Montgomery Blair High School's Online Student Newspaper
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April 3, 2013

From Pakistan to La Paz

by Mimi Verdonk, Online Sports Editor
Among Blair’s diverse crowd walks a group of giggling Hispanic girls conversing rapidly in Spanish about plans for the weekend. Within the voices, a south Asian accent comes across - but only a hint, extremely easy to dismiss. It takes a closer look to see the one girl who is not like the rest: Jawairia Iqbal.

Iqbal, right, with Jannett Encinas, has met many of her Hispanic friends dancing in her Bolivian dance troupe. Courtesy of Jawairia Iqbal
Iqbal, right, with Jannett Encinas, has met many of her Hispanic friends dancing in her Bolivian dance troupe.
Before Iqbal spoke Spanish fluently, performed in a Bolivian dance group and immersed herself in Hispanic culture, she was a newcomer to a land unknown to her and her family. Born in Karachi, Pakistan, to Pakistani Muslim parents, Iqbal immigrated to the United States in the sixth grade. She came to America with limited English proficiency and in the beginning struggled to find a friend group. While many would have turned to the community of immigrants from their own country to feel at home in a foreign land, Iqbal found companionship amongst her Hispanic peers. "When I first came to this country, they were the only people that accepted me," Iqbal, now a senior, says.

While Iqbal improved her English, she never lost the friendship and connection she felt with the Hispanic community during her first few years in the United States. In eighth grade, she signed up to take Spanish class, eager to learn the language of the group of people that had welcomed her with open arms. She practiced the language with those around her, working to become trilingual, fluent in Spanish, in addition to English and her native tongue, Urdu. Iqbal made the jump from Spanish 4 to taking Advanced Placement (AP) Spanish Literature while also being enrolled in AP Spanish Language and Composition concurrently, this school year. Despite skipping levels, Iqbal's current AP Spanish Literature teacher, Dianette Coombs, applauds Iqbal’s resilience in learning the language. "She took the initiative to read almost all of the material for the class during the summer," Coombs says. "She is a good student."

"When I learn a language, I break a barrier. I get to see the beauty of other cultures." - Jawairia Iqbal
Though she credits Blair Spanish teacher Pedro Fernandez with inspiring her to push the limits of the language, 50 percent of what she knows in Spanish, according to Iqbal, came from the words picked up from friends, who she almost always speaks to in Spanish. She's grown an appreciation for Latin music, enthralled by Salsa, Merengue and Bachata. She watches Hispanic soap operas, telenovelas, and has grown a taste for Bolivian food like chicharrón and sopa de monte. All of this exposure to the Spanish language and the Spanish-speaking culture has helped Iqbal see things from a different perspective. "When I learn a language, I break a barrier," she says. "I get to see the beauty of other cultures."

Of course things aren’t always so simple for Iqbal. Although she has been accepted by most Hispanic people she meets, Iqbal is often met with initial hesitation, shock and confusion that she is able to speak Spanish as though it is her native language. When her friend Janett Encinas, also a Blair senior, invited her to join her traditional Bolivian and Peruvian folk dance troupe, Tinkus Kay'Sur, Iqbal had some reservations of her own. "I had no clue about Bolivia and no clue about the dancing, "she says."I was completely different."

Even Encinas, who regularly speaks Spanish or, occasionally, Spanglish, was unsure Iqbal was ready to join an entirely Latino dance group. Though Encinas had asked Iqbal to participate, she doubted her invitation. "When she told me she wanted to join my group, at first I thought that it wasn’t going to be a good idea," Encinas says. "I thought she was going to feel uncomfortable around people that only speak Spanish."

The other dancers were shocked to find out the girl they had been speaking to in Spanish was actually Pakistani.
Despite all her dissimilarities Iqbal managed to fit right in with her fellow performers who come from all over Central and South America, ranging from young children to 25-year-old adults. Only her inexperience with Bolivian dancing separated her from the other members, and when she began chatting away, in Spanish of course, friendships formed quickly. The other dancers were shocked to find out the girl they had been speaking to in Spanish was actually Pakistani. "They just assumed I was Hispanic," Iqbal says proudly.

Not everyone has warmed so easily to Iqbal’s fascination with all things Latino. Though Iqbal assures that her parents are proud of her mastery of another language, they often tease her, describing her as lost. As conservative Pakistanis, they tend to isolate themselves, Iqbal contends, but she can't seem to think of the exact word in English to express their seclusion. "Los paquistanís son cerrados," she says. It’s not until later that the word she was looking for comes to her, racking her mind for the English translation: "closed off."

Though she's much more open than her parents, Iqbal still finds areas of contention between her life as a Pakistani immigrant and her life as a the Bolivian dancer. When Tinkus Kay'Sur prays to the Virgin of Guadalupe before performances, Iqbal chooses to abstain. Religion is something that she hasn’t changed, and has no intention of altering. "When it comes to my beliefs, I prefer to keep them," she says. Religion is one of the only topics Iqbal doesn't elaborate on.

Iqbal prides herself in having friends that span the wealth of diversity of Blair's student body. Courtesy of Jawairia Iqbal
Iqbal prides herself in having friends that span the wealth of diversity of Blair's student body.
Like many seniors preparing to embark on life's journey outside of the confines of Blair high school, Iqbal has high hopes for the future. She sees herself living in Spain later on in life, drawn to their history and rich culture, not to mention the Spanish boys her parents would surely disapprove of. But for now her plans are much nearer to home. She plans on studying at Montgomery College for two years starting in the fall, and transferring to University of Maryland where she will study Romance Languages and Biology. She wants to be a doctor or a Spanish teacher, or maybe both - she's not yet sure. One thing that is certain is that she will continue to immerse herself in the language she has grown to love.

Iqbal doesn't have a problem standing out or being different from the people around her. She transitions easily from role to role, culture to culture, language to language. She takes pride in her diversity, in all of her differences, something that she believes separates herself from many members of the immigrant community. "When people come to America they try to blend in," she says. "But me? I keep everything that's a part of me."

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  • K.V. on April 5, 2013 at 1:22 PM
    Truly shows the unique person Jawairia is, I applaud your article Mimi.
  • master on April 7, 2013 at 7:39 PM
    agreed. please do more of these.
  • rachel on April 9, 2013 at 9:05 PM
    we love you jawairia :D
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