Amid the Loin’s Grit, Tastes of the Subcontinent Bloom

Shalimar Restaurant in San Francisco's Tenderloin district.
Sarah Khan

Shalimar Restaurant in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district.

“There ain’t nothin’ tenduh ‘bout the Tenderloin,” Wajahat Ali declares with a smirk as he welcomes me to San Francisco’s red-light district.

A Bay Area playwright, humorist, and lawyer, Mr. Ali, 31, also happens to be a consummate foodie. He is a self-styled expert on the best chai, fish masala, and gulabjamun in town, and if his taste buds are to be believed, this godforsaken stretch is where to find them: within a two-block radius in this notoriously seedy neighborhood, I spot five Indian-Pakistani establishments, each overflowing with hungry customers. In fact, many now call it the Tandoori-loin.

As I glance around what’s possibly San Francisco’s last bastion against gentrification, his spin on comedian David Chappelle’s old quote reverberates in my head.

The candy-coated gloss of nearby Union Square has given way to squalid single-occupancy hotels and sketchy massage parlors. The city’s signature Victorian architecture acquires a patina of dust and grime as the blocks become progressively more run-down, aided by boarded-up windows and graffiti-tagged walls. A man in a tattered orange sweatshirt materializes, offering unsolicited parking assistance — for a tip, of course, which Mr. Ali deftly negotiates. A woman in a sparkly dress showcasing ample cleavage — it’s 2 p.m., for the record — murmurs to a man in a three-piece suit who might easily be her pimp.

Tender it is not.

But Mr. Ali has not brought me here to navigate the thriving drug-retail scene; we are, instead, on an unlikely quest for good kababs. Our first stop is the area’s desi pioneer. Opened in 1994, Shalimar now boasts three locations and a mammoth sign declaring it one of America’s top 50 restaurants — a lofty claim for a nondescript eatery with fluorescent lighting and an alarming profusion of flies. Mr. Ali fondly recalls late-night treks being a rite of passage when he was a student at Berkeley. “The first time, we were like, ‘Why are you taking us to this hellhole?’” It quickly became a case of baptism by chai for him; today he’s a regular, walking straight to the counter, warmly greeting the staff, and grabbing a cup as casually as if this were his neighborhood Starbucks. Continue reading

My Own Private Bollywood : Sarah Khan

After the Slumdog boom, Bollywood has become more Hollywood—and looks like it’s in America to stay. What does that mean for people who grew up with it?
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Priyanka Chopra performs during the International Indian Film Academy (IIFA) awards show in Toronto June 25, 2011. (Reuters/Mark Blinch)

“So, your last name’s Khan, huh?” a guy at work asked out of the blue one day. Though we’d always smiled and waved in the hallways, until that particular afternoon, our interactions hadn’t progressed far beyond perfunctory assessments of the weather. I nodded and got ready to give him my standard spiel, mastered through years of repetition: “Yes, but K-H-A-N like Genghis or Chaka, not K-A-H-N like the hot dog.””That’s Indian, right?” he continued before I opened my mouth. “Like Shah Rukh?”

Colin, a blond-haired, blue-eyed, rugby-shirt-clad, Nordic-god type—who’d fit in more at a polo match in the Hamptons than among comb-overed, potbellied uncles half his height in line for the latest from India’s movie-making industry—went on breathlessly to extol the musical merits of the chart-buster “Rock ‘n’ Roll Sohniye” and profess his love for sultry siren Rani Mukherjee.

The secret was out, I realized that morning. Bollywood is no longer just my cup of chai.

