Issue 14 · Fall 2014
Soon, I can become an American, I tell my uncle. But I’m conflicted about whether or not to do it.
My uncle and I are having a long conversation during my visit to the family in Karachi, Pakistan. Now, he laughs at my angst. He says he’d leap at the opportunity. This is the same uncle with whom I’ve argued endlessly about American foreign policy in Pakistan, from drone attacks to puppet dictatorships. How can I sign my name to all that?
He says, I used to think like that, too, when I was young. Be practical. The time for all that has passed.
On this trip, I have to renew my Pakistani passport. I don’t remember having done this before; perhaps my family submitted the forms for me. This time, I’m with my father, who knows the passport office well. It’s a dusty, sweaty basement where I’m dressed all wrong in my button-down and jeans to everyone else’s shalwar kameez and burqas. Babies wail, men push and break up lines, the windowless room is a din of Urdu and English and Punjabi and Sindhi, all clamoring for recognition.
Stacks of forms, a series of interrogations, then I’m summoned to the next circle of hell for more. Another little man behind his little desk hands me a form printed on what appears to be cheap toilet paper. I try to read the faint print. Concentrating in the chaotic office is difficult enough, but also, my father is blocking part of the form with his hand, whispering at me to sign it.
The little man is tapping his pen, impatient to move on, but I want to read what I’m signing. Pushing my father’s hand aside, I try to focus on the text and catch the word “imposter.” Startled, I attempt to read the rest, but my father keeps covering the paper, hissing at me to sign. I do manage to read one sentence, printed above the signature line: “I swear that the imam is an imposter.”
What imam? And what does that have to do with passport renewal? I’m sure this can’t be good, especially judging by my father’s behavior. He must be afraid I’ll say something unwise here. And if he’s afraid, this must be serious.
Should I refuse to sign? According to the form, only non-Muslims are allowed to skip signing this section. I’m Muslim, according to my birth certificate and expiring passport. If I skip this section now, does that make me an apostate: someone who has renounced Islam? It’s a serious crime in Pakistan, punishable by long imprisonment or worse. I’m not sure which of its laws Pakistan has currently decided to enforce, but one never knows. Blasphemy has been unpopular lately. My head pounding with the room’s chaos and my father’s urgent current of whispers, I sign the form.
I regret the decision immediately. But the little man snatches the paper from me, shunting me to the next desk. When it’s all over, and we get in the car, I ask my father what I’ve done.
He makes me roll up the car windows before answering. He explains that since the infamous riots in the seventies against the Ahmadi sect of Islam, one of the most persecuted minorities in Pakistan, every Muslim has to sign an affidavit rejecting the authority of the community’s leader, Mirza Ghulam Ahmad. It’s Ahmad I just disavowed. Ahmadi beliefs I dismissed. I’ve just signed my name to decades of violent oppression.
Over the next few days, I think often about a pair of doctors, husband and wife, my parents’ friends when I was young. I played with their daughter. Once, she told me they were “Ahmadi Muslims,” and I assured her there was no such thing; that she was making it up. We fought about it, and then ran out to our mothers to settle the matter. My mother was mortified and scolded me roundly for my ignorance. I only understood years later why she was embarrassed. Though she, too, must have signed that form when she first got her passport, and perhaps that’s not so different from my childish mistake. We’re all of us complicit.
If confronted with that piece of paper now, I wouldn’t sign it. But then, who is to say. It was the practical thing to do.
Soon after returning from my Pakistan trip, I decide to go ahead and apply for American citizenship. I’ve already signed my name to one government’s policies. What’s one more? And it’s the practical thing to do.