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. Qandeel says:

    This is a microcosm of the way the world mentality is shifting.

  2. Nimi says:

    going in line with chacha Ghalib, we have all interest in supporting the security measures rather than going against them.

    And then, security at airports is not a westerners’ thing alone. Pakistani Airport Security Forces were already trained and seriously at work (e.g. systematic body search), at a time when these things were pretty relaxed in the west.

  3. I love the smell of regurgitate in the morning.

  4. Chacha Ghalib says:

    Being accosted at the airport is not fun. But understanding how agencies secure airports and aircraft, especially after 9/11 can help reduce some of the frustration.
    Many safety procedures originate from earlier attempts to blow-up planes. Yes, dying in a plane is even worse than being accosted by safety personnel.
    Additionally, reluctantly, many US safety agencies may have started semi-overt racial profiling.
    Why reluctantly? Because of America’s history with slavery, the civil rights movement, and more recently America’s attempts to come to peace with people of color. All this makes Americans very very uncomfortable with overt racial profiling. But do they covertly do it any way? Almost certainly many they do!
    But why do racial profiling at all? It is so unfair!
    Unfair? Absolutely. Then why do it? Because it works! If you make a simple list of all airplanes hijacked or sabotaged in the last 50 years and sorted them by the racial profile of the people who did it, the evidence is overwhelming. A very very large majority of these acts were committed by people of Middle-eastern origin. So if you’re trying to prevent a repeat incidence, who do you focus on?
    Another indication that this works comes from El-Al, the flag-carrier of Israel. It is one of a very small number of large airlines that have never, ever, had a plane hijacked. Among the safety procedures they follow is very overt racial profiling.

  5. Nimi says:

    Like the author I used to love airports and flying, not any more. Being settled in the west for half of my life, I would say that this is not even the place of birth but the name you carry and the looks you have.

    To contradict someone down here, in the 90s, the arabic looks were stopped all over Europe due to algerian GIA’s activities. Me being the pakistani ones (long straight hair, browninsh) passed through without any problem. This is only since one year after 9/11 that our looks and our names have become suspects.

    Of course it’s of importance to do one’s work of explaining to those who ask questions but nothing shall change as long as the news of bomb blasts and bearded men continue be thrown on the faces of average westerners every evening.

    The western media is not particularly politically biased. It is just that showing bearded men menacing with bombs inspire fear and idiot consumers keep on holding their breaths until the next commercial break.

    The western news papers are much more reasonable in general.

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