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Teaching as a Pakistani American Muslim Feminist: Ten, Twenty Years On

I’m often the outsider-insider and sometimes a bridge.

Editors’ Note: In her introduction to the Fall 2011 issue of the Asian American Literary Review, coeditor Rajini Srikanth writes of how quickly we can forget our communities’ milestone moments of political awakening. Commemorating the 10th anniversary of September 11, that issue of AALR, edited by Srikanth and Parag Rajendra Khandhar, attempted to fill in the gaps of official acts of mourning. The testimony, dialogue, essays, and art brought alive the struggles and resistance of Muslim, SWANA, and South Asian communities in the days, months, and years after September 11.

We asked a number of contributors to the Fall 2011 issue of AALR to return to their writing and speak into the space of the past 10 years. The following essay by Samina Najmi is part of that series within the Living in Echo notebook. You can read Samina’s original piece from 2011 further down the page.

My first thought when I was invited to revisit the essay I wrote for the Asian American Literary Review’s 9/11 commemorative issue ten years ago was that I couldn’t. It had been the kind of essay you write with your whole body, which leaves you limp, your energy sapped for a long while.

My second thought was that I must.

Lately, I keep returning to the idea that all linearity is circularity in disguise—a shape that becomes visible only when we zoom out through the lens of time. To read the essay I wrote on the eve of the tenth anniversary of 9/11 is to realize that not only are our apparently linear trajectories circular, but those circles are superimposed upon other circles. Whatever progression we may see in history, its material reality is layered and textured.

Just as it was impossible for me to speak of the decade since 9/11 without circling back to Afghanistan and Iraq on the one hand and Pakistan and India on the other, today my thoughts are those of both an American and a South Asian. Twenty years of the United States in Afghanistan—South Asian neighbor of Pakistan, with 1,640 miles of shared border and less than 300 miles of road between Kabul and Islamabad. Twenty years of an effete and apathetic presence at best, distracted by the more lucrative aggression on Iraq, and no accounting for all the Afghan lives lost over the course of the occupation. Twenty years, to end as abruptly as empires do when they must accept defeat. No vision, no exit strategy that takes full responsibility for those left behind. No acknowledgement that most would have preferred to stay, had America’s sudden departure not made them unsafe. So reminiscent of the British, who, when forced out of their 200-year plundering spree of the Indian subcontinent in 1947, made their escape in five swift weeks. Then they sat back and watched, as if on a screen, the tumult of the largest mass migration in human history, the sectarian violence, the trauma of brown peoples that subsequent generations have inherited. Our communal memory of Partition demands that we work through its political and psychic legacies wherever we find ourselves on the globe today. 

And what of South Asia now, as Afghanistan reels from President Biden’s arbitrary withdrawal date of August 31? Already thousands have become refugees, walking across the border into northwest Pakistan, as they did after the Soviet occupation of 1979. Then throughout the eighties, the Reagan administration supported the theocratic Mujahideen with the help of Pakistan’s General Zia-ul-Haq, under whose orthodox vision of Sunni Islam I came of age. General Zia and I left Pakistan in August 1988, within days of each other: I, for graduate school in the United States, and he, violently, in the plane crash that killed him. He may have nurtured the Taliban originally, but in an ironic circularity of events, current Prime Minister Imran Khan’s elected government also aligns itself with the Taliban, prompting his critics to nickname him “Taliban Khan,” regardless of his history as an Oxford-educated cricketer. Not only does Khan seek a workable relationship with the Taliban, which is understandable given Pakistan’s own vulnerability to Taliban violence, but his government aims for “strategic depth” in Afghanistan in the name of national security—a mini-imperialist venture in its own right. Meanwhile Prime Minister Narendra Modi has intervened in India’s democratic and pluralistic trajectory with a potent mix of legislation and demagoguery. His assiduous efforts to disenfranchise Muslims and other vulnerable communities in India have jeopardized their very safety in India. 

