Gibraltar and Betweenness

by Shadab Zeest Hashmi

Gibraltar in the background, I pose sideways, wearing a Spanish Chrysanthemum claw in my hair, gitana style, taking a dare from my husband. The photo is from an August afternoon, captured in the sun’s manic glare. My shadow in profile, with the oversized flower behind my ear, mirrors the shape of Gibraltar, Jabl ut Tariq or “Tariq’s rock.” An actual visit to Gibraltar is more than a decade ahead in the future. I would spend years researching the civilization of al Andalus (Muslim Spain, 711-1492) and publish a book about the convivencia of the Abrahamic people before finally setting foot on Gibraltar. “In Cordoba,” I write, “I’m inside the tremor of exile— the primeval, paramount home of poetry” and that “I am drawn to the world of al Andalus because it is a gift of exiles, a celebration of the cusp and of plural identities, the meeting point of three continents and three faiths, where the drama of boundaries and their blurring took place.” At the heart of this pursuit is my own story, one that is illuminated only recently when I see in Gibraltar more facets of my own exile and encounter with borders.

On the flight from Karachi to Frankfurt, before my first train trip to Spain, I’m in my silk shalwar kameez and high heels, a young newlywed: halved, doubled, protean, wearing a new identity I have not yet divined or defined. When the immigration officer in Frankfurt asks questions, my husband who is half-German, responds in German and I in English. No, I do not speak German. Yes, we were married two weeks ago. My passport has my maiden name, but I have now adopted my husband’s family name Hashmi. Yes, our flight out of Europe is from Frankfurt and we will fly to the USA where we will live.

A few months earlier, when I designed my wedding cards, I had an emotional exchange with my father on the matter of changing names; it was a difficult decision to give up my family name for my husband’s. The topic of my name was fraught. My first name was my father’s gift, my middle name was my mother’s and the family name held the possibility of either reinforcing my attachment to my birth family by retaining it after marriage or giving it up as a gesture to honor my husband’s family. I chose the latter.

The usefulness of having a literary name occurred to me then—but my published poems and interview appearances seemed insignificant against the questions of identity that implied belongingness in the realm of the people in my life rather than my work. From now on it will always be that way: I will be between two families, between cultures, between languages; when I have children, I’ll be between generations that I deem more deserving of my time than my own. I’ll also be between two urgent preoccupations: motherhood and writing.

For my wedding card, I had chosen MC Escher’s geometric drawing of a flock of interlocked birds because these birds appear to me to form a webbed nest while in flight, wings raised, at home between land and sky; what a stupendous task to make a home of abeyance, weaving themselves as they do, into eternity— a metaphor for the sharing of mortality’s burden and paradox of permanence in flux, an image encapsulating both migration and marriage.

Neither my husband nor I know what is in store for us as immigrants in the US. Having grown up in the “East” and finished my education in the “West,” I am on a cusp of identities. I have left behind many places I call home, each bordering with another country: Lahore, my birthplace on the border with India; Peshawar, my hometown, with Afghanistan; Portland where I attended college, in the Northwestern United States, the vicinity of the Canadian border. My future home, the city I will live in the longest, is San Diego, along the border with Mexico.

Gibraltar hangs like a pendant between Europe and Africa; attached to the Iberian Peninsula, it has always been of strategic importance, and is named after Tariq bin Ziyad, the commander who initiated the legendary conquest of al Andalus. The history of al Andalus asks to be retrieved from somewhere between a long-lived, singular splendor and equally prolonged silencing by the Inquisition. When Gibraltar became part of the British overseas territory in the 18th century, the land that is now Pakistan was also under the political influence of Britain, though not officially part of the British empire. To someone who has grown up in a British post-colonial culture, the peculiarities of the place are unmistakable and somewhat unsettling but certainly offer a whole new perspective to be explored.

Gibraltar, this dramatic rock between the continent of ice and the continent of fire reminds me that betweenness is a contradictory gift but it is best to embrace it, and that poets are part of the equation when it comes to history’s erasures. Uncovering what is lost or stolen is one way that poetry recovers and regenerates the past. The essential pull in this history for me are the very multiplicities that defy easy naming and desperately require poetry’s coinage.