Recovering My Voice
Sehba Sarwar

My move to Houston from Austin in December 1991 happened much like other important events in my life (marriage, writing, teaching): I closed my eyes, took a deep breath, and jumped. Not long after moving into a tiny cardboard-walled apartment in east Houston, my boyfriend (now husband) René and I found ourselves lost one night amidst the tall glass buildings along Main Street in downtown Houston. Through our open car windows, we heard the clip-clopping of hooves, then a horse carriage passed us on the completely deserted strip that is now Bayou Place. The yellow streetlight revealed a smiling male passenger, his arms stretched along the back of the seat and his pants pulled down for the woman kneeling between his thighs.

That surreal public moment of female subservience at the foot of Houston´s glassy skyscrapers was a stark reminder of my home country Pakistan, where women have little power and no voice. Though I grew up in a home that rejected such silencing, it was still in my personal culture. Back then I did not know that seven years after that seedy introduction to Houston´s nightlife, I would have to deal with a medical challenge, eight miles down the road on the opposite end of Main Street in the Texas Medical Center, one that would almost cost me my ability to speak. Now, as I emerge from that experience, I am learning a new language, one that integrates my personal and political worlds.

For me, streets provide memory maps like the tangled network of arteries in my brain: once each route seeps into my dream world, I can call that place home. The eight-mile stretch of Main connects to another street in my memory, Drigh Road in Karachi, the city of my birth, where I spent the other half of my life and where my parents still live. Like Main Street in Houston, Karachi´s Drigh Road, renamed Shara-e-Faisal in the seventies (I don´t know if it´s more denigrating using street names to mark my country´s British colonized past or its present dependence on Islamic extremist powers), is marked at two points in my memory: with my old school at its southern tip and with the airport, where I left as a student bound for the United States in 1983, on its northern end.

These two spots on Drigh Road hold my childhood between them. My siblings and I spent many evenings at the Friendship House, the Soviet consulate on Drigh Road, where we watched Sunflower and Doctor Zhivago, and rubbed shoulders with communism, which my father supported and for which he was jailed in the sixties. In 1975, when I was barely ten years old, I stood by the side of Drigh Road to cheer for Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who was running for reelection; he stood on the top of his truck, followed by thousands of his party members, shouting his Islamic socialist slogan (one that I later found was falsely used for mass appeal): “Roti, kapra aur makan!”—food, clothing, shelter for all. That same year, after the military took over, I remember curfews, road closures, and military jeeps with mustached armed guards holding AK-47s at each crossing on Drigh Road.

A few months after that moment on Main downtown, driving around in search of Houston´s redeeming qualities—a difficult quest compared to Austin where a ten-minute drive could take us to a hillside view of glittering Lake Travis—we discovered another aspect of the same street as we felt our un-airconditioned car cooled off by wide-trunked elms and oaks. We had found that part of Main bordered by Rice University´s ivy-covered walls on one side and Hermann Park´s grassy knoll on the other. As we continued up the sun-speckled road to a fountain round-a-bout, it reminded me of Drigh Road´s curves. Taking the left fork to Montrose and driving between the Museum of Fine Arts and the Contemporary Arts Museum northward into the Heights, we found cafés, The Menil Collection, and quaint wood homes with wide open porches and swing seats—a happier side of Houston.

Over the next few years, as I began my teaching and writing life, I remember smiling to myself on early mornings when my car passed beneath the sun-dappled part of Main Street, leading to the grassy shaded lawns outside the Menil where I taught a writing workshop. During this quiet period in my life, I came to love The Menil Collection and the Rothko Chapel, often going there just to write. I have walked many students from all parts of Houston—Latino, African American, Bosnian, South Asian, Ethiopian—through the Menil and watched their faces transformed as they stared up at the rippled ceiling and soaked in the light from above and around. Together in a glassed-in room, surrounded by tropical plants and a curling wooden snake, we spun fantasy tales about the Oceanic masks and read our stories and poems to each other.

Then in 1997 this quiet period in my life was torn open. For years I had driven up Main Street past the Medical Center, paying it little attention, but that year it played a pivotal role in my life. What happened there would end up helping me join my political and personal worlds. When childhood nightmares resurfaced, making my brain feel as if it were slowly being crushed by wavering lines that moved back and forth, tighter and tighter, I first ignored them, simply linking them to stress. Then a friend persuaded me to go see a neurologist in the Medical Center. Still scoffing at the idea that I might need help, I landed in the office of tall, gray-haired Dr. Desai from India, who won my trust with the knowledge of South Asian writers she threw into her diagnostic conversation. Dr. Desai told me that the “nightmares” were petit-mal seizures. Tests revealed an arterio-venous malformation (AVM), a life-threatening congenital clump of veins in my brain, close to my speech and memory functions.

