VI. Who Am I?


";I am 100 percent Pakistani, 100 percent American. That's not something I just say. I really feel it."

-- Shahan Mufti 


" I will always be a stranger, without a home, no matter where I am"

-- Sabrina Shairzay


"I feel like we're forced to be individuals, forced to think more. You have to think about who you are. You have to. You're confronted with an identity crisis whether you like it or not and that's a good thing in some ways because you're thinking about who you are, it's not just given to you. You make up who you are.... And that is my identity. It's being able to adapt."

-- Fariba Nawa

             One of Murtaza Pardais's paintings shows the face of a teen-aged girl. The left side of her head is covered in a flowing scarf that drops down over a blue high-necked garment covering that side of her neck and shoulder. The other half of her head is uncovered, showing a punk-style hairdo. On that side of her face she is wearing a lip-ring and a stud in her nose. Her right shoulder is bare except for a spaghetti strap and what might be tattoos. The painting is titled "Yesterday/Today?", with a caption under the title saying: "Afghan Girl Between Two Cultures." When I saw it, I asked Pardais's 22-year-old daughter Sadiqa if she ever felt like the girl in the painting. She nodded. "Yes," she said slowly, "I do feel like that." For his part, Pardais didn't mean his painting to take sides between the two cultures. American and Afghan and all other cultures have good and bad aspects, he said, and people should "try to embrace the good and leave the bad."
            The feeling of being divided between two worlds is not unique to Afghan Americans or to the present moment in our history. The image in the painting reflects the immigrant experience from far back in America's past, as wave after wave of newcomers and their children from all parts of the globe looked for ways to fit into their new country and become American. In that sense, Afghan and Pakistani Americans are making the same journey as many others, past and present -- sometimes, indeed, facing exactly the same cultural issues. Journalist Fariba Nawa recalls a youth conference she once attended where a Vietnamese American girl told the group: "When my teacher in school talks to me, I have to look her in the eye, it's disrespectful to cast my eyes down. But when I go home and I look my father in the eye, he slaps me, he says, 'how dare you look me in the eye!'" That felt "so true," Nawa said, because it sounded just like generational conflicts she has seen in Afghan families. "It's very similar in our community."
            But as successive groups wrote their chapters in the long history of immigrants in America, each one had its own story, too. The experience of Pakistani and Afghan Americans has been shaped by its intersection with particular issues and circumstances, including 9/11, America's war on terror, and religious differences that have become more sharply politicized than ever before in modern American history. And, while Afghans and Pakistanis in the United States wrestle with who they and their children will be in their adopted country, they are doing so against a background of crisis and unremitting bad news from their homelands as well -- meaning, among other things, that their American world has almost no positive images or impressions of their Pakistani or Afghan worlds. That leads to feelings like the one Wajahat Ali remembers, when the news came that a U.S. Navy Seal team had tracked down and killed Osama bin Laden. Ali was at a fund-raising dinner for a Muslim attorneys group when he got a Twitter feed that Osama had been found. Before additional details came in, he recalled, he and the other Pakistani American lawyers at the table "were just praying, please let him be found in Syria, let him be found in Iraq, let him not be found in Pakistan. And then when he's found in Pakistan, crap, crap! he's found in Pakistan."
            When he was growing up in California in the pre-9/11 era, Ali said, Americans did not differentiate Pakistan from the rest of South Asia. The usual jeer when other kids teased him was to call him "Gandhi" -- an Indian, a Hindu, and even if delivered as a childish taunt, the name of a much-admired, positive figure. That all changed after 9/11. Now, while many Americans may still not be very clear where Pakistan is on the map, they are very aware that it exists and that it is a Muslim country. Rather than confusing it with India, the post-9/11 American public associates Pakistan with a general and often demonized image of a Muslim world that is antagonistic to the United States and Western civilization. Inevitably, "that colors the American Pakistani experience," Ali said. Pakistani Americans and other American Muslims are constantly asked about "creeping Shari'a and stealth jihad and do you practice taqqiya (deception) and this and that, and Pakistan has been kinda lumped in as the haven of the enemy, or as the enemy," with the consequence that "you are indicted and convicted in the court of public opinion for the criminal misdeeds of a few. You are perpetually asked to explain, define, apologize for not only American Muslims but 1.5 billion Muslims worldwide and 1,400 years of Muslim civilization."
            For Afghan and Pakistani Americans trying to find where they belong in American society, there is not just one divide to be bridged, but many. There is the racial and religious divide between them and the majority population. Within the community, there is the divide between generations and the divide between men's and women's experiences. There is also the divide that reaches them from their homelands, where national and cultural identities are also in flux. The first wave of Pakistani immigrants to the United States and the earlier Afghan refugees came predominantly from a modernized, cosmopolitan elite class with quite liberal attitudes on religious practice and traditional social customs. In Afghanistan, those attitudes were officially promoted in the 1960s and early 1970s by the reformist King Zahir Shah, who sought to remake his country into a modern nation where, among other changes, women would have full political rights and take off their veils.
            That way of life survives now only in exiles' memories and in old family photographs and black-and-white scenes captured by home movie cameras, showing social gatherings where men in European suits mingle with women wearing short western-style dresses and beehive hairdos, without a beard or a headscarf in sight. The Kabul in those pictures is now utterly, entirely gone. Most Americans, whose consciousness of Afghanistan begins only with the post-9/11 U.S. military intervention, have no idea that it ever existed. For Afghans who remember inhabiting that world, like Tahera Shairzay, the memories are glowing. "We were all free. Women had big positions in the government, they were senators, they were representatives, they were ministers, they were doctors. When I grew up, I never wore a veil in my whole life."
            (It is also worth remembering, though, that the liberal world Shairzay recalls was short-lived, lasting only a few decades, and was itself part of a "cultural schism," as the Afghan American writer Tamim Ansary calls it, that became one of the roots of the national catastrophe. Indeed, though I did not think of it the first time I saw Murtaza Pardais's painting, he could just as aptly have painted the same split portrait showing an Afghan woman of his own generation and class with a burqa covering half her head and an uncovered western style hairdo on the other half. He could even have used the same title, though here it would have been ambiguous which half of the image represents yesterday and which represents today.)
            In Pakistan, the changes have been less extreme. The world of the educated elite from which many Pakistani Americans came has not been completely destroyed, as in Afghanistan. But its liberal values and its place in Pakistani society have come under steadily growing pressure, as the country's explosive social and religious tensions have increased and its political life has deteriorated. In both countries, the cultural climate and way of life are profoundly different from what they were just a few decades ago -- leaving many Pakistani and Afghan Americans uncertain not just about what it means to be American, but what it means to be Afghan or Pakistani as well.
            In different ways, that creates complicated feelings for both the immigrant generation and their children. When Maryam Masumi's parents returned to Afghanistan for the first time in 2007, it was "very emotional for them," Masumi said -- especially for her father, who came to the United States as a student in the 1970s, when the country was still at peace. The contrast between the prewar Afghanistan he remembered and the one he saw on his return three decades later "was very devastating for him," Masumi said. It was not just the physical landscape that had changed; Afghans were no longer the same people he thought he belonged to. "People had been such victims of war that their own demeanor has changed, their personality has changed," her father found. The Afghans in his memories were "very hospitable and friendly, but now they're just very bitter and cold, because they're trying to survive....It was very disturbing for him."
            Masumi was born in the United States and has never been to Afghanistan, but the feeling of a lost world is part of her life, too. Her father's sadness for his homeland makes her sad also, she said, "because I don't know if I'll ever be able to see it the way my parents saw it. I'd like to be able to but I just don't know if that opportunity will come in my lifetime."

