A Love Letter to America – U2: The Joshua Tree Tour, Houston, TX

Last night was my first U2 concert. Houston, Texas. And now I know, attending a U2 event is so much more than a concert. It was a journey! A collective experience, with the tens of thousands more fans who were present with me inside the stadium.

Ever since I migrated to America, I have tried to gain a better understanding of her societal and cultural mosaic. To calibrate myself. I’ve tried diving into works of American literature and art that can help me understand who she really is. To look for images I can use to stitch my map together and gain a better sense of my place in it.

As a long-time U2 fan, I picked up The Joshua Tree again shortly after moving to Texas with the intent of giving it a fresh ear. In the past couple of years,  it has become my go-to work of music for understanding America, partly because of my familiarity with U2’s journey and their reason for crafting it. It is a standing expression of four curious Irishmen’s understanding of America, exploring the roots of their music and giving it new ground to stand on.

However, I always found myself short of grasping the work’s full meaning. A step short of a surer footing. Even more so amidst the uncertainty and the conflicting voices of America over the past year. Perhaps that’s the reason I’ve been listening to it again and again. I try to find hope. Some understanding. But then get lost again.

Last night changed all that in so many ways. So much of that music navigates the wide-open spaces of the American landscape, expressed through sound, lingering for a few moments in small towns of verse, taking in their troubles; and sometimes blasting through larger cities of chorus and song. To get lost in the melodic soundscapes of “Where the Streets Have No Name, “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”, and “With or Without You” is like going on a euphoric road trip without a destination, just taking in everything. You don’t really want it to end, and yet it still does. It was all brought to life last night in the stellar production backdrop. Easy to visualize. U2 gave us a walk through the America they saw when they wrote and composed The Joshua Tree. Clearly expressed what America means to a pilgrim walking through her varied geography and psychography, trying to understand who she is.

Last night was a love letter to America. A letter full of hope and belief in her better self. U2 did not merely sing, did not merely perform. They became a conduit that channeled energy in endless waves, staging meaning through sound, rallying and uniting the crowd. The music appealed to the audience’s better nature – of mercy, love, togetherness and inclusion, of acknowledging and looking past our common paranoia and injustices. It was a joy to watch the audience embrace the message in the music through repeated choruses and chants.

The band took the opportunity to highlight The Joshua Tree in a greater contextual light, with some of their other songs on tour. One Tree Hill was dedicated to the victims of Manchester – “There is no end to grief, that’s why we know there’s no end to love. I’ll see you again when the stars fall from the sky.” Heartfelt imagery of a Syrian refugee camp with a young girl’s message played to Miss Syria (Miss Sarajevo) – “Is there a time for common decency? A time to say amen. A time to love our neighbor, whether enemy or friend”.  A huge banner with the girl’s image was passed along from one end of the stadium to the other, as Bono followed with a passionate recitation of Emma Lazarus’ The New Colossus. The energy reached a crescendo. Favorites “One” – in hopes of a united America, “Ultraviolet” – dedicated to all women, and “Pride” – for MLK, also made charged appearances.

The whole evening really played America up to her strengths, waking her up to what she means to her people and to the world, highlighting her paradoxes, and reminding her of her legacy. To choose love over hate. Challenging her to stand up to her best, and to question her worst. There was a moment during “Beautiful Day” when Bono imagined out loud – “it’s a beautiful day when human rights drive out human wrongs. When sisters around the world are in school with their brothers, that’s a beautiful day. It’s a beautiful day when everyone’s home where they want to be.” And we imagined, and hoped away.

The Joshua Tree, and by extension this tour, is a work of art, a sincere reflective gaze into the heart and soul of America that reverberates in waves to all she represents. I slowly came to terms with my lack of understanding of the album while listening to it on my own. I was always running circles in my own flawed, psyche. Where the streets ended in a question mark. A dead end. But it was a joy to chant away all evening in a collective, unanimous cry of togetherness. And it was then that I sensed my uncertainty melt away, that I finally reached a better understanding of  America. Last night in Houston, U2 showed us all a place, high on a desert plain, where the streets have no name.

A big thanks to all of you – Larry, Adam, Bono and the Edge. To many more songs, performances, and beautiful days for all. To U2.


Lessons from the Sahara Sands

“By 1932, Bagnold was finished and Madox and the rest of us were everywhere. Looking for the lost army of Cambyses. Looking for Zerzura. 1932 and 1933 and 1934. Not seeing each other for months. Just the Bedouin and us, crisscrossing the Forty Days Road. There were rivers of desert tribes, the most beautiful humans I’ve met in my life. We were German, English, Hungarian, African—all of us insignificant to them. Gradually we became nationless. I came to hate nations. We are deformed by nation-states. Madox died because of nations.
The desert could not be claimed or owned—it was a piece of cloth carried by winds, never held down by stones, and given a hundred shifting names long before Canterbury existed, long before battles and treaties quilted Europe and the East. Its caravans, those strange rambling feasts and cultures left nothing behind, not an ember. All of us, even those with European homes and children in the distance, wished to remove the clothing of our countries. It was a place of faith. We disappeared into landscape. Fire and sand. We left the harbours of oasis. The places water came to and touched… Ain, Bir, Wadi, Foggara, Khottara, Shaduf. I didn’t want my name against such beautiful names. Erase the family name! Erase nations! I was taught such things by the desert.” – The English Patient, Ondaatje.

