When I was walking the streets of Havana, or flagging down a peso cab (shared taxi), or buying street food, I was never read as being from Pakistan.
I was asked often about my origins, yes, but I was asked mostly about Colombia, at times Spain, on occasion, Mexico, and once, on account of my curly hair that I had left open, I was asked at an art gallery if I was from Brazil. At times, rarely, and always before I opened my mouth to speak, I passed as Cubana. However, not once, bypassing Pakistan’s sixty-eight years of existence, was I ever assumed to be Indian. I was never asked: Eres de la India?
This was more surprising. I have been assumed to be Indian far more than I am assumed to be Pakistani, at times even inside of Pakistan.
Usually after a few wrong guesses, I would be considered carefully, eyes narrowed to try and calculate what the shape of my nose signified, or the specific brown of my skin, or what kind of ethnic or racial order my hair could be located in, there would be a slight pause as the person would wait before hazarding another (incorrect) guess. I would then inform them that I came from Pakistan. Without fail, that response triggered surprise, shock even, a widening of the eyes, a laugh of wonder, and at times, “Oooh, tan lejos!” meaning you come from so far.
I would nod and wink, not having forgotten the thirty hours of delirious travel it took for me to get from Lahore to Havana.
I realized that South Asia does not exist in the imaginary of Cuba.
It exists of course as a physical space, and seven years ago, upon visiting the island for the first time in 2009, I encountered hippies living in Alamar, burning incense, playing bhajans, with tie-dyed tapestries of elephants hung up in their living room. Upon discovering that I was from South Asia, I was immediately enlisted to help translate the music they had so carefully obtained.
It is not, however, a world that is known, and a world that is familiar. There is scant knowledge of it, and no real intimacy with it.
I almost didn’t make it to Cuba. In Havana, my passport was passed around, and there was some confusion about how to enter ‘Pakistan’ into the system and some uncertainty around its geographical location.
I almost didn’t make it to Cuba this time though. Again. The first time, in 2009, while traveling from New York, to Havana via Cancun, I was almost prevented from boarding my flight, as I didn’t have a visa for Mexico. I was finally let on, and then detained for eight hours in a locked room without my passport with alternating guards. The third guard and I were locked in the room for a while, so we chatted. About the kinds of people that come to Cancun, how the beach seems to exist outside of Mexico, the strange, unforgiving, unequal visa policies between the US and Mexico.
My hours in that room belonged to some strange portal in time and space. I was not supposed to be in Mexico because I didn’t have a visa to legally enter. I argued that I was not planning to leave the airport, and was only transiting.
That room was a kind of non-space, for people like myself, who had arrived to Cancun, and were in transit, bound for another destination.
This time, I was stopped at Allama Iqbal Airport in Lahore, almost prevented from boarding my flight to Abu Dhabi, where I would catch a connecting flight to Amsterdam, from where I would board a plane for Havana. The reason for this: I didn’t have a Schengen visa. At first, the Cuban visa, which was a slip-in piece of paper bearing my name and date of birth aroused suspicion – why was it not like a regular visa? Why was it not stuck into my passport?
I should’ve lied, I thought. I should’ve faked a trip to the US or Canada. I was asked about both places as the officer on duty flipped idly through my passport, locating current and expired visas. After a very tense forty-minute wait, I was finally cleared to go through immigration.
Once in Havana, I was asked to step aside and made to wait, as my passport was examined, and re-examined, and I was questioned about my first visit. And finally, when I was leaving, upon presenting my passport and ticket at the check-in counter, I was again asked to wait. Behind the counter, my passport was passed around, and there was some confusion about how to enter ‘Pakistan’ into the system and some uncertainty around its geographical location.
I confirmed that it was next to India, and tried to pretend that I wasn’t amused by the conversation taking place in front of me, which at times included, but mostly excluded me.
I narrate these incidents because to me these are representative of what is known and what is familiar – at airports, or in visa issuing policies, or in passport politics.
My passport was unknown, hence I am unknown, unfamiliar, an alien. Maybe it’s time to switch colours, I thought to myself as I pocketed my green passport, after it was finally handed back to me, surviving endless scrutiny.