            When Maryam Masumi tells of her own experience of growing up in two worlds, her story makes that phrase sound almost more literal than metaphorical. Her parents took pains to teach their two American-born daughters to speak Farsi, and sent them to a  mosque in their northern Virginia community for Sunday religion classes, which the girls attended from early childhood into their teens -- altogether eight or nine years, Masumi thinks. At the same time, however, they put her and her younger sister in a Christian school for their elementary school years. The primary reason was that they believed the education there would be better than in local public schools, Masumi said. But they also thought it could help their children navigate more comfortably in the American world of different beliefs and cultures. "They felt it was important for me to get a balance... to learn about other religions, to make myself more aware of what else was out there and be more tolerant of what else was out there."
            Masumi and her sister were, as far as she knows, the only non-Christians in the school. But through some combination of the school climate, her parents' attitudes, and family and personal chemistry, that was never difficult or uncomfortable. She remembers almost no disturbing moments in school, no feeling that anyone was trying to draw her away from her family's Muslim faith, and no troubling doubts about who she was. "I would go to school Monday through Friday, the Christian school, and every Sunday I'd be at the mosque" learning about Islam, without any confusion about which religion was hers. At home, her parents made it clear that the values they were teaching her were Muslim values, but with no suggestion that they conflicted with what she was learning at school.
            "As a kid I was never confused," she said. "I don't know why, if it was because they raised me the way they raised me, but I never felt confused... I never said oh, why am I not Christian, why am I not Jewish, why am I not Catholic." Nor did she feel any conflict in participating in Christian religious observance during the school day. "It never bothered me" to join in prayers or Christian religious services, she said, "and my parents were never bothered by it either, at least I don't ever recall their expressing that to me." Instead, they came to student performances and praised their daughters for learning things like the Ten Commandments and the story of Jesus.


"Muslims are forced to wear different masks... a mask in front of their family, a mask in front of their mosque, a mask in front of their culture group, a mask in front of their white group, a mask in front of their workers. And it becomes very exhausting for many Muslims to navigate this.... in some cases they're reasonably comfortable with that, it's a way of managing. And in some cases they are really haunted, they feel they can't be open and honest about who they are and what they are."

