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Listen: there’s a hell of a good universe next door; let’s go 25 March 2008

Posted by Ayesha Mattu in BARAKA, Culture.

Having just returned from four days in Boston visiting my in-laws and friends, I’ve been thinking a lot about concepts of home, hearts split by simultaneous longing for multiple places, and the siren song of cities on the sunset edge of the continent.

I have called three cities home – Boston, Islamabad, and San Francisco – having spent the last twenty-two years of my life split almost evenly between them. Basil and I set off for the latter one week after our marriage, lured by its beauty and our shared sense of adventure, never really thinking of the long-term impacts of putting a continent between us, his family, and our friends.

The first few years after moving to San Francisco, we returned to Boston three or four times annually, drinking deep at the well of family and friends before returning to the emotional desert of the West Coast. Much as we loved the hilly beauty of our new city, Boston was still home to us.

As our sense of community deepened here, the multiple trips back whittled down to an annual one. Last year marked a turning point as Basil drove in confused circles around a North End transformed in the wake of the Big Dig; I walked down Newbury Street with a Boston map tucked into the New Yorker magazine trying not to look like a tourist though I’d lost all sense of direction; and the hard edges and curtness of the natives grated on our nerves.

When we returned to our San Francisco apartment, born and bred Bostonian Basil flopped down on the couch sighing, “Thank God we’re home!”

That was the moment when palm trees and sunny skies in November, cheerful-but-passive-aggressive people, traffic jams due to light rain, and complaining about how cold it was when the temperature dropped below 50 degrees ceased to be traits worthy of ridicule by us as transplanted Bostonians, and became, instead, idiosyncrasies understood, embraced, and fiercely cherished as San Franciscans.

California had thinned our blood and made us soft, and we loved her for it.

We’re lucky to have a beautiful community here but, to be honest, I miss my Boston sometimes: the city where I met and fell in love with my husband, where I watched my much-adored niece enter this world, where I found out that I believed in God after all. But my beloved city doesn’t exist anymore, except in my heart’s alternate universe; it is no longer my home, though I sometimes wish to claim it.

As much as we may wish to hold on, cities change until none of one’s favorite shops or cafes remain; lives move on until farewells bring not tears but a cheery “see you next year;” and one is left feeling simultaneously displaced and happy to be leaving, returning to another place now called home.

In response, my idea of home has grown beyond specific physical structures; a city’s essence is found not in its buildings, but in its people. As long as the people that I love – those who carry pieces of my heart around in theirs – live in the city, some version of Boston will remain accessible to me.

And, if friends are those with whom one’s soul feels at home, then I am not limited to just three cities to call my own. Instead, I am blessed to have many homes, next door and scattered across continents, like glowing pinpoint lights seen from a satellite on-high – a global map of my spiritual and emotional life shining brightly in the darkness.



1. Cella - 25 March 2008

“…and the hard edges and curtness of the natives grated on our nerves.”

Oh yeah? Screw you!

Just kidding.

Excellent piece about finding, and being, home. It was nice having you in Boston last week. :)

2. Lisa Emrich - 25 March 2008

Beautiful…simply beautiful Baraka. Thank You.

3. maximus mercury - 25 March 2008

“one is left feeling simultaneously displaced and happy to be leaving, returning to another place now called home”

– oh yes. At 21 I finally taught myself this very hard lesson of believing I was home not where the clocks were ten or five or 6 hours ahead of me, but wherever it was that *I* was living. It felt like a betrayal and a healing all at the same time. Before that, for years I walked around with a sense of temporariness wherever I chose to go, and a sense of discontented transplantation when I went home to my parent’s house. It was a mess.

Am gearing up to go home to Isloo in a couple of weeks for the first time in 3 years – I know that they’ve been building new roads and cutting down my beloved trees and so on … am really nervous! I jealously hold on to ‘my city’…but as you say, my ultimate ownership of it and my ideas about it exist perhaps only in my heart.

BTW, I too hear the “siren song of cities on the sunset edge of the continent”. But it is indeed a really long way and I am wracked by indecision as to what I would do if I could move. I fear that I would be buying my happiness at the expense of many of my previous ambitions to save the world by moving in the opposite direction on the globe than the one I had originally vowed to.

