Politics

Thoughts on Leaving Pakistan

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Published in the The Friday Times Blog, October 10th 2013

The last time I put thoughts to paper was a year and a half ago, when Z and I moved back to Pakistan from the U.S. 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.

Much elapsed during the past 18 months in Lahore – much to rejoice and remember. Engagements, bridal showers, weddings. Baby showers, and babies! Farewell parties and welcome-back parties, birthday parties and Pictionary parties.

PTI fever, elections, and Pakistan’s first peaceful political transition. Cliff-diving in Khanpur under a shower of shooting stars, dancing arm-and-arm with Kalash women as spring blossomed in the Hindukush,  tracking brown bears and chasing golden marmots in the unearthly plains of Deosai.

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Exploring Deosai Plains with Adventure Travel Pakistan (ATP)

I rediscovered my love of history, of abandoned old places that teemed with a thousand stories and ghosts and memories, thanks to a research job at LUMS. I spent many days wandering the cool corridors of  Lahore Museum, many hours contemplating the uncanny beauty of the Fasting Siddhartha, whom I had the privilege of photographing up-close. I stood beneath the most prodigious tree in the world in Harappa. I got down on my knees with a shovel and brush during a student archaeological excavation in Taxila, personally recovering the 2, 000-year old terracotta bowl of a Gandhara Buddhist monk.

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The prodigious banyan tree of Harappa, over 500 years old

But, there was also dissatisfaction. Frustration. Restlessness. When we were not travelling, we were in Lahore. And Lahore was, well, warm. Convenient. Static. Living there again was like a replay of our childhood; like watching a favourite old movie on repeat. After a while it got monotonous,  somewhat annoying, and a little disappointing.

In Lahore, I could see what the trajectory of my life would be, the next 10 years down. It was all planned out, neatly copied from upper-class society’s handbook, with but minor divergences here and there.

It wasn’t a bad plan. In fact, it was a perfectly good, even cushy plan, one that would have made a lot of people quite happy.

Not me.

There were other things, too, about Lahore, and about Pakistan, things that had bothered me growing up but now seemed magnified to alarming proportions – the incomprehensible extremes of wealth and want, the insurmountable divisiveness of class, and, most worrying of all, the overwhelming  self-righteousness and religiosity.

You could not escape it. Everywhere, from TV talk shows to political rallies, drawing rooms to doctors’ clinics, there was a national fixation with religion. Everybody, it seemed, was desperate to convince others – and themselves – of their absolute piety, their A+ scorecard-of-duties-towards-God, their superficial Muslim-ness. Instead of the genuine, unselfconscious goodness that shines through truly spiritual people, in Pakistanis I just saw fear. Religion for them wasn’t about peace, and love, and knowledge. Religion was base.  Religion was social security. Religion was a tool of power.

I wanted to say to these superficial Muslims, to all Pakistanis: Just look at the state of our country. Do you really believe that religion has helped us? Has it at any level, be it individual, societal or state, improved the country? Has it alleviated poverty,  reduced rape and murder, mitigated corruption?

Have we as a nation achieved anything positive, anything progressive, in the suffocating garb of “religion”?

No. On the contrary, we, as a nation, have become more intolerant, more oppressive, more barbaric, as our outward religious zeal reaches new heights.

And we still do not realize it. The Matric-fail maulvi at the local mosque still preaches that a woman wearing jeans in public is jahannumi, Hell-bound , the TV reporter interviewing an old peasant who has lost his home in a flood wants to know if he kept his Ramzaan fasts, and that educated, apparently “modern” aunty you met at a family dinner launches into a sermon that the reason Pakistan is beset with crises is because we don’t pray enough.

That was the most terrifying thing I found about Lahore, and about Pakistan. It had become a place where no other framework for discussion about the future of the country, about anything at all, was possible. We were mired in religion. We were stuck. We were deeply and hopelessly stuck.

