Sunday, March 18, 2012
Imagine sitting in the passenger seat of a car with no airbags, stopped in the middle of a busy road in Lahore, Pakistan. Imagine the feeling of impending doom foreshadowed by every honk and holler of the cars surrounding you. Imagine sitting in this car with a drunk, accused embezzler as your driver. Imagine trying to comprehend all of this at the age of 9.
It was scary to say the least. This driver wasn't just an accused criminal, he was my uncle, Aga Matloob Khan.
The first time I met my uncle was when he had recently been bailed out of prison. I didn't have any idea what his personality would be like, but when he came to pick my mother and I from the airport, I do remember being afraid to even shake his hand - not only because he was a stranger, but because he had just gotten out of jail. He, along with 20 other bank officials, were accused of having misappropriated Rs. 280 million of Emirates Bank - approximately 3 million US Dollars. As alleged by the prosecution, Pakistan's National Accountability Bureau, they forged the signatures of another bank official on a draft and cashed it in another bank account subsequently. Among the co-accused was his brother, my other uncle, Mansoob Khan. He had been jailed while fighting for his brother's case, but was soon bailed.
On April 30th, 2004, my uncle, Aga Matloob, was bailed after adhering to the direction to depositing two bail bonds of Rs 500,000 each.
In 2005, there I was. In the middle of the night in Lahore, Pakistan, probably one of the busiest cities in the entire world. At a halt because I was upset that he had been drinking that night. Sitting in the passenger seat of a car with my uncle, recently bailed, drunk - as the driver.
But that was 2005.
My uncle was someone who had faced a ton of challenges to be where he was at that moment. At that age, I was unable to fathom his adversities.
As I look back, I realize his attitude was what allowed him to persevere and learn from his mistakes. Despite all the obstacles - his own brother being jailed fighting for his case, his father passing away and him not being able to go to the funeral -- my uncle remained hopeful for a better day in which he could learn from his mistakes and move on.
He even realized that his past might make life hard for his family, so he separated from his wife hoping for a better future for their baby daughter. He was forced to make these sacrifices for the rehabilitation and recovery of his life and the lives of those he loved.
His optimistic outlook structured his life, and inspired mine. But with optimism, comes courage. The prison system in Pakistan has many flaws, including using methods of torture to gather intelligence. It is hard to imagine what my uncle and his family had to go through during his years in prison.
When I was younger, my mother always showed me a picture of him sitting in the cafeteria area of the prison. I remember the smile on his face even though he was sitting in the middle of an institution of torture. I remember the stories I was told about my grandmother, God bless her soul, sending him home-made food that never reached him because the prison guards ate it instead. It was a horrifying vision that sounded like something out of a movie, but it was reality. My uncle never refuted to the demands of his inmates and prison guards alike. His courage to face the brutality of the Pakistani prison system has taught me to put my problems into perspective.
The first week or two of my trip in 2005 to Pakistan, I absolutely disregarded my uncle's presence. I realize now that I was quick to assume his personality only by his negative traits. I didn't consider his ability to overcome adversity, or his courage to face tough times. I was biased by the one opinion that I was taught to carry throughout my childhood - that anyone and everyone who is jailed is "bad". Recognizing the importance of my uncle's journey allowed me to realize the importance of being objective. Living in a society where everybody carries their own set of stereotypes, it is necessary that we as humans learn to dismiss bias and enforce open-mindedness.
It takes a lot of courage to face the truth and benefit from it. Whether or not he did actually embezzle is not the point, but it is still something that I, or he can't look over. Although my uncle went through many negative experiences, of which many consequences he knows he deserved, he has left a positive mark on my life permanently.
The fear I felt in that car when I was sitting with him halted in the middle of the street is indescribable - but that moment in time has left an unbelievably positive mark on me. That night, we got home safely, and my uncle took me into his room. Despite my age at that time, I was able to infiltrate his mind into realizing his mistakes. He broke into tears and apologized.
There is a quote from Khaled Hosseini's novel, The Kite Runner, that says: "There is a way to be good again". My uncle, having more faults than a map of earthquakes, was able to overcome adversity and now, help another child be raised the right way after the loss of his own daughter. Today, he lives his life with his new family, with one goal - to make sure his following generation doesn't make the mistakes he made in his past.
Little does he know, thousands of miles away, I am living proof that his goal has already been achieved.