<i>Editors Note: This is the beginning of a three-part series concluding Wednesday by Waj Syed, a senior at the University and Daily columnist who traveled to Pakistan and Afghanistan earlier this month. Syed was born in Pakistan and lived there until 1997.</i>
Its name means the Home of the Pure. The Indians call it a seceded state, a failed theocracy, supporter of secession movements and breeding ground for suicidal mullahs.
The United States, till recently, considered it the perfect candidate for a pariah country. Now the Americans think it is a front-line state, ally in their latest adventures in the scorching deserts of international terrorism and the palatial halls of multinational diplomacy.
The British, who sired it as a bastard child of colonialism, have never looked it in the eye, for a father feels shame when he looks at the young adult he had left at the doorstep of poverty and chaos.
The Soviets tried to engage it, but failed. The Taliban tried to divorce it, but perished. The Chinese are wary of it, keeping it armed with rockets and fighter-bombers, but at arm”s length. The so-called Islamic world shuns it for its poverty and its non-Arab culture, but envies its nuclear arsenal and military might.
Cricket fans love it. Strategic analysts live off it. Terrorists use it as a holiday resort. Drug-lords exploit it. Refugees deplete it. Nuclear scientists adore it. Intelligence experts respect it. Superpowers abuse it. Donor agencies ignore it. Debtors frown on it. Diplomats distrust it. Smugglers cajole it. Politicians prostitute it. Generals rape it. Mullahs sleep with its secular soul.
P for Punjabis. A for Afghans. K for Kashmiris. S for Sindhis. Tan for Baluchistan.
An acronym gone wrong. A dream gone sour. Manufacturer of real IRBMs and fake Advil, fighter of cold wars and topic of heated debates, home to high mountains and higher budget deficits.
Founded: August 14, 1947. Population:140 million. Area: 803,940 sq. kilometers, about twice the size of Texas. A lonely, if not a lone-star state.
Rushdie dubbed it a seceded dream. Kissinger labeled it a horrible example. Bush is now calling it a good friend and ally. Its now defunct constitution and over-inflated currency notes call it the Islamic Republic of Pakistan.
I call it home.
And home is where I was these last few weeks. Back for the break or back for good was the question at hand as many friends, foreign students like myself, decided to stay back. No one knew if we would be rejected by U.S. immigration when we got back, for the immigration rules are changing faster than any time in recent history. There were all sorts of rumors going around about people three credits away from graduating not being allowed back in the United States. Still, it was worth the risk. It was an important time to be in Pakistan close to, if not the, epicenter of global geo-politics of current times.
But thinking that home is a political hotspot and worth a trip is like coming to Michigan simply because you like the school colors. I had to be home to come to at least partial terms with the constant pressure of being, simply put, a foreigner.
That didn”t quite happen. Reinforced in its stead was the realization of the permanence of limbo, a concept which is slapped on the self by being an international student, that most exotic of university species: bearer of zealous will, high tuitions, strange clothes. Having encountered everything from being asked if there”s Internet access and sports cars in Pakistan to being physically assaulted for speaking Urdu doesn”t quite cover the tactile odyssey of academia abroadis.
Of course, being stateside means a lot, but before anything else it means you”re more often than not automatically boxed in, usually reserved for viewing at the American Museum of Stereotypicalism. Dealing with the microwaveable, ready-to-eat, ethnic-food TV-dinner, Type-B human that most perceive you to be is then an understandably pathetic ordeal: Oh, you”re from Pakistan, huh. How come you”re drinking? Why do you drive a truck? What”s with you and Star Wars? Do you get football?
But this is not that column. That being Oh, look at me, I”m hip, I can dance, drive on the right side of the road, throw a spiral, listen to the Mighty Mighty Bosstones, grill a mean burger, read Superman, talk about Enron and that No Doubt chick whose name I can”t recall, watch SNL reruns on Tuesdays. So please, please let me in. I”ll keep it real.
Nor is this the I-can-do-it-all-without-you column. I”ve written way too many of those as well: Yes, we have Hershey”s bars where I”m from. No, no camel races to school for me. No, I don”t feel uncomfortable at Rick”s, nor am I enraged by the dress-code at Sigma Kappa, and actually, the reasons I can speak and write better English than you are that a) I started learning it as early and b) it”s probably a matter of intellect.
This piece is a plea of despair. No help will arrive, but the complaint has to be lodged: for being the perfect outsider. Not just here, but back home as well.