And what of South Asian Americans ten years on? Hate crimes against Muslims and Sikhs never ceased. Besides the horrific 2012 massacre at the gurdwara in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, fatal attacks on Sikh elders, in particular, have been widespread. In fact, they have happened right here in Fresno, in California’s San Joaquin Valley, home to some 35,000 Sikh Americans. As in the rest of the country, so in Fresno the violence has escalated since election year 2016. It began with the New Year’s Day murder of 68-year-old Gurcharan Singh Gill, who was not even wearing a turban at the time. Other attacks, nonfatal but terrorizing nonetheless, have continued to occur throughout the United States, prompting some Sikh Americans to urge their elders not to go out on walks.

Today we South Asian Americans hold our breaths against renewed backlash as the twentieth anniversary of 9/11 approaches. Valarie Kaur’s film Divided We Fall appears on my syllabus again, in a graduate seminar on the literature of the San Joaquin Valley. This time it’s assigned along with her book, See No Stranger: A Memoir and Manifesto of Revolutionary Love. The Punjabi Sikh lawyer and civil rights activist, with deep roots in this patch of earth where I have made my life as a Pakistani American Muslim feminist professor, is also deeply invested in doing what she can to mitigate the desperation of Afghan people in the present moment. I share the links she posts on Facebook of reliable places to donate, petitions to sign. I have assigned Kaur’s work on our September calendar because I know that both my students and I will need it in this heavy anniversary month.  

My ambivalence about group affiliations, so painfully personal during the Mumbai terror attacks of November 2008, remains. If anything, I find group identities more entrenched the world over. But I claim my place in the American landscape, apocalyptic as it sometimes appears, literally ablaze with wildfires in the West. I’m often the outsider-insider and sometimes a bridge. But always I am shaped and reshaped by my students, with whom my two children have now caught up in age. These young people are diverse in racial background—many of them Latinx, others Armenian, Hmong, Punjabi, and Yemeni—and have a tacit grasp of the portability of collective trauma. They don’t need to be taught the porousness of the line between the local and the global, a lesson brought so brutally home by the coronavirus pandemic. Others come from rural spaces outside Fresno, from families of farmworkers as well as farm owners. Many are churchgoing Christians and right-leaning. Inasmuch as I believe in my three feet of influence, I am invested in them all. With my students, those in the classroom and those who have ventured far beyond it but stayed in touch, I will think through and feel through the 20th anniversary of 9/11, as I have every deeply felt, national and global event in the past 20 years. Fresno State affords me the space to address such moments in course offerings like Literature of the U.S.–Iraq Wars, but any American literature course opens up the conversation. The night of November 8, 2016, when Donald Trump won the U.S. presidential election, is a case in point. While a colleague and I sat in front of her television, hands clapped over our mouths in disbelief, an email from an undergraduate student in my Multiethnic U.S. Literature class threw me the lifeline I so desperately needed that night. Sometimes when hope ebbs, I read that email again.

I wear work boots and jeans. I want to show the world around me that a man can wear boots and love literature. A man can love Johnny Cash’s music while supporting progressive agendas. I know there are social assumptions made about me, about people who look like me. In certain ways, I am cut from the same cloth as many of the people who’ve potentially elected Trump to the White House, with regard to financial, social, and racial station. I’m embarrassed. . . .

I believe that you teach a very important class, especially here in the Central Valley. This is my home. I’ve grown up here, and I want the best for the area. . . . 

Thank you for making our country a better place in which to make a life.

In happy circularity, this young man is now a much-loved teacher at a high school just outside Fresno from which he himself graduated, doing the daily work of making this Valley and this country “a better place in which to make a life.”     

As I write this, a suicide bomber affiliated with ISIS-K has blown up part of Kabul Airport in the midst of the chaotic evacuations. Thirteen U.S. military personnel are dead, and over 150 Afghans have lost their lives in these closing days of America’s bipartisan imperialist venture in their country, fueled as it was by vengeance for the 9/11 attacks. President Biden has promised the terrorists: “We will not forgive. We will not forget. We will hunt you down and make you pay,” the string of monosyllables stressed for chilling emphasis. His words reverberate back in time, echoing those of President George W. Bush in 2001, and I wonder what fresh cycle of violence we may see ten, twenty years from now.

