January can be a tough month. It's tough slogging through the snow and the fog and the grey. Days are short and darkness is long and it's tough being motivated to embark on all the dreams and journeys we promised ourselves at the turn of the year.
It's tough to care for myself — I overwork and over-perform and forget to rest, to take time, to love myself unconditionally and stop comparing myself.
What helps me the most during all this is, of course, a healthy reminder. The reminders that help the most take the shape of excerpts from my favourite novels or speeches from my favourite people or lines from my favourite poems. I wrote out some of these, hoping the act of writing would help me absorb them. Now, I'm sharing them with you in the hopes that your January is easier and you're confident in your ability to be amazing.
It's been a difficult year.
So many times this year, the larger world and my own smaller world reminded me that hardship takes many forms. But tonight, as we all hold our breath and wait for the clock to switch over to the 2017 episode of our lives, I'm reminded that if I've learned anything from my immigrant parents, who have gone through and continue to endure obstacle after obstacle for my sisters and I, it's that being grateful for the little things makes you realize how big those little things really are.
Here are a few things that I'm going to try my hardest to remember 2016 by. A few things that seem small when they were happening, especially next to everything else going on, but in retrospect, pushed me to be a better me.
1 — work to be proud of
I've tried journaling. I've always wanted something like a journal to look back on and see how I was feeling or what I was doing or who I was surrounding myself with at any given time. A few years ago, I realized that as someone who loves working, my planner — with the to-do lists and the frantic reminders and notes from meetings — is my journal.
Tonight, I sat down and flipped through my 2016 planner — I remembered the classes I took, the things I learned, the jobs I was lucky enough to have, the time I carved out to spend with people I care about, and most importantly, the work I did that I could be proud of. This planner that illustrates all the work I've done this year is going onto the shelf with the rest as I set up my planner for January 2017.
2 — digging at the roots
This was the year I felt closest to where I'm from. I saw my grandparents for the first time in 15 years, whose last memory of me is as a stumbling 4-year-old, at the airport on her way to start a new life in Canada. I spoke to my parents about the motherland in a way I've never done before and learned more about my roots than I thought existed.
2016 was a year of forging strong, impenetrable connections with where I'm from and being unapologetic about this journey to unravel a childhood spent neglecting my roots.
3 — reading in colour
This year, I've read more books by authors of colour than I've ever read. My love affair with literature was so often white and I wanted this year to feature words by people who looked and felt and hurt like me. I read incredible stories that are now some of the best books I've ever read. In 2016, I surrounded myself with words that reflected me.
Zadie Smith's Swing Time taught me about the impact of female friendships and sisterhood, The Good Immigrant brought together the pains and gains of the immigrant experience and had me nodding my head until it hurt, and so many others are now sitting on my bookshelf as reminders that you don't have to read books by white, male authors labeled as "classics" to be in love with literature.
4 — writing unapologetically
It's never easy to write about race or culture or the experiences that we so often feel are just in our heads and not worth sharing with the world. But this year, I wrote often and unapologetically. I shared these words with the world and the world gave back — Burnt Roti published my piece on recapturing culture, the incredible Gal-Dem published my essay on the complexities of brown female aspirations, and my essay on watching brown shows while brown was picked up by The Huffington Post!
I'm so lucky to have had the opportunities to share my writing in the way I have. This year, I've pushed myself to silence the voice in my head that generates self-doubt about my words and instead just write, without second thoughts.
Cherish Chai wishes you the happiest end to this year and a 2017 full of blessings! Stay tuned for more stories, features and journeys in the new year.
Aanjalie Collure is a Sri Lankan-Canadian global health and human rights advocate working out of New York City, by way of Toronto. As a symptom of her ability to be many things — advocate, activist, artist and editor — she has trouble describing herself in a sound bite.
A few weeks ago, I wrote an article about my the issue of racism and lack of diversity at my university. A couple of days later, I received an email from Aanjalie. My university being her alma mater and her being passionate about issues of race and human rights, Aanjalie not only wrote me words of support and encouragement, but asked me to be a part of her next project — a human rights exhibit illustrating the stories of those whose voices are typically silenced. The exhibit, Toronto's Untold Stories, is curated entirely by Aanjalie.
More than anything, Aanjalie is a brown woman with the desire and the nerve to be defiant in her identity. Here she is.
Me: Talk to me about your new project — the exhibition. What's it all about?
Following the devastating American election results, I was bewildered at how little people in that country tried to talk across borough lines to understand livelihoods different than their own. Also in the aftermath of that election, I heard many heralding Toronto as a multicultural epicenter of progressiveness and liberal values — where a bigoted, racist and sexist head of state could never be the candidate of choice. Though that argument holds truth, it also ignores the dark complacency that hides in the underbelly of our own city.
To that end, I started organizing “Toronto’s Untold Stories” — a free, interactive human rights exhibit that seeks to leverage stories from communities that are typically silenced in mainstream Canadian media and news.
The exhibit will feature photographed self-portraits taken by immigrants, homeless senior citizens, wounded veterans, former sex trafficking survivors, genocide victims and so many more, and will be accompanied by short audio clips sharing their stories of resilience and advocacy.
I’ve spent weeks trying to curate content for the exhibit, and am beyond excited to share it with fellow Torontonians. “Toronto’s Untold Stories” take place on December 28 from 1:00 – 5:00 PM at the Art Square Gallery at 334 Dundas Street West.
Me: Tell me a little bit about you, the person behind the exhibition.
Aanjalie: I’m Sri Lankan-Canadian — basically, I guess, yeah — though you don’t get a last name like mine without a healthy dose of colonial meddling. There’s a sprinkling of Portuguese and German through my ancestral line – particularly on my mother’s side – but that part of my identity only ever touches my life when someone learns of it and feels the need to declare, “So that’s why you have a European nose!” I’m confused, too.
My parents and I immigrated from Sri Lanka to Canada when I was three years old, during the height of that country’s brutal civil war. We lived in a small, one-bedroom apartment in Toronto for most of my childhood, each navigating the confusion of this new life in our own way.
I dropped Sinhala, my first language, in favour of a proper Canadian accent; my parents worked twice as hard as their white colleagues to be taken seriously in their workplaces.
