Khwof (Fear): Reflections on being Pakistani-Muslim in Canada

Khwof is an Urdu word that describes a specific type of fear that I carry

In Urdu, there are two words for fear: dar and khwofDar is a trepid fear: controllable, palatable, something you can react to. Dar can be held in your hand, brought to your lips, and swallowed before it stains your teeth. Khwof is more visceral. It lingers and rarely arrives alone. It layers itself thick and sticky with panic, blooming inside the self in unwelcome corners of consciousness, unforgiving when it pushes you to remember. 

The 8th of June 2021: The Afzaal family, a Pakistani-Canadian family of five goes for their daily evening walk, no different than the day prior. Four members of the family never return home. Until the headlines of the targeted, hate-motivated, hit-and-run in London, Ontario remained simply that – headlines – I felt only dar. It sat on top of my eyes while I read news articles through my tears, and it hid quietly between my fingers when I attempted to go about the rest of my day. Dar settled in the air between my father and I when we discussed the news: his voice strained with fear and worry, me, dribbling between various emerging details available at the time, and us, both praying silently for the family’s health. 

Khwof wrapped itself around my throat when I saw the photo of the family – a picture I am still unable to look at for more than a few seconds at a time. The only gaping difference between the Afzaal family photo, and those that pour into my social media timeline’s each Eid, is their suffering of this atrocious tragedy.

This act of domestic terrorism. 

Khwof grew when the familiarity of the photo began to haunt me – timid, yet pleasant smiles, loose pastel duppata’s, Desi clothes made just for Eid, cocooned by a natural backdrop. The kind of photo that’s sent to family of family on Eid followed by pleasant “MashAllah’s!” and hour-long phone calls to relatives in Pakistan. 

The kind of photo my family has also taken every year. 

Khwof was driving for the first time after the attack happened and pulling over after spotting a Hijabi woman and her child out for a walk, just as innocuous as the Afzaal family would have been. Khwof outlined my car as I sat stationary, too emotional to drive, replaying the details of the attack in my mind and wrestling with the incomprehensible nature of committing such violence. Khwof slowed down my senses as I froze, watching her, only leaving after she turned into a neighbourhood street and I convinced myself my panic was an overreaction. 

Khwof was trying to go for a walk of my own and drifting to the farthest corner of the sidewalk each time I heard a car pass. Panic in my fingers as I texted my friends asking if we could call while I walked home. Headphones in my hand, too scared to accidentally miss hearing a car creeping by. Desperation in my legs just trying to get home followed by the eventual relief of collapsing in the living room sofa.

Khwof was when my mother asked me to stay inside for a couple weeks, afraid of any potential secondary attack. My father, holding his khwof in his tears as he shut our back-yard screen each time he went upstairs, in fear that someone could come for us in our home. My fellow Pakistani neighbours, tucking their khwof into the lining of their jacket pockets when taking their children to school. Khwof thinking that this translucent fear could, in an instant, memorialize my family as martyrs to unbearable Islamophobia. 

After all, what difference is there really between us and the Afzaal family?

It could have just as easily been any of us.  

Within each community and circle I belong to, the thick cord of worry grows tighter as other Pakistani Muslims separate their lives into a before- and an after- this attack: a seeming declaration of our unwelcomeness. 

This is not an isolated piece of news to commemorate solely in months, years, or decades. For us, the khwof is rattling and consistent. An eternal eye in your window, a chain around your shoulders, a pressing reminder. 

But there is no intersection between khwof and isolation. This senseless tragedy, that which contains pieces of myself, my parents, my grandparents, my cousins, my friends, their younger siblings no older than the surviving Afzaal son, is not a pain felt alone. Although my community, both as a Pakistani and a Muslim, will continue to resist and exist, is the price of seeing a burden in your own reflection a fair transaction for life in this country? In the wake of such an occurrence, it feels almost selfish to even write a personal essay – who am I to feel anything when a family has experienced such a deep pain? 

That which was literally unimaginable until it happened.

Home grown and inescapable. 

No longer can we hide under the false narrative of Canada as the kinder alternative to the boiling white supremacy to the south of us — yet, what do we do? By this I surely do not mean that we forego large scale legislative change – which is not only welcome but necessary.

But I did not write this with an answer. 

Where do we put our khwof? Or are we to keep sprinting from it in the hopes that we can outrun it before it swallows us whole? 

Arabella Hareem Abid is currently in her third year of double majoring in English Literature & Rhetoric and Political Science at the University of Waterloo. Adjacent to her academic pursuits, she is a published writer and poet with work appearing in Imprint and Her Campus Waterloo. Her writing primarily wrestles with notions of identity: particularly from a South Asian and first-generation immigrant lens. She is also heavily involved in academic equity work across the Kitchener-Waterloo community with a passion for elevating the perspectives of racialized students.

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