An Old Man at Ghora Chowk


I saw an old man at Ghora Chowk late last night.

It was a mere glance, as much a glance as a moving car can afford.

There he was, an old man holding four balloons in his hand, sitting all alone by the side.

We passed him by and I turned around to look, every time a vehicle would approach he would strain his creaking old knees and legs to stand up. Balloons in hand. So he could be noticed.

So he could be visible.

The cars would rush past, and he would sit back down again. Whenever he would see another at a distance, he would stand up again.

There was something about him that made a knot in my throat; that felt as a punch to my heart.

Here was an old man, sitting all alone at 1AM in the sweltering heat on an empty road, with nothing but his plight.

107551530It was a distressing contrast; the vibrant balloons, and the grim desperation of the man who had pinned his hopes on them. I wondered if people even bought balloons these days, I thought about the utter distress and desolation that the hope for whose reduction hung by the thread of a balloon. At 1AM, at an old age, on a road in a city with stifling heat.

It was a mere glance, and yet I thought of my old grandfather who needs care, attention and comfort at the stage of life, as do all elderly. I thought of the difference between them, and the injustice inequality is. No old man should have to be subjected to the ignominy of poverty like this.

Yet here was a man, solitary in his presence on the road, hard to miss, but not solitary in his suffering.

There is a roundabout in Main Market. And on its ground lie dozens of people, every day, living and sleeping. That, is their abode. That, is all they have.

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I look at them, and I look at myself.

There are times I cannot bear Lahore’s heat. I thank heavens for the ACs and the splits and the UPS. Why can’t I bear the heat? Is my skin different from the skin of those lying in Main Market right under the sun? My intolerance is my privilege. I pinch my arm to remind myself we have the same skin, separate but by the stroke of fortune. I can’t bear the heat because I have the choice not to, they bear it as it strikes down at them, because they have no choice.

The old man at Ghora Chowk, the dozens in Main Market, the children on roads selling flowers, the young, the old, the disabled begging on the roads every day. We inhabit two different worlds behind the window from which we see each other.

The old man at Ghora Chowk, the dozens in Main Market, the children on roads selling flowers, the young, the old, the disabled begging on the roads every day.  You look at them and you remember, those residing in their palatial residences, in their Raiwinds, their villas, their flats, with their wealth and stakes stashed in places like London, Dubai and Panama. With enough wealth for their seven wretched generations, while the millions live in the uncertainty of what the other day will bring.

The old man at Ghora Chowk, the dozens in Main Market, the children on roads selling flowers every day.

These are the people upon whose bones, flesh and blood the palaces and the wealth has been built upon.  

I caught a passing glance at the old man, and I cared not one bit about democracy, justice, morals, ethics, political correctness, and wished for all this lot to rot in hell with their ill-gotten wealth.

May the shame they lack be found in their ruin. And ruin they will.

There are two worlds. What finds no fulfillment in this world, will find fact in the other.

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On our way back home, I silently prayed in my heart that the old man had gone home.

I don’t know why I did, but I just did.

And yet, as we rushed past Ghora Chowk again on the entirely empty roads, there he was. Still sitting. Balloons in hand.

It was 2:30 AM.

I glanced again and his sight seized my heart.

Yesterday, I saw an old man at Ghora Chowk and I wished the world came crushing down.

I wonder if someone bought his balloons,

I wonder when he went home,

If he had any.

-Hafsa Khawaja

My Mother is a Sultanate


*This is dedicated to all the women and the mothers in Pakistan whose strength, patience and efforts go unacknowledged and yet they refuse to cease. You inspire me, and you make us all.

I watch Turkish dramas.

Especially the one on the Sultanate of Women. You know, the ones on Hurrem and Kosem Sultan.

It’s a subject I’ve long been fascinated by.  It is fascinating, how these slave girls rose to become sultanas that more or less ruled the Ottoman Empire.

Most of it is fiction in the show, but if you’ve read actual history, it gives faces to the names; it gives a life to history.

Life wasn’t easy in the harem, there was struggle, there was conflict, there was suffering, there was love, there was loss, there was death.

I’ve read about these sultanas, their lives, their reigns and I have always been left enchanted by their intelligence, their strength, their beauty, their courage, their power, their triumph against adversity and difficulty; their fight against fate.

I read about these women in history and it gives rise to a strange feeling: a pride that the womanhood I possess has been shared by such glorious women; and a realization that inside every woman, there is a capacity for the things they did.

But I wonder if there are more of their kind.

I wonder if I was in their position, would I have survived?


As I am forced to venture further into adulthood, I find myself absolutely fearful not of what the future holds for me, but what this society holds for me.

There is so much that is wrong in it. So much to battle against, so much to resign to.

I don’t think I have the patience, the tact, the strength in me to deal with the pressures and expectations of our culture and society. As dramatic as this sounds, I fear for my survival in it because I don’t think I’ll be able to put up with what it throws a girl’s way.

Then there are times in my life during which I am struck and seized by a moment of sheer marvel and awe at my mother.

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This is a woman who seems ordinary. She has a life and story shared by perhaps millions across Pakistan.

She’s a homemaker.

20170514_135739She was married fairly young, and she has devoted her entire life to her family, the family she was married into, and the family she raised of her own. She has two grown kids now, a few strands of gray in her hair, and yet even today, from the minute she wakes up to the minute she shuts her eye at night, her day revolves around me, my brother and my father. Us, our needs, our demands, our joy, our utmost dependence on her from the smallest thing to the biggest pareshani. We frustrate her, bother her, test her. We are not easy people.

