when I myself implied something similar to others?
Another friend of mine is half Pakistani and always looks flattered when people mistake her for being South American or Spanish. Another mate of mine used to get really excited when people asked him if he was from an Arab country.
My Bengali ex-boyfriend said – after we broke up – that he wanted to marry an Arab girl and I didn’t even question his preference, how normalized it has become. He did end up marrying a Moroccan girl, but it didn’t work out and I am not smug about that at all.
The older I got, the less I understood this urge to be other. Pakistan is so young, and people died for it – whether everyone agreed with its formation or not. Where’s our pride? Don’t we owe it to our family who came before us?
One of my friends was talking about another friend of hers who is of Indian heritage, and said “oh yeah, she’s lighter than you” in passing. My first instinct was to be offended, and I’m ashamed to say I gave in to that instinct at the time. I felt like it was a backhanded insult – partly because firstly, it wasn’t true – I’m aware that doesn’t matter, but it does because of my next point – we’re all aware of colourism. Nobody in the Arab or South Asian world could make a comment like that with no thought of what it means societally to say that – never mind the fact that it shouldn’t be seen as offensive.
I stayed quiet when that comment was made, but I wish I could have gone back in time and said “thank you!” I know it’s not our fault, but those of us with a color complex (me) need to get off the subconsciously automated defensive when someone makes a comment about us being ‘darker’ – whatever your complexion or race is. If we choose to start hearing it as a compliment, it could be the beginning of us learning that it’s not an insult.
When you search ‘Pakistanis want to be Arab’ on Google or Twitter, a disturbing amount of content comes up – it makes me sad but also assured to know this phenomenon is not exclusive to my world alone. Certain friends used to attempt to ‘wind me up’ by saying I was Indian. When I was a teenager, I would deny it vehemently and I didn’t even really know why. Those aforementioned Google search results gave me some kind of answer, as people in forums explored the idea that we are denying our ‘pagan’ roots, desperate to be seen as the best kind of Muslims, which most perceive to be Arab.
You seemingly can’t be more Muslim than a Muslim Arab – their language is that of the Quran; our most significant holy sites can only be found in their land.
The older I have grown and the more I’ve read about India – from the concept of Karma to the practice of Yoga – the more fascinated I have become. It’s magical! You can be Pakistani and only believe in one God and not be offended at the thought that once upon a time, we were all Indian. I now embrace my Indian roots with pride – I refuse to contribute to the divide between us, I refuse to desire to be something that I’m not, and ultimately I refuse to follow the rules of perceived superiority according to complexion. I grew up in a household where people used Fair and Lovely and my grandmother would tell me not to go in the sun too much.
A friend of mine recently said we are all one people, and race doesn’t really matter. But my brain interprets that as her implying I should continue to be submissively, passively ethnic. You see, my dear friend is from a country in the Middle East, and her race is ambiguous in her appearance. When I was a kid, I used to wash the back of neck until it hurt because a family member said it looked dirty (it wasn’t, it was just brown). Unlike her, my appearance alone is political.
Most Pakistanis in the western world have felt the insinuation in someone else’s words that they are dirty. That’s why, when you grow into a mental place of pride after a lifetime of self-loathing, I disagree with my aforementioned non-brown friend – you shouldn’t have to hide your pride to appease those who are still not comfortable with you finally possessing it.
This story was published as a collaboration between Brown Girl Magazine and Reckon, a national news organization that covers the people powering change, the challenges shaping our time, and what it means for all of us.
This is a special year for Ramadan. For the first time in three years my mosque will fill to capacity, giving my community a chance to rebuild lost connections and overcome heartache. It reminds me of a simple truth: healing comes not when you expect it but when you need it.
For Muslims, Ramadan symbolizes the time of the year in which Islam’s prophet Muhammad first received the revelation of the Quran. Since Islam follows a calendar based on the monthly cycles of the moon, the start of the holy month of Ramadan is determined when a crescent moon is sighted in Saudi Arabia.
The Quran is said to have been received throughout the life of the prophet Muhammad, and Ramadan marks the days it took for him to receive its first verses. When Muhammad received this revelation, it is said that he isolated himself in a cave to reflect and devoted himself to endless worship. In the same way that Muhammad secluded himself to focus on gratitude and prayer, Muslims around the world use the time to distance themselves from daily distractions and focus on spiritual growth through a month of fasting.