My one act of adolescent rebellion was not becoming a lawyer, although I still think I’d make a pretty damn good one. Instead, I pursued a career as a health and human rights advocate, and have worked at organizations committed to raising awareness to silenced and under-represented global issues. The work I do today is deeply personal, borne out of a desire to find my own voice at a time when top-tier newspapers blissfully ignored countless war tragedies in Sri Lanka during the late nineties.
Today, this passion for highlighting sidelined stories and silenced voices transcends my professional career and finds its way into my art, hobbies and writing.
Me: What has your journey coming to terms with your brown female identity been like?
Aanjalie: Simply put, it’s been pretty weird. I used to introduce myself as Anne-ja-lee Ko-lure and now go by how my name was intended to be pronounced, Ahn-juh-lee Ko-loo-ray. It’s been particularly weird for my boyfriend, who’s been one of the few people in my life that lasted through the Anne-ja-lee/Ahn-juh-lee transition. He now mostly refers to me with pet names.
Growing up, the colour of my skin was incidental. The neighbourhood I was raised in was largely made up of immigrants from South and East Asia, the Caribbean and Eastern Europe, so I found myself identifying more with “immigranthood” than “brownhood.”
Despite our differences, we had so much more in common — having different accents from our parents, the burden of opportunity, a love for Destiny’s Child — so that I was specifically Sri Lankan was of trivial importance.
It was only when I moved away for school — in Kingston, Ontario and then to Cambridge in the UK — that my brownness became inescapably obvious. I became the darkest person in my classes on more than one occasion, braced a few demeaning slurs and scratched my head when shopkeepers said the dresses I tried on “looked good with my tan.”
To come to grips with this new reality, I tried desperately to reclaim the Sri Lankan culture I had lost — albeit sometimes in a superficial way. I called myself Ahn-juh-lee, watched South Asian movies, drank tea and talked endlessly about the rise of xenophobia following 9/11.
While I learned a lot about myself in the process, I was also viciously polarizing – failing to find ways to build allies in my new all-white communities, rather than push them away.
I’m now trying to forge a middle ground in my identity — one that tries to come to terms with the carefully-tucked away incidents of racism I’ve experienced without blaming a whole country for the horrible people that made me feel like this.
Me: Did you at any point feel disillusioned with your brownhood? How are you/do you tackle that?
Oh, always. I’ve experienced crippling moments of insecurity and anxiety where I’ve second-guessed my abilities and strengths purely because of the colour of my skin. It’s probably rooted in ESL classes I was forced to endure throughout elementary school — despite having an impeccable accent and the highest English grades in my class.
I would bring my national award-winning poems to class to prove to teachers that I didn’t need to sit through ESL lessons, but it never worked. Still brown? Still ESL.
It’s affected my personal life, too. The number of times I’ve told my half-Indian-half-Caucasian boyfriend that he’d “like me better if I was white” is ridiculous, and he’s reassured me he wouldn’t too many times to count.
When I get like this, I think about my parents’ incredible resilience and determination to succeed, regardless of their circumstances. They came to Canada with little more than $4,000 to their name, personified Drake’s “started from the bottom” and now lead accomplished careers in their respective companies.
It’s their job to tell me how proud they are of me, but I don’t tell them enough how proud I am of them. They inspire me every day.
Me: If you could say a few things to young brown girls or to yourself at a young age, what would you say?
Work so hard that it’s impossible for anyone to doubt how good you are. Eat, breathe, dream your goals and go after them twice as hard as those around you, because you’ll need to.
Also, aspiring to be a doctor or a lawyer is incredibly admirable — but aren’t the only career options available to you (as much as it might feel like it). We need more brown documentary filmmakers, members of Parliament, journalists, artists, advocates….
Finally: your skin is brown, but it’s also thicker than you think.
I'm incredibly humbled and honoured to be a part of an initiative as incredible as Aanjalie's exhibition.
If you're in the area, please check it out! It's completely free, and will be held at the beautiful Art Square Gallery & Café on December 28th, from 1 to 2pm.
Here is some incredible art and content by people of colour, for people of colour, including people of colour that I've been surrounding myself with recently and that I hope you can find some solace in as well.
1 — CASHMERE BY SWET SHOP BOYS
Okay, so I'm not going to pretend this one isn't a little bit aided by my love for Riz Ahmed, but it's largely because Cashmere is a really, really good album.
With tracks that combine heart-achingly relevant lines like "Insh'Allah / masha'Allah / hopefully no martial law" with classical tones of Bollywood-esque music spliced in-between, Cashmere is a gritty and unapologetic celebration of the South Asian diaspora.
The Swet Shop Boys are the brainchild of UK-based rapper and actor Riz MC (Riz Ahmed), former member of hip-hop group Das Racist and solo Queens-based rapper Heems, backed by UK music producer Redhino.
Their debut album is so many things all at once while also being just enough — it marries personal lives with the universality of the immigrant and diasporic experience. With sharp humour, intelligence and political thought, Cashmere uses intimately personal experiences to mirror widely familiar truths that I found myself constantly nodding my head to.
The name itself is a symbol of the diasporic negotiation at play in the album. Cashmere — the luxurious wool and when said aloud, a reference to Kashmir, the disputed territory between India and Pakistan.
In probably my favourite song on the album, Din E-Ilahi, Riz MC raps about growing up as the brown son of immigrants.
Used to hate the clothes / They ask where I get the stitchin
Used to call me curry / Now they cook it in their kitchens
2 — "Typecast as a terrorist" by Riz Ahmed
Yes, I realize I'm on a Riz Ahmed binge here. Let me live.
It's hard to believe this essay was written before the US election. It's just as relevant if not more so following the rising attacks against Muslims in America and the Euro-Western world, the increasingly overt culture of xenophobia and Islamophobia after the election, and the feeling of palpable fear among so many Muslims and those racialized as Muslim.
The poignantly written essay is actually an excerpt from the essay anthology The Good Immigrant, which brings together the distinct voices of 21 Black, Asian and minority ethnic writers and personalities in Britain, as they share the unique immigrant and diasporic perspective in a world that consistently generates fear of immigrants.
