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

Raising children with so much family around is a blessing. Family and close friends are central to Pakistani culture. My parents, who live three hours away in New Jersey, visit us frequently and stay for weeks at a time. “You can come over anytime you need a break,” my non-Pakistani friends tell me, imagining that such a long time with parents could only be burdensome. My in-laws, who live 35 minutes away in Leesburg, never come just for the day. They usually spend the weekend and always have clothes and essentials in their room in our home.

It’s during these visits that our children absorb aspects of our culture that can’t easily be explained—for example, the respect for grandparents and elders. When my parents, in-laws, or aunts and uncles come to visit, our children know they must stop whatever they are doing to greet them at the door with “Assalamalaikum,” make sure they’re comfortable in our home, and stay and chat with them respectfully. (“Assalamalaikum” has become such a customary greeting for our son that even the pizza delivery person and telemarketer are greeted respectfully in Arabic.)

During these family times, our children learn about their heritage—about their great-grandmother and her legendary biryani; about their great-grandfather, once the mayor of Calcutta, who marched alongside Mahatma Gandhi in the struggle for India’s freedom; about their grandparents who survived three civil wars, lived in more than a dozen countries, and finally made America their home.

On the occasion of her first fast during Ramadan, Saanya received an heirloom pendant that had belonged to her great-grandmother’s grandfather, a pearl-and-diamond merchant in Rangoon in the late 1800s. The American “melting pot” is richer by virtue of our knowing who we are and where we come from.

A recent Saturday night was typical of life in our family. My parents, brother, sister-in-law, and nephews were visiting from New Jersey, and my cousin and her husband joined us for dinner. We sat around a table in the sunroom chatting—eight adults around a table more suited for four. Conversation ranged from the crisis of democracy in Pakistan and strategies for empowering women in high-conflict areas to guessing what cheeses were in the stuffed shells we were eating.

Then came a knock on the door—my aunt, uncle, and cousin from Fairfax stopping by for a visit. It was around 7:30. We moved to the family room. Half an hour later, another knock—my cousin and his wife in town for the weekend from Boston. We put the tea on, grabbed some floor cushions, and continued our chatter. Then another knock—two more cousins stopping by because they had heard everyone else was here. We pulled up some chairs, passed around a bowl of tangerines, and discussed preparations for an upcoming family wedding. Then another knock—my cousin and her family and her visiting parents.

By 11:30, there were 23 of us, ranging in age from 3 to almost 80, sitting on armrests, along the fireplace ledge, on pulled-up dining-room chairs, and strewn across the Bahraini carpet. The kids vied for our attention, the dads opined on politics in Pakistan, the cousins debated the US elections, the moms exchanged news about family health issues, and I mixed another bowl of my famous Asian salad.

No planning get-togethers weeks in advance, no “Is it okay if . . . ?” In a word, no takalluf (formality). At most, a call from a cell phone as you pull up in the driveway and a sense that the chai is always on.

This article first appeared in the December 2008 issue of The Washingtonian. For more articles from that issue, click here

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