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The Lands Between

August 7, 2016

It was past midnight and Dalia was on her way to pick her father from Logan airport. They hadn’t seen each other in over two years. As her beaten down white Toyota Corolla made its way through the brightly lit airport road it was hard for her to imagine that in only a few minutes the man who had been absent in her life during the past few years was going to be sitting in the seat next to her. His luggage was going to be placed into the trunk of her car, and in the cup holder he would place his bottle of sparkling water that he purchased from the vending machine at the terminal in Heathrow. The trapped smell of his cologne, cigarettes and the January wind from his coat would fill the space between them. Dalia had never been away from her father for so long. Only once she spent a weekend at a family friend’s house during a wedding in Yardley, Pennsylvania. But that was the longest she had gone without him. Partially it had to do with the fact that she never had a reason to be away from him, but mostly due to the fact he wouldn’t let her be without him.

She had arrived at the airport; it was cold and chilly. The air traveled through every seam of her jacket, up her legs where the cold air tickled her skin to the bone. Dalia looked out the window of her car and put on her glasses; without them she couldn’t tell apart the women from the men. She sat there awkwardly in the car, searching for her father’s face. She tried to match her memory of what her father looked like to the people who were randomly standing on the platform, luggage in tow and waiting for the final leg of their journey to end. She kept a watch in her review mirror because any minute now a cop would usher her away and then she’d have to exit the airport and taken another round back into the airport. She wondered if his flight had even landed yet and suddenly she was imagining her father somewhere still in the air looking down at the tiny speck that would be Boston from a distance. Dalia got out of the car. In her hands she held a grey wool hat and scarf. In case her father would need it. She held it close to her chest, as if she were protecting a child. She walked around the airport platform looking at every person. She felt like a child lost at the grocery store, searching in every face, her father.

As an only child, Dalia was always afraid that her parents were going to leave her. On her bus rides back from elementary school, she was always afraid that she’d knock on the door of their two bedroom apartment in Queens, New York and find that her parents weren’t going to be there. One day her worst fear had come true. She knocked on the door and no one answered. Panic stricken, Dalia ran back to where the school bus had dropped her off, and hoped that her school bus would still be there. She had barely reached the end of the staircase when Dalia heard her mother open the door. With a wet towel wrapped around her head, her mother called out to her. Later on in the afternoon her mother placed a bowl of microwave popcorn in front of her for snack time. “Why did you think no one was home?” she asked Dalia, “where did you think I would go?”

Dalia’s mother was quiet woman, she hardly spoke. A lot of it had to do with the fact that there was hardly anyone ever around to talk to. In their small apartment, it was just Dalia and her parents. The neighbor’s kept to themselves, except for the Kasandars who lived two streets down. But they were Indian, as Dalia’s father liked to remind them, they weren’t Pakistani like them. Alone in the apartment, Dalia’s mother liked to watch Bollywood movies, they were her only connection to the country she had left behind years ago. As Dalia would be doing her math homework she would always have to listen to the overly dramatic movies in the background, their musical numbers spreading throughout their entire home. Although her name was Neeloufer, everyone called her Neelo. When relatives from Karachi would call in the early hours of the morning, Dalia could hear faceless and nameless relatives conversing with her parents. They would make her mother laugh by telling stories of their children or clueless servants, sometimes she openly cried because she missed them so much. Dalia’s father would take the phone from her, “Neelo,” he’d say, “you’re wasting their money!”

For fun, they would go to the mall. They made a habit out of buying things only when on sale. They were usually gifts for family back home. Soaps, comforters, ball-point pens and manicure sets. When it came time to make another trip back to Pakistan, they already had a closet full of gifts to give. Sometimes when Dalia was bored she would open the hallway closet and look through the various items wondering which relative was going to get what. One of Dalia’s favorite things to do was look through photo albums of her parent’s family. The photographs were the only things that she had left of them. If her mother was in the mood, she’d sit next to Dalia and point to the nameless faces, introducing them to her. “That’s my uncle Mazhar—over here, see that little boy playing Cricket? That’s my oldest brother Munou.” Dalia stared into the photographs of people who were frozen in time, with smiles plastered on their dark faces, their hopes and dreams forever locked into a world that was perfect only momentarily. Sometimes she would look deep into their faces, at the creases of their smiles, the brightness of their teeth. The way a young woman’s dupatta would drape to her side like a pendant, the gold shimmer of an uncle’s prized Swiss watch. She would often look at the group of people and wonder where they were looking when the photograph was taken. What hopes and dreams rest in their brown eyes? Who was the photographer? Who are the people that weren’t photographed? Dalia often wondered these things, because maybe if she ever got the answer, then maybe, just maybe, she’d get a sense of what their world was like. A world that she would never know.
“Who’s that Mama?” Dalia pointed to a photograph of a young woman. She wasn’t staring into the camera, but looking out the window. The glow of sunset resting over her dark hair. She seemed to be looking out the window as if she were searching for something, for someone. “That’s my mother,” she answered, “your Nanni”

