The Return

The Return



“How am I supposed to connect to you, or anyone, if I don’t even know who I am!” I shouted as she slammed the door behind me.

I left my girlfriend’s apartment in Spanish Harlem that rainy September night feeling strangely liberated. Things had been rocky between us for a while. Coming from a white family living on Long Island, she never understood why I was hesitant to introduce her to my family, or why I got upset when she cooked bacon at my apartment, or why I fasted thirty days for the month of Ramadan while going clubbing every night the rest of the year. I hailed a cab to my studio in Hell’s Kitchen, where I cracked open a beer and defrosted some kebabs my mother had sent me for dinner.

I turned on the TV and flicked to a travel programme I’d been watching for some time now. Though I found it uninteresting, I’d been binging it in the background, listening as the host, Nadiya Gupta, serenaded me with her fun facts and travel tips. Though I told myself I was supporting diversity in the media, I mostly watched it because she was cute.

“This week’s destination has a special place in my heart,” began Nadiya, looking positively radiant, “it’s Delhi!”

Departing from her usual format, she started talking about what Delhi meant to her:

“Every time I come back, I’m surrounded by memories of visiting my grandma, smelling samosas and eating bhel puri with my cousins,” she reminisced wistfully. “Visiting another city as a local is super fun! You don’t have the anxieties of feeling out of place, you can communicate with people freely, and, best of all, you know exactly how to have a good time—”

I turned the TV off. What an idiot, I thought, having a place to go back to.

I instinctively looked up flights to Karachi. Coincidentally, there was one leaving the next night, and I, overcome by a sudden urge, booked myself a ticket.


The next morning, I called up my boss and told them I’d be out for the next week: “No, it’s not an emergency. I’m flying to Karachi; I can write an article about it. What do you mean nobody wants to travel there?”

Then I called my mother and told her I was going to visit Karachi for the first time.

“Beta,” she said affectionately, “do you really think this is a good idea?”

“Yes, Amma,” I replied exasperatedly, “I’m an adult and I’ve never even visited the place our family is from!”

It took some more careful convincing for her to capitulate. “Okay, Beta,” she resigned, and gave me the telephone numbers and addresses of relatives to visit.

I took a cab to LaGuardia in the evening, leaving myself a three-hour window before my scheduled departure. I was glad for this, because as soon as I reached check-in I was in for a world of bureaucratic pain. The airline representative at the check-in counter, a short blonde woman with an incredibly cheery smile that rapidly faded as I approached, scrutinized the passport I held out to her.

“You are . . . Muhammad Malik Raheem?” she asked, looking at me suspiciously.


“Then why is your reservation under Malik Raheem?”

I had no idea how to explain this. I shared the same first name as my father, Muhammad, and we both went by our middle names, as customary in many Pakistani families.

I tried to explain that I’d never run into this issue before, when I heard the dreaded words: “Let me go get my manager.”

It took more than an hour of arguing with three different airlines reps for me to obtain my boarding pass. “Have a great flight!” the blond airline rep beamed at me as I walked away with a rapidly intensifying migraine.

I got in line for security while typing a profanity-laced rant to a friend of mine. I’d already placed my liquids and toiletries in the small plastic bags specified by the TSA as a precaution, but that didn’t stop them from singling me out. A large male TSA officer directed me to the side after I passed through the metal detector. He explained that this was a random search. “Fat chance,” I whispered under my breath. It seemed that the officer heard this as a comment about his weight; he scowled menacingly as he patted me down with extra vigor, causing considerable pain in my groin. He then opened up my carry-on luggage and took great pleasure in rummaging about, confiscating a “suspicious-looking” hairbrush and nail-cutter in the process. After twenty minutes he yawned and handed me my considerably lightened suitcase back.

I now had only ten minutes until boarding closed. I sprinted across the airport, my carry-on flailing behind me, arriving at the gate with seconds to spare. I presented my passport and boarding pass to the flight attendant, only to be greeted by the words I thought were behind me:

“Sir, would you please step aside?”

