Following the North Star

Shaheen Pasha explores how the trauma of a loved one’s incarceration unravels her carefully planned-out existence, and sets her on a new, unexpected path to find meaning in the meaningless.

Shaheen Pasha | Longreads | April 2020 | 18 minutes (4,587 words)

I received the call at work from Tariq’s brother. I knew him briefly, had seen him as a kid, but aside from a few conversations here and there, we were virtual strangers. I couldn’t really even picture his face as his voice came across the line, hesitant, slightly unsure, a little defiant. It’s hard to imagine I had such a powerful connection to one man, and yet his brother, the person closest to him, was more of a name than a person.

“Tariq has been arrested,” his brother said to me, before his voice choked up into sobs, all his bravado vanished. I sat down in my chair with its slightly wobbly back, and dropped the handbag I had just hung on my shoulder, ready to catch my bus home from Jersey City.

“What did they arrest him for?” I said, my voice oddly calm even though it felt like my throat was closing. Drugs, maybe? He didn’t do hard drugs, that I knew. But maybe he had been caught up in the overly zealous drug war at the turn of the new millennium, when marijuana was considered the gateway to all evils.

Or maybe it was a fight at a club. That would make sense. Tariq thrived on a good fight, weaving in and out like a boxer, assessing his opponents’ strengths and weaknesses. It was something we argued about incessantly when we were together. One of many things.

But I knew before he even said it. Somehow, I knew. I had seen it in a dream, a sick twisted nightmare I’d had as a teenager in my dorm room all those years ago. Tariq had woken up and put his arm around me as I whimpered in my sleep. “Hey, you okay?” he said, still half asleep. I nodded and buried my head against his chest. “Just a bad dream,” I said. “I don’t really remember.” He was asleep, anyway, before the last words left my mouth.

I did remember. Good God, I’ve never forgotten it. A courtroom. A jury of mostly white men and women staring at me. A faceless man, some kind of a lawyer, standing in front of me. Me in a box, trying not to look at Tariq as I testified on his behalf. “Please don’t give him the death penalty,” I said to the stone-faced jurors in my dream. “I can’t imagine a world that he’s not in.”

It was a vision that came to pass a handful of years later, in 2005, down to the slightly sweaty wood paneling under my fingers as I gripped the edge of the witness box to keep them from shaking. But I didn’t know it at the time of the dream. Maybe I wouldn’t have told him then even if I had known. It was the first time and, as it turned out, the last time we had ever spent the whole night together. Good Pakistani Muslim girls didn’t spend the night with a boy, after all. I felt daring, rebellious and completely happy. I didn’t want to taint it with the imagery of a ruined life. I wanted our perfect night to remain just that.

So I just watched him sleep. He looked younger than his 19 years when he slept. All the hardness that would sometimes creep across his face was gone in his sleep. He even smiled a little, untroubled by nightmares.

I should have told him.

I should have told him.

“Double homicide.” His brother’s voice snapped me back to the present. His voice suddenly collapsed within itself, shaky breaths substituting words, creating a language of grief that could only be understood by the two of us.

In books, I’ve always read that the world stops when a person delivers horrible news. Time stands still. You can feel the air. Everything goes on hold. That’s not the reality, of course. My co-worker shouted a goodbye to me from across her cubicle as she packed up her computer. Phones rang, people laughed. Life went on.

Except it never really did for me again. Not in the same way. That call changed everything. It initiated me into a painful fraternity of those impacted by the trauma of mass incarceration. And 17 years later, the pain lives on and nothing has gone back to the way it was before. What would have happened if I hadn’t stopped to pick up the phone? I was already walking away from my desk, pulling out crackers from my coat pocket to curb the new nausea of my first pregnancy.

I wonder if life would have taken its natural course. Tariq and I had broken up two years earlier, when I was 22. It was sad and heart-wrenching at the time, but not unexpected given how young we were. Our relationship would have been a memory of first love to be cherished and stored away. A tale to tell my Pakistani-American grandkids in my old age when it was long past scandalous.

I was now married to a Pakistani-Canadian man who had swept me off my feet in a matter of months. It was a suitable relationship with a suitable young man who ticked off the boxes of propriety in my Pakistani immigrant community: Muslim, educated, handsome. And, to top it off, we were in love. It was a new relationship filled with promise.

