Uncle Samir

by Aatif Rashid

Aatif Rashid is the author of the novel Portrait of Sebastian Khan (2019). His short stories have appeared in various literary magazines, and he teaches creative writing through the UCLA Extension Writers Program and Catapult.

The first time I remember meeting my uncle Samir, or Samir Mamoo as I always called him, was in January of 1991, just after Operation Desert Storm began. The TV in our suburban house was always on in those days, my dad watching intently with a concerned look in his eyes, and as a result I always associated Samir Mamoo with those news reports from Iraq, the helicopters flying out against a setting sun, the nighttime scenes of Baghdad lit green and flashing with missile fire. In truth, Samir Mamoo never talked about the war during that visit and mostly drank tea and reminisced with my mom at our kitchen table. But I was only six back then, and childhood memories fuse in strange ways, and so to me Samir Mamoo was somehow connected with the quiet despair emanating from the television during those weeks, a sense of unease that hid somewhere behind his bristly moustache and mirthful expression.

Samir Mamoo had immigrated to America in the late 1960s, and as a result, he’d been an American longer than me. He never seemed fully at home in this country, however, and throughout my childhood whenever I saw him, he and my mom would always speak longingly of Pakistan in Urdu. My mom rarely spoke Urdu otherwise, but when she saw her brother, she slipped back to that childhood language, and she was no longer the doctor with two children living an upper-middle class life in the San Francisco Bay Area, but a little girl again in Karachi, sharing a small house with four brothers. For my mom, though, it was a passing nostalgia, and she could easily return to her life in the present—but for Samir Mamoo, the spell cast by the sound of Urdu lingered long after he and my mom had stopped speaking, and I could see it in his face as he sat in our kitchen, his clouded eyes staring off into space, his tea growing cold on the table, his mind still lost in the memories of his old country.

Samir Mamoo had married twice, but for as long as I’d known him, he’d been divorced and living alone in an apartment in a suburb of St. Louis, not far from Boeing where he worked as an engineer. He had two children, both of whom went on to be doctors in the New York area, but he rarely saw them, nor either of his ex-wives. If anything, it was with our family that he maintained a much closer connection, always sending my brother and I gifts and calling us on our birthdays, even after we’d moved out and gone to college.

Samir Mamoo had married twice, but for as long as I’d known him, he’d been divorced and living alone in an apartment in a suburb of St. Louis.

“Come visit me in St. Louis sometime!” he would say.

“I will,” I assured him. “One of these days.”

It wasn’t until August of 2021 that I finally made real plans to visit. The pandemic was ebbing then, at least among the vaccinated, and Joe Biden had just decided to pull all remaining American troops out of Afghanistan. I was living in New York at the time, teaching creative writing at a small college just outside the city, and my girlfriend Natasha and I had taken a trip to Nashville for the wedding of one of her high school friends. Before going back, we decided to rent a car and go visit my uncle in St. Louis.

“Don’t tell him she’s your girlfriend,” my mom said over the phone, when I told her my plans. “Just say friend.”

“Mom, I’m not going to lie.”

“Please, Imran, he wouldn’t understand. He’s of an older generation, and he doesn’t approve of this American relationship stuff.” She hung up before I could protest further. 

“What was that about?” Natasha asked.

“Oh, nothing. Just my mom saying hi.”

We were in the hotel in Nashville, and Natasha was putting on makeup in the bathroom mirror. She was wearing a skirt that came down to her mid-thigh, and while I thought it looked fantastic, I realized that it showed off quite a bit of her long legs. I thought of what my mom had said and worried suddenly about how my uncle would react. I didn’t say anything to Natasha, though, out of fear that she would get offended

The drive to St. Louis was about five hours, but we got a late start and didn’t leave till noon. At first it was relaxing, and we rolled the windows down and let some local country music station soothe us into a mellow reverie, while outside we admired how green the trees were and how blue the sky was, much bigger and bluer than it had ever looked in New York, as if the closer we got to the centre of the country, the brighter the colours and the more vivid and startling the world. But as we neared St. Louis, we hit rush-hour traffic, and soon we slowed to a crawl, and we had to roll up the windows to keep out the smell of exhaust. By the time we were in the city and crossing the Mississippi River, the sun had set, and the Gateway Arch, which we’d been excited to see, was just a faint curve of silver against the backdrop of a dull black sky.

Eventually, we arrived in the suburb where my uncle lived. Natasha looked nervous, and when we parked and stepped out onto the quiet street, she pulled her skirt down self-consciously.

“Everything all right?” I asked.

“I don’t know. I’m just worried how he’ll react, you know?”

