Editors Note: In the December 2016 issue of In Dance Farah Yasmeen Shaikh wrote about her experiences as a Pakistani Muslim-American woman Kathak artist and her work teaching and performing in Pakistan— Article #1: How Politics and Power Shaped Dance in Pakistan. This is the second of at least three articles that discuss the complexities of navigating past and present politics and artmaking.
I had completed my first performance tour of Pakistan in January of 2016, and was elated to receive an invitation to return to perform as soon as March. On March 22, 2016, I had an early flight scheduled to Pakistan from San Francisco International Airport. My alarm woke me up, but as soon as I turned it off and looked at my phone there were news alerts of three coordinated suicide bombings having occurred in Belgium that morning. Thirty- five people were killed, and more than 300 people were injured. My heart sank. Noooo, not again. I knew these attacks would have major effects on airport security, especially with two of the bombings taking place at the Brussels airport. I quickly woke my husband and told him I needed to be at the airport even earlier than planned to allow for increased time at security. I could not have been more right. Afterward, I took to social media to reflect on what happened: “Woke up today to the horrible news of what happened in Brussels, happening to be on the day I am returning to Pakistan. I am now flagged at airport security for my previous travel to Pakistan (as explained by a security officer at the airport), I was just pulled aside for almost an hour. I was pat down and had each and every one of my items removed and examined. I’m exhausted and I just broke, tears coming down my face as they patted me down.
“There is not an ounce of fear in me traveling on this day or to my destination, but there is immense sadness of this ongoing reality of the state of our world. And yet I have a renewed sense of exactly why I feel compelled to do the work I do, which is essentially, through the medium of dance, to bridge cultures and the unnecessary divide we have, and to hopefully do my part in influencing a global culture that can be positive, supportive, and non violent.”
Within hours, I was overwhelmed to get online and see the responses to my social media posts. Almost 500 likes, and over 100 comments, mainly messages of peace, love and support. I felt guilty however, as I wasn’t feeling like the victim in the scenario at the airport, but rather, my experience was indicative of the state of the world. Here was my follow up to that post: “ Wow – I’m so overwhelmed by the outpour of love and support. The words of care at what I faced during security check are beyond heart warming, but I do want to clarify something. My sadness was more a result of not what I was going through, but what it represented. When I or any other Muslim/non-Muslim (of which there have been many) are profiled or flagged, it is unfair. But much beyond this is the fact that we are in a place socially, politically, and globally, where violence is such a common occurrence, and it affects people near and far. By no means is aggressively being frisked even slightly comparable to what the actual victims of the various acts of senseless violence have faced. I guess the point is that it does reach all of us—directly and indirectly, and this is the point of responsibility that we all must embrace. If I/you go through something directly, I/you can do something to change things for the better. I believe we all have that ability through our various means.”
By the time I arrived in Karachi, Pakistan, I was more determined than ever to make this a productive trip. Still feeling the sadness of world affairs, I chose to direct my emotion into my work. I jumped right into rehearsals and teaching. I wanted to build off the momentum of my January trip, deepen the relationships, introduce more people to the art form of kathak, and have meaningful exchanges with any and all in my short three-week visit. An immediate high point to my arrival, especially as a follow-up to the way my journey had begun, was hearing of the national holiday in Pakistan to honor the Hindu spring festival of Holi. This was the first time in the history of Pakistan that this holiday was being officially acknowledged, and taking into account the ongoing tension between India and Pakistan, and the way that Hindus in Pakistan are not treated equally, this was a huge step in dispelling some of the negative rhetoric within the nation itself. Elated by this, I even chose to dance pieces of Holi in my performances during this trip to celebrate the acknowledgement of this festival. Less than a week into my trip, my happiness faded away yet again, when on Easter Sunday to be exact, March 27, 2016, another horrible tragedy took place. This time, in Pakistan…
Upon receiving messages from friends and family at home inquiring about my safety, this is what I posted to social media: “ Thank you to all who have reached out, and yes, I am safe. I am in Karachi and yesterday’s heinous, cruel and merciless attack was in the city of Lahore where 75 were killed and over 300 injured—mostly women and children. They were at a park—playing, celebrating Easter, enjoying life… So yes, I am “safe,” but I’m not okay. None of us should be after witnessing this over and over again. All of us should feel affected by what happened in Pakistan, along with what’s happening everyday—everywhere. It’s not about safety— it’s about compassion, love and respect. Why is it so hard to apply these simple principles as one’s guiding force to distinguish between good and evil, to understand that if hate breeds hate, why can’t we flip it and ensure that love breeds love. We are all in this together. The separations of borders, religions, race, etc., mean absolutely nothing.”
