19 Nov, 2014

“home” is my family…

Sehba Sarwar
19 Nov, 2014

In a conversation over coffee at Café Brasil, Maha Khan talks about home:

For me, “home” is my family – a sense of belonging that has warmth because of the people around me. You could be in this gorgeous place, but that doesn’t make the space “home.” It’s just a pretty place if there aren’t the people you love around you.

When I think of spaces that are home for me, I think of Weslaco, Texas. And Lahore. When I go to Lahore, I feel completely at home. And Sugar Land, Texas, of course, where I live. What’s funny is that whenever I get asked, “Where are you from?” my standard answer is Texas. I am in love with this place. There is absolutely no place like it, from the land, and most of all people, and this is the friendliest place on earth!

My mother, who was born and raised in Lahore, was a budding artist but did not complete her studies at the National College of Arts because she married my father, who has a doctorate in organic chemistry from the University of Heidelberg. He studied under the Nobel Laureate, Professor Georg Wittig (inventor of the “wittig reaction” for chemistry buffs). After Daddy retired, he was invited to the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS) by his friend who owns the University to help set up the Sciences and Engineering building, where he built a state of the art chemistry lab and you can see all the Co2 (carbon dioxide) pipes running through!

I try going to Lahore every summer with my children. Most of my family is still there and as well as my in-laws. My mother took us there very often, and we made beautiful bonds with my cousins and the country. Lahore kind of reminds me of Cheers, where you walk in and you know most of the familiar faces and where everybody knows your name… my mother’s family is very large and as soon as I land I tend to meet someone wherever I might be. It’s a small place, and I would tend to say most people have not gone far. The thing I do not like is not being referred to by my first name, either I’m his granddaughter, his niece, his daughter in law,etc… I think a lot of women like me who go back feel the same as I do. It still makes me ponder, and it seems very old school, very cultural and feudal class thinking and of course primogeniture (which was very prevalent on my father’s side while in India and the ancestral family he came from).

Thinking of home, though, my heart first goes to Weslaco and to my memories of growing up there. I have come to know that I like small communities and spaces, where I’m enmeshed with people I know. I feel that way in each of the spaces: Weslaco and Lahore. And of course, Sugar Land, where our life is and where I’ve been for 30 years.

I remember our Weslaco house with citrus groves all around. There, my mother was also one of the first members of the Junior League, and she’d impart some of our culture through food demonstrating – how to cook gulab jamun, or what the women called “rose-balls”! My parents were avid tennis players, (my mother can pack a mean volley at the net) and would go to Monterrey, Mexico for matches with their friends, and of course in Weslaco, all three of us girls started at the age of five on the courts, and have played since.They also enrolled us (my sisters and me) in every extra-curricular activity that there was known to man…Yes I can play the ukulele, and was in competitive piano since age seven to about 18.

What I loved about Weslaco is that back then, no one categorized us as a Pakistani family. No one even knew who was from where and no one asked about religion. I went back about 15 years ago to see my godparents. They are from India and they’re still there. Everything felt the same – the bonds and the connections. My parents are very close to them. My godmother is an ob-gyn and she delivered my youngest sister. My trip was nostalgic. I didn’t see friends since most people have moved. But the city was exactly the same. Not much has changed – the smells, the sights, the people, and you can only get the best Tex-Mex there. I loved it and am planning to take the family sometime down to the valley next year.

When we pulled into the gorgeous hacienda that was palm tree lined and very tranquil, my (Karachi-born) husband Omar, though, said, Where are we?

I said: Home.

Sugar Land has been my physical home for 30 years. It’s a multicultural space. Now being Muslim and Pakistani, I feel it’s my duty to show we’re just like everyone else, and to try to erase people’s notions of a stereotypical Pakistani, American-born Muslim As a minority you must enmesh yourself in your surroundings. I’ve developed personal connections all around me. We have great friends who are Hindu, Jewish, Baptist, Mormon, Catholic – all colors of the rainbow, all faiths. And I make sure my kids do the same. I’m very grateful to my parents for raising us with love, laughter, confidence and a pride of our ancestral heritage. I can only hope to instill this in our children. Maybe that feeling is what home mean to me. – Maha Khan

This conversation is part of my What Is Home? project that is funded in part by Mid-America Art Alliance’s Artistic Innovations grant.