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I found her at Caffe Greco in 1824

August 2016

I sat at Caffe Greco, staring as the raindrops dissolved into puddles. It was a picturesque day—if people still used that word. I didn’t know. I didn’t know anything about this place.

I tried to think about how I got here, how or even why. There were so many things he hadn’t told me, so many things I longed to know. But he wouldn’t let me. If I was the bridge, then he was the barbed wire at the end of it. Forever trapping me into places I didn’t understand, around people I didn’t recognise. He never told me what was happening. I always had to figure it out myself. This time, I didn’t think I had it in me anymore. It was hard. Constantly changing and rearranging your life. Especially when you felt the need to be grounded into reality so badly. Especially when you knew you didn’t always have that option.

I sat at Caffe Greco. The carved wooden statue on my right reminded me of Thursday evenings when I’d come here with my friends and sip on caffe after caffe. This was the only place that was familiar to me. That was I why I brought him here. He had gone to order himself a tea because he didn’t like coffee. I sat on my table, drinking my coffee—trying to remember what it was like before I met him.

Everything else on Via Condotti had changed, and transpired into names I couldn’t even pronounce. I felt uncomfortable out there. In here was the only ease I got. I rearranged the table, moving the cutlery to one end and the candle on the other. He never understood why I always did this. I took out the small book of John Keats’ poems I had hidden in the back of my jeans, he would kill me if he found out I still had the book. I opened the cover, and placed the book in front of the candle. Perfect, I murmured to myself. I traced my fingers over the smooth texture of the words inscribed on the first page. The handwriting was hard to decipher because of how many times I had moved my fingers over these very words. But I didn’t need to read them to know what was written, I would never forget those words.

“I don’t understand why you like this place so much,” he barked.

His thin lips were peeling as they formed into an O.

“The service is terrible. The tea is cold. They charged me 20 Euros for this,” he went on, tossing the teacup onto the table, and ruining what I had spent time rearranging.

I stared at his tiny lips, at the vein popping in the middle of his extremely large forehead. I just kept watching because I couldn’t listen anymore. I quickly slipped the book onto my lap, and as usual, he didn’t notice. He was too busy glaring at the waiter to care about what I was doing.

“Let’s try to enjoy our drinks, okay?” I whispered.

Afraid of him causing a scene in the one place I felt relaxed. I leaned back in my chair and looked down at the book. It was my little secret, the only one he hadn’t had the chance to steal away from me. I remembered the day I got it. How I was sitting on this exact chair. Staring at the same wooden statue. I couldn’t believe how much time had passed. Everything was so different now.

 

January 1824

“Take it,” George said, as he nudged the book into my hand.

“I don’t have much time.”

“How will I see you again?”

I barely made out, my throat was dry even though I had just finished the last sip of my coffee. Maybe this is what crying does to you. It makes your eyes red and throat dry, and most of all—it makes you resent yourself. The big mirror in front of me was already telling me I wasn’t happy. I didn’t need George leaving to tell me that even more.

“We’ll meet here,” George said.

It had been three years since John’s death. Three years since we had been pretending everything was the same.

“When?”

“You’ll know when to come.”

George planted a light kiss on my cheek, and with a silent Arrivederci he slowly walked out onto Via Condotti. I looked at the book in my hand, it was a leather bound pocket-sized book. I opened the first page. Above John Keats, there was a small inscription in his cursive script that I would recognise anywhere.

For Emma, never doubt that things won’t be as they once were.

That was it. No name, no date. I guess it didn’t need one. But then, at the bottom of the page in writing so small that I would have normally skimmed over, I read, GB. George Gordon Byron.

I didn’t wait for George to come back. I never came back, until today. I heard that George died later that year in April. I cried for seven days. But by then, I had already met him. He had already taken me.

I always wondered why George had given me John’s book when he knew it would make me nostalgic. They had never gotten along. I was always the one that forced them to come here. Even during his last days, we sat here, drinking caffe’s while he and George fought over whose poetry was better. They always asked me to choose. I never did. John would stand up on the chair he was sitting in right now, and read his poetry out loud, almost as if we were at a mead hall. George would mock him. And I would listen. But then John died, and it wasn’t the same. We still came and sat on this table, George still read me his poetry, but it wasn’t fun anymore. It almost seemed forced. I think that’s part of the reason why he left—he would never have told me that though.

I sat at Caffe Greco. It was no longer 1824. There was no longer any poetic competition, no longer any friendly banter. It was just me and him now. Him and me.

