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A Cup of Culture
Click. Swaying trees tapped against her window as Jannah sat on her wicker chair, running her fingers through her thick curly locks in concentration. Click. The clock inched towards the metallic nine as Jannah sighed, frustrated with the blank, white computer screen staring at her in mockery. She had—as always— waited until the night before to complete her paper. This time, she had to scurry a five-page paper on how culture influences her life.
"Culture. Culture. Culture. I am
sick of it. There is nothing in my culture that is interesting besides itchy clothes, tongue-burning spicy food, and old ladies singing in foreign languages!" Jannah whispered.
Jannah jumped from her seat, her head banging the large bulb curled above her newly polished desk. It was the sound of a loud, metallic whistle.
“JAAAAANNNNAAAAAAAH!!!” A shrill voice echoed from below the mahogany stairs. A thick accent rolled off of her grandmother’s tongue, full of haste and perfection.
“Areehoon! I’m coming!” Jannah quickly ran to her dresser and entwined her hair in a loose braid before leaving her room. She then rushed to the end of the hall, past the large corridor mirror designed with flowered crystals and vines. Her short-layered hair glimmered under the golden lighting of the ceiling, her bronze highlights flashing as she ran down the stairs.
Jannah's grandmother, with straight hair pinned tightly in a bun against her scalp waited for her at the bottom. She had a rag in one of her hands and it was obvious that she had been dusting the furniture.
“Aare! How many times have etold you to wear shalwaar kameez when you are in the house, lurki? Now that you are in ‘Amrica’ doesn’t mean that you leave your eculture!”
“Yea, Nani—sorry. What was that noise? ” Jannah rushed with her sentence, hoping to divert the conversation.
“That was the tea kettle, Jannah! Ayhay, vat vill I do vith this girl? Your Nana wanted to give you lessons on how to emake some chai today. Eremember? ”
“Tea?” Jannah droned. Her long jeans brushed across the hardwood floor as she shuffled them in an angle, her arms over her chest.
“Hm. Be sure to put lots uv e cloves and spices! I don’t ewant any Starubucks Varbucks tea. I breathe ‘Amrican’ air, I live in ‘Amrican’ house, and I have ‘Amrican’ granddaughter. I don’t want any more of this ‘Amrica.’”
“Nani—I think the water. . .”
“Haa haa, go. But first let me tie your hair in a nice, tight choti. I don’t like this animal-like estyle of yours. Get me the oil bottle.”
Well, I tried. Guess my braid wasn’t tight enough for Pakistani standards, Jannah thought.
She trudged her way to the spice cabinet. With a woosh like a sudden breeze, the scent of spices rushed towards her. Jannah quickly grabbed the oil bottle and walked back towards her grandmother.
“Ayhay! Your hair is a mess! Baaparebab, Jannah! I had hair as thick as an elephant’s trunk when I was your age! And this…this is thinner than threads! And when was the last time you rubbed egg yolk in your hair?”
Jannah sighed with frustration. She did everything she could in order to avoid the shockingly cold, slimy ooze dripping from her scalp. Even if she noticed an extra shine in her hair, she couldn’t ignore the stench of omelets all day. Unfortunately, neither could her classmates.
“Nani! The tea water is gonna evaporate by the time I get there!”
“Chup. Give me your elastic.”
Jannah cringed with the tight pulling of her grandmother’s braiding. With each tug, she saw green dots circling around her eyes.
“Aaare, what are you doing to my little betiyaah, Rukhsanah?” coaxed Jannah’s grandfather entering the corridor slowly with a face as bright as the stars. His eyes were creased with ease and laughter as he firmly grasped his cane. The cane’s smooth texture resembled her grandfather’s face, and the vines carved on the wooden stick enhanced his peaceful nature. He was dressed in a plain white shalwar kameez.
“Yeh kya baat hein? I am trying to make our granddaughter look presentable, that is all.” Even her grandmother’s blunt, emotionless voice softened when she saw him.
“Rukhsanah jaan, she is at home and it is a school night. Maybe another time, nai?”