The intertwining of our mutual histories has never been more sharply delineated than in this historical moment. Of all the wrenching scenes from Afghanistan flashing across our screens, the most indelible are those of a U.S. Air Force plane, a C-17, determined to take off almost as soon as it lands, on August 16. The aircraft doesn’t even linger long enough to unload its cargo, much less to evacuate anyone. Scores of people cling to it in desperation. I pause the video before I can see what happens next. But later my heart breaks to hear of a youth named Zaki Anwari among the dead. A handsome 19-year-old, the same age as my son, Cyrus, both of them born within months of the 9/11 attacks and America’s subsequent bombing of Afghanistan. In the images I see of him, Zaki has a slender frame like Cyrus’s. The two appear similar enough in phenotype to look like cousins—even sharing a love of soccer. In fact, Zaki was a soccer star, having played for Afghanistan’s national youth soccer team as a 16-year-old. That same Monday, August 16, my son boarded a plane from Fresno airport, on his way to Houston to begin his sophomore year of college. An ambition so mundane, yet so cruelly out of reach for another mother’s son in Kabul.   

The details of Zaki Anwari’s death are still unclear—whether he was among those who fell as the C-17 took off, or if his were the bodily remains found in the wheel well when the plane landed in Doha. But a youth resembling my son is dead, and those details seem irrelevant. 

What terrifying vision of the future compels a gifted young adult, beloved of his family, to seek such impossible escape? What hope in America?

Striking images layer our interconnected histories, bend the linear into the shape of a circle. Few are as salient, as staggering, or as tragic as human beings falling out of the sky.

Samina Najmi
August 31, 2021
Fresno, California

The following essay by Samina Najmi was originally published in the Fall 2011 issue of the Asian American Literary Review, dedicated to commemorating the 10th anniversary of September 11.

Teaching as a Pakistani American Muslim Feminist

I am not given to retrospectives. At best, I have a tenuous truce with memory and history. But the tenth anniversary of 9/11 calls for an account of some kind—or perhaps accountability of some kind—and that narrative can only be personal. 

Two months after September 11, 2001, I spoke of being robbed of my right to grieve, of my feelings of homelessness in the backlash against the likes of me, a Muslim-bred Pakistani woman who called the U.S. home. With the kind of visceral empathy that can sustain itself only in the moment, I realized then what it must be like to be black in America and live with the daily reality of being disowned by your own country. I spoke of my fears of raising a biracial daughter in such a climate.

Today my concern is for my 11-year-old daughter and my 9-year-old son, as well as for my “Blackistani” nephew (a term coined by my brother-in-law) and my part-Korean niece, both just toddlers. I have wondered at my choice of a recognizably Muslim middle name for my son, born five months after the 9/11 attacks. I have tried to temper my daughter’s loving identification with all things Pakistani. Though I keep my children politically informed, I have not prioritized the teaching of Urdu. None of this comes from mindless assimilation. It reflects the simple fact of our constricting choices as parents of Pakistani American children in the decade after 9/11. 

Shortly after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, I scooped up my two children and left indefinitely for Karachi, Pakistan. After five months there I returned to Massachusetts, having realized two things. First: that I, who held few texts sacred, trusted the U.S. Constitution; that governments might come and go, and public opinion might swing this way and that, but ultimately the Constitution would hold America accountable. And second: that my students wanted me back. The first conviction impels me to insist on my place in America, to claim “Muslim womanhood” as a political identity. And this claim in turn informs my identity as a teacher, as I am always aware of modeling an alternative narrative of Muslim women for my students. 

My evolving sense of myself as a post-9/11 Pakistani American Muslim feminist professor has had to attenuate to the culture-shock of moving from blue to red zone within the U.S. Five years ago, when I left Massachusetts to teach at a state university in California’s agricultural San Joaquin Valley, I found myself on a heterogeneous campus with students who do not come from privilege and who tend to espouse politically conservative values. Precisely because of their limited options, many enlist in the military and many others have family and friends serving in Afghanistan and Iraq. Suddenly, with the appearance of the occasional student who attends class in fatigues, or the student whose fiancé is killed in Afghanistan a few weeks before graduation, it has become impossible for me to think of the U.S. military as implacably “other.” These young people, whatever they may end up doing in Pakistan, Afghanistan, or Iraq, shape me within the walls of the classroom, as I shape them. So one lesson I have learned as a teacher in the years since 9/11 has been the absolute necessity of distinguishing between the architects of war and the pawns of war. That is to say, my political identity as a Pakistani American Muslim must mesh with the pedagogical imperatives that define me because it is primarily as a teacher that I inhabit the post-9/11 landscape of America. 