Siyam in community
The Arabic word for fasting is siyam which translates to ‘be at rest.’ Abstaining from eating and drinking allows us to take the rest our body and soul so deeply crave and ground ourselves and one another in a physical, mental and spiritual reset.
When I was a child, Ramadan symbolized the one time it was normal to spend your entire weekend in the Mosque. It was my first experience of a sleepover, with pajamas hidden under my abaya and Pakistani kurtas. Beyond the gender divide of the prayer halls, children would take naps on parents laps as the community prayed throughout the night. The Mosque was a beautiful gathering space open to anyone who needed a meal, whether or not they were fasting.
During the pandemic, Ramadan was different. Endless nights in the Mosque filled with prayer and community were scaled down to Zoom hangouts. Programs that were once filled with intimate in-person conversations on the floor of the Mosque, were now faceless squares on a screen, their names barely visible.
The Jummah or Friday prayers that were once so packed with people that the crowd spilled out onto the surrounding grass and sidewalks were conducted in parked cars. The mosque decorated the parking lot for drive-through visitors for the Eid Namaz, and community members waved from a distance to others with the same time slot.
I still remember when a friend’s mother died of COVID-19. What would have been a Janaza or funeral that surrounded the grieving family with community and prayer, turned into a Zoom call. Watching the tears of my friend’s family during the burial services, unable to visit her home and read the Quran together was heartbreaking.
Even before the pandemic, the world was not always a safe place for me and my community. From my family and I being yelled at to “go back to our country” when we were on vacation, to the looks my mother received when she wore her hijab in public, I understood even as a young child the ways in which Muslims were perceived as outsiders in our own country.
In many ways the pandemic compounded the islamophobia that my community began experiencing at heightened levels after 9/11. During Trump’s time in office, the Muslim community—which in the US mostly consists of people who identify as Asian and Black—faced heightened racism and incidents of violence, in part due to misinformation about the coronavirus. In the racial justice uprisings of 2020, Black Muslims—which make up more than 20% of all Muslims in the US—were not only targeted for their race but their religious background. Mosques across the country were vandalized, and continue to experience increased threats to this day.
Ramadan as a space to heal
These last few years made me realize how badly I craved the sanctuary of my Mosque, and to physically return to a space where I felt safe. I feel relieved and at peace to return back to nights where I am surrounded by familiar faces praying together side by side and breaking our fast without any fear of judgment.
Featured Photo Credit Kevita Junior | Left to Right: Tu hiya ka kare he, Tu kaha bate, Tu hamar ke bate
Thundering waves clawed on the body of the vessel as the sea swallowed the voices of terrified passengers. They clung to the shreds of the Eagle Speed as each hour submerged the ship deeper within the kala pani (dark waters). Steamer ships were sent for rescue, finding two children alone, clenching to the remains of the mast. The unscathed captain and crew fled in boats, leaving the lives of coolies (indentured laborers) to the fate of the dark waters. TheEagle Speed set sail on August 19th, 1865 from Calcutta to Demerara. This tragedy took the lives of over 300 hundred indentured laborers. The coolies onboard were not just casualties of the kala pani, but a larger system of British colonialism.
The crossing of these tumultuous seas wasforbidden for Hindus, as it meant the severance of reincarnation and the unraveling of caste. Yet more than 2 million Indians were taken across the kala pani. The forbidden water carried stories along its transatlantic waves, bearing witness to history lost against its tides. The restraints of caste drowned along the voyages as surnames and relations were cast across the seas. They became Singhs (lions) and Maharaj’s (great kings), Brahmins by boatinstead of birth.
These indentured workers were mainly taken from regions of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh to different corners of the globe, with some of the largest to the Caribbean. Guyana experienced around238,909 workers, Trinidad 143,939 and Suriname 34,304. With 399 Indians, the Lalla Rookh docked on June 5, 1873, at Nieuw Amsterdam in Suriname, later becoming known as the coolie depot. As workers poured out of ships and onto plantations, they experienced violence and oppression at alarming rates, especially against women.
They were nameless and barefooted with gold jhumkas and bangles adorning their bodies. As tourism increased in the Caribbean’s, photographing indentured women on postcards became part of its selling point. These women became subjects to appease the white colonizer gaze and fetishized exotic ‘Coolie belles.’ A bulk of these postcards were shot in Trinidad and sold in local shops to visiting tourists. Yet these postcards failed to translate the hierarchy of power between the photographed and those behind the camera. The white European men who carried out these photoshoots chose backdrops that masked the real conditions of sugar cane fields and living quarters. Who were these women? What were their names? The women were juxtaposed with the term ‘Coolie,’ a slur for laborer and ‘Belle,’ the French word for beautiful. They were coined as laborers of beauty, yet their eyes tell a story of fear of pain.
