A hypervigilance courses cortisol through my body. I feel it palpably in my pelvis like chains and knots. My mind runs like it’s being hunted. A grief cloud filled with disappointment hangs over my lying body.
The night Russia invaded Ukraine I lay awake. I realize my children’s future will also be written by rulers too disconnected to care for humanity.
In this odd configuration of restless awareness I find pause and swim into the undercurrents. Here, I findI have been carrying a multi-generational hope that my children’s lives would not be impacted by war. I am swept up in another current of vivid memories, of times when the world changed in a single moment—individually and collectively.
I begin to time travel.
I remember being nine years old sitting in an air-conditioned room at Karachi American School (KAS). My fourth grade self had terminal frizzy hair poking out in strange angles. KAS is code for the wealthy. I have lost count of how many privileges it laid in my path.
My teacher, a white American, Mrs. H, had started fourth grade explaining that we would learn about responsibility in the academic year. One morning in 1990 she came to class with a strange piece of news. America had invaded Iraq (the first time) and all the American (code for white) teachers would be evacuating until it was deemed safe for them to return. The first Gulf war also brought in two new Pakistani girls in my class who had been living in Kuwait. We bonded in our strangeness and another kind of intelligence that youngest children often receive in families. Only now can I imagine what it meant for my best friends and their families to have been displaced by war, despite the privileges of their social class.
The first Gulf war marked a turning point in my childhood.
Once the war ended, we forgot to care anymore about what happened to the Iraqis and Kurds living in Iraq. All the teachers returned, fourth grade continued and I know I didn’t learn how to be responsible in any meaningful way. Millions of Iraqis impacted by sanctions after the war lost all access to what all humans want: safety, family, health, and opportunity.
No elementary school teacher taught us how circular and unending war is for humanity. Whatever we were taught was in the past. I started seventh grade as the Cold War ended. I only found out years later that the war was only cold in America and the Soviet Empire but hot for us in Pakistan and Afghanistan. I had no clue about the Berlin Wall. I had no knowledge of Cambodia or Vietnam. I didn’t know about Korea, even though I had school friends from both North and South Korea.
I do remember Karachi through the 1990s when violence between political and ethnic groups turned the city into a warzone for commuters, including my father and brothers who went to work. I remember hearing so matter of factly, how gunmen pulled over cars, how shootouts happened over their heads, and how often it delayed their arrival to work.
I remember my first semester at university in 1999 when I got news that a plane with students from KAS was not being allowed to land at the Karachi airport. Why? Because a then unknown army general on board, who had threatened the authority of the prime minister Nawaz Sharif, had been dismissed while he was flying home from Sri Lanka. That general would soon become another famous military dictator to rule Pakistan.
I remember those nights reading news on the dorm’s computers in Canada, worried for my family and friends, as Pakistan reentered the twilight zone of another military coup. I was learning about types of governments in my political science classes and the headlines resembled a bizarre movie script. I didn’t know how much worse it was going to get while I partied into my third year of university.
The morning of 9/11 my roommate ran into my bedroom to wake me up. “Aisha, the Twin Towers have been attacked.” I had just been in New York City four days earlier for my cousin’s wedding. We had celebrated in Brooklyn, Manhattan and Staten Island. I had even gone up to the top of the Empire State building. I remember I was in love with a Pakistani boy who lived in Boston.
My roommate and I turned off the news on our large TV (the ones that were as wide as desks) and walked together to our first class of the day, of all ironies, “American Politics”, at 11 a.m. on Sept. 11. We walked in to see a group of distressed students asking questions of our Jewish American professor who handled himself remarkably well. Perhaps, he had the twin advantages of experience and knowledge to keep him grounded. He reminded us not to jump to conclusions.
Later that beautiful fall afternoon in Montreal I was walking back to my apartment when I bumped into another friend from Pakistan. “Aisha, what’s going on? Something feels very strange. I just woke up,” he explained.
I broke the news of the day. We both shared an unspoken sense of doom. Please let it not be Pakistanis or Muslims who did this. My core reverberated in fear. The world had just changed. I was just 20 years old but I knew that this event would mark a beginning of something more terrible than I had ever witnessed in my life. And it did, with shock and awe, crushing hundreds of thousands of innocent people.
Endless war was justified in 2003 as a second war in Iraq based on the false pretext of weapons of mass destruction began. The one where hundreds of thousands of us went out on the streets to protest. The one when I finally knew in my bones that all modern warfare was built on a pretext of lies. The one that woke me up from the sleepiness of internalized imperialism and got me to read my first Noam Chomsky book. The one that brought me to the piercing eyes of radicalism. Franz Fanon, Angela Davis, Malcolm X, Audre Lorde, and still so many I don’t know.
I had been trained to see war as a norm and necessity that could only be analyzed retrospectively. I had been taught that peace-building was a project for politicians and leaders. I had never been taught how to overcome fear of rejection or my desire to be liked when trying to agitate and disrupt systems of power. I had never been taught how to sustain my hope or how to cope when injustice became the lens through which I saw the world.
After years of walking the thorny bridges of activism, I gave up caring about the crippling inhumanity of a burning world. Numbness became my cloak and privilege gave me cover. I locked injustice and war in the chaos and cacophony of my interior life even though pieces of its inhumanity glinted like broken glass on every surface I came to contact with. I used spirituality to bypass my conscience and told myself that the only war that mattered was the one inside me.
I’m beginning to understand that giving up on caring is part of a larger arc of being a colonized being. Power holds the reigns of insidious ways of control, too many to count, and it maligns those who want to disrupt it. The masters know how to destroy those who come close to creating change. Endless war is normalized and I have become another cog in its machine despite my ideals.
The young Aisha was naïve but not wrong. Today I’m waking up in a new way to the desire to decolonize and to find pathways to hope, generosity and love while remaining engaged in resistance. I’m returning to the words of people who lived before me that found fuel to persist in their unique fights. I’m engaging with humility witnessing Indigenous communities all around the world that have never stopped resisting domination and violence.
I’m not bypassing the inhumanity of war in Yemen, Afghanistan, Syria, Ukraine and countless other places with a New Age spirituality that defines our humanity in terms of clean diet, mantras, yoga asanas, crystals, and morally bankrupt capitalism. Instead, I’m allowing the wholeness of my faith to penetrate me as a Muslim whose duty it is to care deeply about truth and justice. Being a lifelong subject of the Empire I have tripped over the hurdle of overusing my intellect as a way to prove my worth in society.
I’m swimming upstream like so many of us in broken systems with radical hope. This time I’m watching more carefully the traps the rulers lay out for us. I have set my inner gaze on compassion because I will continue to fall into despair, become sidelined, discouraged and divided. None of us can do this work alone. Join me even if you are numb or tired, angry or hopeless, energetic or passionate, in the front lines or watching from afar.
Outcomes may not be in our hands, but for some of us, our choices are.
The writer is an Assistant Professor in the Social Work program at a university in the United States, where she lives with her husband and three sons. She tweets at @AishaChapra