There was silence and then a last, forceful yank to end the painful symphony before her grandmother tied the elastic.
“Now you better hurry up and get that chai, Jannah, or we will be having espice-flavored smoke instead!”
“Come here, betiyaah, and I’ll show you how to make some genuine chai,” her grandfather whispered, his hand supporting the small of her back.
Her grandmother shook her head and continued to hastily dust the furniture. White dust came erupted in the air like snow, a fragile curtain of differences churning between them like a barrier. So many differences, thought Jannah.
In the kitchen, the noise of a train whistle consumed their senses immediately. Jannah ran towards the kitchen towel before lifting up the tea kettle.
“That’s always the scariest part,” laughed her grandfather. He was still laughing as he walked towards his cane stand. “That’s why I used to always race my brothers when I was your age. We wanted to see who the one with the most taakat is, the hero. Now that I’m old, I don’t have any motivation.”
“And you’re making me do it now!” teased Jannah, wiping her brow from the heat of the tea kettle.
“Yessurree!” His laughter filled the kitchen like a pleasant thunderstorm, startling and loud yet so fulfilling.
Then they started to work independently, silence shadowing the room. Even through the stillness there was a peaceful tone in the air. The stars provided a welcoming company for Jannah as she glanced out of the small window etched above the sink.
“All right, betiyaah. Now, after you put the tea bag, what you do is you take a pinch of this, a couple drops or so of this, and a clump of this,” he said, pointing towards spices of various colors.
Just as he was about to leave, he turned around and exclaimed, “Oh yes, don’t forget to add this,” he said, motioning his hand towards tall red container etched with black leathery ribbon.
“Okay. So, lemmee get this straight, Nana. How much exactly is ‘a pinch’ and a ‘tad’ and a ‘clump’?”
“Aaah, betiyaah. That’s for you to discover.”
“Huh? I mean Ji, Nana?” Without answering, he adjusted his glasses and dipped his head, giving her a laughter-filled look and a pearl-filled smile. Taking his cane, he slowly walked out of the kitchen.
“Great. Just great. Making a pot of tea is now a chemistry experiment!” exclaimed Jannah, sighing so a bouquet of stranded hairs flew from her face.
She stared outside of her window, but the stars were hidden by lazy clouds spread across the sky, blackening the horizon. She again looked towards the tea kettle sitting idly on the counter with scattered spices orbiting it. Jannah walked over to the mess and examined each of the spice packets.
“Well, I guess maybe if I start to think like a Pakistani, maybe these things won’t seem like such a big deal.”
Jannah poured a handful of each spice next to each other, examining the texture, the colors, and the smell of each to perfection.
When she smelled the cloves, a smell of innocence filled the room. Immediately the mountains of Pakistan with rolling grass emerged from the marble countertops, and the smell of spicy air filled her memory.
“Faster, sahib, faster!” Jannah cried, her small hands squeezing the rope around the camel’s neck.
“Maam sayeba, this camel is getting a lot of exercise today because of you!” he smiled, running faster through the tall grasses of Paksitan.
They passed through the mountain’s forest filled with exotic scents. The smell of cloves blanketed around the explorers, tickling the eyes of a small girl with short curly hair.
Happiness. Jannah scooped as much as her emotions allowed and dumped the cloves in the tea cup.
Tapping the tablespoon against the cup to shake off the remnants, Jannah turned her head slightly to the right, glimpsing towards her next ingredient.
Pakistani sugar? Why not just regular Mejier-brand sugar? Jannah thought.
She took a pinch of the sugar, and gently placed it in her mouth. Then the memory flooded.
The beach. We were at the beach, and there was a man there . . . selling . . . selling . . . sugar canes. Yeah, that’s what it was. Nana took out a pocket knife, and we sat by the waves, drinking the sweetness of the stick in silence. The cool refreshing waves lapped over our toes, purifying our feet from the sand crystals.