-- Wajahat Ali

          The arc of Masumi's sense of her Afghan identity was the same as that of many Afghan and Pakistani Americans in her generation who grew up, as she did, in families that were well established in middle-class American life. In early childhood she didn't realize she was not like everyone else. When she became aware, at 9 or 10, for a time she "felt a bit weird" when she had to tell anyone that she was Afghan and Muslim. That changed in her middle school and high school years, when "it almost became cool to have your own culture and have a different religion." But it was in college, where she became active in the Afghan student organization and much of her social life revolved around the Afghan student community, that being Afghan became truly important. "I think when you're younger you want to assimilate with other kids and be like other kids," she said, "but the older you get, you become more proud of who you are."
            In her own family, Masumi experienced relatively little conflict over cultural issues such as socializing between boys and girls. Her parents were quite open-minded on those matters -- particularly her mother, who came to the United States while still in her early teens and had her own memories of the tension between Afghan custom and American teenage life. Masumi's father was "a little bit strict" about her dress, but unlike girls growing up in stricter homes, she went to her high school prom and was free to attend mixed parties. In other Muslim families with different attitudes and personalities, those sorts of  issues can be much more painful. For the younger generation, they often mean leading a kind of double life, assuming one personality at home, and another outside. "A schizophrenic identity," Wajahat Ali calls it, "where Muslims are  forced to wear different masks... a mask in front of their family, a mask in front of their mosque, a mask in front of their culture group, a mask in front of their white group, a mask in front of their workers. And it becomes very exhausting for many Muslims to navigate this."
            When young people develop such divided identities, Ali said, "in some cases they're reasonably comfortable with that, it's a way of managing. And in some cases they are really haunted, they feel they can't be open and honest about who they are and what they are." Or there can be an even more haunting question: not what they can tell others, but how to figure out for themselves who they are, and which of their different selves is real. In Helena Zeweri's master's thesis on "Defining Afghanness," she quotes one young man who told her that growing up in America, he was "always being told by my family that, like, we belong here, we are part of this place" but at the same time not really part of America "'cuz we have to be a certain way -- 'You can't do that 'cuz you're Afghan'.... It's not our way.'... There’s this constant, like, you know, 'You don’t belong in America,'… yet I can't go to this other place [Afghanistan]…it's this bizarre experience -- like, okay, what kind of person am I then?"[1]

             What kind of person am I then? Answers to that question cover a very wide range. "I think of myself as American," said 37-year-old Saqib Ali, the software engineer and former Maryland state legislator. As the American-born son of immigrants from Pakistan, Ali calls himself a Pakistani American. But rather than identifying primarily with his parents' homeland, he thinks of that identity as making him part of a much broader American experience, as one more of the millions and millions of Americans who are descended from immigrants of this or past generations and whose faces, over time, have become or are becoming part of the American group portrait.

"My family are newer immigrants than people who came over on Ellis Island, but it's the American story. Everywhere I go in America there are other people like me. I live near a Nigerian person, a Korean person, a Turkish person. We're all Americans -- that's the beauty of America."

