Years ago, when I was editing news stories from the United States for broadcast in Pakistan, every eid required us to send in a predictable news package of the desi community celebrating the occasion. A shot would pan from an unfamiliar, cloudy sky to rows of somber-looking Pakistani men praying at a mosque or cultural centre; then cut to the women’s area of the building, with sudden burst of colourful clothing, happy faces and lots of kids running around.
Add to it shots of an eid bazaar from the night before, a voiceover about josh and kharosh and the emotional twist of a Pakistani immigrant telling viewers in his homeland how much he misses his country, family and food.
Every year the same story caters to an uninterested audience but this, truly is, eid away from home — a happy celebration with a heavy heart. For when you leave home — for a better life or worse, for more or less — there will always be something missing from your being, a hole that will remain unfilled.
It is occasions like eid that bring a pause to the chores of daily life and reignite questions of identity, home, and family. The immigrant eid is an attempt at recreating a revised version of what it once used to be. Perhaps replacing the nani walas and the dadi walas with friends, half friends, and acquaintances.
I spent the last two eids at my sister’s house in southern California where she has lived for nineteen years. Away from cousins, uncles and aunts, she says that her friends are her family. She is a very busy doctor with two young children and her vast family of friends.
For busy people with overscheduled lives in the American suburbs, eid preparation must get off the ground without delay. Texting begins well in time to fairly distribute hosting of chand raat parties, eid lunches and dinners and the events flowing into the following weekend. Things get booked up early so if you want to host the main eid party, you need to strike first to get the spot.
These are young, professional Pakistani families that are modern, forward-looking, and well integrated into the communities they live in. They are politically active, socially engaged, ambitious, entrepreneurial and competitive. Their children are growing up in a world entirely different from their own. Every time they want to inject their past into their children’s lives, they have to do it in a way that will make sense to their younger ones.
So occasions like eid have become child-centred. After the ritualistic elements of eidi, adaab and sewaiyyan, the practicals of a new kind of eid take over. Children plan eid-related activities, decorating the house days in advance and making goody bags for their friends. They write well researched speeches about kindness, sharing and peace, and they make self-assessment charts on the basis of their good deeds during Ramzan.
They note down household chores they participated in and every time they shunned temptation and avoided conflict. It’s an eid that encourages them to give the rituals a purpose. It involves them beyond mehndi the night before, into investing their time and effort to make the day meaningful.
My mother, an educationist in Pakistan and a keen observer of how things are done in her daughters’ houses, calls it a ‘changed pedagogy’. This method of making eid innovative, interactive, and child-oriented is an effort to keep it relevant to the second generation. It is an acknowledgement by those who migrated that their children’s experience of culture, tradition and religion is different from theirs. It’s their hope that the second generation will embrace the occasion if it matches well with the system of learning and doing that they are growing up with.
Of course, not all families follow this trend but whether it is the suburbs of New Jersey and Texas, or the streets of Redbridge and Bradford, or even all those unexpected small and big towns of Europe where Pakistanis have made homes, eid comes filled with nostalgia and recreation of a memory of lost time and place.
Eids abroad can be lonely, especially for families that have been torn apart because of migration.
And then there’s this other matter: twelve years ago, my first eid outside Pakistan was in London where I lived in a University international housing with only two other Muslim girls on the same floor — a Palestinian from Jordon and a Malaysian. All three of us had ‘our’ eids on different days. Not only was that incomprehensible for everyone around us, it was also quite embarrassing as a Muslim that even a religious festivity couldn’t unite us.
Years later, I spent eid with a family in the United States and while one part of the family celebrated, the sister visiting from London continued with her fast because there was a disagreement on the dates set by the Islamic communities of the two countries.
Over the many years I have realised that what makes eid abroad remarkably different from eid at home is not just the lack of extended family, but the holidays. My sister sees her patients all day if eid falls on a working day, and her kids go to school. The day doesn’t seem to be any different. Year after year, I have wondered, what is eid if I spend it attending a class, sitting for an exam, or just doing what I do every other day?
If eid was an international annual holiday, then it would have had a different flavour. In Italy, where I now live, families with children living abroad reconvene at the family home to spend Christmas together. Christmas eve parties and Christmas lunches continue in the same tradition for generations and the long holiday offers an opportunity for the whole extended family to come together, as seems to be the purpose of these events.
If my sister and I could descend upon our Karachi home with our families and if all our cousins and aunts and uncles did the same, eid for our children would be a natural continuation of the eid that we used to spend. Surely with some nostalgia that comes with age, but with little need to wholly recreate.
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This year, I will be in Italy where I don’t know other Pakistanis. There will be no kormas and sheermals and biryanis but my son will be handing out small gifts from Pakistan to all his four-year old classmates, with a special note to each of them about the festive day. It will be my recreated, migrant version of the eid that I grew up with, that required no explanation, no information. I’m hoping this will make my very little son enjoy the occasion whether he understands it or not.