Back in mid-January, my friend A sent me a very short, simple note with the subject line reading, Salaam, crackstar, telling me his father had recently died.
Doomed to be forever affiliated with my disgruntled, fist-shaking references to “that poetry slam we never went to,” A is one of my favorite people in the world – one of the very few whom I always felt comfortable picking up the phone and calling at any hour of the day or night – time difference be damned – laughing at all his voicemails and text messages that started off with some variation of, Salaam, cracker!
It made me sad to think of my friend being sad. And – although this should not have been about me – it made me feel like a shitty friend to think that, nearly five months later, the item he had requested I buy for him in Chicago still leaned against the side of my bed, the side I’ve usually looked at only when shoving my suitcase against it to pack for trips in the past few months – Chicago again, Ottawa, Toronto. I think nothing of paying exhorbitant fees for last-minute flights, picking up and jet-setting cross-country, but I could not, for the life of me, package A’s gift and get my sorry ass to the post office.
In January of last year, A came out to the Bay for a week or two, and I gathered together my rockstar entourage. We wandered through Chinatown and sniffed tea and inhaled the desserts at Berkeley’s Cafe Cacao and traipsed around the breath-taking marina and hung out in downtown San Francisco, laughing our way up and down the endless escalators. When PPP ran out of money to pay for the $65 shoes she coveted at the Westfield shopping center, A threw a sly grin my way and reassured her, “Don’t worry, Yasmine will buy them for you.” And so I did. Those are the friends I love: The ones who sweep into my life as if no time at all has passed, who become not just “Yasmine’s friends” but everyone’s mutual buddies. A took to calling Ayesha his “cousin” and asked after her fiance, teased my sister about her love for baking, good-naturedly put up with all my gibes about Saudi Arabia, teased me about being so short, and persisted after Ayesha to hurry up and get married already so that he’d have a place to crash when visiting Turkey.
My friends are always family.
Last June, when A was planning ahead for the Fourth of July holiday, I had dropped him a note: “Forget the 4th, I want you to think about NYC on the 19th, when I’ll be there! Or Philly on the 20th, or DC on 21-23. Come hang out, please.” And so he did. (I lowve it when friends do that.)
And so, New York City will always remind me of A and Anjum and our one-day hanging-out session there in July. Always reliable, A came out from Boston for that single day so that we could relive our favorite activities, namely, making fun of each other and eating together and watching people dance (in this case, it was Basement Bhangra). His reliability did not, however, extend to early-morning breakfasts with NYC folks I had in met in Seattle just a few weeks before, so that was one eating session he bowed out of.
A month later, he was packing up to head back to Jeddah, after a decade in the U.S. “I’m going to miss your sorry ass, dammit!” I told him. “But don’t worry, I’ll go to ISNA and find an open mic replacement – and also a pretty girl for you.” (Our friend B’s long-running joke with him: “I’ve made it a priority to find you a Paki wife that can cook you biryani. I know being Saudi is very difficult, and I’m glad you finally see the light.”)
He requested I pick up an item for him from the ISNA convention. “This is my limit,” he had said in August, and named a price. “I’ll pay you back.”
“In riyals?” I asked, amused. “Dude, don’t worry about it.”
A few days later, I was deliberating over the gorgeous calligraphy scrolls at Hajji Noor Deen‘s booth at ISNA. A few days after that, I emailed A with, “I bought you a beauuuuuuuuuutiful piece of calligraphy! I lowve it, and if you don’t like it, you are most welcome to give it back to me.”
His reply came quickly: “I’m sure I’ll like it. You always have good taste.”
I tried calling A when I got his email about his father’s death in January. Predictably, my call wouldn’t go through, so I cursed unreliable international telephone lines and resorted to text-messaging instead. He texted me back the next evening: “Crackstar. I’m fine. Thanks for the support. How are you? Are you driving?” (I was. I laughed.) I called him back, and we chit-chatted and caught up.
“What happened with Hajj?” he demanded. “I didn’t see you there!”
I laughed at the idea that he would have found me in a sea of two million pilgrims. “I didn’t make it there this year, buddy.”
“How are your nieces?” he asked.
“They’re rocking. So are the nephews. I saw them last week, and we played all day.”
“What about the aunts and uncles, though?”
“Well, I don’t go there to hang out with the adults, you know.”
“Why, are your aunties saying things like, ‘Yasmine, you’re getting so old now. You need to get married.’ ”
“How did you know?”
I laughed my way through an hour-long phone conversation, and hung up thinking about how blessed I was. I had called A in an effort to cheer him up and lend any support. Instead, he had somehow cheered me up instead, January being the absolutely sucky month that it was for me. How did he do that?
Two weeks after receiving A’s email, I went to the post office in the afternoon and packaged his gift. I stood at the tall counter at the back – on my tiptoes, even, during particularly intense moments of wrapping – and wound an entire roll of bubblewrap around the scroll. Extra bubblewrap at the ends, to protect the dark, shiny wooden handles.
