Hakim heard the car horn outside the house. He ushered his family out and locked up. It had been two years since he and his colleagues at the Bank of Credit and Commerce International had suddenly found themselves unemployed. While he had quickly found another job, the vision of a life in Pakistan had entered and clung to his mind. His thoughts turned to his adopted home, “It’s a strange country.”
His brother-in-law was concentrating on the road. Atia was trying to stop their daughter from fidgeting. Aziz answered, “Is Pakistan better, Daddy?”
They stopped at a traffic light, the colours changed and they turned onto a dual carriageway. Atia explained to her son that places were different, and soon he could form his own opinion.
Aziz looked out of the window, a sleek Boeing was passing overhead. He had travelled on smaller planes to northern Europe, but he could not wait to do a real journey.
This time, they joined a long unwieldy queue for luggage to be checked in. After passport control there was a mini shopping mall. Several computer screens hanging from the ceiling displayed a list of international cities and the number of the gate the flights would be boarded from. Men in long African robes, blonde Scandinavians, women covered from head to foot in black Arab dress, and rust coloured South Americans wandered the transit lounges. As far as Aziz could see, Heathrow Airport Terminal Three was a portal to the world.
It was seven hours to Karachi. Little Resham slept, Aziz waited. Conversation about the collapse of the BCCI, potential military coups and a corrupt cricket team came from the seats in front. It all meant little to Aziz. He had decided that England was boring, particularly the area where he lived. He was travelling in time and space to a land of purity where good people struggled nobly against their poverty and helped each other out. They knew their cultural heritage and Aziz was desperate to learn about it too.
He raised the flap covering the window, they were crossing over a desert. He could see squat sandy buildings, sparse roads and wide fronds of lone trees. His eye line gradually came down until it was in line with the arrivals terminal, the plane taxied to a halt and passengers began to collect their belongings while an announcement told them to stay seated.
The air was quivering in the distance. Hakim walked down the iron steps, followed by Atia holding the hand of Resham, then Aziz who thought he was about to faint. He felt as if he had been hit by a wall of heat. Sweat trickled down his back as they got on the bus to the terminal. He gripped a railing. His mother put her hand through the hair sticking to his forehead.
Armed security watched them through passport control. Aziz stared, a soldier smiled at him. A customs officer wrote an ‘x’ in chalk on their luggage and they could walk outside to find their people waiting in the crowd behind a barrier.
Someone pushed through, started shaking Hakim’s hand then helped them with the suitcases. A group waited by the road in front of the airport. The adults laughed with Hakim and Atia. Resham clung to her mother. Aziz stood behind them. His cousin offered to carry his sports bag. There was no reply. He took it from Aziz.
They headed for the home of his grandmother where his uncle’s family also lived. Cars came from all angles, no one paid attention to traffic lights. Monstrous multi-coloured wagons, men clinging to the side, rolled past Aziz.
It was a flat in a gated compound with two lines of blocks. Children were running around. A woman shouted at them from a window. The cars parked, Aziz and his family went to the first floor of a central block. The ceiling fans whirred. They settled with glasses of iced water from a cooling tub.
This was the home of Hakim’s younger brother. His elder brother had his own house nearby. He asked Hakim in Urdu about life in England.
“Things don’t change much. If trains don’t run on time, it’s a big deal.” His relatives laughed. “My job is fine. But I’m not satisfied as a financial consultant. The BCCI was a crusade, we were taking on the western banks not just for Muslims but for the whole developing world.”
The back door led onto a balcony. Past the wall of the compound was a stretch of waste ground then more blocks of flats. Aziz’s cousin tapped him on the shoulder and they walked outside. Rafi was the son of Hakim’s elder brother.
They walked round the back of the flats, to the locked gate at the far end. Lines of washing hung over the balconies. Crows perched on the compound wall. Aziz’s last visit to Pakistan had been twelve years ago, when he was two. He knew some Urdu, from his grandmothers. The paternal one had come to London several times. The maternal one lived with his uncle’s family in London and often stayed at Aziz’s house. Now, he was extremely self-conscious about speaking anything and had not uttered a word since getting out of the airport.
A few local boys who had been milling about came up to Rafi who explained who Aziz was. One of them asked him in a thick accent, “Have you got a girlfriend?”
Aziz blushed. The others laughed, Rafi slapped his back. One boy commented that they should be careful about the impression they gave of Pakistanis. Aziz said,
“I like Pakistan.” They looked at each other, totally put out by the west London accent. They tried to repeat the words, rounding the vowels, until they understood what had been said. Rafi laughed,
“What have you seen of Pakistan?” They told him about the need to bribe public officials, from policemen to school administrators, to get the simplest thing done. They told him about nepotism at the workplace, banditry on the outskirts of the city, imams trying to curtail the role of women in civic life, corrupt politicians and ethnic strife.
Aziz went back to the flat and had a shower. After dinner, he came out again and played night cricket with the local boys. They climbed over the back gate. The street lamps perfectly lit the short playing strip. Soon Aziz was convinced he could never want to be anywhere else.
THE dark woman swept the rough carpet of the front room, then the lady of the house told her to go and set the washed clothes out to dry. She asked Atia about the servants in London and her question was met by sustained laughter. The idea of buying her own groceries horrified Rafi’s mother and she declared that she could never live in London.
Hakim and his brother had gone out, the boys were sitting on the veranda. They sipped at straws in cola bottles, looking onto the lawn from behind sun glasses and under floppy hats. In the sky was a blazing ball of fire, almost in touching distance.
“When I come to London, will people think I am just a paki?”
“They like Pakistanis in London.” Rafi turned to face his cousin,
“Where are you from, and where do you think I am from? You don’t say much and when you do, it’s the opposite of what everyone else says.”