As for the people who thought differently, the elite and “enlightened” class that I belonged to, they responded to the onslaught by retreating further and further into their elite Matrix – a sequestered, protected world where they met up with friends over Mocha Cappuccinos at trendy New York-style cafes, where they shopped for designer Italian handbags in centrally air-conditioned shopping malls, where their children spoke English with American accents and dressed up for Halloween, where alcohol flowed at raucous dance parties behind the gates of a sprawling farmhouse.

It was a parallel universe, where we all lived free, modern lives, like citizens of a free, modern country, utterly disconnected from the “other” Pakistan, the bigger Pakistan, and for all intents and purposes, the “real” Pakistan. Yet perhaps it was our only survival, the only way to keep sane and creative and happy for those of us who chose to live in our native country.

But I could not reconcile myself with it. I found it schizophrenic. Perhaps living abroad had changed me too much. I could not find balance, I could not find peace in Lahore.

So when Z applied to and got selected for a European Union PhD scholarship based in Madrid, Spain, I was thrilled – and a little relieved. Was I looking for an escape? Maybe. Was that the only solution? I don’t know.

When we left Lahore, on that eerie twilight flight in August, our lives packed into just one suitcase and backpack each, it was bittersweet. I was sad to say goodbye to loved ones, to friends and family whom I had spent such wonderful moments with in the past year and a half. I would miss being a part of their lives. And I would miss the incomparable natural beauty of Pakistan – beauty and heritage that is disappearing day by day due to neglect and ignorance.

Yet, I knew that I had to go. I knew that staying in Lahore – “settling for” Lahore – buying joras from Khaadi, attending tea parties, managing servants, the odd freelancing or part-time job at LUMS, was not going to make me happy. And we could not depend on the love of family and friends to sustain us forever. At the end of the day, everybody had their own lives to lead, their own paths to carve,  their own hearts to follow.

And that is how we ended up in Madrid.

Sitting here in our apartment, a cozy, parquet-floored 1-bedroom affair, I can hear the babble of excited young voices below the window, a medley of idioms and accents; the clink of glasses and clatter of dishes from neighbouring restaurants; the smoky strumming of a flamenco guitar, the wheezy chorus of an accordion; the cries of Nigerian hawkers and Bengali street-peddlers, and the low hum of the occasional taxi cab, rolling along the cobbled streets of this lively old pedestrian barrio of the Spanish capital.

A new city, new adventures, new memories. 

Street of Old Madrid
Street of Old Madrid
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Occupy Wall Street

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Occupy Wall Street protesters rally in Lower Manhattan - Getty Images

I loved going to protests as a student. Be it a rally of solidarity with Palestine, a march against the U.S. invasion of Iraq or Emergency Law in Pakistan, or a demonstration to close down Guantanamo, I was there, banner in hand, a chant on my lips. It was important, I thought, for people  to express their concern, their outrage, at an injustice committed to them, in their name, or perhaps not directly affecting them at all – because if you couldn’t do anything about it, you could at least say something. That was a moral obligation, even if it made no difference to the powers-that-be, even if it did not stop the wars or the drone attacks or the repression and brutality. As the famous African-American writer and former slave Frederick Douglass said, “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”

So why aren’t I out there at Liberty Plaza for Occupy Wall Street? It’s been 5 weeks since the encampment started, and I’ve only visited twice.  When we talk about it at work, I try to avoid mentioning this embarrassing fact. Why is it, as the largest and most dynamic protest movement in America since the Civil Rights and Anti-War resistance of the 1960s, the closest thing to an “American” Spring, unfolds right here in New York City, that I have no interest in being there, in participating in history?

I’ve puzzled over this question myself many times. I mean, I understand what they’re protesting – economic and social inequality, and a government that is beholden to corporations rather than people. That, and everything else that’s wrong with the American system, from healthcare to unemployment to the illegal wars. And I agree with them.

But where is my fervor? Where is my passion, my “earnest desire to save the world“?