“Emma?”

I shook my head, and smiled at him. I had no choice but to smile. Otherwise he’d know something was wrong. And he’d take me back there. That was the last place I wanted to be.

March 1824

I was sitting in Piazza di Spagna. I was close enough to Caffe Greco to see the people that walked in and out. George wasn’t one of them. I was reading the book he had given me. It was most of John’s poetry, and I still didn’t understand why George hadn’t given me his own poetry. Maybe they did really respect each other. Maybe this was George’s way of showing it to me. I started reading Ode to a Nightingale, I had always loved it when John read it aloud. I looked up to the window on my left, wondering if he was looking out of it when he wrote the poem. I could almost make out the damage that had been done to the apartment from down here. All that was really left were ruins. Ruins, and this book.


“Excuse me?” A male voice interrupted.

I looked down to see a tall, well built man around my age. His hair was the colour of mahogany, and his eyes were small. So small I couldn’t make it out his expression. He had the largest forehead I had ever seen.

“Yes?” I answered.

“I’m looking for Isola Tiberina. Would you know where that is? I need to walk there,” he said.

What had I gotten myself into. I couldn’t describe the way under any circumstances and have him actually understand. Something on his face told me he wasn’t going to give up.

“I could show you the way, if you want,” I whispered hesitantly.

But as soon as the words left my mouth I regretted them. I didn’t know him. He could be dangerous.

Little did I know just how dangerous in that moment. I don’t even remember how it happened really. But on our way there, we got to talking and I was having fun. He spoke to me about neoclassicism, and medieval literature and ancient roman art—everything that I loved but no longer had anyone to talk to about. There was something about the way he looked at me as I pointed out Corinthian order columns and frescos in the antiquities on our path. He glared at me with this intensity that made me feel appreciated. That made me feel like my words mattered. I hadn’t had that much fun since the days at Caffe Greco with George and John. I was still young then.

After arriving at the Isola, he asked me to meet him back there the next day. Soon it became part of my morning routine. We’d walk along the Lungotevere for hours—I discovered him while he discovered the city.

It was a year later that we got married.

That was when it really began.

July 2015

I couldn’t breathe. It was so dark. I couldn’t see and I couldn’t breathe. I tried screaming. But he was the only one that could hear me. He was the one that brought me here. I didn’t understand how, or why, for a moment I thought maybe he had drugged me so I wouldn’t see where we were going. But this felt real. I was awake, and every single sense of mine heightened. I looked around and could almost make out a door. I opened it, and saw a room. A room with a large table, and a lot of lights. Across the table was a huge window. Outside the window was something I had never seen before. This didn’t look like the view of the Roman Forum from Capitoline Hill. They were monuments of some sort, towering overhead, so high I couldn’t make out where they ended. I could see the tip of St. Peters, but the rest of it was hidden by these new buildings.

This was not my world.

I didn’t understand how we got here. He had been reading a short story about a future dystopia. I had been drinking a caffe.

That was all I remembered.

I looked at him. He looked back, taking in my expression. I didn’t understand what was happening. My throat was too dry. All I knew was that he had taken George’s life and brought me here. Wherever here was. He knew we were friends. I found out through a letter from his brother. I can never look at him the same way again. He was the reason I hadn’t gone back to Caffe Greco. He was the reason so many things had changed.

August 2016

I had finally learned the way this worked, or at least, the way he did.

“Emma,” he said loudly.

“Yes?”

“Let’s go. It’s time.”

I stood up, forgetting that I still had the book in my lap. It fell open right in front of him. Page 45. Was it a vision, or a waking dream? Fled is that music: —Do I wake or sleep?

I looked at his face, as he read the verse. I watched as his expression changed from being mildly annoyed to surprised, and then completely shocked. He tried to snatch the book up. I didn’t understand what was happening. But I grabbed it before he could. At the bottom of the page, two lines were circled. George must have done it. I didn’t know why. I didn’t even know why he had killed George. Nothing made sense anymore.

So I read the lines again.

Do I wake or sleep?

Do I wake or sleep?

I couldn’t sleep anymore. I had been sleeping for too long. The lines kept echoing in my head. I couldn’t see clearly. I couldn’t breathe. Everything around me was dark as I screamed. There was a door leading to some light, so I walked towards it. I opened the door and I was back at Caffe Greco. Except, he was gone. I went out on Via Condotti. It was almost as if I had never left. There were no longer any shops with names I couldn’t pronounce. No longer any buildings hindering my vision. There was a newspaper stand on my right, and I grabbed the first copy.

