Forget about Pakistan for a while. You are on
King Street, Newtown, Sydney and, here, you donít see the
moon-swallowing powdered horseshit and the smoke of two-stroke
auto-rickshaws that choke the sky above Lahore. The winter sky is
clear and vast, the stars glowing. The Friday night crowd of merry
Sydneysiders is around you. Gay and straight couples slosh around
bars and clubs as drumbeats thump the air. It is an important night
of your life and you are here to mark the occasion. You take off
your watch and hold it across your right palm. It is an ersatz
digital, with its logo already peeled off. Mostly black plastic with
a rectangular greyish display panel. You bought it from Zero Point,
Islamabad, four years ago. The Pahari vendor had a taut, leathery
face and a goitre that reminded you all you had heard about the
Potohar plateau. That the region lacked iodine. That there was a
mosque in the Khewra mines wholly carved out of salt. You wondered
if prayers offered there were different somehow, or if the ablution
water could wash away the foundations one day. Did the salt-miners
ask for something specific from Allah? When the man announced the
price, you haggled a little bit, just out of habit or, perhaps,
necessity. From sixty rupees to forty. Theek hay, babu jee.
Not bad. So far you have only had to change the battery once. Tells
accurate time. 11:57:19 p.m. In two minutes and forty-one seconds,
the date will change. And with it also your legal status in
Australia. Today is the last day of your visa and, very soon, from
an international student, you will become an illegal non-citizen.
You have to be careful, Muhammad Aslam, son of Abdul Jamal,
permanent resident of nowhere, because your passport from the
Islamic Republic of Pakistan is a piece of evidence against you. You
wait for the date to change.
Today, from an internet cafe, you checked the
website of the department of immigration and multicultural affairs.
It informed you of your options: if you are an illegal non-citizen,
you should voluntarily present yourself to the department;
otherwise, the Compliance Officers will come looking for you. They
can also confiscate your property to recover the costs of mandatory
detention and deportation. Your property, three pairs of pants, five
shirts, some unwashed socks, an old electric heater for the winter,
a portable fan, an ancient computer, and one Sialkoti leather jacket
that you are wearing, cannot pay the cost of even one nightís
detention. The site did not tell you anything new. Visas, like
everything else in the world, are linked with money. A healthy
balance in the bank can get you a tourist visa. About fifteen
thousand dollars can get you a year in a university. Half a million
can get you permanent residence as an investor. But your banking
habits are totally different. When you see an automatic teller
machine, your eyes instinctively drift towards its surveillance
camera. They can trace your movements on all the main streets of
Sydney with all the ATMs, zoom on your face, match it with your
passport photo, and track you down. These thoughts turn your viscera
into a small bundle, as if ready to run. The date has changed.
You have to find a new place, the immigration
people know your present address. Try to find a job that pays cash.
No card swiping at supermarkets anymore. Avoid well-lit public
places like the Central Railway Station, George Street, and Oxford
Street. The back-streets of Redfern are good for you and your skin.
Tomorrow, try to catch your housemate when he is not baked and tell
him you have to move. Tell him you are moving to Darwin. He will ask
why. Say you are planning to live with an Aboriginal family. That
will silence him. It wonít hurt him if you leave no forwarding
address. Those compliance guys wonít be rude to him. He has the
right kind of epidermis, the kind that demands politeness. His
social security cheque will keep coming through with minor glitches
every now and then.
Get up and walk home. On your way, you can learn
some French kissing from this couple leaning against the
poster-plastered wall. Donít gawk. Walk as if you are expecting to
run into your girlfriend soon. She is one of those girls who can
never decide which bar of chocolate to buy from the corner shop. She
will be coming towards you any minute, a bit tipsy, swinging her
brocaded handbag on her wrist, a bar of chocolate in one hand,
holding the lapels of her overcoat with the other, her hair pins
slightly loose. You will hold her hands, kiss her lips, and hail a
cab. You two will sit in the back seat, her head resting on your
right shoulder, the perfume rising from her neck will warm your
breath. She will offer you a bit of the chocolate on the way to a
block of apartments on the North shore. She has rich parents or owns
an advertising agency or a boutique in Darling Harbour. Inside her
apartment, she will turn up the heating with a remote control and
guide you to a large bed. The lights will be dim and the mattress
will have warm undulating water in it. As you two slip between the
woollen blankets and thick cotton sheets, you will tell her that you
like the smell of the fabric softener, and ask her which brand she
uses. With her nails on your belly, she will trace the maps of
different countries and say she likes you because you notice these
little things. Try not to think about the fulminating mullahs of
Lahore when she wraps her mouth around your penis. Afterwards, with
her smooth back against your chest, she will ask if you would like
to migrate as her de facto partner. She will also say she needs you
in Australia for her own happiness and even be a bit demanding so
that you donít feel obliged. Tell her you cannot decide right now
because there are shards of broken beer bottles on the footpath. She
The light in the dirt-stained windows of the
house tells you Mike is home. Put your hands in your pockets and
walk in like nothing has happened. He is probably gazing at his lava
lamps by now. Go through the weatherboard corridor, open the door of
your room, grope for the light switch and turn it on. Some unwashed
clothes are in a white plastic basket in a corner, the rest around
it. The laundry can wait. The bed is in the centre of the room, with
the wheels of a suitcase and some computer cables visible underneath
it. When you slip under the blankets, the damp mattress sags like a
hammock and you can feel the monitor pressing in your lower back.