Ahmed's essay, with its poignant and crystal-clear prose, takes us through being typecast as a terrorist as he attempted to lift his acting career off the ground. As his name garnered more attention in the acting world, he was given less stereotypical roles, but was still consistently typecast as a terrorist in one particular space — the post-9/11 airport.
It's not an uplifting read, exactly. But with a sharp and intelligent voice, Ahmed artfully vocalizes so much of the micro- and macro-aggressions faced by Muslims in airports, that consistently and sometimes aggressively violate our rights to personal space, both physically and mentally. If anything, Ahmed finds the words I hoped and still hope to find in the wake of so much fear for Muslims today.
3 — Umrika dir. by prashant Nair
Starring Life of Pi star Suraj Sharma, this 2005 Indian film — which is surprisingly only an hour and a half long, unlike the typically three-hour-long Bollywood affair — is a heartwarming tale of family and cross-continental loss. The beautifully made film follows the young Ramakant (Sharma) as he grows in a rural Indian village and eventually leaves it for big city Mumbai to find out what happened to his supposedly America-bound brother, who was never heard from once he left.
The film, right from the get-go, is cinematically beautiful.
The village is small and rural, but the camera never focuses on what this town lacks. Instead, the eye follows the expansive mountain ranges and far-reaching horizon that surrounds this village that Ramakant calls home.
As he traverses the bustling city life of Mumbai to try and uncover the mystery of his brother Udai's disappearance, what he finds adds a concentrated dimensionality to the film and enhances the desire that lies the movie's core — Ramakant's deep, unflinching desire for America, begun by his love for his absent brother and founded by what some would call the elusive American dream.
If you check any of these out, please let me know what you think! I'd love to hear your thoughts!
It's a week or so after that day and my mom and I are sitting on the couch. My mom sighs. "If I had the money," she says, "I'd go back to Pakistan. Right now."
I've just read out a headline announcing that the president-elect and his staff are already putting plans into place for a 'Muslim registry.' I tell her about the attacks against Muslims across the U.S., about the white supremacist posters seen posted in Toronto. I think about the Muslim children still registered in no-fly lists after 9/11, how that's a Muslim registry though it may not be called one.
In the past week, my 13-year old sister was asked questions about Islam and being a Muslim from her white classmates. A girl at my university tells me she thinks Canada would do well to "take a page out of America's book in terms of dealing with Islamic terrorism." In Ottawa, an hour and a half from where I live, an elementary school is vandalized with a swastika and the letters "KKK." A few days later, it's a mosque.
And yet, after all of this, the words escape me. I don't have coherent sentences and eloquent words. Not this time. There's so much hurt here, in so many communities, in so many different ways. I don't know how to make sense of that. But let me tell you what I do know.
I do know — as a brown, Muslim woman living in this time, as this all unfolds — that I am as unapologetically myself as I can possibly be and that this itself is a radical act. I do know how to pull those hurting closer to me and tell them I hear their frustration, loud and clear. I do know that love doesn't always trump hate, that for many of us summoning love and having it magically solve our hurt is a privilege.
I also know how I can show support. How I can be quiet and listen. How I can show up. How I can take time to step away from explaining and education and instead focus on caring for myself. How to keep learning, keep speaking, keep getting angry about things worth being angry about in a world that treats non-white anger as a sign of failure.
If you've been hurt by all this, are being hurt, or are afraid of being hurt, here are some words for you. I can't promise they'll help but I hope they do.
Know that while fighting is going to be necessary, you don't always have to fight alone. To simply exist is exhausting enough and you can rest, you can lean on those standing next to you. Know that you're loved and while that's not enough to save you, hopefully it helps to remind you of how much resilience is in you.
Here are some of the incredible people I've surrounded myself with in this past week, and some of the things they'd like you to know too.
"Growing up in a place where everyone on my street was brown, I never felt like a minority until I went to university," says Vishmayaa, an inspiring friend and workaholic Drama student with several productions under her belt and her own diverse production company in the works.
Vishmayaa is one of the most hardworking people I know, always running around, always dreaming of the next big thing. Studying and hoping to enter into the theatre and film world — an industry that often pushes racialized people to carve their own spaces and opportunities — Vishmayaa is already finding ways to make those spaces for herself. Currently working with both Colliding Scopes Theatre and The Imaginary Theatre Company — and speaking up about the culture of whiteness at university in her spare time — this girl's a powerhouse.
She is fierce and loud and not afraid to take up space. I talked to her about that.
"Only recently, as I'm occupying spaces that are very white and make me feel isolated, I've realized how little I was connected to my culture as a kid, even in a place where everyone around me was also brown. It wasn't conscious, but now that my identity is such a big part of me, especially here, I want to know more, I need to know more."
When I asked her if she can remember the moment where that shift took place, between never feeling like a minority and feeling isolated in her brownness, she doesn't hesitate.
"That first week of university. It was immediate.
At the time, I thought move-in day and orientation made me nervous because of the same reasons that everyone else is nervous. But looking back, it was because I quickly realized, within that first few hours, how different I was and how different I felt. I realized this was going to be a big change."
The biggest reminder of this change comes through in her name — or rather, how people insist on not saying it, or saying it wrong.
"I'm a lot more aggressive now about my name, where before I used to be okay with nicknames. It's a huge part of who I am. My name is Vishmayaa, that's the traditional name my parents gave me. I'm not May. I'm not Vish."
Her name was always a big part of her identity, but became even more so as she sat in classrooms as the only non-white person, or worked on productions where she was only diverse team member.
"When the ground has shifted under your feet like that, you need something to stabilize yourself, you know? You need something to hold on to. I held onto my name."
When it comes to choosing theatre as her field and career path, she tells me it might have been the only decision she made in her time at university that had nothing to do with her being brown.
"I came here intending to do English and history. I wasn't happy with that, but I realized that the small elective course in drama and film that I took on the side me happier than anything else.
We've made our own opportunities for years, and I'm working on that. I'm working on starting a film production company. I'm a huge believer in making your own place.
But there's no doubt that you have to work twice as hard, talk twice as loud, take up twice as much space.
So that's what I'm doing."
This week was a week of words.
