The night of my 11th birthday was a school night, and as I sat on the couch, at ease, watching TV in the living room of our small house in the panhandle of Florida, I suddenly began to hear my father’s voice rise; objects were being slammed in my parents’ bedroom until the door opened and he shoved my mother out. He started screaming at her as I sat quietly, already beginning to drown in my own dread. It was going to be one of those nights. “Your mother has the brains of a lizard! Tell her she is a bitch, Aziza,” my father raged. My mother was silent as my father continued to scream, and she sat with me as I began to cry. “Your mother is a whore, Aziza. Happy birthday.” He threatened that if we dared to say anything against him, he would kill us in the middle of the night, so beware. Ma slept with me that night. I told her I was scared and that I wanted to leave. I couldn’t stop crying hysterically, until she reminded me I had to be quiet or else he would come back. Then she reassured me that the following morning she wouldn’t put me through this any more and we would leave him. I finally fell asleep.
We could never figure it out. My father never wore a wedding band. He created a separate bank account for Ma from which she would have to request a monthly allowance. When he was angry, my older sister, Mehwish, was a “whore,” Ma was a “bitch,” and if I didn’t stop trying to protect them from the knife he dangled in the air above our heads, I was dead meat.I told her I was scared and that I wanted to leave. Click To Tweet
My parents immigrated to the United States from Karachi, Pakistan in the early 1980s. For the first couple of decades in this country my father carried out his medical residency, and in the meantime was reluctant to let Ma pursue an education or job, despite her desire to eventually gain expertise in the field of real estate. One semester into her college career, he got into her head: “Shereen, I want to start a family, how do you expect to both study and raise our children?” It didn’t take long for her to acquiesce: she dropped out.
After that, he kept a close eye on her. She was a fast learner and quickly became proficient in English. Years later, after he gave in to letting her work in real estate, my father would scoff, “trust me, Shereen, you won’t last. I provide a very comfortable life for you, and you’re not capable of succeeding in the real world.” When she started to work, and the paychecks rolled in, he complained, he wouldn’t allow her to save, and pressured her to foot the most expensive household bills so she would quickly become dependent again.It didn’t take long for her to acquiesce: she dropped out. Click To Tweet
When he left Pakistan with Ma for the first time, my father was on a journey to starting a new life in an entirely new culture, among a diverse population, obliged to learn a new language—why not work in tandem with his spouse? Why, instead, fuel so much strife? As a child, I never understood this. I never understood why he refused to celebrate her birthday, their anniversary, or Valentine’s Day. Hollywood, Bollywood, or Lollywood could not have provided a more illusory and misleading definition of love for me.
The next morning, Ma and I waited for my father to leave for work. As soon as he left we quickly packed our things and drove to my school where she withdrew my enrollment. My sister was hundreds of miles away—safe—in her college dorm in the Northeast. Then, we were on the road for 12 hours. Halfway through our journey my father called, crying and screaming. “Where are you?! Shereen, come back now, I have a knife and I’m going to stab myself if you two don’t come back.” Ma responded that she was protecting me and we didn’t feel safe in his home. But she was crying as well. He was getting to her. She passed the phone to me, “Daddy wants to talk to you,” she said. I took the phone and my father said, “Aziza, tell your mom to turn the car around or else I’ll kill myself. Come back now or else you’ll find out you killed your father. I’m holding the knife.” I was in shock and started crying, but I couldn’t do anything. Was I going to be responsible for my father’s death? I hung up and started sobbing uncontrollably. That night, exhausted and mentally drained, we pulled the car over and slept in a McDonald’s parking lot. At 7 a.m. we continued our drive and found a relatively cheap, unfurnished apartment to start over in, in Tampa, Florida. For some reason, though, we never found real refuge. The cycle of returning to my father, re-living, and running away again, repeated itself numerous times.I never understood why he refused to celebrate her birthday, their anniversary. Click To Tweet
After thirty-five years of marriage, two jail bails, and a legal separation, my father finally agreed to the divorce. It took him only two months to get remarried. The 65 year-old now wears a shiny silver wedding band, and swoons over his new wife: a woman who is 15 years younger, caked in makeup, dons green colored contacts, and is promised a mansion in the pre-nuptial agreement backed up with life insurance. The quintessence of it all: I am confident that when it comes to a conflict in views, she will question very little and do what she is told. Now, all that remains for the rest of us are vestiges of the past: trauma.
The front door opens and he comes in, eyes darting, locating his wife and daughter in front of him in the living room. My heart starts to pound as I ground myself in front of Ma like a guard dog. “Look we’ll figure this out, Daddy, just calm down.” It’s too late. He’s made his decision. “Why do you always take your mother’s side, Aziza? Why have you never pitied me?” he whines, shoving me out of the way, throwing a blow at Ma’s face. Then I’m cornered in the bedroom, and he comes in, gripping a kitchen knife in his hand. “Ma! He found us! Call the police!” I shout out, hoping she can hear me because I know after me it will be her turn. He grabs an empty glass vase sitting on the dresser, and a fleeting thought in my mind wonders why the vase is empty—the flowers I got Ma for Mother’s Day were just there yesterday. He furiously flings the vase at my bare feet as glass shatters all around me. Then I’m on the bed. I want to escape but my body feels too heavy to move. I start to cry, begging him not to do this. He clenches his crooked teeth, eyes bulging out of his head, and slashes my right arm with the knife. I stare at my gashed arm in disbelief as blood pours out. I wake up screaming. Not once, but night after night throughout my adulthood.Now, all that remains for the rest of us are vestiges of the past: trauma. Click To Tweet
The catch: my father said he never wanted to be a doctor. In Pakistan, however, it promised a secure income and made him a solid marriage candidate. His dream was always to be an engineer, but it was a dream that can now never be realized. To come from an uncompromising society still ruled by patriarchy, and enter this country beside Ma, he couldn’t tolerate that the same opportunities that were at his feet, were at hers as well. He couldn’t bear to envision the possibility of two breadwinners in one family. My father treated my mother the way he did because if he didn’t, his entire identity and self-worth would be in question. He feared my mother’s potential and curiosity, and knew that she could go further than he ever would. Deep down, embedded somewhere in a terribly polluted heart lay envy of a very competent woman.
Understanding this now, the warm, sweaty choke-hold my childhood memories often keeps me in when I awake from a nightmare begins to loosen, and I almost feel consoled. Glean what they may, others at least now know about this story of a spirited female immigrant who was persistent in realizing her dream. The journey was long and painful, but Ma reached the light at the end of the tunnel when she left him. And far back in the tunnel, lost and forsaken in his self-contrived darkness, is the coward who couldn’t stand to see her succeed.