This is our country, and for the vast majority of us the only one we have. I, for one, am proud of what we have achieved in 61 years, despite our bumbling political class (in which I include the esteemed military) and despite the opting out of our rich classes
What does it mean to be Pakistani? It’s not easy to answer this question, or even ask it. In a country fragmented by class, linguistic, ethnic, cultural, and geographical identities, it seems preposterous to search for an essential Pakistani characteristic.
Yet on this day, when we celebrate the formation of Pakistan 61 years ago, no other question weighs as heavily on the mind of the cynical observer of our current state of affairs. I want to draw on my personal experience to reflect about just two aspects of “Pakistaniness”. The first deals with how we see ourselves through the eyes of outsiders, and the second with how we see ourselves through the eyes of others in our own society.
The question of being Pakistani has plagued me since the third grade, when I first heard the word “Paki” uttered by an Egyptian friend at my international school in Riyadh. He was telling a joke, and was confused by my reluctance to join all the other little third graders in appreciative laughter. It wasn’t pride or anger than stopped me from laughing, but the birth pangs of a panicked schizophrenia: was I really a Paki too? “Paki”, as far as I could make out, referred to: nerdiness, heavily accented English, a lack of sophistication, and perhaps a lack of fashion sense.
My insecurity about others thinking of me as Pakistani was cleansed, predictably, after moving to Lahore for high school. I came to realise that there were many types of Pakistanis, and the stereotypes that whites and Arabs had of us were simply not true. This is not rocket science, but it was news to me at age fifteen. I came to attach less importance to what non-Pakistanis thought of me as a Pakistani.
It is unfortunate that members of our influential diaspora have not had a similar growing up experience. It is befuddling to find the ramifications for “our image” as one of the main evaluative criterion for political developments in the country, especially by Pakistanis living abroad or with strong links to other countries. It is this same group of people that applaud military rule and are willing to sacrifice national interest for the sake of our “friends and allies”, whether they be in the Gulf or the West. Arguments that link attracting FDI and tourism to our image are infantile: FDI and portfolio investment that is sensitive to concerns about image is light-footed and not the kind of investment that would help us grows sustainably anyway, and the availability of infrastructure and cheap entertainment is what attracts tourists, not a nod of approval from CNN.
The schizophrenia hatched in a third grade playground has sublimated into uneasiness not about outsiders identifying me as Pakistani, but about “real” Pakistanis accepting me as one of their own. Never mind that it is impossible to define a “real” Pakistani: what I am referring to is the isolation (and alienation, if they are honest with themselves) the well-off have from the mass of Pakistan’s citizens, on a host of levels: material, spatial, cultural, and linguistic.
While it may be true that every society that doesn’t have hunting and gathering as its primary economic activity experiences class segregation, in Pakistan the degree of separation is absurd. Barah Anna, a new Indian film currently being judged at film festivals in Toronto and Venice, explores Indian social dynamics from a “servant’s-eye view”, and is meant to be a biting critique of Indian elite culture. I can only cringe when I think of how much worse the rich in Pakistan probably act, given that India at least has democracy.
The imbalances of wealth and opportunity available to members of our society are staggering, and ultimately the only way to restore some semblance of balance is through government. One important area where government should intervene is in the purchasing of goods and services that allow the rich to isolate themselves from the problems of the larger nation. When a rich household purchases a generator, they no longer are terribly concerned about the energy crisis. When they purchase the services of a security firm, they are no longer worried about the law and order situation.
Examples are everywhere: private transport, private education, and high-priced entertainment (like coffee shops and pop concerts) are just a few. I am not arguing for draconian measures to ban these services (although there is arguably precedent — South Korea restricted pleasure travel abroad till the late 80s) — just a recognition that the rich need to be stakeholders in order for some public provisions to improve. The argument is not based solely on ethics; the fabric of the nation as a whole is damaged when the rich opt out.
Uneasiness about being Pakistani is the closest thing to an essential Pakistani trait there is. Whether you resent Pakistani society for being too Islamic, or not Islamic enough, too domineering or too dithering, of robbing you of your provincial and linguistic identity or not giving you a solid enough identity to hang on to, the feeling is near universal. Although this doesn’t at first glance seem like the best thing to have in common, it does augur one thing: we all want a different Pakistan.
It is now a matter of communication and of power: how do we tell each other and reach a compromise on what we want (without blowing each other up), and how do we ensure our nation’s not insignificant energies are focused on implementing that solution? It is undoubtedly a complex issue, but it is a way forward, and that is what we must focus on.
This is our country, and for the vast majority of us the only one we have. I, for one, am proud of what we have achieved in 61 years, despite our bumbling political class (in which I include the esteemed military) and despite the opting out of our rich classes. If we get our act together, and search for ways to bind the fragments of our polity instead of shattering even further the bits that exist, the next 61 years will be something we can look forward to.
Majed Akhter is an economist in Karachi. He can be reached at email@example.com
Source: Daily times, 14/8/2008