Thoughts on Moving Back to Pakistan

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Published in the Express Tribune Blog, May 21st 2012

When my husband and I moved to the U.S.,  we knew that it wasn’t for good. Contrary to everybody’s assumptions, we knew that we were going to return to Pakistan, at some point in the meandering, distant future.

But we never imagined that it would be now, so suddenly, so unexpectedly, and under such sad circumstances.

As I sit here in the study of my in-laws house in Lahore this sunny April afternoon, looking out on a sumptuous garden decked with purple petunias, crimson lilies, snow-white roses and bright bougainvillea, listening to the chipper of birds and the low chatter of servants in the kitchen,  New York seems like another planet – another time, another dimension, a past life that may or may not have even happened.

So many times we discussed this, our move back to Pakistan, my husband and I. Living in America had unalterably changed us; there, in our little 1-bedroom apartment complete with leaky faucets, mousey kitchens and batty landlords, independent for the first time, we realized how unnecessarily indulgent and painfully isolated our lives in Pakistan had been. While Occupy Wall Street was raging on in New York, we used to joke with each other about being the “covert Pakistani 1%” in the enthusiastic, indignant ranks of the “American 99%”.

“But I don’t think I could go back to living like the 1% or 5%  in Pakistan, the way we  grew up,” I used to say.  “I hate the idea of being waited on by a troop of servants when I know I’m perfectly capable of doing their chores myself. I hate the idea of  living in a 2-story, 4-bedroom mansion while a whole family sleeps, eats, dresses in a single cramped ‘quarter’, dusting and sweeping a dozen rooms that nobody uses. I just could not live in such a disparate situation.”

It wasn’t just upper-class guilt and a stubborn sense of egalitarianism rearing its head.  There was also something else – the beauty and indelible satisfaction of doing things yourself, of building your physical world with your own hands. Of chopping the garlic, peeling the onion, painting the wall, scrubbing the bathtub,  carrying a nice heavy bag of groceries upstairs to your apartment.

Sure, I complained about it sometimes, but I was secretly proud of it too. For somebody who had never even fried an egg  by herself, let alone stand in long, sweaty queues at the Post Office or trudge a mile to do laundry, the daily struggle was a revelation. It was something you shared with the people around you. You felt a camaraderie with the strangers on the subway, the families who shopped at your neighborhood grocery store, the cab drivers, the receptionists, the waiters at your favourite restaurant. No matter who they were, where they came from or what work they did, you had something more meaningful in common with them than just the colour of your passport. Call it class blindness or class ignorance, I loved the feeling.

And, naively, I believed we could replicate that sense of camaraderie and egalitarianism with the ‘common man’, in Pakistan. That we could forge an alternative, healthier, more connected way of living, different from that of our class and our our parents; we could live in a smaller house or apartment, for starters. We could learn to take public buses, and walk to the bazaar instead of taking the car or sending a servant. We were young – we didn’t need servants obsequiously lingering about all day to feed our lethargy. If we had money to spare, we could put a poor man or woman through school instead, or a training course for a skill he or she had always wanted. We could live comfortably, but simply, with less material things, less “luxuries”, fewer TVs and cars and expensive dinner sets. It was possible, I insisted. We could reinvent ourselves in Lahore too!

My husband was skeptical, realistic. “We are who we are in Pakistan – the privileged. And it’s pointless to try to be anything else, because that can’t change. We just have to do the best we can in the roles we’ve been given.”

I didn’t agree. I believed every person had the power to change their situation, even if in a very small way.

But now that we’re actually back in Pakistan, all that seems like selfish banter, a pipe dream, wholly insignificant in the larger picture. Suddenly, we find ourselves thrown into roles, situations and relationships that we never envisioned, never planned, never wanted. We find ourselves perpetuating the status quo, the class consciousness we wanted to break. I feel the Lahore lethargy seeping into my life, my mind, slowly sapping the vigour and determination I felt before. I don’t want to walk to Al Fatah anymore, people will stare. I don’t want to take the public bus, it’ll be hot and uncomfortable. I don’t want to iron my own clothes, because I’d rather sit at the computer or read a book or take a nap; besides, that’s what the maid is there for…right?