Two months after September 11, 2001, I spoke of being robbed of my right to grieve, of my feelings of homelessness in the backlash against the likes of me, a Muslim-bred Pakistani woman who called the U.S. home.

As a Pakistani American Muslim, I am marked by specific political events since the invasion of Iraq. One came on the heels of the hopeful election of President Barack Obama. Before he had even taken office, his silence as President elect while Israeli attacks killed some 1,400 Palestinians in Gaza over the course of three weeks beginning in December 2008 indicated that little was going to change in the increasing polarization of the world as Muslim and not. Since then, I find myself remarkably free of partisan loyalty. Such freedom necessitates greater vigilance. It also enables a sincerer discursive rapport with my more conservative students. So I do not regret the disillusionment. Harder to accept, though unsurprising, is the fact that as a direct consequence of the September 11 attacks, Pakistan itself has become an official war zone. An unidentifiable number of Pakistanis, well in the thousands, have been killed since Pakistan launched its war on terror as a U.S. ally. Of these casualties, the vast majority have been civilians—a fact seldom acknowledged by U.S. officials and media, who continue to berate the Pakistani government for not doing enough. In July 2007, I was in Karachi during the government’s siege and subsequent storming of Lal Masjid (Red Mosque) in Islamabad, which left 108 people dead, mostly young students presumed to be potential Jihadists. Even militants can’t be essentialized, as there are diverse militant groups operating within Pakistan, with very different agendas. As one childhood friend puts it, “We used to wonder how Palestinians and Israelis could carry on their lives in the midst of so much violence; now we are living it ourselves.” Apart from the U.S. military “theater” in the northwest, other regions of Pakistan, riddled by inequities, internal strife, and failed leadership, have become sites of unpredictable explosions and shootings, both targeted and random. Among them, my own hometown on the Indian Ocean: the megapolis of Karachi. 

Karachi, where I grew up. Site of my mundane joys and trepidations as a child, my predictable teenage rebellions. Though my Indian cousins teased that Karachi couldn’t compare with Mumbai across the waters, for us Karachiites its potential endured and endeared. Sprawling city of over sixteen million, where, it was said, nobody could die of hunger. Turbulent refuge of the displaced, the ambitious, the hopeless, from all over South Asia. Karachi the resilient, capable of bouncing back from natural disasters and the many more man-made disasters inflicted upon it. Karachi, coastal city of lights and boundless horizons. 

It was from Karachi, from my hometown, that ten young men sailed to Mumbai on November 26, 2008. 

9/11 and 26/11

They sailed from Karachi—ten young men, almost all of them from villages in Punjab, this side of the border. Ten dispensable and deadly young men who found purpose in Lashkar-e-Tayyaba, the Army of the Pious, which armed them to the hilt and assigned them the one, simple mission of killing as many people as possible in Mumbai. Over the next sixty hours, the ghastly details flashed across the world. What at first seemed like the targeting of Western and well-to-do tourists at the Oberoi and the Taj Mahal hotels turned out to be indiscriminate butchery—in boat, taxi, train station, café; in a movie theater, a Jewish center, and even a hospital. The savagery knew no religious, racial, or class bounds. Except one: they spared a Turkish Muslim couple at the Oberoi Hotel, using them as scouts. Their rampage left some 170 dead and hundreds injured. 

I did not know any of the victims personally or anyone living in Mumbai; my Indian relatives were safe in other towns. But here in the San Joaquin Valley, the horror paralyzes me. While I listen gratefully to Vijay Prashad’s voice on NPR cautioning against rash rhetoric that conflates the Mumbai massacre with the September 11 attacks,2 the seven years collapse and I cannot keep the two events separate myself. It is the same bodily reaction— hands, feet, and face ice cold as though drained of blood, and stomach in mutiny. It is the same emotional reaction, that indistinguishable swirl of bewilderment, fear and outrage, grief and guilt. It is the same intellectual freeze that renders me incapable of processing the event in coherent political terms. But in human terms, I respond to the massacre as we humans often do: powerless in the face of it, I am capable only of despair. 