The Bollywood of my childhood would be virtually unrecognizable

In the time since Colin revealed himself to me as a closet Bollywood buff, Slumdog Millionaire turned the Oscars into a song-and-dance spectacular and all things Indian have now been deemed hot. When Lady Gaga descended on Delhi to perform at an F1 gala earlier this month, she tweeted a pic of herself partying with Bollywood royalty, including Shah Rukh himself. “Screw Hollywood,” she declared. “It’s all about Bollywood.” Hey, if Gaga says it, it must be true. Continue reading

Pakistan Leaders Hold Emergency Meeting (Satire/Parody)

“A spokesman for Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari says the president held an emergency meeting with top security officials Monday morning to discuss the announcement that Osama bin Laden has been killed. The spokesman said Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani, armed forces chief Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani and intelligence chief Lt. Gen. Ahmed Shuja Pasha were among those in attendance. The spokesman said the foreign ministry was preparing a formal statement.”

The Emergency Meeting:

(The following dialogue must be read in hyperbolic, melodramatic fashion as popularized by South Asian TV serials)

President Zardari (Z) anxiously twirls his mustache and frantically paces around. He keeps obsessively applying coconut oil to his hair. He is wearing a matching burgundy silk sleeping suit and pajamas.

General Kayani (K) is shining his numerous medals and pins on his General’s jacket. Prime Minister Gilani (G) is obsessively Googling. Director of ISI (Inter-Services Intelligence) General Ahmed Shuja Pasha (P) is melancholy, and BBM’ing in the corner by his lonesome.

ardari: Shit, yaar! (Yaar is Urdu for homie, friend, pal) Amreeka found Osama! They came here, killed him and then told us!

Gilani: Total shit, yaar!

Kayani: Total mind-blasting shit, yaar!

Z: Did any of you know about this? Why didn’t anyone tell me Amreeka was doing this operation?

Gilani: You explicitly told us never to bother you when you wore your “special pajamas” –

Kayani: Or applied coconut oil –

G: For your “fertility” sessions.

Z: (Embarrassed) – Not fertility! Vitality! I told you for vitality sessions!

K: Regardless, you explicitly said you never want to hear bad news, and instead want to be told, “Papu Yaar, taang na kar.” (It literally means “Dude, stop bothering me.”)

Z: (Like a confused child) Yaar, is this news bad?

Kayani and Gilani exchange worried, awkward glances.

Z: At least tell me they found him in some remote, isolated location in Waziristan?

G: Nope, right in the heart of Abbottabad!

Z: Kutey ja putta! (Son of a Dog!)

K: Within the military cantonment of Abottabad…

Z: Ghasti Kay Bachay! (Son of a Bitch!)

K: 800 yards from the elite military training academy –

Z: Uloo Ka Pata! (Son of an Owl!) Hiding in a ditch or a cave?

K: Living in a heavily fortified compound…”custom built to hide someone of significance.”

Z: Ranayadha! (Son of a Whore!)

G: Please, boss, your blood pressure.

Z: Kitne Aadmi the? (How many men were there?)

K: In all, 79 commanders and a dog.

Z: Moomeh! (Boobs!)

K: You or the Prime Minister should really make a statement now…

G: Shit, yaar! The entire operation was live tweeted by @Really Virtual!

K: Is he ISI?

ISI Director Pasha sadly shakes his head “no.”

Z: Abey yaar, my head hurts. First, let’s drink some whiskey and eat mangoes.

G: Thank God, I just finished my morning prayers. Perfect time for a drink!

K: No need, I have my own flask.

They offer whiskey to Pasha, who keeps ignoring them. Z, K, and G drink. Z fills up the glasses again, downs it, and pounds it.

Z: Dhila lan de padiash! (Born by a loose penis!) I’m still upset! Let’s take out our frustration on one of my servants. Saleem!

Enter Saleem, a servant. Z slaps him for no reason.

Z: Thank you, Saleem, that made me feel much better.

Saleem: Koy baat neyhee, boss. (No worries, boss)

Z: Yaar, I just can’t focus. Can’t we think of some bakhwass (Nonsense) tomorrow?

K: We sadly cannot, yaar. Major world leaders are making announcements. And, considering Osama was found here –

G: Yaar, Z, you really need to say something now.

Z: Shit, yaar, let’s have the Foreign Minister say some bakhwass. What’s he doing in the corner?