4. Basil - 25 March 2008

Home is indeed the garden of memories. Where ever we have planted seeds, our memorial trees will stand tall, sway in the breeze, and call to us with familiar scents and comforting shade.

5. sha - 25 March 2008

Having myself called three different countries home there is nothing that can make up for the sudden utter sadness that settled in my heart when I found out that the place I called home for so long is mine no more.It only becomes apparent not when you are leaving but when you have left and come back to visit.

6. Baraka - 25 March 2008

Salaam and warm greetings of peace:

Cella: :)

I attribute the rough and colorful characters one meets there to the fact that four full seasons still exist in Boston. The long winter especially seems to add dash to the people one meets: the nicotine-stained waitress calling you “hon” as she pours coffee and wipes the table pointlessly with a greasy cloth; the grumpy old man at the diner counter whose face breaks open with whiskered smiles at off-color jokes; or the guy who doesn’t even look up from his sandwich when you ask for directions, but waves you “Over theah!”

Here, where the seasons are limited to a narrow, twenty-degree annual shift and the sun shines year round, people are a cheerful but sometimes bland Prozac-nation.

As my NYC pal said in amazement, “Even your homeless people are nice out here!” Yes, and men often wear dresses too. We are loopy and colorful but not quite as edgy, cynical, or sarcastic.

Apparently, it gets worse (or better) as you continue West – another new Californian/Boston transplant just got back from Hawaii, exclaiming, “It was beautiful but I couldn’t wait to get back. I can’t believe how nice the people out there are – it made me want to kill them!”

Lisa: Thank you! :)

Maximus: I agree, at some point one does have to simply accept that home is wherever one lives, but the heartbreak of migration is undeniable.

You’re going to Isloo?! I haven’t been since Nov 2006 and I miss it. Get ready for deep displacement, but if you’re there for long enough you’ll start enjoying the changes.

And I still think you should move to the West Coast – there’s plenty of world worth saving on this edge too!

Basil: “Memorial trees” – I like that. You amaze me with your unexpected poetry.

Sha: You’re right, it’s being a visitor that brings the foreignness of what used to be home into devastating clarity.

Thank you for your comments!


7. VARANGALI - 26 March 2008

Salam Baraka,

One hypothesis I’ve held on the Boston/SF difference: while Bostonians (and New Yorkers) dress more formally than SF’ns (and LA folk), image consciousness is actually more endemic to the West Coast – it’s easier to be bland in Boston than in SF. Thoughts?

With a few months left before my own move from Boston to SF, I am convinced that Boston and SF are the two best places to live in the US – we are so fortunate, ulhumdulillah.

8. Baraka - 26 March 2008

Salaam Varangali:

I’d say image consciousness is more endemic to Southern Cal/NYC than to Boston/SF.

As an NYC-transplant friend said when she moved to SF: “Why does everyone dress like homeless people here?” Because they can roll into work in their pjs and no one will bat an eye – definitely not the reaction one would get in NYC/LA.

As for the blandness, it depends on whether you’re talking about the intellectual, cultural or racial sort.

And I agree, Boston & SF are two of the loveliest cities in these United States – we are deeply blessed alhamdolillah!

An early welcome to my city insha’Allah! :)


9. Safiya Outlines - 27 March 2008

Salaam Alaikum,

Wonderful post, as always Masha Allah.

However, are you reall only twenty-two? I thought you were older than that, because, masha Allah you seem so very wise.

10. darvish - 27 March 2008

Lovely piece dear Sister Baraka :) I have come to believe that home is indeed where the heart is; my children are in Chicago, where I also grew up, so that is familiar to me, and I feel at home whenever I am there.

Perhaps it is the feeling of being “at home” that makes any city or country feel like home, and being at home is nothing more than having family and friends there that love you, and that you love.

Love is the real home, Alhamdulillah!

Ya Haqq!

11. Baraka - 27 March 2008


Safiya: Glad you liked it!

I am a far way from 22! :) The last 22 years of my life have been spent in those three cities but the 13 before that were spent in Chicago, Albany, NY, Loma Linda, & San Jose (the latter two in CA) but since I don’t have strong memories of them I didn’t include them in my home cities.

Darvish: “Love is the real home”

Alhamdolillah, so beautifully true my brother!


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