Last weekend, I was invited to read some poetry at a reading that the English department at my university had organized. I'm still recovering from the feeling of having a room of talented people listen to you read something you patched together — from having people tap you on the shoulder afterwards to say "I really felt that, thanks."
Reading poems that speak so deeply of my identity as a brown girl, my background and my lineage, is a surreal and vulnerable act, but I left feeling so grateful.
Following the event, I've been writing quite a bit. Even with so little time given school and work, I'm finding that being unapologetically yourself through your art and have people respond well is nothing if not a push to keep crafting, to keep perfecting, to keep being better.
Below are some other incredible female poets of colour who I've been reading a lot of recently, and who keep me motivated to continue writing.
Pavana — My Mother
my mother learned
the english language
so when she spoke,
others would listen.
but when she cries,
i hear her native tongue.
when my mother cries,
i know how long
she has been silent.
Fatimah Asghar — America
am I not your baby?
brown & not allowed
my own language?
my teeth pulled
from mouth, tongue
bloated with corn syrup?
america, didn’t you raise me?
bomb the country of my fathers
& then tell me to go back to it?
didn’t you mold the men
who murder children in schools
who spit at my bare arms
& uncovered head?
america, wasn’t it you?
who makes & remakes
me orphan, who burns
my home, watches me rebuild
& burns it down again?
wasn’t it you, who uproots
& mangles the addresses
until there are none
until all I have are my own
hands & even those you’ve
told me not to trust? america
don’t turn your back on me.
am I not your baby?
brown & bred to hate
every inch of my skin?
didn’t you raise me?
didn’t you tell me bootstraps
& then steal my shoes?
didn’t you make there no ‘back’
for me to go back to?
america, am I not your refugee?
who do I call mother, if not you?
Safia Elhillo — talking with an accent about home
a sudan of gardens & magnolia flowers
of cloying thick coffee & dark dregs
a sudan of my grandfather awake
with the sun & feeding the birds & the
early morning perfume of something
burning a sudan split by a river in two
quartered by new boundaries &
i with my feet in my grandmother’s lap
& my story perfect by never beginning
oiled in romance the river nile a dirty
refrain emptied of actual water
the great-aunts long dead dark-lipped
smiling in pictures four long burn
scars striped down each face healed
over to look painted on
(Trigger warning: mental illness, mention of suicide)
We've all seen the mental health awareness campaigns across our campuses and workplaces, that urge communities to embrace healthy conversations about mental illness and mental health. Rarely, however, do these campaigns take into account the cultural barriers that leave many communities—in this case, the brown Muslim community—still grappling with how to approach mental health.
Many of our youth are told to pray, and it'll go away. Many of our youth are told the pain is irrational, that it'll pass, that back home, it was far worse. Many of our youth are told by community leaders and elders that difficulty is a part of life—that if we don't battle through, we won't prosper.
Depression, anxiety, trauma—these realities are barely said aloud in our communities. They're brushed under the rug, often excused as being overreactions.
As a result, brown youth struggling with mental illnesses are finding themselves at a loss for help and support, time and time again. According to a study, South Asian patients are facing much more severe mental health issues by the time they seek professional help.
Just yesterday, 11-year old Asa Khan was found in his room by his mom, having taken his own life. Continuously, South Asian communities find themselves pushed to face their own ugly denial of mental illness whenever something tragic like this happens. It shouldn't have to get this far.
Upon the news of Khan's death, former Bradford city councillor Ishtiaq Ahmed said that Khan "came across as a very confident young man, so he must have been experiencing real issues at school for him to take the action that he did."
This façade of confidence is only strengthening the thickness of our stigma.
The cultural barrier is a wide one. Between myself and my parents is a chasm of understanding and when it comes to mental health. Those conversations are uncomfortable ones to have. And yet, the stakes are far too high.
On a university campus, mental health campaigns aren't rare. They encourage us to start discussions around the importance of mental health and no one would disagree that they're needed. But the perceptions of mental health at the centre of these campaigns are largely Western.
I see mental health differently in my university setting as I do when I'm at home, or in the mosque. Elders in my family find it hard to grasp that depression is an illness, that it can be treated, and isn't just a bad day. Western-focused mental campaigns are working to break stigmas for some people, not for all. They're expecting all people to be at the same mindset regarding mental health, when some communities still have a long way to go.
Our immigrant parents, who've traversed a multitude of hardships to allow us the opportunities they couldn't afford, want to believe that our lives will be untouched.
To many of them, their children's wavering mental health is a marker of their failure—a symbol of their inability to protect us and see us succeed in all the ways they wished. That makes sense.
What doesn't make sense is the inability to talk about how it's no one's fault, and it happens, and members of the community are suffering.
For me, breaking the stigma around mental health is about more than generation conversation with my friends and with Western perceptions in mind.
For me, it's about my sisters, my parents, our community's vulnerabilities, and the many brown kids scared to speak up.
Books make up a big part of my life.
As an English major, I read them to study. As an avid bibliophile, I read them to wind down. I can't remember the last time I went a day without cracking one open, for some reason or other.
But I can count on my hands — without using all fingers — the ones I've studied in school that were written by non-white authors, let alone brown authors. Not only that, each book by a white writer can be found in your local bookstore on a shelf labeled "classic literature" — whatever that means.
I've spoken about the lack of non-white authors in mainstream literature on Cherish Chai before.
My frustrations, however, have only gotten worse as I realize what this does to me as an English student wanting to excel.
After two weeks of being in school, I've now bought all my books for both semesters. All of the novels — almost a dozen altogether — have white authors.
It's increasingly difficult to be a student that deeply analyzes and studies literature, a student who does well in the classes that still deem Dickens and Shakespeare as the pinnacle of literature.
I've come to realize — in the year of my degree — that I'm never going to be represented in the literature taught to me. I will never open a novel assigned in class and see myself.
I will always feel a disconnection and alienation when my peers raise their hands in class to explain how they can "relate so much" to the literature.
It's exhausting to be the one student in any given English class who brings up the racial issues in so many of these "classic" novels, only to be met with exasperation by my professor and eye-rolling by my white peers.