The sun started to dip its glory behind the mountains, and the adhaan glimmered across the land. Nana took his shawl off his shoulders, and layered it over the lumpy sand. We prayed. Shoulder to shoulder feet to feet. Slowly during the melodious words of the Quran, people from all over the beach joined our prayer. I remember praying for a sugar-cane house, where I could taste sweetness all the time.
A smile slid gracefully on Jannah’s face as she rubbed her tongue against the roof of her mouth, allowing the burning sweetness from the sugar-cane to linger.
Her eyes then locked on a mysterious black vile. The smile from Jannah’s face slowly descended. The other spice containers were decorated with colorful painted flowers or blooming vines. This one, however, was glass and it was carved with snake-like designs. Rust-colored patches crusted the bottom of the container and Jannah immediately felt hesitant. As she began to unscrew the cap, a strong odor slapped her face and Jannah slammed the bottle to the counter.
“All right, Jannah. Try again,” she breathed, exasperated by the strong, mysterious odor gushing from the bottle. Jannah quickly grabbed the vile and forced it towards her nose. Immediately, a faint pleading voice echoed through the room.
“Baaji, Baaji. Will you buy some buttons? They are handmade, carved from the wood of only the finest trees.”
The smell of grime and dirt surrounded the car. Young Jannah stared inquisitively at the man clutching the edge of the window in plead. His eyes the color of paan leaves, his face the color of wheat. Facing down in weariness.
“Take this, young man. Do not worry. God is All-Giving.”
When the man looked at the money placed gently in his hand, his eyes filled with tears.
“Baaji. May God grant you blessings, and eternal life in Paradise.”
“And the same to you, sahib.”
“That lady was my grandmother,” Jannah whispered. Not believing her memory, she assured herself and whispered more forcefully. “That lady was my grandmother.”
Shaken and inspired, Jannah started to tear the barrier between her and her grandmother. The snow between them melted with the sunshine of morality. Of character. Of understanding.
But the memory still traveled on like a crashing wave, traveling on through the currents of sadness.
“There were others in that car,” Jannah whispered. “Oh my God, there were others. No, I cannot face this. I am not ready. . .”
Jannah’s small fingers traced the sleeves of her father’s shirt, his face lined with sweat and his eyes tired. But there was a rich smile etched on his face, and his hand firmly held his wife’s. All was content. The sun spread its arms over them in peace.
Then there was a bang, the swerve of a car. “Abu, what is going on?” Jannah cried, hiding her face in her father’s arms. He covered himself over Jannah, the pressure of his hand reassuring her that she was secure.
Somewhere, a gunshot could be heard. Rallying and signs and fire and screams and tears. Scattered memories.
Drop. Drop. Jannah dropped a hint of the black vile into the tea.
All Jannah could remember was the comforting grasp of her grandfather’s arms around her, caressing her bandages.
Jannah shook her head, and allowed the heavy breaths to tumble into silent sobs. Her brief memory of her mother’s hands, her father’s smile.
With her head bent over the countertops, her hands slid over a jar as it fell to the ground. Wiping tears from her eyes for the parents she never knew, Jannah bent down and lifted up the container. Rosewater.
The scent of the horizon, of the Pakistani sky whispered towards her.
“I am feeling very sad. I feel like my heart is very hurt.” Jannah whispered with her head bowed. Tiny tears slid down her scarred cheek.
Nana and Nani sat on either side of Jannah, gazing at the stars. “Sadness is like a forgotten rose among a field of weeds, Jannah. Your heart drops, but there is still something there. Something— a voice, a breath, a silent song— that motivates the heart to beat,” Nana said. A small bandage wrapped Jannah’s small forehead and she tilted her head against the hardness of the swinging chair.
“With this heart, Jannah. . .” started Nani, “with this heart, you can discover many things.” Nani bent over the side and plucked a single rose and allowed her granddaughter to grasp the stem.
“Some of the petals are falling, Nani.”
“Exactly jaanu. Just like some parts of your heart,” Nani whisperd, stroking Jannah’s cheek softly. “But with a little bit of water and some love, it will bloom again.”
“I can bloom again.” Jannah whispered, her arms clutching the rosewater bottle. "Accepting my memories will be like accepting my past. I have to go on. I have to breathe. I have to accept . . . me."