“What do you mean?”

“You know. A Muslim man being introduced to his nephew’s girlfriend.”

“I think lots of Muslim men have nephews with girlfriends.”

“You know what I mean. You told me he’s pretty conservative.”

I shared Natasha’s uneasiness, of course, but I did my best to appear nonchalant. 

“It’s going to be fine. He’s lived in the US for most of his life at this point.” 

Natasha didn’t look reassured, though, and she pulled once again at the hem of her skirt. I locked the rental car, and we turned to my uncle’s apartment. The neighbourhood was quite nice, tastefully understated and upper-middle class—there were trees everywhere, lush, green trees with low-hanging branches, and red brick houses that looked like a picturesque image of cozy Americana. My uncle’s building was the only apartment complex on the block, but it looked similar to the surrounding houses, with a brick exterior, white windows, and a path to the entrance flanked by two well-maintained lawns. There was no gate, and we found his door and rang the bell. 

“Do you think I should have worn something less revealing?” Natasha asked.

“You look great,” I said, touching her on the waist. “You know I love you in a skirt.”

She gave me one of her sultry smiles and leaned in for a kiss. Just then, the door opened, and we pulled away quickly. Samir Mamoo stood there, looking just as I remembered—the thinning hair, the moustache, the wire-frame glasses, the slight pot belly on his otherwise lanky frame, and that twinkle in his small eyes, that sense of ironic amusement that had always made him seem wise, as well as the masked despair that I recalled from those memories of the flickering television.

“As-salamu alaykum, Imran!”

“Wa alaykum as-salam.”

Samir Mamoo gave me a big hug. “My God, you’ve really gotten older,” he said. As always, I was struck by his voice, the Pakistani accent rounded out with a vaguely Midwestern twang. “It’s the beard I think,” he added.

“Well, I’m 35 now,” I said.

“Oh, wow. 35?” He stared at me as if he couldn’t believe it.

“This is Natasha,” I said, gesturing her forward and trying not to be tentative. “My girlfriend.”

She reached out her hand and Samir Mamoo shook it, though he appeared disconcerted by the word “girlfriend.” “Nice to meet you,” he said. He looked briefly at me with what I thought was a frown and then gestured us inside. “Well, come on in. Dinner’s ready if you’re hungry.”

We stepped inside his apartment, and I noted the familiar smell of Indian spices in the air, an aroma which brought me instantly back to childhood, to the food my mom and dad would cook, chicken salan, keema aloo, biriyani, yellow dal. We took our shoes off in the entryway and then followed Samir Mamoo into the living room. 

His apartment was small and very sparsely furnished. There was a worn leather couch, an old wooden coffee table, a flat-screen TV, and on the far side of the room, a single bookshelf with a scattering of volumes, mostly contemporary history books on Pakistan. The only piece of art was a small photo of a mosque, a fortress-like red brick building with a huge dome and four square minarets. 

“That’s beautiful,” Natasha said, pointing to the photo. “Where is it from?”

“Oh, it’s just a mosque in Lahore,” Samir Mamoo said. “It’s a photo I took when I was young.” Despite her compliment, he still wasn’t smiling, and he stood some distance away from us. “Anyway, I have one bed in the guest room,” he said, gesturing to a door at the other end of the living room. “And Imran, you can sleep on the couch, if that’s okay.”

“Oh, the guest bed should be fine for both of us,” Natasha said.

Samir Mamoo stared at her and then at me. I could tell he wanted to say something, so I jumped in before he could. “We’ll be fine in the guest room,” I said. “Thanks.”

Samir Mamoo nodded, but didn’t look happy. “Have you prayed yet?” he asked.

“Oh. No, I—”

“Should we say Maghrib then?” He looked at his watch. “There’s still some time.” He looked at me expectantly. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Natasha’s brows furrowing.

“Actually, I did pray,” I said, as if remembering. “Back in Nashville, before we left.”

In truth, I hadn’t prayed for years, since I’d stopped being religious in middle school, but I felt guilty under Samir Mamoo’s stern gaze, as if I were letting him down. I noticed Natasha staring at me in surprise.

Samir Mamoo’s eyes narrowed. “It was too early, no? You left in the afternoon. Still Asr time.”

“Yeah, I just read it with Asr. Since we’re travelling.”

Samir Mamoo’s frown deepened, but he didn’t pursue the subject. “Okay. Let me pray, and then we’ll eat.”

In truth, I hadn’t prayed for years, since I’d stopped being religious in middle school, but I felt guilty under Samir Mamoo’s stern gaze, as if I were letting him down.