Not again! This time an officer with gloved hands swabbed the inside of my cheek and ran the sample through a machine. Once it had lit up green and he was satisfied with the result, he permitted me to board. Without much dignity left, I skulked onto the plane and took my seat.

Exhausted by this ordeal, I ordered a whiskey as the plane took off and sipped on it slowly, watching the city grow smaller out my window. It hit me, in that moment: I was finally returning to the place I was from.

My father had immigrated to America at the age of fifteen. A child prodigy, he was accepted into Columbia’s medical school on full scholarship, and, as he liked to say, arrived in Queens with ten dollars in his pocket and his proof of admission. He met my mother there, and graduated top of his class six years later. He began a successful practice as a surgeon, married my mother, had me, and by the time I was three we had relocated from our cramped apartment in Jackson Heights to a luxury apartment on the Upper East Side. I initially attempted to follow in my father’s footsteps and was accepted into Columbia as a legacy admission, but I ended up fooling around with newfound freedoms and eventually ended up with a degree in English literature. After graduating, I’d found work writing travel articles for a small startup in Chelsea. As part of my job, I’d traveled all over, but still had never set foot in the country I came from.

I was imagining the life I might’ve lived if my father hadn’t migrated when the captain announced our descent to London Heathrow. I was to catch a connecting flight to Dubai, and then a third flight to Karachi airport. As I was shopping for some gifts at duty free, a feeling of dread came over me. Was this trip a mistake? I brushed it off. Things would be fine.

Arriving in Dubai, I was subject to extra scrutiny by the Arab customs officer. I watched as the last remaining passengers on my flight—a bumbling, overweight British family, complete with three ill-behaved children—were ushered in front of me in the Immigration queue. It was only after my passport was checked twice and my belongings were rifled through by a turbaned brute that I was cleared to head to my departure gate.

I felt something was off while I was boarding the plane to Karachi, and then it hit me: While my previous two flights had been full of your typical airline passengers—British and American businessmen, European families off on holiday, students going and returning from school—looking around I found myself surrounded by people who looked like myself, and I smelled the distinct but rather embarrassing aroma of curry leaf and spice. I immediately felt ashamed by my embarrassment: Why should I feel perturbed amongst my own ilk?

I placed my hand luggage in the overhead locker and took my seat between a fat, sweaty middle-aged man and a short niqabi girl who was being chastised by an older gentleman—possibly her father, or her husband, I wasn’t sure—sitting behind her. I thought she would feel uncomfortable sitting beside a man and tried to respect her upbringing by giving her space; this meant shoving into the sweaty man’s girth with all my might. As much as I tried, I could not force him to budge, let alone wake him from his slumber—I could have diagnosed this man with sleep apnea, the tenacity of his snoring.

After a while a flight attendant came by with prepackaged meals. I had been warned, both by friends who had traveled abroad, and my elder cousin who had lived with us during his residency, to never, ever, accept airline food on a plane headed to or from Pakistan, lest you get diarrhea for a week. I tried to politely refuse, but the stewardess was insistent: “you need food!” she half-stated, half-growled, with the energy of a persistent grandmother. I meekly accepted the tray. Beside me, the girl declined without any trouble, while the man woke from his sleep and began chowing down with vigor.

We landed in Karachi in the afternoon; by this time, I desperately craved the fresh sheets and tranquility of my hotel room. As soon as the captain turned off the seatbelt sign the cabin turned into a madhouse, with men clamoring over women and children to reach their hand-luggage first. The fat man sitting next to me proved to be surprisingly agile, vaulting himself over the seats in front of him to disembark. After most of the passengers had left, I was treated to a nasty surprise: My hand luggage had been stolen! And with it, my passport and wallet. All I had with me now was a few thousand rupees, tucked into my left breast pocket.

I waited at the gate until nightfall while the cabin crew attempted to find my luggage, though I knew they knew that it was long gone. Eventually, growing weary, I gave them my telephone number and local address and told them to contact me if they found anything. They agreed, all smiles, clearly relieved at my lack of persistence.

