Ayesha Khan is the author of “Rodeo Drive to Raja Bazaar”, published by Publish America in July of 2006. Ayesha was born in Pakistan, spent a significant part of her childhood in Saudi Arabia, returned to Pakistan to complete her high school. After that, she did her undergrad from the College of William & Mary, got a JD from UCLA School of Law, and was admitted to the New York State Bar. She is now living in London and having published her first book, waiting for her next inspiration to hit before she ventures again into the literary world.
Ayesha’s book Rodeo Drive to Raja Bazaar is the fictional story of a girl Natasha, born and raised in Los Angeles, whose parents take her back to Islamabad when she is ten years old. Not too keen on the move initially, Natasha gradually assimilates in the Pakistani culture, giving in to her grandmother’s determination to transform her, and the slow but sure discovery of many customs and traditions through the funerals and weddings she attends. The twist arises when Natasha accepts a marriage proposal and moves back to her country of birth, only to witness a less than favourable treatment of Muslims in post 9/11 America. The book is not about terrorism, as the author says, but more of a contemporary social commentary from the perspective of an ordinary person. It is a light hearted book with some serious underpinnings, but overall, a humorous and entertaining read.
In an exclusive interview with The Saturday Post, Ayesha talks about her book as well as her own life experiences, having lived for notable time spans in the four countries that have become exceptionally relevant in today’s world due to a myriad of reasons: Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, USA, and the UK. Her observations resonate well with what a lot of us think and feel today, so read on to see what she has to say.
Before we get to your book, let’s talk about your journey from Saudi Arabia to Pakistan, the US, and now London. Tell us how it all happened and what you did in all these countries…
Beginning at the beginning, I was born in Pakistan and then moved to Saudi Arabia when I was two years old. I lived in Saudi Arabia from the mid-seventies to the late eighties and thus spent a large portion of my childhood there. For high school, I moved back to Pakistan and attended the International School of Islamabad. Three years later, I went to study in the United States. For my undergraduate studies, I was at The College of William & Mary. I got my bachelors in business administration there and then went to UCLA School of Law, from where I graduated with a Juris Doctor law degree. Immediately following that, I took the New York Bar exam and then moved back to Pakistan.
After six years in America, I was interested in moving back to Pakistan, and began working for a law firm in Karachi. I worked there for about two and a half years and then got married and moved back to New York with my husband, Yusaf, who was working for Morgan Stanley at the time. A few months later, we moved to London. We have now lived in London for seven years, and at times, I really feel like it’s time to move on, because as you can see, I rarely lived in any one geographic location for more than three years in the past.
Mostly people who train as lawyers invest so much energy in their profession that finding them in the creative world is quite rare. How did you think of stepping into the world of literature?
In general, I’m not sure I agree with this statement. Even if I look back to my study group of about six people from law school, only one is still practicing law. Others from my class have branched out into successful businesses, property development, and I believe one has even become a sports agent. So, one could argue that law is one of those professions that allows you to specialize if you so wish, but could just as easily be a stepping stone for other ventures. A good legal background can come in handy for many other fields. Nowadays especially, we live in an age which is far more receptive and conducive to change. In my parents’ generation, many people retired with the same company they started out with. But these days, it’s rare to see someone with the same company for more than five years, and many change professions altogether.
Having said that, I do agree with you that it takes a fair bit of effort to go through three years of law school, and then take the rigorous bar exam. I had enough of an interest in the law to pursue that, but that does not necessarily mean that I wanted to commit to the profession for life. I did however work as a lawyer for four years, half of it in Pakistan, and the other in London, at an American law firm, and it still remains an option as I could go back to it in the future if I decided that was what I wanted to do.
As for writing, it was something I enjoyed as an extra-curricular activity and wrote for newspapers and magazines occasionally. I guess the impetus for the book came in 2002, when I entered an essay competition sponsored by The Economist and won second prize. It was a fictional piece on Saudi women, which was then picked up by the Royal Institute of International Affairs and published in their 9/11 anniversary issue of The World Today. Although the essay was a mere 2200 words, it got me thinking seriously about writing a full-fledged book. I spent one year just thinking about it. To me, that was the most important time—just collecting my thoughts and little pointers on scrap pieces of paper that I could potentially include in the book. It was also a stressful time, because I didn’t know if something would ever come out of it. But then, slowly the inspiration came, and I started writing.
