Artwork by Farah Nada
Cost of Living
By Abeer Farooqui
“I went back to the clanging city,
I went back where my old loves stayed,
My heart was full of my new love's glory, -
But my eyes were suddenly afraid.”
“Why are you doing this to me, Baba?”
My daughter has asked me this very question every five minutes so far in our one hour forty-five minute flight. It’s a short flight; nevertheless, it has a lot of five minutes. I give her a nudge with my elbow, and she takes her indignant beam of a gaze off me and channels it outwards, at the clear blue of the sky, interrupted only by the white wing of the airplane.
I refocus on my copy of Dawn News, reading about Emirates Airlines' recent misfortune of having one of Pakistan’s most active politicians on board – one whose opponent was intent on keeping him a safe distance away, off-ground. The plane, hovering around aimlessly, did not land for eight hours, and when it did, it landed in an altogether different destination. I do not have much against said politician; in fact, he promises the kind of hope that has led me to pack up my teenage daughter and the home she’s known all her life in Dubai and return to my hometown of Karachi. I’m not an optimist, but I am patriotic. I have been away from my country for too long, and have, in the process, risked my daughter developing a taste for Vimto whilst knowing nothing of Pakola. Her friends, if not Arabs, are called Jessica and Jennifer and Eli and Michael. When I asked her why she doesn’t have any Pakistani friends, she said, “They’re not my type, Baba.”
Not her “type”! They are her kind. And so I can’t help but think that my decision to move our two-person family back is a wise one. Five minutes have passed, so obviously, she turns back to me, the silver dot of a piercing shimmering on the sunlit side of her nose. She expected me to recoil at the idea of a nose piercing, like most of her friends’ fathers did. But for me, it is the one thing about my daughter that makes her seem like a Pakistani girl. One day, she will put a golden ring through it, and look the perfect picture of a Pakistani bride.
“Sarah,” I say before she speaks this time. “What can I do to convince you it will not be as bad as you think?”
She has developed a taste not only for Khaleeji beverages but also for the lifestyle. She thinks Karachi will not be able to offer her the constant support of air-conditioned homes, malls, schools, or taxis. She thinks she will not be able to blow-dry or straighten her hair when the lights go out because of load-shedding. I tell her that her father is not a poor man; that be it Karachi or Dubai, I will make sure she is comfortable. They have generators now that operate every single AC unit in a house! Pakistan is trying to make the best of what it has. At least, all of the honest people that are left in our country are.
“Baba, I don’t know what your problem was with the UAE,” she whines over the voice of the cabin crew member making an announcement. She picks at the threads protruding from the home-made slit in her blue jeans; I remember having to help her murder them, so that they could remain jeans instead of mutating into denim shorts. “I mean, I know you’ll try to make me feel comfortable, but that’s the thing: you’ll have to try super hard. Did you know that the inflation rate in Pakistan is currently 8.22%? And in the UAE, it’s only 2.60%--“
I scoff at her sudden interest in economics. Where was it when she got a D in her Macro final exam?
“The cost of living, Baba,” she says, shaking her head, “is worrisome. Deplorable, really. Egregious.”
And now she’s all too familiar with her Pre-SAT vocabulary.
“Beta,” I say, sighing as I fold up the newspaper and tuck it back into the side of my seat. “You have never worried about money a moment in your life before. I might regret saying this, but please, continue as you were.”
“Baba, I can’t believe you want to go back there,” she says, yanking out the threads out now, stopping only when I click my tongue. “I mean, why go back to your family? Didn’t they hate that you married Mummy?”
“Yes, they did,” I say. This is a good try, but it will fail all the same. “But they are sorry now. They have been sorry since she died. It’s how the human conscience works.”
She takes a break of silence whilst the captain announces the commencement of our descent. I glance at her, my little Sarah, and I can tell that both her heart and the aircraft are taking a synchronized, imperceptible dip. This realization only strengthens my resolve. When I was her age, I would sing our national anthem, our tarana, at the top of my voice, until my lungs begged for relief, riding behind my brother on his motorcycle. We would race through the sunny streets of Hyderabad, where we lived before shifting to Karachi in ’71, banging on the sides of trucks that we passed by. We would sit at our mother’s feet, listening to her recite Iqbal, and we would probe our father about the time he shook hands with Qaed-e-Azam. The only fact Sarah knows about the Partition, the creation of our great nation, is that it happened. And the only celebrated Pakistanis she is aware of are pop singers and Benazir Bhutto (discovered only on the day of her death, as her home was close to ours in the Emirates Hills).