After exiting the airport, I walked over to the rickshaw stand. My mother had tried to persuade me to use my father’s connections and hire a private car for the duration of my trip. “Absolutely not,” I had said, with the obstinate belief that I would travel like a local during my holiday. I hailed a rickshaw, smugly. The driver was turbaned, but I could see he had green eyes, like mine, which I imagined would be a rarity in this part of the world. I told the driver I was staying at the Marriott, and we took off.



It was bitter cold in the rickshaw, and I choked through clouds of dust and diesel fumes. I wished desperately to ask the driver what life was like in his occupation; after all, this was the real Pakistan, right? I was afraid, however, that if I did so he would see me as a tourist. I mustered up the courage and attempted to shout:

“Bhai, how is this rickshaw driving working out for you?”

Unfortunately, my question couldn’t be heard over the loud racket of the two-stroke engine. I gave up, and a short while later we pulled up alongside the Marriot.

I climbed out of the rickshaw, my knees feeling weak from the cramped backseat and bumpy ride, and my hair, face, and clothes streaked with dirt and grime. My disheveled appearance caused some attendants to try to shoo me off, but once I started shouting at them in perfect English they withdrew. I checked into my room and collapsed onto the bed, exhausted.

The next morning, I awoke and took a long shower to wash away the tribulations of the day before. After I felt sufficiently clean—getting to this stage was no easy task—I asked a bellboy to purchase me some clothes at a nearby boutique, slipping him my measurements on a sheet of paper. My morning coffee was interrupted by a call from the airline with good news: My hand luggage had been returned by a sheepish middle-aged man, who’d taken the wrong bag in his haste. I called down to the concierge to arrange a car to and from the airport and was able to retrieve my luggage and wallet without incident. Only after obtaining my luggage did I notice my passport was still missing—no matter, I thought optimistically, I’d use my license and social security to prove my citizenship at the American embassy and request a temporary passport. I then paid the bellboy for the clothes—now unnecessary—though I was quite pleased with the shalwar kurta he picked out for me and changed into them before breakfast.

I stopped by the hotel’s premiere dining establishment for breakfast. I was so preoccupied with the menu at the restaurant that the waiter’s presence startled me. Then I was subject to an even greater shock: My waiter looked exactly like me. The waiter himself seemed completely unfazed that we were mirror images of each other.

“My name is Israfil, and I will be your server today,” he greeted me hospitably.

My expression of complete astonishment seemed to puzzle the waiter.  “I can come back later if you are still deciding,” he said slowly, and left.

I cried after him, “Have you noticed we look completely alike?” He stopped, and I examined him closer. He had my jawline, my protruding nose, my slender fingers, my clean-cut moustache, and even my green eyes. Or perhaps I had his features.

“I’m sorry, sir,” he spoke carefully, “is there an issue?”

“No, none,” I replied, still grappling with this turn of events.

“Sir, I will be back when you’ve made your decision,” he said, and left.

I left the restaurant in a haze, ignoring the host’s concern. I tried dialing my mother; no response. Perhaps my journey has left me delirious. I went to bed even though it was only afternoon and dreamt of labyrinthine airports.

The next day, I awoke and dismissed the events of the last as hallucinations caused by the tribulations of my journey. I participated in a guided tour of Karachi, arranged by the hotel, making stops at the tomb of the nation’s founder, Dolman Mall, Lucky One Mall, and the Ocean Mall by the seaside, where I also had the chance to ride a camel and pose for pictures.

It was only on the ride home that I, alone with my thoughts, came to a realization: What was I doing? I was acting a tourist in my own city! I’d spent the better part of the day going from one nondescript shopping mall to another, being catered to by attendants—had they given me their attention because they recognized I was American? I hadn’t learned much either; the tour guides had only regurgitated the same patriotic spiel about the glory and foresight of our founder, and the rapid scale of development the city was going through. This wasn’t the trip I’d envisioned.

