Chilkat Valley News - Serving Haines and Klukwan, Alaska since 1966

Pakistani intern compares Haines and home, past and present


February 21, 2019 | View PDF

Hina Zaidi looks through The Pioneer Press.

Using gloved hands, Hina Zaidi braces each side of a brittle newspaper's pages as she turns them.

On the second page of the yellowed paper, above an announcement declaring the discovery of the North Pole, she reads a headline that surprises her: "Indian Wife Beater Given Stiff Sentence."

"And then you look at the year, and you're like 'Oh, 1909,' then it sort of makes sense," Zaidi said. Still, the political incorrectness is "hard to swallow at times," though not dissimilar from where she grew up.

Zaidi, 33, is Pakistani. She grew up in Saudi Arabia, returned to Pakistan for college and then came to the United States for community college in California and then for her master's degree in museum studies in Lubbock, Texas. She is interning at the Haines Sheldon Museum until June.

One of Zaidi's tasks is culling historic dates from Haines' first newspaper, The Pioneer Press, for a calendar that will be sold in the museum's gift shop.

"Saudi Arabia has definitely come a long way in terms of basic freedoms," she said.

Until 2018, some women were prohibited from driving. In 2017, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman loosened strict legal codes binding women to legal guardianship from a male family member. For the first time, women could perform basic tasks independently, like get surgery, seek employment, or attend college without male consent. In 2011, women got the right to vote and run for municipal office from King Abdullah.

Zaidi started wearing an abaya, or a traditional robe that covers the entire body except feet and hands at age 10, because she was tall for her age. Generally, the garment is donned by Islamic girls once they hit puberty around 11 or 12 to perpetuate modesty, a deeply ingrained cultural value.

While Westerners might see clothing requirements for women as oppressive or sexist, Hina doesn't feel that way. She thinks it's comfortable.

"The main idea of covering is what is acceptable when you're praying," she said. "Even the men have to be covered to their ankles. It's a broader version of no shirt, no shoes, no service, except on a government level," she said.

Zaidi said her clothing requirements made life comfortable for her. "With an abaya, you can go out in your pajamas and nobody would know." She said she also enjoyed wearing a face veil as a school girl, so she could sleep on the bus during her 45-minute ride to school.

In the capital city Riyadh, where Zaidi grew up and her father worked for the American company, AT&T, foreigners were often treated as second-class citizens. Though Zaidi could get by in Arabic and dressed in local garb, she said she was always labeled as an "other."

"From the beginning of my life, we would hear things like 'being a kharji (foreigner) is difficult for you,'" Zaidi recalls. "If there's an accident with (a local and a foreigner), it's always the kharji's fault."

Local Saudis could pick up her accented Arabic just the same as a Mexican might notice a North American's imperfect Spanish, Zaidi said. "For children of expats, it's harder to call a place home," she said. "It's the sense of not really being able to belong anywhere."

In her formative years, Zaidi learned from her parents the art of how to cope. "It's all about focusing on the positives," she said.

In Haines, making it work has meant adapting prayer time around shorter days, eliminating meat from her diet and embracing trivia night at the Pioneer Bar.

Zaidi prays five times every day, only eats halal meat that has been slaughtered by a Muslim butcher, and wears a headscarf called a hijab.

"Everyone (in Haines) is very respectful of my prayer needs and my apparel," she said. When she first arrived in January, the sun rose at 8:30 a.m. and set at 3 p.m., Zaidi's three, mid-day prayers would happen within an hour of one another, she said. With daylight now stretching past 5 p.m., it's more manageable to take breaks at work.

Praying is so habitual, Zaidi can do it almost anywhere. Often, she says she'll pray in the back office at the museum, or in the upstairs children's room if it's not in use. Use of a prayer mat and kneeling are bendable rules.

Once, driving home from Chilkoot Lake on a January afternoon, the sun slipping behind the mountains, she asked, "Do you guys mind if I pray right here?"

"We just kept talking as she went through (her prayers)," Alyssa Wallace, a passenger in the car, said. "My initial reaction was, 'I hope that she doesn't feel even remotely uncomfortable.'"

Islam places emphasis on all life, and requires followers to only eat meat that's been sacrificed in the name of God and from a healthy animal. Halal butchers prepare animals by slitting the jugular vein.

In Haines, Zaidi doesn't have access to halal meat, but she can eat fish.

"I feel I can sacrifice not eating chicken for six months for eating fish," she said.

Zaidi has enjoyed fish and chips at the Pioneer Bar on trivia nights, potluck dinner parties and game nights. "I'm surprised at how many common interests I've found in such a small town," she said. "Everybody likes board games and food."

At a Super Bowl Sunday gathering, Zaidi munched on a slice of homemade pizza she was offered off a table blanketed with snack foods. Almost immediately, she stopped chewing.

"Does this have chicken in it?"

"No no," she was assured, "That's the vegetarian one."

"I almost wish it had been chicken," Zaidi said. God forgives you for eating meat if you didn't intend to, she joked.

Zaidi said that people in Haines have been inquisitive "in a good way" when getting to know her. She said she enjoys answering peoples' questions about her background, faith or, most commonly, her hijab.

"Someone asked me how the pins don't poke my head," she laughed.

Zaidi's mother worries that her daughter's headscarf will draw unwanted attention to her in Alaska, which Zaidi said is a common concern for her people. "One of the fears of Muslims in the United States is that you're drawing attention to yourself," she said.

Zaidi said airports are the only place in the United States where she has felt overt racism. "It's this known fact amongst Muslim and (South Asian) countries' people that you need to go three hours before your flight to allow one hour for the TSA time," she said.

"But you cannot hide what your beliefs are." She said her hijab is a form of praise to God. "I'm saying a lot with this tiny little bit of cloth."

Once her internship is complete in June, Zaidi will head back to Texas, hoping to find museum work. She'll join her older brother, and her parents, who have retired in Houston.

After three decades of moving every few years, home has come to mean her family.

"It's more about going home to my parents," she said. "I kind of feel like a salmon, you know how salmon always go back home?"


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