The FM is watching the blockbuster Bollywood movie “3 Idiots” on the “Bollywood 4 You” cable channel.

Z: Arey, Ghoray Ki Nasal! (Hey, progeny of a horse!) You’re sitting there doing mutte maar (Masturbation) as the U.S. has us by our tatte (Testicles) and we’re getting our bund mara (Our butts reamed)?

FM: Sorry, yaar, but this movie really is great! Amir Khan is such fantastic, mind-blasting actor, such a perfectionist!

K: Abey, Mangaithar Bakra! (Hey, Mangy Goat!) Write up something now or else you’ll be Amir Khan’s chuddees (Soiled Undergarments) tomorrow!

FM: Can I please pause the movie? We have Tivo now.

G:…Fine. You can pause it.

Z: Speaking of Bollywood, I’m sure those Indian haramzaday (Bastards) are laughing at us now!

K: Wouldn’t be surprised. If I was in their chapals (Sandals) right now, I’d sure rub it in – rub it in real good.

G: Madrechod, yaar! (Motherf$%*, man!) The Indian Home Minister just said Pakistan is a “terrorist sanctuary.”

Z: Sala haramkhore! (Bastard!) What did they say exactly?

G: “…terrorists belonging to different organizations find sanctuary in Pakistan.”

Z: (Defiantly!) That’s it! This will not be tolerated any longer!

K: What do you plan on doing, yaar!

Z: (Triumphantly rises!) Absolutely nothing!

And then Z immediately sits down.

They all sit there confused and agitated. K takes a swig from his flask and polishes his medals. G resumes Googling. The FM has secretly pressed unpause and resumes watching a muted “3 Idiots” on Bollywood 4 You.

Z: (Increasingly frustrated and now needs a scapegoat. Sees ISI Director Pasha in the corner and explodes on him) This is all your fault! First, the Raymond Davis-CIA-double murder debacle! Now, this bloody mess! God-damn ISI with their bloody secrecy and shady bed partners!

Pasha: Oy, shut your beak, you oiled son of a goat herding dullah (Pimp)! I just lost a friend today!

Z: No one tells Zardari to shut his beak!

K: Actually, yaar, all of us tell you to shut your beak…all the time…and you always listen.

Z: (Twirling his moustache, Z says the following with dramatic flair, doing his best Clint Eastwood “Man with No Name” impression) Zardari ke taap se tumhe ek hi aadmi bacha sakta hai, ek hi aadmi, khud Zardari. (“Only one man can save you from Zardari’s anger, only one man, Zaradri himself!”)

Pasha takes out a Kalashnikov and points it at Zardari.

Pasha: (Doing his best Clint Eastwood “Dirty Hairy” Impression) Tera kya hoga, Sala? (“What will happen to you, Punk?” – a rendition on the famous lines uttered in the Bollywood blockbuster movie “Sholay”)

Kayani takes out his rifle and points it at Pasha.

K: (Doing his best Clint Eastwood “Gran Torino” Impression) Ab Tera kya hoga, Sala? (“Now what will happen to you, Punk?”)

G: Stop! Stop! Stop acting like ghadas! (Asses)! Obama is speaking now!

Obama on Al Jazeera Live: “Our counterterrorism cooperation with Pakistan helped lead us to bin Laden”

Sigh of relief. All exhale. Kayani and Pasha lower their rifles.

K: This is good. It’s vague. Vague is good. We can work with…vagueness.

G: (Starts tweaking) Shit, man, shit! We’re totally screwed, yaar! If we say we worked with him, then we look like U.S. stooges. If we say we allowed them in, then we look like U.S. doormats. If we say we had nothing to do with it, then we look like namard buzdils! (Emasculated cowards!)

Kayani violently slaps Gilani to his senses!

Z: Yaar, this is too much for me – just totally too much. I’m tired. Let’s just think of some bakhwass tomorrow. In the meantime, Foreign Minister, just have Saleem, my servant, give an official response. Also, tell Saleem to start writing my Washington Post editorial.