By the time I arrived back at my hotel, I only had time to change into one of the many outfits I’d purchased, and then immediately left for my father’s khala’s house, whom my mother had connected me with before I’d left. The driver provided by the hotel was quite knowledgeable of the city and imparted fascinating tidbits, including the origins of Karachi’s name:

“You see, sir, a long time ago the bustling metropolis of Karachi was just a small fishing village—can you imagine! And sir, in this fishing village lived a woman whose husband would go everyday to catch fish, to provide for his family, you know, but one day he didn’t return, and the woman was distraught. So you see, sir, the next day, early in the morning, before any of the fisherman have left, she goes and knocks on the doors of everyone in the village and begs for them to go and find her husband. Not a single person, sir, not one, agrees to help her. So sir, she decides to go find him all by herself—yes, all by herself, sir, and she leaves on a boat, and not one person in the village thinks she will return. But, sir, that night, she returns! Not just her, but her husband too. And you see sir, all the villagers, yes, sir, the same ones who refused to help her, they are all amazed by this woman, you see, and they decide to name the village after her. You see sir, the woman’s name was Kolachi, and over time, this became Karachi.”

I was only halfway listening by the end of the driver’s story. I had been steadily growing more and more nervous. I’d never before visited with any of my relatives from back home. I barely remembered my father’s khala—Irfat Auntie, as she had declared herself after passing the age of sixty—the last time I’d seen her, I was a young boy. What would I say? My hands felt clammy, and I’d begun to perspire. Perhaps I should return to the hotel. I spent too long deliberating and before I could make my decision, we had arrived at Irfat Auntie’s house. The driver said he’d wait outside in the car until I was ready to leave. I approached the gate, and an attendant let me in.

“Malkoooo,” came a voice from down the hall. Irfat Auntie emerged: a plump, rosy-cheeked woman not much older than my father. She hugged me and pinched my cheeks, as if I was still that young boy.

“How long has it been, Malkoo?” she asked, then answered: “Nearly fifteen years since I visited Amreeka. You were just a little boy then! How much you’ve grown!” She pinched my cheeks affectionately once more.

“How are your parents? Your mother was really worried, you know, you visiting by yourself. I told her, ‘relax! Malkoo is a man now!’ She was Chalo, come, dinner’s almost ready. I just have to give Isroo some food. He’s our driver, like a son, very nice young man, very tragic story.” She paused, as if she had said something inappropriate. “Perhaps a story for another time.” I followed her to the dining room.

“Isrooo!” she called down from the window. There was no reply.

“He’ll be up. Chalo, sit down, eat,” she said, retrieving a piping hot dish from the kitchen and setting it down at the table.

“Please, Auntie, let me help you,” I said, rising.

“No!” she exclaimed, forcing me back down. She was surprisingly strong. “You are our guest. Please, take some food. Don’t be shy. Think of this as your own home.”

I’ve never been held hostage at the dining table in my own home. I admit, the food was absolutely delicious. This was a blessing, as Irfat Auntie didn’t mind that I wasn’t speaking as long as my mouth and plate were full. I was halfway through my second helping when the driver arrived.

I nearly choked upon seeing him. It was the waiter from the restaurant; my mirror image!

“You!” I rose, pointing at him.

He looked puzzled. “Salaam” he said coolly.

I sputtered before I could find the words to express myself. “But you were the waiter from the restaurant last night! You look exactly like me!”

“Bhai, I don’t think we’ve ever met before today,” he replied, but I could see he knew what I was talking about.

I turned to Irfat Auntie who only seemed upset that I had stopped eating. “Don’t you see there’s something wrong here!” I shouted as she stared at me blankly. I felt nauseated. “I need to leave,” I faltered, “I’m sorry, I don’t feel well.”

I rushed out of the house as Irfat Auntie called after me; too quickly, evidently, as I tripped over a tree root and fell into mud. I brushed off the gate attendant who came to see if I was alright and reached the hired car with my face caked in pale dirt, startling the driver.

“Sir, everything okay?” he asked.

“Fine, just please, take me back to my hotel,” I replied exasperatedly.

The driver continued to talk at me while he drove. I didn’t pay him any attention this time. Who was this double? Why did he keep popping up wherever I went? I was confused, and incredibly strangely, I was actually envious of him. I wondered how he felt when he woke up in the morning, probably in some small cramped shack somewhere grimy and dirty. Did he consider that place I had imagined for him as his home? Did he feel as if he belonged? I tried to phone my mother, but the call went to voicemail. I left a message.