Okay, about “Rodeo Drive to Raja Bazaar”…what inspired you to pen the story of Natasha’s reverse immigration and her experiences in the post-9/11 USA?
Basically, the inspiration was mostly from what was going on around me. Of course, 9/11 itself was a big factor, and I knew I wanted to write around that theme. It was impossible not to, impossible to ignore, being Muslim in today’s world. But more than that, I also wanted to write about Pakistan and its expatriates. Reverse migration, as a trend, existed prior to 9/11 but certainly intensified afterwards. It was always interesting for me to observe the adjustment experiences of people who had spent several years away and then decided to move back, especially as it related to the adjustment of children who had in fact even been born abroad.
Many families in Pakistan and other less-developed countries have at least one family member living abroad, and therefore, it is a situation many people can relate to. Increasingly, expatriates are playing greater roles in their countries of origin and this has also been touched upon in the book.
What are the biggest points you think you succeeded in putting across about the post-9/11 world?
I would really be interested to know what the readers think about this. But in so far as what I had in my mind foremost was to express what the average man/woman on the Muslim street thinks/feels. A lot of those voices are either manipulated for a specific purpose in the media or are not heard at all. And so, that is what I wanted to focus on—a different perspective—that of the Muslim (and specifically, Pakistani) layperson and not some politician. There are several conversations in the book that the narrator’s father has with his friends. Often these relate to post 9/11 politics and also become unruly at times because different people have different views even in the Muslim world. It depicts, I think, how we, as a community, are searching for explanations both from within ourselves and from outside. There is a very obvious schism developing between the Muslim world and the west, which is disturbing to many Muslims, especially those who live in the west. Different Muslims have different views on how to deal with the crisis, and that is also reflected in the novel.
The novel is not about terrorism. It is light-hearted in tone and nature. But it does portray the effects of 9/11, as they relate to Muslims. And so it also includes instances of racial profiling, which many Muslims have suffered, especially in the U.S. after 9/11.
What are some of the comments you want readers to take notice of about Pakistan’s social or cultural traditions?
Again, it would be interesting for me, as the author, to see what people pick up on. The great thing about fictional literature is that every reader takes away something different from the book, or sometimes a reader can read things into the plot which the author never even intended or perhaps just wrote subconsciously. For instance, I had a British-born girl of Pakistani origin who had read the book come up to me the other day and say “I didn’t know that other people in Pakistan called their tailors ‘Tailor Master’. I thought we were the only ones.” It was interesting for me to hear although it wasn’t something I had written specifically as meriting a lot of attention.
The novel is the story of Natasha’s life, a ten-year old girl born to Pakistani parents in Los Angeles, who moves to Pakistan and then back to the States ten years later. The book therefore speaks at two levels. On the one hand, it is about intra-familial relations, the generation gap, women’s issues, weddings and funerals. To many Pakistanis, it could just be a reflection of their own families. But, at the same time, there are undertones of existing political considerations, and thus conversations that reflect pent-up resentment about colonialism, post 9/11 confusion and discrimination against Muslims, and tensions among different religious persuasions within Muslim communities.
As a Muslim of Pakistani origin, what is it like for you to live in today’s London? Any personal experiences or general observations about the situation?
Today’s London is a vastly cosmopolitan city. In addition, one in every nine people who live in London belongs to the Muslim faith. Personally, fortunately I have not had a discriminatory or unpleasant experience. However, for many others, this is not the case, especially in the outskirts of London or other parts of England, where police raids have become commonplace or Muslim youth are routinely rounded up for questioning. Issues of bigotry and discriminatory behaviour towards Asian communities existed in certain parts of the UK, like Bradford, even before 9/11, but the problem was certainly exacerbated after 9/11, and then more so after 7/7. The problem is intensified when the authorities are operating off of a view or specific profile. It is one thing to deal with bigoted neighbours, but quite another to battle the prejudiced views of authorities. This is the challenge Muslim communities in the west face these days. Of course, in certain places it is worse than others, but the trend is there.