You lie gazing at the dirt-coated gossamers sticking to the ceiling,
waiting for your body to warm the foam. The cobwebs came with the
room so you wonít have to clean them when you leave. Mike wonít be
fussed about these things. Not with his hobby of maggot farming in
takeaway pizza boxes. The landlord has stopped knocking on the front
door as if the door can infect his knuckles. Now, once a month, he
parks his Holden Barina outside and honks for the rent, smoking a
clove-scented cigarette. If you can find some place safe from the
compliance squad, moving out is not a big problem,.
The mattress still feels like a water-hole. Do
you want to wait till you get pneumonia? That can be a problem. You
can already see the headlines flashing across the world. One
Pakistani Muslim, unshaven, with an expired visa, and a bad case of
pneumonia, taken in custody in Australia. No link with Osama
established yet. No, you donít want any headlines. Go and get the
heater. Now, if Mike is using it, it will be impolite to unplug it.
You should have put it in your room before going on that brooding
session on King Street. You should get rid of your habit of
prolonged brooding over every little event. Although becoming
illegal is not trivial, it is not too big a deal. How many amigos in
America are legal? No, but you risk being dubbed as a terrorist. But
why you? Because of the place of your birth. It is not your fault if
you look at it objectively. The most important things took place
when you had no control, when you did not exist, when you did not
have a self, when you were in the veins of your father and mother.
You did not have a choice when he pushed some sperm cells out of his
urethra and deposited them in her uterus. A random accident, the
collision of one spermatozoon and an ovum, catapulted you into
being. And things got worse when you could not choose your place of
birth, your parents and their world-views, your language, your
neighbours, your street, your town or your country. Yes, you never
chose to be born in that Crapistan. According to one Pakistani
newspaper available online, six hundred and seventy three people
chose emergency exit only last year in Pakistan because they could
not live with the results of such an undemocratic event. Yes, the
birth of a human is a brutal event, totally devoid of the consent of
the self that is going to have to live the consequences.
The problem is that you cannot walk up to the
immigration guys and say, "Look, man, I did not choose the place of
my birth. Someone just pushed me out into that part of the world
totally without my approval or consultation." Those dudes, with
their pink necks bulging over their collars, will probably just look
at you like they were wiser than you even before they were born.
"Bad luck, mate," they will say before putting cold metal on your
wrists and packing you to a nearby detention facility. You will try
to convince them of the totalitarian nature of chance, and they will
say, if they are in a good mood, "Sorry, mate, we have to follow the
orders. Canít help you." Fair enough. So you have to avoid them and
live your life. And if you want to remain alive, youíd better find
the heater because you canít dry this ocean bed with your body heat.
Get up, put on the slippers, go to the lounge,
and get the heater. The bulb in the corridor spreads its uneven,
tubercular light on old shoes, abandoned bike tyres, body boards,
roller skates, broken joysticks of video games, a torn scrabble
board, cardboard boxes with old audio tapes. You can hear Mikeís
tripping music coming through the closed door. You open the door and
peep in. Mikeís lean frame is spread on the sofa, his pallid face
towards the ceiling, eyes closed, his long hair spread over a
cushion, and two wooden speakers next to his head pouring forth
trance rhythms in comfortable volume. The room has the sticky and
dark green smell of weed. Scattered across the table in the centre
and down on the floor are wooden smoking pipes, glass bongs, CD
covers, porn and fashion magazines, video tapes, paperback crime and
fantasy novels, video game cartridges, and several cables going in
the shelf on which his stereo, VCR, game console and TV set are
stacked. The heater is next to Mikeís feet.
"Mike? Are you awake?"
"Yeah. Howíre you going, mate?" He opens his
eyes, sits up, turns his long, bony face towards you. You walk into
the room, on tiptoes, ready to withdraw any minute. You often feel
you have done something wrong when you are dealing with him.