I was pregnant with our first child. She was a little speck of a human being inside me. I’d been consumed with delight since I had seen those two blue lines just two weeks earlier.

Career, marriage, baby.

Done, done, done.

Normal. Mundane. The life I had been planning since I was a little girl.

This phone call was not part of the plan.

The first shrill ring. Let it go to voicemail, I said to myself walking away. I’ll tackle whatever it is when I come back to work tomorrow.

A second ring, slightly more demanding in tone, if that’s possible. I hesitated. What if it’s my husband or my mom? Nonsense, they’d call you on your cell phone. You’ll miss the bus.

Third ring. What if something is wrong? Sigh. I walked back to my desk and picked up the receiver.

As it turned out, something was terribly wrong.

***

Tariq and I were childhood sweethearts in the most platonic, unlabeled way possible. Passed notes in the hallway and a squeeze of the hand as we passed each other’s lockers. He was an annoying football jock in high school. I was the socially conscious student newspaper nerd. He was always surrounded by other girls. I was always surrounded by my mother’s voice.

‘Tariq has been arrested,’ his brother said to me, before his voice choked up into sobs, all his bravado vanished.

“He’s a jackass,” I told my best friend one day, as we saw him whispering into a girl’s ear, sending her into fits of giggles.

“He’s a cute jackass,” she responded.

“Not my type,” I scoffed.

“Maybe not, but do you even know what your type is?”

It was an accurate observation. Growing up in my Muslim household, dating and sex were simply not an option. So, having a type seemed like an unnecessary exercise in self-torture. And even if I did, I knew I had an innate distrust of men and relationships, so any “type” would be questionable at best.

My father was a handsome, charming man who could light up a room with his smile, who never raised his voice unless he was belting out melodies that would melt the hearts of everyone present. I was the closest to him in our family and I loved him completely. He was also a paranoid schizophrenic who refused to take his medication properly, and spent years staring at the walls of our apartments when he wasn’t knocking on them to check for cameras and other hidden devices. He was the moon in phases.

My mother, on the other hand, was the rock of the family. The matriarch who held my siblings and me together through sheer willpower and the occasional reliance on food stamps. She cared for my father through his worst bouts of mental illness, grinding up his medicine to hide within his food, tricking him back to sanity. She ignored his delusions and internalized his repeated reproaches that she was the reason he was ill, and a failure, and trapped within the prison of his own mind. When I looked at her, I saw a caretaker and savior who shouldered the blame of another person’s life.

It was not the best roadmap of a relationship to carry into my own dating life.

And it didn’t matter anyway. My mother was modern enough to promise me that I wouldn’t be subjected to an arranged marriage, like she had been. But just how I was supposed to marry for love when I couldn’t even stand too close to a boy was a question I kept trying to puzzle out.

“You will make a friend with a boy and one day that friend will decide that he wants to bring you into his family, and he will ask you to marry him,” my mother explained to me. “All of this dating stuff with the holding hands and the shame-shame is unnecessary. When you are ready for marriage, he will come. But he has to be Pakistani. And Muslim. And educated. And from a good family. That’s all.”


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I tried to explain this to Tariq as we sat in the far corner of the school library one afternoon in my senior year of high school. “I’m already your friend,” he said, shrugging his shoulders. “And Pakistani and Muslim. What’s the problem?”

“Yes, but you’re asking me to be your girlfriend and I can only get involved with someone if it leads to marriage,” I shot back. “Those are the rules.”

“So, marry me,” he responded, flippantly, and without hesitation. “I’m 18 already. You’ll be 18 in a few months. We’ll go to college together, we’ll start a life together. I don’t see a problem with that. You and me, mama, we’re tied together somehow, anyway. I think we always will be.”

Eight years later, behind a dirty plexiglass window, smeared with sweaty fingerprints and other questionable bodily fluids, he sighed and smiled at me sadly. His left hand clutched the phone receiver and the knuckles of his right hand gently rapped on the glass between us.

“You know, you should have just married me.”

***

It was the shadow in my marriage. I covertly watched my husband as he sat across from me, working on his computer, while I fed my two-year-old daughter. The silence stretched across the expanse of the dining room table. It was a silence that was slightly preferable to the louder arguments that seemed to be so common in those days. Yelling matches that would be triggered by the smallest provocation.

“You forgot to pick up our daughter from my mom’s house when I was working late,” I would say.

