By Saltanat Ansari
04 April 2016
Lahore is my native city — it has always been the dearest sense of love I have felt.
It was the beautiful gardens and my most favourite majestic Old Lahore. It was the mouth-watering Hareesa at Gawalmandi on a foggy winter morning and it was the sun shining upon the tree-lined Canal Road.
It was the summer air mixing with aromatic smoke coming off a mutton kebab grill; it was the Chhola Puris from Khussa Mahal.
But what outdid them all were the large hearts of Lahoris.
The Lahoris who dance to dhol beats. The Lahoris who run on tall glasses of Lassi. The Lahoris who show you why if you haven’t seen Lahore you haven’t lived.
These People Are Christians, Hindus And Muslims.
I grew up in Pakistan meeting people who did not identify as traditional Muslims and yet, never felt alien. We grew closer and at this point, some of them are the dearest people in my life today.
I do not think religion has much to do with the goodness of a person but the social narrative around ‘religious minorities’ in Pakistan did make me view these individuals in a different light.
It is unfortunate that for the most part of my life, I have seen Pakistan being fraught with violence, terrorism and religious extremism; plagued with rampant and senseless brutality against minorities. But I never saw these non-Muslims falter; they were to me, the most lively, compassionate and happy beings in my world.
They were winners even though we failed them quite a few times. They were in love with us even though we gave them enough reasons to hate us.
The ambiguous and horrendous mix of religion and state never seemed to work out very well for Pakistan in my eyes. It unnerved me every time a Maulvi was audacious enough to issue Fatwas against women.
It made me uncomfortable that my society feared backlash when it came to condemning questionable accusations relating to alleged blasphemy.
It made no sense to me that the idea of a secular Pakistan is just wrong and unspeakable.
All this and more, informed my beliefs, passions and a laughably naive desire to change the world. Soon enough, it was time for college and the United States of America happened to my life.
As I moved to western Massachusetts from Lahore, suddenly it mattered that I was brown and Muslim. It mattered because now I was a minority.
In my two years of living in America, I have understood more than I ever did in Pakistan, the rhetoric of majority and minority.
It is discomforting to have a conscious awareness that your reality is different than that of an average American because you will probably face bigotry at the hands of a presidential front-runner, and that an airport guy will occasionally raise a brow because you have the green passport in your hand and are wearing a locket saying Allah.
However, I was fortunate to have joined a very politically active and culturally sensitive campus: Mount Holyoke College.
The diverse community, the challenges of living away from home and a support system of its own kind helped me grow in ways I perhaps wouldn't have in my own country.
My biggest takeaway, though, has been learning to respect my own happiness and that of others. I started to see no need for being apologetic for my happiness, my beliefs and for who I am.
In the process, I also declared my International Relations major and began to foster, with ever-growing passion, my love for letting people live — the way they want to.
The night of the Lahore park attack, my friends and I came together for a candlelight vigil. I looked down at the burning candle in my hands with tears streaming down my face. We had come together for a world that felt ripped apart. We sang John Lennon; and I imagined all the people who couldn’t live for today.
This candlelight vigil marked the end of my Easter Sunday that had risen with the news of what, in my memory, is the most heinous terrorist attack to have shook Lahore in some time.
All day, memories of my city replayed in my head like a film with snippets of those large-hearted Lahoris. But I was hopeless and it has been the most real of struggles to find closure ever since.
I write this because I hear it is therapeutic to pen feelings down. One would need therapy when you grieve a grief that renders you helpless, when you see your ‘homies’ light up because Qandeel Baloch got blocked off Facebook and that is victory to their ‘moral police’, when religious extremists in your land are using the Danda and Chappals on humans and helicopters and that is a victory for their sense of pride, when your state requires you to attest to the non-Muslim status of Ahmadis on a voter registration form and when Pakistanis politicise human tragedies to rally electoral support for their own political views.
I do not know if it angers me more than it saddens me but I feel insane. If someone’s morality is different than yours and it affects you, you have weak morals. If coexistence with other beliefs threatens you, you have a weak faith.
God does not need us to defend His honour; God would appreciate much more if we defended the honour of humanity.
I may have never felt so disillusioned with the state of discrimination in Pakistan and my naive desire to change the world may have never felt this bruised, but I still have reason to feel proud.
I am proud that an Ahmadi in Pakistan strengthened my faith more than any Maulvi could, that a Hindu in Pakistan showed me the art of coexistence finer than a Muslim here could and that a Pakistani Christian taught me the value of prayer better than any preacher could.
Saltanat Ansari is pursuing a major in International Relations and a minor in Latina/o Studies at Mount Holyoke College, South Hadley. She is an ardent Lahori, passionate about music and food.