Orphaned Mahsa also grows up in the shadow of loss, sent to relatives in Pakistan after the death of her parents. Struggling to break free, she escapes to Montreal, leaving behind her first love, Kamal. But the threads of her past are not so easily severed, and she finds herself forced into an arranged marriage. For Mahsa, too, music becomes her solace and allows her to escape from her oppressive circumstances.
When Katherine and Mahsa meet, they find in each other a kindred spirit as well as a musical equal, and their lives are changed irrevocably. Together, they inspire and support one another, fusing together their cultures, their joys, and their losses—just as they collaborate musically in the language of free-form, improvisational jazz.
Under the Visible Life takes readers from the bustling harbour of Karachi to the palpable political tension on the streets of 1970s Montreal to the smoky jazz clubs of New York City. Deeply affecting, vividly rendered, and sweeping in scope, it is also an exploration of the hearts of two unforgettable women: a meditation on how hope can remain alive in the darkest of times when we have someone with whom to share our burdens.
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
What she is I am. My mother ran away with my father from Lashkar Gah when she was eighteen and gave birth to me in Karachi, the pearl of the Arabian Sea. She liked to make us laugh with her Pashto-Urdu-American jokes and her proverbs and idioms in English. Her name was Breshna Najibullah. She had bright grey eyes that were interested in everything, especially in me and my father. She wore her long hair loose and she had a half-moon scar on her chin from a fall as a child. It looked like a little second smile. She moved with great energy, and gracefully.
My father was an American water engineer who came to Afghanistan to work on the dam projects and he liked home movies and playing piano. His name was John Weaver. He bought our piano from Hayden’s and he used to say with a shrug, I only play party music but your mother likes it. He filled up our living room with “Blueberry Hill” and “Be-Bop- A-Lula.” When I was three, I have been told, I began to copy him, picking out tunes. He showed me how to find the chords on the bottom and after that it was easy. I made up my own songs and I liked to do this and spent a lot of time at it. I do not remember ever not being able to play.
From the beginning my parents were teetering on their own brink. I did not have them for long. They were murdered when I was thirteen.
Their favourite place to go dancing was the Beach Luxury Hotel and my father’s eyes were always on my mother. He was handsome in an American way, with his shaved-smooth face and his hair short and parted to one side. There was a little stoop in his shoulders that was from tallness not humility, and he was enthusiastic to see or try anything new. He liked to wear a narrow tie, unusual in the heat of Karachi. I sometimes tied one of his ties around my own neck so that I could pretend to be him.
The timbre of his voice was gentle as if he were leaving lots of room for me to think, which he was. He spoke slowly but not stiffly and he pronounced his consonants clearly which he said was useful to people who did not know English. He said, When I try to understand other languages it helps if people speak slowly.
My mother laughed and said, John, you only know how to speak American. It won’t matter how slowly a person speaks.
He said, That’s nonsense, I speak English and I know how to say thank you in Urdu and Pashto and Goan, listen, shukriya-verra-much-indeed venerable wife-ji.
There’s no such thing as Goan, she said.
Then he sang the Falcons song “You’re So Fine” and took her in his arms to dance. He stopped singing and put his face in her hair and he kissed her neck and they stopped dancing for a moment and he said, That’s Goan.
They did not mind me seeing how much they loved each other and they liked to tell over and over the story of how they met in western Afghanistan on the Helmand River that rises from the Hindu Kush. My mother’s eyes were soft and bright like winter mountain stars when she said, He asked me to dance in Pashto. He said if I was married his grave would be his wedding bed. Your father was full of hullabaloo.
I repeated, Hullabaloo, because I liked the rolling sound of it.
She looked at him to see if he was delighting in us.
She may mean baloney, said my American father to the ceiling fan as if there was no one else in the room.
It did not matter if we said hullabaloo or baloney, it was love that he was full of. He said, I could no more not love your mother than stop locusts.
I called my mother Mor, which is Pashto, and I called my father Abbu, which is Urdu, and when I wanted to tease them I called them Ma and Pa which I learned in an American book. Abbu laughed when he heard that and said it made me sound like a hillbilly, but Mor and I did not know what that was.
My name is Mahsa which means like the moon, and my family name was Weaver-Najibullah which Abbu said was a mouthful but Mor said, She will need both our names one day. The girls at my school had all kinds of names, Moslem and Christian and Hindu, but mine was the longest. My father mostly called me Porcupine because when I was a baby my mother sang, Do you know what the porcupine sang to her baby? O my child of velvet.
Abbu used to tell me, You have my big hands and your mother’s beautiful eyes and you will someday be as graceful as she is and touch a man’s heart and I hope he will be a good man.
Like you, I thought.
He said, Where your Mor comes from, women are protected from lions and the likes of me. But I saw something in her eyes so I took a leap, and I sent her love notes and I asked, Are you promised to anyone? Are you married?
The bird sees the grain not the snare. My parents were in love and they did not wait.
In Lashkar Gah my father wrote a report that the underground water from the karezes was too salty for vineyards and orchards, that the soil was good only for pea shrubs and poppies. No one wanted to hear this. Abbu had already been accused of being a communist in America. Now he was criticizing the American projects and he was speaking to a Pashto girl and the Pashto men were outraged. John Weaver, the honest water engineer, was offending everyone.
He said, Porcupine, sometimes the truth gets you into trouble.
