"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
“God keep you in his protection.”
My bure abu sits in the early morning in his home here in the historic city of Lahore, as the sun warms the new day with its light. He is my father’s eldest brother and he says goodbye to his 31-year-old son in Dover, N.H., through a skinny microphone that broadcasts his voice over the continents and oceans through Microsoft’s Hotmail. They have discussed the latest about America’s potential partnership with the Afghani Northern Alliance, plus, as static buzzed between them, whether to chat on Yahoo or Hotmail.
Raised in Pakistan, my cousin came to my hometown of Morgantown, W. Va., seven years ago to earn his master’s degree in engineering before starting work in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and then moving not long ago to a new job on the East Coast.
This is the reality of the new war that looms over the world. It is no longer a day like the reconquista when Queen Isabella slaughtered anonymous Muslims and Jews in Spain if they refused to convert to Christianity. It is no longer Us versus Them. Or, in this case, U.S. versus Them. We are them. They are us.
My dadi (grandmother) comes into the room and sits in front of the Philips desktop computer, now encased in clear plastic slipcovers. She is my father’s mother, 88, born into the rural town of Hinganghat in India when the British were still colonialists. She was married at 14 to my grandfather, Mumtaz Ahmad Nomani, who became a successful defense attorney in the old city of Hyderabad. She traveled alone in 1942 from Wardha to Benares with her children at a time when few women dreamt of doing such a daring thing as traveling unaccompanied by a man. She even drove a car, learning on a racecourse, until she hit a rickshaw. There were no power brakes back then. They paid off the rickshaw driver for maybe 15 rupees, 20 rupees tops (between $3 and $5 then).
“He was happy,” she insists.
Three sons and five daughters settled in Pakistan, uprooting themselves from their lives in India in the years after India won independence from the British in 1947, dividing itself into a mostly Hindu India and a predominately Muslim nation of Pakistan. Dadi wept about leaving her homeland, but as she grew older, her sons called her to Pakistan in the 1980s. My father was her one child to settle in America in the 1960s, after earning his Ph.D. from Rutgers University, bringing my mother, brother and me over to a life where we couldn’t have imagined the Barbies, slumber parties and Disney World vacation in our future. Another daughter recently moved from Pakistan to Fremont, Calif., with her husband and family. Now, Dadi counts 12 grandchildren settled in America, including my brother and me, and dozens of other relations in an extended family that makes everybody her “bhai” (brother), “apa” (sister), “beyta” (son), or “beyti” (daughter).
I took her hand, softened with age, and told her yesterday, after my 39-hour journey beginning from West Virginia, that she looked strong.
She corrected me. She has dropped from 50 to 42 kilograms [110 to 92 pounds] in recent months. The back of her hair has the orange-red of the henna with which she dyed it. The hair around her face frames her in silver. Her face is creased with a lifetime that has seen imperialism, revolution, war, famine and the extension of her family to the far corners of the world. She is part of the older immigrants from India who still wraps yards of sari around her waist, throwing the “pallu” over her shoulder, rather than switching to the salwar kameezes; the tunic kurtas, harem pants and dupattas that make the more modest style of Pakistan. She is certainly daring compared to the chadors that shroud the women of Afghanistan in a sea of cloth, with only netting before their eyes. But she is an elderly lady and is allowed her fashion statement. I try to probe her for her thoughts about the World Trade Center bombings, the mujahedin, Osama bin Laden.
She pauses. “How old is Khalida’s son?” she asks about a cousin of mine, still single and available.
War? The war can wait. Dadi still has a granddaughter to see married. And she’s puzzled that this granddaughter has crossed the ocean with only Lonely Planet’s “Pakistan: A Travel Survival Kit,” a new padded laptop backpack from Office Depot and a JFK Airport shopping bag filled with World Trade Center key chains, New York Police Department pencils and two New York Fire Department stuffed bears (one red, one blue) to give away as gifts. War looms as a reality in this home in Lahore, where CNN’s “Larry King Live” is replaced with Pakistan Television, PTV, and its roundtable discussion between a man who looks like a skinny Santa Claus with a “topi” cap, a fiery woman commentator without a dupatta covering her head and Pakistan’s foreign minister explaining his government’s friendship with America. “Jung” is what war is called here.
