Painting Pictures: The Strength of the Melting Pot

painting picturesToday’s Painting Pictures post is by Pari Ali and I am so excited to share her words with you. Pari also wrote Hijab: The Universal Struggle for the Let’s Talk About Hijab series. Pari was born in India and is raising children in the Middle East. As you read you’ll learn about the history of a family and the history of two cities. See how cultures weave together to make beautiful tapestries, and how she and her children fit within that as Pari looks at the cultures that formed her family.

The Strength of a Melting Pot

I do not know when the story begins; perhaps it begins even before what I consider the beginning, the migration of my maternal ancestors from Iran to India, a couple of centuries ago, to settle in Hyderabad, then ruled by the fabulously rich Nizam. They were not the only ones; Hyderabad attracted the educated elite and ordinary people from all over the Muslim world. Persians, Afghans, Arabs, Turks came. They settled and intermarried, they also married into the Indian Dakhani (of the Deccan) families.

Cultures merged and mixed and so did languages. Though Persian was the language of the court, Dakhani—a dialect of Urdu spoken in the Deccan—containing words borrowed liberally from the local languages, grew richer as it absorbed words from all the languages spoken there.  The people adopted courtly and refined manners, bowing slightly and greeting each other with adaab instead of the salaam, the cuisines mingled adding Indian spices to the to the cuisines of the new settlers and at the end of the day Hyderabad had developed a unique identity; its food, language, dress, greetings, lifestyle, jewellery, architecture unique, not found anywhere else in India. It was a land of sweetness and grace and in this land my ancestors settled, perhaps never travelling back and over time the Persian language they spoke was replaced by the Dakhani Urdu spoken in the typical Hyderabadi accent. Despite the variety of cultures there was a respect among people and everyone found their own place in the framework of things. I do not know if the children of the earliest settlers considered themselves Third Culture Kids, but they certainly belonged to a distinct culture.

kutch embroidery

A few decades after my maternal ancestors moved to India, my paternal ancestors moved to Bombay from Kutch, which lies in Western India at the beginning of the Indian Peninsula. Bombay, with its beautiful natural harbour and seven islands joined by causeways to make one complete city that stretched from South to North. Bombay a bay so beautiful it was considered fit for a king, and was part of the dowry given to King Charles II on his marriage to Catherine of Braganza. It was because of its natural harbour that Bombay became the business capital of India, people came from all over the country in search of fame and fortune. Many achieved their goals and among them was my great, great grandfather who made both name and fortune. A new culture emerged here as well, while the rich educated Indians adopted the clothes, language and lifestyle of the British, the others who came from all over the country and spoke a number of languages and dialects developed a kind of pidgin Hindi. It is a dialect spoken only in Bombay (now Mumbai) and often ridiculed by Indians who speak pure Urdu or Hindi.

Like other communities the Kucchi community too settled here. They held on to their language and dress for one more generation, their food for a few more. Most of them did not go back home. The generations that followed had no links to Kutch; they studied in convent schools, spoke English with friends and at home, dressed in western clothes, watched as many English movies as they watched Hindi, holidayed on the hill stations the British had settled. They were as different from the Hyderabadis as the proverbial chalk from cheese. Hyderabad and Bombay, separated by just 700 kilometres might well have been the most easterly part of East and the most westerly part of the West. They were different not just in culture but also time, for one was almost frozen in time, moving slowly like the wheels of a rusty cycle rickshaw and the other was an unstoppable juggernaut moving  full steam ahead.

I am the child of this unlikely union, a Third Culture Child born with this strange legacy, two places so diverse they could never be reconciled, a legacy that made me search for my own identity and my heritage for a great part of my life. There were elements that attracted and enthralled me in my Hyderabadi heritage, yet my strong streak of independence resulting from being brought up in Bombay could never accept the old fashioned rules of Hyderabad. My sisters and I were not even allowed to talk to our male cousins for God’s sake! My father was pretty conservative but to us this was beyond ridiculous.

We were bold, independent, stubborn and outspoken, especially me. We fought for our rights and fought against what we considered to be totally stupid customs. I remember speaking at length to a cousin, a really nice guy, much much shorter than me. The next day a great uncle insisted that I should marry him. “Marry him or carry him?” I asked. Yes, quite rude I agree. That was me then, rude and headstrong. I grew tall early in life and was on the receiving end of proposals from doting mamas till I finally fell in love and got married. It was one of the great banes of my existence.

There were other things that rankled, through our childhood and youth we spoke mainly in English. We did speak Hindi but the Dakhani Urdu was such a mix that it was like a foreign language and sometimes we stared completely flummoxed when asked to fetch and carry or do simple tasks. What on earth were taabdaan, tashtari, rikabi, etc, etc. Our clothes were another factor that sent everyone into culture shock. It was the norm to wear jeans and tops in Bombay and that is what we wore on our visits to Hyderabad. So it was that even though we loved the city and went there often, and even lived there once for two years out of choice, it left us exasperated too.

It is quite ironic that I fell in love with and married a Hyderabadi, what is even stranger is that I settled down with him in a Middle-Eastern country. A lot of my life has been spent in resolving the resulting conflicts. For instance we used to go out quite often with my husband’s friends, the women and men walking in two separate groups. Not being able to be with my husband, who I had left home, family and favourite city to be with, used to upset me no end.