And yet, it is almost as if we’ve usurped her life from her as a right of ours.

She’s the most beautiful woman I know. She’s the woman with the most melodious voice, that I often wake up to, hearing it hum along or rendering a rendition of a classic Indian song.

She’s the woman whose every word, expression, gesture and effort is a lesson in compassion, thoughtfulness and selflessness.

She’s the brightest woman I know. The strongest woman I know. A shelter in storms, a shade to rest against amid scathing heat, a breeze amid the stillness and silences of the night.

She amazes me, and yet she frightens me because God knows, the sort of strength, patience, the ability to sacrifice, the ability to endure, to overcome, to love, and to forgive, that she has, I would never be able to muster even in a thousand years.

She’s been put through a lot, she has endured a lot.

She’s a warrior.

I know there have been times that if I had been in her place, I would’ve given up, let go or collapsed.

I falter at the thought of it. I am nothing like her, not even a mere fragment of her self.

And yet I wonder how much I have still taken from her; her health, her youth, her time, her individuality.

She’s fought for me in ways I know and know not. She’s suffered and been hurt because of me, in ways I know and know not. After all, I am a hot-tempered child to have (all of them say it is “meray naam ka asr”) and often an ungrateful one too.

And yet she’s lifted and moved mountains for me.

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I love looking back on the Sultanas, and I wonder if there are more of their kind. Yet I need not look far in books, in dramas, to history, to different times and spaces.

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Because at home, with the cracks on her feet, the sweat on her brow; with her strength, her patience, her sacrifices, and her beauty, my mother stands. Holding our worlds by her very existence.

My mother stands. Not as a sultana.

But as a sultanate on her own,

To which I bow.

-Hafsa Khawaja

Remembering Eqbal Ahmad


“Editorials and newspaper columns published around the world quickly paid homage to a unique and fearless thinker. Egypt’s Al-Ahram wrote “Palestine has lost a friend”, while the New York Times, whose Vietnam and Palestine policies Eqbal had forcefully criticized, admitted that he “woke up America’s conscience”. The Economist described him as “a revolutionary and intellectual who was the Ibn-Khaldun of modern times”

-From Eqbal Ahmad: The Man who Inspired a Generation

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“Throughout the world, we are living in modern times, and dominated by medieval minds—political minds that are rooted in distorted histories.”

Today is the 18th death anniversary of Eqbal Ahmad, who was one of the most brilliant minds Pakistan has produced and one of the greatest public intellectuals.

In the “intellectual indolence” (as he called it) that has reigned in Pakistan, he was a flare of exception, and he continues to be that, years after his departure from this world.

Anyone who has happened to read my ramblings would probably have noticed my eagerness to quote his words and works in them.

Although I became acquainted with his life and work long after his demise, his intellectual honesty, courage and brilliance have taught me to think, to question and to hold writing to a sacred standard of telling the truth, raging against the wrong and raising voice for what is right.

After all, “lack of success does not justify the crime of silence in the face of criminal, arbitrary power.”

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                  A young Eqbal Ahmad  (Photo via South Asian American Digital Archive)

 

Since the day I read of him, my admiration for him has known no bounds, and delving into his writings has only left an immeasurable impact on my mind.

Eqbal Ahmad is an ideal for me.

Along with numerous others, I am truly indebted to his work for awakening, educating and inspiring me; and for pushing me into the pursuit of ceaseless learning. As audacious as it is, I would like nothing more than to consider myself and to be considered as a student of his

It is a shame that a man like him – whose unparalleled insights and advice writers, politicians, activists, revolutionaries, intellectuals and people from all over the world sought; and who possessed a prophetic foresight – is hardly known of or acknowledged today in his own country.

Edward Said, with whom Eqbal Ahmad shared a cherished friendship and association (Said dedicated his book Culture and Imperialism to Eqbal Ahmad), said it best when he stated:

“Knowing him has been an education”

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Edward Said’s letter of recommendation for Eqbal Ahmad when the latter applied for a job at Hampshire College.

And on occasion of his retirement from Hampshire College, Said remarked that Eqbal was,

“..to paraphrase from Kipling’s Kim – a friend of the world.”

Eqbal Ahmad was indeed a friend who saw the future before its time, who was an ally of the oppressed and dispossessed all over the world and was an epitome of intellectual integrity, courage and excellence – a friend who, in today’s global moment of confusion, crises and clamor, is all the more important to remember, revisit and consult.

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Eqbal Ahmad gesturing as he leaves the Federal Building, Washington, DC, in May 1971, as part of the Harrisburg Seven, a group of anti-war activists unsuccessfully prosecuted for allegedly plotting to kidnap Kissinger.

If you wish to read more about Eqbal Ahmad, please do check this excellent page run in his memory on Facebook, along with the Eqbal Ahmad Center for Education, and try getting your hands either on The Selected Writings of Eqbal Ahmad, or Stuart Schaar’s book on him, or simply Google and directly read about his life, his vision, his many, many interviews, and writings. Or watch his lectures online.

Let us remember the man whom we have are fortunate enough to call one of our own, a man whose words and ideas can still guide, enlighten and lead us out of the dim abyss we find ourselves in.

-Hafsa Khawaja