Zardari curls up in a fetal position and sleeps on the floor sucking his thumb.

FM: Sure thing, yaar. Right after I finish watching Three Idiots!

After the movie ends and the Foreign Minister wipes away his tears, he addresses the nation with the following statement written by Saleem, the servant, saying the raid was carried out “in accordance with declared U.S. policy that Osama bin Laden will be eliminated in a direct action by the U.S. forces, wherever found in the world.”

The Foreign Minister then transcribes Zardari’s editorial for the Washington Post, again written by Saleem the Servant, in which Saleem says, “Pakistan has never been and never will be the hotbed of fanaticism that is often described by the media…Such baseless speculation may make exciting cable news, but it doesn’t reflect fact…Pakistan had as much reason to despise al-Qaeda as any nation. The war on terrorism is as much Pakistan’s war as it is America’s.”

Why silence over Kashmir speaks volumes

Pankaj Mishra
14 August 2010

Once known for its extraordinary beauty, the valley of Kashmir now hosts the biggest, bloodiest and also the most obscure military occupation in the world. With more than 80,000 people dead in an anti-India insurgency backed by Pakistan, the killings fields of Kashmir dwarf those of Palestine and Tibet. In addition to the everyday regime of arbitrary arrests, curfews, raids, and checkpoints enforced by nearly 700,000 Indian soldiers, the valley’s 4 million Muslims are exposed to extra-judicial execution, rape and torture, with such barbaric variations as live electric wires inserted into penises.

Why then does the immense human suffering of Kashmir occupy such an imperceptible place in our moral imagination? After all, the Kashmiris demanding release from the degradations of military rule couldn’t be louder and clearer. India has contained the insurgency provoked in 1989 by its rigged elections and massacres of protestors. The hundreds of thousands of demonstrators that fill the streets of Kashmir’s cities today are overwhelmingly young, many in their teens, and armed with nothing more lethal than stones. Yet the Indian state seems determined to strangle their voices as it did of the old one. Already this summer, soldiers have shot dead more than 50 protestors, most of them teenagers. Continue reading

“What I understand about Faisal Shahzad” – The NYC Terrorist Suspect: by Wajahat Ali

As a Muslim Pakistani, I can’t tell you why he did it. But I know one violent nut can change how Americans see me

By Wajahat Ali


Last Saturday, I was drinking my chai, reading the latest Green Lantern comic, and participating in the glorious American hobby that is Googling when I saw the news about the foiled NYC Times Square terror plot. I immediately began reciting the “Post-Crisis Minority Mantra,” familiar to many ethnic minorities and religions in these troubled times:

“Please don’t let it be a Muslim or Pakistani dude. Please don’t let it be a Muslim or Pakistani dude.”

Back then, it wasn’t. They had footage of a suspicious white guy.

“Phew! Thank God!” I said out loud.

But I had to invoke the mantra repeatedly over the next few days, as details emerged and the truth became all too clear: The terrorist was a recently naturalized U.S. citizen from Pakistan named Faisal Shahzad. A Muslim Pakistani.

“No! Not again! Why, God, why??”

A Muslim born and raised in America with Pakistani parents, I was the “token” at early age. Growing up, I was like any other socially awkward, overweight, dorky American kid who wanted to date Alyssa Milano and beat Contra on my Nintendo without using the secret, unlimited life code — except my T-shirts were smeared with turmeric and lentil stains instead of PB and J, and in place of Lunchables my mom fed me homemade, green-colored, lamb patty burgers. I was the kid comfortable with all his identities — Muslim, American, Pakistani — and as such, I became the one people consulted when uncomfortable questions had to be asked, or misconceptions and stereotypes needed to be explained.

After news of the averted attack, I was hit with a blitzkrieg of texts, Facebook updates and gchat pings. Friends from varying backgrounds — Mexican-American, African-American, Arab-American — wanted to know what I thought about another “Rage Boy” foolishly attempting to commit violence with an amateurish terror plot. Several made a similar confession: How glad they were that the suspect didn’t belong to “their tribe.” What I did know, with a sinking feeling, was that many moderate, peaceful Pakistani Muslims like me were further doomed to collective mistrust and suspicion.