Among the many things that troubled me was the question of my group affiliation. The ten terrorists were Jihadists, as the hijackers of 9/11 were. But they were also Pakistani, every last one of them. And they had sailed from Karachi. Now that I had embraced “Muslim” as a political identity, what was I to do with this? How to process the carnage and the Pakistan government’s defensiveness about it? How to accept the probable complicity of powerful individuals with those who had masterminded an attack so sophisticated, technologically savvy, and multipronged? Later, when I hear cell phone recordings of directions articulated in urbane Urdu, in a gentle, guiding voice—directions to kill—I understand that evil is indeed banal and homey. 

I hold on to fragments: the Turkish couple, spared but held hostage by the terrorists, dare to put their hands together in prayer and recite Surah Fateha, the Muslim prayer for the dead, for the non-Muslims shot before their eyes. The killers don’t know how to react to that, and look away. And when nine out of ten terrorists are themselves killed, Muslim clerics in Mumbai refuse them a place in their cemeteries. Stories emerge of courage, duty, and sacrifice: the hotel manager and staff who refused to abandon the guests, a chef who sacrificed his life rather than run home to his wife and son, three blocks away, while he had the chance. 

In the end, the way out of despair and onto some new plane of consciousness is personal. My mother, calling from Karachi, says that Karachi and Mumbai are twin cities—Mumbai being everything Karachi might have been with greater political stability and less religion. She tells me that when Mumbai hurts, as it has before, Karachiites feel the pain. I don’t know if many Karachiites feel this way, but I need to clutch at her words. Eventually, I reach out to a friend of many years in Massachusetts. Mumbai is her city of birth and remains her spiritual home. They sailed from my hometown to hers. Across the miles, we sorrow together, and fear and hope together for our ancestral South Asia. 

This semester I have finally braved the task of teaching a course that strikes me terribly close to the bone—a course on South Asian American women writers and filmmakers, Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, and Parsi. It is a course that demands the confronting of personal and collective histories, from the wrenching divisions of Partition to our fumblings toward a more holistic South Asian American identity in the landscape of post-9/11 America. You might say that through my students, I have taken a long and circular path back to South Asia, not only as a Pakistani American Muslim woman but also as a South Asian American. Looking back, I see that the September 11 attacks and subsequent—indeed, consequent—events of the past ten years have impelled and necessitated this trajectory. 

With astonishing curricular appropriateness, a week before classes end we learn that Osama bin Laden has been killed by U.S. special security forces in Abbottabad, Pakistan. And I do what I always do as a Pakistani American Muslim professor in post-9/11 America: I perform my consciousness of this Pakistan-centered event in class. By this point in the semester, my students know what many Americans do not: that there can be no stable narrative here—only a cacophony of mutually exclusive opinions across the globe. In the classroom, I grapple with my own conflicted feelings about the site and manner of bin Laden’s death: an unsorted mix of relief that bin Laden is dead; embarrassment that Pakistan had been harboring the author of the 9/11 attacks; a fugitive pride that in the absurdly unequal power relations between Pakistan and the U.S., a slippery Pakistan had like David managed to outwit the mighty Goliath for so many years. As the U.S. government revises its original accounts of the killing, I acknowledge the distaste I feel at the particular brand of justice being celebrated around us: the leader of the most powerful nation in the world sends a death squad not only into another sovereign space, but into the home and bedroom of an unarmed bin Laden, and kills him in the presence of his wife and three children. Then within days, I hear the sobering news of the deaths of 80 Pakistanis killed in a terrorist attack that claims to be the first revenge for bin Laden’s death. I must reconcile my feelings with a nascent vision that perhaps this showdown will rend the duplicitous veils that shroud Pakistani politics and betray the most basic needs of its citizens. I feel the first tremblings of a fragile hope: that Pakistan, finding itself at a pivotal juncture, may yet pull back from its Zia-directed course of Hadood Ordinance and blasphemy laws, and fight back against an overpowerful military, to move toward a more secular society that prioritizes the civil rights of its people. I share these thoughts in all their rawness with my students. 