In my hotel room I attempted to wash the chalky mud off my face, but for some reason couldn’t succeed: when I exited the shower, my face and hair had become noticeably paler. More than anything I desired some whiskey but did not want to risk embarrassment or judgment requesting it. I fell asleep that night and dreamt I was falling.


I woke up in cold sweat the next morning. I had tossed and turned all night, obsessing over Israfil. Wanting to avoid the hotel restaurant for fear of encountering him again, I asked the concierge where he went for breakfast. He directed me to a continental buffet overlooking the city. This infuriated me to no end. For once I just wanted to be treated as if I possessed a modicum of self-sufficiency, rather than being catered to by drivers and servants and shopkeepers. I decided to wander around until I found a more down-to-earth eatery.

This proved to be a mistake. As soon as I had left the hotel property, my brand-new leather loafers got stuck in a pothole full of mud. In trying to pull them out, I stumbled backwards into a fruit seller’s cart, laden with papaya, which were catapulted into the street and immediately squashed by the vehicle traffic. The enraged fruit seller began shouting at me in a language I could not decipher; afraid, I threw some cash at him and sped off the in the other direction. After about a mile my lungs felt clogged with dust and my head ached from the strain of direct sunlight. I was completely lost amidst the chaos of the traffic, which seemed to obey no laws, and the roaring din of truckers, street vendors, construction workers, and panhandling peasants. My head was swimming and I was perspiring heavily and began to lose focus. I knelt down as the noise became louder and louder. Then, without warning, a man in a medical mask whisked me to the side of the road.

“Bhai, are you alright? You were kneeling in the middle of the street. A motorcar was bearing down right on you!”

My vision cleared and I squinted up at him. “Yes, I’m fine. Thank you.”

“My friend, you should wear a mask. The dust and pollution are bad today,” he advised. His eyes were green.

“Yes, yes, you’re right,” I replied, and then, struck with suspicion, I asked, “Israfil?”

“Who?” the man asked.

“Never mind,” I said. “You wouldn’t happen to know any place I could have breakfast, would you?”

“What, a tourist like yourself has no continental breakfast at the hotel?” he chuckled, “yes, go down that street and turn right into that alleyway. Best unda pratha on this side of the city!”

I thanked him profusely and headed in that direction. I could smell the aroma of fresh buttered bread and chai before I lay eyes on the establishment. I followed the smell to a back alley, so intoxicated by it that I could have been floating, where in a small hovel in the side of a building, a chaiwala prepared twelve cups of fresh chai at a time, a tandooriwala rapidly fried parathas and tossed them into breadbaskets, and a third whipped eggs before pouring them into a skillet. A group of laborers smoked cigarettes as they drank chai. I joined them, slightly self-conscious that my soft hands and expensive clothing made me alien in this setting. One of them threw me a quick surprised glance, as if he was astonished at my presence. My concerns evaporated when I took my first bite of eggs and paratha a young girl set in front of me. I do not remember finishing my meal, but by its end, I was completely and utterly satisfied. This was why I came here. I had transformed, I thought, into the man I could be. The man who belonged. I called my driver to retrieve me, and once back at the hotel, I settled down for an afternoon nap.

I woke up with extreme stomach cramps. I spent the rest of the evening, through the night, and up until the next morning on the toilet. After it seemed that I had expelled the entirety of my innards, I weakly crawled back into bed.

In my dream I was five years old. I had returned from my first day at kindergarten, crying. We’d just moved from our cozy home in Queens to a large unfurnished and daunting apartment in Manhattan. The kids at my new school had teased me all day, taunting me for how I smelled, the accent I didn’t know I had, and the lunch my mother had lovingly packed.

“I hate school!” I shouted at my parents.

“Come here, Beta,” my father said, bringing me close to him, “there is something you must understand.”

He told me we were different from the kids at school, or our new neighbors who leered at us, and that it was okay. He told me that we were from a far and distant land, and that he and my mother had come here for a better life. “How is this better?” I had wailed.