Dadi doesn’t pretend to know who did what. But she knows about war.
“Jung nahee kuroh,” she says. Don’t do war.
“Nuhksahn hay subkoh,” she says. It will be ruinous for everyone.
Dadi has only a clue of what it took me to get here, to find out, among other things, what she thinks about the perilous position in which her adopted country now finds itself.
In America, we think that folks from this part of the world are all basically the same. But that’s not what I learned as I stood outside the Pakistani Consulate in New York, the rain pouring upon me as I tried to convince the press attachi I wasn’t a threat just because I was born in India. I already had a Pakistani visa stamped into my passport from my travels last year. My name comes from the 17th surah of the Quran, which tells the tale of a mystical journey the Prophet Mohammad made from Mecca to the seven heavens, his bed still warm and the door knob still shaking when he returned. How much more Muslim could you get than that?
I went to the Pakistani consulate in my friend Sumita’s kameez flowing over my black pants, with a black sweater on top so I wouldn’t offend any Muslims who consider it immodest for a woman to bare her arms. I wore my dadi’s dupatta, hand delivered to me by my father after his recent trip to Pakistan. What a goof. The press attachi’s assistant is a Filipino veteran of the Consulate since the 1960s by the name “Connie.” I should have just gone in the Abercrombie & Fitch cargo pants that I usually wear.
I find out later from other officials that the Pakistani government has a red flag up for Indian-born visa applicants, even if they have foreign passports, like my U.S. passport. I end up having to travel to another embassy, in another city, to get my visa.
I talk to my mother amidst the delays. She tells me what we are taught as Muslims from our earliest days: “Everything happens for a reason.”
My reason, I think, is pause. With an obstacle that doesn’t allow adrenaline to make the decision, I must ponder whether I really want to go to Pakistan. It will be a psychic journey as much as physical one. I am a bit afraid. My brother tries to relax me: “Oh! Go have a vacation!” But my previous trips to Pakistan had certainly never qualified as vacations.
I first went to Pakistan for just that in 1983 as a rising WVU sophomore. My cousins thought my parents either wanted to find me a husband or get me out of the influence of Western culture. It was neither. I was curious about my culture, my religion. On that trip, I carried Smurf key chains. My notebooks from those days are jammed with the wonder of an 18-year-old’s first impressions, like the Afghan refugees flooding into Pakistan at the time from the war against the Soviets. Another uncle, a doctor who worked with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, took me to the bedside with refugees so I could hear their arduous escapes from the war in their country. We went through the beautiful Khyber Pass, so rugged and magnificent a place it remained with me as one of the most serene of places I had seen on this earth. Now, this place is at the border of what could be the worst trouble in the history of the world.
At that time, Pakistan was boastful of the F-16 fighter jets America was selling it. I bought an F-16 sticker for three rupees, small change in America. What would I see now? When I returned to West Virginia at the end of the summer, I wrote, “Back to blue jeans and polo shirts, coke machines and granola bars, knapsacks and vibrant hellos.” In Pakistan, girls didn’t greet boys with any sort of animation on the street.
I went again to Pakistan with tears in my eyes before Christmas 1992. I thought I was doing the right thing, choosing to marry a Muslim man because it would fulfill my responsibilities to my culture and religion, even if it meant leaving a Lutheran man from Iowa who was as noble and gentle a soul as any that could exist in human form. I went ahead with this wedding, draped in a glittering golden brocade dupatta, having my makeup session at the Mee Lee Beauty Parlour, wed at the Margala Motel in Islamabad. Yes, a motel.
The father of the man that I married sat me down during my honeymoon in his house and quickly outlined my new identity. “First,” he said, “you are Muslim. Secondly, you are Pakistani. Thirdly, you are Urdu speaking.” It stung me like a cat being tied to a leash. And then I made the rounds like a good new bride, saying little and trying to look pretty in golden Stuart Weitzman pumps.
The marriage lasted barely three months.
To go back now, and report on a country — a faith, really — under extreme scrutiny from the entire world, I would have to journey again to Islamabad, this time without the silence I accepted as a new bride. This time, with a voice. I will eventually go again to where I spent my wedding night, the Islamabad Marriott, now the hub for foreign journalists covering the war. And in the process, I’ll hopefully not just report what is happening on the ground in a country that warily, but dutifully, is supporting its ally, the United States, but also try and figure out this emerging conflict between cultures, East vs. West, Muslim vs. the world, it seems, that has become a subtext of this entire battle.
