We are delighted to present in full our featured story from our third issue, Roots, by Scheherazade Khan. Khan is a Pakistani-Canadian-Swiss writer/artist living in Edinburgh working on forging spaces for intersectional individuals in the literary world. She is currently completing her PhD in Intersectional Literary Analysis. You can pre-order Issue 03 in the shop.
The question itself is innocuous enough. Linguistically, it is simple.
Where are you from?
[interrogative] [verb] [subject] [preposition]
Straightforward. Except when it isn’t. Except when it sets your palms sweating. Except when you feel a sense of indignation rising. Except when you know that it’s not really the question they are asking.
You’re looking at my melanated skin and oval eyes that tell a story originating far from the island I’m currently residing. You’re hoping for an answer that will validate your automatic assumptions. I know exactly the answer you’re waiting for, but the word burns on my tongue, refusing to satisfy you. At least not right away, especially not when your eyes shine with that condescending smirk telling me you believe the answer is the justification for your arrogance.
I’ve seen that smirk before, heard it as well, and my mind flashes to another day, another country, the same question.
His eyes widen and I feel some satisfaction as I see the confusion on his face at my response. Confusion…and something else. Frustration? No. Irritation. It’s not what he expected to hear. It’s not what he wanted to hear.
“Oh. You were born there?”
It strikes me as a ridiculous question, a distinction between birth country and nationality that he would not have made if the countries in question lined up racially in his mind.
“No,” I say, and his eyes flash in triumph, “I was born in the Netherlands.”
The irritation is back, but this time tinged with impatience and the embers of anger that make me wonder if I should be playing this game. But to be honest, it’s amusing to see him fumbling, trying to scavenge for a justification for the implicit racial association he lobbied my way in response to my dark features but does not want to apologise for.
“So, one of your parents is Dutch?”
I raise my eyebrows at him, my eyes tilting up to see his face as my head stubbornly stays put, unwilling to include height to the list of things he thinks he has over me. I pick up on the implication that he didn’t realise he had uttered.
One of your parents. One of. One.
I have to give it to him, he’s tenacious.
“You are not from here, right?”
I realise I’m staring at you blankly by the way you’ve slowed your speech when I did not respond to your first question, emphasising the ‘here’ as if you are holding back the urge to point at the ground that has me wanting to roll my eyes. After five minutes of conversation, do you really think the issue here is a language barrier?
You are not from here, right ?
[Subject] [verb] [adverb] [preposition] [noun] [lazy interjection]
Another question, but it’s not really, is it? You make a statement and comfort yourself by placing an interrogative interjection following a belated pause so you can get away with it. I have to take a breath before I answer you. That familiar indignation is rising more quickly now, but when I speak, it comes out resigned and now I’m angry at myself.
“What makes you say that?”
“Oh… well… you just don’t… sound like you’re from the UK. Your accent, I mean.”
You’re not wrong. My accent sets me apart almost instantly from the majority on the British Isles. And yet, it’s a poor substitute for what you really want to say. Even as it contradicts your earlier conclusion of a language barrier since my accent distinctly places me from the English-speaking West. My accent still won’t validate your assumptions about where I’m from. Trust me, I’ve tried it myself.
“Kahan jaray ho?”
I hear my cousins sniggering as they take in my accent with the imperfect rolls of my r, a move my mouth never perfected from all the years I lived in the West.
My face goes hot, but the literary blush that is supposed to rise in moments of shame or embarrassment doesn’t grace my tanned skin. Instead of being delicately flushed or endearingly splotchy (the two quintessential characters that are the leading ladies in every rom-com), I’m sweating unattractively from shame, exacerbated by the 30-degree December weather of south Karachi.
I try again, lowering my voice a bit, hoping any inconsistencies in my speech that set me apart from those who wield my mother tongue with fluidity will be smoothed out in the lower register.
“Kahan jaray ho?”
Where are you going?
The question itself is not that far from ‘where are you from’ in many ways. The irony is not lost on me. Yet where one is going is never enough to satisfy people. It’s not enough to explain who you are, or, should I say, who they think you are. I desperately want to follow them with their easy grace and confidence stemming from knowing exactly where they’ve come from.