Photo: Civilian News

Last weekend, we were at a tea party at a friend’s place, talking to a fellow Pakistani, a little older than us, who had been living in New York for the past 6 years. He was telling us about a recent trip to Lahore to see his ailing father.

“And you know what’s the hardest thing for us first-generation expatriates? Not being there for our parents in their old age…”

I nodded sympathetically, though in fact I had stopped listening to him when he said “us first-generation expatriates”.  “What?” I thought to myself, “I’m not a first-generation expatriate, nor do I intend to be one! I’m going to go back to Pakistan!”

And I think that’s when I got my answer, the explanation for my lack of motivation for participating in Occupy Wall Street. As much as I support the movement, in spirit and letter, I do not feel it’s my struggle. I do not feel it’s my part in history to play. Simply because, I’m not American, and I don’t plan on becoming American.

I know other Pakistanis and foreign-born New Yorkers who are thrilled about the movement, spending days at Liberty Plaza with the other protesters, marching alongside the students, teachers, workers and citizens of all classes and color at their various demonstrations. But they are like the guy we met at the tea party, those who have accepted their immigrant status and the fact that they are here to stay. They’ve left their native countries, shed their old accents, looking for homes to buy. They belong to America now. This is where their children will grow up. And so, they have a cause, they have a reason –  they are part of that 99%. They can chant at the marches, they can sing along with Tom Morello when he performed “This Land is Your Land” at the encampment this afternoon, they can hold signs that say “We want our country back!” and mean it.

Photo: Getty Images

Not so for me. I feel like a traveler, merely in passage – observing the goings-on of this great, crazy city, appreciating the good and the bad, the beautiful and the ugly, and moving on – curious but detached. I live here, but I don’t belong here.

Does that somehow absolve me from being an active member of the community? I don’t know. Have I become less idealistic than I used to be, a little more practical, self-interested, or just plain lazy? I hope not.

Do I need to be 17 again to feel the same fervor, the same passion, the same desire to change the world? Maybe, maybe not.

But Occupy Wall Street is not my moment, my history. It’s America’s moment. And, no matter what happens tomorrow, a week from now, a month from now, even if society is ostensibly as unequal as it was on September 17th – at least you spoke out against it. At least you demanded. That can never be in vain.

Of New York Spring And Other Things

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Cherry Blossoms at the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens

Published in the Express Tribune Blog, May 24th 2011

Growing up in Lahore, the monsoon was my favourite season – those muggy, motionless afternoons when the air suddenly exploded into a river of orange rumbling down from the sky, leaving  jungles in its wake. In the Bay Area, every balmy day of the year was beautiful, except for the miserable characterless spluttering they called “rain”.

In Ithaca, my favorite season was Autumn – a firedance in the sky, bold and blazing, curling flames at your feet – and in New York, it has to be spring, the teenage of nature, blooming poetry from every stem, every lilting branch, a breathtaking ballet of pink and white to melt the numbest of hearts.

On such a blossomy New York morning last week,  my colleague Ryan and I were at Ground Zero, jostling through hundreds of New Yorkers and out-of-towners to catch a glimspe of President Obama as he arrived to lay a wreath at the September 11th Memorial Site, giving symbolic “closure” to the victims and families of the 9/11 attacks following Osama bin Laden’s death.

We didn’t see him, not even a fluttering hand through a darkened car window. But Obama became irrelevant once we actually started talking to people and recording their reactions to the news.

Reactions were predictable: One African-American woman beamed with pride that Obama had been in office “to do this urgent and important duty”.  A man who had lost four friends in 9/11 said he felt a sense of “relief” and “joy” beyond words; a young Latino-American who had recently joined the New York National Guard said that Osama’s death was a source of “unity” for the people of New York, that it showed “how Americans come, in all shapes and forms, whatever nationality you are, whatever colour you, you come as one.”