Something about Cuba made me feel at home. Was it the smell of the sea that made me think of Karachi, and Bombay? Was it the way in which I would drop in unannounced and be greeted with a snack and a drink? Was it a weariness of the US, and a simultaneous desire to be in the US? I’m not sure, maybe I just felt comfortable walking the streets.
It is strange that while I felt so much at home in Cuba, that sense of home is physically and emotionally disconnected from my other home in Pakistan.
I know why I felt so much at home: in the first instance, in 2009, it was a moment of discovery of the Global South – I learnt that even though we had different colonial experiences, and divergent histories of decolonization, and our languages were different, there was something immediate and palpable that I recognized – was it the smell of the sea that made me think of Karachi, and Bombay? Was it the way in which I would drop in unannounced and be greeted with a snack and a drink? Was it in the way that things broke down, and people resourcefully fixed them, fixed ways around them, made things work, made life happen? Was it a weariness of the US, and a simultaneous desire to be in the US? I’m not sure, maybe I just felt comfortable walking the streets.
I yearned for someone to speak in Urdu, or Hindi with. I tried to explain my country, and culture as best as I could.
I tried to cook desi food for a friend, wanting to introduce him to what I had grown up eating. In my attempts to create an authentic meal, I scoured the local markets, and a spice shop named ‘Marco Polo’ in Habana Vieja, designated especially for imported spices, looking for cloves, whole red chillies, turmeric, and fennel. I was only able to procure curry powder. My search for yogurt yielded no fruition either.
I promised him a meal in New York, where hopefully we will see each other in a few months.
Perhaps it is not so surprising that I was not able to find the spices I needed to create a meal that could bring to my friend’s palette, the taste of my home.
South Asian migratory patterns don’t move in the direction of the Americas. The movements have largely been directed towards the UK, USA, Canada, and Australia, as well as the Gulf States, and in some degree towards Malaysia and Singapore.
Indian migration to the African continent was fraught with tension: in the last years of the 19th century, indentured labour from colonial India helped build the Kenya-Uganda railway line. There had been earlier waves of South Asian migration to East Africa because of the trade routes linking Gujrat with the commercial ports in East Africa. Indentured Indian labour was also taken to Guyana, Trinidad and Tobago.
What does one look for when migrating to a new country? What kind of securities and aspirations do we seek when searching out a new national identity? Economic security, better opportunities for future generations, a higher standard of living are some of the most common responses.
There are small Pakistani diasporas that exist in Mexico, Brazil, Argentina, among others. However the waves of migration from Asia to the Americas have not been from South Asia, they have been from Japan, Korea, and China. There is a Chinatown/Barrio China in the old quarter of Havana. I visited once, and ate a meal of fried chicken, rice and beans – it was possibly one of those ‘only in Havana’ moments.
What does one look for when migrating to a new country? What kind of securities and aspirations do we seek when searching out a new national identity?
Economic security, better opportunities for future generations, a higher standard of living are some of the most common responses. This time around, I met someone from Iran, who kindly shared his Internet scratch card with me as I tried to check my email at a hotel in Havana. He told me that his wife and him had been living in Havana for the past fourteen months, and that they were UN refugees, waiting for residence visas for either the US or Canada. I asked him if they would like to stay on in Cuba. He laughed at my suggestion, and cast it aside. Later, I wondered why. Cuba is safe, safer than most places. It is beautiful. It does not however, offer an easy life.
But then, where does one find an easy life? Cubans are some of the most resilient, hardworking, resourceful people I have encountered. The revolution taught them that. It taught them to wait, and it taught them to hope. The verb ‘esperar’ in Spanish means both. Although, now, the lessons of the revolution are increasingly becoming irrelevant.
Between when I first visited, and now, seven long years have passed. Havana has changed in so many ways, and remains static in other myriad instances.
The one thing though that has stayed constant is that South Asia remains absent from a Cuban perspective. The world is shrinking, and yet the distance between South Asia and the Americas remains long, impassable, and distant. I wait for that day when these emotional distances are breached.