After the diagnosis, I retreated into myself. I refused to talk about my AVM with anyone, including my mother, who took a six-month leave from her college to be with me while I dealt with the surgeries. René also tried to reach me, but overwhelmed by the fear of losing my voice and memory, I shut down: talking about my fear would give it a reality I did not want to acknowledge or accept. Finally, a year later, I decided I would take the twenty percent risk of surgery rather than wait for the ticking time bomb in my head to explode. After the second surgery, which lasted longer than four hours, I awakened from anesthesia in the Intensive Care Unit with my mouth dry. When I asked for water, my mother and René, both sitting beside me, fell back in their chairs in relief. They told me that the surgery had gone very close to my speech center and that my doctor was waiting for me to talk before he could confirm success.

Up until the time that my AVM was diagnosed and I retreated into silence, I took my voice for granted. But a year after treatments, even though I still had a fragment of the AVM inside my brain, I found myself ready again to make noise. Over a course of hot Sunday afternoons, I began meeting with four women friends—Jacsun Shah, Marcela Descalzi, Donna Perkins, and Christine Choi—to engage in passionate discussions on how we could start a literary reading series in Houston to represent all voices. After many cups of steaming lattés, we created a reading series, Voices Breaking Boundaries (VBB): Words from Different Worlds, that meets one Sunday a month at Borders Books, where writers from around the world share their angers and passions, and where we all celebrate living.

Though our core group has encountered some changes over the year, we have maintained our diverse base with writers from Hong Kong, Argentina, and Texas. Our logo, the world turned upside down with the southern hemisphere on top, aims to bring different perspectives under one roof. Over the past year, we have showcased writers from all parts of the world: African-American poet Donna Garrett, Indian-born poet Varsha Shah, Irish-Latina poet Christa Forster, Native American poet Solider Blue, Sierra Leonian academic Nemata Blyden, and many more. The open mike readers from all parts of Houston also come from different countries and segments of society, ready to share their stories and poems, appreciative of a space where their voices can be heard. At my first VBB reading, standing in a carpeted enclave with a backdrop of published writings recommended by our core group, I read poems and stories about my anger at how women in Pakistan are being pressured to cover themselves. I also read another piece exploring my personal issues of identity and home.Up until that point, I had saved my political voice for Pakistan and my personal voice for the United States. I left that first reading with a new sense of completeness, warmed by the audience response to my emerging voice.

During the time VBB started up, I began teaching at Jones High School where I work with Vanguard students from around Houston and with neighborhood kids, mostly African-American and Latino. Jones´ diverse community has expanded my world even more, propelling my students and myself in new directions. Many of my Jones students have attended VBB readings, where they have shared their poems and delighted in the audience applause. One of my missions is to get students thinking about the world beyond Houston. Every morning in class, I write a word in Urdu—my national language—on the board. “You write backwards,” they first used to say, struggling to control their pens as they tried to form the circular Arabic script. I smiled and told them, “There is no such thing as ‘backwards.’ Urdu is just written right to left.”

This fall at Jones, I began a new after-school writing workshop, Making Noise, for young girls. The workshop’s goals, similar to VBB´s, is to create a forum for young girls whose voices are often buried, giving them a place to shout, scream, laugh, and cry about issues that are important to them. After growing up in Pakistan where I had space for a political voice but little room for personal expression, I wanted to do everything in my power to give these girls support for their words—and to prevent them from participating in a world where men´s needs are served by their personal humiliation.

Today as I imagine how my blood flow has changed with my arteries rerouted and the knots dissolving, I see images of Houston and Karachi crisscrossing and touching each other. I landed in Houston apparently by accident, but I can accept that there is a reason for everything. In Pakistan as a little girl and teenager, I shouted about political issues—that was the way of my family. In Houston, I retreated and worked on personal issues. Now, while I wait for the final okay from my doctors and deal with small fragments of memory and speech loss, I am slowly learning to combine and celebrate my personal and political voices. By recalling those many images—from military jeeps on Drigh Road to a horse-drawn carriage on Main—I am integrating my worlds, my streets, and my voices, ready to shout and scream. I am now choosing to share my voice and my uncertainties in a city that seems eager to make the journey with me.

Copyright©2000 Sehba Sarwar


Livable Houston Magazine