I looked at the date on the top.

August 1824.

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But I ask you, what’s in a name?

Think identity, personality, experience.

It’s your first day of university in a new city, in a new country. You think about how everything around you is so foreign and new. The professor is reading off names on the roster in a calm and easy manner. As the list progresses, the professor begins to tug on his collar, sweat buds forming on his forehead, and you know – you just know it’s your name next and he doesn’t know how to pronounce it. That’s when you realise the only thing new and foreign around there, is you.

I understand that my name is foreign, and different, but that does not make it hard. I have the right for you to learn how to say my name, the same way I learnt how to say yours. Sometimes, people don’t try. They feign indifference and keep on saying your name as it comes to them by nature. But in so many places, names have a significance that you can’t just disregard. Oh, what is in a name? A name defines a history, a past, a tradition, culture, religion – and beyond. Your name is what your parents or grandparents chose for you – it is yours and yours to keep. It is you, as an individual, you as a person, and changing that, when it isn’t your choice, that means something.

Is it wrong that every time my name came on the roster, and my professor sweated a little, I felt ashamed? Is my name such a strain that it brings stress upon those that do not know of my culture and ancestry? I don’t know. It shouldn’t have to be.

Recently, a programme called “My name, my identity” was put into works to express the importance of pronouncing a name correctly. Let’s be honest, it’s not that hard to learn how to say a name when we live in this modern world where technology is a mere tap away and knowledge is irrevocably infinite?

So don’t ask me what’s in a name, don’t ask me what’s in my name. Because frankly, you should already know.

Fighting patriarchy with my pen

Part One: The yes girl

At 22, I moved home. Back into my parents house, back into the bubble that is Karachi, Pakistan. Living away from home, especially when you come from a country like mine, is liberating, groundbreaking, and eye-opening to say the least. My life in Karachi had always been controlled. I was controlled by my teachers in school, by my parents at home, by my religion in life. Everything I said and did was somehow watched and valued. As a writer, I never liked rules. I didn’t care for them. My writing was my constant solace. I rebelled through characters, letting the girls free their minds while I sat on the edge of my bed, listening again to what my parents told me to do.

I was always the yes girl. I nodded when my parents told me that I had to wear a shawl over my sleeve-less top to cover my arms in public – because of the apparent male gaze that followed every girl in Karachi. I silently agreed when my teacher told me that Biology was a man’s subject, and I was better suited to humanities. I was always agreeing. I was always saying yes. Until one day. I finally said no.

Part Two: The girl that grew up

It’s 9 a.m. Karachi is cool in a way that it never usually gets. My mother is banging on my door to get me to wake up for my workout. I can’t miss class. I have to be thin. I must be thin. My mother says I have to be thin for wedding season. What will all the aunties say if I’m not? How will I ever get married if I’m not? This is the constant battle in my life. I am constantly told to prepare myself for marriage.

The module, The Social Construction of Gender states, “Every society classifies people as “girl and boy children,” “girls and boys ready to be married,” and “fully constructs similarities among them and differences between them, and assigns them to different roles and responsibilities” 278)

Eat better, my mother says. Back straight, my father says. Head up high, my mother says. Get a manicure, my father says. My life is a series of do-betters and get betters. I am the opposite of the epitome of what every Pakistani mother wants her daughter to be. Yes, I can cook. I can clean. When I was six-years-old, I learnt how to iron, not because I wanted to, but because that’s what girls do. But it wasn’t what I wanted. I didn’t want someone to judge me on my ability to make roti, or nod my head when someone older spoke to me. Ali Tazeen explains how gender is constructed in such a way that men and women have roles that are predetermined, like it or not.

In Pakistan, gender roles are constructed of a combination of traditional roots and social values, primarily based on the concepts of production and reproduction, taken to mirror masculine and feminine traits of an individual. More than 50% of the women lack basic education and approximately 30% do earn some income, but most women in Pakistan are confined to their homes to do housework for the extended family and are excluded from main decision making.

(Ali)

There is a majority of women that aren’t allowed to work or leave the country, and through that notion, I fall under the exception. My life isn’t as gender determined as so many of the girl out there, trying to gain even a remnant of freedom, but being told they cannot.

Part Three: The girl that speaks

My mother tells me i’m not lady-like enough, that my voice is too loud for a Pakistani girl, my clothes too wild, and my thoughts too provocative – I live in a society where patriarchy reigns. My world is woman-centric and every things I do is measured.

