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Kahn | Khan

By Mireya C. Arango
By Minahil A. Khan, Contributing Writer

A woman in a field of fruit, the gorgeous green vines tangled around your blistered brown feet, the bright purple of the falsa fruit almost as luminous as the sun beating down on your neck. You reach your arm up, lifting the weight of it agonizingly slowly, place one palm against your sticky forehead, feel the red hot warmth emanating.

You turn towards the well, the other women already there, dip your bucket in, drink, take scoops of water and splash your burning face. You put it back in the well, drink again.

“Ah! Now you’ve done it, Aasia. Yar, she ruined it!”

You: “What? What did I do?”

Another jumps in: “You mean you didn’t do it on purpose? Yeah, right. You dirty Christian. You’ve ruined the water for us all now. Contaminated it.”

The confrontation escalates. They want to hurt you.

They know the way to hurt a Christian in this country: You are accused of blasphemy, accused of insulting Prophet Muhammad (PBUH).

A mob comes to your home. They beat you. They take you to the police.

You are convicted. The minimum sentence is the death penalty.

You appeal. You are in jail for nine years, often in solitary. You appeal again.


“Come on, I really want to get on the road. I want a few hours with Sumaira before her flight tonight.”

“Fine, fine.” You shove the rest of the naan in your mouth and see the nearly full cup of coffee out of the corner of your eye. “Argh. Rukhsana! Can you put my coffee in a to-go cup please?”

The maid brings it to you, you sip it slowly. It is something to do while your wife gives parting hugs to loved ones. You awkwardly shake their hands goodbye, and the little one hugs your leg. Your laugh booms out in an involuntary response and he leaps off your shiny black boot; he salutes you, you, the retired General in the army of a country with decades of military coups in its (recent) history.

On the motorway with your wife, you approach Sheikhupura Interchange on your way back from Lahore — curiously, it is blocked off. You decide a scenic route is alright with you, and get on the local roads. By the time you notice the raging mob surrounding your inappropriately, conspicuously lavish Black jeep, it is too late to turn around.

In a rush to reach home this morning, you did not check the newspaper: After nine years, the assassination of a governor and federal minister who dared speak out in her defense, and a back and forth in the courts as well as the streets, Aasia Bibi’s conviction has been overturned by the Supreme Court.

Riots are overtaking the nation.


“Sumaira, we’re hiding out for now, but I don’t think we’ll make it before your flight tonight.”

“Don’t worry about us — just stay safe please.” Hanging up the phone, you turn to update your husband on the situation, to discuss the possible cancellation of your flight home to New York.

He is on the phone with your daughter: “I know, it’s just horrible… Yes, yes it is terrible, but it’s not hopeless, you can do something about it. You’re already doing something by checking in with your friends, by having gone to — Don’t cry, my dear.”

Sitting on a step in the tiny crook between two walls, she is crying. She is me, you are finally at me, me, sitting on a step in the tiny space between two stores, outside, facing the Smith Campus Center, you, meaning me, sobbing to my father on the phone, embarrassed of my tears, embarrassed because it is not my tragedy to cry over, because you, me, a Muslim, kills Jews all the time, and now, you, me, I am crying over the death of 11 Jews, when you, me, we often kill many more Jews and they often kill us.

Me, I am not allowed to be upset about this, me, who went to Israel with a passport that says: Recognized in all countries of the world except Israel, to see it for myself, to understand why the Muslims of my native Pakistan hate and fear the Jews of my adopted New York, why the Jews of my adopted New York hate and fear the Muslims of my native Pakistan.

You have reached me, me, who started crying at the vigil at Hillel, me, who cannot understand why white nationalists here are killing Jewish and Black and Transgender people, me, who cannot comprehend why Sunnis there are killing Christians and Ahmadis and countless other minorities, me, who does not want to treat the tragedy that is Pittsburgh as anything other than just that. Me, who wants to name it, to say it: ANTI-SEMITISM.

You, me: losing faith in this country and her former country and the world, too, I guess.

You, me: who despite the hopelessness, insists on allyship, persisting.



Whenever I give my name for a reservation, or my coffee order at a Starbucks, the Khan is mistaken for Kahn. The latter is the Jewish iteration, the former the Muslim. I’ve always taken this to mean more than the simple linguistic coincidence it probably is, made it into a kind of (cheesy) testimony to how similar we all really are.

I wanted, in this piece, to put you in the place of someone on the other side of the world, to then jump the degrees of separation: From Aasia Bibi, to my uncle, to my mother, to me — another Harvard student, who you are connected to in reading this piece, in attending this institution.

My primary intent is not to convey the pervasiveness of religious persecution, no. This piece is not about us all being Abraham’s children, either — I recognize, emphasize, that the persecution of Jewish peoples is uniquely acute, feels uniquely painful, even to me.

I think this is my attempt to reckon with whatever it is that is happening right now, to connect us all to it, to emphasize our complicity in our connection to it, maybe. To complicate the below associations:

Kahn | Khan

Jewish | Muslim

Israel | Palestine

New York | Pakistan

—Contributing writer Minahil A. Khan’s column, “Unlearning, Decolonizing,” navigates the landscape of identity in her journey as a Brown Muslim immigrant woman decolonizing her psyche. Through personal narrative, it will explore the vacillation between self-love and self-hate, relationships with one’s family and cultural as well as religious communities, and the homeland, both imagined and lived.

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