Nanni was someone Dalia had only heard of. Dalia had learned early on that whenever her parents bought perfume, even if it wasn’t on sale, it was usually for her Nanni. Nothing made her mother so excited than purchasing fine perfume for her mother back home. “She will love this so much,” she’d say. When phone calls from Pakistan would come, Dalia’s mother would sometimes put the phone against Dalia’s ear. “Say salam to your Nanni!” she’d say. Dalia wouldn’t say anything. She’d just listen to the static of the distance between Queens, New York and Karachi, Pakistan and sometimes the raspy voice of a woman who’d say: “Hello! Hello? Munou, I can’t hear anything. . . I think it’s disconnected . . . hello?”
Dalia was born in the United States, and the first time she had visited her parent’s homeland was when she was barely ten months old. Dressed up in a puffy pink dress, her parents proudly showed her off to curious relatives when they first arrived at the Quaid-e-Azam airport in Karachi. “We brought back an American with us,” her father had joked. Cloaked beneath Karachi’s summer humidity, the entire Dehlin clan greeted one another after a long period of absence.

The cold arctic wind began to pick up when Dalia finally found her father. She recognized his tan colored Champs jacket that she sent him a few years ago. She told him that it was usually cold in Boston, and if he ever visited her, he should use the coat. He was standing to claim his things, his luggage still hadn’t arrived. He stood straight for a while, staring only ahead, but then he looked both ways. Finally, as if he knew she was looking, turned around and found her staring. He was uncertain for a minute. Spending the past two years back home in Karachi, in every niece and cousin he saw his daughter Dalia’s face and to finally see it after so long made him question his own eyes. He knew it was her when she began running towards him, her smile wide and bright. He hugged her so tight, his arm around her neck. For all the minutes, months, and years apart this was how you made up for it.

Dalia hadn’t realized how much she had missed her father until she saw him. It was sort of like the days when she would be alone in her apartment in Dorchester, and while she would be in the middle of making chicken curry or vacuuming the apartment she’d look up and realize how alone she really was. Sometimes she would go two days without speaking a word, and then when the phone would suddenly ring her throat would dry up when she was just trying to say a simple sentence. But now that her father was here in front of her, the loneliness of the past two years weighed heavy over her chest.

“Look at you,” he kept saying, his hands cupping her face, “look at you.” Dalia thought that he was refraining himself from saying how much she resembled her mother. The way he was looking at her face, amazed that she looked less like the Dalia who left for college two years ago and more like his wife in the years before they were married. Dalia simply smiled; she was no longer tired and sleepy. His luggage finally arrived and together they wheeled it all back to her car. He tried to help her place them into the trunk of the car, but Dalia insisted that she do it for him. He pulled the collar of jacket closer towards him, shivering. “I don’t remember ever being this cold,” he said, and walked towards the passenger side of the car, seating himself. As Dalia placed his last suitcase in the trunk she noticed his luggage tag. She took it into her hand, opening the flap that revealed his address of the last two years: Obeid Dehlin. Bungalow 257, Phase IV Clifton, Karachi, Pakistan.

They drove out of the airport and back onto the highway. “It’s good to see some order and civility on the roads again,” her father began, looking at the empty clear road before them “back home no one knows how to drive in a straight line—its every man for himself.” It was one of the things Dalia remembered most about Pakistan: the roads. She recalled at the age of ten, during another trip back to her parent’s homeland, looking out the window of her uncle’s Toyota Land Cruiser and amazed to see so many cars on the road, all close together, going at different speeds and almost every car honking its horn at one point or another. There was not an angry driver in sight, and not everyone seemed to be in a hurry, they all just had a different idea about how to get to the same place.