In the end, the way out of despair and onto some new plane of consciousness is personal.

As part of the course on South Asian American women writers and filmmakers, we screened Valarie Kaur’s documentary Divided We Fall: Americans in the Aftermath. Kaur is a young Sikh American from Clovis, California, a town just minutes away from our campus. A sophomore at Stanford when the 9/11 attacks occurred, Kaur was motivated by the backlash against Sikhs, Arabs, and Muslims to travel across America in an attempt to define what it meant to be “American” in that historical moment. An especially poignant segment of the film is Kaur’s journey to an Indian village to visit the widow of Balbir Singh Sodhi, the first person to lose his life to the post-9/11 racial hatred of a self-proclaimed American “patriot” in Mesa, Arizona. The film, made by a young person like themselves, moved my students deeply, even as they point out to me that they are a generation with no memory of a pre-9/11 America. One of them, an Arab American Muslim woman—I’ll call her Nuha—emailed Kaur to thank her. In yet another instance of our curricular and political worlds coinciding, the correspondence between Nuha and Valarie Kaur led to our knowledge that Governor Jan Brewer of Arizona was about to decide on a bill to remove Sodhi’s name from the state’s 9/11 memorial. The bill asserted that Sodhi was not a victim of 9/11. Nuha posted a link on Blackboard that would allow us to sign our names to a petition urging the Governor to veto the bill. Several students in the class also posted the link on their Facebook pages, urging their friends to sign. Very soon after, on April 29, 2011, the Governor vetoed the bill. My students, entirely on their own initiative, had added their voices to the protest and exercised their rights in this democracy. They had intervened in the proposal to erase Balbir Singh Sodhi’s name from Arizona’s 9/11 memorial, grasping the fact that it sought to deny the connection between the terrorist attacks of September 11th and the immediate backlash against all Americans of Sikh, Muslim, and Arab descent. That is, my students had intervened in a proposed distortion of American history. I sense that they learn from this their own power as Americans to write an alternative script for America. And I learn from them my own relevance in this continually shifting landscape. 

A dark circularity of events undergirds my narrative, however. Two months after 9/11, I referred to the turban targeting that had cost Sikh men like Sodhi their lives. Ten years after 9/11, I write in the shadow of the casual killings of two elderly Sikh men, a case that is being investigated as a hate crime. On March 4th, Gurmej Atwal, 78, and Surinder Singh, 65, were shot while out on their daily stroll in the Sacramento suburb of Elk Grove, a few hours’ drive from where I live and teach. Singh died instantly, and Atwal succumbed to his injuries on April 15th, without ever being able to speak and bear witness. 

I am tempted to say that nothing has changed outside of myself and my classroom. But some things have. This time, a Muslim American civil rights group has responded in swift solidarity with the Sikh American community, offering a monetary reward for anyone who will help trace the killers. Perhaps we Muslim Americans have learned from members of the Japanese American community who, in speaking out against the racial profiling of Muslims and Arabs immediately after the September 11th attacks when it was not popular to do so, demonstrated their profound understanding of the fact that when we stand up for someone else, we are standing up for ourselves. Perhaps 9/11 taught many of us that as Muslims, Arabs, and South Asians, we are all potentially suspect and very vulnerable. I like to think that the ten years since 9/11 have taught all of us that, as Americans living in America, we can choose not only to forge new alliances but, more meaningfully still, to recast our group affiliations in ways that enable us to envision ourselves—and our mutual futures—afresh. 

1 Talk delivered at Wheaton College, MA, on November 25, 2001. My thanks to Rajini Srikanth for retrieving this paper from her archives. 

2 “Democracy Now.” 1 December 2008. 

A note about the art: The image that appears atop of this conversation is a segment from the artist Tomie Arai’s “The Shape of Me,” a silkscreen monoprint created in response to a national call to artists issued by the American Friends Service Committee for the 2011 exhibition entitled “Windows and Mirrors: Reflections on the War in Afghanistan.” We are grateful to collaborate with Tomie for our notebook Living in Echo. Find more of Tomie Arai’s work here