I woke up in the middle of the day—I wasn’t sure what day it was—and ordered some plain rice up to my room, which I ate one grain at a time. This proved to be disastrous; I spent the next four hours hovering over the toilet. Afterwards, I, exhausted to the bone, collapsed on the bathroom floor.

In my dream I was fifteen and had just begun high school. I was walking back from school with my first girlfriend. She asked me if I wanted to hang out at her place. I said yes, though I was nervous; I’d never been to her apartment before.

“Do you think it’s a good idea? What if we’re caught?” I had asked her as we approached her street.

“Don’t worry, babe! My mom’s at the hairdressers and my dad’s at work,” she’d replied, oblivious to my growing discomfort.

The doorman looked at me funny as she ushered me through her lobby. As we went up the elevator, I tried to feign a stomachache, but she said she had medicine upstairs. We walked into her apartment and I saw her father, hanging up the intercom phone, glaring menacingly at me. She started stuttering an explanation, but the scowl etched onto his face quickly eroded her confidence. As he escorted me out of his apartment she said she would call me. The next day at school she broke up with me; she said we weren’t suited for each other.

I woke up with my face stuck to the carpet. I hobbled into bed and fell back asleep.

I was four, and my mother and father were on the phone with the police, after receiving a death threat stuck inside a pile of human feces in their mailbox. I was thirteen, and my school had suspended me for standing up for myself in the face of the bully who called me “terrorist,” “goat-fucker,” and “towel-head” day after day. I was a young boy, walking home from school with my mother, when a bright red pickup truck pulled up alongside us and its red-faced owner shouted at us to “go back to our shithole country” and sped off, nearly clipping my mother, leaving me with the recurring fantasy of finding the man and bludgeoning him to death. I was a pimply teenager, reading in the news that our local mosque’s resident Imam’s adult son had been illegally detained for his ‘extremist views’ as part of a much larger NYPD surveillance operation on Muslims. It was my first day at Columbia, and I was listening to my elderly history professor explain the difference between “good Muslims” and “bad Muslims,” desperately hoping nobody would confuse me with the latter. I was a grown man, in London, being called a “dirty Paki” by a man I stumbled into. I was in Paris, with my mother, noticing how her hijab attracted glowers from passersby. I was a child, staring at the shalwar kameez my parents had picked out for me for Eid prayers, terrified at the prospect of wearing such conspicuous clothing outside our home.



When I finally awoke, I wasn’t sure how long it had been, or where I was. Gradually, the events of the past week came back to me. I checked my phone: my flight back home left in twelve hours.

I tried calling my mother but the line came back disconnected. I stared dejectedly at the wall. What is the purpose of this trip?

I walked into the bathroom to freshen up. The sight I was met with when I turned on the light startled me. In the mirror, staring back at me, wasn’t myself; my skin had turned white, my hair blond, my nose had shrunk, and my eyes were blue. I was stunned. This has to be a dream.

I pinched myself to no avail. I tried splashing water on my face, but it was still pale. I pulled at my hair, and only succeeded in ripping out a few golden strands. There was nothing to it. I was stuck this way.

I resigned myself to packing up my belongings and heading back to the airport. Then I remembered: my passport! It had been stolen when I had arrived. The several days I had lain immobile in bed were the days I was supposed to talk to the American embassy, sort things out. I fished in my bag for my wallet. Maybe I could show the authorities my driver’s license. I pulled it out, but instead of my name, it read Israfil, and it gave an address not in New York, but in Karachi. I’m still asleep. I resolved to find Israfil.

I arranged for a car to take me to the address on my driver’s license. The driver was the same one I’d had before, but perhaps he did not recognize me, or maybe he’d finally run out of things to say; regardless, I appreciated the solitude. Who in god’s name was Israfil, this strange specter, materializing only to cause me misfortune? Then it struck me—the rickshaw driver who dropped me off at the hotel had green eyes! The man who directed me to the breakfast place had green eyes! Could it be? Could they be the same person, haunting me ever since I stepped foot in this god forsaken city?

