“Are you Pakistani?”, they ask me.
It’s complicated. Especially for people in the diaspora. You can be born in Pakistan, yet be a citizen of another country and still feel an overwhelming cultural attachment. A pull strong enough to actively celebrate Independence Day while living in Britain, the country Pakistan gained independence from, in a strange love-hate divorce which seems to be a common theme in the post-colonial world. As my grandmother informed a racist once, “You come my country 200 years, I stay in your country 400 hundred years”.
History tells me I should hate the British but I love England. The human mind is a conundrum of competing imperatives: hence I love the rain, I love my English style tea, the biscuits, the nice lady down the road who gave me lessons on how to make scones when I was 9, and my old English teacher who sternly corrected any kind of Americanized English I picked up from the television.
I think I love England even more, now that I am an American. The beauty of America is it not only allows for hyphenated identities but revels in them. So, I am a Pakistani American. Despite 911, and despite the turbulent sea of relations between America and Pakistan, I have yet to meet an American who questions my ability to be both, all, or anything.
I have however met some Pakistanis that find my triplicate, multilayered cultural history a threatening enigma.
“These ex-pats want a medal for leaving Pakistan, they did it for their own selfish reasons and now they tell us what to do,” argued one journalist on twitter. A member of a wealthy, elite class family, who had studied at an elite American university and had now lived in New York for several years, he was not willing to accept me as Pakistani.
He may have had a point, what would I know of long hot summers in Lahore or Karachi, the constant load shedding, the history of political suppression, military-civilian tug of war, fundamentalism and the danger of being crushed death in a designer lawn sale?
What he did miss was that decoupling is next to impossible not just because of the enduring, inextricable hold of culture, but because of the burden of external perceptions. Put simply, the international perception of Pakistan is the lens through which any Pakistani of any stripe is perceived no matter how distantly. Pakistan is a green and white thread that weaves through our lives whether we live in the Gulf or Australia or Canada.
This complexity is nothing new for the people of Hindustan and British India who became the people of Pakistan on the 14th of August 1947. The Indus valley civilization is just the starting base, the basic masala if you will, spiced with Persian, Arabic, Greek, Turkic, Afghani, British and even more flavours with every wave of immigration makes us unique.
When the Turkish drama Dirilis Ertugrul was released many were upset that we were forgetting our culture for something foreign. What they forget is the multifaceted nature of Pakistanis, who have rich historical connections with not just the Ottoman Turks but also the heritage of the Mughal Kings and Sultans of Turkic lineage. Embracing that part or any part of being a Pakistani should not mean a denial of any other identifier of culture.
As Pakistanis around the world honour the birth of their nation, it is time to be more inclusive of every part of us whether it’s the Pakistanis of Europe, America or the Pakistanis of different religions within Pakistan. The rhetoric of nationalism, slogans of ethnic purity, that seeks “otherize” their fellow men and women over religion and caste should be soundly rejected, they are just empty vessels cracking loudly on hard infertile land.
Once we understand and accept our internal diversity, maybe it will help us be more open to the outward diversity of thought and creed around us.