Rafi had an older sister who walked through the door carved into the front gate. She waved at the boys, commenting on their appearance as she went into the house. Aziz watched her.
In one week he had met so many relatives, some whose names he recalled from his parents’ conversations, others he had never heard of and could not keep track of their tenuous links to him. He had observed their free and easy way with each other and compared it to the neurotic formality of suburban London. The young women seemed to Aziz particularly forthright and unafraid to speak their mind. This was real warm life, while Middlesex was a soulless European outpost.
The firm vision of Aziz was far from the mind of his father. He had visited Karachi more often than the other members of his immediate family. He knew the faces well, he had grown up with many of them. After completing his first degree at Karachi University, he had studied for a Masters in London and stayed. The first time he went back was for his wedding to his best friend’s sister. She never looked back, and he presumed that he never would either.
Something had started gnawing at his soul, before the BCCI had crumbled, probably when he thought of himself as most satisfied with his job, family and lot in life. There was so much he liked about London and England, from the clothes shops on Jermyn Street, to motorway driving through beautiful green countryside, to the regional football culture that was taken so seriously. But did he love the place that he had chosen for his home, or was he looking for distractions because he could feel no passion for the country and was less of a person for it?
He had known deep down that the BCCI was not working, but he could not admit it to himself. The humiliating end and the ridiculous theories bandied around by western journalists created a siege mentality which had grown like a cancer from the back of his mind. Pakistan was the answer to everything. And here he was; dusty streets, brutal heat, reminiscences from his childhood, and a way of life quite alien and almost frightening to him.
His brother was showing him the office of the Construction company where he was a senior engineer. It was a modern, air-conditioned building. The employees were wearing half-sleeves and sandals. Hakim drank down a glass of water and looked out of the window. A new shopping mall was nearby, railway tracks behind. The last time he had been on a Pakistani train was with the Karachi University cricket team on their tour of the Punjab in 1967. He smiled to himself.
Someone called his name. A wave of irritation rose into Hakim’s mind. He was about to snap at his brother to wait a moment. He stopped himself, shocked at his own anger. He nodded and stepped away from the window.
AZIZ whispered to his mother who spoke to their hostess who nodded positively and pointed to the corridor from the front room and told him to go to the end. He got up among the crowd of guests and tottered off. He found the toilet. There was a commode not just another hole in the ground.
It came with an immediate wet rush. As he got up, he felt as though he was melting. There was a bucket full of water, and a small pail. He came out emaciated but at least he was clean.
“I have been sent to see if you are all right.” Rafi was sneering. Aziz ignored him. They went and sat with some young people. Aziz did not know who they were. Someone asked him about schools in England. Rafi answered for him,
“Don’t ask him. He knows nothing about the real world. Children there have it easy. Do you seriously think you could live our life?” Rafi continued,
“We have to take you to the shanty homes, to see crippled children and blind beggars. Do you know how lucky you are, and how much that luck is wasted on a fool like you?”
A scream came from the front of the house. Everyone rushed over. The daughter-in-law of the hosts was wringing her hands and sobbing. Her husband was on the phone. His mother was trying to reassure the young woman that everything would be all right. The front door was open. Some guests were outside. A flustered, excited man was talking to them.
Aziz walked into the front room. His parents and sister were there. Resham was crying, as she had been doing a lot. Hakim looked vexed, an expression that had become almost fixed on his face.
Hakim told Aziz not to worry. The distraught woman’s brother had been car-jacked. This was common in Karachi. The protocol was that bandits would get the driver to take them at gunpoint outside the city. They would then let him go unhurt and take the car. All her brother had to do was somehow find his way back here.
Atia planted Resham in Hakim’s lap and asked Aziz about his stomach. She commented that she could not wait to get home. Two days remained of their four week trip.
Soon, the brother did indeed arrive unhurt but mourning the loss of his new car. The atmosphere settled, then the guests left.
The roads were dark, street lighting was sporadic. Hakim sat next to his younger brother, his wife and children had fallen asleep in the back. He wondered when this city and its patterns of existence had become so foreign to him. The uncertainty, the slow pace, the lack of civic amenities, the need for connections were things he could not live with.
It was time to go home. Aziz’s health did not get any better. He was changed and ready to go, waiting in his grandmother’s flat, but his stomach was empty. Rafi walked in.
“Please Aziz, before you go, teach me something.”
“I’m a wanker.”
“I’m a wanker?”
The suitcases were packed, it was a morning flight. Aziz stuck his head out of the window as they drove to the airport, the pollution did not feel so bad this time of day.
Hakim took his time about saying goodbye, his eyes lingered on the road leading back into the city. They went in to baggage check-in, Aziz had to sit down. He started throwing up into a bin. A woman came up to Atia and told her a useful remedy for the boy.
They waved at their Pakistani relatives who were waiting outside, then went through passport control. As soon as the aeroplane left the ground Aziz felt better. He even ate the meal that came towards the end of the journey.
The officials at Heathrow were polite, the air was clean and drivers obeyed traffic rules. Aziz wondered whether he would tell his friends at school about the trip. He would mention it.
The family arrived home and he went to his room. He sorted his books and tapes. They made sense, hinting to him of some higher purpose.
Copyright © Asim Rizki 2002
Asim Rizki lives in London. He has worked in France and China where he
taught English. Currently he writes by night but will probably give up the
day job to become a full time writer.
This story may not be archived or distributed further without
the author’s express permission. Please read the license.
This electronic version of Summer Holiday is published
by The Richmond Review by arrangement with the author. For rights information, contact The Richmond Review in the first instance