 -- Saqib Ali

               In his own case, he is married to a white American Christian from Pennsylvania, so his family is "kind of all over the map and I think of that as quintessentially American," Ali said. "Over history, there have been so many immigrant groups that have gone through the same assimilation process and retained elements of their identities, their immigrant identities, and those immigrant identities become part of the American fabric, so that's where we are.... My family are newer immigrants than people who came over on Ellis Island, but it's the American story. Everywhere I go in America there are other people like me. I live near a Nigerian person, a Korean person, a Turkish person. We're all Americans -- that's the beauty of America."
           Like Ali, Maria Janjua, also the U.S.-born child of Pakistani immigrants, locates herself in the broader American experience as well as in her own immigrant roots. Among her friends in the comfortable Philadelphia suburb where she grew up and still lives, some "have Irish American pride, Italian American pride," she said. "...Their grandparents, great-grandparents are ones that came from Italy, or from Ireland. They've never been there, but they have that identity. It's the same thing for me. I'm Pakistani American, that's where my parents are from, that's my national origin, so that's what you relate to, but you still are American in that same way."
           Janjua, Saqib Ali and Maryam Masumi are all products of the socially and educationally advantaged segment of the Pakistani and Afghan American communities that has become well assimilated in American middle-class life. They and others like them were certainly not unaffected by the post-9/11 climate. But as native-born U.S. citizens and as successful and well educated professionals comfortably integrated in American society, they have been far less vulnerable than many other American Muslims to acts of discrimination or threats to their security. That in turn means they have less conflict or ambivalence in thinking of themselves as American with the same rights as all other Americans.
           Masood Haque came with his family from Pakistan at 13, so is not a citizen by birth. But his sense that he has personal rights that the authorities must respect represents, he says, "a part of me that is very, very American." Haque, a physician in New York's Westchester County who is also a serious film-maker, came under FBI scrutiny because of a short film he made as a project for a film school class that shows a suicide bombing and also includes some propaganda clips he downloaded from jihadist websites.  Agents called him at work, left a note on his townhouse door, and posted a surveillance team for several days in a row outside the gated community where he lives (explaining to the gate guard that the watch was connected to a domestic violence investigation). Haque was angry but, he said, not really fearful, "because first of all I hadn't done anything wrong, and I knew that I was protected, I knew I had certain rights... I was a citizen, those rights were really important to me and I was aware of them."
           In the end the investigators accepted his explanation, supported by faculty members in his film studies program, that the film had nothing to do with a terrorist plot or terrorist sympathies. The last agent who came to see him -- a Korean American woman, he remembers -- asked politely for the fake suicide vest he had created to use in the film. Haque refused at first but then handed it over, and as far as he knows, that was the end of the investigation. "She said 'OK, thank you, I really appreciate it,' and that's the end of that, it was over.... I never had to speak to anybody else, they disappeared." That outcome, he thinks, partly "had to do with who I was. I was somebody who had lived in this country for a very long time, I wasn't about to take shit from them.... I haven't done anything, there's nothing for me to hide, and at some point they got it." They got, that is, the same thing Haque himself got: that "who he was" was an American with an American's birthright of legal protection from the power of the state -- and, it is relevant to add, not just an American citizen but an American in a high-status profession and on the upper rungs of the income ladder, with not only the knowledge of his rights but also the connections and resources to defend them if he needed to.
           For people without those advantages, the sense of belonging to America is much more fragile. Even if they are citizens or legal residents, those who are farther down on the social and economic scale are more likely to encounter profiling or discrimination, and in consequence, less likely to feel secure in their status as Americans or share a sense that the American state protects their rights. A large number speak English poorly or not at all, which sharply limits their interaction with the wider society or American culture. Many live in immigrant enclaves that are more distant from mainstream American life -- and, for that matter, distant from the more affluent and assimilated members of their own national communities as well. The scholar Sunaina Marr Maira, who spent a year in 2002-2003 interviewing high school students from working-class South Asian and mainly Muslim immigrant families in a Massachusetts city she calls Wellford, noted that those families had almost no connection with Indian or Pakistani American organizations in the area, whose membership comes predominantly from middle or upper-middle-class suburban families. The experiences of the young people she interviewed, Maira added, are rooted in an urban, working-class life "that is often completely unknown to their more privileged South Asian American counterparts in the area."
           That life also makes a profound difference in what has been called "cultural citizenship," an identity and sense of belonging that goes beyond the legal definition of a citizen.  For the young people Maira met in Wellford (which internal evidence in her book indicates is actually Cambridge, Massachusetts) questions of identity were heavily freighted by the sudden and explosive changes in American official acts and public attitudes after 9/11. Her subjects, Maira wrote, came to the United States "shortly before or during a moment when their 'Muslim' identities were highly politicized and intertwined with the War on Terror," and had to adapt to their new country in that atmosphere. In their dual world, at times they were able to identify with both sides of the cultural and political divide, as when a 17-year-old she calls Osman from a Pakistani immigrant family spoke about the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan. It seemed that's what Americans wanted, he told Maira, because they were scared of another terror attack, but he wasn't sure how he felt because he could imagine the other side too: "I think they're both right, the people of Afghanistan who don't want to be attacked, and the people here that's scared." He didn't add but surely knew that "the people that's scared" were not just scared of Afghanistan but also scared of people in the United States who looked like him and his family -- who in turn were scared too, not without reason, about what angry Americans might do to them.
           "I don't really talk to other people about this," Osman told Maira. "It's just something you don't want to talk about. That's what my father says too." His father didn't talk much to his family about 9/11, Osman went on, but he put up a big American flag on his taxi, while another taxi driver, his father's friend and a Sikh, "took off his turban and shaved his beard. My father told him not to do it, but some men who took his cab shouted at him about trying to kill Osama's brother, so he was scared."[2] Flying a flag and shaving a beard were meant, one can safely assume, to show people that they were not America's enemies. Those acts may have helped Osman's father and his friend feel a little safer in America, but it is harder to imagine they did much to help them feel more American.

