My name is Osman, named after the the 3rd caliph Uthman who led the newly created Islam two generations after the prophet in 7th century Saudi Arabia. I grew up listening to his stories of heroism and glamour attending the local Sunday school in a mosque surrounded by green trees and colorful flowers about 25 miles north of New York City. At mid-afternoon, when prayers would end and the sun was at its highest I would walk outside with my mom and she would remind me in her native tongue how important it was to keep a sense of “who I really was”. I would nod in automatic confirmation as I ran ahead to our beige SUV secretly hoping to get on her good side. On the way home there was a mall full of games and gizmos, and like any young boy’s mind it was craving stimulus in the form of fast cars and video games.
Like many other 2nd generation Pakistanis I walked the tightrope between trying to be proud of my heritage and being a little confused by it. What started off in elementary school as genuine curiosity by classmates as to the differences in food and customs led to indifference and finally to a polite disdain. I spent a lot of lunch’s chewing my kebab and ketchup sandwich concentrating on the paper bag in front of me, pretending not to notice the prickling of noses around me as the strong scents of spice wafted through the air.
I would get off the yellow bus at 3:30PM, walk home and try and explain that these sandwiches had to go, and that I wanted to just do what everyone else was doing. Stay out late, find a girlfriend, and hang out with friends. My parents would shake their heads disapprovingly and tell me to focus on more important things, like school and family values. Every afternoon I’d come home knowing for sure that it was the day they’d understand, and then every evening I’d go back upstairs wondering that maybe it was I who wasn’t seeing things clearly.
So I focused on school and got good grades, entered into honor societies and other service oriented activities. My fingers wrapped around a #2 pencil seemed to enjoy filling out multiplication tables faster than my classmates and coloring in the right answers on scantrons after hours spent memorizing. They’d only ever stop and hesitate when they moved from the questions about math and science and hovered over the one question I wasn’t comfortable with, “Circle in your ethnicity”.
Ready for a Journey
“Parents can only give good advice or put them on the right paths, but the final forming of a person’s character lies in their own hands.” – Anne Frank
It’s been years since those warm summer mornings spent reading Arabic in the local mosque. So much has happened too, both good and bad. I’ve graduated from college and obtained a medical degree. I’ve been to Pakistan countless time and read countless books. We live in a post 9/11 world in which finding my identity no longer can occur in the solitude of my soul but must transpire in the public arena. Islam has fallen on hard times and with it the countries that have been shaped by it. Pakistan is no exception. People demand to know who I am and what my values are, lest they go against what might be deemed as normal.
So it was with a determined spirit and hungry mind that I boarded the Boeing that would fly me out to the land of my kin where once and all I would figure out who I was and what my heritage would mean to me. Would it exist as a light to guide me in dark times, something to be protected and adored, or was it better off locked away in the recesses of my mind as a relic of the past?
Now that I’m Here
Pakistan has five seasons my cousin says. Hot, Hotter, Winter, Spring, and Rain. It’s the middle of March and a cool breeze finds its way through the opened window into the room full of arguing people. I shiver and draw my grey sweater closer to me and passively listen to their ideas of better roads, better leadership, and better schools. It’s been one week now and I’ve learned one thing quickly, that the country is a mess. In only the 60 or so years since its independence, corruption has eaten away at Pakistan’s promise and most are not happy. I lean over and tap my cousin on the shoulder breaking his concentration, he turns to look at me.
“Hey, lets go see some landmarks…I hear the Wazir Khan mosque is cool?”
A dark look passes over his face and he looks away. “Those places are ruins, why would you want to see those”.
This is Wagah border, the line separating India and Pakistan exists here. Above you’ll see two Pakistani Rangers dressed in traditional garbs flexing in front of the Indian guards [it’s part of the staged ceremony, changing of the flags] in a display of pride and enthusiasm, and it was probably the only time I witnessed others display the feelings during my 3 week trip.