I asked for scissors, and one of the post office employees handed me a heavy pair of fancy-schmancy, black-handled scissors. You know which kind I mean, the kind that left-handed folks like myself can never seem to get the hang of. I sighed, and tore off pieces of bubblewrap with my hands instead, then taped everything into place with the roll of heavy-duty packaging tape they gave me.
The guy at the counter weighed the package while I filled out an address label and the Customs Declaration & Dispatch Note, trying to press down firmly enough so that the information would get copied on all six freakin’ sheets, but that didn’t work so well, because I never use ballpoint pens.
The guy asked where I was mailing the package to, so he could tell me how much it would cost. “Saudi Arabia,” I said, and wondered if Customs would have a field day with this, and tear apart my carefully-wrapped parcel, just to see what was inside. He punched “SA” into his computer, and the first thing that came up was SASKATCHEWAN. “Not Canada!” I laughed.
Typing this out now, I just remembered that I forgot to add a note to the package. So it’s just an address label, a box, and a scroll. I’m always one to personalize things. I carry a few of my photo-postcards with me wherever I go; I can’t believe I forgot to scribble a few lines on the back of one, and drop it into the box.
But that, of course, is the beautiful thing about letters – you can write one whenever you want, without apologizing:
The first step in writing letters is to get over the guilt of not writing. You don’t “owe” anybody a letter. Letters are a gift.
A letter is only a report to someone who already likes you for reasons other than your brilliance. Take it easy.
We are transient visitors in this world – the death of A’s father reminded me of that. So did an unexpectedly emotional conversation with D in Berkeley a few weekends ago. People my age are not supposed to be worried about losing their parents – aren’t folks now supposed to live ’til they’re 90? Apparently, not. And our own youth does not guarantee our parents’ longevity. I keep forgetting this over and over over, and I hate that I’m reminded only through other people’s pain.
I hope my parents will be around for much longer than they themselves think they will be. And I hope my friends will be around for even longer, to see me through those days without the parents. It’s a selfish approach, but that’s what I need them for: to make me laugh, give me comfort through highfives and squeezy, bone-crushing hugs; ice cream and gelato; conversations about the weather; good-natured teasing that brings threats of stabbing sessions (“She was hitting on me!” “Oh, so is that your technique, Yazzo? Inviting boys to open mics and poetry slams?” “Yeah, and her other line is, ‘You look familiar; did we meet at a conference in Oakland?’” “Shut up, I hate you guys. I couldn’t hit on someone if my life depended on it.” “BULLSHIT.” “Yeah, did she tell you guys the BART and Bakers Square stories yet?” “GOD. You guys are ridiculous“).
And shared meals, especially. Food equals love. That last one alone would sum up my best friendships. Each course, a collaborative indulgence. Every bite, a shared blessing. When eating at home, it’s about guests barging into the kitchen to prepare meals right alongside us, about forcing extra servings on our friends, and packing them styrofoam containers and tupperware full of leftovers to take home. When eating out, it’s about ordering together, passing plates up and down the length of the table, protesting when someone has paid too much but never when they’ve not paid enough. Among friends, I don’t care about splitting the bill evenly; I love it when they don’t care, either. Those who focus on evenly sharing the dollars and cents completely miss the point of friends & food, and, in a way, actually undermine the shared experience that just came beforehand.
Stop fearing that you’ll be taken advantage of, or that your friends will renege on their financial obligations or responsibilities to you. When you do things out of love and enjoyment for the company you’re in, you stop seeing it as an obligation, and you’ll stop nitpicking over one person paying $10 and another paying $12. Or one person paying for the full meal and the other paying nothing. Because friends who are worth your time and love and money will turn around and pay the next time you hang out, before you’ve even pulled your wallet out of your bag, or they’ll unexpectedly pay you back in the currency that matters: time. Time for more hanging-out sessions and poetry readings and laughter in the middle of the street and unplanned bookshop stops and swinging at the park and aimless wandering in your favorite cities and invitations to the symphony and sitting on the steps in the sunshine and jummah dates to your favorite mosque in the world – and even the choice of “fine dining on Devon” over poetry slams in downtown Chicago.
A few Fridays ago, the sister and I joined our favorite Halfghan, W, and his gang of cousins (“W’s entourage,” I always call them) for a post-jummah meal in Berkeley, as we wanted to take W out for a belated birthday lunch. The sister called him: “Should we go ahead and order appetizers while you’re getting here?”
“Order everything!” he said. We laughed.
Sitting in the restaurant, waiting for W & entourage to show up, I rattled off six or seven items from the menu. The entourage later added a couple more. When the food started arriving, we nearly ran out of room on the table, yet managed to plow through the entire substantial amount by passing plates back and forth with orders to “EAT IT, YAAR.” When the check came, we took care of it smoothly. W was not allowed to pay; other than that, there were no tussles over who paid too much or too little. Later, driving home with the sister, I expressed relief that the whole process had gone so smoothly: “That was one of the easiest payings-of-the-bill ever!”