But what was unpredictable was these people’s, these ordinary, middle-class, tax-paying people’s calm acceptance of the fact that yes, this “war” was “not going to end with the death of one person”, and, more disturbingly, that it needed to go on, that it should go on. In the words of one 67-year old ex-Marine, “We have to be there in all of these countries to assist…so we can crush these people when they come in to try and hurt us. It’s not over.”

While Ryan asked the questions and I filmed behind the camera, I thought about the questions I would have liked to asked these people: “But do you know the real victims of your country’s fallacious war? Do you know who actually pays the price? What do you have to say to the families of the tens of thousands of innocent men, women and children killed in Afghanistan, in Iraq, in Pakistan because of this war? Were their lives less valuable than the 3,000 Americans who died here 10 years ago? Do you not see that what you’re calling ‘patriotism’ and ‘duty’ is decimating entire societies, entire nations as we speak?”

I said nothing of the sort. I was a journalist, and Pakistani on top of that, and the last thing I wanted to in that sort of crowd was get into an argument.

Turns out, somebody else was there to do it for me – a lanky, bespectacled and very articulate white dude by the name of Sander Hicks, founder of the “Truth Party”, a grassroots political group that believes in exposing, among other things, that 9/11 was a hoax. Wearing a black T-shirt with the words “9/11 Is A  F****** Lie!” emblazoned on the front,  Hicks shouted maniacally but fearlessly to the crowd, “Why am I here? Am I here to celebrate and validate a murder? Without a trial, without due process? Or am I here to think about what is really happening in our country? Do we justify war and torture based on 10 years of lies? I say no! And I don’t care if there’s a million people here saying I’m an a**hole, just for standing up for peace and truth!”

I’m still surprised that he got away with saying that, and a lot more, without even a scratch, though there were several jingos in the crowd who would’ve liked nothing better than give the provocative Hicks a square punch in the jaw. But shouting back “A** hole!” is about as far as they let their anger go.

Then, in the middle of the fray, a red-faced, white-mustachioed little man broke in.  Wearing a black leather jacket covered in Vietnam insignia, he cried in a thick Texan drawl: “You know what I would’ve done if I were President when 9/11 happened? I would’ve nuked the entire Middle East, starting with Mecca!”

So far that day, I had been watching and listening to everybody almost in the third person, a perfectly neutral body. But at those words, I felt my heart plummet like it would at a vertical drop on a Seven Flags rollercoaster, and a row of goosebumps shot up my spine as if I were suddenly caught in an Arctic gale wearing a T-shirt.  I looked up from the camera. My eyes stung; I thought I was going to cry.

It was pure reflex. Something essential and sacrosanct, seeded deep in my soul, had been momentarily convulsed, and at that moment  I could’ve clawed out the old geezer’s eyes.

There was a collective gasp from the crowd, and people were quick to admonish, “No, no, that’s crazy!”, “Not all Muslims are bad!”. Clearly, the guy was a loony, and it would’ve been stupid to take anything he said seriously. But his words stayed with me long after his black leather jacket disappeared into New York’s hubbub of loonies, and I thought, “So this is how it feels – to be on the ‘other side’ of extremism?”

We’ve had plenty loonies from our part of the world dispense similar tirades about the West, about the U.S., Europe or Israel – and God knows I’m not a fan of those parts of the world or their foreign policies. But to an ordinary citizen, who has as little control over what their government does as we do over ours, how would it feel, to be so sweepingly abused, to hear people talk about obliterating our very existence, burning flags and defacing temples as if it would have no consequences, as if it would offend or incite nobody; even for someone like me, deeply suspect of nationalism and all other -isms in general, I admit that it would hurt – that it does hurt.

It’s complicated. It’s complicated when imperialism is involved, when capitalism and neo-colonialism is involved, when there is a legitimate anger and resentment and struggle for justice, like in Palestine, or Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. It’s difficult to talk without the invective, without the bitterness, when you have been truly wronged; but all I can say is, let’s let humanity win.