My dadi pauses. What about prospects in Aligarh, India, she wonders, where intellectual Muslims stream across the well-paved roads of Aligarh Muslim University? She’s back to the question of my marital future.
I write all this feeling quite removed from the moment, seeing my grandmother again, back in Lahore for the first time since riding the Peace Bus here from Delhi last year, but only my fourth visit to Pakistan in my life. Yet knowing of U.S. military movements, the collective baited breath of the world, I am sitting with dadi in the living room near a picture of my two cousins embracing a life-size cutup of Arnold Schwarzenegger.
My mother called me with the news on Sept. 11. I was across town from her in my childhood home, beginning another day penning the book that caused me to take a leave from my job as a reporter in New York for the Wall Street Journal. I didn’t believe her. Yahoo told me the truth. I folded the news article and set off for my volunteer duty as Lunch Lady (without a hairnet) at my niece and nephew’s North Elementary School, where the children buzzed amongst themselves. “The kids know something is up,” one of the teachers said. I wanted to tell my nephew, 8-year-old Samir, myself. I whispered to him, as he sat next to a good friend, Youseph, whose parents are from Syria. I whispered the news to 10-year-old Safiyyah, my niece as mothers and fathers swept into the office to take their children home early.
I volunteered to help in the office, dividing the forms for school pictures into homerooms. My count for Mrs. DeVincent’s second grade class got interrupted when I heard the principal shout: “What are those men doing here?!”
I looked up. Two Arab men. I didn’t blame the principal. I don’t blame the principal. I, too, was suspicious. They were my Muslim brothers, but what were they doing here?
To notify the office that their child would be getting off at a different bus stop from now on. Oh. The principal politely recovered much faster than I would have. A little nappy hair. An accent. It was enough to raise my suspicions.
Then the reports started coming in from my mother, my personal High Street correspondent from her boutique in downtown Morgantown. Ali Baba, the restaurant with mosquito netting over a booth and hummus on the menu, shut down because of a bomb threat. It turned out to be a vulgar phone call. Two Muslim women wearing hijabs, the head scarves tightly wrapped around the hair, had them ripped off their heads at the West Virginia University student union, with the shouts, “We’re going to get you!”
I have never been motivated to cover my head in public in America. To me, it was an unnecessary symbol of modesty in a place where not wearing a halter top in the summertime seemed like an act of conservatism. The weekend before, as I stood near the Dorito chips at Wal-Mart, an Arab woman walked by me with a full covering that cloaked her body and face. All that was visible were eyes that could study price tags. Suddenly, I wanted to cover myself. Proclaim to the world that Muslims weren’t all terrorists. We were also good, balanced humanitarians, as my mother and father had taught me to be.
My mystical sister-cousins, first cousins to most of the world, Lucy and Esther, taught me the year before how to wrap my scarf so that only my eyes would be visible. It came in handy in the dust storms of the Himalayan mountains as we climbed on razor’s edge through the rocky mountain passes in a Tata Sumo just last year for a pilgrimage with the Dalai Lama. On the long white cotton dupatta my dadi had sent with my father, she wrote a message in the corner in Urdu, urging me to use it to do the namaz, prayer, that is required of Muslims five times a day.
Back in Morgantown, I folded the dupatta in half. I wrapped it around my head over the bridge of my nose and knotted it behind me so that an opening remained in the bottom. The fold was on the side. I pulled the top layer to my forehead so my eyes could peek out and draped the edges over my shoulder. The bottom layer I allowed to remain over my nose, so only my eyes were visible, the rest of my head, shoulders and chest shrouded in white. Did I look menacing? Frightening?
I checked in with the only ones around. I nudged awake my cat, Billlie. He opened his eyes to a slit. I shouted, “Billlie! Billlie!” He saw the truth of the one who fed him Cat Chow behind the veil.
My inquiry into identity wasn’t complete. I plucked the American flag Samir had gotten from his Cub Scout troop, ventured outside with the scarf pulled down from over my nose so the mailman could see my face, lest he drive by, and planted the American flag in a pot of geraniums on our front porch.
