An Interview with Maliha Masood

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Maliha Masood, the author of  Zaatar Days, Henna Nights, recently published her second book, Dizzy in Karachi, a travel memoir about returning to her homeland in Pakistan as a woman to reconnect with her past. It’s a beautiful meditation on Maliha’s connection to her Pakistani heritage and a fascinating coming to terms with her childhood home. In our interview today, Maliha speaks with me about her interest in travel, the Middle East, and the dangers of stereotyping places that are complicated without knowing the whole story. Connect with her on her website or Facebook page, and enjoy!

What first interested you in travel writing as a genre?

I got into travel writing purely by accident. It all started after I returned home to the United States from an exhilarating year backpacking in the Middle East, through Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and Turkey. It was my big escape from the nine to five grind in Seattle. I had the adventure of a lifetime but I never thought of writing about it, certainly not while I was traveling in the Arab world. I flew back from Istanbul to Seattle just ten days before 9/11 and it was such a rude welcome home. I had to grapple with two different realities, the one in my head, about this joyful, empowering, emotional journey I had just experienced in the very part of the world that was now being vilified and demonized in the media and rightly so. I wanted to humanize the Mideast and the only way to do it was to share my travel stories. I was incredibly lucky in that I ended up publishing the very first thing I ever wrote. I was not trained to be a travel writer. But I’m drawn to travel writing because it’s a great way to have this cross cultural dialogue. It’s all about communication.

If someone you loved asked you for advice on how to write about travel, what would you tell this person?

I would tell them to write about the people they met. The people are the places. And they can be the most ordinary folks you meet when you travel, like the bus driver or your tour guide or the waiter at your local watering hole. But they have to be interesting, even quirky. So you want to write about the locals who really made an impression on you because of their character. That’s what makes a place come alive. Use your senses when you write. Provide lots of detail. But don’t go overboard and describe every little thing about that cute pension you discovered. Pick one angle and flesh that out. I also think it’s important to write about travel through a personal perspective which doesn’t mean you become the central focus of your story, but you want the reader to know why you’re there, what motivated you, what you’re hoping to find. So that way, you’re describing both the outer and inner journey. Travel has this duality. You need to capture both aspects and that can be tough.

In your new book, Dizzy in Karachi, you begin with series of contradictions: from bearded mullahs and Taliban militants to rave parties and bepop. Tell us: What do these contradictions mean to you? How did you come to feel an urgent passion to, in some ways, “rewrite” the world’s understanding of Pakistan?

I’ve always had a complicated relationship with Pakistan. I spent my childhood there during the malihadizzy1970’s and from a very young age, I got used to living in multiple worlds that seemed to contradict one another. I thought it was quite normal to have this Pakistani childhood where I learned to recite the Quran and English poetry and also dance to Abba! There was always this tension between East and West and I learned to coexist in both spheres quite easily.  After I moved to the States, I became increasingly disillusioned and downright angry whenever Pakistan was discussed in negative terms solely through the prism of international politics. My friends at school had me pegged as this sheltered girl from a third world country. I wasn’t supposed to have a crush on Rob Lowe or know the lyrics to Stayin’ Alive because I came from Pakistan. But I was exposed to Rob Lowe and Travolta in Karachi!  All my friends and teachers ever saw or heard about Pakistan were the horror stories and news is always bad. You don’t talk about the good stuff because it’s not considered newsworthy. I can see that point, but at the same time, I’m saddened that there’s such a one sided perception of Pakistan. It’s because that’s all we’re ever told.

But you cannot understand an entire country solely on the basis of its problems. I wanted to show the undercurrents, the stories beneath the headlines. It became my sense of duty, a mission of sorts to level the playing field. No one else was doing it and I thought I might as well try because I like to challenge assumptions and break stereotypes about people and places. I had started out by tackling the Mideast and Pakistan meant more because it was home. On the emotional front, I feel a mixture of shame and embarrassment and also a deep sense of pride to claim Pakistan as my homeland. So in writing about Pakistan, I consciously start out with what we already know, what we associate with the place such as the Taliban and then I throw in another fact that we don’t know so well. Such as Dizzy Gillespie performing in Karachi among other jazz artists. It’s a staggering contrast. It captures your attention.

When it comes to Pakistan, there is hardly anything positive written about the place and I felt compelled to add my voice not to sugarcoat the negative associations, but to shake up the status quo and make people wonder, hmmm, maybe there’s more to this country than what I hear on the evening news. I don’t think I would have felt this sense of urgency and passion to rewrite the word’s understanding of Pakistan had I not gone back more than two decades later. It was an enormous stretch of time to be away from your birthplace and the changes I saw when I went back were astronomical. Like the rave party in Karachi. It was downright schizophrenic because soon after the party, where there was booze and drugs and all kinds of illicit behavior, you’re just trying to get back home in one piece and hoping you don’t get your car hijacked or become the victim of a roadside shooting which was quite common at the time. And because Pakistan is such a class ridden society, you have these huge contradictions between the rich and the not so well off. We tend to forget about class but it plays a big role in Pakistan. The rich live a very privileged lifestyle and they can get away with a lot. Again, it’s not something you’re going to know by reading the daily papers or Time magazine. It’s important to know about current events. Pakistan is situated at the heart of some of the world’s biggest uncertainties and conflicts. But it’s not just a wild and lawless place full of mad men with guns. It hasn’t always been so puritanical. There’s more to the country than what we see on the surface.

In a world where anything is possible, what would your biggest dream be for Dizzy in Karachi? Interest in visiting Pakistan? A deeper understanding that Pakistan is not one-dimensional? What do you hope readers will do/feel after reading it?

