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Not Talking About Pakistan
February 5, 2013 11:22 AM   Subscribe

Part I
Questions about Pakistan are now a fact of living here, no different from damp weather or calls from salespeople. Some I deflect, and others I frame around my own terms.

Part II
Many conversations about Pakistan would contain the expectation that perhaps I might have more to say on the failures of the country (these usually revolved around an excess of Islam and a general shortage of women’s rights) by virtue of being from there. But this would be coupled with the assumption that I could not be entirely objective about Pakistan given that I was, after all, from there. Unless I nodded and agreed like a good native informant on the failed state that was Pakistan, I was either out of touch with reality, or sentimental about the place for unknown reasons. The word “Pakistan,” itself would summon up a cluster of images with fire in them—assassinations, suicide bombs, and car burnings, and always the bearded men. But my map of everyday violence in San Francisco was populated by several actors of whom none had beards and none believed themselves to be violent, but whose attacks invaded almost every space I occupied.
Part III
The trust that sustains the imaginary line around our classroom is difficult to build. Sometimes, we are angry with one another and confused about ourselves. The pain in the room is tangible when one person’s sense of threat clashes with another’s. I know there are times I’ve been irreverent towards things my students hold sacred, and I love them for the generosity with which they tolerate this. We talk about Pakistan, even when it gets difficult to reconcile one person’s Pakistan with another’s. And we talk about blasphemy, even when it means flooding the room with religious beliefs and their opposite and bracing ourselves for more hurt. We talk about how much we hate this place and we hurl our rage at each other and expect to be forgiven. Or, there are periods of calm in which we remember that we hate this place because we feel betrayed by it, and because somewhere underneath anger, there’s love.
by Dr. Taymiya R. Zaman, from Critical Muslim 04
posted by the man of twists and turns (12 comments total) 17 users marked this as a favorite

 
Amazing writing.
posted by Diablevert at 12:12 PM on February 5, 2013


Amazing writing - BUT - we still need to know about Pakistan.
Every single Pakistani I've ever met was intelligent, cosmopolitan and open-minded. This includes the grocery-store owner with no education who lives in in my block and is a favorite of Indian immigrants, as well as the massive group of well-educated Pakistanis who are integrating in the European business community and a pleasure to be with. But while they are all incredibly loyal towards their nation, I imagine they are here and lots of other places because Pakistan is increasingly uninhabitable. I wish they would stop being loyal and begin being responsible, because there are several reasons Pakistani national politics have global impact
One thing we all need to understand is that the way religion is described and used today, it is politics, and should be treated as politics. Islamist politicians have a legitimate cause, with which you can agree or disagree. But they should not be allowed to pretend that political issues are religious. And the other way round: the Pakistani elite need to acknowledge that the islamists are above everything else about class, and they need to begin opening up society and providing welfare services.
This is applicable just about everywhere, but religion/ideology keeps it secret. A huge reason is the apparent need for US governments to hide the fact that more equality and less ideology does a safer community make.
posted by mumimor at 12:52 PM on February 5, 2013


Thank you for this very intense piece of writing. A very revealing account of what it is like to have your identity constantly under more-or-less 'well meaning' attack.

I've been on the other side of this, being an American living in various Middle Eastern countries for many years. I am, at least consciously, not very nationalistic at all. But there are lots of things I like about the USA, and being the American in the room in Egypt and elsewhere for years on end was frequently emotionally and mentally exhausting.

Now that I am back in San Francisco, I can relax and hate on my country again.
posted by jackbrown at 1:32 PM on February 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


There’s something about a mosque in New York that everyone is upset about. There’s someone called Peter King and there are hearings of some sort. A cab driver gets stabbed for being Muslim. Mosques are being infiltrated with FBI agents and spray-painted with hate. Muslim activism is being arranged around the premise that Muslims are American too; the premise is banal and lacks dignity, but is necessary for these times. Later there’s news of people holding a national celebration because Osama bin Laden got assassinated in a place called Pakistan. “You’re so lucky you are not here,” a friend from San Francisco says to me on the phone. “It would make you sick—the jubilation, the crowds, and all the hatred for Muslims and Pakistanis.” I imagine my office in San Francisco, and the flurry of emails asking me if I want to give a guest lecture. I think of the questions in corridors and classrooms and the burden of having to respond to those. America seems the way Pakistan does from a distance, violent and dangerous.

Oh, the horrible burden of living in a dangerous, oppressive place like San Francisco, especially as compared to Pakistan. I'm sure there's a way to discuss perceived attacks on one's identity in America, as well as how Pakistani reality differs from our perception of it, without credibility-sinking attempts to draw parallels between things that are orders of magnitude apart.
posted by Behemoth at 2:03 PM on February 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


Every single Pakistani I've ever met was intelligent, cosmopolitan and open-minded.

