The Losing Face of Multiculturalism

Posted on March 3, 2008
Filed Under >Zara K., Foreign Relations, Pakistanis Abroad, Religion, Travel
24 Comments
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Zara K

There are two ways to lose oneself: by a walled segregation in the particular or by a dilution in the “universal”. Aimé Cesaire

I used to love airports. I loathe them now.

It was soothing to watch multifarious faces become faceless and free in airports, to watch different shades of people get absorbed into a single light. Now when I stop to take a look around – and this only happens on those rare occasions when I am not running to my gate like a wild banshee, hailing shoes, watch, belt, earrings, rings, huge handbag, plastic bags with under 100ml liquids, all in air at once – I see that the faces have found features while “multiculturalism” itself has lost face.

I have a European passport, but the place of birth reads Pakistan. Uh-oh. Crap. Now I’m going to get that look. You know that look. Untrusting, taunting, and threatening, the look seems to say: I smell something fishy, so, so fishy, I’d best put the water boarding room on standby.

Rigmarole of questions later, I end up relating my life history five times to five different inquisitors in uniform. My interrogators reluctantly realize they had sharpened their claws for nothing, but sharpened claws are ashamed of retracting without a speck, even, of blood. And so I had to relate the life history of the Pakistani friends I was to stay with in the city. Yet, the ever-nagging question remained at large: why oh why is this Pakistan-born girl flying Gatwick to Newark to Pearson Int’l, and then to Madrid?! Why??! Akhir kyon?? “For adventure” simply wasn’t a good enough answer. In fact it was a bad, bad answer.

I was reminded of the lemur catta I’d seen on Animal Planet earlier that week; when starving and forlorn, he resorts to eating a poisonous plant called lucina. I, being more demure than lemur, turned to a lucina that would in turn eat on me; after going through the whole charade of bemusement, confusion, anger and frustration that airports have started dishing out, one ultimately resorts to a kind of bitter resignation. This bitter taste, depending on the pliancy of your palate, can parasite in you for a moment, a month or more.

At airports I was also approached with questions by curious strangers. My limited dialogue with them went something like this:

Stranger: Where are you from?

Me: Guess.

Stranger: Italy?

Me: No

Stranger: Romania?

Me: No.

Stranger: I know – Middle East!?

Me: A bit more Eastern…

Stranger: India…! What a fascinating country….

Me: No… I’m from Pakistan.

Stranger: Oh.

Oh, indeed! The white man’s exotification-complex ends at Pakistan. Who knew!

I can’t really think of a time when Pakistan or Pakistanis had a great, or good, or even a meekly-put “okay” reputation anywhere in this big bog world. Well, maybe in Turkey, but in most other places you are greeted and treated with a disappointed “oh”, which has, of late, taken on a more incisive and scathing tone.

After these experiences, my trip back home was rather like a kaleidoscope of disillusions. I saw snapshots of schisms that exist in today’s world; maybe they were always there but my sensitivity to them had grown. I saw, for example, way ahead in the queue, a South Asian bloke, armed with an expletive expression and not much else, and his aged mother; he seemed to be losing his patience over something, his high-pitched voice pierced through the white noise of airport air, while three security guards slowly came to encircle him. He was holding up the queue, all standing in line grew agitated. Normally, I too would have muttered curses under my breath, but instead I felt a raging sympathy for him and his mother. I remember also the look of utter fear on an elderly couple when a bearded black man with a black bag came and stood next to them. They couldn’t stop from jittering. In this case I didn’t know who to feel sorry for – the couple who is likely to live their remaining years in fear of a phantom threat, or the black man who has to bear the discrimination of it… or maybe all of us who have been made privy to such twisted mentality.

I suppose somewhere in all this hides the reason why many Pakistanis become insecure of their identity, why the x born confused desi becomes more confused. Why some Pakistanis are isolated or estranged. Some turned into lifelong apologists or apologetics. Why some overindulge in the Quran and hadith. Or why some feel resentful and maybe even vengeful.

sharm-e-rusvai se jaa chupnaa naqaab-e-Khaak meiN
Khatm hai ulfat ki tujh par parda daari haaye haaye

Photo Credits: Abro

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24 responses to “The Losing Face of Multiculturalism”

  1. ahmed says:

    Harr aik baat pe kehtey ho tum k ‘tu’ kya hai
    tumhein kaho k yeh andaz-e-guftugu kya hai?

    I am a Pakistani living in US for a little less than a decade. A few months ago I visited a sports bar after winning a soccer game with my college team. Nothing competitive about the whole affair. Just another intramural enthusiasts coming together for fun, ecstatic together after a day’s play. A total stranger on the other table, after reading ‘Pakistan” on the back of my custom made T-shirt, tapped on my shoulder asking me if I hated US like ‘all other pakistanis’. A lot of my friends who know a little about me and Pakistan would be shocked by such a query and a little embarassed if they are Americans themselves. My feelings resonate with Zara’s article conveying the feelings of a person who has had varied experiences. Whatever that was exchanged between him and I concluded on the statement from my ‘stranger’ friend that his view about Pakistanis was (hopefully positively) changed forever.

    I think feeling apologetic, regretful or any other form of human emotion after such incidents is on both sides of the table. I guess people like us (Pakistanis living abroad in these tumultuous times pay a small price for building bridges (or breaking them) for next generation of Pakistanis to come through our random interactions across the world. I hope for their sake that we keep our nerves and our cool intact!

  2. Michael says:

    Dear Zara,

    I would like to reassure you that, yes, there are people in western countries who have a good opinion of Pakistan.
    Yes, I love your culture and I respect your country. Let me tell you that, if you were to meet me by chance in Europe or anywhere else, I would make you feel that talking to someone from your region of the world was one of the most interesting and positive experiences in my day… And I hope that it would make you forget the inquisitive look of the airport police officers, and the scared faced of the elderly Europeans.

    Yes, there is fear and there is distrust. There is also the never-ending fascination for cultural bridges that span thousands of kilometers, discovering with delight what is different to better highlight what we have in common.

    All the best,
    Michael (from Paris)

  3. Nimi says:

    I guess that in order to live in the west (even according to customs imported from elsewhere) people have got to share at least a set of fundamental principles. “Incitation to hatered” is considered as a crime. “Critisim of religions” is a right acquired in Europe after a long struggle.

    Ms. Malik case seems to fall in the first category. This is not about muslims alone. In the early 20th century, people called “anarchists” were treated the same way. In England, IRA too was dealt in a similar manner. There are no special rules for muslims…the tactics however can be more adapted to a particular situation.

    Now when the carricature of the holy Prophet were published, intellectuals all around Europe said they were a meaningless criticism of a religion and was not necessary.

    The ideas of the conservative catholic newspaper “Jalladenposten ?” are not difficult to understand. They would surely jump on an occasion of muslim bashing. The public opinion in general was also not enthusiastic about them. But when people started to get the news of bloody protests all around the world (in countries where protesting anyway is not permitted) and even assisnations (In Turkey and in Indonesia e.g.) then the opinion got biased.

    Desis living in the west shall also have to believe in the fact that no belief is superior to human life. Nobody should be threatened for life because he or she said something idiot about our prophet or even our God.

  4. Asif Beg says:

    “The dominating voice gets heard more often. Because people like Ms Malik,

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