These are anxious times. Mercurial too. So much to do, such little time. Or too much, depending on which world you inhabit. Technology is a timely distraction. Material procurements too. Pakistan is home and it makes you wonder if starting points matter? Will we get lucky at immigration? And what of the children – will they at least be sociable, fit in? The girls might undergo fire drills at school but terrorist routines too. “What if?” frequently emerges. Guarantees might be the succor, but the unpredictability presenting itself instead, stokes our nerves. They say we are the highest porn watching country but still. What might calm the dullness and offer happiness?
Some days, it feels like a mission: retreating from unimaginativeness and pursuing pleasure. It’s not meant to feel like that, duty-like, a burgeoning liability. None of this appears organic. And then somewhere, tucked away safely, thousands of miles afar, you stumble upon a place, a cove, a dream-like prospect: Sydney. Down Under, really? At first, your mind doubts what your eyes might be seeing: how can a city built on bread and watch thieves fulfill your mission? But then, slowly, as you allow happiness to enter, you start to believe in the magic that might occur when humanity mixes.
Sydney is an artist’s haven, a people-watching paradise. Every hour, a new character appears, piquing your curiosity and you wonder what their story is. Sitting in a bookshop, a jazz bar, a park bench, a café, outside a local chocolate shop, across from the oldest post office building, you don’t quite understand how so many mixed up, simultaneous accents can produce such mellow harmony. You struggle to believe how local coffee vendors have outwitted Starbucks.
You’re not in a rush to make an appointment, cancel a lunch date, catch the sightseeing bus, tick off items on the holidaymaker circuit. Because no matter where you stand or walk or sit, every sight poses lasting memories – no oversized dreams promised and left undelivered – but time to immerse in the petite, unthinkable joys. You’re listening to a young street musician play Fur Elise and momentarily, your mind snaps – you finally have time – that luxury hasn’t propped up in years and you wonder if any of this is real.
You’re in a recital hall parked next to an Indian fritter shop that makes its own mango chutney, listening to French music; a woman from Haiti is holding the stage – she isn’t size zero. This isn’t a bloated room with limitless ticketing – the spaces in it are infused with people who remain glued to her voice, who aren’t taking Insta selfie; devoted audience, excited to applaud a woman of color, even as she sings in a language they don’t understand. They’re eager to surrender to music and this finite moment.
You return to the heart of the city, staring at the faces surrounding you. The guy on the opposite bench is in a cobalt colored suit, eating from a home-made snack box; perhaps he’s on lunch break or unemployed. A young girl sketches with a ballpoint on vast stretches of paper spread on the boardwalk; she has a sign propped next to her artwork asking people to be kind. Someone in the near distance is threatening the return of Jesus. A Nepalese-looking boy snucks into a large-sized green balloon and performs a series of acrobatic tricks. How does he catch his breath inside? Your eyes halt at a row of luxury stores and it surprises you to find Ferragamo and Bally housed in a heritage building. Is affluence widespread here? Then why aren’t people illogically sporting these brands everywhere around you?
Perhaps the geographical distance works like a charm – separated from the imperatives of the rest of the world – Sydneysiders seem to be competing with a previous version of themselves instead of with the rest of the world. They appear poised, comfortable in their skin, and there’s something deeply provocative, tempting even, to watch them effortlessly glide. Initially, it fazes you because no one seems to be on a mission here. They’re quietly succumbing to happiness for its own sake – not hinged to handbags and high heels – and eventually, it makes you want to do the same.
You buy ice-cream and your little girl drops the cone within minutes of purchasing it; you go back for another one and the man across the counter immediately offers a replacement. He appears shocked when you are about to pay for it. “That is too kind,” you tell him, equally astonished by his refusal. “I’m just following the rules,” he speaks matter-of-factly, conveying to you that he doesn’t deserve a cookie for something as natural as kindness. This repeats itself a few times and you start getting used to it.
You’ve been walking these streets for a fortnight now; during the day but sometimes at night too. The assortment of faces strikes you each time; dissimilar, clasping hands, occasionally embracing, holding on to each other’s words. You thought this was mostly white country? Where are the goras? Of course, you see them too, but the mixing of humanity surprises you. You’re waiting for someone to gape at you each time you speak Urdu or mention fangirling the Pakistani cricket team. But this place boasts convict-founded equality and you begin to understand why the sales manager in the Spanish shoe shop isn’t looking at you weirdly for walking in wearing an Abu Dhabi jacket. Everyone seems to think of each other as people – just that. You find yourself relinquishing judgment too.
The days and nights you spend in Sydney make you think that this is a city of madness and other maladies – of love found and lost and found again; gothic, versatile, with bucolic bridge and sierra views. Eccentric is customary here, celebrated even. A hinterland of listeners and believers, filled with faith and simple oblivion. People have time for your story. Its fatal attraction lies in its clandestine crevices, the bird alleys and fairylike night markets, the virgin nooks and crannies which you stumble upon when you least expect to.
You think back to one of your most tender memories of Sydney; a theatrical performance amidst an intimate evening in the suburbs – Things I Know to be True. Forty-eight hours later, as you are boarding the flight to Melbourne, you recall the protagonist and it makes you think of all the things you know to be true. As frighteningly short as the list is, it makes you realize that the one thing you do know to be true is what living for your eulogy, not for your resume feels like. That is what Sydney – with its towering bridges and tiny walls – will always represent for you. Happiness. Someplace that dances as if no one is watching.
You are uncertain at first but eventually, you find yourself struggling to fall out of love with this flawed, rapturous, star-gazing thing of beauty – which holds the power to alter an infidel, a philophobic, a magic skeptic – nowhere else quite matches. For a long time after, you stop seeking guarantees and the dullness seems to disappear.
Saba Karim Khan works at New York University’s campus in Abu Dhabi. She tweets @SabaKarim