If you live in the West, the same would be true for most new immigrants from developing countries, especially when the immigration regime favors highly educated and well-skilled immigrants. There is a selection bias at play here. Immigrant communities are rarely representatives of the attitudes of the community back home. I see this very clearly in the Indian immigrant community here in Australia, and I am sure it is true for them in US, UK and elsewhere. Ditto for Pakistanis.

But coming to the article...

"But my map of everyday violence in San Francisco was populated by several actors of whom none had beards and none believed themselves to be violent, but whose attacks invaded almost every space I occupied."

What does that mean? I have never been to San Fransisco, but I've only ever heard good things about the city from my Indian friends who live there.
posted by vidur at 2:11 PM on February 5, 2013


What does that mean? I have never been to San Fransisco, but I've only ever heard good things about the city from my Indian friends who live there.

Perhaps because your friends were Indian, not Pakistani? Because most American perceptions of India and Pakistan are drastically different? Because the article was talking about the 'violence' of having to defend/not-defend a homeland from simplistic, vitriolic value judgments and attacks? Did we read the same article?

Oh, the horrible burden of living in a dangerous, oppressive place like San Francisco, especially as compared to Pakistan. I'm sure there's a way to discuss perceived attacks on one's identity in America, as well as how Pakistani reality differs from our perception of it, without credibility-sinking attempts to draw parallels between things that are orders of magnitude apart.

Well, are they orders of magnitude apart? That itself is an assumption from you that banishes Pakistan from the possibility of being anything like San Francisco, because you already carry with you these assumptions that you have not thoroughly questioned.

I went back to Korea recently to visit some family and friends, and what many people asked me was -- "Don't random people have guns there? How can you live in the US? Aren't you afraid that you might be in a mass shooting?"

And to that I could only really just say, "Well yes, you're right, and it's not as bad as you think".

And I think that's part of what the crux of the article wishes to communicate. The "yes, you're right" comes from statistics, or history, or precedent. The "it's not as bad as you think" comes from a social, cultural, emotional, and sentimental attachment to a place that cannot easily explained away by "politics" or "nurture", because, partially, your memories and psyche has been shaped by that place.

So if I ask you -- "How do you live in a dangerous, oppressive place like San Francisco, or the USA? I hear you take off your clothes to go on airplanes? Everyone has guns and shoots each other when they quit their job? I hear that if you're black or brown you get stopped by the police often? Is it true in America that if you play with billions of other peoples' money you get off scot free but if you download too much stuff you can be threatened for 25 years in jail? I also heard that families save up money for decades to send their children to college? I hear you guys send drones and kill people remotely, and you passed laws that make it okay to jail even your own citizens without a real warrant? And if you get sick or break a leg and call an ambulance the you're expected to pay for it yourself, even though you're sick and injured, and you get three different bills and it costs a few thousand dollars? Are these things really true? How do you live in such a place?"

If I asked you this, then might agree with me, but you might also defend where you live. You might do one, or the other, or both. You might say, "These problems are all true, but I think that America is still the best country in the world." You might say, "You're absolutely right, but I love my hometown of San Francisco, because it is wonderful and I love it and because my friends and family, whom I love deeply, are a part of it also. "

And such are the contradictions that ensue from having part of your identity arising out of being part of a nation-state. It is not simple, nor is it pretty. And when the people asking you these things are ignorant, or themselves do not understand how these things can be complex, then it can be frustrating, because you understand how they themselves live in similar contexts, no matter what country or place they are, yet are unwilling or unable to see it themselves.
posted by suedehead at 2:44 PM on February 5, 2013 [8 favorites]


I assume she's not talking about physical attacks, because those are pretty rare. Like Behemoth said, she's talking about attacks on her identity as a Pakistani woman. I agree that her drawing parallels between the danger of actual violence in Pakistan versus the more abstract violence against her identity in the USA doesn't really do her point many favors. I'm Afghan, I get that constantly having to defend and explain your identity and act as an educator about your ethnicity/religion/country is tiring and annoying and sometimes enraging. It's still nowhere near as bad as the fear of physical violence against my person from one of those "men with beards," many of whom have made it very clear that as an educated, not especially religious woman, I deserve to die.

That said, I think she does a good job of showing that that kind of vitriolic judgment in the US has its own companion in Pakistan, but that it's easier for her to bear in Pakistan because the context is different. It's an in-group, out-group thing. There are discussions I have about Afghanistan and being Afghan-American with non-Afghans, and there are discussions I have about those things with Afghans, and they're vastly different things.

