If you think of the Asian-American communities making major contributions to American politics, culture, and economics, which ones come to mind?
Certainly the Indian diaspora. And the Chinese and Korean ones as well.
But did you think of Pakistani-Americans? If not, then you clearly haven’t been to Chicago.
The city is home to nearly 100,000 Pakistanis, and to a major thoroughfare called Devon Avenue — part of which is named Muhammad Ali Jinnah Way. A New York Times portrait has depicted the range of colorful characters inhabiting this Little Pakistan — from booksellers and cab drivers to gay-rights advocates. Chicago is also the US headquarters for two of the largest Pakistan-focused NGOs — The Citizens Foundation and Human Development Foundation. Back in 2010, Chicago’s Pakistani organisations united to organize flood relief funding for Pakistan. Not surprisingly, Chicago has a sister-city arrangement with Lahore (though some say Karachi would be a better match).
I recently visited Chicago to give several talks at the University of Chicago, and I was blown away by what I discovered.
It’s one thing to experience the diaspora’s global spread. I remember walking through Oslo several years back and feeling like I had been transplanted to Pakistan (Pakistanis, incidentally, constitute one of Norway’s largest immigrant communities).
Yet, it’s quite another thing to witness a range of Pakistanis at the top of their respective fields — and all in one city.
Chicago’s business world features Mehmood Khan. He’s the chief scientific officer and a senior executive at Pepsico, and one of the highest-ranking Pakistanis in corporate America. M. Zia Hassan, dean emeritus of the Illinois Institute of Technology’s business school, has an endowed chair of business in his name. I’m told no other such chair is named for a Pakistani anywhere else in America.
And then there were my hosts — members of the Pakistan Club, an initiative of the University of Chicago’s ultra-prestigious Booth School of Business. Many are Pakistani-American Booth alums, and now highly successful Chicago investors and financiers. One of them, Rizwan Kadir (to whom I’m grateful for sharing many of the names mentioned here), worked for several years as a trader — and was urged by Pakistani-Chicagoans to run for the US Congressional seat vacated by Rahm Emanuel. Alas, he didn’t take their advice.
Other Pakistanis in Chicago, however, have opted for public service. Tariq Malhance is CFO of Cook County (which encompasses Chicago, and is the second largest county in the US), and was previously comptroller of Chicago—making him the highest-ranking Pakistani city official in America. The current comptroller is another Pakistani, Amer Ahmad. Within the legal realm, Pamela Leeming — a Christian Pakistani-American—is a Cook County judge, and the first Pakistani in America to be elected or appointed to a judgeship.
How about architecture? Chicago boasts two of America’s most iconic skyscrapers — the Willis Tower (formerly the Sears Tower) and the Hancock Building. Both were designed by Pakistan-born Fazlur Rahman Khan.
And then there’s cricket. This is not — as I’ve written previously — an institution synonymous with American culture. Yet, Chicago boasts an unusually dynamic cricket scene — and the Pakistani-American community plays a key role in sustaining it. Back in the 1970s, the US fielded a team (with associate status) in the Cricket World Cup. The squad was captained by Masood Chic — a Chicagoan of Pakistani origin.