When I first moved into this villa (that’s a fourplex in American), I went around and met my neighbors. One of the families is from Pakistan. The wife, let’s call her Parveen, greeted me and apologized for her bad Urdu. “I don’t speak Urdu very well,” “Neither do I,” I laughed. We started talking and she seemed very nice. She is from a small town in Punjab. She lived in England for a while, but doesn’t speak English either. We chit chatted, and I liked her manner. She was warm and homely in a good way. She didn’t seem weirded out that I was a foreigner or a convert to Islam. But then, towards the end of my visit, she asked me about my jeans. She wanted to tell me that it is better for Muslim women not to wear jeans. Although I liked her, I was kind of at a point with my faith that I didn’t want to deal with people giving me lectures on jeans and so forth.
I decided not to meet her very much after that. We said “hi” a lot, and sent food to each other during Ramazan. We only chatted a handful of times after that. I also saw her teenage daughter wearing jeans as she came home from school many times. Some petty part of me took note of that. Still, I knew Parveen was a nice person. Parveen isn’t a “Begum” type. I am surrounded by all of these ”Begum” or “Madam” types. They are these kind of rich spoiled women who are very polished and have a lot of poise, but are other wise very brutal and useless people. They are uber-snobs and treat their housekeepers very badly. I knew they wouldn’t like Parveen because she is too unrefined for them, no English, no Urdu even, a Paindu who doesn’t know how to wear her clothes. Parveen, I thought, was different. She talked to my housekeeper sometimes, and was fairly close with another neighbor’s housekeeper. She didn’t act like all of the domestic workers around us are invisible like some people do over here.
My housekeeper liked her a lot, too…until…one day Parveen confessed to my housekeeper that she was pregnant, but wanted to terminate the pregancy because she has 5 kids already. My housekeeper was sooo insulted that she would ask her. “Why would she think that I should know where to get something like that taken care of? And anyway, that is such a big SIN!” I know of people like Parveen, who think birth control is sinful, but would have an abortion. I had just read about it, and also my mother in-law works on women’s health projects and had recently had a discussion with me about the very same thing, noting that botched abortions was one of the top five maternal killers in Pakistan, though most people theoretically disagreed with birth control on a religious basis. Coincidentally, Parveen came over a few days after that. I felt weird meeting her because I knew that she knew that my housekeeper would of course have told me that she was looking for an abortion. I was pregnant at the time, too. I feigned ignorance and asked her if she was pregnant, and then we started talking about our pregnancies. Somehow, we ended up talking about my housekeeper. “Does she cook food for you?” Parveen asked. I told her that I usually cook for everyone, but occasionally the housekeeper makes vegetable dishes, and I added that she makes really delicious vegetable dishes. “Is your housekeeper a Muslim?” Parveen asked. “I think you know that she is a Buddhist.” I said. “Well, did you know that it is haraam for a polytheist to touch your food?” she asked. I just looked at her, didn’t lose my polite smile, didn’t bat an eye. “I don’t believe in stuff like that.” Was all I said. Later, I made the mistake of telling my housekeeper of what she had said. My housekeeper had heard before that some Muslims said that non-Muslims shouldn’t touch their food. She said Hindus didn’t like Muslims touching their food, either. She used to work for a Hindu family whose Muslim neighbors sent them pots of home cooked sweets on occasion, and the boss would tell her to throw the sweets away each time. Her employers never touched them. She said that she and the other servants in the home ate the sweets themselves. She was telling me all of this to let me know that some people think Muslims are dirty, too. I knew she was hurt by what Parveen had said—from her perspective, it was like calling her an untouchable. I just emphasized that this was ignorance and not prescribed in any Islamic textual sources, though some isolationist scholars did occasionally write such things. And anyway, I don’t believe in such things, and that’s all that should matter to her. But ever since that day, my housekeeper really hated Parveen. Later, while my in-laws were visiting, Parveen sent me a bag of fruit. But half of the fruit was rotting. I honestly didn’t care. That wasn’t the first time she had done that, actually. But somehow I just thought, well, she is kind of weird anyway, so I guess this is just part of her weird behavior. I just picked out the good fruit, and tossed out the bad fruit. My in-laws were really shocked. My housekeeper instigated the shock even further by stating loudly that Miss Holy Moly didn’t want to throw the fruit away herself and accrue sins for wasting food, so she sent the rotting fruit to me so that I would throw it away and get the sins!