Morale is low in the country for too many reasons to list here. I feel more like a tourist with each passing day. It seems fitting that a Westerner would have the luxury of “finding themselves” in the midst of so many troubles and people who cannot fulfill their basic needs. In fact that’s what most people tell me when I try and convey the importance of Pakistan’s landmarks and how they should be taken better care of. “Maslow’s Hierarch of Needs” someone mentions; “why would we be worried about culture and heritage when people don’t even have food”.
I honestly don’t know, but I still feel like it’s important.
In the Darkness Exists Light
On the 1 and 1/2 hour drive from Faisalabad we decide to detour off the highway to see Pakistan’s famous Khewra salt mines. Legends say that Alexander the Great told his troops to start digging in the mountainside when he noticed the horses licking the rocks. He stumbled upon one of the largest salt deposits in the known natural world and trade began centuries later during the height of the Mughal Empire.
For a mile now we’ve been walking on the uneven ground, following the steel train tracks deeper into the mines. The flashlight ahead only reveals what is necessary to continue onward and for minutes at a time there is only the sound of footsteps as the tourist group carefully selects where to place their next step. Suddenly out of the darkness a bright structure appears and as we walk closer to it the lines shaping it contours begin to become visible; it’s a mosque.
Not just any kind, but one made using salt bricks lit up from inside. It’s a beautiful sight surrounded by a rich history. The tour guide seems to know this. He spent 20 minutes delaying leaving in the beginning because he was waiting for some kids to leave that he knew would cause problems if he let them inside. He told this to my mother when she asked what we were waiting for. As we pass the small mosque in the dark she happily points out that more people need to be like him and care about preserving what matters most.
Choosing to See Beauty
Tour guides don’t make a lot of money in Pakistan, their salary probably doesn’t include chasing unruly teenagers out of dark caves and yet they’re some of the few people that genuinely care about the history and culture of their country. I’ve been to tours in America too though, and I know how enthusiasm can be practiced. But what about my driver who would smile ear to ear when we took him with us to see the Wagah border? Or the kids without shoes who seem to cheer the loudest for the country’s cricket team when they walk out onto the pitch. Why is it that the people who the country has given the least to care the most.
The Badshahi mosque is the fifth largest in the world. It was created by the 6th Mughal Emperor in the 17th century, perfectly epitomizing the beauty and grandeur of that era. It isn’t hard to walk its expansive halls and be in awe of its size, the details in the flowers painted on the wall or how your spirit soars when the locals call out for prayer. Everyone can appreciate this place because its beauty is so apparent, so ready to be adored. The difficulty it seems is seeing the beauty in the places where it is hiding.
A couple years I ago I ordered some books off of amazon about Pakistan and Islam trying to piece together some of my heritage. One thing I stumbled upon was the history of Uthman, 3rd caliph, after whom I was named. He was the first to be killed by his own people, perhaps because of his tendency to appoint officials as favors to his family or his general incompetence as a leader. But there are also the things he had done well, like compile the Quran, lead the community to economic prosperity and even create the first Muslim Navy. It seems like everyone and everything exists in shades of grey, a muddled mixture of good and bad.
Sitting here back in New York I think about why my mother would name me after someone with a controversial background. I think about how Islam has been twisted into chaos and how Pakistan was never what I thought it would be.
Then I start thinking about hope and what people choose to see in things. How the tour guide only making a couple dollars an hour took me into one part of the mosque to show me how the Mughals constructed rooms to achieve the best acoustics. How Pakistan was created to provide better opportunities for Muslims and how my mother saw the best qualities in a leader she respected and named me after him in the hopes that I could emulate him.
Things are what you see and what you hope they can become. I’ve decided after my trip to see the beauty and rationale in my culture and religion because they too exist in shades of grey. Maybe the real beauty isn’t in the muddled history of the world but in the soul of the person trying to find it.
Maybe beauty really is in the eye of the beholder.