Tu hamár ke bate? (Who are you to me?) Tu hiyá ká kare he? (What are you doing here?) Tu kahá báte? (Where are you?) Artist Nazrina Rodjan posits these questions that rummage through the minds of many Indo Caribbean descendants. Who were my ancestors? What did they experience? Rodjan aims to explore the experiences of indentured women through her oil painting series “Kala Pani.” In this series, she reimagines the postcards of indentured women alike the depictions of European nobility. In conversation with Rodjan she mentions,
I’ve thought long and hard about whether it would be ethical to reproduce these staged images of women who might have felt scared and uncomfortable being brought into these studios to be photographed by men. I will never know their true experiences and how they might have felt knowing a stranger in the future will decide to paint them in the same positions they were put in for the original photograph.
Rodjan’s art series started as a way to commemorate 150 years since the first indentured workers arrived in Suriname and expanded to include regions like Guyana, Trinidad and Jamaica.
Wanting to reclaim these images comes from feelings of injustice whenever I see these postcards. They were made from a dehumanizing perspective. Reclaiming these images becomes necessary knowing how the violence Indo-Caribbean women still face today is just a continuation of the violence brought onto indentured Indian women then. To me, creating this piece, symbolized the acceptance of questions remaining unanswered, stories being lost forever, and realizing that after a history full of trauma, there’s a treasure in the women that are still here to tell their stories.
The ratio of men to women arriving on these ships left little to no autonomy for women. Experiences of violence on ships and plantations were common throughout the Caribbean. Despite this, indentured women became trailblazers and pioneers in uprisings against poor working conditions.
Everything about these women seems to be a question we can never answer, but I decided to give them titles in Hindustani that are questions they might have for me as the painter who looks at them and sees both a stranger and a loved one. Tu hamár ke báte? Who are you to me?
Living in the Netherlands, Rodjan talks about her experiences tracing her ancestry and honoring this history:
Unfortunately, in the Netherlands learning about the history of Dutch colonization only meant memorizing all the different spices they brought in and listening to teachers talking proudly about the Dutch East India Company in elementary school. Tracing back my ancestors has so far only led to a picture of my parnani and a few more names in the family tree.
OnMay 5, 1838, Anat Ram stepped foot on the rich grounds of Berbice, becoming the first Indian laborer in Guyana. The Whitby and Hesperus departed from Calcutta on January 13 and arrived in Berbice first then West Demerara. Over the course of 79 years, approximately259 ships voyaged from India to Guyana. While the experiences of these ancestors may remain unknown, artists like Suchitra Mattai aims to revitalize the voices of our indentured ancestors.
Suchitra Mattai is an Indo Guyanese multi-disciplinary artist. Through her work, she uses the experience of her family’s migration and the history of indentureship to rewrite and expand our notions of history. In her piece, Life-line, a rope of saris pours out of a tilted boat, mirroring the experiences of her ancestor’s journey across the transatlantic. The saris serve as both water and a connection to two lands, India and Guyana. Mattai further explores indentureship in the piece “Coolie Woman,” depicting a woman seated with a sari, embellished with jewelry and flowers.
I wanted to reimagine the photo to give her agency. I also wanted to address the desire for people of the diaspora to connect to their homelands and ancestral pasts. The painted wallpaper drips and fades to parallel the way my memory of Guyana ebbs and flows, Mattai says.
Anchoring at the Port of Spain on April 22, 1917, the last ship to ever carry indentured Indians made its final stop. A system that bound Indians to an unknown land finally ended after 79 years.
To invoke conversation and pay homage to their memory, artist Gabrielle Francis creatively analyzes indentureship. Gabrielle Francis is an Indo Trinidadian queer interdisciplinary artist, writer and organizer from Queens, New York. In her piece “206:21 Queer Altar Mixed Media Performance,” Francis pays homage to her indentured ancestors with a focus on queer identities. The title 206:21 reflects the ratio of men to women that journeyed on the Fatel Razack, the first ship from India to Trinidad. A mirror is decorated with the colors of Trinidad’s flag along with six candles embodying the pride flag and vibrant red carnations. Written across the mirror is, “I wonder how many of you were queer?” A question that allows for openness and conversation around potential queer ancestors. Written records around indentureship were translated and produced by European men, leaving little to no room for women or queer folks. Francis’s work aims to transform and challenge Eurocentric narratives surrounding indentured history.