Natasha and I went into the guest room, and I closed the door behind us and then turned to face her. “What the hell was that about?” she asked in a low voice.

“It’s hard to explain. I just … I feel bad lying to him.”

“You did lie to him.”

“I mean, I feel bad telling him that … that I’m not religious.”

“I’m sure he knows, Imran.”

“It’s just easier this way. Okay?”

Natasha shook her head. “Also, if he’s going to be this awkward about us sharing a bed, maybe we should just go to a hotel.”

“He’ll get over it, okay? I’m sure his own sons have girlfriends, too.”

Natasha looked unconvinced, but went into the bathroom to wash her face. When she came back out, I saw that she’d removed her eyeliner and had pulled her hair back in a ponytail.

“You don’t have to do that,” I said. “I like your hair better when it’s down.”

“You should have told me he was this religious. I could have packed a hijab or something.”

“And pretend you were Muslim? I think that would really make him mad. Plus, we’d have to give you a Muslim name.”

“Would that turn you on?” She put her scarf over her head and walked up to me, batting her eyelashes. “Should I be wife number one? Or is it sexier if I’m wife three or four?”

“Stop,” I said. “It’s not funny.”

Natasha’s face fell. “Sorry,” she said, looking away and taking off the scarf. “Just trying to lighten the fucking mood.” 

When we emerged from the guest room, Samir Mamoo was on the couch, watching CNN. They were covering the withdrawal from Afghanistan, which they’d been doing non-stop for weeks, and as I glanced at the TV and saw images of helicopters flying over cities and mountains rising in the distance, I remembered again how when I’d met Samir Mamoo, Operation Desert Storm had been taking place and similar images had been flashing across American televisions. That had been 30 years ago and we’d been occupying a different country, but it felt like it was the same war that was finally coming to an end.

“Sorry, I hope you don’t mind,” Samir Mamoo said. “I can’t stop watching this.”

“The coverage has been awful, hasn’t it?” Natasha said. “The press is so pro-war it makes me sick.”

“Oh yeah, they’re horrible,” Samir said. “But war is good for their profits, you know. How are they going to scare Americans into patriotism if there’s no Taliban attacking their soldiers?”

I felt relieved that Natasha and my uncle were bonding over something—anti-imperialism was apparently one of the few things that could unite an American leftist and a Pakistani conservative. When we sat down at the kitchen table, though, and Samir Mamoo served us the biryani and chicken salan that he’d made, we started talking about other things, and it was hard to steer the discussion back to politics.

“So where do you work again?” Samir Mamoo asked. “Your mom said something about teaching creative writing?”

“Yeah, I do adjunct work at a college outside the city.”

“So you’re a professor.”

“Technically, no. But that’s basically what I do.”

“And does that kind of work pay well?”

“No. Not really.”

I’d forgotten how direct my family could be sometimes around the question of money. Samir frowned and then took a bit of roti and dal. We chewed in silence for a while before he turned to Natasha. “And what do you do, Natasha?”

“I work at a museum. At the Met.”

Samir Mamoo looked impressed. “So you’re a curator.”

“Oh, no.” Natasha laughed. “No, I’m just an intern.”

“An intern? At your age?”

Natasha looked offended. “I’m only 34. A few of the interns are older. The program is meant for people after grad school.”

“You should be making a decent salary at 34.”

Natasha stared at him almost in disbelief, and her eyebrows narrowed in a way I’d come to recognize. I was actually impressed at how calm she seemed. Once, at a dinner party with a few mutual friends, someone had said something disparaging about art history majors, and she’d lashed out at him so severely that he’d stayed silent the rest of the meal. At the time, I remember her anger had turned me on, but now I worried about things boiling over.

“Things are different now, Samir Mamoo,” I said quickly. “It’s much harder to get a job these days.”

“You should have studied engineering,” he said. “There are lots of jobs in coding. Your cousin Nasir, he just moved here from Pakistan, and he’s already making six figures.”

We fell into silence again. I took a bite of biryani and wondered how I could circle the conversation back to Afghanistan, which felt like a much less fraught topic than family politics.

“So you’re 34?” Samir Mamoo asked, turning back to Natasha.

“Yeah,” Natasha said, looking irritated. “Why?”

“And you’re 35?” he said, turning to me.

“Yeah,” I said, not seeing yet where this was going.

“You know, I’d already had Masood and Saad when I was 35. And even that was pretty late. Your mother was only 26 when she had you, right?”

“27,” I said.

“Well we’re not planning on having kids,” Natasha said. “So that’s not an issue.”

Samir Mamoo stared at her in horror now, as if she’d just profaned the Quran. “What? Why?”