"Fine. How are you?"
"Not too bad. A bit baked though. Where have you
"I walked up to King Street and came back.
"Do you want to smoke some hydro stuff? This shit
will knock you out."
"No, thanks. That shit makes me paranoid."
"Fair enough." He picks up the remote control and
starts flicking the channels of the mute TV. You have to share
Mikeís mental states to talk to him.
"We could have some drinks together." You try to
"Yeah, we could. Do you have anything? Iíve got
four stubbies in the fridge."
"I have a cask of red."
"Beauty. Letís drink then."
You get up and walk to the kitchen. The kitchen
is a display of your recent efforts at dhal and Mikeís at mashed
potatoes. First, the beer. Take the bottles to the lounge and place
them on the table. Then, the cask. Take it out of your shelf, find
two clean glasses. Back in the lounge. Sit on the sofa and pour beer
in the glasses. Cheers. To life in general. Lean back and drink your
beer while staring at the muted faces of TV evangelists. When
drinking, you like to listen to Nusrat Fateh Ali but you canít play
anything that reminds Mike of how his nirvana train got derailed in
India five years ago when a fellow passenger offered him a
tumblerful of morphinated bhang lassi. He was waiting for the bhang
to kick in when the afternoon sun suddenly fell from its hook. He
woke up to find a moustached policeman astride his belly and giving
him a mouth-to-mouth. To this day, he cannot tell whether he first
responded to the resuscitation attempts or the tickling in his nose
caused by the upwardly mobile moustache. Now he only uses familiar
chemicals and is already eying the cask. Donít try to compete with
him because he drowns his munchies in alcohol which he then digests
with marijuana. And you also have to drink slowly because you have
to ward off the thoughts of uniformed guys with sniffers storming
the house. You wonder if the dogs can be trained to detect the
presence of melanin behind closed doors and walls. You want to blunt
the serrated teeth of such thoughts with alcohol.
Mike is already at the cask when you finish your
beer. Seeing your glass empty, he fills it with red wine. The
vinegary taste of cheap wine spreads itself on your palate as the
stereo pushes into the room some electric squeals punctuated with a
programmed beat. You drink the wine in quick gulps, place the glass
on the table, pick up the cask, rest the spout on the edge, fill it,
and keep drinking. You listen to whatever music Mike plays and drink
steadily till your stomach feels soused, your scalp goes numb, you
can hear the blood behind your eardrums, and you have to look at one
point to stop the walls from swinging.
"Mike? Are you drunk too?"
"Not really. Just a bit tipsy and stoned." The
stub of his latest joint is still smouldering in the ashtray.
"Can I ask you something?"
"Do you know that Australia recognizes a
homosexual relationship as a valid reason for immigration?
"The partners only need to live together for a
year or so. Have a joint bank account and two witnesses saying the
relationship is genuine. That is all. Do you think you can help
someone migrate like this?"
"No, I am not a poof or something." His knuckles
protrude as his hand tightens around his glass.
"Yeah, I know. But that is not the issue."
"I donít want to do anything dodgy."
"But you do that every fortnight, in your social
security forms, about the number of job interviews you have done.
You copy the phone numbers from the yellow pages."
"Yeah. But thatís my life, none of your
business." The muscles around his neck become tight ropes. "Is it
you who wants to migrate like this?" Once the question is out, the
ropes hang loose.
"No, not me." Having seen his tense neck, you
have to lie.
"Who is it, then?"
"A friend. He thinks he can even become gay to be
able to leave Pakistan."
"I can understand. Sorry, I canít be of any
"It is ok. It was just a hypothetical question."
"No worries, mate." He is calm again, his hand
relaxed around the glass.
Shit. Your soaked brain has just made one grand
mistake. When the compliance squad comes knocking, he will know what
you were talking about and tell them everything, including this
conversation. You should get back to your room and donít forget the
"Mike, I think I should go and lie down. I am not
feeling very well. Perhaps, I shouldnít have mixed the drinks." You
have to give some queasy excuse while he is still drinking.
"Oh, ok. Take it easy, mate."
"You too. Thanks for the beer."
"Thanks for the wine."
"No problem. Iíll leave the cask here for you.
Can I take the heater to my room?"
"Yeah, sure. Have a good night."