That’s all we have, to keep us alive and save us from total catastrophe. At the end of the day, it’s the ordinary citizen’s sympathies and consicence that we can appeal to, we can touch; it’s their ordinary humanity that we can depend on, not any politician’s or government’s. Let’s not sacrifice that, no matter which ‘side’ we come from.

Pure beauty

 

Egypt

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Without prognosticating, analyzing, rationalizing – irrespective of what happens next week, the next day, or the next hour – I think what’s happening in Egypt right now is beautiful.

It’s one of those moments, those rare historical moments that you read about in your classroom within the pages of a textbook,  and it all seems so distant, almost fictional, and as you memorize the facts for tomorrow’s quiz you believe quite firmly in your heart that nothing like that will happen in your lifetime. Because you were born too late, because  such grand, moving events just don’t happen anymore…

When rank and class and position, the neighbourhood you live in, the clothes you wear, the work you do, the dialect you speak,  everything that separates you from your fellow countryman or woman on any ordinary day suddenly melts away; when, for once, a system that is based on divisions and duties and somebody else’s rules breaks down, and people speak with one voice – not hundreds, not thousands, but millions. Then, there is no power, no number of tyrants, tanks or tear gas in the world that can silence them.

I’m not there in Tahrir Square in Cairo, but I can feel the thrill, the exhilaration that something momentous is unfolding before my very eyes.

It feels a little like the time when Obama became President in 2008. Irrespective of what came after, the broken promises, the disillusionment, that moment itself was pure magic; when a joy and a hope stronger than anything else swept over us at the I-house in Berkeley, and people from every corner of the world cried and cheered and celebrated in a unison that couldn’t be explained, only experienced.

Or the time when Pakistani students rose up against General Musharraf’s martial law in November 2007, abandoning their books and taking to the streets with a passion that nobody knew existed, and young people in Pakistan felt – even if only for those dramatic few weeks – that we actually had the power to change the society we lived in, for the better.

What ensues from such extraordinary moments isn’t always better, or different from before. But isn’t life more about the moments than the monotonous spaces between them?  The birthdays, the marriages, the revolutions and revelations, those precious fleeting moments of unadulerated emotion that you savor and look back to forever?

Egypt has had its moment. Egypt will never be the same. The Arab world will never be the same.

And Egyptians aren’t thinking, “What if Mubarak doesn’t step down after all? What if the constitution isn’t changed at all? What if another puppet dictator takes over in his place?”

These questions and speculations and eternally encumbering “what-ifs” don’t bother them, shouldn’t bother them. The Egyptian people have spoken. They have shown their courage, their humanity, their unity to the world, and to themselves. That is the power, that is the point. That is what matters.

Is there a Pakistan to go back to?

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Resting by the Kunhar River near Balakot, Kaghan

Published in The Express Tribune Blog, January 20th, 2011 

Last week, my husband and I finally booked our return tickets to Pakistan. It was a proud moment, a happy moment, not only because we had been saving to buy them for months, but because we had not been home in nearly two years.

Two years! It seemed like a lifetime. We had missed much: babies, engagements, weddings, new additions to the family and the passing of old, new restaurants and cafés, new TV channels, even the opening of Lahore’s first Go-Karting park. I could hardly contain my excitement.

Yet, my excitement was tainted by a very strange and disquieting thought – was there even a Pakistan to go back to?

My family and friends would be there, yes, and the house I grew up in, and my high school, and the neighborhood park, and the grocery store where my mother did the monthly shopping, and our favorite ice cream spot…

But what of the country? And I’m not talking about the poverty, and corruption, and crippling natural disasters – I’m talking about a place more sinister, much more frightening…

A place where two teenage boys can be beaten to death by a mob for a crime they didn’t commit, with passersby recording videos of the horrific scene on their cell phones…

A place where a woman can be sentenced to hang for something as equivocal as “blasphemy”…

A place where a governor can be assassinated because he defended the victim of an unjust law, and his killer hailed as a “hero” by religious extremists and educated lawyers alike…

This is not the Pakistan I know. This is not the Pakistan I grew up loving. This bigoted, bloodthirsty country is just as alien to me as it is to you.

