Samina Najmi remembers Abdul


Najmi recounts a life on the periphery of her family's history @ Map Literary.
As a pro­fes­sor of mul­ti­eth­nic Amer­i­can lit­er­a­ture, I often teach the writ­ings of immi­grant authors. We pon­der what it means to speak of “home” and belong­ing, and their oppo­sites: home­less­ness, exile, and the expe­ri­ence of dis­place­ment so lay­ered that peo­ple can spend their life­times unpeel­ing, unfold­ing, and repack­ag­ing it.

In my fam­ily, the lay­ers of dis­place­ment are multi­gen­er­a­tional: my grand­par­ents’ post-1947 migra­tion from Bihar, India, to the port city of Karachi in the new Mus­lim state of Pak­istan, fol­lowed by their move from East Pak­istan before it became Bangladesh in a sec­ond bloody seces­sion. My par­ents and their sib­lings chased after the red bal­loons of their dreams in Sindh and Pun­jab, in Den­mark, Nige­ria, and Malawi, and in sub­ur­ban Lon­don, heart of the for­mer empire that had, for bet­ter or worse, held their fam­i­lies together. As young adults, my own sib­lings and I scat­tered to dif­fer­ent parts of the New World in the 1980s, while the puri­tanic Gen­eral Zia-ul-Haq, with dark shad­ows beneath his eyes, took hold of Pak­istan as a tod­dler might grab a wind-up toy, and reset it on an Islamist course.

But these fam­ily his­to­ries of migra­tions and the search for belong­ing are easy to recount. The story that never makes it into the class­room cen­ters on a man who was fam­ily but not fam­ily, depend­able and depen­dent, cen­tral to our lives yet inhab­it­ing its periph­eries. Present, but irrel­e­vant to me.
Abdul had been work­ing in our extended fam­ily in Karachi long before I was born. If he had a fam­ily name, I never asked what it was, and nobody seemed to know his early his­tory. Fam­ily lore has it that an uncle of my father’s dis­cov­ered Abdul as a young man work­ing in Karachi’s Nigaar Hotel shortly after Par­ti­tion. Detect­ing the rhythms of his own birth­place in Abdul’s singsong Bihari accent, my great-uncle offered him domes­tic employ­ment, and Abdul exchanged his life among Karachi go-getters for the promise of room and board with fel­low Bihari immi­grants. A self-respecting but ulti­mately will­ing heir­loom, Abdul served in this or that branch of the fam­ily as our vagaries dic­tated. Each time prospects over­seas lured employ­ers like my par­ents away from Pak­istan, Abdul adapted to new mas­ters and mis­tresses, new work­ing con­di­tions, new rules, new beds.

Image: A Q Arif at Essex Art Gallery
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