That night, a Muslim brother calls my father. “It’s urgent,” he warned.
When my father called back, he told him that the board of the Muslim Students Association should cancel the Friday jummah, the afternoon prayer that starts at 1:30 p.m. For Muslims, Friday is what Sunday is to Christians and Saturday to Jews. The mosque in Morgantown began in a room by the Monongalia County Jail in 1981. My dad has been the faculty student advisor for years, watching recently as the mosque has grown to two houses on the WVU Evansdale campus, one house with a sand volleyball court on which I hadn’t yet dared to pass the ball.
“There are bombings of mosques in Texas,” the brother says, ominously, though there hadn’t been any actual bombings, only threats.
I stand in the background, bobbing between my father’s phone call and Samir’s reading of Mulan, the Chinese girl warrior. “Don’t cancel!” I urge him.
“No, we will not cancel,” my father insists. “Why should we be afraid?”
Soon, I am going off to New York to keep my friend Dan, a Wall Street Journal colleague, company. A universe that I had known intimately had been destroyed. It was in the basement of the World Trade Center where I would disembark for work every morning. It was to the J. Crew store on the concourse level where Dan rushed over with me to settle on a petite cashmere camisole sweater for my appearance on the Brian Williams’ show on MSNBC. And it was at Windows on the World where one Valentine’s Day I allowed my romantic fantasies to unfold, cheesy as they were, watching the assembly line of brides and grooms that had won free wedding ceremonies atop the World Trade Center. Now, an image of a couple jumping from one of the WTC towers during the morning of Sept. 11 replays in my friend Dan’s mind, like a broken movie reel. And now mine.
With airports shut down, the best way to get to New York is the Greyhound. I plan to go with my head covered. My sister-in-law’s eyes widen when she sees the dupatta wrapped over me. This was the past from which she came, clad in a black burkah in Hyderabad since she was 11, the sweat pouring down her face, the dizziness of faint engulfing her as she rushed to catch buses in the heat of India’s summer. Now, married to my brother, she is liberated from this religious expectation, living in Morgantown, wearing a new wardrobe of cotton shirts and stretch pants from the Limited.
She is worried. She, too, has heard the reports of Muslim women under attack. In Urdu, the language of Muslims in India and Pakistan, she tells my mother, “Write ‘al-Hafiz’ in the air on her forehead,” so that I will have the protection of God.
My mother takes her finger to the air, staring over my left temple and crosses my forehead with Arabic script. She blows a breath toward me. We call it a pook. It is like a blessing.
We go to the Greyhound station. I soon slip into a seat beside a woman. “Phoopu has already found a friend,” Safiyyah tells her dadi, mother and brother, as she waves to me from below. Phuppi means brother’s sister in Urdu. Phoopu becomes our nickname. Sometimes, even Phoopu Head. At our lowest, Phoopu Butt. I’m off to New York, still not sure my journey will eventually lead me back to Pakistan.
My journey on the Greyhound brought me many surprises, like the middle-aged African-American woman from Charleston who jabbered with me about the great buys she finds at the Dollar Store and Gabriel’s, a Morgantown-based discount store that keeps small towns in high fashion.
“Got 20 sports bras for my goddaughter at the Dollar Store last year,” she says, as we roll through rural Pennsylvania. “She said, ‘What am I going to do with all these? I said, ‘Give ‘em to your girlfriends.”
Not a word about my dupatta.
She gets off in Baltimore. I stand at the station. I notice a few stares, but nothing hostile. Then two of the cutest guys walk up to me and start talking. They’re fresh-faced freshmen at WVU, Jay and Dan, on their way home to New Jersey to see their high school senior girlfriends.
Don’t they see me in this bizarre dupatta? Why would they want to talk to me? We talk food in Morgantown. They’re tired of Sbarro pizza. I rave about the steak and cheese sandwiches at Spruce Street Sub Shop. I promise to invite them over to our house for Indian food. I can’t resist.
