Review by Martha Warren
Shadab Zeest Hashmi was born in Lahore, on the border with India, grew up in Peshawar, Pakistan, on the border with Afghanistan, and now lives near San Diego, California, near the border with Mexico. Comb, her memoir of poetry and prose, looks back at a life spent living on frontiers.
Hashmi’s family was separated with India and Pakistan during Partition. She describes her Kashmiri grandmother, her Indian aunts, and the children in refugee camps just a few miles away, who lost limbs from Soviet landmines. Even when a border is closed, we feel the tremor of each other’s experiences.
At this intersection of countries, histories, and religions, is an international and multicultural childhood. Her first bicycle was Soviet, and Chinese acrobats were the best show in town.
The nearby Khyber Pass was invaded by armies of Alexander the Great, Mongols, Tartars, the Soviets, the British. The influence of each is still felt.And yet, the landscape is resilient, resistant to geopolitical shifts. In Tor Khum, which refers to the border crossing between Pakistan and Afghanistan, Hashmi writes, “The rocks have absorbed war cries in many tongues and all I remember is their amnesiac aloofness and silence.” Tor Khum is the “… artificial boundary that stares you in the eye with a chilling animosity.” She reminds us that borders are temporal, dependent on the caprice of mankind:
“After decades of violence in the area… Tor Khum, I am sure, is still flint-mouthed, large and self-possessed, still defiant against every brand of empire.”
Migration is often accompanied by a compulsion to share our stories with the next generation, so they will understand where we came from. In Henna Night, Hair Jewels, Hashmi begs her children and the reader to pay attention:
“I almost say to you,
Look out the window,
look, look, look!
My library with beetle-eaten furniture,
my raw silk bazaar, my ancient fort!
And look, the baker that sells pink-coconut rolls!
And look, there I used to get my haircut!
One turn and my town will once again
socket into its timeless hollow
what I remember, what I know.
The bus will pass
all these things
before you click pause on your video game.”
In Cardiff-by-the-Sea, Hashmi asks who she is now, in her new life, married, living in the United States. “Who am I in this land of abundance?” This reminds me of a friend of mine who immigrated to Canada, describing her frustration trying to choose between dozens of breakfast cereals at a Canadian grocery store; back in Zimbabwe, she’d had a choice of two. Reading this, I ask myself, is abundance about consumption, based on our North American fascination with shopping and full pantries? Or is abundance the rich multicultural personal history of the stories we can tell?
Regardless, migration challenges us to examine the “essence” of what makes us, us, and Hashmi duly documents the details. In Tangles,she writes “My memory of India will be haloed by the feeling of being lovingly fed.” In Shaping Ramadan, she describes the sundown meal of Iftaaras “… the aroma of festivity and fatigue, chatter and silent meditation.” In Smugglers’ Market, she describes a smell as “the precise aroma of being take care of, to the core.”
Her recollections come alive with personal, political, social, and cultural history. I guess, to me, thatis abundance.