By Sonya Rehman
I met Hani Yousuf a few weeks into grad school in New York towards the end of 2009.
She was dressed in black pants, a full-length lacy top of sorts and had her hair loose around her shoulders. She looked like one of those Goth-feminist types who didn’t smoke. The smart types. The borderline vegetarians. The irritating oh-my-how-many-calories-in-this types.
Anyway. It was a breezy summer evening. Slight nip in the air. A new friend from school, Bessie, and some friends were meeting at this nice little Cuban restaurant a few blocks from campus. We were going to eat light and then dance for a bit. Apparently the restaurant had freestyle salsa dancing on the weekends. The tables would be cleared away, the chairs stacked up on the tables, loud salsa music would blare from speakers, cute waiters would dance away with the customers, that kind of thing.
For some reason I thought it’d be a stellar idea to wear tight, chocolate brown corduroy pants that were a size too small. I’d bought them from some unknown boutique in Lahore. So with my thighs squished in, making corduroy-ish thish-thish fabric noises as I walked about, Bessie spun around in this lovely white dress like a pro with her dancing partner. And I sat on a stool and talked to Hani.
Before leaving Pakistan, I’d been advised countless times by family and friends to; please hang out with foreigners, not Pakistanis, meet as many people from different cultures as you can, get out of that little bubble.
So when Hani told me she was from Karachi, I thought shit, I hope this doesn’t turn into one of those awkward friendships or something where two Pakistani girls, one from Lahore, the other from Karachi, are constantly avoiding each other because one’s from Lahore, and the other’s from Karachi.
In the months that progressed, the months knowing her, hanging out with her, I realized Hani was a complete foreigner. She could’ve been European or something. Just foreign. Far from ‘desi.’ Different. Worldly. Confident. A feminine rebel who hated hanging out with one person, or one group all the time. She befriended everyone. Even weirdos on the subway. We’d be in the train, at night, after an evening of shopping, or dinner, and she’d strike up a conversation with a random person on the train. She’d even have the guts to smile at people. In unfriendly New York.
While I’d be too FOB-ish, too intimidated to talk to a stranger, let alone make eye contact, there’d be Hani, tittering away with someone about politics or literature. On the damn train. Late at night. For all we’d know the person could’ve been a nut-job, harbouring a secret-sick fetish to cut us up into little pieces and cement us into his Brooklyn apartment walls. But where I fell short with my paranoia (I couldn’t help it really), Hani made up for it by her complete acceptance of everyone. Without judgment. Yet, without being too emotional or drippy about it. Just cool, a true live and let live type.
If there’s one person who introduced me to the gluttonous world of retail therapy, it’d be Hani. She’d take me around the city on some long-drawn hunt for the perfect pair of boots or winter coat, and I’d tag along with the fluffhead, with my camera, thinking I’d spend a fun few hours taking pictures of the city while Hani shopped.
But in actual fact, it was the other way around. Hani just window-shopped, sliding her fingers over expensive jackets, inspecting flats, boots and perfumes, weighing the pros and cons of buying a particular item. So influenced was I by Hani, that my eyes opened up to the beauty and glory of everything and anything in a bright, colourful, pretty shop window. “Oh that perfume’s wonderful,” Hani had once said to me while this blond salesgirl fluttered about me, goading me into buying a slim bottle of crème brulee perfume. I wound up spending $50 on that disgustingly saccharine sweet perfume which still sits on my dresser in Pakistan, over two years later. I only rarely use it as air freshener every now and then.
There was this one time Hani took hours to finally decide on buying a coat for winter at Macy’s. I almost shot myself waiting for her to make a decision. But since I needed a coat too, I wound up buying this inter-galactic looking, pearl white coat which started from the toes, up till the neck attached with the most gargantuan Eskimo-ish hood (trimmed with fake fur). I only wound up wearing it once, waddling down Broadway, like a frenzied desi astronaut. I was humiliated.
Then there was this other time, Hani, myself and our friend from Hong Kong, Ivy, were stuffing our faces at a falafel joint near campus. Earlier, Ivy and I had planned a cook-out the following weekend. So, with her mouth filled with a falafel ball, Ivy asked Hani if she’d want to join in on the “cooking plan.” But since Ivy’s pronunciation sounded a little funny (full mouth), and since Hani was a little distracted (as usual), Hani turned around, her irises a little enlarged, stating, with a controlled, dead-pan expression: “Sorry guys, I don’t do cocaine.” I choked on a falafel ball that afternoon. Cooking, cocaine — you get the picture.
Since my expenses began soaring, given Hani’s shop-till-you-drop influence, I once spent my entire month’s stipend within 10 days of receiving it. To put it mildly, I was fucked. I didn’t want to borrow money from anyone. Too much pride. So I wound up starving for two days. On the third day, when Hani called, out of the blue, I told her. She told me to immediately come to her dorm. When I sat down in her warm room, with her window overlooking the beautiful Hudson River, she poured me a glass of chilled chocolate milk and gave me a cheese sandwich. I inhaled the meal, trying not to cry. I didn’t want to cry infront of her (out of relief) since displays of emotion made her edgy.
The morning of my departure (I was leaving New York for Pakistan, for good), I had breakfast at a cute café with Hani, her younger sister and mother (who was in town visiting her girls).
“Oh Sonyaaaaaa,” Hani said, her eyes filled with tears. I was so surprised by her complete, unrestrained show of emotion, that I shuffled a little and said something retarded like; “Oh we’ll see each other again soon, yaar.”
She said she was going to miss me. And then, she quickly glanced at a curly-haired student-type who was sitting in the corner, his nose shoved in a book.
We ate pancakes and coffee that morning. Or I ate pancakes, and Hani had coffee. She was constantly watching her figure.
I miss the girl from Karachi from time to time.