Becoming a Pakistani-American

Zehra Imam is an alumna of the University of Michigan-Dearborn. She is currently designing a course, “The Patterns of Struggle and Triumph” to foster self-development within students. She is also working on “Desegregating Detroit in Delhi,”an experiential-learning fellowship to serve as an avenue for dialogue among student leaders in Metropolitan Detroit.

Painting: Zehra Imam

I’m not going to sugar-coat this complex terrain that is my motherland. My family immigrated to America due to religious and political unrest in Pakistan. I feel like my native land has grown to become a superstar since our family left – always in the news, always getting caught doing something that warrants a comment, always in the limelight. But something else other than natural ties still compels me to call a part of myself Pakistani and retain my dual identity of Pakistani-American. It has taken me a long time to say that I am from Pakistan with pride, and that I am choosing to live in America with gratitude.

I was fifteen when the attacks took place.

On September tenth, I was mostly anonymous: no one really inquired about my identity.

On September eleventh, my mother wisely told me to shut my mouth and not say a word about whatever my thoughts may be on this topic during school. Affiliated with the Muslim community, we were suddenly on the radar.

On September twelfth, my English teacher tried to lead a discussion about the events. Students expressed shock, remorse, concern. Finally, a Ukrainian-American classmate raised his hand hesitantly and said slowly, “But, I don’t quite understand… this stuff happens back in Ukraine all the time.” I spoke out then, without being called on, and responded, “But, this is America. Perhaps, an American life is worth more than a Ukrainian life.” Our teacher decided to conclude the discussion, maybe thinking we weren’t quite ready for September twelfth.

Shortly after September thirteenth, I put up a small American flag outside on our door. I didn’t want our house to be attacked. My aunt had already received threatening phone calls because my uncle’s full name has Muhammad in it, along with three other Arabic-origin words. I didn’t tell my friends or family outside the United States about the flag on our door. I suddenly felt caught between worlds. I listened uncomfortably to my brown friends in England and elsewhere say, “America had this coming. It deserved this. Now Americans know how the rest of the world feels. But now we have to brace ourselves for what it will do in response.” I argued with them, saying, “Who the hell deserves to be killed for no reason?” I, along with other Americans, felt under attack, but I couldn’t figure out exactly what that meant yet for me. I was horrified by the loss of life and at the calmness of the man who claimed responsibility for organizing the attacks. But, I too was worried about America’s response, which resulted in the grammatically incorrect “War on Terror.”

It is hard to be a Pakistani-American. My little cousin tells his classmates that he is of Persian origin because it sounds less threatening, more exotic. My brothers get extra special treatment at the airport, and sometimes I worry…if they’re having a grumpy day, will they be misunderstood? I’ve had my own struggles. I’ve come to believe that sometimes it is easier to be an Indian-American than it is to be a Pakistani-American. There’s less baggage involved. If you say you’re Indian, you’re not necessarily Muslim by default (which prevents unnecessary probing about religious beliefs), and it seems more appealing because, after all, India is travel-friendly for white people, has Bollywood, and American presidents seem to spend far more time there in the public eye than they ever would in Pakistan.

But, it has always been harder to be a Pakistani. On April thirtieth of this year, a couple of days before bin Laden was killed, it was my little nephew’s birthday in Pakistan. He is now seven. There was a party for his friends and the family; everything decorated, food arranged, tables set, balloons ready. But, there was a bomb blast, and no one could make it. These sorts of incidents used to cloud my mind before. They had symbolized what being a Pakistani meant to me. However, despite the seriousness of these conditions, my day-to-day experiences in Pakistan as a child were vastly different. Living in Pakistan constituted some of the best memories of my childhood. I was not only surrounded by strong support networks, where neighbor knew neighbor, but also by local heroes who had spent their lives in the service of those around them.

So when bin Laden was found in Pakistan, I was not surprised. I was uncomfortable, yes, but I did not decide to disassociate myself. Over the course of a decade, I finally allowed the presence of bin Laden and other extremists in Pakistan to be transcended by my memories of incredible people doing amazing work. I know for my Pakistani-American friends, this is still an on-going struggle, but I feel that I have found a method that allows me to come to terms with my ever-shifting identities.

It has taken me a long time to say that I am from Pakistan with pride, and that I am choosing to live in America with gratitude. Today, at twenty-five, I now find it possible to embrace both of the worlds that have shaped who I am.

In what way do you relate to Zehra’s experiences? Do you feel a strong connection to two distinct places or identities?

9 thoughts on “Becoming a Pakistani-American

  1. This is such a great piece! Sheds valuable insight into the complexities of being Pakistani-American, especially given the recent events. These feelings are very hard to articulate, yet at the same time so important for others to realize how September 11 and bin Laden’s death impacts people very differently depending on their background.

  2. This is an excellent article that shows the range of perspectives that Muslims in America felt after 9/11. I was a part of a research team that interviewed 1016 Arab Americans from southeast Michigan (Citizenship and Crisis: Arab Detroit After 9/11). Zehra is not an Arab, but some of the lessons were similar. Most affirmed their identity with the US and expressed outrage at what had happened on September 11. Most felt violated and threatened by that assault. Most had a mix of stories to tell about what happened next, some of being treated well, even by total strangers, but others of being singled out for unkind words. Most also expressed concerns at how US foreign policy supported the wrong leaders, and how Muslims were being stigmatized. Zehra’s statement that she had been largely invisible before 9/11 (i.e., she had been allowed to be an individual, judged on her own merits, is something I have heard from others. This is a very accurate and helpful essay from a very thoughtful person (who happens to be my former student, of whom I am very proud).

  3. Zehra, congratulations on this terrific article. Young people like you do us proud! As a Pakistani-American psychoanalyst treating mostly non- Muslim, non-Pakistani/non- Indian patients , I have grappled with this issue since I started seeing patients. After 9/11, this issue took on an urgent new life and has been ever present in the psychoanalytic treatments I conduct. Now , after the finding and killing of OBL in Pakistan, my office has been metaphorically on fire. I started writing about this in an attempt to reflect on the experience and share it with other therapists/psychoanalysts. If at any point you’d like to read some of my published chapters/papers on this topic please let me know. I would be happy to send them on. Again, congratulations on a fine piece. Warmly, Aisha Abbasi M.D.

  4. Dude, this was profound. I am impressed by your ability to analyze your situation with such insight and understanding. Not many people are able to do that. As a fellow, Pakistani-American, I applaud you. 🙂

  5. This is so incredibly moving. I so appreciate you giving your perspective as a young person during the time of the attacks and illustrating the difficulties you have had to face as a result. I love that you found your voice early on too. So empowering! I will share this with others – it is too important not to. Thank you for writing from the heart. It does impact how we understand each other.

  6. Gud work sis 😀 ….. why don’t u write about students’ lives in the US 😀

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  8. Zehra, I really enjoyed reading this. Although I’m not Pakistani-American, I could empathize with the feelings you describe on September 12th and 13th, and what became the ongoing reality for Muslims in the US. I would have loved to read more about the transitional phase between now and September 11 which helped you settle into your identity and I’m sure other Pakistani-Americans would, as well, who continue to struggle with these issues.

  9. Pakistan has been the support of US throughout, has destroyed itself in a war which hasn’t got anything to do with us, with Pakistan! And I agree, that Pakistanis living abroad face lot more difficulties than us ( Of course load shedding and other basic utilities’ absence can not compete against the mental torture you guys must be going through 😐 ) Lets hope the new generation has got the same sense as you’ve which is very much visible in this piece of yours, as they ( including me) are the ones who are going to bring the change – the positive one!
    Good work 🙂