           If divisions of class and income are one schism in Afghan and Pakistani Americans' quest to define themselves, gender is another.
           In Afghan and Pakistani families, women's and girls' cultural issues tend to be more visible because they are largely about visible things: covering their hair, how they dress, how they interact with men in public settings. Those are also the issues that most visibly represent differences with American custom and living styles. A girl wearing a headscarf to an American school or not wearing shorts for gym class stands out from her classmates in ways that boys do not. She will also be more noticeable if she doesn't go out on dates or attend mixed parties or dances -- noticeable to her non-Muslim fellow students, that is; but she will also be more noticeable to her family and in her own community if she does those things, because, as in many other cultures, traditional rules are stricter for girls than for boys. Too, in part because of that very visibility, gender issues are a crucial piece of the wider society's perception of Muslims, with women's rights and status serving as a kind of tape measure of cultural difference. 
           For all those reasons, the face that people see in their minds when gender questions arise is nearly always a woman's face, veiled or unveiled; the wife's or the daughter's face, not the father's or the son's. And seeing those faces, people also tend to see changes in gender role and identity as things that happen mainly to women in Pakistani or Afghan families in America. We think of girls facing conflicting pressures and having to choose which traditions to follow: deciding how to dress, whether to date or not date and whether to tell or not tell their families if they do. In my research for this report I heard a good deal about those choices and the pain that often accompanies them. Less often and much more faintly, I heard other things that made me aware of something I had not thought very clearly about: there is pain on both sides of the gender gap, not just one.
            However repressive the customs and however contrary they are to professed American values, the traditional patriarchal rules governing men's and women's roles and behavior are deeply imbedded in the identity many men brought with them when they came to the United States, and in the culture they do not want their children to lose because if it is lost, they will be lost too. Fear of that loss is wrenching: "They feel like if they accept these changes, they're going to give up everything they are," said Fariba Nawa. Wajahat Ali put it this way: "When it comes to sexuality in particular, that seems to be the one question where the great fear is everything will fall apart. This fragile identity that we've created for ourselves, put together by equally fragile threads, will be unraveled. Girls will get pregnant and everyone's going to have tattoos and there will be orgies...."
           Also often overlooked is that gender issues in Afghan and Pakistani American families affect sons, as well as daughters. Boys may not have to decide whether to cover their hair or not, but they do have to find their way between the values taught in their homes and those in the wider society, just as girls do, and decide how those values will shape their own lives and relationships. In interviews done in the mid-1990s for her undergraduate thesis, which reported on several dozen young Afghan American men and women who were either engaged or newly married, Fariba Nawa found a variety of responses from her male subjects. Some were struggling with "displacement and a loss of Islamic patriarchal status" -- the same issues, one can guess, that their immigrant fathers were dealing with. Others, she found, felt "a lack of role models and direction."
           Among Nawa's interviews, a particularly poignant one was with a young man she called Walid, who came to the United States at 15 and was 25 when Nawa spoke with him. For his father, as with many Afghan refugees, leaving Afghanistan meant leaving his role as the household breadwinner -- a central piece of an Afghan man's selfhood. In America, without a job, Walid's father was also without the place he had held in his family's life, as the wage-earner and also the unquestioned power figure who could enforce his authority with his fists with no challenge from his wife or children. "When we came here, he realized he doesn't have that kind of control," Walid told Nawa. "He would get frustrated. That's why he didn't like America. It was difficult for us and for him."
           Adjusting to America wasn't easy for Walid, either. He missed his life in Afghanistan, too, and while he didn't excuse the physical violence, he understood his father's values and sense of loss. But Walid still felt angry at the pressure and abusive treatment that was supposed to make him conform to Afghan ideas of how a man acts and what he is. Trying to cope with his anger, Nawa reported, he turned to self-help books and Eastern philosophy and found an outlet for his rebellious emotions in punk rock music and the Bay Area punk subculture. That searching led him to identify less with his Afghan roots and more with the universal human community. He knows that his birthplace and his experience and knowledge of the culture make him Afghan American, he told Nawa, but he would rather think of himself as simply a human being.
           Walid also found his way to a strikingly different view of gender relations than the one traditionally taught in Afghan culture. Also striking is that his path to that view did not begin in America but when he was still a boy in Afghanistan, where a maternal uncle told him that "women are not men's property." His uncle's words made him think about his own family, Walid said:


I saw how my dad treated my mom. For example, I would see how my father told my mom who to talk to and what to wear, with who to shake hands with and I would remember my uncle's words. When I came here, I saw how America's woman is so independent and stands on her own two feet, and how women know not to let men treat them that way. They were like parasites in Afghanistan, they took from the men but here no, a woman is on her own, it's not necessary for her to be attached to her husband. And this influenced me. Because of this, ...whether it is my sister or wife, I don't own her. She's not mine. When a woman and man get together, they do it to share life, not to take each other's life, but to share it together. That's all. [3]