“You know I was hoping you would have come to visit me,” her father said, “your cousins are excited to see you again.”
“I tried to come,” Dalia lied, “but it’s hard to when I’m in the middle of a semester. And during the break, it’s hard to get away from the bakery.”
Dalia worked at a posh bakery on Newbury Street. She worked in the back room, frosting all of the cupcakes and taking orders over the phone. It was an easy job that didn’t require much from her. Sometimes the hours would go by so fast that Dalia would be convinced that time was playing tricks on her. When school got tough and stressful, she imagined dropping out and enrolling in a culinary program. She could spend all her time cooking and working on perfecting her techniques. No one would bother her because she would always appear busy with her hands at work.
“Maybe this summer the Bakery might let you leave for a couple of weeks so you can come visit” her father said.
“I think I might be getting an internship though.”
“Internship? Really? Where?”
“There’s this really cool magazine that I love to read. They’re based here in Boston and they are always on the lookout for interns.”
“A magazine?”
“Well if I want to be an editor Dad, I think I need to start getting experience.”
“Do they pay well?” he asked.
“I don’t think it’s going to be a paid position.”
“They don’t pay!” he said, “Why would you work for them?”
“Most internships are unpaid, Dad.”
“I just don’t understand that,” he said, he ran his finger through his grey-black hair, “no one should work for free.” Dalia’s father was barely nineteen years old when he first came to America. Growing up during an economic and politically uncertain time in Pakistan, coming to America was a dream come true. He learned early on that hard work was always rewarded, and if you worked hard enough you could attain more than you ever imagined. He reminded Dalia of this all her life.

When she was a child, Dalia’s mother continually reminded her about the relatives she rarely knew. When she looked through the photo albums with her mother, their faces were like the people you met in dreams, people who had a laugh that could stretch a mile, people who hugged you like a blanket. Pakistan. What a strange place. She thought of the people. People dressed in nice silks and suits. Sitting together, laughing, and eating. There were a few photos of brothers embracing. Newlyweds blushing. There were a few photos of a party where everyone gathered around a large, wide, brown table adorned with chicken biryani, tikkah masala, cashew chicken, achar gosht, freshly baked breads and basmati rice—all of these dishes that Dalia would later learn in High School from her mother who insisted she’d learn. “Food will bring home to you no matter where you are” she’d say—The people in the photographs all looked young, fresh, and happy. Funny how photos capture only the longing one feels. They all seemed happy, and they all had their whole lives ahead of them. And then there was one of a young man. A thin mustache lined across the tip of his upper lip, and a fashionable afro, and was dressed in a nice beige suit. He was in almost all the photos, smiling at the camera, unknown to him that some twenty years later his daughter would be staring at them. He looked happy, hugging his mother who would die two years later in a car accident, standing next to his father’s accountant who would one day leave them all in financial ruin. These photos were all taken before her father would leave his home country to the splendor that was America and revealed to her a father who was once young, and ambitious, and when the terrible hard work that he would later do in America hadn’t yet gotten a hold of his health yet.

Sometimes when Dalia would emerge from her room after doing homework or playing with her dolls, she’d find her mother sitting on the couch wiping away tears. “I just miss your Nanni, that’s all,” her mother would say, faking a smile. To make her feel better, Dalia would bring out the photo albums again and let her mother point to people, giving them a name and telling her about their life.

It had been a day since he returned. He commented about his flight, about how when he arrived at the airport to get through customs one of the officers ushered him to the “visa-holders” line. “Do you think by looking at my face anyone would know that I am an American citizen?” he laughed. “You give your entire life to this country, yet you never belong.”

“Mom always said that it wasn’t others who didn’t want us to belong, it was always we who never wanted to be a part of this,” Dalia said. The words just slipped out of her. She never usually spoke her mind aloud, especially about her mother.
Her father didn’t respond. He just shook his head as if he agreed with her.

When they drove up to her street, Dalia tried to ignore her father’s disapproving look at her apartment complex. In the heart of Dorchester, she was renting a one bedroom apartment in a building where the main door didn’t have a proper lock, the stairs were broken and you had to either walk over or around it. Her apartment was dimly lit, mainly because she never got around to buying a proper lamp. The entire apartment was sparsely furnished and it had still been less than year when Dalia decided to leave her crowded and noisy dorm room for her own apartment. It was a decision she had not discussed with her father. He would not have understood why she would want to be so far away from her campus.

When they walked into the apartment, Dalia turned the heat up and went to go set up her bedroom so that her father could sleep. But her father slowly walked around the apartment looking at the items. Her living room had only one couch, her TV rested on what was a coffee table. The walls were bare, and a light cream color. There was just one small table by the window in the living room where there were two mismatched chairs. The table was covered with a damask table cloth, and against the window sill Dalia’s books were lined up. A framed photo acted as a bookend. He walked up to it; the photo was of his wife, he discovered. She was dressed in dark grey jeans, and a black buttoned up shirt. Her wavy hair was let loose, and she was smiling shyly towards the camera. He took the picture of her to send back to relatives. Neelo never wore western clothes, but she did so just for the photo. They wanted to show everyone back home how modernized and assimilated they had become. It was also Dalia’s favorite photo of her mother, because it represented the mother she wanted. The kind who wasn’t shy to wear jeans and leave her hair loose, the kind who spoke fluent English without laughing out of nervousness. The kind of mother who had a life of her own and didn’t linger on the one she lost. Dalia kept this photo by her desk when she was in her dorm, and her roommate Clarisse, never even had to ask where her mother was from. She looked so ordinary, just like the rest of the moms.