I often wish I was immune, the way people are, to the unpalatable realities we live with in Pakistan. I wish I could authoritatively give orders to the servants like they’re used to, shoo away that pesky beggar like she’s used to, tip the Al Fatah boy with a crumpled 20 rupee note because you have to give something, gloat over  the few hundred rupees you “saved” from the cloth merchant because you always get a bargain – I wish I could occupy the upper-class woman’s “role” with ease and flair,  but if after 22+ years of living in Pakistan I’m still not able to do it without extreme discomfort , will I ever be?

That’s not me. And I don’t want to be that person. I don’t want that “power”, that patronizing, suffocating power, and the guilt that comes with it.

Perhaps it’s impossible after all, to create that kind of life in Pakistan – the kind of life we had in America. For all its problems and its flaws, life there taught us not to take even the basics for granted. It taught us the value of hard work and instilled in us a sense of equality and humanity we had never experienced in Pakistan – a kind of class blindness. We could live in any sort of neighbourhood we chose, make friends with anyone we wanted, eat and shop where we liked, do any kind of job; and there was no judgment, no binding social norms and family legacies to contend with.

It’s true that there will always be someone who is less privileged than you. But  the divide need not be so wide, so unjust, so tragic it makes you want to cry, if you only think for a moment about the difference between you and the man who cooks for you in the heat of the kitchen all day. I would rather be the 99% than the 1%, any day, in Pakistan or any other place – if only I had the choice.

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13 thoughts on “Thoughts on Moving Back to Pakistan

    fatima_kh said:
    May 6, 2012 at 5:14 pm

    that’s sensitive and sentimental of you to write this way but I think you do have a choice – to make a change or be part of something fixing it in your own small way. Maybe eventually that would turn to something that might make a difference. Being that 99% will make life tough hard in Pakistan because you’d be treated the way you wouldn’t like and you’d envy the 1% so I think this privilege you have is a blessing and maybe you can change it by treating them a little better. I can relate to a lot what you write about especially the stares from random, how people judge on things you’ve outgrown to disregard as petty, the confusion and chaotic-ness, the given roles you’re supposed to ‘fill’ but I feel that has a lot to do with Lahore … Islamabad is slightly different I feel … its easier to sustain the values of hard work and building things by yourself there and treating the servants so I guess small changes from your own start might outgrow eventually –

    Zuhaib said:
    May 7, 2012 at 1:32 pm

    Manal U got such a good heart!

    Fahd said:
    May 22, 2012 at 4:02 am

    For writing such piece of work, you not only need to be a good writer but also good human being. Many others share the same dream, and i hope some day we would realize this dream.

    Jenny Chu said:
    May 24, 2012 at 3:02 am

    Yes, use your “privilege” the best way you can. Love you Manal!!

    Neemhakeem said:
    November 28, 2012 at 2:21 pm

    You have explained exactly what I am feeling right now, moving back to Islamabad after ten years of freedom from the norms of Pakistani life.

    Rashid said:
    July 25, 2013 at 11:09 am

    We are currently living in Canada and have the same feeling when thinking about going back home. It appears to be a hard decision for us but you are at least courageous enough to make the move already. Anyways, I will throw my two cents here.
    As a Muslim we believe that everything comes from Allah SWT be it good or bad. Some people are always more privileged than the others and it has no changed from the very first day this world was created by Allah SWT. I think privileged people have more responsibility when exercising their social, economic, moral powers in a society. You basically have two choices if you still decide to remain in Pakistan:

    A. You can keep feeling the guilt every single day and do nothing about it.
    B. You can actually do something about it. I will explain B in the following paragraph.

    There are always opportunities around us to help people move out of that 99% (un-privileged class). For example, if you have servants, see how you can help them improve their lives. Perhaps if they have kids you can make sure that they go to school, have proper clothes to wear, have food to eat etc. You might not be able to do much for the immediate generation of your servants but their future generation. Allah SWT gives you these powers/privileges to use to not only help yourself but most importantly others, the less privileged segment of our society, the 99%. You should be thankful to Allah SWT that he has given you so much but at the same time you will be questioned i.e. how did you use your powers to help the less privileged. You do not need to move to the 99% because by doing so you are not thankful to Allah SWT’s blessings. Rather use all of this in a creative way and you will see your guilt be gone.
    Hope it helps.

    sidra said:
    August 30, 2013 at 5:11 am

    You have a very nice writing style; I enjoyed it thoroughly. I searched “back to Pakistan” and found your page. I know it is quite common for immigrants to say they will return. However, I was actually born and raised in Canada/US all my life. I know, as a single female, moving to Pakistan is virtually impossible. My parents are trying to settle me, so I said I prefer someone from Pakistan. But, one of the first things the boys and their families ask my parents is whether or not I am an American citizen! So I an in this dilemma for now…I know if I marry here, surely the next generation would be fully assimilated here..and I don’t feel entirely comfortable with that.