Tariq and I were childhood sweethearts in the most platonic, unlabeled way possible…He was always surrounded by other girls. I was always surrounded by my mother’s voice.

“I got busy at work,” he’d reply, not even looking up from his computer.

“Yeah, but if I’m traveling or working, I need you to take care of her,” I’d respond back, my voice rising. “She deserves a father who is there for her without being told that it’s his job.”

“Well, you seem to make it your job to take care of everyone whether they deserve it or not,” he’d respond.

Fight triggered.

I sat there watching his face. Did he have a bad day at work? Was he going to be angry or spiteful? Did I need to put my daughter in her room with her canopy bed and Barbie princess lamp before I started speaking? But no, he was laughing at something he was reading onscreen. I took my shot.

“Tariq’s brother wants me to come with his family to meet their lawyers,” I said, rushing my words as I spooned rice and daal into my daughter’s mouth, my eyes never looking up.

His fingers stopped mid-type. “Why?” he asked, his eyebrows starting to furrow together. “He was convicted, it’s done with.”

“They want to interview character witnesses for his sentencing,” I said, still looking intently at my daughter who was now engrossed in lining up her colored pencils on the wood table. Red pencil, green pencil, yellow pencil, blue pencil. Neat and orderly.

“Oh, that’s right. He’s a death penalty case. You know, what he did to those two people calls for death. An eye for an eye,” he said sitting back, his eyes on me, watchful.

I sighed and looked up. We both knew what he was waiting for: my angry denial of my friend’s guilt, my emotional defense of his innocence, my tirade against the justice system for Muslims in a post-9/11 world, my insistence that he should have been allowed the DNA test or the cell phone records he had asked for to prove his case, rather than letting the system railroad a man with no previous criminal record based on the highly questionable and hole-ridden testimony of a cast of characters who had been given deals in return for their cooperation.

Have you ever considered that he actually did it, my husband would say, every time.

Of course, I have, I would shoot back. But there are too many things that don’t add up. The timeline of his whereabouts is wrong, and a witness saw someone who was taller and whiter than he was. Besides, I know him. He’s capable of many stupid things. But he’s not capable of that.

He’d scoff, I’d yell, my daughter would look up from her pencils, eyes wide and hurt, before she took cover by switching on the television, losing herself in The Incredibles, where the Mommy and Daddy were superheroes who loved each other rather than two angry villains who could barely tolerate one another.

So I held myself back. “I’m not asking,” I said quietly. “I’m just telling you that I’m going to testify on his behalf.”

My husband shrugged his shoulders. “Of course, you aren’t,” he replied, closing his computer. “You do what you want to do anyway. And when it comes to him, his needs will always come before mine. Why can’t you just let it go?”

“I’ve known Tariq since I was 15!” I said. “I met and married you in four months. How do you expect me to just turn my back on one of my best friends, someone I grew up with?”

“Exactly. I met you and chose to marry you! I chose you,” he said. “He made choices too. Whether you believe he actually did it or not, his choices led him down this path, and sometimes you have to pay for bad decisions and people you bring into your life.”

“You’re not perfect,” I said, picking up my daughter’s plate, as she hopped off of the table, seeking refuge.

“No, I’m not,” my husband replied sighing. “Neither is he. Except he’s the only one between the two of us who you can forgive for not being perfect. Go help your friend. I’m waiting for the day when there stops being another man in this marriage.”

A few weeks later, I sat in the witness box, the sweaty wood paneling familiar under my fingertips. My eyes scanned the courtroom, caught up in a surreal déjà vu. It was the scene of my nightmare all those years ago. Except now it was very real, and I couldn’t wake up from it. The lawyer asked me questions and the jurors avoided my eyes. It was one thing to convict a man based on shoddy, circumstantial evidence, I thought. It was a completely different story to have to decide whether that man would live or die.

One of the jurors, a middle-aged white woman with glasses, sniffled into her tissue as I talked about my friend, the man I knew, who was so at odds with the stranger the prosecution had described. The sound set my teeth on edge, so I focused on Tariq. He looked thin and broken, his eyes holding mine as I talked about his humor and generosity, how he looked out for me when we were kids. I glanced back at the jury box when Tariq’s gaze became too painful to hold. The jurors seemed bored, or maybe reluctant to hear any positive words about the man they had decided was a heartless murderer.

