the trauma of being an immigrant/musafir – and on music that heals

Blessings of peace and comfort to all readers!

So my grandfather passed away last Sunday. It’s been difficult coping with the loss, and, given my parents’ situation as immigrants struggling to deal with the deaths of their parents over the past years, I’ve been reflecting a lot on being a musafir.

The term musafir is complicated. It’s what many immigrants, my parents included, identify as, though it’s not the word for “immigrant” in the languages I know. It’s an Arabic term that actually has to do with traveling, s-f-r (musafir literally = traveler). And the word for a migrant/immigrant is muhajir, which has to do with actual migration, though often for religious purposes. But my parents never speak in terms of hijrah, or migration; they speak specifically in terms of safar, traveling/journey. Then again, the word muhajir carries other implications, too, often religious: In Pakistan, the Muhajirs are the group of Muslims who migrated from India to settle in Pakistan during the Partition in 1947; they are originally different ethnic groups across India, but in Pakistan, they are collectively known as the Muhajirs, separate from the ethnic groups of Pakistan – the Pashtuns, the Balochis, the Kashmiris, the Punjabis, the Sindhis, the Hindkowans, the Kalash, and so on. In Islamic history, when the Prophet Muhammad (peace be on him) and his new Muslim followers had to leave Mecca to protect themselves from harm and settle in Medina, they also became known as the Muhajirs. What with Pakistan’s claim that its creation is based on religious terms, it makes perfect sense that the Muhajirs in Pakistan are identified as such.

I find the choice to identify as musafirs and not as muhajirs not just fascinating but beautiful as well. Because being a musafir indicates temporariness, an the musafir expects to return home soon, not to settle in the new community/country; as a musafir, you’re not expecting or hoping to settle somewhere new – you’re simply traveling, and the safar is merely a phase. My parents, too, have this beautiful dream of one day soon returning to Pakistan and settling there, ideally with my siblings and me at their side. We all know that’s not happening, and it’s heartbreaking to see them yearn so much for Swat, to not feel at home here at all. My siblings and I have settled in quite well, alhamdulillah, and we consider this our home – but for my parents to consider America their home is to betray their selves, their roots, their homeland, their identity.

For immigrants with close ties to their native land, with siblings and parents and intimate friends and other loved ones “back home”–and, here, I’m talking about my parents specifically–to live here is traumatic, to be separated from close family is traumatic. And the desire, the longing, the need to go back to where you left everything and everyone behind is haunting.

I’ve watched my mother grieve when we lost her mother in 2009, and then her father in 2014, and now my dad’s dad in 2015, and I’ve broken for my parents as they seem to break bit by bit. (May they all rest in peace and light, and may God grant my parents the strength to cope, aameen.) They can’t simply pack up and leave, although that’s actually what they did in one of these cases – and it  was comforting to know that they won’t have to grieve alone but will have their families grieving with them, virtually everyone in Swat grieving with them. The Pashtun community here has been very supportive – and when you’re an immigrant, everyone who shares your background (yeah, this is a little complicated, I know) and in this case your ethnicity and language, becomes your own (my parents don’t feel like themselves with non-Pashtuns). But it’s not enough because there’s still a whole community waiting across the ocean for my parents. So it comforted us to know that our parents will be mourning the loss of their parents with their siblings, their families, their relatives far and near. God give them patience and comfort in dealing with these deaths and all other losses.

on music that heals

So I’ve mentioned on the old blog a couple of times that I am a part of a Middle Eastern ensemble at my university. In the past some semesters, I’ve sung Pashto songs with them (God reward our ensemble director for agreeing to let me do that!) (My favorite one that I’ve done was Naghma’s lullaby to daughters 🙂 But of course.) But mostly, we do Middle Eastern musics – Azeri, Persian, Turkish, Arabic.