My clothes are measured, the tone of my voice in public is measured. My whole life is measured by customs and rules that I no longer believe in.

I am chained within four walls constantly. The walls of my house, the walls of my gender, the walls of the ever dominating patriarchy that keep growing taller and taller as I grow smaller to fit into my self-made box. I cannot breathe because I am larger than the box, my thoughts do not fit within it, and my actions do not either. One of the reasons why I’ve even been able to realise this is through my education. As Alavi illustrates through the quotation below, many do not even have the chance to realise how much of a difference their gender makes to their lives because they have not been given an education. This is both a cultural, and religious problem.

Education is the key to acceptable and respectable jobs. Lower middle class families would find it degrading to let their women take up jobs as domestic servants or to work on the factory floor for which education is not a pre-requisite. Families who expect their women to take up jobs as teachers or office clerks (or better) tend therefore to put a high value on women’s education which, at one time, was thought to be mere indulgence and wasteful of money spent on it.

(Alavi 1329)

There is a vast majority of women who long to express themselves creatively but are not given the chance. The social structure in Pakistan is set up in such a way that women cannot walk on the streets in certain places because of the constant stares from men and the fear of rape. Since women cannot even walk on the streets without being questioned, it is hard imagining a place in Pakistan where women’s voices are not challenged in the least.

Pakistan is infamous for its gender gap. Within the country exists a society that adheres to patriarchal beliefs and authority, one that pushes the conception that a man must be in charge of a woman’s life, and a woman must be in charge of her house and obtain the role of a caretaker. The woman is seen as the primary caretaker, while the man is seen as the primary provider, since his duty involves leaving the house to provide monetary wealth for his family. Even though in major cities in Pakistan, such as Karachi and Islamabad, the role of a woman outside the house is not always condemned, there are still many people that are firm believers in the woman as the center of the domestic sphere.

Culturally, household work (in her own home) is considered a woman’s primary role. Due to the increase of economic pressures on families in the past few decades, the traditional restrictions on women have lessened and large numbers of women have taken on paid employment; but domestic work remains a woman’s principal duty.

(Hussain 4)

Thankfully, my family doesn’t believe that I have to be a domesticated housewife, and I do work at a newspaper. Working in the media is an interesting job, as every day I see so many women that have been wronged. Honour killing and rape are always on the front page of the paper, and I can’t escape it. I can’t get away from the rising patriarchy no matter how hard I try. It seeps into my life. The video, “How does gender affect the workplace?” explains that occupations like engineering and law are usually filled by men, and this does reign true in Karachi. My little brothers are told to become doctors and lawyers, and then here, I am – I studied Literature and Creative Writing in Italy.

There is an inherent need for the questioning of societal norms in Pakistan. A woman’s independence and freedom of choice should be her priority during her formative years, not her presentation in the eyes of possible proposers.

Maybe my life wouldn’t revolve around gender if I lived somewhere else. But I’ve realised that standing up for yourself is the best way to go about it. I can’t help that my society values the damsel in distress, and the perfect housewife, but I don’t have to follow those rules. There is always room for the girls that say no. The girls that raise their voices even when everyone around them wants to silence them.

Sources:

Ali, Tazeen S., et al. “Gender Roles and Their Influence on Life Prospects for Women in

Urban Karachi, Pakistan: A Qualitative Study.” Global Health Action (2011): PMC.

Web. 10 Dec. 2016.

Bhamani, Shireen Shehzad, and Nida Zahid. “Am I Born To Be Hurt? The Voice Of Women

Living In Urban Squatter Settlement Of Karachi, Pakistan: A Case Study.”

International Journal Of Nursing Education 7.4 (2015): 137-141. CINAHL Complete.

Web. 11 Dec. 2016.

Hussain, Iffat. Problems of Working Women in Karachi, Pakistan. Newcastle: Cambridge

Scholars, 2008. Web. 8 Dev. 2016.

Lorber, Judith. “Chapter 32: The Social Construction Of Gender.” Inequality Reader:

Contemporary & Foundational Readings in Race, Class, & Gender. 277-278. n.p.:

Perseus Books, LLC, 2006. SocINDEX with Full Text. Web. 10 Dec. 2016.

http://wwnorton.com/common/mplay/6.8/?p=/college/soc/family/&f=gender&ft=mp4&cdn=1

&cc=1