The Pakistan I know was warm, bustling and infectious, like a big hug, a loud laugh – like chutney, bright and pungent, or sweet and tangy, like Anwar Ratol mangoes. It was generous. It was kind. It was the sort of place where a stranger would offer you his bed and himself sleep on the floor if you were a guest at his house; a place where every man, woman or child was assured a spot to rest and a plate of food at the local Sufi shrine. A place where leftovers were never tossed in the garbage, always given away, where tea flowed liked water and where a poor man could be a shoe-shiner one day, a balloon-seller the second, and a windshield-wiper the third, but there was always some work to do, some spontaneous job to be had, and so, he got by.

Our impromptu guide in Lahore's Old City

My Pakistan was a variegated puzzle – it was a middle-aged shopkeeper in shalwar kameez riding to work on his bicycle, a 10-year old boy selling roses at the curbside, a high-heeled woman with a transparent pink dupatta over her head tip-tapping to college, with a lanky, slick-haired, lovelorn teenager trailing behind her.

A Michael Jackson-lookalike doing pelvic thrusts at the traffic signals for five rupees, a drag queen chasing a group of truant schoolboys in khaki pants and white button-down shirts. Dimpled women with bangled arms and bulging handbags haggling with cloth vendors, jean-clad girls smoking sheesha at a sidewalk café, and serene old men in white prayer caps emerging from the neighborhood mosque, falling in step with the endless crowd as the minarets gleamed above with the last rays of the sun in the dusty orange Lahore sky.

Badshahi Mosque, Lahore

My parents were practicing Muslims, and religion was always an important part of my life. Like most Pakistani children, my sister and I learnt our obligatory Arabic prayers at the age of 7; I kept my first Ramadan fast when I was 10, bolting out of bed before dawn for a sublime sehri of parathas, spicy omelettes, and jalebi soaked in milk.  By the time I was 13, I had read the Holy Qur’an twice over in Arabic, with Marmduke Pickthall’s beautifully gilded English translation.

Freshly fried, sticky hot delicious jalebi

But beyond that – beyond and before the ritual, or maddhab, as they say in Sufism, came the deen, the heart, the spirit of religion, which my parents instilled in us almost vehemently, and which to me was the true message of Islam – compassion, honesty, dignity and respect for our fellow human beings, and for every living creature on the planet.

So, while we as Pakistanis had our differences, and practiced our faith with varying tenor – some were more “conservative” than others, some more “liberal”, some women did hijab while others didn’t, some never touched alcohol while others were “social drinkers” – we were all Muslim, and nobody had the right or authority to judge the other, no red-bearded cleric or ranting mullah. There were no Taliban or mullahs back then; if they existed, we never saw them. Not on TV, not in the newspapers, not on the streets, in posters or banners or fearsome processions.

It wasn’t a perfect society – far from it. Inequality and abuses were rampant, and daily life for a poor person could be unbearable. But they were the kind of problems that every young, developing, post-colonial nation faced,  and the worst thing that could happen to you when you stepped out of the house was a petty mugging or a road accident, not a suicide blast.  It was chaotic, but it was sane.

Then 9/11 happened, and society as my generation knew it began to unravel.

It started as a reaction to the U.S.-led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, and the “clandestine” war in Pakistan – a reaction shared by Pakistanis across the social spectrum.  But somewhere along the way, the anger and grief mutated into a suicidal monster of hatred, robed in religion and rooted in General Zia’s pseudo-Islamic dictatorship of the 1980’s and the U.S.-funded Afghan jihad. Pakistan was engulfed by a frenzy, an unspeakable frustration, not only at the neighboring war that had expanded into its heartland, but at everything that was wrong with the country itself. And, like the hysteria that fueled the Crusades or the 17th-cenutry Salem witch-hunt, religion was the most convenient metaphor.