             Girls' issues may get more attention, but in interviews for this report, I encountered a widespread view that it's the boys in Afghan and Pakistani American families who typically have a harder time fitting into American life.
             Tamim Ansary, the Afghan American writer, believes that Afghan boys tend to inherit the feelings of fathers who lost status and identity when they came to the United States. A lot of the boys he sees "are overwhelmed by the psychological shadow of their fathers' gloom about what happened," Ansary said. The fathers who were heads of their families and important men in Afghanistan "came here and became children," depending on their children to help them navigate in America instead of commanding their own lives. The sadness and shame they feel generates a powerful sense of nostalgia and a longing to go back, which Ansary said in turn leads to "an urgency not to let their kids lose their Afghanness." The nostalgia passes to their sons, who "stay kind of Afghan" to identify with or just not to disappoint their fathers -- but in doing so, Ansary feels, many become less able to adjust to American culture. "Because they stayed Afghan, they couldn't deal with this society."
              In part because they may be less burdened by their fathers' past, and in part because girls in nearly all cultures are taught to be more responsible and more respectful of the rules than boys, Ansary sees Afghan American girls as adapting more successfully than boys to American life. They do better than boys in school -- as is also true of girls in American society as a whole -- and, Ansary thinks, in spite of growing up in a community where patriarchal attitudes are still strong, are often "more ambitious and directed" than their brothers and more likely to attain higher education and comfortably secure status in American middle-class life.
             The issues are somewhat different but I heard comments about a similar gender gap among Pakistani Americans as well. "My friends that were guys, they might have had a tougher time" navigating between their two worlds than the Pakistani American girls she knew growing up, Maria Janjua believes. "As a female, I don't think I had that much of issue... The guys I think had more of an identity type crisis." She speculates that boys might have been picked on in childhood more cruelly than girls for being different, which could leave both stronger anger and a stronger wish to be like everyone else. As in the wider community, boys are much more likely to rebel against parental controls and institutional rules and school requirements. They are also more likely to fall into gangs or experiment with frowned-upon activities -- drinking alcohol, for example, which is prohibited in the Islamic faith and thus a particular source of conflict in Muslim families.   Girls, Janjua thinks, are under more scrutiny than boys and are more concerned about avoiding conflict and living up to their parents' expectations. "I feel like girls feel that more," she told me, "...especially the first-born." A first-born daughter herself, Janjua, now 30, is a picture-perfect example of that model. The child of a Pakistan-born dentist, she followed him into the profession and, after four years as a dental officer in the Air Force, joined her father's Philadelphia practice. She also thinks girls are less prone than boys to reject the community's or their parents' values. In her view, the girls in her community were not under the same peer pressure to adopt American customs that conflict with theirs, such as drinking, so, in comparison with the boys, "they didn't have as much internal conflict about 'where I belong.'"
             Whether they involve sons or daughters, the cultural rifts in a great many families don't lead to overt conflict but are covered over in silence. In part this may reflect an unspoken understanding on both sides that the gap is not going to be closed. No matter how strongly immigrants parents feel about preserving the culture they brought from their homeland, their children live in a different world with different styles and beliefs. And no matter how much the children want to respect their heritage and avoid defying or disappointing or hurting their parents, their lives are shaped and their identities are formed in that different world. At some level, one can guess that most Pakistani and Afghan Americans are aware of that underlying reality. But not speaking about it can make it less painful.
             "Maintaining  this facade of an identity that is safe gives comfort to the older generation," Wajahat Ali explained -- a point I heard from many others as well. "They kind of secretly know" that their children believe and act differently, he added, "but they don't want to know.... You'll never ever ever ever hear a mother say, 'Oh yeah, my girl's dating someone.' Never happen. Never happen. Even though she could be here dating with her boyfriend right now, you could go to her and say 'Hey, I saw her with her boyfriend,' 'Oh, nonononono, what are you talking about? My girl doesn't do that. They were just talking about business.'" Lifting that curtain of silence will happen but it will take a long time, Ali thinks. "Slowly but surely there will be a new space created which is a merger of both worlds, which allows more open space for acknowledgement and communication, but ... not in my lifetime, probably not even in my kids' lifetime. Maybe grandkids...."


"You'll never ever ever ever hear a mother say, 'Oh yeah, my girl's dating someone.' Never happen. Never happen. Even though she could be here dating with her boyfriend right now, you could go to her and say 'Hey, I saw her with her boyfriend,' 'Oh, nonononono, what are you talking about? My girl doesn't do that. They were just talking about business.'"

 -- Wajahat Ali

             American values were not just threatening. Like immigrants all through American history, Pakistanis and Afghans arriving in the United States in the last four decades  have found powerful reasons to feel liberated by their new country's freedoms. With all the abuses and questionable practices of the war-on-terror era, the rule of law was still a vastly stronger principle in America than in the countries they had left. And if America's wide latitude for personal choice made it possible for their sons and daughters to stray from tradition, the same openness also gave them an incomparably greater space for education and self-development.
             For some immigrants, American principles have special value. Maria Janjua's father, for example. The Janjua family are Ahmadiyya Muslims, a minority community that under a 40-year-old Pakistani law is not considered to be Muslim at all and that has been a chronic target of official discrimination and hate crimes -- most notoriously, an attack that killed nearly 100 Ahmadis in two mosques in Lahore in May, 2010. Sami Janjua, whose father's business was burned down by a mob because of his Ahmadiyya affiliation, still thinks of himself as a loyal Pakistani who values his homeland and its culture. But, he said, the religious freedom he found in America makes him ultimately "more proud to be American than to be Pakistani" -- and not just religious freedom alone, but the broader American principle of respecting people no matter what faith or community or nationality they belong to.
            While his daughter was still in the Air Force, Sami Janjua recalled, he and his wife drove with her from her previous base to her new post at Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri. Maria was in uniform, with her captain's bars on her shoulder. When they got to the entrance, Maria was driving. At the gate, she showed her ID card to the enlisted guard, who looked at it, stepped back, and saluted her as she drove past. Sitting next to her in the passenger seat, Sami told me, he suddenly felt his eyes fill with unexpected tears. Here he was, he thought, an immigrant with what would be to American eyes a Middle Eastern face, watching his daughter wearing the same uniform and receiving exactly the same courtesy and respect as any other American officer. As a Pakistani in Pakistan, he was despised and at risk of officially condoned persecution because of his religious belief. As an American, his country's laws and traditions kept him safe. That's what he was thinking about, he said, as Maria drove through the gate: "This nation has provided us an umbrella of protection, freedom of speech, freedom of religion. I was so emotional... I was so proud to be American, and I hope and wish and pray that this nation will keep these good values."