Instead, with my uneasy speech and inability to roll my r that tells everyone around me that I’m not quite the same as them, that I’m not quite from here, not the way they are, I’m left floundering.
Where am I from if I’m not Pakistani enough for other Pakistanis?
[tired contraction] [reluctant admission]
The admission feels like a weight, like forfeit, but I’m bored and I’m exhausted. There’s only so many times you can have different renditions of the same conversation.
“Ah, that makes sense, I thought it was American.”
I hate that smug satisfaction. I don’t bother pointing out the difference to you but my resignation gives way to annoyance and before I know it, I’m offering up another explanation. You don’t deserve it. You don’t really want it. This conversation is not about getting to know who I am, but about getting to decide who I am.
“The accent is a bit of a mix,” I tell you, “I only lived in Canada during university but went to an international school growing up.”
“Oh, where was that?”
”A couple of places, but I graduated high school in Lebanon.”
The obvious confusion in your eyes gives me more satisfaction than it should, but I’m reminded of a time when my diverse schooling history was not given its due credit in highlighting the nuances of my roots. I’m reminded of a time my history was used against me.
“You’re inherently biased and subjective, so I can’t take your argument at face value.”
He said this with a straight face and suddenly I knew what they meant by the saying ‘a verbal slap in the face’. We had been friends for over a year; it had taken us this long to start talking politics. I grew up in a feminist household. More importantly, I grew up outspoken. I had opinions and I wasn’t scared to voice them. I didn’t realise until this moment that my parents had privileged me in bringing me up that way.
I was explaining the Palestinian refugee crisis in Lebanon. My confidence and knowledge came through in every sentence. I had spent four years living in Beirut, volunteering within the refugee community, educating myself about the society and culture. At first, he had asked me to explain the situation to him, praising the breadth of my knowledge and I felt proud. I should have known he was only looking for a hole in my logic.
I took my job very seriously and spent hours talking him through the various contexts and dynamics at play. I am from a family of academics. How you deliver your argument matters less than ensuring you know what you’re talking about. Sure, we’d had the occasions of arguing for the sake of arguing, but at the end of the day, your knowledge mattered more.
I didn’t realise that his subtle jabs and pushbacks, his explanation that he was ‘just playing devil’s advocate to bring some objectivity’, were tools to undermine what I said. I didn’t realise that he did not care what I knew, nor that he knew nothing. Maybe I was naive. Maybe I was in denial.
I stared in shock, spluttering incoherent incredulity at him. He smirked.
“Because you’re from there, any argument you make is going to be biased.”
I couldn’t understand it.
“But I’m not from there?”
I couldn’t hold back the emphasis in my voice that had me holding onto my fingers in an effort to not mime scare quotes. I shouldn’t have argued. It wouldn’t have mattered. He didn’t care where I was from.
“You’re from close enough, that makes you biased.”
I wanted to scream. How had my years of experience, of dedication to learning, become a detriment to my argument? I wanted to yell at him, to ask why my experience was not enough? Why I had to prove my intellect to him? Why, as a white man from Calgary, Canada who had never lived anywhere else in his life, his argument and lack of knowledge about the subject made him more objective or reliable than me?
I didn’t ask him any of that, because behind all that hurt and incredulity all I could think was, It’s not about what you know. It’s about your skin. It’s about your gender. He thinks he’s won a game. He thinks this is a game.
I never brought it up again, but I started saying less and less to him. Now and then he would try to get a rise out of me with topics that he treated as a friendly debate, never for one moment understanding that some of those ‘debates’ were personal, that they held the weight of societies belief in my humanity and value, finding my visible frustration and tear heavy lids increasing proof that his intellect was superior to mine.
We stayed friends for a few more weeks before I found out that it wasn’t just my intellect he thought of as unimportant, but my physical boundaries too.
“But you’re not Lebanese?”
You haven’t even tried to phrase it like a question this time.
But you’re not Lebanese ?