I don’t claim to understand it all, or be able to explain it.  But what I do know is that, alongside the two purported targets of the “War on Terror”, there is no greater victim of 9/11 than America’s indispensable, ever-“loyal” ally and doormat, Pakistan itself. 

Maybe I’m romanticizing a little. Maybe I’m being over-nostalgic about the past, and the Pakistan of my childhood. But that’s the only way I can retain some affection for my country, the only way I can sustain the desire to go back and live there – if I know and remember in my heart, that it has been better. That it was not always like this.  That it was once rich, multifaceted, beautiful, tolerant, sane – and can be again.

Winds

Aung San Suu Kyi Released

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Aung San Suu Kyi

I woke up this morning and the first news that greeted my eyes when I opened my computer actually made me shout out with happiness – Burma’s pro-democracy leader and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, the beautiful and heroic Aung San Suu Kyi  has been released from house arrest! After almost 15 years of incarceration in abject conditions at her home in Rangoon by the unspeakably brutal military dictatorship that has ruled over Burma since 1962, this is indeed a joyous event, even as it comes in the wake of a sham election.

I feel a personal involvement in the story, not only because of a phenomenal book called the Glass Palace which left a lasting impression on me when I read it 10 years ago, but because of an amazing individual I got to know and work with during my time at Berkeley. Min Zin is a former political activist from Rangoon who was forced into exile by the Burmese junta in 1989, at the age of 16. He now lives in California and is pursuing a PhD. in Asian Studies at UC Berkeley. I wrote a detailed profile about him and his life in exile, which you can read here.

The military junta in Burma has always been extremely erratic, and nobody knows how long Aung San Suu Kyi will remain free or the extent of her freedom. But I hope that this augurs a new and happier chapter for this rich country, poised at the fascinating crossroads between India and East Asia, and home to some of the most spectacular Buddhist temples in the world, such as the Golden Rock Pagoda. I hope I can visit some day.
Golden Rock Pagoda

The Third World Burden

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Published in The Express Tribune Blog, November 9th 2010

At the documentary production company where I worked over the summer, one of our ongoing projects was a film about four Senegalese teenagers chosen to come to the U.S. on basketball scholarships.  At the end of the film, the boys return to Senegal, and one of them says, “We were the lucky ones. Now it’s our turn to give back”.

“Ah, that noble, philanthropic  spirit!” my boss once remarked with an ironic laugh, as we had just finished watching a fresh cut of the film. “Isn’t that just so African?”

“No,” I thought to myself, slightly annoyed at her levity. “There’s nothing African about it. That’s what anyone would say…”  And as these thoughts went through my mind I suddenly realized that this attitude, this sentiment that the young Senegalese boy had expressed and which to both of us was so completely natural and unquestionable – this attitude was not universal.

It was a Third World phenomenon – a Third World burden.

We’ve all felt it, growing up in Pakistan – an intense altruism combined with intense guilt. We know that we haven’t done a thing to deserve the blessings we were born with, the schools, books, servants, cars and computers that we took as a matter of course; and that knowledge makes us extremely uncomfortable, especially when we go out and see the reality on the streets.

So, we feel this compulsion, this need to absolve ourselves by “giving back”, by doing charitable works, by devoting some part of our lives to this country that gave us so much simply by a stroke of chance.

This sentiment formed a large part of my motivation for applying to Journalism School. Journalism, for me, was a way to “give voice to the voiceless”.  It was my way to “make a difference”, to “bring about a change” in my country, and other such lofty objectives, which I liberally elucidated in my personal statements.

I was being serious, too. Ever since I can remember, I’d had this sense of responsibility to “represent” Pakistan, to tell the world “the truth” about my misunderstood and maligned country. How and why I wanted to do this was irrelevant – I just knew that I ought to, that it was my duty. And so, I would dutifully watch the 9pm PTV Khabarnama with my dad every night, scan the front pages of The News or Dawn every morning before going to school, glue myself to CNN and BBC as soon as I returned home in the afternoon – feeling very good about myself, very clever and “aware”, because, after all, this was going to be my cause, this was my calling.