Then his lawyer passed around a picture of us from my wedding — an uncomfortable affair for me in some ways, when Tariq showed up unexpectedly to watch me marry another man. But the jury didn’t need to know that. They wakened from their stupor briefly and looked down at the photo, a snapshot of a very real human being with a life and identity beyond that of a monster, a label they had placed on him.

We both knew what my husband was waiting for: my angry denial of my friend’s guilt, my emotional defense of his innocence, my tirade against the justice system for Muslims in a post-9/11 world…

In the photo, we were smiling. My husband, young and handsome, in a white sherwani coat and pants. Tariq dignified in a black suit and tie. And me in a coral-colored wedding lengha, laden with gold and diamonds and flowers, sandwiched between two men who loved me.

The photo was entered into evidence and I never saw it again. As it was slipped into a clear plastic bag, I choked back tears.

Somehow, I felt like I had lost them both.

***

When I was a little girl I used to look for the stars. It was hard to see any from our dingy, one-bedroom Brooklyn apartment. But I had a children’s book by Carl Sagan that showed a map of the constellations. I knew that behind the clouds and the light pollution of New York was a sky full of stars, bright and infinite. A pathway to God.

My brother, older by five years and knowledgeable about everything, pointed out a few of the constellations he knew. “That’s the Big Dipper,” he said, tracing his finger across the page. “And over here, you can see Orion. And you see those three stars in a line? That’s called the Belt of Orion.”

I looked eagerly at the picture. Three stars for three siblings. Always connected, a stable force in our unstable universe. In my child’s mind, the sun came to represent my mother, warm and providing life, but sometimes fiery and out of reach. And the moon was always my father, mysterious, and beautiful, and dark, and ever changing. My celestial family.

Stargazing became my secret refuge, a meditation to ground myself in my tumultuous world. After the phone call from Tariq’s brother, I drove down to my parents’ house in Central New Jersey and parked near a farmhouse where the view of the sky was uninhibited. It was cold that night but largely clear. I stepped out of the car and walked close to the open field, searching for the Belt of Orion. My constellation. But clouds had suddenly gathered across the night sky, obstructing my view. The stars had failed me.

I never stopped looking up, though. Not after the phone call, and the conviction, and the endless stream of denied appeals. Not after my beautiful daughter was officially diagnosed with autism, her love of creating order suddenly taking on a more insidious meaning that I had been too distracted to notice. Not when my marriage disintegrated and rebuilt itself a hundred times, held together by a fragile thread of love that still bound us together. Not after my father passed away peacefully in his sleep, the tumultuous voices in his head and the societal shame we carried over his mental illness released with his last breath. I still gazed up at the stars and kept on going.

And then came the night my third child was born early. Too early, at 23 weeks. Weighing only one pound and translucent, his birth ravaged my body and I slipped in and out of consciousness on the surgical table, my vitals dropping. The lights overhead seemed to twinkle like a star as I began to let go, ready to sleep. It was as if the stars were finally calling me home.

My husband brought me back, though, refusing to let go. He never lets me go. But I was tired, so tired of the pain and trauma that I had endured in my relatively short life.

I explained this to Tariq a few years later. Our voices echoed a little across the prison phone line, slightly distorted. But he could understand me. He always understood me.

“I was just so tired,” I said. “I didn’t want to tell my family or my friends or anyone else because they would be heartbroken. But I was done at that point. I just wanted it to end on that table. I wanted to slip away, putting down all of the burdens I kept inside. But that didn’t happen. And I’m still here, and I’m just so tired. It just feels so unfair.”

“I know how that feels,” he said, his voice still young, even though I knew his hair and the beard he grew in prison had turned a silvery gray. “You still believe in me, but so many people have either forgotten about me or choose to believe I’m the monster the state made me out to be. My innocence doesn’t matter to anyone because I’m in prison for 127 years. And this place takes away your dignity. That’s what it is created to do. It can make you a little less human if you let it. The things I see here, the things we experience, I can’t really tell people who love me. It would hurt them too much, so I hold it in. And I get tired.

“There are days, Shaheen, when I think about what it would be like to be done,” he continued “But we don’t have that option. It’s all unfair, but life isn’t fair. Haven’t you figured that out yet? We keep going because it has to mean something more than this. My faith, our faith, promises us that, and while I don’t always feel it, I know it’s true. There has to be more than this and that’s why we keep going even when we want to stop. Your daughter’s name means faith, right? You need to have some.”

I smiled into the receiver in spite of myself. “You know you should write an advice column or something,” I said. “Or write your experiences down and share them with people outside. I think they would get something out of it.”

“I’m not a writer,” he responded, “but maybe I will.”

“Maybe, I’ll help you,” I said.

He laughed. “So, are you going to follow my advice?”

“Yeah, it seems like I’m always following you anyway.”

“Well, of course, you do. My name is Tariq. It means the North Star. Everyone follows the North Star.”

***

In 2019, 17 years after that first phone call, I joined the faculty of Penn State to launch the Prison Journalism Project with my partner, Yukari Iwatani Kane, a journalist and educator like me, who serves as the advisor to the San Quentin News. The project came out of an original vision to teach incarcerated men and women how to do journalism — news and memoir — from behind prison walls.

It started as a voluntary endeavor, fueled in part by our desire to make a difference in the lives of the over 2.3 million people incarcerated in the United States today. It was a chance to teach people how to voice their trauma and share their stories and the stories of their loved ones, who had lost so much to a mass incarceration system gone out of control.

‘I keep hearing people on television say that social isolation feels like being in prison,’ Tariq said after assuring me he was safe and still healthy. ‘But it’s not the same thing, not even close.’

It was a chance for the outside world to understand what it felt like to be separated from those they loved, confined to a small space. None of us expected that the deadly pandemic would bring some of those lessons home to the world.

I stood in my kitchen watching my children play in the backyard through the window when my cell phone rang. The robotic voice on the other end told me I had a call waiting from an “inmate at New Jersey State Prison.” It was a call I had been waiting for as my worries mounted amid news of prison lockdowns and the rising number of COVID-19 cases inside facilities across the country.

“I keep hearing people on television say that social isolation feels like being in prison,” Tariq said after assuring me he was safe and still healthy. “They talk about how hard it is to be inside all the time, to have their movements restricted, to be unable to be there with their loved ones, especially when tragedy strikes. It’s a surreal feeling that I know all too well. I wouldn’t wish that on anyone. But it’s not the same thing, not even close.”

“I know,” I started saying before he cut me off.

“No, you can’t know and I don’t want you to know. Ever. Out there, you’re still human. Inside here, the lack of contact can drive you crazy. COs who used to pat you down for no reason, now are afraid to touch you like you’re toxic, even though they’re the ones more likely to get us sick. The guys inside are on edge without any kind of protection in such close quarters and tempers are flaring. It’s bad enough we can’t see or hug our loved ones because visits are canceled. But now even something as simple as a handshake between us is off limits. The lack of basic human touch really messes with you. Sitting in your cell, you wind up feeling like a ghost, except we’re not dead yet.”

I sat in silence, not sure what words I could offer. In the background, I could hear the sounds of my children laughing as they chased each other in the sun — socially isolated but still free. Across the phone line I heard Tariq laugh as he heard them shouting.

“Are you scared?” I asked finally.

“I’m worried about the people I care about. My family, my friends, you and your family, but I’m not scared for myself. I’ve been a ghost for a long time. I just hope that our voices inside don’t get forgotten when life gets back to normal. Make sure your project doesn’t let us be forgotten. Don’t let me be forgotten.”

It’s a promise I intend to keep.

Looking ahead, when I talk about the project to students in my classes, I know I will inevitably give them the hard, clinical statistics. The United States is home to five percent of the world’s population, yet nearly 25 percent of all prisoners. One in four American adults has had a sibling incarcerated. One in five has had a parent sent to jail or prison. One in eight has had a child incarcerated, and 6.5 million adults have an immediate family member currently in jail or prison.

They don’t run statistics when it comes to people like me, who may not be blood relatives but are family all the same. I can only imagine the figures would be staggering.

And as I tick off the statistics, I’ll wait for the question. It always comes. A hand will go up, sometimes a male student. Sometimes female.

“How did you get involved in this kind of work? Why did you decide to do this?” the student will ask.

I’ll smile and lean against the podium.

“Let me tell you all a story.”

* * *

Shaheen Pasha is an assistant teaching professor at Penn State University and the co-founder of the Prison Journalism ProjectPasha has been a journalist for over 20 years and her work has appeared in publications such as the Wall Street Journal, CNNMoney, Thomson Reuters, Narratively and the Dallas Morning News.

Editor: Sari Botton