My heart continued to ache. Here I was, thrilled to be back in Pakistan, to know that the doors had been opened for me to come and share my art, the feeling of continued opportunity to do so signifying the desire from Pakistanis for dance to be part of their ongoing cultural fabric of the country, but then, the very thing that many had asked me, “Aren’t you afraid of the violence there?”, all of a sudden felt way too close. I felt like I wanted to defend Pakistan and continue to convince any and everyone that the labels placed on this nation were unfair and untrue. And yet, this tragedy had taken place, and the world was meant to believe that this is the Pakistan they were to know. I knew differently, and as sad as I was at the many losses of life, the violence, and the hatred, I knew, and continue to know, that there is nothing to fear, as fear is only a paralysis and a means of keeping oneself from what is necessary.
This series of articles, which began in late 2016, will continue to be a platform to share my work in Pakistan. But upon returning from my most recent trip in January of 2017, I came home to a newly elected President. I landed the day after the inauguration and my stomach was churning. It was the day of the Women’s March on Washington and cities around the country, and I would have loved to attend one of the marches, but my arrival time dictated otherwise. I found such great comfort and relief in seeing the infinite number of posts and pictures of people around the country and world, displaying unity, peaceful but assertive messaging, strength in numbers, and the love and camaraderie that was oozing out of each and every account from that day.
One week later, we were all slapped in the face by the Executive Orders from the powers that be regarding the ban on immigrants entering the United States from various countries, most of which have majority Muslim populations. I was shocked, horrified, heartbroken, and disgusted. Though Pakistan is not on the list, I’ve had many conversations with people asking if I will continue to go to Pakistan to work, and if I have concerns based on these new developments. Of course I have concerns, but I have no question about my renewed desire to continue to work in Pakistan, whether or not the country and its people are included on this list, and also knowing that there is likely to be profiling when traveling both in and out of the United States. Let me be clear, my concerns are not about me personally, but much like the tragedies that took place in March in Brussels and Lahore, these are issues that concern us all. I reached out to a friend of mine to get his thoughts on what is happening. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto is a visual and performing artist based in the SF Bay Area, but his roots are deeply connected to the very places we are currently hearing so much about. “I am caught in an interesting place, as a Pakistani born in Damascus, Syria with Iranian heritage — how can I not feel solidarity with my fellow Muslims? My experience being away was for art, I went to Colombia to perform and coming back I thought will my Syrian-ness count against me? What are my resources, what are anyone’s resources? There are artists, writers, business people, students, all effectively declared illegal. Those that leave cannot come back and those that stay are marked. Is the next step a series of virtual prisons where we all register? They know where we live, where we work, who we know? Sanctuary cities become target zones. I was asked coming in if I had Syrian nationality, when the last time I went was, did I have family there, ‘No, just friends’ I responded. ‘But just friends right?’ The officer at secondary questioning asked as if to reassure herself that she was not assigned the offensive task of detaining another person. We must believe everything this president says and prepare ourselves for that.” So the question becomes: how do we – dancers, artists, citizens of the world – continue to bring peace and light through our various means – our work, our compassion – in the face of darkness? How can we rise above, see through and past the actions of a few ill-intentioned and instead focus on the positive work and contributions of the masses? How can we embrace the progress that is made socially, politically and otherwise, and ensure that these changes are here indefinitely? These questions are not easily answered, nor is there one answer, but at least for me, it is one that I continue to ask myself, reflect on, and stay committed to exploring.