Each semester, the music collection is better than the previous semester’s. This semester’s choices are especially apt. They’re timely, special, and hauntingly beautiful. There are three songs I’ve been listening to in particular, every single day, that have been incredibly healing, in helping me accept loss. There’s reason music exists, and there’s reason it persists despite all sorts of threatening attempts by humans to suppress it. Including extremist religious attitudes that don’t just forbid it (I can respect Muslims and others who believe music is haraam – and I don’t see this extremism) but also actually won’t let it be produced. Music to me often feels like the second most real thing ever

  1. Umm Kulthum’s ‘Ala Baladi al-Mahboob Waddeeni (“Take me to my Beloved country” / “… to the country of my beloved” depending on the balad/mahboob part in the title). Lyrics available here.

2. There’s an Iraqi folk song I can’t find on Youtube, but it goes like Yalala YahbayebYa Taayir yalli tayyir yalala (“O’ birdie, deliver my message (to the beloved)”).
I love folk music. There’s something about folk music and the way it celebrates and appreciates the very, very mundane moments and things in life that I don’t think anything else does.

3. Ya Ribon Alam. This is a piyut (a Jewish liturgical poem praising God) composed in the 16th century by Rabbi Yisrael Najara, a descendant of the Spanish exiles. The Rabbi wrote this while he, along with other Jews, was in exile in Turkey. You can read more about it and its translation here. Disclaimer: It troubles me that this is a song that’s important to the Jewish diaspora, and I’ve debated the past some months whether my choice to participate in the re-production of this song with the group is ethically acceptable or not. But I sing and play and support it only because I see it as a song of exile, mourning those in exile, recognizing the trials of people who have no home to return to but long for one (if anything, it would be most applicable to and most apt for Palestinians – God preserve Palestine and its fight for justice, aameen); it also helps to remember that the Jewish community and the Jewish situation were significantly different in the 16th century when the song was written. But all this said, I can also appreciate the possibility that some people will find my liking this song problematic. Just know that I stand with Palestine (this is important to me to emphasize) but that I view this song differently. So it resonates because, well, the musafir/immigrant discussion above, although this is not at all to undermine the trauma of those in exile, of those who actually have no home to return to, whose homes and lives and families and communities have been destroyed and claimed by oppressive forces that seek to annihilate them, who have been uprooted over and over and who long for safety and belonging and normalcy.

k, that should be all, I think.

Here’s some love for all those who have no community, who have no one to love or be loved by, who don’t have enough people to love or be loved by, who are not at home / are far, far from home/families/loved ones, who have no home to return to, who yearn for peace because their daily life is a struggle, who are immigrants or migrants or musafirs and are waiting for that one special moment when they’ll receive the wonderful news of returning to their home. God be your Comfort, God be your Peace, God be your Strength in dealing with every heartbreak, every painful longing, every suffering, every disappointment. Aameen. ❤

P.S. The following are some landais (two-line poems) that Pashtuns shared with me about being a musaafir – some really touching stuff. Take a look, with totally rough translations:

– په مسافرو مې زړه نه سو. اوس مې پرې سوزي چې په تن مسافر شومه
(“I used to be apathetic towards musafirs; but now that I am one myself, my heart aches for them, I feel for them”)

– مسافرې دې ډیره اوکړه بس که راځه روزې به خداۍ در رسوینه
(“Enough of your musafari! Please come back home – God will provide for us”)

– د شونډو پاڼ مې ورله يوسۍ. که جانان خداې رسول مني نو رابه شينه
(“Take my beloved the peeling of my lips / my dried lips; if she/he believe in God and the Prophet, she/he will return!”)

– Watan mi der rabanadi graan dey, la majburi na rana pati sho Mayana (“My country is dear to me, but I’ve been forced to leave it behind”)

– Da musafaro Allah mall sha, baran ba ori sok ba zai na warkawi na (<3 “God help the musafir – because no one provides them shelter when it rains”)

– Da shazalmi lar pa Hindustan sho, da dodi khlas da kora ozi bya razina (“My son is off to the land of the non-Muslims. He leaves home to earn bread but never returns”)

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