[impatience] [arrogant confidence] [racial assumption] [fake interrogation]
The impatience is back. I start playing a mental game with myself, betting on how long it takes for him to snap. A dangerous game. I should know better but I’m a sucker for poor decisions.
There’s so much I want to say. So much I want to point out about the underlying assumptions you’re making here. I’m not Lebanese and not Arab, that’s true, but you’re not saying it because of my history, but because it isn’t the right kind of foreign that would explain why I look like I do.
“No, I’m not.”
“So, where are you actually from?”
There it is.
You already have the actual country in your mind, never mind the fact that you’re likely wrong, ascribing my origins to a larger country to the east. But if I said that to you, I expect you would say it’s the same thing, that it’s beside the point. I am beside the point to you.
“You understand that any children we have won’t be white, right?”
I sit with my knees up to my chest and tears streaming down my face as I grip the phone tighter to my ear. I didn’t realise it would require so much physical effort from me to say the words. I think I knew that it would come down to this question. The question that ends almost four years together, and fourteen years in each other’s lives. I think I knew it years ago, but I so wanted to be wrong.
“What does that even mean? Why does that matter?” He yells this at me and I flinch.
I wish I could say it doesn’t matter. I wish I could be so flippant about it like he is. I wish I hadn’t felt the fight or flight instinct that had risen in me when he told me months ago, and where this all really started, that ‘race issues aren’t really a thing in the UK anymore’. I wanted him to be right, so I hadn’t argued, but I felt pieces of me crumble at how small it made me feel to be told I was naïve to think racism still existed where I was living; how impossibly alien I felt when you told me that I was ‘creating conspiracies’ when I tried to explain how I had suffered racist microaggressions almost weekly since moving to the UK.
“It means that any children we have will have to face a world that does not believe they are as worthy as their white peers. It means that they will have to fight every day for the rest of their lives to prove their humanity to people who implicitly believe their race is an indication of their worth. It means they will be inherently disadvantaged for not being white.”
That’s what I wanted to say. Instead, all I said was, “It means they’ll be Pakistani, like me.”
I have spent so much time in my life trying to get people to see me and who I am as being more than my ethnic background. Because my roots, my origins, cannot be explained by the colour of my skin, they cannot be categorised by the simple equation of ethnicity equaling nationality that only seems to apply to non-white individuals. But despite all that time, it still cut me to the bone when he denied me my heritage.
“But you’re not Pakistani, not really, not where it counts.”
Not where it counts.
The hypocrisy of it was not lost on me. I wanted to be recognised and acknowledged as South Asian in this instance, but I had fought to my core in so many others to not be seen by the colour of my skin. A line from one of Toni Morrison’s novels came to mind: “definitions belonged to the definers—not the defined”.
And that was the core of it, wasn’t it? I never got to decide for myself. Where it suited him, he was the progressive young liberal who ‘saw’ beyond my race, with me for who I was, who was patted on the back for being so forward to be post-racial. But that wasn’t the truth, because he never saw beyond it. He never looked at it; he determinedly ignored it. He claimed that the colour of my skin didn’t matter to him, but I think what he really meant was that the colour of my skin didn’t matter, that it was not valuable enough and needed to be suppressed as much as possible so that ‘where it counts’ I won’t be considered Pakistani.
“I am Swiss-Canadian-Pakistani”
The rising questions and the incredulity you want to express are clear on your face.
I am Swiss-Canadian-Pakistani
[protagonist] [definer] [more than your limiting categories]
I know what questions you want to ask next. I know you want to get into the semantics and technicalities so that you can prove you know how to define me better than I do. But I’ve decided for myself. I know it doesn’t answer your question: “where are you from?” And though that’s not what you were ever really asking, you’ll never admit to what you were truly asking. So, I’ll admit it for you.
You were asking why my skin colour is the way that it is. You were asking why I’m in a place that my skin colour stands out as the minority. You were asking to validate your assumptions about where people with my skin colour truly belong. You were asking to legitimise your beliefs about where I’m entitled to be. You were asking why I am other than white.
And today, I’m not going to give you those answers. One, because that’s not what you asked, even if it’s what you meant. Two, because I don’t want to. And three, because it’s none of your goddamn business.