The living room was bare, but Dalia’s bedroom was lined up with bookshelves. Her father chuckled, “your mother always said that if we got you your own apartment you’d turn it into a library.”
“I have to put my books somewhere, Dad.”

Dalia covered her bed with a new comforter set that she bought just for her father’s arrival. He sat on the corner of the bed, and took off his socks and shoes. But then he stopped and looked up at his daughter. “You know,” he began, “it’s strange being back here with your mother gone.”
Dalia was folding her old comforter set into the bedding package of the new one.
“But this must be so hard for you. Being without your mother,” he said, “I lost my mother when I was very young too.”

But Dalia wasn’t interested. She just looked up briefly from folding, to give him a smile from the corner of her lips. “Do you want coffee or chai for breakfast?” she asked, the bedding folded into her arms.
He gave her the same smile back. “Chai will be fine.”
“Okay, good night Daddy.” She kissed him on the cheek and before she closed the door on her way she turned to him. “I’m glad you’re back home.”

She would be sleeping on her second-hand couch. She went to the bathroom where she brushed her teeth and splashed her face with cold water. She stared at herself in the mirror, looking into her eyes, red with fatigue. When she came out, she could already hear her father snoring. She laid herself down into her couch and tried to get used to the sound of him, and getting used to fact that she now had a blood relative in the country.

It was during her sophomore year in High School when Dalia’s mother discovered a lump in her left breast. Her primary care doctor wasn’t too concerned with it. She told Neelo that she was too young to have breast cancer, and it was probably just a benign cyst. At the dinner table that night, her father agreed with the doctor too. He brushed aside the possibility that cancer could become a part of their lives. But when the test results came back three days later, neither of them could pretend anymore. The months that followed were a blur to Dalia. It was then that she developed the habit of busying herself. Not a day would go by when she wouldn’t be rewriting a term paper for the second time, when she didn’t have a thick book to get lost into. By the time it came to apply for colleges, Neelo had already lost all of her hair, and her energy. Dalia applied to colleges all over the country, and when Stanford University was the first to send her an acceptance letter, the prospective change in geography was a welcomed one. But her father was adamant that she stay on the east coast. He couldn’t understand why his daughter, who never liked being far from her parents, wanted to suddenly be so far away from them. The atmosphere had become especially tense after Neelo was admitted into the hospital for developing a fever. Both father and daughter were home that day, deciding on what college she would attend.

Her father took out his grey Samsonite briefcase. As a child, Dalia would marvel over it. It was so new, so regal looking with all of her father’s secrets locked in. She remembered whenever he had important things to deal with he had his briefcase opened before him, all things handy. His checkbooks, credit cards, address book, pens he used only on special occasions. Sometimes if he was in a good mood, she was free to look about, to look through at the stack of currency stuck together with some rubber bands, old postage stamps his father gave him, her grandfather’s simple white handkerchief, passport size photos of her father when he was young and had just come to America. Then there were the folders. Folders for everyone in the family with their full legal names written on the tabs. It always excited her to see her name in her father’s briefcase. Dalia Dehlin. In her folder contained her birth certificate, medical charts in which her doctor described her to be “a very lively baby”, early expired passports, school report cards in which her teachers had written “Dalia is enthusiastic about reading”, more medical charts in which doctors declared that she was a healthy child with “an abundance of energy,” her American passport that her father would proudly pass out to their relative back in Karachi as if it were a photograph. An American. His daughter wan an American. How many other people could say that? With all the material relics of Dalia’s life compacted into a single folder, her father decided to compromise with her. She would go to Boston University; it was close enough that she could visit for occasional weekends, but far enough that she would “feel like an adult.”

Just a few months shy of graduation, Neelo passed away.
The last time Dalia saw her father was when he dropped her off at LaGuardia airport. It had been five months since her mother passed away. Before she left, her father talked about going back home to Karachi now that the apartment would be completely empty with Neelo and Dalia gone. Her first semester had barely begun when she got a call from her father telling her that he had bought his ticket to go back home. The lease for their apartment was up and he decided not to renew. He would go back home and start a new life with his brothers and sisters. “I suppose it’s a curse,” he said, “I’m neither of here, nor of there.”

