Eight months after she was born, my mother was carried to the other end of the Punjab, to a country that had never existed before, and a few decades later, to a city that never existed before. Islamabad. Pakistan. Or as I knew it, where we came from.
Pakistan was born as not just a democracy, but one of the world’s largest. The British had preponed Partition, carving through villages, provinces, kingdoms, paying no mind to the consequences for post-colonialism, one final insult to two centuries of injury, rushing for the doors before they’d even unfolded the chairs. That which is parted, parts? Or not.
Had Pakistan remained united—people make choices, as historian Ayesha Jalal points out—she would be the world’s second largest. The Muslim world’s biggest. With the Ottomans gone and Ataturk turning his back on Constantinople, Muhammad Iqbal hoped Pakistan could be a chance to return Islam to Muslims. To pursue another Caliphate would only crash the ship of unity on a tribal sea.
Power would be vested in assemblies, in the people; if the ummah wanted to unite, would do so consensually.
Pakistan’s Parliament met in Karachi, which back then wasn’t the largest city in the Muslim world, but a sleepy seaside port town, second fiddle to Bombay until independence demanded otherwise. But, it was assumed, she was militarily vulnerable, so plans were made for a new capital. By rights, the country should have had two capitals. This was Chaudry Rahmat Ali’s final plea, a request from the very who’d coined the term ‘Pakistan,’ to Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the man who made the Pakistan Movement something more than a farfetched thought exercise—otherwise, Rahmat Ali warned, West Pakistan would become colonizer and East Pakistan the colony and there would have to be another partition. But by then Rahmat Ali was a kind of embarrassment.
Consider the idea, and not who it comes from.
Rahmat Ali was a little too keen on maps; a little too eager to rename everything. But he’d seen the obvious. There was no ‘b’ in Pakistan, after all. (He believed it should exist separately, as ‘Bangistan,’ that every Muslim-majority area of India had a separate identity, and should have its own kind of sovereignty.) Not that I knew any of this at the time. It was just my parents’ home, and the place we went to when we wanted to see family, the closest to the earth we came from. Back then, the city of Islam was a village that had gotten helplessly lost inside a suburb, a pleasant garden that smelled less of diesel barbecue and more of flowers, the collision of damp, impossibly rich Punjabi plains with the mountain fasts of the north, the conclusion of one world, the barrier to the next.
I learned the history later; I fell in love with Pakistan first, when I moved into an aunt’s empty apartment in a newer corner of the new city. I found myself enchanted, despite the strangeness of the city, covered most of the year by a fine spray, the color and chemical content of a pollutant—like bookshelves that we long ago gave up on dusting. When it rained, arid cement turned to mud, the buildings becoming accidental, unintentional, the earth had arrived to reclaim what was hers all along. It was my first time there for any length of time. Then, just three years later, I went back a child without a mother. Alone in the world now.
Not a minute out of the plane, and it hit me, not in my head but in my heart, overturning what I knew and digging up what I never knew I’d buried. The air. Automobile exhaust meets verdure, floral notes and leaded fuel. Her. Me. Before. Long ago I thought I had to be one thing. That if I was Muslim, I could not be Pakistani. If I was Pakistani, I could not be American. I do not believe that anymore. I go as Caner Dagli went, in The Atlantic—extremism is not literalism. It is the refusal to believe in multiple meanings, that the same places can mean different things to us at different times, because we are never one person, but many characters in one container.
Islamabad had become home. Though it never was. Not really. I was a child of Massachusetts, a teenager of Connecticut, an adult of Gotham. When I was young, my grandfather would walk me to the Red Mosque, the city’s oldest, though neither he nor I recognize it now. He cannot: He passed on before my mother died. I will not: To God we are returning. When a few months my father sold the house we grew up in, the closest place I had to a home happened to be here, on the other side of the world, because it was the last place in the world that was my mother’s and mine, my last tie to the earth, the only reminder of where we come from and where we are ineluctably headed, on this no man makes any choice. Which is to say, Pakistan was no longer the past, but the future.
Editor’s Note: Haroon Moghul is the author of “The Order of Light” and “My First Police State.” His memoir, “How to be Muslim”, is due in 2016. He’s a doctoral candidate at Columbia University, formerly a Fellow at the New America Foundation and the Center on National Security at Fordham Law School, and a member of the Multicultural Audience Development Initiative at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. Connect with Haroon on twitter @hsmoghul. The views expressed here are his own.