Interview with Maliha Masood

This week’s Best Women’s Travel Writing 2010 contributor was born in Pakistan, is fluent in French, is married to an Italian, and considers herself a cultural chameleon: Maliha Masood. She is the author of Zaatar Days, Henna Nights, a travel memoir about her riveting escape from a dotcom Seattle cubicle to a solo expedition across Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and Turkey for one tumultuous year. Visit her website at http://www.maliha-masood.com.

What is “home” for you? Is it a particular place or person or thing?

Oh boy. I have wrestled with this for a long time. During my teens, I thought my home was in Karachi, Pakistan where I grew up as a child. When my father decided to immigrate to America, I was forced to say goodbye to all my friends, girls I had known from kindergarten to the fifth grade, whose faces I would probably never see again. And I had no idea how my life would be forever altered by that momentous decision. I was leaving behind everything that had made me who I was up to the age of twelve. We moved to Seattle, WA where I had to reinvent myself and adapt to a whole new culture and place. It was not as rough as it sounds. I have always been pretty flexible and actually enjoy the cultural gymnastics between East and West. My Karachi upbringing had trained me to put on many different hats and I never felt any contradictions. So to give you an example, I would read the Quran in Arabic with a religious scholar from the mosque on Friday afternoons and the next day, I would be at a party dancing to Abba and Travolta and come Monday morning at school, I might be reciting verses by Keats and Blake in Elocution class. It was all a great mish mash of cultures and I felt equally at home in all of them.

So coming to Seattle all the way from Karachi was not all that traumatic. But that move ruptured my sense of home as a physical entity, a place that had to do with land and geography. I felt stranded across continents and not quite sure where I belonged at first. My biggest challenge was getting rid of my Anglicized accent because I wanted to fit in and not stand out as the obvious foreigner with a hard to pronounce name from a country that my schoolmates were clueless about. So I spent a great deal of time watching reruns of “Brady Bunch” and trying to perfect Marcia’s American accent. I saw the episodes so many times that one point I might as well have lived with the Brady’s so I guess they signify a sort of voyeuristic home.

Maliha Masood

My other sense of home is nature. I have always loved mountains and Pakistan has some of the most stupendous mountain ranges anywhere in the world, but it was in Seattle that I actually got to experience them up close with backpacking trips and day hikes around Mount Rainier. There’s actually a family joke that we came to the States all because my father fell in love with this dormant Northwest volcano. So in that sense, home to me will always be linked with what we call The Mountain.

Now that I’m married with a child of my own, I will have to say that the ultimate home is family, not just the one you inherit but the one you choose and create on your own terms. My husband’s roots are Italian and I have an enduring love affair with Italy where I have traveled extensively. I also feel a home by virtue of language, not just in my mother tongue which is Urdu, a blend of Persian, Arabic and Turkish, but in French, which I learned in college but which I truly learned to speak by living in Paris for one summer where I had to find an apartment, get a job and pay bills and all those things made a deep impact in forging a certain belonging to a place that will always feel like a second home.

My other home, and this is a long long conversation that we can’t possibly get to here, but I think it’s important for people to know that as a Pakistani, I’m deeply connected to India. It’s where my parents were born and raised and all of my mother’s family is still there so I have a small platoon of aunts, uncles, cousins in Bombay or Mumbai as we now know it. Pakistan was actually created by the partition of India back in 1947, and my Dad’s side of the family came to represent the mohajirs, Muslim migrants from India who settled in Pakistan but whose roots at the very core were entirely Indian. I sometimes consider my Pakistani birth as an accident of history. And it is very hard for me to speak of Pakistan without mentioning India because I am a product of both places. So you see, this whole business of home is not so easy to nail down. As most immigrants, I feel at home everywhere and yet nowhere all at the same time.

Maliha Masood

When did you first hit the road? How did it go?

My Dad worked for Swissair Airlines and I remember as a child spending a great deal of time at Karachi International Airport watching the planes take off and land. I was fascinated by the beauty of flight and flying in those days was a pretty glamorous affair. My first official trip overseas was to England when I was just three years old. My parents then took me to see some friends in Nairobi, Kenya. I remember going on a jeep safari and how a little lion cub perched on the hood of the car and refused to leave. I never traveled much in Pakistan while growing up there. It was always trips abroad and my mom still talks to this day of how I left her all alone in a leaky house during monsoon season just to see America as a tourist back in 1978 four years before we immigrated. I was 8 years old at the time. And I had a blast.

How did you break into the travel writing scene?

I broke into the scene by publishing the very first thing I ever wrote. It was my travel memoir about the Middle East. I was compelled to write the book to share this very empowering journey in a part of the world we routinely associate with fear and violence and also because I returned home to the States exactly 10 days before September 11. I had to reconcile two different realities, the one in my head which was very positive and uplifting and one in the public perception which was largely negative and riddled with confusion and suspicion. I had no experience as a travel writer much less as a writer. I had no detailed notes or records to start with. I simply started jotting down my memories of the places and people I encountered and so it literally is a memoir written five years after the journey happened plus the two years it took to try to put in print and I am still somewhat amazed at how it all happened.

Maliha Masood

What travel story will you still be telling your pals in the nursing home?

I’ve had many hairy experiences, most of which were a result of walking a fine line between adventure and stupidity, but I would have to say the story I would keep on reciting ad infinitum is when I was detained by the Turkish military deep in the mountains of Eastern Turkey and accused of being a Kurdish spy. I won’t go into in all the gory details. You’ll just have to read the book!

Let’s say you could take a free trip with anyone of your choosing (a historical figure, an ancestor, a super hero, etc). Who would it be, where would you go, and why?

I would like to accompany the North African explorer/adventurer Ibn Batuta and trace his route from Morocco to the Silk Road across Asia. It’s a part of the world that fascinates me in terms of all the cultural diversity and physical beauty.

Name one place that should top everyone’s travel dream list, be it a nation or a landmark or a village.

The Taj Mahal.

Maliha Masood

What specific travel resources (websites, guidebooks, blogs, etc) do you always consult when planning a journey?

In the old days when I was single and more footloose, my travel Bible was Lonely Planet. These days, I would be more likely to consult websites and magazines listing family resorts and eco tours where someone else does all the planning.

Which travel writers or books have been especially inspirational to you?

I like Pico Iyer and his witty, insightful comments on global travel. Three of my all time favorite women travel writers are Freya Stark, Beryl Markham, and Leila Hadley. Their descriptions of people and places are so rich and colorful. You feel as if you’re traveling right alongside them in the comfort of your pajamas.

What is the hardest lesson you’ve learned on the road?

That travel is just a roundabout but necessary means to discover what you always had at home.

What advice can you offer to women with itchy feet?

Don’t hold yourself back because of fear or uncertainty. You have to surrender to the journey.

Zaatar Days Henna Nights

One Comment

  1. Kudos on the latest Best Women’s Travel Writing! (My story was featured in the 2009 edition, which I recently noticed in the window of an small bookstore in Mt. Shasta, alongside a bunch of other travel books.) I appreciate Maliha’s concepts of home (heritage, upbringing, family, nature, language)and will check out her book.

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