They were at Barnes and Noble, and it had been four days since Dalia’s father first arrived. He wanted to get some bookmarks and small trinkets like book lights. They were walking aimlessly through the aisles. “Dad, how come you never let Mom go back home?” Dalia asked. He was caught off guard, he let go of the book he held in his hand.
“What do you mean?”
“When she was sick. She wanted to go back home to see her family.”
“She couldn’t, Dalia. She was too weak to travel; you remember how hard it was for. . .”
“But she kept asking you. She kept . . .”
“Look Dalia, there are a lot of things that I regret doing. But at that time, the choices that I made seemed to make sense.”
“Sometimes I think I’m so much like Mom,” Dalia said. She looked straight at him. “She missed her mother all the time, like I do. We’re both distanced from our mothers by land.”
The rest of the week they would continue the visit as if nothing significant had ever occurred. She took her father to Walgreens to purchase some Tylenol and Hershey chocolates. They went to Old Navy where he bought cheap rubber sandals. They walked through the Gardens one afternoon and drank coffee quietly on a bench at the Commons staring at the Boston skyline looming over the park like a distant, unattainable dream.

The night before Dalia’s father left, they were packing his things into his suitcases. He wouldn’t be leaving from Boston. In the afternoon, he would be taking a bus back to New York City where he would be spending a few days with some friends before heading back to Karachi. He took out his briefcase, looking through the articles in the briefcase with the same enthusiasm Dalia had as a child. He looked through each of the relics; each thing had a story, a history. When he came to Dalia’s folder, he quickly scanned through the contents and pulled it out. “Here” he told her, and handed it to her, “I think you should have it now.”

Dalia held the folder in her hands. It smelled like buried memories, heavy with history. For a moment she couldn’t bear having it away from her father’s briefcase: it was where it always belonged. She placed the folder out in front of her, carefully looking through the items as if seeing them for the first time. Her eyes welled up. She tried blinking them away, hoping her father wouldn’t notice. But he had, and when he asked what was wrong, Dalia shrugged her shoulders and placed her folder on her wobbly coffee table. Outside you could hear the loud wail of police sirens, but yet it was so quiet in her apartment. The distance between her father and herself was never greater. He didn’t need to come all the way here to Boston to be closer to me, Dalia thought. There was silence for a long time. After a while, Dalia’s father turned the TV on and watched CNN. Dalia served them some daal and rice, and they ate in silence.

The next day they were at the bus platform in South Station. Her father’s bags were checked into the compartment and he was just about to board his bus back to the city where only a few years ago he had a family. It was rush hour and the platform was filled with luggage and people walking around from all sorts of directions. Dalia didn’t think it would hurt so much to let her father go. There was still so much she wanted to tell him. She wanted to tell him that he should keep her folder and put it back in his briefcase. He didn’t have to prove to her that he was ready to let her go by giving back her life in a folder; it was not like it was with his parents when they first left had to let him go for America. She wanted to tell him stay longer, to not go back to Pakistan at all. He hugged her and kissed her on her forehead.
“Take care now,” he said, “I’ll call you when I reach the city.”

At that moment, Dalia realized what it must have felt like for her mother to leave somebody she loved at the airport, to see them walk through the gates and enter a country, a world so distant from hers. For the first time it was not hard imagining her mother in their old apartment, sitting on the couch and looking through photo albums, looking for the people she had lost.

Her father boarded the bus and she could see his silhouette through the tinted windows of the giant bus. He found a seat close towards the back. He briefly waved at Dalia. She lifted up her hand, breathing became harder for her. When the bus began to slowly drive away, it became harder and harder to see her father. She didn’t wait for the bus to fall away from her view. She turned around and immersed herself in the rush hour crowd, happy for once, that she was not alone.


  1. Luther

    This was a very sentimental and strong story. I could feel myself like Dalia, looking into an unknown horizon without her mother. I appreciated the finesse of the author in fostering the emotion of a semi-belonging that captures the lives of most immigrant families. You are home neither in the US nor in Pakistan. The home of the mother was a horizon of lived-memories that become mystified as the time passes-by. A type of self-made world more than a past, only to be seen through some photos. I enjoy reading Ms. Ahmed’s stories and hope to discover more of her writing.

  2. Jack H.

    Ms. Ahmed is doubtlessly a first class writer who knows how to convey a profound feeling of loss and yearning for a pure past. The metaphor of briefcase and the signification of it being given to the possession of Dalia was ingenious. This was the story of people who are in between, neither here nor there.

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