Pakistani pride from California

Father and son travel to Sri Lanka for ICC Twenty20

Updated: October 2, 2012, 6:24 PM ET
By Wright Thompson | ESPN.com

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OLOMBO, Sri Lanka -- Saeed Jaffer and his son, Jamal, have flown across the world, from Pasadena, Calif., to the tip of the subcontinent, to stand together and cheer on a muggy Sunday night. Their voices join with thousands more to send out thundering volleys of the team's familiar chant: Pakistan … Zindabad! In the minutes before the Pakistan-India match starts, Saeed keeps looking at his son. All around them, insanity: Indian fans waving flags, Pakistani fans waving flags, everyone lobbing chants. Music pumps out of enormous speakers, Guns N' Roses, MC Hammer, Bollywood dance numbers. In the madness of Section A Upper, a wave of emotion hits. You can see it on Saeed's face, hear it in his voice. He thinks about how Jamal, 13 and a typical American teenager, will remember this night for the rest of his life. It's the first time either of them has seen the rivalry in person, and they high five, a dad and his boy, a Norman Rockwell portrait. They wear matching T-shirts. "He'll probably bring his own child to something like this someday," Saeed says, and his words are full of love, and of longing, of all the things fathers want for their sons. That is how he feels when the game begins. He feels at home.


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aeed is a doctor, like his father before him. His dad, Saleem, moved to the United States in the late 1960s, determined to learn skills that he could take back to Pakistan. The family eventually settled in Pittsburgh, where co-workers told Saleem to buy Steelers tickets. The Jaffers were a long way from home, disconnected from everyone and everything they knew. Following a team opened a door to the strange community around them. Saeed sat in the stands for the Immaculate Reception and cried because he thought the Steelers had lost.

[+] EnlargeSaeed Jaffer
Wright Thompson/ESPN.comSaeed Jaffer and son, Jamal, attend the India-Pakistan cricket match Sunday in the ICC World Twenty20 in Sri Lanka.

When the family relocated to Pasadena soon thereafter, he took his Steelers loyalty with him. They lived a comfortable, modern life, with expensive private schools and all the comforts of America. His parents loved their new country but missed home. After Saeed's grandfather died unexpectedly, all that regret and angst coalesced into an actionable idea. When he was 14, about the same age as Jamal now, the family packed up and moved to Pakistan. The country they found wasn't the one they'd left. "They went back 17 years later," Saeed says, "and they were fish out of water." All that longing had been for an idea, really, and three years later, the family returned to California. They belonged in America. Their children were more American than Pakistani.

Saeed went to MIT, then to Harvard Medical School. He bonded with fellow expats and immigrants over television feeds of Pakistan winning the 1992 World Cup, cheering so loudly at 4 in the morning that someone called the police. His son was born in Boston, and when they all moved back to Pasadena, Jamal kept his loyalties to the Celtics and the Patriots.

"He's stuck to Boston roots," Saeed says.

Jamal likes the Patriots. Saeed likes the Steelers. Jamal likes the Celtics. Saeed likes the Lakers.

"You don't know how bad it was in 2008," he says. "He almost ended up in the garage."

He laughs and turns to Jamal.

"Was it Game 6 of the Finals when I almost killed you?"

They both like Pakistani cricket. Jamal has been to Pakistan twice a year since he was born. The Jaffers would never move, so they work hard to maintain some connection to their family's past. Connections fray with each passing generation, and the ones that remain become more precious. Saeed feels warm inside when he sees his typically American son playing cricket with neighborhood kids in Pakistan, and he feels the same way when he and his son stand in a stadium and yell, "Pakistan … Zindabad!"

Zindabad is a new word in an old language, and while it translates roughly to "long live," its true meaning is more layered and complex. It describes not only the physical nation, the cities and the fields and the mountains, but the idea of it, the thing that Saeed's parents missed as they built a new life across the world. When the crowd chants "Pakistan … Zindabad!" they are remembering the spirit of a people as much as a nation-state. They are asking for protection and sustenance. It is, at its core, a prayer that the story of a family will outlive all the things that are conspiring to erase it: distance, poverty, war, politics, success, technology, death. Zindabad is the hope that some part of a father will be passed on to his son, Saleem to Saeed to Jamal.


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hey flew around the world to see their team get blown out.

Pakistan starts strong, and before it all falls apart, hundreds of green and white flags fill the sky. They move back and forth in long, sweeping arcs, creating the illusion that the stadium is moving. All the well-known super fans are sitting in front of Saeed and Jamal: the green and white Avengers, the green and white Uncle Sam, complete with the cartoonish top hat, and the old bearded man who stands up and shouts aggressively at the pitch. Later, someone translates.

He is actually screaming, "Lovely! Lovely!"

He also chants: "Play hard!"

The cheers are intense but oddly positive, which Saeed thinks is because many fans in the stadium are expats, people who left India or Pakistan and moved out into the world to build a better life, holding on to some parts of what was left behind. In other countries, be it the United States or Dubai, the subcontinent immigrants hang together, eating in the same restaurants, sending their children to the same schools, dreaming the same dreams. That tolerance carries over to the stadium in Colombo. Everyone yells for their team, not against their opponent, at least until the very end when the Pakistan crowds reference a rather dubious scientific study about the size of the average Indian, um, manhood. The Pakistani fans chanted the Hindi word for short. Even that prompted laughter. Late in the match, an Indian fan and a Pakistani fan wave flags at each other, then step nose to nose … to hug.

"Anyone who crosses the line is an aberration," Saeed says. "Both countries are not inherently violent."

Every 10 minutes or so, the familiar call and response breaks out.

"Pakistan!"

"Zindabad!"

"Pakistan," a fan in front of them yells.

"Zindabad," Saeed and Jamal scream in response.

Finally, mercifully, the game is over. Saeed and Jamal climb down the concrete stairwell in the corner of the grandstand. It's still muggy, and a throng of people move through the fading glow of the stadium lights into the darkness of the street. Taxis and three-wheel tuk-tuks honk and weave. Saeed puts his arm around his son. When Jamal starts doing the horse-riding move from "Gangnam Style," Saeed smiles and a look of contentment passes over his face. He is here with his son, wearing matching Pakistan shirts, leaving a cricket stadium. All is right with the world.

Later that night, back at the house where they're staying, Jamal flops down on the black sofa in front of the television. With the time difference, the Jets are playing the Niners and he wants to watch. The next morning, he wakes up and finds out the Patriots crushed the Bills. A win by his favorite football team eases the sting of the previous night's cricket debacle, and he settles on the couch with a book. Zindabad, Pakistan -- and Pasadena, too.

Wright Thompson | email

Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine
Wright Thompson (@wrightthompson) is a senior writer for ESPN.com and The Magazine. He has been featured in seven editions of Best American Sports Writing and lives in Oxford, Mississippi.