   "It's hard to be making your own rules but I guess I got no choice."

-- "Ozaer," quoted in Fariba Nawa, Out of Bounds   


              For Aitezaz Ahmed, American ideas spoke to something in him before he ever left Pakistan. He grew up "feeling I was an American citizen living in the body of a Pakistani," he explains in Mara Ahmed's film "The Muslims I Know." As a boy he read avidly about the United States, spent hours with a book of photographs of American landscapes, and learned about the American system, "the constitution of the United States, the idea of free speech, the idea of equal rights, the idea of civil liberties. And of course the greater economic opportunities," he went on, but more meaningful was "the whole mindset of this country, the society, the openness, the freedoms, the individuality." Those were things that Ahmed understood even as a boy were missing in Pakistan, then under a military dictatorship that among other repressive policies, promoted religious intolerance. Reading about America in the oppressive climate of his own country, Ahmed reached his decision in his early teens: "this is the country I want to go to."   

             "It's hard to be making your own rules but I guess I got no choice," one of Fariba Nawa's subjects told her in an interview for her college thesis. [4]  
              Hard, but also an inescapable part of becoming American, since the American freedom to make choices means having to choose. It also means, Nawa came to realize, that there is no rulebook, no checklist of prescribed actions and attitudes that determines who someone is. In a diverse society like the United States, she says, "identity is something very fluid and changing," not a factory-made package handed to people but a thing they have to discover for themselves. For Nawa, that is a positive fact: "I feel like we're forced to be individuals, forced to think more. You have to think about who you are. You have to. You're confronted with an identity crisis whether you like it or not and that's a good thing in some ways because you're thinking about who you are, it's not just given to you." Deciding that this or that belief or behavior makes someone "authentically" Afghan is false, she went on. She thinks of herself as Afghan, but by her own definition, not someone else's. "The notion of 'authentic' went out the window," she told me. "There is no such thing. You make up who you are.... Everything evolves. Things change whether we like it or not, and we have to for lack of a better term go with the flow. And that is my identity. It's being able to adapt."
             Adapting, though, is not the same as belonging. Belonging requires answering not just the question "who am I?" but also another one: "who is us?" There can be multiple answers to that question. Many people have no trouble feeling that they belong and can be comfortable in more than one world, without any sense of conflict. The Pakistani American writer Shahan Mufti, who was born in the United States but spent substantial stretches of his 32 years, both in childhood and in adult life, in Pakistan, is an example. "I am 100 percent Pakistani, 100 percent American," Mufti said, repeating a line from his book The Faithful Scribe.[5] "That's not something I just say," he added. "I really feel it." For others, though, belonging to two worlds leaves a chronic feeling of being somehow incomplete in both. In part that may be because the different worlds never meet, so there is never any sense of wholeness. Sabrina Shairzay feels that way. In a recent conversation with her brother, she recalled, they asked each other, "do you consider yourself American, or Afghan, or neither?" Both, she said, gave exactly the opposite of Shahan Mufti's answer: "Both of us kind of feel like neither."
             Even in her quite assimilated and culturally liberal family, Shairzay grew up with the feeling of a dual life. "My sign is Gemini, the sign of the twins," she said. "Both my brother and I are Gemini, and we've always had these two separate lives, the lives we lead in the family and the lives we lead with our friends, and they rarely cross paths." She has always wondered about two things, she went on. "One is what my parents' voices would sound like without an accent. I've never known what they would sound like speaking English without a trace of an accent. And the other one is what would I be like if I'd grown up with American parents." She has also asked the converse question: who might she be if her parents had never left their homeland? "What if we were still in Afghanistan, even through all the wars, or if Afghanistan had never gone through the war and my brother and I had grown up there, what would we be like? Again it's like that split life thing, in an alternate universe if I was really Afghan, and I'll never know what that would be like." 
            Those questions rose to the surface when Shairzay made her first and only trip to Afghanistan in 2005, at the age of 24. "I really thought it would feel like I was coming home," Shairzay said about that trip. Settling where home was might also settle who she was. But it didn't. Instead, it made her feel even more foreign from the Afghan piece of herself. Even her own behavior was unsettling, as when she found herself falling into the traditional Afghan woman's way of not meeting people's eyes while speaking with them.  Involuntarily, or so it seemed, "especially if it was a man talking to me, I'd be looking down. It was so strange how just being there for a few days, it was like 72 hours, I started noticing that.... It was strangest thing, that shift in myself. And it made me think, what if I had grown up here?" But she knows that she cannot answer that question. "I only know what I know, I don't know what they know. You can only imagine what it would be like, but you don't know for sure. So, now here I was... imagining every time I saw a girl who looked my age, that could be me, that could have been me." In a long poem she wrote about her visit, she asks, "Do I belong here?" and answers:

My history is here, but my future is not.
My past is not.  My present is not.