Then I came to the U.S., and found a precise pigeonhole sitting in wait for me – the young, educated, uber-ambitious, hyper-intellectual Pakistani-Muslim woman, an increasingly-coveted creature in the West. Falling into this pigeonhole, I was expected to be an authority on “all” things Pakistan – at least the Western conception of it – from the “War on Terror” to the safety of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons, relations with China and India to the sociology of the Taliban, violence against women, the rights of minorities, jihad in Islam, arranged marriages, the latest connivances of the President/Prime Minister/Military Dictator, whichever incompetent and corrupt nutcase happened to be in power, the number of casualties in the latest suicide attack…

I couldn’t have any other interests, and people didn’t expect me to converse about anything else. Anything but the destruction, misery, and despicable politics of my country.

And, to a degree, I lived up to the stereotype.

When Musharraf declared emergency in November 2007, when Benazir was assassinated in December 2008, when suicide bombs and drone attacks were reported in the New York Times, the people I passed by in the corridors on my way to class would look at me with an intense pity, even a kind of awe, as if I were the most unfortunate person that they knew. As if, every time a missile struck or a bomb exploded anywhere in the country, whether in Islamabad or the remotest part of the tribal belt, I was somehow directly affected, I somehow had an obligation to grieve. And I would return their gazes with a wan smile, a nod of the head, acknowledging their sympathy and concern with the air of a martyr.

But you know what? Sometimes I faked it.

Deep down inside, I knew this person wasn’t me. This person, posing to be the face of the Pakistani nation, a walking repository of information and statistics, the sharp-witted political analyst or TV talkshow host of tomorrow – it wasn’t me. I wasn’t an authority on anything except my own experience, and my own experience was as far removed from the poverty, violence and corruption that comprised of the news headlines as could possibly be.

And what if – what if I didn’t even want to be that person?

What if all I wanted to do in life was travel the world and take beautiful pictures? Did that make me a “bad” journalist, a “bad” Pakistani?

Once, one of my father’s friends – an “uncle” – asked me what kind of “issues” I was interested in covering as a journalist. “Politics, economics, business?” were the options he gave me.

I decided to be bold this time. “Actually, I’m more interested in culture and travel,” I said, stealing a glance at the yellow National Geographics that lined the bookshelf. “I want to be a travel writer.”

The uncle’s face fell to a grimace, as if I’d said I wanted to be a tight-rope dancer at Laki Rani Circus. “Well, there’s a lot of use in that,” he muttered.

So we come back to the Third World burden, where every son or daughter of the land who is able to “escape” abroad for a better education or a better life is unspokenly expected – no, duty-bound – to “give back”, to “represent”. Indeed, to have other aspirations or interests would be considered strange, unworthy, or irresponsible, a “waste”.

Don’t take me wrong. I love my country, and I do want to give back. But I don’t want it to be out of “duty”, or worse, guilt. Most of all, I dislike the stereotype, the stereotype that hounds countless other Pakistanis, especially journalists like myself, that prompts the same automated response from all media outlets in New York City: “We don’t have any use for you here. However, if you were in Pakistan…”

Yes, I know.  I need to be in Pakistan, I need to talk only about Pakistan, if I want to be a journalist, if I want to further my career, if I want to make a name for myself. I need to write an exposé on madrasahs or profile Faisal Shehzad, interview a militant, acid burn victim, or a young girl orphaned by the floods – I need pictures of devastation, tales of suffering, tinged with the spectre of extremism, I need to exploit my country’s wretchedness on HD-cam for the world to see, and then tell myself I’ve done a good deed, that I’ve done “my bit” to give back.

No, thank you. Give me a ticket to teach English in China, a spot on a Mount Kilimanjaro expedition or a photographic tour of the Silk Route any day. I’ll give back when I want to, the way I want to.