    […] The last time I put thoughts to paper was a year and a half ago, when my husband and I moved back to Pakistan from the US. It happened very suddenly, under very sad circumstances, and there we were – thrust into a disorienting new life, filling roles we had never anticipated, never wanted, inhabiting, once again, the cloistered, uninspiring world of Lahore’s privileged class. […]

    Brenda said:
    July 25, 2014 at 6:20 am

    Beautifully written, and I love your honesty. You sound like a very good hearted person, and I wish you peace with which-ever path you should choose in your life.

    Ayesha Tariq said:
    November 30, 2014 at 4:45 am

    I love the way you wrote it, but I so strongly disagree with you. 😌 Pakistan is a country that needs me and you to change it. Life in the US is robotic. Wake up, work,come back,sleep. There are no values here. No social norms to adhere by. No purity and love in relations. Even a child when 18 is pushed away to lead an independent life. What for? Is this the only purpose we have in life? To earn money? We have better goals. We need to make our country a place worth living. Pakistan ko hamari zaroorat hai. Maybe we don’t understand the value of a free country. Please save it😢

      manalkhan responded:
      December 9, 2014 at 10:21 am

      Hi Ayesha, thanks for the appreciation, and the criticism :) I agree with what you’ve said about life in the U.S., but I also think that it’s up to each invididual to choose or fashion the kind of life they want to lead. I think you have this kind of freedom in most Western countries, but in Pakistan, it’s constricted, limited by the very same social norms that we value so much. You tell me yourself – can the young girl who works at your house really aspire to save up enough money to go to college one day, or to marry whom she wishes, or to get a job at a bank, or do anything differently from how her birth dictates? Especially if she belongs to a minority. Pakistan is too rigidified by class, by poverty, by crazy religiosity for it to be liveable for me right now, and while I understand your point that we ourselves need to make our country a better place, it’s easier said than done. I also think we each have a right to be happy, and live wherever and do whatever that brings us peace. Anyway, my stance about this constantly evolves, so who knows what I’ll think another year from now :) By the way, maybe you’d like to read the follow-up to that article, that I wrote when I moved away from Pakistan a year or so ago: https://windsweptwords.com/2013/10/04/thoughts-on-leaving-pakistan/

    Ambar said:
    June 16, 2015 at 10:12 am

    Very well said . When we live abroad we learn the value of hard work and at the same time we regret the undervalued hard work in our very own country. I just wonder why can’t we live the same life here in Pakistan.
    You are very right – that young girl can never get a better job. A little boy who does not go to school , instead works with his father and other laborers to build a plaza can never shop in that plaza.
    I can truly feel what you have written and even those things which could not be expressed.
    Oh and I just noticed your follow up article.
    The PTI fever , the hustle and bustle of Lahore , can totally relate to that and above all the words – Escape and PEACE.

    Best Wishes

    Vic ali said:
    December 23, 2015 at 4:46 am

    Expressed and explained well. We are thinking to move back as well. Actually, we have been discussing this for a couple of years now but at the same time we know the fact that in order to move back to Pakistan, there would be a lot that would be needed to compromised. Last time when we visited Pakistan, I started to have anxiety attacks and the reason was absolutely the system there. Zig zag, heavy, traffic without the rules, fear of pedestrians on the road while you are driving. Even in these times of online banking you have to take your utility bills to the local bank branches and wait in the line to deposit it. Load shedding, lack of respect for every human being. Especially, while you live abroad for a long time, naturally, you assume that you will find everything in the same way as you will return. Unfortunately, that’s not the case, secondly, you find people who are continuously trying to talk to you in American accent but when you ask them about their history, you find out that they never had a passport in their lives. I felt bad because they do not copy western culture in technology, science, business and research but they keep the lead in fashion, nightlife, disobedience and dating, etc.

    Yes I want to move back because I have memories, relatives and much more over there. Just a little compromise is needed with that struggle.

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