I Returned to Pakistan After 20 Years

I had friends and acquaintances alike urging me to “be safe” leading up to my departure. I assumed this was casual orientalism, but little did I know, at least some of these comments were the result of major, insidious confusion.

I Returned to Pakistan After 20 Years

All photos by the writer.

I just got back from a trip to Pakistan, where my mother’s from. The last time I was there, I turned 10, my grandfather was alive and my family even got me a goat that, unbeknownst to me, was going to be slaughtered for Eid. The goat died of a cold before he could be consumed. 

In the time since my last visit, my grandfather died, I graduated from high school and college and grad school, an ex-boyfriend tried to kill me and my best friend died of cancer — to name a few milestones. I’m now just a few days shy of my 30th birthday. 

I had friends and acquaintances alike urging me to “be safe” leading up to my departure. I assumed this was casual orientalism, but little did I know, at least some of these comments were the result of major, insidious confusion.

As my plane took off from JFK, I had no idea just how much the coming weeks in my familial homeland would reinforce my mission of creating fresh, Muslim-centric narratives for the screen.

Being back in Pakistan felt nothing short of natural: my Urdu flowed, and I felt at ease combing through the bustling malls and city streets. I hoped to visit my family’s old home in Karachi, which we sold over a decade ago. Its name was Gulistan-e-Raza, or “the Garden of Raza.”

I jumped at the opportunity to visit with an aunt of mine, excited to take my partner Dominic around my old stomping grounds. When we arrived, though, we found the place in crumbles: it had been demolished without our knowledge. My aunt and I stood in shock, looking at the ruins of our generations-old family home.

Somehow, I was still excited to show Dominic, through the rubble, the skeleton of the drawing room where my cousin Musa and I once played our Game Boys side by side. We cautiously stepped over crumbled concrete as I showed him the front yard, where I had watched a hawk take one of the tiny chicks my grandmother had bought for me into its talons, zipping high into the sky as its prey screamed. 

My aunt and I took photos in and of the rubble, and the group of squatters who now made our home their home gently handed us my grandfather’s nameplate. I later posted photos of the ruins on my instagram story. 

Messages of condolences swiftly rolled in. With them came the realization that many people thought Israel had bombed my family home, that they’d conflated Pakistan and Palestine. I’d experienced this phenomenon quite a few times since the attacks on Gaza began on October 7, but didn’t feel the need to make a public statement about it until this point.

When the confusion first began, I thought that folks’ brains were attempting to reconcile my half-Muslim half-Jewish background with being Palestinian. But then my family pulled out their phones, showing me similar messages, some even from renowned professors at Ivy League institutions.

I don’t know how to feel. I’ve experienced a mixture of disappointment and anger and confusion; how is it possible that even now, during a time of (allegedly) increased media literacy and social media activism, people are still confusing Muslims from two “P” countries — countries that aren’t even remotely close to one another?

I know people’s hearts are in the right place, and I appreciate all the love I’ve received, even if misguided at times. But this confusion is indicative, to me, of something far more insidious: a miseducation that has been created and upheld by the Western World’s Euro-centric capitalist system — enabled by mass media — that leaves the impression that non-White countries are “just like that;” that Muslims in the Middle East live in squalor, constantly and cyclically putting their lives together from the ruins left by the powers that be.

I don’t know that there’s one definitive solution to this problem, but I do know that conversation and reeducation would undoubtedly help. And that new perspectives on portrayals of Muslims in Muslim countries, as well as Western ones, would help. It feels redundant to me to say that there are plenty of us that, for instance, drink, or own dogs or eat bacon. There’s plenty of us who don’t wear hijabs, and are even covered in tattoos (hello! I’m one of them!). We have parents who don’t hover, leaving us to our own devices while still showering us with love.

I know that shows like “Ramy” (2019–) have started to flip the mass media portrayal of Muslims on its head, but we still see some stereotypes in them. I particularly enjoyed the Australian show "Why Are You Like This" (2018–), which features a Muslim main character who’s queer and drinks without making a big deal of it.

As a writer and filmmaker, my work often deals with growing up Muslim in post-9/11 America, and my recent experiences have only left me feeling more called to action than ever. Western media needs to look at Muslims through a fresh lens, and I hope to be a part of that growing revolution.

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