“Well, where to start?” Natasha said with a laugh. “First of all, we barely make enough money to support ourselves, let alone kids. Second, one of us would have to quit our job, since this fucking country doesn’t offer paid family leave. And third, the planet’s going to die soon anyway, so I don’t even really see the point.”

To my surprise, Samir Mamoo started laughing. Natasha’s face grew red. “Did I say something funny?” she asked.

“You’re all such children,” Samir said, shaking his head. “You think your lives are so hard and that it’s impossible, impossible, to have kids. Well, I had kids, and I guarantee you my life was much harder than yours.”

“Samir Mamoo, please—” I said.

“I came to this country with no money. You know that, right? No money. I had a degree, but all the jobs I applied to wouldn’t recognize it as valid, so I had to go to college again. I worked as a busboy seven days a week to pay my tuition.”

“Well, you’re lucky you grew up in a time when a minimum wage job could pay for college,” Natasha said.

“Okay, let’s not fight,” I said, putting my hands up. “Yes, there are ways in which our lives are easier than yours, but there are also ways in which they’re harder—”

Samir Mamoo laughed again and leaned back in his chair. “Listen to yourself,” he said. “You get to decide what you want to do, your mother and father pay for your degree, and you still complain that your life is hard? You don’t know the first thing about hardship. Where I grew up, in Pakistan, back then—that was real hardship. You can never understand what me and your mother pulled ourselves up from. And now you tell me you don’t want to have kids? We had kids. We sacrificed to have kids. But God forbid your generation sacrifices anything.” 

Beside me, Natasha was shaking her head, and I was afraid she was going to start talking about how having kids was not some selfless act, how it was actually the most selfish thing a person could do, trying to create something that you had power over, that you could control. I knew her so well that I could already hear the words in my head even though she was still silent. I didn’t really disagree with her, but I wanted to defuse the situation. 

“Listen,” I said, looking back at Samir Mamoo. “I’m sorry. We’re just not ready to have kids yet, okay? But … one day, when we have enough money, and we have a sense of stability—”

Natasha let out a sharp sigh and stood up from the table. “I’m tired of this,” she said. “I need to get some air.”

“Wait, Natasha—”

“What do you mean, ‘one day’? We’ve talked about this Imran. I am never having kids, okay? Never.

“Okay, I’m sorry—”

“If you really want kids, then you’re with the wrong person.”

She turned and strode into the hallway, picking up her shoes on the way. “Where are you going?” I asked, following her to the door.

She reached up and undid her hair. “I want to take a walk.” 

“Natasha, you don’t know these streets—”

“Just give me some fucking space!” she shouted.

She slammed the door on her way out, and the TV rattled a bit on its stand. I turned back to Samir Mamoo, feeling both embarrassed and guilty. “I’m so sorry,” I said. “I shouldn’t have said that thing about—”

“It’s fine,” Samir said smiling and waving his hand as if nothing had happened. “When you get married, you’ll have to get used to things like that.”

We sat down on the couch and Samir Mamoo unmuted the TV, and we listened for a while to the solemn voices of the CNN anchors.

“Shouldn’t you go look for her?” Samir Mamoo asked, after a few minutes.

“I can use Find My Phone to locate her,” I said. “This isn’t the first time she’s done this.”

Samir Mamoo looked amused, but then his mirth slowly melted into a grave expression. “You really need to get your life together, Imran.”

“What do you mean?”

“You know what I mean. Dating a girl before marriage. Dating a non-Muslim. Working a job that barely makes you any money. There’s no future in any of this.”

“My life is fine. It’s the life I want.”

He shook his head. “You’ve become just like Masood and Saad. Just another American.”

“That’s because we are Americans. We were all born here, you know.”

“No!” He turned to me, his finger out. “You are Pakistani! Do you understand? You will always be Pakistani.”

“Mamoo, I’ve only been to Pakistan once, and I don’t even remember it.”

“How can you say that? After everything America has done to Muslim countries for the last 30 years? Iraq, Afghanistan, Iraq again, Libya. Humiliation after humiliation! Now it’s what? 20 years of terrorizing Afghanistan and they’re pulling out, leaving it in shambles, letting the Taliban take power again.”

“You know I didn’t support any of those wars. A lot of Americans didn’t. And anyway, you’re American too, aren’t you? You’ve lived in this country since the ’60s. You’ve been American longer than I have.”

“I’ve never felt at home here,” he said. 

He let out a breath. He looked old to me in that moment, an old man who’d witnessed too much in his life, and against the backdrop of his spare apartment, he seemed a very lonely figure. 40 years in America, and this was all he had to show for it—in the end, as alone as when he’d first arrived.

