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Wajahat Ali on humor, identity and finding the ‘Amreekan’ dream

The writer and commentator’s new memoir, “Go Back to Where You Came From,” details love, loss and the duality of being Pakistani American.
Image:  Huffington Post host Wajahat Ali  in New York on Monday, Oct. 21, 2016.
Former media host and contributor Wajahat Ali in New York on Monday, Oct. 21, 2016.Damon Dahlen / Huffington Post

As the son of two Pakistani Muslim immigrants, Wajahat Ali, who was born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area, grew up speaking Urdu and only knew three phrases in English before he started school: “idiot,” “shut up” and “Uh oh, SpaghettiO.” 

He later graduated with a bachelor’s degree in English from the University of California, Berkeley and became a playwright, writer, nonpracticing lawyer and media personality.

“I’ve achieved both the American dream and I’ve also lived through some parts of the American nightmare,” Ali told NBC Asian America.

Image: "Go Back to Where You Came From," by Wajahat Ali.
"Go Back to Where You Came From," by Wajahat Ali.W. W. Norton & Company

Ali detailed the duality of being Pakistani and American in his memoir, “Go Back to Where You Came From: And Other Helpful Recommendations on How To Become American,” which was released last month. The book examines various aspects of his life — from his parents’ emigration from Karachi, Pakistan, to his birth and childhood in Fremont, California; his young adulthood during the post-9/11 era; and his family life, including his young daughter’s harrowing experience with liver cancer.

Ali said there’s a perpetual “tug of war” between xenophobia and acceptance in the U.S. for immigrants and the children of immigrants.

“You’re ‘us’ until suddenly you’re ‘them,’” he wrote. 

Each chapter title provides tongue-in-cheek advice on how to become “American,” including “Be Moderate so America Will (Maybe) Love You (Conditionally) One Day (Inshallah)” and “Invest in Hope, but Tie Your Camel First.”

He scattered Urdu words and phrases throughout his writing, such as “Amreeka” for America and “dadi” for his paternal grandmother. He also used the direct English translation of the common saying that someone is “eating my brain,” which means someone is annoying you.

He said he rejects the advice he received in the past to make sure his content is digestible for white Americans.

“So many people, especially non-Desi and white readers, have appreciated the fact that I didn’t dumb down the language for them,” he said.

To start the book, he reprinted some of the Islamophobic and xenophobic hate mail he’s received.

He recalled how the 9/11 attacks directly impacted his life, including the 2002 arrest of his parents during the United States’ Operation Cyberstorm, the largest anti-piracy sweep in the FBI’s history. 

The Justice Department alleged that his parents were a part of a scheme to defraud Microsoft Corp. by obtaining discounted software under false pretenses. They were convicted in 2006 on 30 counts of conspiracy, mail fraud, wire fraud and money laundering and spent nearly five years in prison, but Ali said his parents, like many Muslims in the U.S. at the time, were unfairly targeted.

It’s the first time Ali has detailed this part of his past — he said he had wanted to protect their privacy — but he said it’s been cathartic to finally share it. “It was a big piece of the puzzle that was not shared publicly,” he said. 

Ali, who also wrote the play “The Domestic Crusaders,” used humor throughout the memoir, even when addressing heavy topics such as the unfair expectations set on minorities.

“Immigrants, people of color, and women learn early that in order to make it in Amreeka you have to daft punk it through life. You have to do everything harder, better, faster, stronger, and smarter,” he wrote in Chapter 1.

Humor is an evolutionary tool people need to cope with the pain of living, he said. It’s also a useful strategy for starting conversations about difficult subjects.

“People are more open to entertaining otherwise hostile conversations, so it’s a fantastic Trojan horse for me to use from time to time to have these types of difficult conversations,” he said.

Ali said he could have written his memoir years ago but found the inspiration and time to write during the pandemic.

“During the pandemic, I just felt like this book is a really culturally specific story that I’m using to kind of connect the dots about America. I just felt it so much,” he said.

Toward the end of the book, he recounts when, in 2019, his daughter Nusayba was diagnosed with stage 4 hepatoblastoma, a rare form of cancer found in children, and her lifesaving liver transplant at age 3. She received the transplant after 500 people, mostly strangers, offered to donate a piece of their liver after seeing his plea for a living donor on CNN, where he was formerly a contributor.

“There were people who volunteered their liver, their money, and their kindness who actively loathed my politics. I know because they told me,” Ali wrote. “It was important for me to experience this because I was becoming bitter and losing my faith in so many of my fellow Americans.”

Ali said sometimes “honest and ugly” conversations are needed to make the U.S. a better place.

“This book is ultimately an act of hope that is meant to push and expand this country’s narrative and include the rest of us as co-protagonists because I sincerely believe it is the only way we will exist as a multiracial democracy,” he said.