I thought this piece did a very good job of showing the conflicting feelings of many Middle Eastern emigrants, who are caught between romanticizing and missing their home countries, facing those countries' huge problems and changes, and dealing with life in America.
posted by yasaman at 2:52 PM on February 5, 2013


To be fair, people are a bit curious about the thing where Pakistan's scumbag government deviously rescued Bin Laden from imminent capture in Afghanistan, secretly gave him sanctuary in Pakistan, extending the bloody war by years basically, with people dying every day. Then the whole time Bin Laden was hidden, they were extorting huge amounts of cash and armaments from the USA to help "look" for him.

It's OK if she wants to say "well I didn't vote for them" or "yeah that was pretty fucked up, we shouldn't have done that". Her message seems to be more along the lines of "how dare you criticize wonderful blameless Pakistan - you must be a racist or a muslim-hater".

(Yeah I know, catching Bin Laden was not the only finishing post for that war, but it was the main one with the US public.)
posted by w0mbat at 5:03 PM on February 5, 2013 [3 favorites]


Her message seems to be more along the lines of "how dare you criticize wonderful blameless Pakistan - you must be a racist or a muslim-hater".


I'm going to be utterly frank: if that is the message you came away with, I'm inclined to think you either did not fully read, or did not understand, the essay. The essay I read was a lot more complicated than that.

It was a lot more about trying to get across what's it's like to have to defend a core part of you identity all day every day, with your shoulders hunched and your dukes up, the permanent cramp and ache of it. How peaceful it is to be able to let that go, how much simply not feeling like that feels like wholeness and peace. And how it takes a long while for you to relax enough for the numbness to wear away and the prickles to come back, for you to feel that the really are there and have been all along. As in her conversation with the woman at the party when they're outside smoking a cigarette. Or the confrontation between the feminist and the bearded student who was interested in poetry.

I dunno, maybe you can't grok what she's saying if you've never felt it ---- never had a moment when all eyes in the room are on you and all of a sudden your ordinary self must be the stand-in and symbol of your whole country. I've only had a few glimmers but I recognised it.
posted by Diablevert at 7:31 PM on February 5, 2013 [4 favorites]


Perhaps because your friends were Indian, not Pakistani? Because most American perceptions of India and Pakistan are drastically different? Because the article was talking about the 'violence' of having to defend/not-defend a homeland from simplistic, vitriolic value judgments and attacks? Did we read the same article?

It was a simple question from someone who hasn't been to the city (or to the country either), in the context of the comparison made by the author in the previous sentence with the violence in Pakistan. I didn't see any quote marks around violence, and thought I'd just ask if there is something specific about San Fransisco. If the author had written Baltimore, I would probably have assumed something else (thanks, The Wire). Thanks for explaining, and for the free side serving of snark.
posted by vidur at 9:07 PM on February 5, 2013


Well, are they orders of magnitude apart? That itself is an assumption from you that banishes Pakistan from the possibility of being anything like San Francisco, because you already carry with you these assumptions that you have not thoroughly questioned.

One of the most liberal cities in North America and the country where, quite recently, by way of strange coincidence, one of the most wanted terrorists in the world was shielded for years, a terrorist attack that killed over a hundred people in Mumbai originated, a leading opposition candidate was murdered in the streets in broad daylight, a 14-year old was shot in the head for advocating women's education, and thousands of people continue to be murdered every year in terrorist attacks?

Yes, I feel pretty confident saying that they are orders of fucking magnitude apart, and anyone who claims differently either has delusions or an agenda to push.
posted by Behemoth at 6:02 AM on February 6, 2013


Yes, I feel pretty confident saying that they are orders of fucking magnitude apart, and anyone who claims differently either has delusions or an agenda to push.

I'm not equating San Francisco and Pakistan, but I'm talking about the othering of another place based specifically on data like this. It's clear that you're not open to changing your mind, because you have already decided on the irreconcilable differences and enormous chasms that exist between your place and their place.

Part of the author's point is that such discussion based on these concepts becomes tiring, hurtful, exhausting. Imagine asking a question to someone -- "How can you ever live in a place that is an order of fucking magnitude apart from dear San Francisco?" I'm sure you understand the judgement implied there.

In the end, the author's sentiment is only something to be learned by living somewhere and learning to love a massively flawed palce. Pakistan may be a flawed country, but so is the US. This doesn't negate either country's flaws; nor does it emphasize them, either. The point is that such an distancing approach ("they're SO DIFFERENT") does nothing but maintain a lack of ability or a desire to understand. As in: "well yes, she can write some pretty things, but Pakistan is still Pakistan."

These things are not so simple.
posted by suedehead at 10:35 PM on February 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


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