Letter to a Stranger is the response to a simple question: “Who haunts you?” This essay was originally featured in Off Assignment.
I was nine years old, in the midst of a megacity, and completely alone. My mother spent her days running bureaucratic errands, my sister working through her trigonometry course book, determined to finish it before our return home. My grandfather was ill; my grandmother only spoke Urdu.
Inside the house was quiet, the dull hum of A/C. Outside was life: drivers and guards, female servants walking to work, vendors announcing themselves in metallic sing-song, donkeys, goats, mangy dogs and cats. But I was a girl from upstate New York, unfamiliar with the codes of Karachi’s streets; people could tell I was foreign from the way I moved. Occasionally, I’d observe from the roof, but in the day it was hot and at night there were mosquitos. So I mostly stayed in, reading a book, yearning for home.
Your main task was cleaning the floors. Twice a day, at least, you swept away the desert dust, wiped down the concrete with a wet rag; Cinderella in a low squat. I can’t remember your face, but I remember thinking you looked dirty, and pretty. You were old enough to have breasts, old enough to be married, but you were just a kid. You were named Meraj, after the Prophet’s night journey through the skies. You didn’t laugh at my broken Urdu. No one minded our friendship, as long as it didn’t interfere with your work.
I let you hold my toys, my books, my clothes. My mother started taking me to the neighborhood movie rental store. I’d sit on the bed and you’d sit on the floor, and we would watch pirated films on VHS: Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, with every bad word censored; A View to a Kill, without the sex; The Goonies, which I’d already seen ten times. I remember the movies, but not your thoughts.
Some nights, the neighborhood would beat to the pulse of weddings. A house would turn disco dancer, draped with flashing bulbs and flower garlands, boxes of sweets paraded in and out of its gates. A colorful tent would be erected in the garden, or sometimes in the street itself, blocking traffic. We’d hear the feisty rhythm of the dholak drum. The air would smell of roasted meat. Neighbors would go to their roofs to watch the festivities.
You and I did, too, and one day we came up with a brilliant plan. We recorded ourselves singing and clapping wedding songs, played it from our roof full blast, and hid. A minute later, a curious few appeared on the nearby roofs, lured by the promise of a party, greeted instead by a tape recorder. We were delighted; we laughed with every limb. My memory of this evening is one of wonder: of being young, and un-alone, and clever, and free.
My last week in Karachi, I wanted to go to the ice cream parlor. My mother refused; she’d returned after a long day. We’re going home soon, she said, you can have ice cream in America. But I’d been stuck inside since morning, thinking about ice cream. I was angry, and annoyed.
You were in my room, cleaning the floor, except you weren’t. You were touching one of my things. I don’t remember what, which shows how important it was to me.
I took it from you. I yelled at you for touching it, though I’d let you hold my things before. As I raised my arms, you cried, “No, no!” You assumed crash position: squatting down, head tucked against forearms as I pummeled my fists along the curve of your back. You did this instantly, instinctively—as if it were not the first time this had happened to you.
I didn’t beat you for very long, or at least it didn’t seem so to me. I stepped away, looking not at you but at my hands, which had never seemed so capable, or cruel. We kept it our secret, and we never spoke again.
You and I were once friends, but even my memory of you is all about me. I can’t remember anything you said, except “No.” Fault human nature, the Pakistani class hierarchy. Fault me being an ugly American, a daughter of immigrants who grew up in the land of kills. Distilled, it is this: I was a lonely child in a strange land, but I had power over you. I hit you because I could.
What happened to you, stranger? You may have risen with Asia; you may still be sweeping floors. The odds are stacked against a fairy tale, but Meraj is the Arabic word for ascent, and your name evokes the most magical of flights. If there is no justice in this world, try the next. Maybe the buraq, that winged, mythical creature, strong horse body, beautiful female face, lifted you up as it did the Prophet, and flew you all the way to outer space.