Writers on the 2016 US Election: Bina Shah

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Bina Shah

Bina Shah, columnist for the New York Times and SampsoniaWay.org

Coming to middle America as a woman who had spent eleven years on the East Coast of America but also fifteen years living in Pakistan, the divides were more obvious to me than if I’d spent all my life living in, say, New York City.

As a Pakistani writer, but also as someone who lived and studied and worked in the United States for many years, I am not surprised by Donald Trump’s election to the Presidency.

Back in 1991, when I was a student at idyllic and liberal Wellesley College, I was discussing America’s involvement in the Gulf War with a group of friends, when one of them, a Republican, grew incensed with my views. She became red-faced and teary-eyed, and suddenly shouted in a shrill voice, “If you don’t like it here, why don’t you just go back to your country?” Then she ran out of the room, leaving the rest of us shocked and silent in her wake.

It was an anomaly, but I’ve never forgotten that moment. Its memory lay embedded in my mind like the pea underneath all the mattresses in the princess’s bed, disturbing her peaceful sleep. I continued to live in an oasis of tolerance, but with ears open and alert for the voice telling me I wasn’t welcome there. Trump’s ascendence to the Presidency reminds me that those voices have gotten louder, but that they were always there all along.

Throughout my years in America, I spent much time on the east coast of the United States, but I also traveled a lot to the midwest, where I have many family members in Illinois, Ohio, Indiana and Iowa. They are first generation immigrants to the United States, with their second generation sons and daughters, and in some cases, their American-born wives and half-American, half Pakistani children. I observed that they were valued members of their communities, accepted and loved by friends and neighbors. All of them spoke about how in America they had the freedom to live their lives as freely they wanted. The American dream had come true for them.

I went back to Pakistan after finishing my studies and a year of work in America. I continued to live my life, though, as if a part of me had been left behind in the United States. I kept in touch with friends and family, stayed abreast of the news. I always thought in two time zones: Pakistan Standard Time and Eastern Standard Time. The events of 9/11 hurt me deeply, because I was living on both sides of the divide at the same time: a Pakistani woman with a past in America, an American-influenced woman whose present and future was firmly in Pakistan.

In the following fifteen years, my country, Pakistan, became in turns an ally in the War on Terror, an alleged aider and abettor of terrorists, the hiding place of Osama Bin Laden, and a nation in which 60,000 people have lost their lives to terrorism. To make sense of all the divides, and to try and bridge them, I began to write. Later, I developed an interest in politics and women’s rights, galvanized by the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, Pakistan’s first and to date only female leader. She came to my mind many times during Hillary Clinton’s campaign, but her attempt to win my country’s elections had ended in disaster, so it was a poor comparison.

In 2011, I went back to spend three months in Iowa City as a fellow at the University of Iowa’s International Writers Workshop. Although Iowa City is a university town with liberal values, I met many members of the Iowa City community, farmers and small town folk who aligned more closely with conservative viewpoints. They were curious and welcoming to me as a foreigner, eager to learn about my culture, and gracious in their hospitality.

But as an outsider, I could see that their priorities were their families, their farms and small businesses, their church, traditions and their stable lives. Intellectualism, progressive politics, inclusivity and diversity were not. Coming to middle America as a woman who had spent eleven years on the East Coast of America but also fifteen years living in Pakistan, the divides were more obvious to me than if I’d spent all my life living in, say, New York City.

Therefore, when Donald Trump ran against Hillary Clinton, I knew that two Americas would go to vote in the presidential elections. Not just Republicans versus Democrats, or men versus women, but the America of my college days, and the America of the post 9/11 world. Actually, there is not just one America, or two Americas, but many Americas, and they criss-cross and intersect but also stand divided in more ways than a presidential vote or the Electoral College can account for.

What I knew of America told me that it was not yet ready for a woman leader. It was tired of the Clintons, who had been in the White House for eight years from 1992-2000. It was fearful of a change in the fabric of its society, where the prevailing cultural order might give way to a distribution of power unfamiliar and threatening to its upholders. It knew an existential fear brought about by economic uncertainty, but it chose to focus that fear on tangible scapegoats because it could not name as one the vague, bigger things that made it truly frightening to live in America.

In the end, the land of pioneers, cowboys, slaves and immigrants chose a strongman to rescue it from its perceived malaise, no matter the gains of Barack Obama’s presidency. Americans who supported Hillary Clinton did so because they thought she was the safe bet, and Trump the wildcard. But Americans wooed by Trump, who dreams of aligning himself with other strongmen in the world, decided to roll the dice and go for a gamble with unknown stakes.

And I, on the other side of the world, have crossed my fingers.

-Bina Shah, Pakistani writer, columnist for the New York Times and SampsoniaWay.org

  1. We contacted writers who have visited City of Asylum to ask them about their responses to the results of the 2016 United States election. We will be publishing their words as they come in. SampsoniaWay.org is dedicated to protecting writers and preserving their freedom of speech. We celebrate and uphold the voices of writers from the United States as well as from around the world.
  2. Read more responses to the 2016 US Election→

About the Author

Bina Shah is a Karachi-based journalist and fiction writer and has taught writing at the university level. She is the author of four novels and two collections of short stories. She is a columnist for two major English-language newspapers in Pakistan, The Dawn and The Express Tribune, and she has contributed to international newspapers including The Independent, The Guardian, and The International Herald Tribune. She is an alumnus of the International Writers Workshop (IWP 2011).

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