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.


An AIESEC Touchdown in Texas

“Why do they call it football?” I asked. It had been a nagging question ever since I had been little, but never induced enough curiosity for me to ask someone or to look it up. It had only bothered me once before. The New York Giants were on the Penn Station platform several years ago surrounded by NFL fans, and I had tasted some of the excitement. Savored it. But the lights and pace of New York City had soon driven the question away from my mind. The attention span of a tourist.

“It’s called football because the ball is one foot long,” said Nirav, over the buzz of voices. It was a crowded Saturday evening at Torchy’s Tacos and the Houston Texans were playing on TV. The NFL season had kicked off and fans around me were glued. Cheering on their home team. To me, football had always been the universal game, the beautiful game, where all you needed was the round ball that you could kick around. Of course, America called it soccer. “It’s the shape of the ball that gives the name,” he added. Football here was another interesting phenomenon.

“Ohhh,” I said, finally connecting the dots behind the name, unable to hide my surprise. “And I always used to think, why call it football? The ball was not round. The players don’t even kick it about.”  We laughed together, the five of us, eating away our tacos. I was fresh off the boat, exactly two years ago. After I landed in Houston, a really hospitable family hosted me for a few days until I could find myself an apartment. On my second night in the city, the local AIESEC chapter came all out to welcome me. I was surprised.

They drove half way across the city to welcome me, picked me up from where I was staying and then took me out for dinner. Torchy’s apparently had the best tacos in town. Everything felt like summer that night, an American summer. Festive, bright, celebratory. The cheery voices over drinks and food, all above the din of football. It was the first glimpse I had of the city. I was a stranger in a new place, but was embraced and welcomed like kin.

There will always be some constants in life. Some things that always stick with you no matter what. Some can shine and fade away for a while, like moon behind clouds on a dark night, but they always come back. AIESEC – a global, student-run powerhouse promoting diversity and cultural experiences across borders, has been one of those constants in my life. I had the chance to be a part of AIESEC when I was in college in Pakistan. Although I could never get a chance to go on exchange abroad, I managed to reach out to AIESEC Houston for help before permanently moving back to the United States.

I came in with a crazy plan. Living in, I eventually learned, was a lot different than being a tourist. And resettling in a new city where you don’t have any family, job or college constructs to help you find your footing, AIESEC turned out to be a blessing. It was an uncertain time for me when I landed, I had little sense of my surroundings. And that night, it felt good to know I was surrounded by fellow AIESECers.  You don’t need introductions when you are in AIESEC, it happens to be one big family.

They were enthusiastic to show me around. It was delightful, it was beyond my expectations. We spoke about the differences between football and soccer, and discussed the soccer World Cup in Brazil that past summer. About Houston. Texas. Food. On what was next. About the things they loved to do and what I loved to do. About AIESEC. There was just so much to talk about.

For me, it was the cultural exchange program that never happened while I was in college. A huge help to make sure I started off on the right foot. It felt like I was already meeting people I knew from before. Just getting to know them better across cultures and borders.

AIESEC has been a constant. Disappearing, fading, then coming back strong with a big bear hug. This organization is truly global. They made me feel at home, a stranger who was alone in a strange city, in a far-away country.  They made me feel belonged when I needed it most. This photo is two years old today. It’s one of those things that life made me push aside as I had to row on. But it’s always been one of those memories that I will cherish. That bright touchdown in America.

An AISEC Touchdown in Texas (2)

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.


Differences that Connect a City

Post 3 of 12 – On Karachi and The Broken Chair Continued…

Wall of an old Victorian Building

Which way do I go? Karachi finally gave me an opportunity to ask the question. It is an intriguing thing. Freedom. Once you give yourself permission to wander any street you want, unhindered by responsibilities and deadlines, you let your curiosity sniff around. I stood at the pedestrian crossing, past the broken chair and diseased tree. Many colorful paths going past the traffic lights. I turned left around the corner to a closed kiosk on the sidewalk. Painted in nice, inviting Urdu were the words “Shaukat Janoo Lockmaker”. An absent locksmith, an unanswered question.  I tried to unlock an answer.

It was lunch hour, and a myriad of food vendors were visible. All packed with hungry commuters stopping for a quick bite. There was fruit chaat and samosas, as well as chana biryani and dahi balay. It is hard to explain these foods to someone who is not familiar with them. But in short, South Asian food is a blend of tangy, spicy goodness from all over the region. Words like “chaat” mimic the click of the tongue which gives in to the zesty tango of sweet, sour and spicy breaking your taste palette in quick succession. A fusion of flavor. While “balay” in dahi balay appears to connote the similar word for dance and joy. Ballay ballay. A kind of celebration when your taste buds sink into the gravy-like yogurt. It’s nothing fancy, just festive street-fare. Food for the common Pakistani. A large block of ice speckled with bits of dirt and hair is being chopped to cool off a container with kulfi sticks. A creamy iteration of popsicles. Everything here can amount to a good full course meal on a laborer’s budget. If he has had a good day at work.