Once more the Third Culture heritage has passed on, this time to my children. They though, unlike me, have managed it much better. They are more level-headed and aware of who they are. There might be a slight conflict in identifying with the number of races they have descended from but there is little cultural conflict. They know what parts of their culture they want to accept and what they do not wish to be associated with. They move on ahead in life with confidence doing their own thing, embracing good things from all cultures they come across. They have a deep faith in God and all their actions are ruled by principles and morality, which I find very reassuring. I think they will do much better than I did.

There is just one thing I would like to add, that cultures are a good thing but they should not be rigid and they should not be intolerant and judgemental. If someone is doing something differently or making choices you would not make, it doesn’t make them evil or bad, unless of course what they are doing is going to be harmful in anyway.  It is important to give people the benefit of the doubt, to at least try to understand, to give acceptance and respect instead of censure. Moreover cultures over time have proved to be growth and change oriented, adaptable instead of inflexible. Protecting your culture, your way of life might seem to be the right thing to do but give other things a chance; who knows, it might be for the better.

Follow Pari’s blog: Weaving Tapestries

Hijab: the Universal Struggle by Pari Ali

Today’s Let’s Talk about Hijab post comes from Pari Ali, in Kuwait. She blogs at Weaving Tapestries and is one of those connections that seems to redeem the time-suck of the internet. I met her through another on-line friend who wisely suggested that Pari’s voice be part of this series. I love the beautiful sentences in this post and the way Pari internalizes modesty, makes hijab about character, and I breathed a deep Amiin (Amen) when I read her last lines. Pari is a devout Muslim who chooses…well, I’ll let her speak for herself…

photo by Pari Ali

photo by Pari Ali

The soft, chiffon hijab framed her sweet, gentle face; its pale pastel shades seemed perfect for the purpose. She was a stranger, someone I was meeting for the first time, yet just looking at her I felt I knew her, for her face radiated an inner calm. Her eyes shone with a rare kindness, with piety and contentment. Though her figure was slight, I felt dwarfed before her, humbled.  She knew where she was going, her feet firmly planted on the path of her faith, she was a traveller whose quest was to attain nearness to her God and his pleasure. Like she showed kindness to her fellow humans, spoke in soft, gentle tones, put a leash on her tongue and temper, tried to live her life in a fair and just way, so she wore the hijab. For an educated, independent doctor, it was not an instrument of repression but just one more way to follow her beliefs.

I live in a country where more than half the female population wear hijabs, niqabs, burqas, etc, according to choice. It is not required under the laws of this country; it is purely a matter of choice. For many it is a garment which is a sheer necessity, they are just not comfortable without it. There might be some women who are repressed by their husbands and forced to wear it, but repression has many faces and all of them are equally ugly. It is also not limited to any particular race, religion, culture, country or peoples. In a country like this, where the women are often financially independent, even wealthy, educated, often very highly, where they drive and travel, write and express themselves in a variety of ways, it is personal choice and not repression, which leads to wearing the hijab.

The hijab certainly does not limit their activities. There are women here, who drive the latest and best sports cars, ride Harleys and jetskis, write amazing poetry, paint, are CEOs of companies, are involved in politics, teach at universities, etc and do it all while wearing the hijab. These are strong, individual, independent women, admirable in every way and especially admirable for the strength of their convictions. They do what they believe in without bowing down to the international peer pressure, the stigma that the media has attached to the hijab and those who wear it and the negative image it is unfortunately portraying for many.

They feel empowered by the hijab, empowered to conceal or reveal what they wish to. Dressing as the world expects you to dress, following fickle fashions, following trends often at the cost of mounting credit, is a worse kind of repression. Why can’t a person just be free to dress as they wish to without the fear of being judged solely by that dress? Not that these ladies do not follow fashion or dress well. Almost every western designer name is to be found in their ample closets. The stores are full of the latest styles. They dress in the latest fashions but choose who they reveal their finery to. That is not repression it is empowerment.

I do not wear the hijab, mainly because of the culture I come from. No one in my family has ever worn it. Yet clothes were and still are always chosen for their modesty. Modesty is so deeply ingrained in us it can almost be called inborn. Neither one of my well educated, independent daughters would ever wear a revealing swimsuit or go to a mixed gym. It is just something that is against their nature.

I do wear other hijabs though, in my quest for perfecting my faith. Hijab is described as a curtain, screen or a partition and I have a number of these. Some are of the firmest materials, which stay steady and unmoving, while it is a constant struggle to keep the others, the ones of silky, slippery material in place. I find it simple to keep the hijabs of moderation against greed and envy, of generosity against selfishness, of modesty against unseemly desires, of unkindness over meanness and kindness firmly in place. It is the hijab of calmness over the temper and the quickness of tongue, the hijab of contentment over discontentment, which I mainly struggle with.

I think it is a Universal struggle.

by Pari Ali

Other posts in the Hijab series:

Let’s Talk about  Hijab

Why Doesn’t Your Wife Wear Hijab? by Anita Dualeh

Hijab: Definitions

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