I'm tired of quickly putting my hand down in class for fear of being known as the one brown girl with something negative to say about the "literary canon." I'm tired of the same themes of court and colonization and country pride and whiteness that are repeated time and time again, with the only thing that changes being the name behind the work.
By branding these novels being taught "classic literature," we alienate the very students in our lecture halls that don't see themselves reflected in the books that are supposed to be timeless.
By only teaching white literature and canonizing it to the point of no critique, we slowly but surely pave ourselves an all-white class of English students — why would non-white people study English when it doesn't look like them? Why would they try hard in class, let alone excel, when all they're doing is discussing white cultures and white authors, in a space thereby meant for white people?
My point is — I'm tired. I'll still hound the professor's office hours and raise my hand in class. I won't protest by failing to engage with the texts. I'll still show you I get it.
But every time, the bitter taste in the mouth will only worsen.
It's two weeks in, and I can already feel it.
On the eve of the news that her ten-year-old daughter's hand in marriage has been promised to a tribal leader, Allah Rakhi — which means "God protects" — dusts off a trunk full of her wedding clothes. Zainab, still unaware of her fate, still innocent, still untouched, asks what the red stain on her mother's wedding dress is. Allah Rakhi, wanting with all her strength to protect her wide-eyed girl, hesitates before telling her.
"My blood. My mother's blood. My grandmother's blood."
Dukhtar, directed by Pakistani filmmaker Afia Nathaniel, is about a lineage of women hurting and one mother's relentless hunt for a way to stop the pain, for her daughter.
Allah Rakhi is married to a man many years her senior, a marriage that was established by tribal leaders when she was just 15. Now, she has a young daughter named Zainab who is about to meet the same fate, and she is determined to change it.
On the night of Zainab's betrothal, Allah Rakhi takes her daughter and flees their small brick house, nestled in the steep mountain ranges of northern Pakistan. Hand in hand, and soon joined by Sohail — a truck driver with his own dark past and a gradually rising love for Allah Rakhi — they trace the dirt trails and winding rivers of Pakistan's vast mountainous regions.
Together, they run from the violent forces of tribal traditions that permeates generation after generation of women.
First things first: filmmaker Afia Nathaniel's cinematography is nothing short of mastery. Simple yet breathtaking, the vibrant colours of the northern Sindh province — the crimsons, the blood oranges, the jade greens — are stark against the gradients of vast blue sky and horizons of sharp mountain range. It's a feast for the eyes if ever there was one, without ever being overbearing.
The storytelling isn't incredibly fast-paced and the narrative takes its time, but I never found it tedious or stretched out. While Sohail's character does fall in love with Allah Rakhi, it's never more than it needs to be, nor does it overshadow the real relationship at the epicentre of the film — the relationship between a mother and her daughter.
Perhaps my favourite moment of the film is when Allah Rakhi sneaks Sohail's phone number to contact her mother, reading her number off of a crumpled piece of paper that seems to have been in her pocket for years. As soon as she hears her mother's voice, tears spring to her eyes.
This is the moment that sealed the meaning of the film for me — the connection between mothers and their daughters and the will to protect one another regardless of time, distance or fragile tribal alliances.
This is one of the few films I've seen by a Pakistani filmmaker and the homages to Pakistan's recognizable cultural elements are easy to spot. The quick, busy shots of Lahore, the streets festooned with the lights and the sequin-clad girls clinging to their mothers as they wind through throngs of people. The lush rivers and mountains, with thin dirt roads spiralling to the peaks, where age-old villages were built and still remain.
At just an hour and a half, Dukhtar tackles a complex issue with grace, while still keeping intact the pain and difficulty of it all. At its core, Allah Rakhi and Zainab are kept whole by nothing more than their love for each other.
You can find Dukhtar on Netflix! Let me know if you give this one a watch or if you've already seen it — I'd love to know what you think.
During mornings in our household, it's not uncommon for parathas and rotis to be served alongside pancakes and oatmeal. But there's one recipe that has been in our family for generations — it's made in our home multiple times a day and it's still made by my grandparents back in Pakistan, and by their parents before them.
I'm sure it's the same for most Desi households: our recipe for a steaming cup of chai. Here it is:
This recipe makes enough for two people. I start by putting two and a half cups of water in a saucepan to boil — the extra half cup is to account for evaporation, and so you don't end up with one big cup of chai and one sad, half-empty cup.
When it reaches a boil, I add two teabags of Tetley Orange Pekoe tea. Any brand of Orange Pekoe is fine!
It always makes me laugh when companies label their teas as "chai tea." The word "chai" in Urdu and Hindi literally means tea. So technically, they're selling "tea tea." Anyway. I digress.
Then, I add the following:
Two pods of cardamom,
which I crush slightly before adding, so the seeds inside can properly infuse their flavour into the tea.
A couple of cloves.
This alongside the cardamom gives the chai its signature aroma.
A pinch of cinnamon.
You can use a half stick of cinnamon instead, but I just find this easier.
I let this mixture sit for a few minutes on medium-low heat so the spices have time to infuse the tea and mix together. Occasionally, I'll mix everything around to ensure the teabags are releasing all their oils and flavours.
I then add about half a cup of unsweetened condensed milk (you can use whole milk if you don't have condensed milk on hand) and turn the heat down to low.
Let it simmer for 5 to 10 minutes, until it reaches a boil. As soon as it does, take it off the heat. It's important to keep watch because it can bubble over really fast. Trust me.
I use a baby sieve to pour it into cups so it catches all the spices — you don't want to bite down on a bunch of cloves, that's not fun.
Then, I stir in some brown sugar and gulp it down, often scalding my tongue and entire mouth in the process.
Hope you enjoyed!
How do you take your chai?
Hi everyone! As things gear up for me with school starting again and work picking up, I wanted to figure out how I could continue to bring unique, creative content to Cherish Chai throughout the school year.
I was mainly worried that as I was busy with school and work, I'd become preoccupied with posting every week rather than posting quality content that I'm proud of. So, a little change is in order!
Instead of every Saturday, Cherish Chai posts will be every other Saturday. That way, I can work on making every post better while also not overwhelming myself.
If you read a post and have some thoughts about it, or know of something or someone that you think I might be interested in, feel free to drop me a line!