It is the general environment, not personal experiences, that worries me. Look at the role of the media, or statements from those in positions of influence. Just the other day, I was watching a show on BBC where they were discussing the recent unwise remarks of Pope Benedict, and one of the panellists quite simply said that because Islam had replaced communism as the “significant other”, Christianity was in competition with it. When statements like that are made on television, they have huge ripple effects in the minds of ordinary people, Muslim and Christian, watching the shows. Muslims, as the minority, are left in a very awkward position, because they are either left apologizing for the image of the barbaric terrorist, even though they may have nothing to do with it, or dissociating themselves from it. A parallel problem of course is the lack of assimilation by the Muslim community for which both the majority and minority are to blame!
Let’s switch gears to your living experience in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. What are some of the liberties that you feel women lack in these countries compared to the US and UK?
Firstly, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan are vastly different from one another. Perhaps the similarity ends at the point that the majority of the population in both countries is Muslim. Pakistan is far freer in terms of what can be said or written in newspapers, etc. It is not surprising therefore that Pakistan is also far more progressive when it comes to women’s rights. However, that is not to say that Pakistan is perfect in its treatment of women—far from it. There is plenty of room for improvement, but Pakistan does have some very courageous people, active in women’s rights movements, battling for their fair share. In Saudi Arabia, that is virtually non-existent because first of all there are very strict guidelines relating to and constant monitoring of any organized group. It is even not possible to demonstrate for a cause publicly, which is second nature to Pakistanis. In addition, the law upholds the discrimination in Saudi Arabia, even when it comes to something as basic as women driving.
In Pakistan, a lot of the mistreatment of women can be traced back to poverty, illiteracy or feudalism. Of course there is some deliberate discrimination independent of that as well, such as in the case of the hudood/zina laws, or in the case of certain evidentiary laws. But at least protests are common and so is debate.
Comparing the situation to the western world is almost not possible because we are just too far behind. Of course, women in the western world have a lot more safeguards they can rely on, at least legally, which women in our part of the world can only aspire for. When it comes to proving a rape case, asking for maintenance in a divorce, or even maternity leave, women in the west have it a lot better, although still not great often, but much better than our situation. It is important to remember however that these safeguards were never handed to women on a platter, and that it took years of work from women’s movements to achieve them. So we must recognize the importance of these movements and support them in our own countries, both socially and politically, in the hope that they can flourish and make a greater difference. The situation of women in Pakistan today would have been a lot worse if those organizations did not exist, so they have been working hard, but, in the words of Robert Frost, we have miles to go before we sleep, I suppose.
How is the book doing in terms of sales and reviews?
There is a review expected in Dawn soon (before the end of the month). So, I’ve got my fingers crossed for that one. Three other publications in the UK are also reviewing the book, but Dawn should be the first to come out.
In terms of sales, I guess I will find out when I get my first royalty statement in January. However, I donated the first signed copy to an auction at a fundraiser raising funds for the continued rehabilitation for the earthquake victims in Pakistan and it fetched £500, which went to the charity. And that gave me great pleasure—I though it was a good beginning. There is also a book launch planned at the Pakistan High Commission in London on the 27th of October, and Dr. Maleeha Lodhi will be introducing the book to the audience and then I intend to speak about it at length, followed by a question/answer session.
Any plans for a future literary venture?
I am not really thinking about a future literary venture at the moment. I want to wait for another inspiration before I jump into another book. I also want to do more with the book that I have written, perhaps speak about it to different audiences before I start something new. I do intend to continue with articles however, as I did before.
What are some lessons you’ve learned as far as disciplining yourself to balance family, work, and your creative ventures?
It is difficult to discipline oneself when you don’t have a conventional job. But then the good thing about writing is that you can do it whenever. I am not a morning person, so I often write at night when everyone else is asleep, and that works quite well for me. I also don’t take on too much at once. So, I only began my writing endeavour after I quit my law job. I think it would have been impossible to do both together and do a good job. I believe that one has to step back and enjoy life as well, and if we work too hard even spending time with family can be a challenge, especially if both partners are working. So, if one person at least has a flexible schedule, it makes things a bit easier to manage.