Sunday, December 27, 2009

Christmas in Karachi

Five years ago on Christmas, I was at a bowling alley in Karachi and saw a boy dressed like Santa Clause walking around, which I thought was weird. Then my friend turned to me, "Merry Christmas! It must be party time in the States, huh?"

“Umm…” I had to think for a second. Coming from the U.S., I was an automatic expert on American culture, but I had never actually celebrated Christmas in the States. No Muslim-American I knew celebrated Christmas—the ultimate Christian holiday. “It’s actually more of a family holiday,” I informed him.

Well, turns out Pakistanis don’t really care for the truth about Christmas because, in this Taliban-plagued, 95% Muslim country, Christmas is party time. I was surprised enough when I saw Santa at the mall last week, thronged with Pakistani children. Then my Pashtun driver had the radio on "Jingle Bells." I looked outside and a street vendor was selling Santa caps.

My cousin commented that his Facebook feed was full of "Merry Christmas!" statuses-- more than any other holiday including Eid and Diwali-- and most of his friends have never been to the States.

Then I heard about Christmas parties. Of course, I had to go. The first place we went could have been on TV, which is actually my best evidence of what Christmas looks like—a huge, long table full of classic Christmas dishes, dimly lit, carols on CD, a tree full of ornaments, and Secret Santa. Then we went to a Christmas house party, where all the girls were dressed in red and wearing Santa caps.

So after years of, like many Muslim-Americans, secretly loving Christmas but always feeling a little left out, I finally celebrated it—in Pakistan. But the Christmas spirit here is about more than Santa and ornaments, it’s also the perfect reminder of Pakistan's progressive spirit.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Back in Karachi

I’m back in Karachi. I’ve missed it a lot since I left in August. But this time I’m not seeking constant travel and adventure like before, I’m more curious about Karachi itself and what it’s like to live here.

It was hard to leave Pakistan this summer. Even when I got homesick, it was because I was in Lahore and missed Karachi (sorry Lahoris but Karachi rocks). I ended up extending my trip by months and weeks. I didn’t book my ticket till the day before I had to leave, or risk being disowned by my parents.

You would think my parents would love that I wanted to be in Pakistan. After all, they did try to move here when I was nine, in an attempt to save me and my siblings from becoming “typical American teenagers.” But we moved back to the U.S. because security was so bad (early 1990s political violence) and now Pakistan more or less freaks them out like it would any American parent.

My friend Zaineb from New York City was in a similar situation. When the banking industry nosedived, she randomly decided to spend the summer in Pakistan. She ended up loving it so much she had “World War III” with her parents to convince them to let her stay here for good. By the end of the summer, both our parents were calling us and telling us Pakistan was dangerous while we rolled our eyes and haggled for extra weeks and days.

But I’m back now and things are different this time—I’m used to the security situation, having a driver, and wearing kameez shalwar. I’m still a wide-eyed American as far as my family is concerned, but to me things feel more familiar than foreign. Now I’m just curious to see how this month turns out: was the Karachi I discovered just a summer illusion or a city to live, work, and love like any other city in the world, and just one great untold story?