And to make up for today's post, here's an essay I published this week on Medium titled "On Watching Brown Shows While Brown," which discusses what it's like to dislike a show that features a brown lead as a brown person. Warning, I talk about The Mindy Project a lot. Click through to read it:
See you next week!
On August 14th 1947, Pakistan's most celebrated leader, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, led raucous and history-altering celebrations in Karachi as Pakistan itself was born.
69 years ago, with its hunger and thirst and unspeakable beauty and difference, with its chai and biryani and cricket, with its Lahore and its Karachi and its Kashmir, the green-and-white was pulled by its coattails into existence.
I left the country when I was four years old, hardly old enough to know what it meant to belong somewhere. Growing up in the diaspora but also growing up as someone from a country with a violently uncomfortable place in world politics and affairs, it was difficult to say where I'm from.
"Oh, uh, near India. Basically India."
Now, I have an immense pride in being from Pakistan, but it's a loaded pride. I didn't grow up with physical ties to the country, only emotional, only indirect. I didn't grow up attending its schools. I didn't grow up dreaming to work there.
Everything I've learned about my homeland has come from elsewhere — my parents, my grandparents, the little bit of positive news that's out there about Pakistan — but not from myself, not from my own hands.
Do I deserve to celebrate its independence? Do I deserve to be loudly proud of this country, that I've barely seen or known firsthand?
The answer, I think, is yes. A complicated yes. Because while I want to spend this one day of the year, this day with so much history and meaning for Pakistan, telling people how proud I am to be Pakistani, it's about much more than that.
I want to work tirelessly to be successful not just for myself and for my parents, but also to exemplify the power and strength of Pakistan's women. When I think about becoming a notable figure or someone who is exemplary in their field, I think about setting an example for Pakistan as well.
My pride in being Pakistani is a constant effort. It's a continuous convincing that I'm Pakistani too, that I love it and it belongs to me as much as I belong to it.
I ask my mama what she misses most about Pakistan other than her family. She thinks about it for a minute.
"I miss the environment of being in Pakistan. There's a feeling that I'm home, where I was born," she says.
"It's like a mother — you were fed there, your roots are there, your parents were born there. You ate the land's food... that's like the blood of your country."
My dad's answer is less theoretical. When I ask him, he knows the answer immediately.
"One of the things that I miss most is, during Autumn," he says, "when those dried leaves fall on those roads, and the wind blows and they dance on the streets in Lahore. I also really miss the feeling of being a part of something."
When I ask them if Independence Day means something different to them now than it did when they lived in Pakistan, Mama smiles sadly. It means more, she says.
"Being away and not being able to stay there, you feel the emotions more. When people are there, they take it for granted. When you're missing something, you know its real importance," Mama says.
"And also, wherever we go, my generation still belongs to our homeland — no matter how much I try, I will never be fully part of this world because we can't leave our roots and traditions, we can't."
When I pose this question to my dad, he's silent for a while. Of course it's different, he says.
"The interpretation of 'independence' is different. The causes of Pakistan's independence and the factors and the reasons have become more visible and realistic, having seen the world from the outside," he says.
"I miss that most, that I've become a spectator instead of an insider. Seeing things from outside is a totally different thing than being a part of it. I miss seeing lots of flags floating. I miss holding Pakistan's flag. I miss putting candles on the rooftops on Independence Day in celebration — that's lost here. It seems dry here."
"It's different for you," Mama says. "It's different for you but,
our minds and hearts are still there."
So, happy Independence Day to this country, with all its hurt and its healing, from my parents and their parents, from me and all the other young Pakistanis hesitant to call just one place home. May its next independence be from the people within its borders and beyond its borders who keep it from its full potential.
For most of my life, I've felt guilty about taking time for myself.
I used to think it was just a symptom of a hard work ethic — maybe it was a good thing. But when working hard faded quickly into overworking, which slowly took its toll on my mental wellness, I started to realize that maybe it was a problem.
We — children of immigrant parents — grow up watching our mothers and fathers work late into the night, determined to have all the dreams they held for this country pay off. We grew up in households where it was normal to toil and sacrifice one's wellbeing to achieve what you want out of life. This is just the reality of an immigrant family.
And now, in a world that often asks twice as much of us as it does of others, constantly asking us to explain ourselves in the face of racism and misunderstanding, time and time again denying our talents and abilities and stories, rest is too often a luxury.
Even at a young age, I knew what I wanted out of life. But I also knew that it wouldn't be easy to get there. While that's completely normal and no path worth taking is without suffering, it should never be at the expense of my wellbeing.
So often, I find myself saying "yes" to this job and that one and oh, that one, too, even when every part of me is exhausted — because, somewhere, somehow, working hard has become slightly synonymous with sacrificing something of myself in the process.
In some ways, I've come to terms with it. My closest friends know this about me — they know when to take me by the shoulders and tell me to put my books down, close my laptop and just breathe for a second. They know I need to learn to take a break.
Sometimes, half the battle can be admitting that you're tired — and it's all tiring. Getting the grades, keeping up with the extracurriculars, earning the money, going the extra mile that's required by most non-white diasporic youth working towards professional careers, and being the lightning rod for racism and sexism that comes with a brown woman.
The other half of the battle? Stopping. Breathing. Realizing that my mental health is just as important as where I'll go in life, if not more.
Realizing that it's okay if I don't always speak up, don't always volunteer, don't always stay standing.
And while I'll always be hardwired for overworking, I'm learning. I'm learning to say no. I'm learning to sit back and put my feet up and slowly, the guilt is a little lesser every time.
The other day, my sister was excitedly telling me about a character in a book she had just finished — she had never read about a female character like that, she said. She was strong but could also cry when she needed to, be vulnerable when she needed to be. Most of all she knew how to be her own person and the leader of her own story.
With my first love always being books, it got me thinking about the few female characters I've encountered over the years who have really shaped or reshaped the way I thought about myself at different stages in my life.
They may not all be brown (it's hard enough to find great female characters let alone women of colour) — but they're all women who carry themselves with a power and wholeness and solidity that inspired and keeps inspiring me. Aside from the real women in my life, these are the women I come back to when the woman in me falters.