In your bed, with the light off and the heater
lending a reddish glow to the room, you lie listening to the liquids
rippling in your stomach. There is no sign of any compliance team so
far. Maybe it will be a while before they get the data from all the
air and sea ports. You should become invisible before then. If
possible, by the end of the weekend. Try to sleep for tomorrow you
need to pack your things and look for a place. You lie waiting for
sleep but your mind does not shut down. The sniffers are there again
barking themselves hoarse, pulling the officers behind them. It is
difficult to sleep and you think maybe masturbation can help. Your
left hand moves to your soft penis. You try to conjure up a fantasy
to get some stiffness but your mind seems to be incapable of desire.
Nothing erotic appears in front of your closed eyes. An Australian
sheila appears for a while but you cannot even remove her clothes
without thinking about how she will react when she finds out you are
illegal. Probably she will inform the police so you have to
apologize and let her enjoy the beach. If you conjure up a Pakistani
girl, you cannot even think of sex without marriage because if her
father or brothers catch you they will blow your head off and your
fantasy will turn into a snuff movie.
Try to think of something erotic. What about the
American anthropology student who was writing her dissertation on
the correlation between displacement and ontological insecurity
among the Afghanis settled in Lahore and you were her guide during
the fieldwork trip. Her svelte body moved with a lyrical grace in
the slums. You used to fancy her riding your naked body, shouting
your name in her New England accent, Az-lam, oh Az-lam. No, this
will not work either. Her country supported the Islamization drive
of Zia-ul-Haq during the cold war and she never condemned her
government, not even once. What about a prostitute in King Cross, a
surgically enhanced figure, no hassles, no questions about your
past, present or future? She can coo the menu items: 25 dollars for
a hand job, 40 for a blow job with the clothes on, 60 with the
clothes off, 100 for everything except lip to lip kissing, 200 for
an hour of total abandon, still no lip to lip. No, you want to kiss
her lips. But you donít have that kind of money. Just fantasize that
you are very rich and can pay for everything. Yes, this works and
you have an erection. Play with yourself while a discreet girl from
an elite establishment is being unhurriedly nice to you. Yes, yes,
money has magical powers. Now, turn off the heater and sleep.
The morning is giving way to midday when you wake
up with a heavy head and ears that amplify every sound from the
street. Sounds of families coming back from their weekend shopping
trips. The sounds of excited women and children drive by in revving
cars. The sun streaming through the window lights the floating dust
in the air. Out of the bed. Walk through the cluttered kitchen
towards the toilet on the right. Lift the plastic ring, climb onto
the porcelain rim, and squat. This sub-continental way of shitting
is harder to get rid of than the guilt over drinking and eating
whatever can be chewed. Donít forget to throw some toilet paper in
the bowl to avoid the splashes made by the navy commandos. Thanks to
the dhal you can unload quite a lot, even after your visa has
expired. The air is thick with the pungent smell of fermented
turmeric, garlic and malts. Open the door a little to be able to
Outside and about a kilo lighter, you feel like
having some coffee and toast. Rummage through the kitchen shelves.
No bread. Ok, just coffee will do fine then. Boil the water, throw
some ground coffee in the plunger, pour, wait, plunge and find a
clean cup. Wash one. Mix half a tablespoon of sugar. Carry the warm
cup to the backyard where empty beer bottles and silver wine
bladders grow wild in the grass that waves like the ocean. The
landlord used to mow the lawn. But when he noticed the clutter in
the house, he told Mike that he would wait for the grass to die in
the frost. Wipe the seat of a plastic chair with your shirtsleeve
and slouch, resting your feet on an old oil can. Sip your coffee,
squint towards the sun and brood over your bright present. It may be
possible to find a place. Avoid the real estate agents because they
want documents and references. You have to look at the notice boards
near the Fischer Library or the online list maintained by the Sydney
university where students and pensioners advertise spare rooms and
granny flats. The coffee is finished and the sun has warmed your
scalp and shoulders. Place the cup under the chair, let the grass
take care of it, for it is time to go and look at the
On your way out, you step into your room, pull a
sweater from the laundry basket, stretch it over your torso, and
lock the door of your room even though the only thing that you can
lose is the dust in the air. Walk through the interminable lanes of
huddled houses of Macdonaldís Town, onto the main road, past the
cafes, money lenders and pawn brokers, jaywalk across to the
Victoria Gardens and take the pedestrian shortcut through the lawn.
The bright winter sun makes the shapes of garden plants and trees
crisp against the gothic sandstone architecture. A newly wed couple,
with their rented stretch limo parked in front of the main entrance
hall, is being photographed by a man in a perfectly tailored black
suit. Ignore them. Donít look back. Keep walking.
Ur-Rehman teaches postcolonial literatures and literary
theory at Beaconhouse National University, Lahore, Pakistan. His
academic writings have appeared in Cultural Dynamics, New
Literatures Review, and Kunapipi.