The Losing Face of Multiculturalism

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

24 responses to “The Losing Face of Multiculturalism”

  1. ali baig says:

    We have all gone through what Zara has gone through or worst. The international media has given a very negative picture Of Pakistan and the embassy and the ministry of foreign affairs have done nothing at all to improve Pakistan`s tarnished image. Until and unless we have economic muscle and become a strong and united country we will always be treated as if we are nobody. I hope the politicians and the people at the helm of affairs note these things and do something about it. But I guess it is wishful thinking.

  2. Zafar says:

    This is to Dr. Haider; it happened to Mr. Edhi for a different reason which has been discussed earlier in one of the posts of ATP in detail but what has happened to Ch. Wajahat was some thing which should happen to each and every politician of Pakistan they should actually be beaten over there in full public view they deserve it.

  3. Rita says:

    Good politics and economic growth can change perceptions.

  4. MK says:

    I think i can relate to some of the experience but not all of it. I try and take in a stride but am exasperated for being on the defensive footing. But of late i have given up on the idea of ‘acting’ good. I rather prefer to talk what i think is right. Needless to say that the number and time of conversations that i have on airports has decreased proportionately since the change in my stance.
    But i can relate to this ‘oh’ all so well.
    The uniformed people are an all together different domain. they are rather happy to have gotten hold of a guy with green passport. In every encounter every uniform wala sees potential for instant stradom. If he can find a suspect he is going to get all the limelight he ever wished for in life. So if i were in their place and encountered a green passport i would really sharpen my incisors and get to task. Can’t blame the gora bums can we?

  5. I call West’s brief flirtation with so called multiculturalism “fair weather multiculturalism”

    I know I will be taken to task on this, but compounding the lack of a chesive identity on the part of Pakistani’s is the undying racism present in Western thought.

    Racism has been good to Europe. Look at the “new world” landmass under Europe’s control to this day. Vicious, brutally violent and psychopathic racism is at the core of West’s “success”.

    They are merely reverting to that familiar narrative which they put on the back burner while europe needed hordes of workers to rebuild their societies and to keep unrest at bay while Soviet Union (and therefore even a possibility of an alternative economic system) was in existence.

    Europe’s brief summer fling with decency is over!

    Actually, re-activating the time-tested racist narrative puts the existing “brownies” on the defensive and discourages would-be miscreants from even trying to enter. And that is just as well. Since the next 50 years’ wars will be fought in the battlefields being pulverized in this decade, you don’t want too many of these people identifying with the people of the middle east and slightly to east even of that.

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