A First That Counts

11/07/2016 08:39 am ET Updated Nov 07, 2016
SAUL LOEB via Getty Images

I am in London, in the lobby of a hotel close to my AirBnB apartment. I have ended up here in search for a printer because it is Nov. 4, the U.S. election is in four days and I have not sent my ballot in. I beg the receptionist to help me out.

I don’t know where else to go, I tell him, you know how important this is.

He pushes a business card towards me, “send it to this email.”

I do. And my fingers stumble over the keypad on my phone. I have never felt this urgency: For the first time in my life, I have the right to vote. For the first time in my life, I am voting. The first vote I will ever cast will be for a woman. This is a moment I have waited for, for a very long time.

Picture this: Pakistan, 1988. I am eleven years old, camped out on the floor of the living room with mattress, pillows, blankets, my six-year-old brother, and the TV. The Pakistani election has just ended and the results are imminent. Pakistan Television, on the only channel available, is broadcasting an election special. All through the night, the results will be announced as they come in. During the wait, patriotic songs, election predictions and the political comedy sketches will keep me hooked. Beside my brother and I are all the things we need for the night: Chips, juice, bread, and my favorite, Cheddar Cheese. I have a notebook to keep track of the election. A woman might become the first female Prime Minister of the Muslim World. We are riveted.

Late into the night, when Benazir Bhutto is declared the Prime Minister of Pakistan, I pump my fists through yawns and bleary eyes. I feel proud although I don’t know what it is that makes me feel so; my family has no party affiliations, no political interests. I jump up and down on the mattress and on my parents and feel teary, and I blame it on being tired, but I can’t stop crying and it feels like I watched something happen.

Except.

I also know that I can never be in her place. Forget being in her place, I can never vote for her. In fact, I can’t vote at all: I don’t have the right. At eleven, I know this.

It’s a funny thing that happens when you grow up in a place that loves you less than you love it, or where the constitution says you are not who you say you are: A Muslim. Or where you might get jailed, or worse, for “posing as a Muslim,” and for sure cannot consider being part of the political process of the country because the issue of your identity has not yet been resolved because you refuse to let them tell you who you are and they refuse to let you be what you want. It’s a standoff. Except, you know your voice doesn’t matter. And even if your path followed the same as that prime minister’s, which it sometimes will, same schools, similar trajectory, that you would still only be a spectator. And so, it’s not much of a stand-off at all.

Fast forward twenty years.

It is 2008 and Obama is elected president. The world is buzzing and I, American now, am too although there are no fists pumps and no tears. I sit down for snippets of news and debates, I write an obligatory Facebook status, I even eat cheese and crackers, but I feel numb to conversations that seem to circle around and around the same thing: What this means for America, the world, us.

Because. I have not registered, I have not voted and slowly, my interest has waned, because I have been a spectator so long, that I do not know how to be otherwise. But it is 2008. The world has changed. And even though, over the years, through identity conflicts and oaths of loyalty and a new passport, I have, too. It is 2008, and for the first time I have had a passing thought that one of my children could one day be president. Maybe both could; brother presidents. I have not thought that before. I could have never considered that possibility when I was young, and I am struck by the fact that not only do I consider it but that I see a path that can lead there.

That is the first time I call myself an American out loud. This is the first time I start reconciling the different aspects of my identity as an American, mourning the country I left. This is the first time I understand freedom, true freedom, and wonder if maybe in the next election, I might vote. It is 2008, and I don’t know.

But one day, I will. I will know this: I am an immigrant; I am an American; I do have a voice. I will not say this until November 2016, sitting in a hotel lobby with a ballot in my hand, ready to vote for a woman to be president of my country. I will not have known fully what having that voice feels like. I’ll tell you: It will feel like a tub of cheddar and chips and juice and jumping up and down and knowing that something, something big, has happened.

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