He hid Mor in the back of an American supplies truck as far as the border and paid a guide to help them cross into Pakistan on foot. Mor was pregnant. They slipped into Karachi, the Bride of Cities. In those days it was a green place where men washed the streets at night and people took trams from the Empress Market to Keamari. Mor was eighteen and Abbu was five years older and they liked to talk with the musicians in the clubs where Abbu played for fun. He took home movies of Mor sitting with them, holding me in an Afghan-style baby sling. She is smiling and young and prettier than European girls. Abbu used to joke, I was always afraid your Mor would run away with a real musician.
In Karachi they had gone to the only person they knew, Mor’s grey-eyed uncle, Barak Dilawar. He was the first man in our family to learn to read and to leave Afghanistan. In Karachi he met a Pathan wrestler who told him that he could get a job at the Beach Luxury Hotel which employed Bengali cooks and Sindhis and Punjabis, local Urdu speakers and Baloch people. The man told him, Mr. Avari is looking for all good workers. Come.
Uncle was impressed by the graceful and spacious buildings and the long dormitories on each side for the hotel workers, where troops had lived during the war. He had never imagined living in such opulence. With his reading and his wrestling strength he was hired and he rose quickly to become the night manager at the front desk of the Beach Luxury Hotel.
According to our tradition, Uncle had to offer them nanawatai, or sanctuary, until they got on their feet. Abbu and Mor stayed with him only until I was born and then we got our own home in a part of Karachi called Saddar Town near St. Joseph’s Convent School, which I attended. I learned to read left to right and right to left, in English and Arabic, and I could decipher Nastaliq. I took in languages easily like Mor did and Abbu said, You have ambidextrous eyes that go back and forth like a carpet weaver’s shuttle. Abbu taught at the university and Mor with her polyglot tongue got office work at the Pakistan International Airlines and wore a uniform designed by Pierre Cardin.
Abbu was proud of her and said, That’s jim-dandy. PIA is the first airline to fly the Super Constellation and to show in-flight movies. Then he winked in his American way and said, Maybe your Mor could get us some tickets. Would it not be good to watch movies in the sky?
But I liked going to movies with them on the ground, at the Paradise and the Nishat. After we saw To Kill a Mockingbird, Abbu said to Mor, See, America ain’t so great, and we corrected his grammar though he did it on purpose.
Mor liked Barsaat Ki Raat with qawwali music about the policeman’s daughter falling in love with a poet who sings, In all my life I’ll never forget that rainy night, for I met a lovely girl that rainy night.
I saw Casablanca so many times with Abbu that we memorized the words. Abbu played the piano and pretended to be Sam, and I always said to him, Here’s lookin’ at ya, kid.
I began to have my own tastes too. I liked dancing the twist with my friends and I liked Chubby Checker, and I especially liked Sam Cooke singing “Twistin’ the Night Away.” When I practised in my room Abbu came in and smiled in a way Mor called fond and said, You’re turning American.
Mor and I spoke Pashto. I remember sitting in a big chair looking at our chinar tree, listening to her tell the love stories of Layla and Majnun, of Antara and Abla. When I was afraid of anything Mor said, No matter what anyone says, you think, Though I am but a straw, I am as good as you. And she reminded me over and over, Never forget that your grandmother knew only Pashto, and only to speak it. Can you imagine what it is to not read?
I did not care. I did not care in four languages. Mor said the same thing every day.
Thirteen years after Mor and Abbu arrived in Karachi, I was in bed, listening to Mor weeping and pleading with Abbu. She said, We have lived here long enough. My father is dead and there is no one to stop my brothers. Let us go now to America.
Stop them from what? I wondered.
Abbu said, We never bothered them.
She said, John, the sun cannot be hidden behind two fingers.
But we are far away.
Far away from what? I wondered. I heard him move close to her. I imagined his arms around her.
She said, You do not know my brothers.
Then someone closed a door and I could not hear so I fell asleep.
We are going to go on a trip to America, said Mor to me in the morning. Will it not be good to see where your father comes from? Perhaps we will finally find out what is a hillbilly.
I did not want to leave my school and my friends and my only home but I also imagined flying in an airplane and seeing for the first time American teenagers dancing the twist. And maybe getting some red lipstick.
Two weeks later Mor’s half-brothers appeared in Karachi. One went to the university, shot Abbu, and left him on the steps to bleed to death. The other went to the PIA offices. There were two shots. One in Mor’s chest. One in her head. My uncles were not arrested, only questioned and released to disappear back to Afghanistan. This is the unsayableness of my life.
We have a proverb: Me against my brothers; me and my brothers against my cousins; me and my brothers and my cousins against the world.
Family can kill family to make things right.
Why was I not killed? The murder of my parents began my unrootedness. I had no home to return to. I could not fathom how my own family could kill my beloved Abbu and Mor.
The day before he was shot, Abbu had taken me to Clifton Road to a little shop where anyone could make a record for ten rupees. I played a tune I made up and then I played “Autumn Leaves” for the other side and they pressed it into a little 45 record which had in the centre a yellow disc called a spider that popped in and out. The woman printing the label asked what was the title of my tune. I had not thought of a name so I said, That is called “Abbu’s Song,” and his face flushed and he put his long arm around my shoulders and said, Thank you, Porcupine. That is the best gift I ever received. In this way I learned how important my music could be. I do not know what happened to that record. It is lost to me, just as the Karachi I grew up in disappeared.