Expat Pakistanis have a running joke that when they return home, they never return as adults. You’re still the adolescent who fled the nation ten or twenty years ago.
That’s how I felt when I visited my relatives in Islamabad in January. While I visit Pakistan on a regular basis for work, my visits are brief, unpleasant, and isolated. This time, I wanted to take a break and give myself some time to reflect, write, and maybe settle my conflicted thoughts about Islamabad.
I always feel bad about expressing it, but I despise it. I’ve given a lot of thought to why, and I contemplated enumerating them all here. But I’m not going to do it. Right now, I’m more interested in thinking about my generation’s growing role in the world, how we’re positioning ourselves in relation to our elders and the institutions they govern, and how we’re negotiating for space and power in the world.
One of the biggest reasons I detest Islamabad is that I never felt like it was mine. I live in a city with an immensely diverse environment (for which I am glad), but in many respects, my connection with the city has been defined and hence restricted by it.
Both of my grandfathers worked for the government. So my parents grew up, went to college, met, and married in this town. The bulk of my extended family of aunts and uncles felt the same way. Together, they rose to prominence as activists, lawyers, developers, architects, educators, and journalists. They shaped the world around their children, around me, in the process. Their triumphs become our triumphs. Their misfortunes become our misfortunes. Their preconceptions became our prejudices as a result of their prejudices. And it appeared that their choices would soon become our options.
It was one of the main reasons I wanted to leave, and I did so as soon as I could. When I do return, however, I always feel a quick but typical loss of confidence. I abruptly lose my capacity to speak authoritatively, explore places, communicate to strangers, drive, write, and even cook outside the limits of my profession.
This illustrates how easily an environment can take control of your agency if you aren’t paying attention.
While I would dismiss this as a transient side effect of being in the country, it becomes a significant issue once you realise you are one of the adults in the room. Do I have to give up just because I “left”?
Since the murder of Pakistan’s foremost human rights campaigner, Asma Jahangir, I’ve been thinking a lot about the last few months. Her death has left a huge vacuum in Pakistan; there is no one who can fill her shoes in terms of stature or boldness. Who among my generation has the ability and desire to follow in her footsteps?
To do so, we must be daring, take chances, and choose to step outside the boundaries set by our elders, class, and institutions. And, contrary to popular belief, I believe that the young Pakistani diaspora has a role to play in our families and wider communities.
So, as fragile as it may sound, I began to take little steps inside Pakistan to regain my footing. I got back behind the wheel. After ten years, I went to a political event. From here, I started working on my first food story (which is actually rather difficult). Here’s a shout-out to Pakistani female reporters; they don’t have it easy.) And for the first time, I entered my mother’s kitchen, defying the intimidating norms that Pakistani home cooks set for themselves.
I decided to start small and prepared Smitten Kitchen’s chocolate olive oil cake for my aunt’s birthday during my first week. It’s a straightforward cake that I’ve baked at least a half-dozen times. It’s impossible to mess up, yet it was, of course, a disaster. I chose a pan that was far too tiny. The oven was not sufficiently heated. The flour had a mind of its own. As a result, the cake spilled out of the pan and crumbled on contact.
- ½ cup ghee or oil
- 6 pods of cardamom cracked
- 1 cup suji semolina flour, available in specialty Indian/Pakistani grocery stores
- 1 cup granulated sugar
- 2 tablespoon blanched almonds
- In a saucepan, bring 4 cups of water to a boil. Add sugar and stir until it has dissolved. Remove from heat.
- In a heavy bottomed saucepan, heat ghee or oil. Add cracked cardamom. Fry on low heat till fragrant for about a minute.
- Add suji (semolina flour) and roast it on low heat for 8-10 minutes till it begins to puff up. Keep an eye on the color since the time will vary depending on the type of saucepan you are using and whether you are using ghee or neutral oil. Ghee has a higher smoke point so it will take a longer time to roast.
- Once the suji has turned an even golden brown, turn the heat off and add sugar syrup. Turn heat back up and stir well for 5 minutes till the mixture thickens and you get a nice silky texture.
- Add sliced almonds and stir till well-mixed. Remove from heat.