December 06, 2010
ABP is a house; it is one quarter of a house, the bottom left corner of New Haven’s 111 Howe Street to be precise. ABP is short for Alif, Bay and Pay which are the first three alphabets of the Urdu language. It has been given the name ABP by the three Pakistani undergraduates from Yale University who live there. A name only the friends of the inhabitants know. Three Pakistani undergrads live there but, more importantly, every Pakistani at Yale (and many non-Yale ones) have been in this decadent den to sleep, eat, get help with their Math problem sets, play HALO and watch life pass by. You must understand that ABP is a house full of Pakistanis, and specifically, Pakistani men.
ABP is located on the piece of Howe Street that falls between Elm Street and Edgewood Avenue. Howe Street is an enigma. It is one of those roads that fall on the very boundary between Yale and New Haven. And you can see New Haven’s culture diffusing into Yale’s pretentious Gothic around this point. This is a place where people become darker, don’t wear polo shirts, smoke cheap cigarettes and hang out around gas stations rather than libraries. ABP is right around the corner from Main Garden, Elm Street’s worst Chinese restaurant. It is one of those grubby little affairs whose dirty kitchen you can see through a side door that is permanently open to the street and where nobody speaks English nor does anyone make authentic Chinese food. Everybody is trying to find their own homes and their own identities on Howe Street: two Chinese brothers behind the counter, a few black men near the gas station and a bunch of Pakistanis in an American house.
Once you arrive at ABP you realize that like any respectable counterculture house the proper entrance is at the back. The house has three bedrooms on the ground floor and a common room and a kitchen in the basement. The common room is the place that holds the house together. It has three couches and a table in the middle, cluttered with fast food leftovers, math textbooks, Xbox remote controllers and BlackBerrys. On certain days, the table is cleared to play poker. The couches, all of different sizes and providing different comfort levels, are booked early in the day by people sleeping over. There is a large television facing the table and the couches which is exclusively used to watch cricket and to play HALO. The common room is always slightly dark and very loud. The kitchen is always dirty and never used. Unlike the basement, the upstairs is not a communal space. White broken stairs lead you to a narrow corridor and three very different bedrooms. The first room belongs to Muneeb, more commonly known as Bubbles or Bubbz, and is in total disarray. Muneeb, a generously proportioned guy, is the primary sight of the room and there is not much else to see but litter. The second room belongs to Oosman and serves as the second common room. The third room belongs to Owais, who is the eldest and most religious. His room is meticulously ordered and decorated by calligraphy posters with quotations from the Quran hung on the walls. This is the room you go to find useful but rare things like nail cutters, old textbooks, spare sandals and good advice.
I moved into ABP in the summer of 2010 for a month. This was the time when night began to permanently fall over Pakistan. The government became more corrupt than ever, suicide bombings increased, traffic became more chaotic and even the cricket team started to perform pathetically. We at ABP thought about this. Thought but never talked, except face-to-face, never in a group and hurriedly brushing the topic away or making a crass joke about it as soon as it was brought up. We were in exile, in voluntary exile. We were not immigrants, here to form a new identity. We were still Pakistanis but in a ridiculously strange setting.
At night, we would sit in the common room for dinner. But as we entered we removed our shoes. We removed our jeans. We removed all lies. We put on cloths around our waist in the typical fashion of a Pakistani farmer. We struggled for brotherhood through sincerity and interaction. Unlike a frat, camaraderie is not fostered by Beer Olympics or by paying dues here. You enter by birth. Nobody can give that to you and nobody can take it away. Dinner consisted of frozen bread from the Indian store and pickles from a brand called Mother’s. For some reason, the pleasures of the exiled always hit at their mother issues.
Dinner is followed by a cigarette and a game of cricket. Smoking is taken seriously and the only cigarettes smoked here are Gold Leafs; a brand from back home, cartons of which are especially bought over holidays and brought back to university. Soft folk music plays in the background as we sit on our wooden patio and think of all the places that Gold Leaf must have rested and dream of all the distances it has travelled to come here for us: on chai stained ash trays in smudgy tea houses, between the lips of lovers as yet another dawn breaks and yet another call to prayer descends on the streets, hanging from the windows of countless taxis as they rush off to countless directions. On special occasions, these smoke breaks were accompanied by a joint or a glass of Scotch whisky. Special occasions consisted of Pakistan winning at cricket, somebody telling a good joke about the President’s mother, a bad day at work or a slow night.
One day, while smoking his cigarette Oosman looked at me, smacked his lips and said, “If we were in Pakistan we would be eating barbecued chicken tikkas with spicy sauce.” His impish grin hid many dreams of far away lands. It hid our shared dreams that let us forget. They let us forget that we live in the country that bombs people everyday. They let us forget that our families might die tomorrow, anonymous and innocent. They let us forget physical spaces. They let us live in our own Pakistan, re-imagined and re-created in ABP. I smiled back at him and for a moment we knew. We understood. I thought he understood. We looked away.
Summer passed in shared isolation and in routine. We rarely interacted with the world and the world rarely interacted with us. None of us had a girlfriend. Our white friends were kept strictly out of the house and we had no mutual friends apart from each other. We were all different and even antagonistic personalities. But we were joined by the mysterious link of being a man and being in exile. We held it proudly and it became our life. Amongst throngs of hipsters and nerds and frat boys, we were Pakistani men. Amongst throngs of Americans, we were anchorless ships.
Posted by Haider Shahbaz at 12:22 AM | Permalink