Out of sync. Completely and in Technicolor. Both home and abroad, wherever they may be. My accent here is a denim jacket there. If I generate pleasant surprise for calling out a fourth-down conversion here, I”m expected to be Butkus over there. If I”m Osama Jr. here, I”m Bush III there. I”m your Ali Baba to their Jim Morrison. I”m your Kalashinkov to their M-16. Burning in cultural ovens, I”m a kebab versus a hot dog. I”ve been extradited and hung in absentia of nationality and nationhood by both the United States and the Pakistan Supreme Courts. I”ve been electrocuted and beheaded by wired chairs and scimitars. They”ve painted my sort in medieval tapestries and Moghul miniatures. They”ve built Taj Mahals for me in New York and Eiffel Towers in Lahore. I”m in patriotic delirium and immigrant psychosis. I am a thriving constitutionalist and a notorious junta general.
I”m Sen and Keynes, Mullah and capitalist, Iqbal and Plath, Saddam and Oppenheimer, Kshatriya and G.I. Joe.
Redeemably, and in all probable certainty, I am also a victim.
I once wrote about the comforts of being back home: “I leave for Karachi, Pakistan. I leave for a praetorian nation with a defunct constitution, endemic corruption, general poverty and a military regime. I won”t see kids working on a snowman when I”m driving home from the airport. I”ll probably be witness to tense paramilitary troops guarding aristo-political neighborhoods, protecting Third World elitism with First World M-16s. I will be safe then. Safe from the teeming millions. Safe from taxation concerns. I will gloat in a foreign educated, upper-class, quasi-celebrity status. I will revel in machine-gun sponsored segregation.”
If you didn”t pick up the pathos there, here”s a shovel: The international student, in effect, usually becomes a dual-time chronometer. A watch with two times. As a Pakistani student here, or an Amreeka returned upper-cruster there, the only common function between the two spatial and temporal domains of home and abroad is playing ambassador of peace. This-is-the-way-things-really-are in America or life-is-not-that-bad in Pakistan become a characteristic spiritual subtitle, almost involuntarily.
One becomes an apologist. A diplomat. A go-between. An extempore debater of the “real picture,” challenging all the Fox and Al-Jazeera inspired quasi-hawks. Saying that that you shouldn”t do it if it bothers you doesn”t fly. It has to be done, so imperative are its functions and purposes. Still, it”s not a comfortable life to live, either way you look at it.
Sorry for making it sound like life for my kind is pitted in permanent disparity. It”s not entirely that bad. Both sides, home and here, have elements which are willing to listen and, it should be added (but not too patronizingly), learn.
But the nitty-gritty is more hard-boiled, a seedier Marlowe-versus-Bachchan mystery. For example, a couple of months ago, a friend and I were assaulted outside the Union by a man who called me a “fucking Iranian,” evidently upset when he heard us conversing in Urdu. Both my friend and I took some blows but didn”t react. Then on New Year”s Eve, the party I was attending (along with many other young people from similar liberal backgrounds and foreign degrees) in Karachi was interrupted by a car bomb which injured five, evidently planted by some right-wing “Islamic” (hardly worth the title, but more on that later) group which frowns on coed friends celebrating the Gregorian New Year. Like last time, my friends and I did not react. Like last time, we couldn”t, nor was there any need to.
Moral of story: different tactics, same issue. Flip-sides of the same coin, banks of the same river, whatever. If the quasi-Bill O”Reillys are reading too much into the text here, probably thinking that getting assaulted by a single male is a way better deal than risking a car-bomb planted by an extremist organization, and that consequently the mullahs are more dangerous than the redneck, then think again.
To reiterate, tactics and extremity are not the point here. A crime of hate, whether by bigoted rednecks or indoctrinated mullahs, in the form of a physical assault or massive car bomb, has the same implications: Inculcation of personal or group animosity.
Terrorism is not just a political crime. It has obvious elements of hate attached to it. Consequently, race-based assault is not just about ethnic intimidation. It has deep political roots as well. My attacker in Ann Arbor had probably never met an Iranian whom he mistook me for. There was no basis of hate except skewed political alignment and bigoted views about Iran.
Similarly, the car-bombers in Karachi had probably never talked to the foreign-educated Pakistani college kids they were trying to brand as impious and worthy of death, but that did not matter in the face of class-conflict and political leanings. I don”t care whether one party used a bomb and the other their hands to show their disapproval of the things I do. That is a debate about access and accountability, law and order, and should be reserved for another moment.
The case at hand is based on a single notion about whatever happened to me, and whatever else is happening on a larger level between those two societies, may they be Karachi and Ann Arbor or the so-called West and the so-called Islamic World: The only thing both sides, this one and that, have in common, is their ignorance.
There is no immaculate representation, wrote the historian Fernando Caronil. To me that sums up many rules of the world: that there is no real moral right and wrong, no polarized political right and left, no absolute law and order versus crime and punishment. There, is thus no perfect Us versus Them. It just cannot happen, feasibly or sensibly. There are, however, seas of subjective gray, and one has to learn to either come to terms with that element of neutrality or swim with the sharks.
Waj Syed can be contacted via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.