The summer came, and I went away and came back from vacation. I wanted to know what had happened to Parveen. Was she successful in her quest to terminate the pregnancy? My housekeeper had returned from her annual leave a few days before us, and she started to tell me stories that she had seen Parveen a couple of days ago and that she was as slim as ever. I was quite pregnant at the time, and I felt really, utterly sad to hear that. If she had terminated the pregnancy, it would have been when she was fairly far along. In pregnancy, your emotions can sometimes be more intense, especially when it comes to anything about babies and children. I just told my housekeeper to stop spying on Parveen and it was none of our business. But I was very curious, too. I wanted to see Parveen and make sure that she was still pregnant. Somehow, our paths didn’t cross until last Ramazan. Parveen sent me a plate of chicken pullao. The next time I made something nice, I took it over to Parveen. My housekeeper wanted to take it to her for me and lie and say she made the food just for fun. She has a spiteful streak sometimes. I insisted on bringing it myself. So we met, and there was Parveen, extremely pregnant. I was so relieved. I was elated. We chatted, and once again, I was struck by how pleasant I found her to be. Even though she ended the conversation by telling me in something of a righteous tone that she didn’t find out he sex of her fetus, or any of her children, until the day they were born because it was all in God’s hands. This was after she had asked me if I knew the sex of my fetus, and I had said yes, a girl.
You know, in the past, I had friends who were more orthodox, and I respected that their views were different than mine. I also had friends from different backgrounds who would sometimes believe in superstitious things and pass judgement on me for not following their superstitious advice. But at some point I just decided that I had enough friends and I didn’t want any more Holy Moly people or Auntie-thinking friends. I had had enough well-meaning advice. But I regretted not being kinder to Parveen, despite her occasional self-righteous barbs.
When Baby A. came, I sent a box of sweets to Parveen. A few weeks later, her husband came and delivered us a box of sweets on the delivery of a baby girl. I had never seen her husband before. When I saw him, I was really surprised. He looked kind of like a punk rocker. He looked very young, and he had spiky gelled, longish in the front hair. One of his ears was pierced, and he was dressed like an 80s New Waver. I left my husband alone to talk to him. Later, my husband informed me that Parveen’s husband couldn’t speak Urdu or Punjabi very well. He said Pakistani like this: Pawkistawni. Usually, when Pakistani people say that someone raised abroad “doesn’t speak Urdu/Punjabi,” they actually do speak it, just not very well.”What do you mean he can’t speak Urdu or Punjabi? How do they communicate then?” I guess based on my own stereotypes, I had imagined that Parveen’s husband would be like her. Perhaps he had a handlebar mustache or a long shaggy beard. And he probably wore a shalwar qameez every day. Whatever he looked like in some part of my imagination, he was not the guy who just came and brought us sweets. “She and her husband are so different,” I said. My husband said something like, “Poor guy, he got stuck with her.” (Bechaara, phas gaya) That somehow irritated me. “Who got stuck with who? I asked. Later, I told all of this to the housekeeper, including the “getting stuck” part. It is funny, but she can sometimes sum up a whole situation in one line. “He only thinks the man is important.” she observed.
Anyhow, I am no more eager to be-friend Parveen than before, but I have more sympathy for her now because I think she is somehow just as displaced as me over here. Who knows, maybe she and her husband are the best of friends despite being so different superficially. I am guessing that they are cousins and it is an arranged marriage. It seems my interest in her is just motivated by nosy curiousity. It is hard to make real connections here. Even though we have lived next to each other for over 2 years, I hardly know her. I guess I am a bad neighbor. Just a bad, nosy neighbor.