Politics

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

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.