I called my ex-girlfriend. The line connected, but I didn’t know what to say.

“Hello?” My heart ached at the sound of her voice. How desperately I desired to return to some semblance of normalcy.

“Babe it’s me, Malik,” I spoke softly.


“I love you,” I said breathlessly, “this was a mistake–”

Who is this? I think you have the wrong phone number.” She hung up.

I brought the phone away from my face slowly, not believing what just happened. Did she truly not recognise me? I dejectedly stared at the window as we drove on.

The driver dropped me off in a courtyard within an apartment complex. Israfil’s apartment was on the third story. I rapped on his door. No response. Frustrated beyond measure, I began savagely kicking at his door.

“Hey, Amreeko, stop making that noise!” someone called down from above.

With the third kick, the door gave, and I entered into the apartment. It was quiet. Nobody seemed to be home. I took a quick look around. The apartment was scarcely decorated, save a few picture frames. I walked up to one to examine it. My heart stopped. In the photo were my parents, with Israfil. Or maybe they were with me. There was no way to tell. I tried calling my mother but my phone began emanating strange static. Was it her line or my line? What the fuck! I threw my phone down the stairwell; it was useless to me now.

I sought desperately to find Israfil and put an end to whatever was happening. I hopped back into the car and directed the driver to Irfat Auntie’s house. He complied without comment, though it seemed he had witnessed my outburst in the apartment complex; his face seemed to indicate a certain stony-eyed resolve. Upon arrival I bypassed the gate attendant and stormed into Irfat Auntie’s apartment. She was cooking; the aroma of cardamom and turmeric reminded me of my own mother’s cooking. I could see my mother standing over the stove, her figure superimposed over Irfat Auntie. I faltered. I need to end this. But my presence startled her and the moment broke; my resolve to locate my dushman, Israfil, returned with great intensity.

“Where is he!” I shouted angrily. I regretted the volume and tone of my voice as soon as I had asked. Irfat Auntie cowered in the corner, her eyes reflecting sheer terror.

“Help!” she screamed, “some strange Amreeko is attacking me!” She ran off suddenly, out of the apartment. I followed her into the street, where she was nearly run over by an oncoming car.

“Irfat Auntie! I just want to know where Israfil is!” I yelled across the road, hoping she’d calm down. She turned, and in that instance, was hit by a bus.

This has to be a dream. I stood over Irfat Auntie’s mangled corpse as the bus screeched to a halt down the road. A crowd began congregating around the scene. This is too much. I couldn’t bear to look at her. How would I explain this to my parents? How could I possibly explain this to anyone? A police van arrived, and I, terrified, shrank into the crowd.

I needed to find Israfil. I needed him to explain himself, and then maybe I could right what was wrong. I ran back to the hired car, where the driver was peering over his newspaper at the scene unfolding in front of us. I could hear the high-pitched whine of an ambulance fast approaching. I shrugged off the driver’s questions and directed him back to the hotel. I would check the restaurant where he had introduced himself to me.

As the car pulled up to the Marriot I jumped out and ran frantically into the lobby, my wild look attracting the attention of passersby. Control yourself. I took a deep breath. And another. Then I entered the restaurant.

I sat down at a table, and no sooner than I had done so did I hear from over my shoulder: “My name is Israfil…”

I didn’t let him finish. Grabbing a kebab skewer from the diners in front of me, I whipped around and stabbed the speaker in the abdomen. “Now who is real,” I growled. kneeling down towards Israfil’s body, staring into his vacant expression. Then I felt a pain in my own stomach. I looked down to see blood blossoming across my shirt.


Muhammad and Asma Raheem received news of the deaths of Irfat Auntie and their son through the post. The letter read:

“At 1:00 in the afternoon, Begum Irfat’s neighbours heard shouts coming from her apartment. She was reportedly chased into the street by an American, where unfortunately she expired due to a traffic-related accident. The same American was reported to have entered the Marriot hotel in Clifton an hour later, where he stabbed your son in what we determined to be a murder-suicide.”

The couple never got over their loss and spent the rest of their lives wondering what could have been.

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