             Elsewhere in the poem she wrote about the sense of having an alternate life that she would never know

My could-have-been is dried away in the tears of the snow-capped mountaintops
My would-have-been is blinded into the rays of the sun dripping over everything and shining in the people’s eyes,
My should-have-been is hiding in the shadows cast from the sky buried in untouched corners.

            In the end, she wrote in still another passage,

I will always be a stranger, without a home, no matter where I am
Here or there.
My home is my heart and nothing more.[6]

             Home does not always have to be a place on the map, however. It can also be heritage, custom, tradition, a way of being that gives a sense of community, of having roots. Adnan Hussain, who was born in Brooklyn but spent several of his mid-teenage years in his family's home province in Pakistan, believes that remaining close to his ancestral identity has been a better choice than growing away from it. Some of the children he knew in the Pakistani immigrant neighborhood where he spent his early childhood have grown up to consider themselves "totally American," Hussein said. For them, Pakistan is just the name of the place where their parents were born, not otherwise connected with their lives. There may be some benefit in that kind of assimilation, he acknowledges. But Hussein, who moved to Maryland with his family while still in elementary school and later studied to be a police officer, feels that preserving his heritage has given his life more meaning than if he abandoned it. Keeping his identity and its traditions and religious faith helps him maintain "respect for family, respect for self," he said, and that respect helps keep him and his family strong in their adopted country.
             If there are those like Sabrina Shairzay, who muses about an alternative self that would be fully Afghan or fully American, or like Adnan Hussein, whose sense of  Pakistani identity remains an important foundation of his life in America, there are also those who cannot imagine themselves as members of any identifiable group, at least not entirely. Mara Ahmed is one of those. While her husband was growing up in Pakistan feeling like an American citizen who happened to be born in the wrong place, Ahmed spent most of her childhood in Belgium, where her father was a diplomat posted in the Pakistani embassy in Brussels. She was in her teens when her family moved back to Pakistan, finished high school and university there, and then married and moved to the United States with her husband, who was doing his medical residency in Connecticut. Their life in America has been comfortable and rewarding; she has had success in her first career as a financial analyst and then as an artist; they and their children are thoroughly integrated in American life. But through all that Ahmed has never felt that she was an undivided insider either as an American or a Pakistani or anything else.
           "I never belong anywhere," she told me. A Belgian friend, she recalled, once told her about his family's roots in Antwerp and how knowing their origins and using the local dialect and expressions at family dinners made him feel at home, that he was where he belongs. "I said to him, 'I never feel like that,'" Ahmed said. "I don't know if it's good or bad, but I actually never ever feel like that. In Pakistan I always felt like an outsider because I had grown up in Belgium and so I was different from the other kids. In Belgium I was an outsider because I was originally from Pakistan, I was a Muslim, I looked a little bit different. In the U.S., again I never quite belong anywhere." But, she reflected, that may mean America is actually the right place for her, because in a country where so many different cultures meet and jostle, there are more and more people like her who are outside the boundaries of a particular identity.
           Thinking about her words, it occurred to me that perhaps the place where Mara Ahmed can be an insider is not a country or a tribe but the future. There, as the mixing of peoples continues, identities will increasingly have multiple strands, not just one, and will be shaped less by automatic inheritance and more by personal choice -- each person's attempt, as Murtaza Pardais put it, to "embrace the good and leave the bad" from the different parts of their heritage.
            More than any other country on earth, America has been moving toward that future almost since its founding, recreating its own identity generation after generation. As Pakistani and Afghan Americans find their path to who they and their children will become in their new country, they will also demonstrate yet again that "Who am I?" and "Who is us?" are not just questions for Pakistanis or Afghans or Muslim Americans or the latest immigrants to start that journey. They are and always have been questions for all Americans -- with answers that are never fixed, always changing, always new.

*        *        *

[1] Helena Zeweri, "Defining Afghanness: Performing and Claiming Afghan Identity Within the New York Diaspora," unpublished master's thesis, Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, New York University,  April, 2010,  p. 47


[2] Sunaina Marr Maira, Missing: Youth, Citizenship, and Empire after 9/11, Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2009, p. 9, 39, 88


[3] Fariba Nawa, Out of Bounds: Afghan Couples in the United States -- A Study of Shifting Gender and Identity, Originally published 1996, Hampshire College, Amherst, Massachusetts; republished 2001 by Aftaabzad Publications, San Francisco; p. 29, 32-33, 42. Available online at


[4]Nawa, Out of Bounds, p. 28

[5] Shahan Mufti, The Faithful Scribe: A Story of Islam, Pakistan, Family and War. Other Press, New York: 2013

[6] From "Amongst familiar strangers…" © 2005, Sabrina Shairzay. Quoted by permission. For the full text of the poem, see Appendix 1.