If I was white, I would be able to breathe. It would come easy, absent of so much stress and so much weight. I would live in blissful ignorance, forever unaware of the minutiae that occupy my life today.
I imagine I would feel light. Because if I was white, I would be granted the right to be an individual. A daughter, intent on making my parents proud. A big sister, both cheerleader and annoyance to my three younger siblings. A writer, always getting started on her pieces too late. A Harvard student and Government concentrator, thinking about law school.
Before I arrived at Harvard, my parents warned me not to come home too liberal. I laughed it off, but there was some truth behind the joke—at one point this school was literally known as the “Kremlin on the Charles.” So naturally, I was ready for an institution where every other student identified as a communist, where conversations were centered around how to overthrow the bourgeoisie, and where Karl Marx could be spotted hiding behind the John Harvard statue.
(Okay, so maybe not that last one. But you get my point.)
Mogadishu is new, yet ancient. Continuously inhabited since 200 B.C.E., it is the tenth oldest city in all of Northern Africa. Today, it is the capital of Somalia. Set in the cradle of the Indian Ocean, it is a coastal city marked by prominent minarets and large mosques that accommodate thousands of worshippers. The city is loud and bustling, filled with universities and stadiums, markets and ports. Over one million people call it home.
This past Saturday, Mogadishu was wracked with a massive truck bomb that detonated in the district of Hodan. The bomb killed more than 300 people, and injured over 500 others. That’s far more than the death toll of attacks in Boston, Fort Hood, San Bernandino, Quebec, Paris, London, Manchester, and Barcelona combined. Even now, scores remain missing. The bomb caused a hotel to collapse, demolished nearby buildings, and crushed vehicles that were parked on the street. It was followed by the sirens of ambulances, international pleas for help, and a death toll that kept on rising. It was met with several perfunctory news articles, a smattering of tweets, and a hailstorm of images that were difficult to look at.
When I think of Pakistan, the dust suffocates my memory. I remember how it rose up in the air, how it gathered in the streets. I remember how it stuck to the clothes of those shouting on the sides of the road, how it settled in the lines of my grandfather’s tombstone. I remember how my grandmother poured water over that stone and dirt—love, present even a decade after his passing.
When I think of Pakistan, the noise rises up too, all at once. I remember the rhythm of easy, rounded vowels hanging in lucid sunlight, as chai was poured and platters full of food were passed around. I remember the clamoring of rickshaws and shopkeepers in the bustling streets of Lahore. I remember the full houses of my aunts and uncles, the chaos of a seemingly never ending stream of family members. I remember my churiyan [bangles], purple and gold and jangling on my wrists.
My freshman year, I lived in a triple. My roommates were not like me. One of them is famous for her warmth and hospitality—we all call her “mom.” She’s Muslim, ethnically Sudanese, and from Alabama. The other is a passionate libertarian and one of the most articulate people I know. She’s Catholic, ethnically Romanian, and from Kansas. And then me—sarcastic and excellent at Netflix bingeing. I am Muslim, ethnically Pakistani, and from Baltimore.
Our room was crowded, but we found enough space for each of us, whether that meant making time for a college football game, displaying the Constitution on the wall, or playing a Kanye album on repeat. Over the course of the year, I got used to the rhythm of Arabic every night and hour long “libertarian rants” almost as often. I got used to 2 a.m. conversations where we learned more about each other. We compared our mother tongues of Arabic, Romanian, and Urdu to find commonalities—some of which, like the word for “enemy,” proved helpful when we were around others. We went to Harvard-Yale together, and later in the month, attended the Harvard Islamic Society’s Fall Dinner.