“People have the power…!” Minal and I hollered as I exited Will Clayton Drive to enter Houston’s Intercontinental airport. I noticed a yellow light flashing in my car’s dashboard and a bell began to chime. My car’s gas tank was emptying out.
I should have gassed-up earlier, but as usual, my schedule had been packed, and I was down to fumes. Turning off music and air-conditioning to conserve fuel, I veered into a terminal parking lot. The car’s chime was louder and more persistent as we spiralled upwards through the concrete parking garage.
Inside the terminal, my eyes scoured bodies that shuffled around us; in all the emails that punk rock artist Patti Smith and I had exchanged, we never specified where I would pick her up. A tall woman wearing a black coat with a guitar case strapped across her chest approached us. Her hair swept across her face as she turned her head from side to side. Our eyes locked.
Picking up six-year-old Minal, I strode toward Patti. We exchanged hugs, and I introduced Minal to the musician whose songs my daughter had memorised.
Patti’s smile widened. “Hello, Minal.” She held out her hand.
On our walk toward the parked car, Patti listened to my gas-tank story.
“You’re running on empty,” she commented.
I turned the key. The engine coughed and the chiming started again.
“But it’ll all be okay,” she added.
My first encounter with Patti Smith had been at La Guardia Airport, New York, two days after the United States began its Iraq invasion and three years before Minal’s birth. René and I were in Manhattan that week. He and I, along with thousands of protestors, had joined an anti-war march on Broadway. More than 30,000 people chanted, drummed, and sang, undeterred by armoured police flanking the avenue, some on foot and others on horses.
“I will not give up my voice. We have our voice—we have our human right to have a voice. You’re not patriotic if you don’t speak against the war”
Once we reached Washington Square, a protestor picked up a megaphone to make a speech. As we watched, police officers threw on gas masks, covered their chests with shields and charged forward. René and I tore down Thirtieth Street dodging teargas and billyclubs. When we asked someone why the police were attacking, we learned the protest organizers had a permit only to march, not to assemble.
The next day, as René and I waited at La Guardia Airport to catch our flight to Houston, he elbowed me. “There’s Patti Smith!”
I turned around to see Patti and her Group walking toward our departure gate.
Knowing she was heading to Houston—I was scheduled to interview her on Houston’s Pacifica radio about her Strange Messenger exhibit and performance—I walked over to her. As we chatted, I mentioned the previous day’s rally.
“I spoke,” Patti said. “I was there with my daughter.”
René’s eyes were wide when I joined him at the boarding gate: “You just talked to the high priestess of punk rock!”
In Houston, Patti joined my radio co-host and I to speak about art and activism: “Rock and roll needs to take a role and speak out…The present administration has been very successful in making people fearful…we cannot forget who we are…Reclaim democracy! Forget about the rhetoric. And remember that we are killing another people.”
She added: “The smallest action is worthwhile, even if you’re washing dishes and saying a prayer. Or if you’re a woman and just saying a prayer for an Iraqi mother…I will not give up my voice. We have our voice—we have our human right to have a voice. You’re not patriotic if you don’t speak against the war.”
A year passed, and Patti returned to Houston to perform in a downtown warehouse. After the concert ended, I passed a note to her via a security guard, inviting her for another visit to Houston to perform for my organisation. The note the guard brought back contained her phone number and her email address.
On our drive to downtown Houston, Minal giggled as Patti quested for Minal’s toes. One of the rules for the improv-game they invented while I filled gas was that Patti could not turn around, and she had to use her fingers to find Minal’s toes.
“I’ll get you a cloud, piggies,” she said. “I’m the goose!”
“I don’t want the cloud,” Minal responded.
“Then what do you want?”
“Okay, I’ll get you giant cloud…whrr, whrr, here I go…”
By the time we reached a Mexican restaurant in Montrose, Minal’s bare feet were pressed against her side window and her shyness had melted away.
Once we placed our lunch order, I pulled out a sheet of paper with a list of itinerary options, prefacing each item with: “Please let me know if this works for you.”
Because Patti’s visit was so spontaneous, I had not discussed logistics other than booking a performance space and promoting her memoir, Just Kids.
She listened, her gaze fixed on Minal, who was colouring on a paper placemat. Finally, she held up her hand. “You don’t have to go over everything with me. I trust you.”
Minal picked up a corn chip and crunched.
“Should she be eating those?” Patti asked.
Minal put her chip down and waited for her beef-fajita tacos.
“Enjoy your daughter,” Patti said. “She won’t be this age for long. They grow up fast.”
As she talked about her son and daughter with whom she was composing music, I turned to watch the little girl beside me. Focused on her drawing, my daughter Minal let her curly hair fall forward while her fingers gripped crayon.
The next day at the radio station, Patti laughed when asked about the creation of her song, People Have the Power: “I was peelin’ potatoes in the kitchen and Fred came in and said, ‘Tricia, people have the power. Write it!’ And I said “Yessir, capt’n’… The title song was a joining of us as a couple. I was much more for the individual and he was more of a humanist, and the song locks our ideas as one.”
At night, she stepped onstage at the Cullen Performance Hall, where she had performed in 1978 with her Group; more than thirty years later, I’d been able to book the same space for her. The auditorium was packed with a thousand fans. Patti read from Just Kids, evoking laughter and memory. When she clicked her fingers and clapped her hands, the crowd stood up to join her in singing "Because the Night...." In between reading and songs, she invited audience members to ask questions, both personal and political. And she closed the night with a rendering of People Have the Power as a poem without music, dedicating the lyrics to me. I stood before her on stage to receive her gift.
Before we loaded into my car (this time with a full gas tank) to head to the airport, I offered my gift to Patti: The Rebel’s Silhouette, a poetry collection by Faiz Ahmed Faiz, translated by Agha Shahid Ali.
“I love his work,” Patti commented.
I was not surprised that she knew Faiz’s revolutionary poetry: it was celebrated, not just in South Asia, but around the world. I also offered a crimson, white, and black cotton shawl, a traditional ajrak block-print from rural Sindh that had been gifted to me during my visit to Bhit Shah.
From the corner of my eye, I could see Minal fidgeting.
Picking up on the cue, Patti started the piggy-goose game, her voice changing as she asked, “Where’re the piggies? Where are they?”
Unable to stop giggling, Minal clamped her feet to the passenger window.
In between the game, Patti talked more about her own daughter. “Cherish this time,” she said. “It only happens once. You were running on empty when you picked me up. And now you have gas again.”
Our last image of Patti Smith was of her walking toward the terminal doors, her guitar slung over her back and the ajrak draped over her shoulders. The terminal doors flashed open, and she stepped inside.
Before I drove away, I opened Patti’s copy of Just Kids, the one that she had used at her performance. Her note read: To Sehba—with beautiful memories and a future of art and activism ahead, Love Patti. People have the power.
 In December 2008, I visited the 1772 shrine to dedicated Shah Abdul Latif Bhittai, a celebrated Sindhi poet, scholar and saint. The family that hosted my friend, Minal, and me offered me pottery and ajrak as farewell gifts.
Sehba Sarwar is a writer, artist, and educator, who is compelled to step across borders—literally and figuratively. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Asia: Magazine of Asian Literature, Callaloo and elsewhere. Author of a novel, Black Wings (Veliz Books, second edition, 2019), her short stories are anthologised by Feminist Press, Akashic Books, and Harper Collins India. Sarwar was born and raised in Karachi, Pakistan, and spent the first half of her life in a home filled with artists, activists, and educators. She is based in Los Angeles, USA, and her papers are archived at the University of Houston.
Photo credit: Minal Saldivar