None of this is her fault; it is mine. And I intend to redeem myself before it is too late and she has packed off in two years even farther away to the United States for university as she plans with her American friends, Jessica and Jennifer and Eli and Michael.
“What about school?” she asks now. “Where will I go to school?”
“We’ll get you admitted to the best school in the city,” I promise. “Karachi has some excellent schools and is also home to one of the best universities, the Institute of Business Administ—“
“Oh, Baba, don’t even go there.”
I chuckle, and to my surprise, she rests her head against my arm. “Can I still visit Dubai sometimes? To shop and see my friends?”
“Of course,” I say. “We still have our home there, don’t we? And we’ll have a nice big home in Karachi too, so you can even call your friends here! Wouldn’t that be a different experience for them? Some cultural education for all of you little chumpoos.”
“As if,” she says. “They’ll be too scared to come here because of what they see on the news and stuff. I don’t blame them.”
“You shouldn’t. You should blame the news.”
She sighs. “You’re such a loyalist; it would be cute if it weren’t working against me.”
We get a porter who hauls our three suitcases onto a rusty trolley and wheels us toward baggage screening. The security officer on duty takes a look at us, a white-haired man and a jeans-clad, beanie-wearing young girl, and nods, giving us permission to forego the screening.
“Who’s here to pick us up?” Sarah asks, keeping a straight face as we exit the interior of the airport and step onto the Arrivals platform, instantly greeted by a cacophony of disordered noise. We can’t see past the crowd of men and women, gathered here for family, friends and God knows who else. They are of all sorts, but mostly, they are sweaty, the men with pit stains on their grey khameez and the women fanning themselves with the ends of their dupattas.
“Where to, sahib?” the porter matches the look of inquiry on Sarah’s face as we navigate through the sea of people and find ourselves a spot of sunlight which is, for the time being, not overwhelmingly packed.
I look around for a couple of seconds, a little more bowled over by the combination of heat and sweat and people than I expected to be, and very ashamed of it, considering Sarah seems more composed than me. “Oh, the metro, boss,” I say to him. “Tell us how to book a metro cab. Where should I go?”
He points in the direction of a boxed stall about only a dozen yards away. I swallow, as I take in the long, zig-zagging queue in front of it. “Alright,” I say to Sarah. “You stay here and keep an eye on the suitcases with this chap. No need to get yourself hot and sweaty; I’ll arrange for a metro.”
I make my way to the end of the queue, and surprisingly, through minimal jostling and a negligible increase in my blood pressure, I manage to reach the booth in only five minutes. I pay for the metro taxi and the clerk hands me a ticket and gives me directions. Holding it up in my hand, smiling as if I’ve accomplished something impressive, I return to where I left Sarah and the porter.
But the only thing I find is my trolley, with the three suitcases neatly stacked one on top of the other. The smile slowly and strenuously scratches itself off my face. I look around, I whirl, eyes darting, but I see nothing but an unrecognizable sea, which moves in tidal waves. Abandoning the trolley, I struggle against people, as I steer myself, directionless, yelling out her name.
“Sarah! Sarah!” Until people begin to get distressed or begin to feel my angst. Until a policeman is in my face, holding a hand against my chest to hold me in place.
“What’s the problem, sir jee?” he asks, waiting for my breathing to stabilize and for my eyes to stop darting and settle on him.
“She’s gone—my daughter is gone,” I say. Earlier than even Sarah could have predicted, we have been consumed by the country’s cost of living.
Abeer Farooqui is a recent graduate of the American University of Sharjah with a degree in Business Management. Currently, she is hoping to be accepted into graduate school to pursue her long-time interests in creative writing. A few of the topics she likes to write about are transnational identity conflicts as well as family expectations in the Middle East and sub-continent.