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Pakistan on the Potomac
Comments () | Published December 1, 2008

Salma Ali’s children, Zayd, 6, and Saanya, 12, take pride in their heritage even as they lead typical suburban lives here, enjoying everything from swim team to Miley Cyrus.

My parents made some of their best friends during those Sunday get-togethers: the Ahmads, the Amanats, the Bezaars, and the Usmans. These families became a support network as they all struggled to raise children in a foreign culture.

While we adopted many American customs, we also held onto Pakistani traditions. My mother insisted that we have dinner together each night. Some days we ate in silence, but we were there. Because my brother and I both chose to live at home and commute to college, the tradition continued until the day I got married.

We slowly settled into a comfortable American groove. After four years in the city, we bought our first house in suburban Tenafly, New Jersey. By then, my father had landed a good job with a large multinational in Connecticut. My mother commuted to Manhattan to work for an electronics company. We had a Chevy station wagon, an active social life, and a growing savings account. We were living the American dream.

It has been more than three decades since we landed at JFK. Now my children are about the ages my brother and I were when we arrived in America. Saanya, 12, and Zayd, 6, are happily ensconced in our Bethesda/Potomac community. They have many friends, a cat, play dates, too many activities, a trampoline—but not a Nintendo DS yet.

I spoke Urdu as a child; they know more words in Spanish than in our family’s native tongue. I grew up watching my parents pray five times a day; though it’s my goal, I fall short some days. For me, Eid—the day of celebration at the end of Ramadan—was the biggest thing since naan bread; our son still wonders why Santa doesn’t visit our house.

I never learned to swim because the idea of wearing a bathing suit in public didn’t sit right with me; our daughter lives in her River Falls swim-team one-piece all summer.

For my brother and me, a vacation meant driving to Syracuse to visit our aunt and uncle; our kids have visited some of the most exotic locales in the world. My brother and I started out attending some pretty rough public schools; our daughter goes to an all-girls private school, our son one of the best public schools in Maryland.

The parenting challenges my mother and father confronted as new immigrants were, in many respects, more straightforward than those my husband and I face today. They were guided by a cultural and religious compass set by their upbringing in a uniformly Muslim and predominantly Pakistani society.

In the United States, they created their own little Pakistan. Outside of office parties, they socialized only with Pakistanis. Vacations involved visiting family or traveling back to Pakistan. Weekends meant watching Pakistani dramas. Even now, their favorite programs are broadcast by satellite from Pakistan.

My husband and I have spent most of our lives in the United States and Europe; have traveled around the world; have friends from every part of the globe; eat Italian, Thai, or Malaysian food as frequently as we do Pakistani; and often have to read the subtitles to enjoy a good desi (South Asian) movie.

The way we are raising our children is not as clear-cut. Saanya, who had visited nearly 20 countries by the time she was five, loves listening to Native Deen, a Muslim hip-hop group, but also Miley Cyrus. She can do the traditional luddi dance with as much rhythm as she can the latest Western dance craze.

Zayd craves satays, dumplings, mac and cheese, and his grandmothers’ traditional recipes. His favorite movie is Cars, closely followed by the Bollywood-style films Lagaan and Bride and Prejudice.

It takes little effort to be a cross-cultural parent in the Washington area. There’s a large Pakistani-American population here, providing not only a social network but also restaurants, shops, and services that cater to the community. You can eat kebabs and biryani, buy halal meat and every variety of spice and lentil, get your eyebrows threaded and your hands decorated with henna, and buy an entire wedding trousseau, all within 20 minutes of downtown DC.

You can even throw an eight-day, 12-event, Pakistani-style wedding—with a Punjabi dhol player, a Muslim comedian, sitar and tabla musicians, and rice pudding in traditional clay pots—like the one we recently attended.

In the past several months, we’ve attended a performance by a Pakistani dancer at the Shakespeare Theatre Company, a National Geographic–sponsored concert by Pakistan’s biggest rock star—known as the Bono of Asia, he’s also one of the guys I went to Sunday school with in New Jersey—a play about Pakistan’s kite festival at the Kennedy Center, and discussions about Pakistan’s political future at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and the Brookings Institution.

Our children experience a variety of cultures. At Holton-Arms School, where almost 40 percent of the girls are students of color, Saanya says it’s exciting to share her customs with friends and learn about their traditions.

At Carderock Springs Elementary, Zayd has enjoyed performances by African Maasai villagers, Maori dancers, and Chinese opera singers. During “mosaic” and international nights at their schools, students have dressed in traditional clothes and showcased their culture while learning about those of classmates from Senegal, Russia, Ecuador, Italy, Korea, and elsewhere.

Saanya and Zayd take pride in their identity, something that friends and family in other parts of the United States tell us is harder to do in their communities.

It also has been easy to continue with our children’s religious education. We started at the All Dulles Area Muslim Society Sunday School in Sterling, where our children learned the basic tenets of Islam, read stories of the prophets, and memorized verses from the Koran. We later decided to take a break from Sunday school and hire a Koran teacher who could come to our house.

Our Koran teacher, a warm and friendly woman who grew up in Syria, works as a tax accountant by day and an Arabic teacher in the afternoons. Every Tuesday, Saanya reads the Koran with her in Arabic, pausing after a few sentences so she can ask questions and understand what she has just read, a different approach from the way I learned to read the Koran.

Growing up, my brother and I would be dropped off at the local mosque, where a maulana made us read and memorize the Koran—no questions asked, no explanations given. While I could read the Koran in Arabic by the time I was six, it was only when I took a class on Islam in college that I understood what I’d been reading.

Now when I hear Saanya telephoning her grandparents to ask them to pray extra hard before an important test or when Zayd reminds me to say our nightly prayers together, I realize that our children get the same sense of comfort, security, and peace saying their prayers as I did growing up.

In the aftermath of September 11, it has become more important to my husband and me that our children understand what it means to be an American Muslim.

When I was growing up, my brother and I tried to blend in and not call attention to ourselves. This is no longer an option. As a friend of mine studying at Georgetown University says, “September 11 put our lives into overdrive. I went from being a nameless, peculiar student to center-stage Islamic poster child.”

My cousin and I were recently talking about the impact that 9/11 has had on raising our children—how we brace ourselves for questions that come up during school presentations on the connection between Islam and terrorism, how we fear that classmates may associate our children with what they hear on the news about Muslim extremists, how we feel it is our obligation to represent Pakistan at school international nights to teach our neighbors about the country’s culture and counter the images they see on television.

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Posted at 12:00 AM/ET, 12/01/2008 RSS | Print | Permalink | Washingtonian.com Articles