Jannah gently lowered the rosewater bottle and squeezed a tearful amount into the cup of tea. Acceptance. Let me be free.
When Jannah picked up the bag of cinnamon sticks, a piercing light of happiness tore through the barrier of darkness inside of her heart. Jannah breathed in the bag and allowed the joyful melody trickle in her senses, consume her soul.
“Jaanu, pass the mangoes, the cinnamon, and the pepper, please,” sung her grandmother, indulged with her cooking. Her passion. Her kitchen was her place of pride, where she could bring together various spices and vegetables to create something extraordinary.
They stayed in the kitchen together, singing old folk songs of moonlight making a bowl of milky kheer dessert, or the suns’ reflections turning into gold.
Days so innocent . . .
Jannah breathed a deep sigh. These memories opened a scab in her heart where the sound of laughter, tears, and family was tightly sewed. Now the blood pours with dignity.
Jannah looked towards the next ingredient, anticipation glazing her eyes. It was a tall red container etched with black leathery ribbon. When Jannah turned the container around to see what it contained, confusion lined her eyebrows. Folgers coffee? Why would Nana want me to put something American into the tea? Jannah thought.
Then the train whistled.
“We have to leave,” stated Nana while they all sat around the dining table. “The wars are getting bad, Rukhsana. Some of our neighbors are escaping by night to the train station. From London, they take a plane to America. Asghar sahib invited us to go with their family. I fully trust that man.”
Nana glanced at Nani, hoping for an answer. “We are going to go through this journey together, Rukhsana. Place your trust in God. We have to do what is best for Jannah’s future. The war already took away her . . . our. . . ” Nana’s breath was caught between his throat. He turned his head and stared at the six-year old girl sleeping peacefully on the couch. Jannah’s hands clutched her doll— made from wheat and scraps of clothing.
Then after a moment’s silence he whispered, “I know,” before turning his head and wiping tears from his eyes.
Rukhsana stared at the flowered curtains in concentration. Silent. “When?”
“Dawn,” he whispered, his head bowed.
“God help us.”
As Jannah scooped a tablespoon of Folgers into the cup, the strong-sweet smell of coffee made her relax, giving her a scent she easily can familiarize with.
The train whistled down the Pakistani pavement. Nani clutched her purse in front of her chest and watched through tear-filled eyes the place she called home. With the shop-keepers in the morning, she found friendship. Raising chickens for the neighborhood children always made her feel accomplished. Made her belong. Now as the train slides through the streets of Pakistan in haste, Nani has to say goodbye. She looks towards her window and greets the Pakistani sunrise for the last time.
The smell of coffee filled the air as people celebrated their journey to the ‘modern lands.’ Nana clasped Nani’s hand as he cradled Jannah on his lap, and whispered, “Peace be upon you, Pakistan. The country of our hearts.”
Jannah stirred the cup of tea with a tablespoon as it clinked itself against the glass. She brought her face towards the cup and smelled the land of Pakistan. The land of her childhood. Coming back to life.
Jannah cautiously walked towards the family room.
“Nani, uh, here’s your tea.” Jannah whispered, unprepared and embarrassed.
“Okay, let me see how you made this, lurki.” She gently drifted her hands towards the tea and lifted her face towards the mouth of the cup.
Her head stood still as she softly placed the tea on the table next to her. A large, relaxing sigh, her head falling back to rest her head on the rocking chair. All she whispered was “Pakistan.”
Then the tears ran.
Jannah’s grandfather came rushing in with his cane. When he stared at Rukhsana, he drifted towards Jannah and placed his hand on her shoulder, squeezing it gently. “Now you remember our home, Jannah. Now you remember.”
“Ajow, come here meri jaan.” Nani whispered through the silence, her arms widening. And there it was—the stories, the laughter, the tears of her childhood—widening. Calling her back home.
When Jannah went up to her room at night, she took a seat on her wicker chair and typed the first words of her paper.
“Click. Swaying trees tapped against her window. . .”