Here they are, these incredible women, in no particular order:
1) Alsana Begum in White Teeth
My obsession with British author Zadie Smith began the moment I finished reading White Teeth for the first time a few years ago. The story is about so much, it's almost impossible to summarize it without leaving something significant out. It chronicles 20 years of three different families, spanning three different cultures, as their lives and children's lives intersect. One of the central families consists of Bengali Muslim man Samad Miah Iqbal and his wife Alsana Begum. They have twin sons who are the picture of cultural hybridity — one is well-behaved, an academic genius while the other teeters on the edge of complete teenage rebellion.
Alsana was married to Samad in an arranged marriage that she resents, but is feisty and un-behaving and stands her ground. She reminds me of my mother — torn from her motherland, dealing with the backwards ideas of marriage often pushed onto young Muslim women of her generation, and expected to nothing more than obey. Alsana taught me deeply about the immigrant struggle, particularly for the strong and vulnerable and complex women of our motherlands.
2) Jo March in Little Women
When I was 13, just about my sister's age, I found a tattered and torn copy of Louisa May Alcott's Little Women at the local thrift store's book section. It had thick highlights on every page and copious notes in faded, lilting script and I got it for the few loonies in my pocket. But I fell in love with that book and most of all, I fell in love with Jo March.
Like me, Jo belonged to a house of sisters — a loud and arguing and loving house of sisters. While she wasn't the eldest sister like I am, she was the holder of the family. She was the sister that kept everything together. She loved her family sincerely and with her whole heart but also had dreams, loved to write, and wanted to see beyond the walls she grew up in. I related to her a scary amount and spent hours poring over the pages of that little book, reading about Jo and her adventures and willingness to do all it took to live her life unapologetically.
3) Esperanza Cordero in The House on Mango Street
Esperanza Cordero, Sandra Cisneros' incredible protagonist in her novella The House on Mango Street, taught me so much about my own experience — not only my experience growing up as a woman, but growing up as a brown woman.
The story traces Esperanza as she grows up in an inner-city Latina neighbourhood. She's coming to terms with being poor, being a girl, being faced with racism in America, and dealing with all of this all at once. When I read this a while ago, I couldn't recall every having read a character so complex — so multi-faceted, so complicated, and so unabashedly human.
When I first started wearing makeup regularly, I'd wear foundation three shades lighter than my skin. That was just the drugstore's definition of "nude".
I was reminded time and time again that makeup wasn't catered for a 15-year old with skin that was a colour she was still trying to come to terms with and little (or no) money.
For a couple of years at least, I bought into makeup that set their default tones based on white skin — definitely not mine. Recently, as I've come to be proud of it, with all its oiliness and hyper-pigmentation and scars, the makeup I wear is all about enhancing my skin, not hiding it.
My skin has always been my biggest insecurity. When I came to terms with its colour and how difficult it is to find the perfect shade of base makeup for a brown girl, I was plagued with years of acne that left me wanting to hide behind paint as much as I could. When my acne cleared up, I was left with scarring that I still have and peeks through even the fullest coverage of foundations. Dark circles around my eyes were hyper-pigmentation and couldn't just be fixed with a touch of concealer.
But I've been done with hiding for a while now. This is it, this is all I have. My skin is beautiful and while makeup gives me the confidence to conquer the day, I don't work for it anymore, it works for me.
My current go-to foundation is the Clarins Everlasting Lightweight full coverage foundation in the shade Caramel. This shade is perfect for my skin tone. It dries to a matte finish which doesn't look dull, while still working against my oiliness. It also has SPF in it, which is great in the summer!
I made my first foray into makeup in the cosmetics aisle at my local Walmart. The things I could spend hours sifting through — and still do, to be fair — are lip products.
My favourite kind of makeup, even if my face is otherwise bare, is a good nude lip colour. Now, let's face it, in a world where items marketed as “nude” are actually made with white women in mind, it takes some desperate digging through racks of lipsticks to find the right nude for a brown girl.
Above are some of my absolute favourites.
The Burt's Bees Tinted Lip Balm in Rose is my 6th tube. I'll use this guy to the last drop (literally) and then rush out to get a new one. I'm kind of an obsessive lip balm applier — I always have this with me and even take it into my exams and stressfully apply it throughout. It fixes my chapped lip problem and also has the perfect "my lips but better" tint for everyday use.
Revlon's ColourBurst Lacquer Balm looks like a lipstick but acts a lot like a lip balm. It's super easy and soft to apply and doesn't leave your lips dry and chapped like a lot of lipsticks tend to do. This is what I'll reach for when I'm looking for something a little bolder, but don't want to bother with an actual lipstick.
The top two products, the Annabelle Waterproof Lip Liner in the shade Nude (finally, an actual nude colour) and the E.L.F. Studio Matte Lip Colour in Praline are a package deal for me. They're a perfect pinky, mauve-y combination for my natural lip colour, while still being really low maintenance and easy on the lips.
I'm by no means a makeup guru. I'm loving learning about makeup and breaking my bank account on Sephora splurges.
Most of all, I'm loving using it to enhance the parts of me I love — including the colour of my skin — rather than hide the parts I don't.
See you next week!
At 21 years old, Zenith Irfan is living the adventure of a lifetime — motorcycling solo around Pakistan to fulfill her late father's dream, while unintentionally smashing all expectations held against her for being a Pakistani, Muslim woman.
I discovered Zenith and her incredible journey in a video feature on NowThis, which led me her to aptly named Facebook page: 1 Girl 2 Wheels. When I reached out to her, I wasn't exactly expecting a response, let alone a refreshing openness and kindness with which Zenith was willing to share her journey with me.
She started this adventure in the hopes of strengthening the memory of her father, and that's what it will always come back to at the end of the day.
"I did this and still do this so as to be closer to my father who I did not get to know. It's a very spiritual journey for me," she told me.
"People dub me as a feminist or a woman who is defying stereotypes because I'm a Pakistani woman who is Muslim," she said.
"But the truth is, I don't want all of that. My journey is to establish a unique father-daughter connection via motorcycles."