America has a long tradition of scapegoating (see African Americans, Jews, Irish and Japanese Americans), in which the criminal and moral bankruptcy of a few perverse individuals becomes an archetype for multitudes. But when painting the complex experience of Muslim Pakistanis in the mainstream media, there seems to be only two colors: “Crazy” and “Hella Crazy.” Islam was recently voted “the third worst brand disaster of the decade” thanks to a few deluded individuals — out of the vast 1.5 billion members of Muslim communities — who have engaged in violent jihadi movements, honor killings, suicide bombings and pathetic assassination threats directed at satirical cartoonists. Honestly, I cannot blame the average American, who gets his information from cable news or hate radio, for harboring such caricatures. The misunderstanding cuts both ways: When I travel in the Middle East, I’m asked why I invaded Iraq and want to impose my imperialistic might on sovereign nations. Thanks, George W. Bush, for this staggering global misconception.

But if “Muslim Pakistani American” were an asset, it would be more toxic than the Goldman Sachs Abacus CDO. If it were a stock, it would plummet to Enron levels.

Sometimes, I long for the blurry cultural identities of the 80s, when elementary school friends lumped all Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Sri Lankan and Egyptian immigrants in one brown-hued bucket: “India.” Who wouldn’t rather be affiliated with “Slumdog Millionaire,” Metro PCS’s Ranjit and Chad, Chicken Tikkah Masala, Bhangra remixes and Bollywood instead of religious extremism and Al Qaeda? Pakistani culture has some bomb biryani, lively and critical political commentary, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, and dubious Lollywood entertainment.  But we rarely hear anything about that.

Sometimes, I feel Muslim Pakistanis are like Daffy Duck, always cursed to have the anvil drop on our heads, regardless of our patriotism, lack of criminal record, good credit score and groomed facial hair. The moderate and innocent majority collectively bear the brunt of the sins of a deluded minority, such as Faisal Shahzad.

This is something my white friends can never understand. They never get personal blowback when one of their members commits crimes. They are like Bugs Bunny to our Daffy Duck: They can get hit with a McVeigh, Madoff, Kaczynski, the Hutaris, even W. Bush. They just brush it off, make a wisecrack, and move along untouched. They are never asked to “prove their loyalty” or face increased racial profiling and “extra loving” pat downs at the airport.

In the last two days, many other Pakistani American Muslims like me have been bombarded with one question: “Why did Faisal Shahzad do it?” Let it be known that Pakistanis and Muslims are not like the Borg, some cybernetic species with a collective consciousness. There is no broadcast frequency that alerts us to the internal machinations of an angry or confused individual who simply happens to share our skin color, ethnicity or religious affiliation. We are not “alerted” when they create their diabolical plans to commit mayhem. It’s akin to me asking all my white friends: Why does the Tea Party think Obama is a Muslim? What goes on in the mind of those crazy-ass white, Christian militias who hate the government? Or really: Why do white people wear cargo shorts?

But what I can tell you is that the news hits us differently. A friend of mine born and raised in his country, who is both a religious Muslim and shares strong Pakistani roots, emailed me saying he was “ashamed and disgraced” about Faisal Shahzad. A Pakistani immigrant uncle in the Texas community was outraged that the suspect tried to commit terror despite having just “recited a pledge of allegiance to his adopted country … still the greatest country on the fact of the earth, warts and all notwithstanding.” We face increased calls to “police our own.” (Perhaps people forget that it was a Senegalese Muslim immigrant by the name of Aliou Niasse responsible for tipping off the NYPD to the burning vehicle.)

But the overwhelming response to this averted tragedy amongst Pakistani Muslim Americans was simple: anger, disgust, outrage. Just like any other American.

Wajahat Ali is the author “The Domestic Crusaders,” a play about a Muslim Pakistani American family.