“How many stomachs do you have?” asked W incredulously, when I suggested some post-lunch gelato down the street. “Because I only have one, and I filled it up already.” But the masses spoke, and the masses agreed that gelato was in order. And it was done and done – again, the payment and the eating, both with minimal fuss and much enjoyment. Gelato must be had – or at least considered – during hanging-out sessions, especially those in Berkeley. Gelato must be talked about for future hanging-out sessions in other cities. Lists of restaurants must be made for future travel locations. Reunions and newunions and meetups of any sort are incomplete without a meal or two or seven, complete with friends and laughter and banter and highfives and threats to stab one another with forks and sharp elbows.
And so, it’s a transitory life, but I hope there’s still time left yet for all of these things. Food and laughter and letters and love and enough closeness of friendship that even I, of all people, didn’t mind so much when I got teary-eyed in the middle of my Turkish dinner with D. Those are the ones I love the most: The ones whom I can cry in front of.
In Chicago, that first August that we met, A noticed me checking out the Ohio license plates on his car, and began quizzing me on the states: “Okay, so which one is the Liberty State? Which one has the motto, Live free or die? Which one is called the Sunshine State?”
To the last one, I answered reflexively, exuberantly: “California!”
“No! Florida! Come on!”
I remember sitting for that first dinner at Usmania, still half-strangers to one another, and A giving me and my girlfriends the phone number of his sister in Jeddah, so that we could stay with her whenever we went for the pilgrimage to Mecca. His friend T protested: “You never gave me info like that!”
I shook my head. “T, why would anyone give their sister’s phone number to random people?”
“But I’m not some random guy!” he pointed out, and rightfully so. “You’re the random people at this table!”
And one of my favorite meal-related memories, ever: A nonchalantly tilting his water glass over H’s empty plate, in an effort to assist her in a post-dinner handwashing session. “This is how the immigrants do!” H’s face lit up with laughter, our table erupted in guffaws, and I automatically reached for my camera. I think that one’s on video, too.
Still later, I remember a brief scuffle for wallets, but T won out and paid for our ice cream at the Pakistani-owned shop because his Urdu was better than ours. And I remember B teasing, “Hey, A, say ‘Pepsi’ in Arabic!”
I remember walking down the street and being on the phone with “my friend HMan,” and T – who had attended the same university – bristled: “Yes, I know him, too. How is he your friend HMan?”
“It’s raining in Rosemont,” said HMan.
“Well, it’s not here in downtown Chicago!” I gloated.
“Stop it,” said A. “I’m going to start feeling raindrops any second now.”
I waved my hand dismissively. “Don’t worry, God and I will have a talk about that.”
A minute later, it began raining, and T caught me on video-camera, throwing my hands up in the air and tilting my head back to glare at the night-time sky: “I was just kidding, God!”
I remember how, weeks later, H mentioned she had sent our collection of laughter-filled Chicago videos to her brother in Holland, and he called her, completely baffled: “What was the joke?”
She sighed impatiently, then laughed at his confusion. “We were the joke.”
After Chicago, the words crack, crackhead, crackstar, cracker, and all seemingly-infinite variations thereof took on a life of their own. So did the rest of my vocabulary; I remember being quite pleased one day when T wrote to us all, “As Yaz would say, VAT DRAMA!”
I remember H traipsing about in khussay she hadn’t broken in properly, cursing Pakistani fashion, and how we laughed at her misery, not in the least sympathetic. (“You shoulda worn flip-flops like the rest of us!”) And A saying ruefully to me, “I wasn’t planning on meeting and hanging-out with new people at ISNA. And then you came along.”
I remember returning from Chicago that Fall of 2006 and writing in my moleskine, in preparation for a weblog post that never happened, Six years ago, I never would have imagined I’d walk up to complete strangers and initiate friendships so boldly. But I have very few of what I would call “long-term friends” from my pre-college days, and so I turn instead to spontaneous acts of reaching out to people I barely know. My future long-term friendships begin NOW.
A and the rest of the rockstars from that weekend made this shy, awkward wallflower believe in herself, and for that alone I am forever indebted to them.
Recently, I received an invitation. The occasion: the upcoming wedding of two of my friends who met one another, and whom I hung out with, that fall at ISNA 2006. I did a little dance in my chair, and pumped my fist in the air. “YES!” If anyone had been in my vicinity, I would have shouted, “HIGHFIVE!” and given him/her a smashing one. That infamous “poetry slam we never went to” was the impetus for bringing together an amazing group of people, and I take full credit for this wedding I shall be attending – on the evening of my birthday, and at my favorite mosque, to boot. I can’t wait to HIGHFIVE the bride and groom. At the rate I’m going, this is going to be my new favorite tradition.