After all these years, the memory of my mother running for her life along a dirt road still haunts me in my nightmares. I was desperately running behind her but could not keep up. I was only six years old and could only run so fast. She had tied all our belongings in a bundle that she carried on her head. She stopped from time to time and looked back to see how far behind I was. "Hurry up, son!" she would scream, but I could not run any faster. My father was left behind somewhere and I kept looking back to see if he was anywhere in sight. I could see a long line of people - men, women and children running and walking with us. I knew that my father would eventually catch up.
We were running for our life to cross the border from India into Pakistan. I was told that Pakistan was our new country. We were Muslims and did not belong to our homeland anymore for some reason. We had spent terror-filled days and months, seeking refuge and spending sleepless nights. People stayed up all night guarding their homes and being on the look out. We heard about trainloads of corpses entering Pakistan, stories of massacres of Muslim communities in neighbouring villages. We were always on edge.
As I am turning sixty, that dirt road is still a part of my life. I am still running desperately to get hold of my mother. In my nightmares I am always six years old.
I came to Canada as a student about 35 years ago. When I returned to Pakistan after my studies and joined my old teaching job at the university, I found that it was not the same country any more. I could not understand what had gone wrong in the four years I was away. The country was taken over by madness. People were killing people. They called it the language riots. The campus was taken over by rioters. They wanted to kick out every professor who didn't speak the right language. I was on the run again to save my family but there was nowhere to go. Several days later I managed to visit the hospital in which many colleagues and their spouses lay with cracked skulls and broken limbs. My father told me I should go back to Canada.
Several months later, as we were going through the security check at Karachi airport my son asked me why grandma and grandpa were not coming with us. I stopped for a moment and looked back at my parents. I could not leave them. They were old and needed my help. I wanted to turn back but then I saw my father waving goodbye. His long white beard was covered with tears. He could see my hesitation. He gestured with his hand asking me to go. I didn't know then that it was the last time I was seeing him.
That was the time when new nightmares were added to my stock. It is always pitch dark and I am running away from rioters. Sometimes I am on a runway, chasing a plane that is leaving us behind. My wife and children are following me. I turn back and ask them to hurry up and then start running again. I am always missing flights, getting lost in a maze at an unknown airport or not having enough money to buy airline tickets for my family.
The other day my wife asked me if there was a possibility that we may have to leave Canada one day. Hatred is in the air. I remembered a conversation in which someone said, "These Muslims are a cancer for humanity. They must be wiped out if humanity is to survive". I did not tell them that I was a Muslim. The anger and frustration over the recent events is natural. But as a Muslim I refuse to accept any blame for it. I have accepted Canada as my country only for one reason. I am tired of being oppressed for who I am. I cherish my freedom and value it over everything else. This is where home is and will continue to be until I die. I am too old and too tired to start a new life one more time and I don't need any new nightmares.
As I watched the World Trade Center come down, I was horrified to see the panic of those who were fleeing death. I know that they will relive this event again and again in their nightmares for the rest of their lives. I also tried to visualize what was happening on the ground as we had watched the bombing of Baghdad ten years ago. At times I see an Israeli settler running for cover with his child under his arm. Are his nightmares any different from mine or from those of a Palestinian mother carrying the lifeless body of her baby and crying with despair? I see images of a mother in strife-torn Africa carrying her child whose life is coming to end due to starvation. I wish I could find out what kind of nightmares she has.
I once met a holocaust survivor, the grandmother of someone I knew. I wanted to ask her about her nightmares. Then I remember the face of an Iraqi woman running on a deserted street in Baghdad during a bombing run. Her mouth is wide open and her eyes are bulging with terror. Does she have the same nightmares as that little Vietnamese girl with napalm burns, running naked on a street in Saigon, crying for help?
At times I feel that all these people are related to me. We share a common bond - the bond of nightmares.
Photo Attribution: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Turkish_Cypriot_woman_fleeing_conflict_(1963-64).JPG