Alif Laila in a Virgina Tavern
By - Anwar Iqbal
We meet here three nights a week, after the tavern closes its doors to the customers. For the younger crowd, weekends are for fun. But we prefer to gather here to dream our dreams and share our tales. We push aside the chairs, place cushions against a wall and bring out the shisha.
The opposite wall has two large paintings of an old city neighborhood, which could be anywhere in South Asia or the Middle East. We love the paintings because they are so vague. This allows each of us to relate to them.
When the room fills up with the smoke of the fragrant shisha tobacco, we start our tales, sipping quietly whatever we are drinking.
We dream our dreams and reinvent our past
We all met in New York and became friends, perhaps because each of us is from a place which is or has experienced violence.
In New York, we had a much larger group. We were from everywhere: India, Pakistan, Egypt, Iraq, Iran, Russia, Uzbekistan, Sri Lanka, and even Timbuktu. Yes, one of us was the so-called Blueman of Timbuktu.
We were bound together by our flight from fear. All of us had escaped political, religious or cultural repression to live in a more tolerant society, yet we could not escape our past. We never tired of telling each other how great “home” was. We lied to each other about our past, forgetting that we cling to the past just as tightly as the past holds us in its grip. It shows on our faces, in our habits, in the way we speak, dress up, eat or walk.
But such considerations never slowed our tall tales. If you believe us, we all came from well-to-do, if not rich, families. We all had left behind “palatial homes” — as a West Indian friend used to say — in the rich neighbourhoods of homelands scattered across the globe.
In our new world, our past could be gliding about in limousines and chauffeur-driven cars, sojourning at salons and spas, and eating at five-star hotels and restaurants. Once I almost got lynched when I told a group of people from my own city that the particularly rich part of the city they said they came from did not have more than 500 houses — yet I already had met several 100 people in America who claimed to have a house there. But such is the life of an immigrant.
Most people in our group spoke English even before they came to America. They were educated and either had — or could get — white-collar jobs back home. Here, they were working at 7-Elevens, McDonald’s, corner liquor stores or driving cabs. Even these odd jobs brought in more money than the so-called white-collar jobs back “home,” but they hurt our egos. And this forced us to make up stories about our “glorious” past.
We spent the entire week dishing out hamburgers, hawking newspapers or arranging bottles in room-size coolers and during the weekends we met but only on Saturday nights.
We could not afford to meet all three weekend nights, as we do in Virginia now. We could not afford to. We do it now also because we are older and miss home more than we did while in New York. In New York, we often met at the residence of a Pakistani because he was the only one in our circle who had a three-bedroom house in Queens. We met to dream our dreams and tell our past as we wished it had been. Perhaps, that’s what we do now as well.
The most innocent in the group was the Blueman of Timbuktu. He never claimed a huge house or big cars back home. Instead, he spoke fondly of his father’s herds of camels. He was not from Timbuktu but we called him so because like the Tuareg of Timbuktu he wore a blue headgear, which added a bluish shade to his face. He was from a desert region in southern Pakistan.
Like most of us, Blueman also wanted to return home one day. He was waiting to save enough money to buy 500 camels, not one less. Don’t ask me why 500 because he never explained.
And once there, he wanted to build a big house and live there with his harem. Yes, harem. That’s why he wanted 10 rooms in his house — five for his harem and five for the rest of the family. He had not yet figured out how many wives and concubines he wanted except that he wanted plenty. Every time he spoke of his harem, I would say I wanted to be a thief in his harem.
“Why a thief?” he would ask.
“Haven’t you read the old harem stories? These kings and nobles had so many wives and concubines that each had to wait for at least a year to be graced with the royal favour. So it was the thieves who kept these women happy,” I would joke.
“I would let my dogs loose on you. I would kill you if you polluted my harem,” he would say, with a grin on his face.
“OK, OK. They had no natural desires,” I would say.
This always made him so angry that he walked out muttering, “You people have no regard for nobility.”
Of course we didn’t. Although we lived in a borough called Queens, there was nothing regal in our lives. Fortunately for us, New York did not have much respect for the royalty either. If there ever was a city which was invented for the workers, it’s New York. Everybody is a king here, even the homeless.
When he was in good mood, Blueman would agree.
“Have you noticed? The beggars here are so different,” he would say. “They do not plead. They demand alms. Back home, the beggars are polite and humble. Not in New York.”
The New York City is like an onion. People live in layers. It is possible to live in your own rut without even being exposed to other layers of society.
Those on the top are so rich and mighty that they look celestial, creatures from another planet whom you never see except on the TV screen or in newspapers.
On the bottom, the daily wage-earners share space with a diaspora of interesting people. There were homeless and jobless among them. There were part-time workers, the beggars, the prostitutes and the alcoholics.
Those of us who worked at liquor stores had a very jaundiced view of New York. From where we were, everything looked grim and pale. For the liquor clerks, New York was equally divided between alcoholics and prostitutes, sprinkled with beggars who stood outside and collected change until they had enough to buy a bottle of 100-proof alcohol. Then they disappeared until the next evening.
Some of the liquor-store owners and workers were Muslims. They had to overcome an agonising moral dilemma before they worked in a liquor store. Islam forbids alcohol. For a Muslim, all income associated with alcohol is haram, impious, filthy. But life is filthier if you live in New York and you are unemployed.