I don’t think I’ll live to see the day when the words “travel” and “Pakistan” will be used in the same sentence and make sense. Having said that, I definitely want to make a dent of some sort and have people more interested in the country, maybe file it away as a future vacation destination when things get more stable and the dangers are not as great. I would be thrilled if my book enabled a deeper understanding of Pakistan, one that went beyond the stereotypes and headlines and got people thinking more about history which is so vital to getting a rounded picture of the place and the sheer cultural diversity of the land. Pakistan is also home to some of the most beautiful spots on earth like the remote Northern Areas which is the meeting place of three of the world’s biggest mountain ranges, the Karakoram, Himalayan and Hindu Kush. It’s pristine wilderness and it was a Mecca for mountaineers until 9/11 and then the whole tourist industry petered out due to the security risks. I devote three chapters to this region and it was a real adventure just getting there in the company of real life prince and princesses which sounds like a movie but it was all for real! I would like my readers to feel that sense of adventure and possibility and be immersed in this landscape which is so unlike anything you ever imagined about Pakistan.

In terms of the book’s impact, the most important thing I would like is for people to ask more questions and not feel as though they have to have all the answers. I want them to be open about learning more about Pakistan. I don’t expect readers to become experts on Pakistan because Dizzy in Karachi is mostly travelogue, it’s not a political manual or a history tome or an anthropological survey. I’m providing a certain perspective, one that emphasizes the positive over the negative so that’s the big take away. We’re talking about a very complex part of the world and there are so many layers to Pakistan, so many angles to broach to get a full picture. I would be happy if people were to simply realize that all these dimensions exist and not jump to conclusions that Pakistan is nothing but danger and violence every time they read a news story. I would like them to keep in mind that when it comes to Pakistan, there are other stories lurking beneath the headlines and to be curious about seeking out the stories that are not being told and uncovering new thoughts and ideas. But it doesn’t have to be so serious. After reading Dizzy in Karachi, it would be great if people were inspired to put on some vinyl records and dance to bebop!

What was the process of writing the book like for you? What advice would you give other writers who wanted to write a travel memoir?

Every book is different and this one was particularly difficult because I had to find the story, something that would connect all the disparate pieces of my travel adventures in Pakistan with memories of growing up in both Karachi and Seattle and somehow contextualize all this with bits of history and politics and make it relevant to what’s happening in South Asia and why we ought to care. I struggled with my manuscript for five years. I rewrote it many times. There were times when I completely ditched the project because it wasn’t coming together. But I kept going back to it because it was like a fire that wouldn’t die. I still remember the day when my dad read the manuscript and it was covered in red ink because he had so many corrections and suggestions and I became completely disheartened thinking this would never turn into a published book. It took months before I realized that my dad had done me a huge favor. His critique put me back on track and I began the project anew and kept at it until I came across that thread that pulled it all together. It’s important to wait. It’s important not to give up. In writing a travel memoir, you have to find that thread to stitch your entire story. Otherwise it will have too many loose ends. You need time to reflect which is really important. Both my books were written well after the time I traveled. I wrote about the Mideast three years after I had been there. Pakistan took even longer. I had traveled there in 2003. But I didn’t start writing about the trip until 2008. I needed that space. It provided a perspective and I found my thread.

You have a passion for teaching and have taught a variety of courses on women, Islam, and the West. Tell us about some of the courses you’ve taught as a guest lecturer and how this has impacted your work. Are students generally receptive to reading about Western travelers in the Muslim world?

I love teaching. Much more than writing. It’s easier to teach than to write. But I wouldn’t have gotten into teaching if I hadn’t started writing. My first book, Zaatar Days Henna Nights, was well received at college campuses and one of the local community colleges where I had done a book talk, invited me to teach in the Political Sciences department. They didn’t specify a course in the catalog. So I created my own class, “Islam and the West” which I designed to broach the whole clash of civilizations debate and take it much further by examining the so called clash as it played throughout history and across regions. I wanted to keep the course very relevant to current topics so even when we discussed something historical like colonization, we tried to relate it to what was happening in the world at the time. We talked about the headscarf debate in France, the secular nature of Turkey and I showed a lot of film clips to keep my students engaged. They got to do independent research projects and one of my favorites was on Saudi Arabia’s mall culture. It was a perfect juxtaposition of contradictions and questioning stereotypes which I happen to love. And I was thrilled that my students were getting it and making their own experiments. I also started offering workshops and the one on women and Islam is always very popular because I show the contrasts and contradictions. It’s called Burqas to Catwalks which happens to be a chapter title in the book (the one on Karachi) and it was a big success with senior citizens!

My work as a teacher mirrors my writings because the goal is the same: to broaden our understanding of the Muslim world, to challenge assumptions and to discover new layers beneath the headlines.  We’ve examined the idea of travel as a means of cultural diplomacy to open the hearts and minds debate. I like my students to share their own stories and find meaning in their own discoveries. My job is simply to give them the information and the inspiration and instead of finding all the answers, our aim is to ask better questions.

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Maliha Masood is a Pakistani born writer, teacher and educator on global affairs based in Seattle, WA. In a former life, she worked as a corporate cog in the information technology sector specializing in spreadsheets and ROI analysis. When she’s not writing, Maliha loves to teach and likens herself as a classroom diplomat whose lifelong goal is to build bridges between the Muslim world and the West at the local, grassroots level. She is the founder and director of the Diwaan Project, a non profit organization geared towards public diplomacy through the arts. Her work has been featured on NPR and PBS. Connect with her on her website or Facebook page.

Interview conducted in April, 2013 by Kristin Mock.

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