unfolding the east/west myth

From the dusty streets of pakistan to the sidewalk cafes of montreal, sikeena karmali searches for place & identity

October 21st, 2001. Peshawar, Pakistan. The Americans are bombing Afghanistan. I am here on a human rights mission, trying to meet with recently arrived Afghan refugees in an attempt to ascertain what is going on in Afghanistan.

I meet with a group of women who have recently crossed the mountain pass from Afghanistan into Peshawar. I don't officially "interview" them because I know that they will put on a performance for me and for the benefit of the international community. Instead I invite them to tea and we chat, sharing confidences. I divulge to them the details of the life that I know they imagine for me, a South Asian Muslim woman, just like them, but living in the "West."

When they speak, I take notes. I have a driver and a car waiting outside, while they will walk the blistering street to God alone knows where. My cell phone rings intermittently, interrupting our conversations. We wear the same clothes, them and me. Mine are new, bright, colour-coordinated, just bought a couple of days ago in Islamabad. Theirs are old, dusty, tattered, randomly matched. Their feet are bare, as are mine while we sit on cushions strewn across the cool stone floor, but I have left chappals (slippers) at the door, while they will tread the dusty streets unshod.

Sometimes I tell lies to the people I meet here. I tell them that I am married and have two children, just to win their trust that, yes, I am just like them. An unmarried woman in this world is an aberration. When I am really feeling brave, not the case on this visit to Pakistan, I tell them the truth: that I am thirty years old and not married. This is usually shocking. It is often met by silence. Occasionally a pitying look or a knowing laugh breaks the silence. It is always followed by a question. "Why not?"

Indeed, why not? Why have I chosen this lifestyle? Who would I be if I had been born here? If my ancestors had not been shipped across the Indian Ocean to East Africa? Who would I be if I had lived the life prescribed for me? If I had married dutifully in my early twenties and lived in Canada, a more luxurious variation of this wife and mother identity than I see before me in these women? Certainly I would not be here now, at this tragic moment in history.

The question of identity is one that has plagued me now for decades. The questions of East-West, of tradition and modernity, of an Islam that teaches a spirit of humanity and a world that chooses to equate it with the politics of angry radicalism, these questions sit close to my heart, they affect the way I choose to live my life.

I was born in Africa, to Indian Gujarati parents who practise an Islam that merges itself with aspects of Hindu and Buddhist mysticism. I carry a Canadian passport. I live in a world that nourished, created, allowed, survived and now perpetuates the pandemonium that the Western world remembers as September 11th. I, however, see the same pandemonium of terror in the violence perpetuated by the Western world in Iraq, in the Sudan, in Bosnia, in Rwanda, in Kashmir, in Palestine and in twenty years of Afghan civil war.

I work in that diverse geo-political community called the Muslim world, in the field of "development." My weapons are education and women's rights. I know I cannot quite save the world, but maybe I can integrate these values where they are needed. I find people either pity or admire me for my "service." Their notion of a one-way channel where I generously disperse the fruits of my Western privilege to the underprivileged East infuriates me. It is utterly false. The East gives to me a return, a meaning, a faith, a sense of satisfaction and resonance that is immeasurable.

I was not consciously aware of choosing this life. I just followed the things that made my heart skip. But it is a life of upheaval, of constant journeys, of extremes, of peripheries. There is no clean, clear black and white. I am always looking backwards and forwards, East and West, simultaneously.

On the plane, in the midst of America's war, going to Pakistan. I am a woman of South Asian genes, but Westernized, and functioning with a largely American-informed language of social interaction, wearing jeans, moving my body so that it possesses the space around it. I am traveling alone, unlike the more traditional Pakistani women around me, who travel in community, or at least in pairs. The language of their body is not "passive" or "weak," contrary to popular, Western, opinion. Rather, the body surrenders to the space it inhabits. It does not assert its presence by interjecting itself into the existing rhythm of space around it. Instead the body slides into the existing equation, molds itself to fit.

There is no possession of space. It is shared. Women lie over each other, resting heads and necks on neighbouring shoulders and laps, garments stray outside the boundaries of the allocated seat, children are sprawled across the aisles, voices are not confined but permeate.

The self is the orienting principle of the West, perhaps even of modernity as a whole. All questions begin with the self; it is the source of highest responsibility. All things, community, the nation, religion, spirituality, even God, are subordinated to the individual, which is the highest form of good. If we take a cursory glance at contemporary Western media, we find that the self is the supreme subject of conversationImy mind, my body, my home, my fashion, my spirit. There seems to be an earnest endeavourin talk shows like "Oprah" and sitcoms like "Friends," in the proliferation of lifestyle coaches, personal trainers and nutritionists, in regular visits to the shrink-to confront, solve and thereby perfect the individual.

Every sense of knowing seems to be born from and functions at the level of the individual. Each person is free to create and recreate his or her own self. "I choose to be this."

The East, with the heavy hand of tradition, functions through consensus. Loyalties and duties are ascriptive. Community and not self is the orienting principle. The individual, the nation, religion, spirituality and yes, here too, God is subordinated to the greater good, the higher will of the community, the people. If we even peek at the current social afflictions of the East, and consequently at the rocking scene of world politics, we find communities fighting each other, sacrificing the individual, sacrificing the ethics of a good God, using religion as their rallying cry.

People perpetuate the traditions into which they have been born, they have a sense of history, perhaps are even circumscribed by it. "This is what I was born into, I come from this."

So these notions of separation and difference between the worlds of East and West are real. If we accept such a duality, then where does it lie? When did this splitting apart take place? Is it a question of history? Or of affinity? Mind or spirit? Recognizing the difference is one thing, but acknowledging a division is another altogether. If we accept a divided world, then we must also consider a divided self. It is here that I find difficulty. At this juncture I find myself rejecting the division of East and West. Here the thought stops and will not flow. I know that I am whole, integrated. Made up of many parts, yes, mind, body, soul tissue, muscle, blood, bones. The totality, however, is one being.

On the plane from Pakistan, back to London and then Canada, I am now a South Asian woman, Muslim and probably Pakistani. Wholly so, melting in with the other women, wearing their clothes, moving with their gestures. Yet inside, my thoughts, my private sphere, are my own. I am thinking about my apartment in Montral, the caf I like to visit, the ring I have bought for my mother No one can see these thoughts. I am to them what I choose to show them of my self, a woman like any other. The outer world is confined, prescribed even, but my inner world is free for me to invent as I wish. There is no need to announce myself.

Is it true then that we, each of us, have in us the ability for East and for West? Perhaps each world lives inside of us and we draw it out according to our nature, our affinity, our constitution and our environment. Choosing for myself a little East here and a little West there as I see fit, integrating them in the wholeness, the union that is my being.

They are not spaces, these worlds. Yes, each of East and West prevails in a specific geographic location, but East also lives in the West and West in the East. Each is a way of being in the world. The individual is as present in the East as the community is present in the West. Are both perhaps components of the same? One world, divided, as is a set of twins. Defining itself in difference to the other, but also looking to the other, to learn, to grow, to understand itself. East in West and West in East.

Sikeena Karmali is a freelance writer and works in the fields of human rights and international development. You can contact her at sikeenakarmali@yahoo.co.uk

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