Sorayya Khan has published a number of novels that touch upon her family background—as the daughter of a Pakistani father and a Dutch mother—and the 1970s Pakistan of her youth. In her latest book, however, she turns to non-fiction and writes a family memoir, the content of which has informed her previous works of fiction. We Take Our Cities With Us is a heartfelt love story not just of her parents, but also of the places where Khan and her family have lived.
The tension in her memoir is not so much from friction between people—she and her husband have a happy marriage, as did her parents—but more from the political upheaval in Pakistan. When she is ten in 1972, her father moves the family to Islamabad from their home in Vienna. The city is still new and there is so much promise.
For me, the city is a map of memory, a grid in which I store my life. It is rectangles organized by letters and numbers, as if C.A. Doxiadis, the city’s Greek architect, believed endless, labeled combinations would bode well for the city and for us. Our sector was F-6/2, our street was 19, and our house was on a slope that dropped like a playground slide into Hill Road.
One of Khan’s most remarkable teenage memories also occurs at this home in Islamabad when Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was assassinated.
The radio blasted more static than words in the kitchen, but my mother turned up the volume. It had been seven years since my father had moved us to Pakistan and his country changed everything about me. It had even changed the color of my skin; I hadn’t noticed, but overnight, and in all the ways that mattered to me, it had become decidedly brown.
She also writes about her father’s family’s home in Lahore, the address of which became the title of her novel, Five Queen’s Road. Khan tells of her mother’s first experiences in Pakistan in the 1950s when she visited her in-laws, Khan’s grandparents:
Five Queen’s Road didn’t belong to her in-laws, even if they behaved as if it did. She learned that the house was partitioned shortly before British India was, in 1947. The border that cleaved the country produced the independent nations of India and Pakistan; the border that cleaved the house shifted, growing or shrinking depending on perspective and the passage of time. It had been built by the British and eventually sold to a Hindu, Dina Nath, whose family decided against leaving Lahore for India after Partition. Instead, Dina Nath converted to Islam, drew a line down the middle of the house, and searched for a Muslim tenant to live on the other side, hoping that the presence of a Muslim might protect him from the raging violence against Hindus who had dared remain in Pakistan.
Khan felt a great bond to this house where her father grew up and her mother had her first introduction to Pakistan. Besides these homes in Pakistan, Khan writes about Vienna, the city where her parents lived, both as outsiders. Vienna was a place of happiness where Khan’s mother had lived as a young wife. When she left Pakistan after almost three decades, her mother had no desire to return to her birth country of the Netherlands; she had fled an unhappy childhood there after her father had ran off with another woman, leaving her mother with eight children. But for Khan, Vienna was a city filled with sad memories after her father passed away there after a botched surgery.
I, on the other hand, excised the city from my life as if I had no history with it—as if I hadn’t been born there nor been a childhood resident nor visited as an adult. I threw it out of my life like the children’s outgrown clothes.
But as Khan’s mother faces her own mortality after a leukemia diagnosis, Khan learns to make peace with Vienna again. Khan and her husband—a man she met in the United States, but went to school with in Islamabad as children—also visit Amsterdam and Maastricht after Khan’s mother passes away.
The narrative in this book jumps around in chronology, but it’s never difficult to follow. Towards the beginning of the book, Khan writes about her home in Ithaca, New York, as the mother of brown sons in the wake of 9/11 and the rise of Islamophobia, as well as Chicago, where her parents met in the mid-1950s. As deliberate as it is short, each chapter of We Take Our Cities With Us builds a picture of Khan, her parents, and Pakistan in its early decades.