There was much positive chemistry in a broken city, Karachi a blend of flavors from Pakistan. The gyro stands of Manhattan come to mind, its multi-ethnic clientele lining up for diverse cuisine in the shadow of tall buildings. Hygiene seems to be the deciding difference, and I choose against adding myself to the dozen or so bench hoggers. The wall behind them is a silent reminder of the disruptive forces that often plague the city. Slogans from gangs and political parties, graffiti over torn posters and caked paan blots. All are silent invitations to broken paths.

Dodging the traffic, I jay-walked over to the other side. The corner with the old Victorian building. Before I could move on, something caught my eye. A large, deftly-crafted wooden ship, with oars, masts and cannons rested proudly inside a glass window. What is this shop? These are things you wouldn’t expect to see in this city. Not many collectors about. Taking a few steps back, I carefully observed the musty exterior, the faded sandy, sandpaper surface of the wall for more details on the shop. It was furniture-making fusion from Peshawar, Chiniot and Kashmir.

The astounding woodcraft inside was eye-opening. I spoke with the proud shopkeeper. Did you make that ship? “Yes, it’s me and two others who work here together.” It was handmade, made-to-order, with a four month window per order. The wood was acquired from other parts of the country. I took in the smell of freshly-polished wood as he left me to gape at other novelties. Great craftsmanship lay hidden in the city.

Though marred by strife and ethnic unrest, the city has bonded and integrated in ways over decades that we don’t realize. There was evidence that Karachi is not all broken. That we are not all broken. Strong in ways we never knew, connected in ways we never realized. She has seen some bad days in recent years, but held its own. And through it all, sometimes I wonder what we’ve come to. Where are we headed? The feet give in to the street, eager to discover more.

The Broken Chair

The Broken Chair (2)

Post 2 of 12 – On Karachi Continued…

I wish I had known her better. Twenty years of calling her home, and still knew the city at the surface. In a way, I wanted to make up for the regrets taking hold before I departed. Just a few weeks before, random assailants had stormed through the airport, wreaking havoc on the tarmac. Karachi paralyzed in terror. Her bazaar shutters rattled shut shortly after due to civil unrest, triggered by a political party in the city. And yet, she remained sturdy and resilient. Life went on.

One afternoon, when I could take a break from work, I decided to wander off on my own. My office building was located at the cusp of Saddar. The city’s old, colonial heart. Three years working there, and I had never appreciated that fact. But it felt too little, too late. Karachi had always been there, and I had always been asleep.

Just across the street from Zainab Market, I noticed Karachi’s invitation to sit awhile. To observe the life teeming through her smoggy vessels. Sometimes, I felt surprise at how a city like her can keep going, day in, day out. The chair broke once, worn down, but somebody still found a way to make it work. Nailing it to a lop-sided tree trunk. The innovators with all their jugaars. It made me see Karachi for who she really was, a staunch survivor. In a way, it felt like the whole city stood on a network and foundation of different scaffoldings. One piece supporting another, built out of an urgent need, until they were made to function as permanent cogs in a rusting machine.

But the ones on wheels have no patience for the ones walking by, and the ones strolling are blind to what goes on to the left and right. She’s a busy, chaotic city. If only we were not ignorant of the consequences of our doing. Short term solutions are only that. Short term. If only we were aware that termites from the diseased tree would eventually consume the chair. If only we had sat with her awhile and learnt. If only we knew how all the scheming behind closed doors makes her suffer and crumble.

I continued walking, grateful for the invitation to observe. Enough reason to believe that Karachi’s heart was still there. There was much more to see, hidden only so that we can learn to find it for ourselves.

On Karachi

Karachi sunset (2)

Post 1 of 12

Karachi. Half forgotten, yet cherished like a mother. From where I am now, she feels so distant, a far away city. Most of my memories, good and bad, are all part of this vast metropolis. I took this photo from the rooftop of my office building a few years ago. It was merely the eleventh floor, but most of the city’s rooftops were clearly visible. There are no skyscrapers in Karachi, and it is hard to get a bird’s eye view of the scattered mess of streets and buildings from most rooftops. A privilege. Sometimes I felt rewarded for drawing my gaze out among the maze of buildings, identifying a landmark. The old Imperial Bank building, the high rising cranes near the port or the mausoleum of Quaid-e-Azam, the nation’s founder.

Most days, like everybody else, I would be lost in the thick of things, unable to ingest Karachi in her entirety. Sometimes, when my mind became clogged and jammed with work, I would often come upstairs for a few minutes to get some fresh air. To refocus. The rooftop was mostly empty except a few employees taking a smoke break by the stairwell. A hint of Karachi’s sea-ward breeze was always stronger up here, always a great help in the hot summers. Whenever I heard the mad chaos of traffic in the streets of Saddar nearby, I felt grateful for being stuck working past the rush hour. Life made it difficult to look past oneself. And so it has been for most of Karachi’s citizens. For most of us.

I think it was those little trips upstairs that helped me get some of that greater focus back. In a way, I learned to observe Karachi in my last year in a way I had never looked at it growing up. A broken city often plagued by civil unrest, and yet diverse in cuisine, culture and home to over twenty million people who made it through their day. Day by day. Every day. She was the perfect fit under the definition “Rising Asia.”

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.