Ever felt like losing yourself in a place? I got that sensation when reading this passage from The English Patient. I have never been to the Sahara Desert, but Ondaatje makes the experience sound so fulfilling. To just lose yourself to the wonder of it over time. The story probes the mystery of a man burnt during a plane crash during World War 2. Now bed-ridden in a makeshift hospital in the Italian countryside during the closing months of the War, he narrates his past to his nurse.

The Patient is recounting his time in the Sahara Desert as part of Britain’s Geographical Survey team. From those distant years before World War 2. He speaks in the context of his insignificance in the face of the infinite desert. In a world ravaged after the War, the English Patient values his time spent in the desert accompanied by the Bedouin tribes. People who knew their place in the desert, in their world. Nomadic and forever weaving their way across the dunes, the desert always shifting. Not belonging to any nations. To any castes or creeds. One humanity.

The Patient saw their practical approach to life as a model. The Bedouin realized the harshness of the environment they lived in. A desert so vast and changing, it rose up around them greater than their collective lives. They realized their cosmic value in the face of the Sahara. Just another grain in the sand. Conflict between themselves was pointless, mastery over the environment essential to survival. Hence the need to stick with each other. To keep on moving. Together.

A common, bonded humanity. It’s something I would like to live by. It’s a message many of us claim to believe in, yet foolishly act against all the time. I just feel it is a theme that is increasingly more relevant today, in a world already torn by conflict – of race, religion, sexual orientation. The list is endless. Our news is filled with incidents of conflict, and opinions about each conflict. Ironically, the world lost a hero who believed in common humanity just last month. Abdul Sattar Edhi. Globally, his humanitarian work did not get the attention it deserved, but he made a difference in the lives of hundreds of thousands.

Particularly intriguing in this story was how The English Patient, a handicapped and dying fictional man, seemed to be at peace. He voiced his regrets and stance on life, exploring his past and all that he had been through. He had become a firm believer in a life without attachment to nations. Of living unburdened without the weight of their conflicts. A stance further affirmed after the War.

Granted, war is a damaging condition. It can give you that perspective after you go through something like that. It destroys the human soul on so many levels, no matter your side. Whether you’re the conqueror or the conquered, a nurse or a handicapped spy, you feel the shock waves of the conflict around you. I can never compare every day experiences to war, but I feel that life inflicts some degree of damage on all our souls over time. It is a constant pursuit to keep fighting back, to find love and meaning.

So in the search for common empathetic ground, I ask myself, can we relate to the English Patient? And more importantly so, can we relate to him now than before it is too late? To try and stand in his shoes for a moment before life actually forces us in them? In these troubled times, we need to believe in these bonds to navigate to a greater sense of peace. Of a sense of humanity above and beyond the weight of nations.


Polo’s Shoes

“Marco Polo imagined answering (or Kublai Khan imagined his answer) that the more one was lost in unfamiliar quarters of distant cities, the more one understood the other cities he had crossed to arrive there; and he retraced the stages of his journeys, and he came to know the port from which he had set sail, and the familiar places of his youth, and the surroundings of home, and a little square of Venice where he gamboled as a child.” – Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities.

Although I tell myself I’m a big fan of reading, I must admit that I’m poor at keeping up with the wealth of literature out there. I can count the number of books I have read in the past two years on my fingers. A poor measure near the accomplished bibliophile. I discovered Italo Calvino through my younger cousin, who recommended Invisible Cities to me. I borrowed his copy and read through it a few weeks before I left Pakistan for the US. Even though I cannot even come close to comparing myself with the likes of Marco Polo, but I think I understand what Calvino was trying to say through Polo’s fictional narrative.

As someone who loves turning into new corners in distant streets in faraway places, this sentence from the book sort of stuck. It grew on me in the first few weeks when I roamed Houston on my own. There was excitement and there was despair. I relished the freedom but I missed home terribly. I knew not where to go and yet I wanted to go everywhere. While I faced open streets and the liberty to go about as I pleased, this city felt empty. Pakistan, where I had grown up, was full of faces and memories but it was far away and long gone.

I have learned that you may often find yourself headed to a new experience in a new place, subconsciously propelled by the need for the familiar. By the need to be close to what you miss and whatever adds to your sense of belonging. I walked into the Jung Center art gallery in the Montrose area in one of the early days. I went out of curiosity, but I half-wished I could share that trip with someone back home. There were so many cool paintings, and the bookstore inside was stocked with many treasures. It was not anything that induced nostalgia, but just a new piece of discovery that would make better sense with some of the old, so to speak.

While Kublai Khan sat in his court and listened to Marco Polo’s accounts, the explorer started to make sense of his own travels. His forays into distant cities made him think more and more of Venice and days from his childhood. Eventually, every city he went to became in part, defined by his association with Venice. A new kind of appreciation and valued longing to the place that he had left behind so long ago.

Here is the quote once more, Calvino is a genius at portraying Polo’s journey.

“Marco Polo imagined answering (or Kublai Khan imagined his answer) that the more one was lost in unfamiliar quarters of distant cities, the more one understood the other cities he had crossed to arrive there; and he retraced the stages of his journeys, and he came to know the port from which he had set sail, and the familiar places of his youth, and the surroundings of home, and a little square of Venice where he gamboled as a child.” – Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities.