Old Friends, New Memories in New York City

“Usmaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaan!”

“Aaaraay haiiiii Ammmmi [We’re coming Mom!]” they retorted back to Auntie Shameem.

Jersey City, 1996. The Knicks are a perennial powerhousesecond to only the Jordan-era Chicago Bulls. It’s mid-summer, dry heat. Usman and I, then 9 and 10 years old respectively, are desperate to break this unending streak of losses. Ali, Usman’s elder brother and solid 6 inches taller, is patrolling the paint in the concrete backyard that reeks of the stench that only Jersey city can provide. The basketball is as smooth as a fine sheet of metal, the grooves having been worn out from overuse.

Usman races to corner for an improbable three. Air ball. Although Ali’s got the height he’s also the pounds, so Usman rushes for the offensive board and kicks out to me for a wide open jumper. Clank of the metal rim and then the ball corrals off the fence separating us from a no-mans-land abandoned building. A scream emanates from shattered window from the building. The echo lasts for a full 20 seconds.

Doesn’t matter, game on. Ali is killing us down low. My elder brother Salman is watching, cheering on Ali and adding in insults directed toward Usman and I when and as needed. I’m not much help in this 2-on-1 battle. It’s basically over by this point and then the hard fouls start coming out. Usman recklessly shoves Ali after an easy lay-up and Ali responds byrifling the ball straight at Usman’s face. It’s pinpoint, smashing Usman’s nose. Usman holds back tears, grabs a rock and without thinking fires back. The rock sails far right, missing Ali by an easy metre. Ali makes a mental note of it but moves on and heads inside. He keeps a cool head but will return the favour at the opportune time.

Game over. 

***

That scene was my childhood. We would go back and forth every several times a year visiting each other’s family for a period of almost a decade until we moved to Canada. We were in the Philly and they in Jersey City, steps from Manhattan. Our fathers’ were best friends going back to their university days in Lahore in the early 1970s. Transplanted into East Coast U.S.A. together in the 1980s, the Jaffery-Khan friendship transformed into a family bond. Visiting Usman, his brother Ali and sisters Sumairya and Ayesha was like visiting cousins. Uncle Jabbar and Auntie Shameen were for all intents the only family we truly had growing up. Those were the brightest memories of my childhood and I can remember anxiously awaiting 2 hours drive from Philly to Jersey City. The best of times.

*** 

Fast forward 20 years. We are all married and I’m the only one sans children. Usman went on to memorize the entire Qur’an, study at Brooklyn college and the Hartford seminary. He now works as a Muslim Chaplin a maximum security prison in Connecticut as we all as a local university. Ali works for NYC and remains a reluctant New Yorker, being held on only by his unquestionable allegiance for NY Sports despite his brief infidelity during our backyard games. And the apple doesn’t fall from the tree, his son Hassan has an encyclopedic knowledge of the NFL at the age of 7. Auntie and Uncle look wonderful, bursting with the the same vitality, wild sense of humour and measured spontaneity they had two decades. They’ve slowed down a little but are enjoying life in the suburbs in upstate New York amidst the hustle and bustle of their children and grandchildren’s lives.

It was incredible to see them and connect with them, bringing Batoul and my mom along. I can’t remember the last time my mom had this much fun, soaking up NYC and its many sights and sounds on an unforgettable night out on the town. I promised myself that I’d make a conscious effort to rekindle and maintain ties with the people whose personalities and presence has really touched me in life. Just being with the Khan family, with the multitude changes over the years and the radically different paths that our two families have been on, felt like being transplanted back into the past or visiting a relative with whom you just seem to pick off where you last left of. Notakaluf. Being placed back into an audience in which you have always wanted to return, felt loved and a real sense of belonging. It was one of the best and the most rejuvenating trips in years. More than just reminiscing over the past but it was so joyful and exciting to see the many incredible and wonderful things they have and are doing. I only hope that continues and I wish the best for them.