My life’s been a journey of homecomings and I feel really fortunate to have established firm roots in several places. I feel like we’re not quite sure what home means. Is it a place? Or is it a state of mind? I’ve been exploring that concept for some time now. I’m a Perth girl, born and bred. My family has called Western Australia home since the 1890s Gold Rush, and at the same time, I have a palpable sense of the Pakistani blood coursing through my veins. I’m really proud of all the facets of my identity as a French-speaking, Pakistani-Australian Muslim woman.
I studied French at the University of Western Australia in the late 80s—when it was free. So that’s the go at the time. I got a scholarship to go and teach conversational English in France for a year and it was a beautiful year of my life. But I came back to Perth and I was given the opportunity to go and live and work in Karachi in Pakistan—and at a French bank no less. I seized the opportunity. Perth was known as ‘Dullsville’ in those days—I don’t know how many of you remember? Perth was a great place to grow up in as a kid, great place to come back and retire in; not so great for those years in between. And so, I spread my wings and I embarked on my adventure.
You might be wondering what living in Pakistan is really like. Is it how they portray it in the media? Is it like an episode of homeland? It’s not exactly like that. To call it a country of contrasts would be an understatement. Like many developing countries, there is opulent—almost obscene wealth side by side with devastating poverty and illiteracy—and at the same time it’s home to the Oxford-educated cricketer-turned-Prime Minister, Imran Khan and the youngest-ever Nobel laureate, Malala Yousafzai. So, there is a huge dichotomy of the haves and the have-nots and I think that if people have travelled around the world, there’s a lot of countries that are like this. I’m fortunate enough to be from the educated and somewhat more privileged classes over there, so, I can only speak of my experience. I’d like to paint a picture of Karachi at that time. It was the early 1990s and I was working in the French Bank Société Générale, our office was in the Marriot Hotel complex, and so next door to us was Air France and the building on the other side was the US Consulate. It was a very cosmopolitan part of town. With the Bank Manager, Mohsin and myself, we’d be hosting events almost once or twice a week. We would do quite a lot of co-sponsorship with the Alliance Francaise, so there’d be jazz concerts, and dance recitals, and art exhibitions. And that was just for work. So, on the weekends, it was just me and my sister Aalia and my squad of cousins and friends—we’d be invited to Bollywood parties and glamorous fashion shows and charity balls—we’d be out three to four places every weekend night. And so, Karachi seemed like Beverly Hills on steroids, it was crazy and it was lots and lots of fun.
I had been in Karachi for about ten years, so I was surrounded by a warm and loving extended family and a fabulous group of friends. It really started to feel like home. And then my charmed life came crashing down in an instant. It was 2002, I think it was June or July, it was a Friday morning and I was on the phone to a client and suddenly I hear this thunderous boom sound. It reverberated in my entire body. And then there was this eerie and deafening silence—there was this whoosh—and then nothing. It was like time stood still—it was just like in the movies—everything was in slow motion. My gut instinct told me to duck under the desk for cover and I’m paralysed with fear and dripping with sweat. I look on the ground and I see blood, and it’s my blood, and I’m thinking, ‘Oh my God. Okay, what just happened? Where can I feel this?’ I felt something on my ankle. I don’t want to look, but I look down and I can see my ankle is cut. But it’s only the size of a five-cent piece. I was not badly injured at all. I regained my composure. I’m looking out to the side of me and there’s a glass wall that separates my office from the road outside and it has completely smashed into smithereens. There’s a dust cloud of debris looming large like this deadly tsunami headed my way. The adrenaline kicks in and I scramble up from under my desk and I go into the main office and all I can see and hear is absolute chaos. There were glass partitions in the main office and they were all broken into shards and they’d been flying around the room. People were cut and hurt and Mohsin—who was a very good friend, the Bank Manager—he was cut on his forehead, on the back of his neck. I just took one look at him and I said ‘I’ve got to do something, I’ve got to help him. What can I do? I’m not hurt, but he needs help.’ So straight away I said, ‘Okay, Mohsin, let’s go to my car and I’ll take you to the emergency department.’ I didn’t think about an ambulance, there’s not a proper ambulance service over there—there is, but it’s not as on the ball as it is over here—so we took our chances and I put Mohsin in the car and then we sped off. At this point we have no idea what has caused this explosion. We don’t know what’s waiting for us on the other side of that hotel complex. Luckily the emergency department was about five minutes away, and so I leave Mohsin with the medical team. He’s really well looked after. They stitch him up and I get a tetanus shot. Then I drive home to my sister Aalia’s house and I collapse on the bed and fall asleep within minutes. 16 hours later I wake up completely in shock. Dazed and confused. Not knowing whether this thing had really happened, or whether it had been just a dream. But then my sister confirmed that it was on the news that a suicide bomber had driven an explosive-laden truck into the US Consulate compound, right next door to my office. Then, I realised the nightmare was all too real.
This was completely out of our frame of reference. In 2002, I think, there had not been a single suicide bomb in Pakistan before that. We had never heard of such a thing. I think, the only time we’d ever heard of it was the Tamil Tigers. It had not come into Pakistan and I think there was some kind of retaliation against the US bombing of Afghanistan and using Pakistan airspace. So, that weekend, as a family, we sat together and decided, ‘Do we stay? Or do we go?’ My sister decided to stay, and I thought I was going to stay, but, come Monday morning I went back to my office and when I entered my room it was boarded up on all sides. It was like a coffin. I sat down at my desk but it was so claustrophobic and I couldn’t work. I couldn’t be in there. So, I left and I said, ‘I’m sorry I can’t come back for this week and until you fix the glass. I don’t want to sit in that box.’ I realised that I was craving the sanity, security and slower-pace of life in Perth. So, Dullsville looked like a pretty good option at that time. I did eventually decide to come back home to Perth.
Despite that traumatic incident, I’ve been back and forth to Pakistan over the last 15 to 16 years. My most lasting memory isn’t of that day. It’s the boundless love and affection that I felt from my family and friends. These people were so much like me and yet different somehow. It was as though my heart was reflected in a myriad of gemstones. Each one shining more brilliantly than the next. These were my people, this was my tribe. It was a homecoming like no other. And yet, I continue to ask myself, ‘Is home an actual place? Or is it simply a state of mind?’ And I’ve come to realise I didn’t need to look outside myself. It was within me all along. Rather than it be a place on a map, I feel like home is where I have a sense of belonging, where I’m at ease in my own skin. I can choose to speak French or cook Pakistani food, or cheer on the Aussie cricket team. Or bow my head in reverence, praying westward towards Mecca.
I feel like home is a dominion of my own making. Where I can fully and unapologetically be my whole self.