It was the early 80’s, long before the advent of internet access. Information accessibility was limited, therefore, moving to another country would be considered a journey to an unfamiliar terrain. I came to the United States as a student of Mass Media, hoping to specialize in Cinematography. Due to personal reasons, I did not continue my studies beyond 2 years at the University of D.C. I recall anxiousness and curiosity hitting me as I stepped out into Washington D.C. for the first time at just 22 years old.
My friend Ralph picked me up from Reagan National Airport in his silver BMW (my 1st time riding in one). He was playing a cassette tape of upbeat Turkish folk music. I remember it was late afternoon; the sky was clear. As we left the airport, I saw an impressive glimpse of the dome of the Capitol building and the Washington Monument. The city was open with no skyscrapers and lovely architecture with lighter colors. The weather was also pleasant when I arrived in June of 1984. This was considered the hottest month in Pakistan as temperatures reached over 100 degrees Fahrenheit numerous times a month. We promptly arrived at Ralph’s house in Capitol Hill.
My 1st meal was at a Middle Eastern restaurant named Mama Ayesha’s; a D.C. landmark. I remember devouring a lamb dish that I can’t seem to remember the name of. What stuck with me the most from that meal was trying Baklava for the first time. Middle Eastern food continued to be a staple cuisine for me as the cooking methods had similarities with dishes back home. The next day, I got out after breakfast to explore the neighborhood. I was amazed to discover that the Capitol Building and Library Of Congress were only a few blocks away. The historic Eastern Market was also at a 5-minute walking distance - which became my favorite place to shop.
1984 was a happening year as I discovered upon arrival. America was hosting the Summer Olympics, the Punk movement was very much visible on the streets, and breakdance was on display on the various sidewalks in the city. It was also the year of the presidential election. The political hustle & bustle was a pleasant change for me because when I left Pakistan, it was under military rule and political activities were almost non-existent.
While in Pakistan, I was a keen fan of Hollywood movies and American TV shows. I used to listen to famous American singers and bands and read books by writers like Harold Robbins and Sidney Sheldon. As an avid music fan, I also found the year 1984 as the epitome of 80’s music. Two songs stood out to me: Dancing in the Dark by Bruce Springsteen and When the Doves Cry by Prince. Living here in the U.S. also broadened my horizons of music interest. Within one year of arriving here, I was fortunate enough to volunteer for the Smithsonian Folklife Festival which widened my interest in listening to Blues, Bluegrass, and folk. While in college, I even took classes in Classical Music Critique that reintroduced me to classical music and made me appreciate it more.
Being a Muslim in an area where Muslim population was sparse, my biggest challenge was finding Halal food and learning to read food labels to identify non-Halal ingredients. The struggle to find Halal food continued for a few months until I discovered a few places in Arlington. Surprisingly, given the liberal area I lived in and the people I was around, I was rarely subject to discrimination. Of course, this was pre-9/11 where animosity toward Muslims was not as prevalent.
Eventually, I gained permanent resident status through a job sponsorship and became a naturalized U.S. citizen a few years later. Since my very first day, I saw how the DMV area has become much more diversified as more South Asian populations have migrated here and made their own communities. I was fortunate enough to have a pleasant welcome to the U.S., making a great beginning in creating the rest of my life here.