Even before we had children, we would hang out with other Pakistanis who had come here as students in the late 60’s or early 70’s. Some married non-Pakistanis here, and others went back to Pakistan to get married “arranged marriage” style. My husband Shahid and I found each other at an anti-Soviet demonstration in 1971 outside the Soviet Consulate in New York. He was a member of the Muslim Students League, and I was a member of the Pakistani Students League. We must have said to ourselves- activist plus party animal makes a good match! And rather than the immigrants of earlier generations, we blended cultures together. It was not about abandoning your root cultures, but about integrating the best of all cultures together, especially if both spouses were of different faiths or ethnicities. One of our dearest friends is a Pakistani American married to an Israeli of Russian origin. Their children grew up with ours and have feet in both cultures and one of them is active in peace building work.
For me, I actually re-discovered newly the culture of Pakistanis here in America, as I had never really had a chance to observe it or absorb it, and my mother barely had a minute to instruct us occupied as she was with moving every 3-5 years abroad, and helping us learn new languages, make new friends, and just adapt. The Pakistani fashion industry came to America with these immigrants, and I for one just could not contain myself. Every year the hemlines, the colors, the embroidery changed for the typical 3-piece suit that women wear. In the 70’s it was shalwars (baggy pants) with wide bottoms, short tunic tops and of course the scarf to match the colors, the embroidery, etc. And every year it changed. These days I don’t even know what it is anymore, and as I review the collection in my basement, I am just amused at the variety of fashion, our attachment to it and aghast at the wastage. Of course, as one of my friends Shireen Jamil reminds me that we support the industry and therefore the artisans and tailors back home, which is a good point. I remember going to Pakistan on our annual visits in the early years, and one relative saying that “Bhabi (brother’s wife), you need to update what you are wearing”. For many years, my brother Omar made fun of me as my trips to Pakistan became “shop until you drop”! So now some of us announce that we are coming and people have the most current fashion outfits ready for when we land. That still does not mean that we stop shopping! On Eid (the celebration after Ramadan), I would find myself ironing 4 times 3 (shalwar, tunic, scarf) ample pieces of women’s outfits for our three daughters and I, and my husband would do his and my son’s, so 2X2 as there is no scarf for men- it was hilarious! I remember one time, we even had a pink embroidered outfit for my then 1-year old daughter Mona, and she spit up on it, so I washed it, and as we drove down to Manhattan- which is the only place they had Eid prayers- from upstate New York drying the outfit through an open window all the way! And then the next day, we are commuting back to work in our suits and boots.
Similarly, the Pakistani American party scene was in full swing, as we socialized in our silos, and still continue to do so. The food is over the top, as there is a cultural rule that food has to be abundant and with huge variety. In fact, some of us only recently were talking about the need to eliminate appetizers from our dinner parties, a very smart move! The clothes are the latest fashion, and I once joked “too many outfits, same old group of friends” and with Facebook now there is a record. Boy what a dilemma for fashionistas determined to wear an outfit only once! And most importantly, there is live musical performance or entertainment. Somehow, in our culture anything fun has to have music in some form or another, and we literally had to trick people when we organized political meetings with Congressmen or Senators. We would draw them in with the musical performance or fashion show, but sneak in the speeches of Congressmen and Senators at the beginning and send them on their way before the real party began. The Eighties were the decade of discerning our own identity and beginning to organize the community. The two types of organizations that emerged were the social ones, e.g. Pakistani Friends Association that would throw a big ball in a fancy hotel on holidays, and the other ones, were more political, such as Pakistani Civic Association of Staten Island, which to this day continues to build, support and educate communities in Staten Island.
Somewhere along the line, the term “American Muslim” came into being, and that led to organizations like American Muslim Alliance, Islamic Public Affairs Council, etc. Being political by nature, I got involved with them, while my husband stayed active on the social side. If memory serves me right, the term “terrorism” came into being at the same time, and who knows what came first? But the rosy era was about to turn less rosy, which will be my topic in Part III.