Tracing it all back to the beginning, Zenith's journey began with a tour to the mountainous Kashmir in northern Pakistan, from her hometown of urban Lahore. The travel lasted an entire week, totalling 700 kilometres on her bike.
"I decided to go alone and test myself to see if I was capable of enduring what nature had for me," she explained. "The second tour was a month after my first and I was with my brother and four other friends."
"It lasted for 20 days and I completed around 3200 kilometres."
Like any brown woman doing her thing, living her best life, Zenith has received more than her share of hate. There are people who think her gender dictates how she should behave — to many, that doesn't include doing what she loves.
"Instead of demotivating me, their comments give me more power to be confident and courageous in what I do," she said.
"I'm lucky to have so many supporters who motivate me everyday to travel further into the wilderness."
Not only has Zenith seen breathtaking sights during her rides through Pakistan's valleys and narrows roads, she has learned just as much.
"I have learned to be a woman who now knows how to thank God sufficiently," she told me.
"I thank Allah for the beautiful world [...] and for giving me the capability to of witnessing the magnificent works of mother nature in the flesh."
Riding from one end of the nation to the other has changed Zenith.
"Riding has made me a humble and patient woman who now has the strength and wisdom to see the bigger, positive picture out there."
Throughout all of this, Zenith has inspired many. Every day, Pakistani women and women across the globe comment on her page and message her, thanking her for being fearless in her passion for adventure. In response to young women who may be hesitant in pursuing dreams that may seem wild and impossible to those around them, Zenith had this to say:
"Why fear? I know at this time things might be hazy for you and you don't know where you want to see yourself in a few years. Start with the little things," she said.
"Know what you want and when. Befriend the monsters within you, shake their hands and use that fear to craft a beautiful woman who lives her dream wholeheartedly."
To see more of Zenith and her adventures, visit her at her Facebook page: 1 Girl 2 Wheels.
Near the beginning of June, Pakistan made international headlines. When people asked me if I had heard what was going on, I imagined the usual Western politicization of our country — another terror plot, another drone strike, another political coup.
Instead, when I scrolled through the news, what I found terrified me.
Chairman of the Council for Islamic Ideology Muhammad Kahn Sherani drafted a 75-page proposal to the Pakistani government detailing when and why "lightly beating" women can and should be an option. The proposal acts as advice for Pakistani leaders to enact a law that would allow "light beating" to be lawful discipline against Pakistani wives, calling it "Quranic".
In just hours, international news outlets were buzzing. "Pakistani husbands can ‘lightly beat’ their wives, Islamic council says," read The Washington Post.
But in the same amount of time, Pakistani women took action.
Alongside dozens of successful women, Pakistani photographer Fahhad Rajper began the #TryBeatingMeLightly campaign. Black and white photographers showcasing these women, who are everything from doctors to designers to teachers to mothers, and their personal backlash against the proposal.
In light of Ramadan, when billions of Muslims across the world are feeding and nourishing their faith, one thing is clear about this proposal — this is not our Islam. To claim that violence against women is Quranic is in itself anti-Islamic.
What's more? This isn't our Pakistan.
It doesn't escape me for one second that this proposal took no time at all to make headlines, while many people can hardly name a successful Pakistani woman that isn't Malala.
There are mindsets in Pakistan that are working against women and we have so much work to do.
But when it comes to the West's saviour complex of brown folk, it would be more constructive if the continuous blame against us for being orthodox in our views towards gender equality would be balanced with a spotlight towards the hundreds and thousands of successful Pakistani women doing incredible things.
So, in an effort to do just that, here are only a small sampling of role models in the vast number of Pakistani women making strides in every field across the world:
Motorcyclist and beater of all stereotypes Zenith Irfan has been living her late father's dream and riding from one end of Pakistan to the other — all on her motorcycle.
Despite many people's comments on her journey being unladylike and defying the image of a "good Muslim woman", Zenith has continued being badass and poised. (Tune in next week for an exciting interview with Zenith herself!)
At just nine years old, Arfa was recognized as being the youngest certified Microsoft Professional, catching the attention of global leaders including Bill Gates. The young genius immediately became a source of inspiration.
After her death at a tender 16 from an epileptic attack, Arfa continues to be a household name for beating all the odds.
At 26 years old, Ayesha is Pakistan's only female war-ready fighter pilot. In the past few years, the taboo against women in the air force has lessened to allow hundreds more women to become army pilots — because of women like Ayesha.
While being in the military establishment as a woman isn't easy, Ayesha has stuck to her guns and fought hard for her passion.
I never used to be able to write poems about my brownness. As someone for whom poetry has been a constant passion since a young age, avoiding such a huge part of my identity in my work wasn't easy. Recently, I've been able to write about my culture and race and lineage with newfound clarity, and I can't help but want to share that. This poem is particularly dear to me. I hope you like it!
Daughter of In-Between
The sky there tastes sweet,
Mama would say. I’d stand on the roof. Swallow mouthfuls.
Some nights, I dream she cries and
it balloons in our home,
past the ghosts enveloped into our suitcases,
past those long, troubled oceans,
reaching the granules of sugar that hang
in Karachi air.
No one told Daddy the ships were one-way vessels.
He learned for himself, when they called
to say his mother was not well. Like she was
weak watermelon with a hollow knock.
He said he’d come back and they laughed
on the other end,
static making the sound wretched, making it foreign.
The ship that brought him didn’t smell like losing then
so he fingered his tasbih. He hung out his tongue,
tasted the salt of fresh paper cuts.
I walk to the mosque in the arms of sunrise
and the clouds are pink and new,
the inside of a toothless mouth.
I think of all the words I’ve forgotten how to say.
Like the words for the stone in my throat when I find
a letter dated ninety-six, my mother’s tattered English
bending over itself as it pleads my father to come home.
Like the word for stay.
Here in the mosque, God sits cross-legged in the light and
they read prayers in morning, tea-tamed voices
and everything is sickly sweet.
We are wasted fruit.
Daughters of in-between.
We kiss our countries goodbye at night,
forget to wake up to them.
We are mothball closets.
Wedding invitations lost in the mail.
Box of photographs
sitting too close to fire.
One palm sunken sail,
the other full, swollen flag.