But that will not happen for a while, now, for I am with my Dadi in Lahore, eating Japanese apples that aren’t really Japanese. My travels will weave me through this region for some time to come. She slips into the room as I write, the ceiling fan a blur of whirring blades overhead. She sits upon her haunches on the bed beside me. She has something that she forgot to tell me. It’s about zakat, one of the five pillars of Islam where we have to give money the poor if we can afford it. She tells me to send 1,500 rupees (about $33) to Bombay for qurbani, the sacrifice of goats for distribution to the poor after Eid, the equivalent of Christmas for Muslims that follows the month of fasting, Ramadan. It is said in the Quran, she says, tapping the side of my leg to punctuate her point, that we will get in heaven that which we give on earth. Her five silver glass bracelets jingle as she waves her hands. We will not get in heaven any of that which we left on this earth.
She shows off her English, reciting the multiplication tables she learned from tutors who came to her house before she married.
“Say this. You will have a good marriage.”
Oh. We’re back to that again. I change the subject back to her.
“How are you?” I ask, intrigued to hear her English.
“I am,” she says, pausing, thinking, and then recites her name, “Zubaida Nomani.”
Close enough. How many people can say that much in a second language? But it’s her thoughts on war to which we return.
She spots the flyer that I have brought from New York City. “Miss-ing,” she reads, amazing me more with the English I didn’t know that she could read. “One World.” She stumbles over “Trade.” She continues: “Center.”
It’s a name foreign to her: Roger Mark Rasweiler. I explain that I met the man’s son-in-law as he was posting flyers like this one on the New Jersey PATH train from Newark, N.J. His father-in-law had gone to work that morning and was missing along with thousands of others.
“Allah!” she say. “Bapray!” Oh my goodness.
It was National Solidarity Day today, but for all the Girl Guides of Pakistan who joined the marches, I couldn’t find a soul to go to the rallies with me. Put up a flag? “Chor dho,” was the answer I got. The Urdu version of fawgetaboutit.
It was green and white on PTV, where the news starts with “Bismillah ir rahman ir raheem” — “In the name of Allah, most gracious, most merciful.” PTV aired broadcasts of a music video with members from the Pakistani rock band Junoon, (yes, you read that right: Pakistani rock band) jamming to a ditty about the struggles of partition with patriotic flashes of Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan.
What I do get from PTV and others I speak with is a level doubt. It’s not that Pakistanis aren’t loyal. It’s just that they aren’t convinced. Here, the U.S. has become “a dada” — literally a grandfather, specifically on the paternal side. But, in this reference, it’s not a term of respect. It means a “gonda,” a bully. Never before, people will say openly, have they missed so much the balance of power the Soviet Union represented. They want more proof about this Osama bin Laden — a nobody, they say, until he became the target of the United States — and his involvement with the bombings. They want the proof that Secretary of State Colin Powell promised to deliver … before backing away from the promise a few days later.
They’re skeptical, and they want proof, and without it, they’re left to generate alternative explanations. From the minute I step off the airplane, I hear references to a “Yahudi” conspiracy, suggesting that somehow Israel is behind the WTC catastrophe. And they are dimly amused at President Bush’s grandstanding, equating him more to a cowboy than the U.S. president. And they generally see capriciousness in U.S. foreign policy, exhibited by America’s support of the Pakistani and Afghan mujahedin during the war against the Soviets and the U.S. disappearance afterward. They shake their heads remembering how they boasted that even its poorest citizens at least wore “chappals,” sandals. Now, they lament, young Afghan boys walk barefoot in the bazaar here in Lahore picking up trash to make small change.
Dadi comes into the room as the muzzein’s call for the sunset magrib prayer makes it to our ears even through the closed windows. “Proof deh-koy,” she says, curling the end of her sari’s “pallu” around her waist, mixing her little English with Urdu. Show proof.
Meanwhile, the rumblings of war continue. Dadi warns me to travel with only a notebook and small bag, so I can run quickly in case of trouble. I know I’ll at least have dadi’s dupatta, the paper bracelet my niece Safiyyah made for me with the message, “Be Happy,” and my mother’s invisible inscription upon my forehead. God keep you in his protection. Oh, and of course, I’ll also have a photo of a cousin, another marriage Dadi is trying to arrange.
Asra Q. Nomani, a reporter for the Wall Street Journal currently on leave to write a book, is reporting for Salon from Pakistan. To read more about Nomani click here.More Asra Q. Nomani.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)