As descendants of indentureship, it becomes difficult to sit with questions that may never have answers. Visiting National Archives or exploringdigital databases can help connect descendants to learn about their own history. As we unravel difficult experiences of the past it’s important to ask, how do we carry the legacies of our ancestors? How do we honor their sacrifices?
As they were stripped of their identities and reduced to passenger numbers, they fostered new relations—jahaji bhai and jahaji bhain (ship brother and sister). From shipmates to family, to present-day melodies of chutney music to the stew of pepper pot on Christmas morning, these bonds of community have evolved and are seen across the diaspora today.
The feedback from the microphone gratingly penetrated the vacant bubble I had fallen into after watching yet another performance by the youth, educating us on the benefits of Jainism. I had been daydreaming of the skits I had put on as a child, remembering the diligence with which I memorized my lines. “Why did I?” I wondered. I never truly knew what these skits were about. I knew the plot, but they all felt a little too neat to me.
Every problem had an answer; every story ended triumphantly. Victory over evil. Good deeds are rewarded. Back on stage, I saw an auntie wrapped in a sparkly red sari walking to the center of the stage, her hands folded together graciously. “Let’s put another hand together for these children!” she said, gesturing behind her. Some children sheepishly peeked out from behind the curtain. “And let’s thank their parents. Parents, it is your responsibility to bring your children to the temple. Without your involvement, our children will not know the correct way to live. It is your duty, your dharam.”
Glancing over at my mom, I could see her eyes clouding as she clapped. The weight of that word was not lost on me, and it certainly wasn’t lost on my mother. Dharam felt like a heavy word. To me, it felt like it somehow encompassed morality, duty, and culture all into one. Many religions have a version of dharam, they all define it differently, but it always seems to boil down to the same idea: a guide on how to live one’s life. I felt like it was interpreted in a much more rigid and arbitrary manner. The skit highlighted waking up early, not spending too long on your phone, and doing your homework as dharam. Growing up, some of the whims of my parents: not staying out after dark, spending too much time with our friends versus our work, and being obedient, also fell under the umbrella of dharam. Dharam was being diluted.
Dharam, when broken down into its roots, means ‘to support’. But often it would feel like the opposite of this, suffocating with heavy expectations that seemed to grow with each year. What did it mean to be a good daughter, good sister, or good person? How had a guide on how to live life turned into the only correct way to live at all?
I remember telling my mother I wasn’t sure I believed in religion anymore. My mom was driving me back from the temple, and it no longer felt peaceful to me; no longer felt right. Walking around after the pooja, speaking to all of the aunties and uncles…I felt out of place. All of them told me how lucky I was that my parents were such pillars of our faith. They forced me to promise that I would come to the temple every time I was in town when I knew deep down that I wouldn’t. It felt wrong lying; it felt wrong to pretend that I was religious when I wasn’t anymore.
My mother’s nostrils flared, but she kept her eyes on the road. She increased the speed of the windshield wipers even though it was only drizzling slightly.
“How can you say that? How can you reject a god that has given you so much?” she fumed. “You know nothing about Jainism. You know nothing about what you are just throwing away. You don’t know how lucky you are to be born into this religion.” I let her fume. My change of heart hadn’t come out of thin air. I hadn’t prayed in years. I only went to the temple for my mother’s sake. Deep down, I think my mom knew I didn’t have a strong attachment to my religion anymore, but she didn’t want to admit it. Maybe she thought dragging me to the temple would somehow make it habitual for me; a part of my routine. But religion cannot be forced, and no matter how hard I tried, it didn’t work for me.
Maybe part of the shock of my disbelief was the fact that secularism feels non-existent in India. Indian soap operas emphasized the proper actions of a good daughter-in-law, wife, and mother, and villainized those who deviated from traditional roles and values. Even progressive shows such as “Anupamaa,“ which shows a housewife divorcing her husband, entering the workforce, and creating her own dance studio, showed that divorce is only acceptable in extreme circumstances. Failing to impart these values to your children is viewed as a failure in your role of a good parent.
But my mother is an amazing mother. She raised me to learn to question the world around me. She fostered the importance of working hard and being humble. She taught me to be a good person and care for others, not because I was obligated to by my faith or karma, but because it was what I should do. She supported me and taught me to support others, which I believe is the meaning of dharam. She did not fail her dharam as a mother, but because of how dharam was presented to her, she will never know that.