“I’m moving back to Pakistan,” he said suddenly.

“What?” I thought I’d misheard him.

“Boeing is forcing me to retire. I’m too old to work, they say. There’s a lot of young hotshot engineers these days.”

“But … why Pakistan? Why not just stay here?”

“I don’t want to live here. I told you, I’ve never felt at home here. And anyway, I couldn’t afford to if I wanted to. I have no savings, and most of my retirement money will go to Batool and Farzana because of the divorces. My brother Khaled has a spare room in his house in Karachi. They need someone to help them watch their kids, so … it’ll be for the best.”

I couldn’t believe it. As the son of immigrants, I felt it was wrong somehow, as if by going back, Samir Mamoo was admitting defeat. I had always taken for granted the idea of being American and had assumed other people felt the same way, even someone like Samir Mamoo. Even if for him, this was only an adopted country. But now I realized that maybe I’d been wrong—maybe Samir Mamoo had never seen himself as American. Maybe there’d always been some distance there, a distance that didn’t exist for someone like me.

“But wait,” I said. “What about Masood and Saad? They’re doctors! Surely they can give you money, so you can stay here. Or my mom. I’m sure she would help you out.”

“I don’t want to ask them. I couldn’t live with it. You don’t have kids, so you wouldn’t understand. And your mom—I don’t want to burden her with my failures.” He gave me an anguished look. “Please don’t tell her. Let her think I’m still here in St. Louis. I’ll tell her on my own time.”

He turned back to the TV, but I couldn’t stop staring at him, at his profile silhouetted in the glow of the screen, the gaunt cheeks, the slope of his nose, the moustache drooping over his lip. “This is crazy,” I said, shaking my head.

Samir Mamoo put up his hands. “I did my best here, Imran. I wish it could be different, but … sometimes things don’t work out the way you hoped.”

Samir Mamoo stood up and went to clear the plates from the table. I offered to help him but he told me he was fine, so I went out to the rental car to find Natasha. 

The Find My Phone app said she was about ten minutes away. I drove carefully, mindful of any neighbourhood cats. Eventually, I found her walking down a sidewalk under a row of trees, her shoes still in her hand. She was reaching up and touching the overhanging branches one by one, and the whimsy of it stirred my heart, the way she had to leap for some of the higher ones, the light skip in her step. When she saw my car, she stopped and crossed her arms over her chest. I parked and stepped out onto the sidewalk. It was colder than I’d expected, and I shivered as I approached her.

“Hey,” I said.

“Hey,” she said.

“Are you okay?”

“No.”

“I’m sorry.”

I gave her a hug, and she let me hold her body close to mine. She was shivering and I rubbed my hands across her back. She rested her head on my shoulder and then nestled her face into my neck. Behind us was a stretch of lawn and beyond that an elementary school. It was a brick building like all the others in the neighbourhood, with a stately row of windows and an American flag fluttering out front.

She was reaching up and touching the overhanging branches one by one, and the whimsy of it stirred my heart, the way she had to leap for some of the higher ones, the light skip in her step.

“Did you mean what you said?” Natasha asked. “About having kids.” 

“No. It was just to placate my uncle.” I could tell she didn’t believe me, but she didn’t say anything else about it.

“I’m sorry for getting so angry,” she said.

“Don’t worry. I understand.” 

We sat for a while on the curb and stared out past the parked car and at the quiet streets beyond, the brick houses looking so grand in the darkness, like mausoleums of old kings. I thought of the life we’d chosen, and the life Samir Mamoo had chosen, and then wondered if, despite everything, I might end up like him one day, alone in an apartment and longing for the past.

“Can we stay in a hotel tonight?” Natasha asked. “I don’t know if I want to go back.”

“He’s moving to Pakistan,” I said. “This might be the last time I see him.”

“So? I didn’t think you guys were that close.”

“We’re not. It’s just … you know what, never mind.”

We found a hotel nearby, and I dropped Natasha off. I told her I was going back to pick up our stuff, but really, I wanted to say goodbye to Samir Mamoo one more time.

On the way, I passed by the elementary school again, and I slowed down to stare at the American flag. It made me think, for some reason, of when Samir Mamoo had first arrived here, back in the 1960s. I imagined him stepping off the plane and seeing that flag flying above the airport terminal. How alive he must have felt, I thought, staring at those symbolic stars and stripes. How alive as he stepped off that plane and onto the soil of his new home.


Aatif Rashid is the author of the novel Portrait of Sebastian Khan (2019). His short stories have appeared in various literary magazines, and he teaches creative writing through the UCLA Extension Writers Program and Catapult.

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