Hazel Kahan of Mattituck always knew she wanted to write a book about her unique experience growing up Jewish in a predominantly Muslim country. She also knew she wanted complete creative control of how her story was told, so she was determined to self-publish, hoping to avoid restraints often imposed by traditional publishing houses.
Ms. Kahan began writing about her experiences in Pakistan more than two years ago, spending much of the pandemic collecting documents and photos and detailing events from her childhood. The finished book, “A House in Lahore,” was released this past October through Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing.
Despite her literary independence, Ms. Kahan did work with an online editing service for about a month before uploading her final manuscript to Amazon. Although they never met in person or even spoke by phone, Ms. Kahan said her editor understood exactly what she wanted.
She found other aspects of self-publishing more challenging. “There is a lot of work you have to do yourself,” she said, citing lack of promotional support, inability to obtain reviews and distribution issues as specific difficulties, “and I don’t always have the temperament for it.”
Nevertheless, Ms. Kahan, now 83, is happy she got the chance to tell her story her way.
That story begins with her parents, Jewish refugees from Poland who, unacquainted at the time, both emigrated to Italy in 1933. After meeting, marrying and receiving their medical degrees, the couple decided in 1937 to move to Lahore — then a part of British India — where European doctors were most needed. Ms. Kahan was born there two years later.
She details her experience living in an internment camp for the first five-and-a-half years of her life, during World War II. The British had deemed her father “an enemy of the state” for having a Polish passport, although no one in the family had any connection to Poland or its politics at that point. She reflects, and questions her early memories from the camp.
“I take a lot of time in the book exploring what memory means,” said Ms. Kahan. “While I remember things from that time, I often question whether I actually remember it or if it was just told to me.”
The memoir’s title refers to the house she grew up in after the war ended. Pictured on the cover, the dark red stone structure was built in the late 19th century. An example of British Raj architecture, it had arched mosque-style windows and a flat roof supported by columns of brick, and was surrounded by pink and purple bougainvillea. While Ms. Kahan and her younger brother spent most of their youth at boarding schools in India and the Himalayas, she still regards that building as her home.
“That house was like my North Star, I suppose,” she said. “Even when I went to England for college I always longed for that house. It was always my place.”
Being the only Jewish family in her neighborhood in Pakistan and moving across the world for school, she felt like she was always changing identities. Ms. Kahan mentions that her parents were obsessed with accents and emphasized the importance of one’s speech. The accents she adopted throughout her childhood defined her identity.
“My parents first sent us to an American school in India, so we developed an American accent and all I wanted to be was American,” said Ms. Kahan. “We were then moved to a British school in the England and my brother and I adopted British accents. And we wanted to be British.”
Ms. Kahan’s parents moved to Israel in 1971, when the Pakistani government became socialist, and spent the rest of their lives in Jerusalem. Her mother died in 1991, and Ms. Kahan had been living in Mattituck for several years when her father died in 2007. She realized than that there was no one left in Lahore who knew her. She got the opportunity to return to Pakistan in 2011, exactly 40 years since she’d last been there.
“I needed to find out if the house was still there,” she said. “Going back was like getting the bends while scuba diving; I needed to make my way there slowly, slowly, slowly. But once I got to Pakistan, everyone was so welcoming and wonderful. The house was still there, after all these years.”
Since that first journey back, Ms. Kahan has visited Pakistan three more times, most recently in March 2020, right before the COVID-19 lockdown. There, she met and connected with documentary filmmakers, musicians and even former patients of her parents, including a man her mother delivered. Her book details the many friends she’s made since that first trip, and how it has impacted her life.
“On one of my trips someone said to me, ‘You’re part of the history of the whole, your family is part of this town’s history,’ ” said Ms. Kahan.
Although nearly three years have passed since her last trip to Pakistan, Ms. Kahan is hopeful about returning soon, especially since the publication of her book.
“[The current homeowners] were very happy; they loved the idea that we’re celebrating the house,” she said. “It’s time for me to bring my swan song to a close, but I wouldn’t be completely surprised if, like the nine lives of a cat, I hear the call of Lahore beckoning to me again, with yet another swan song waiting in the wind.”
“A House in Lahore” is available on Amazon and Ms. Kahan has donated several copies to Mattituck-Laurel Library.