My name is Pakistan and I’m not an Arab
In 1973, my paternal grandparents visited Makkah to perform the first of their two Hajj pilgrimages.
With them were two of my grandmother’s sisters and their respective husbands.
Upon reaching Jeddah, they hailed a taxi from the airport and headed for their designated hotel.
The driver of the taxi was a Sudanese man. As my grandparents and one of my grandmother’s sisters settled themselves in the taxi, the driver leisurely began driving towards the hotel and on the way inserted a cassette of Arabic songs into the car’s Japanese cassette-player.
My grandfather who was seated in the front seat beside the driver noticed that the man kept glancing at the rear view mirror, and every time he did that, one of his eyebrows would rise.
Curious, my grandfather turned his head to see exactly what was it about the women seated in the back seat that the taxi driver found so amusing.
This was what he discovered: As my grandmother was trying to take a quick nap, her sister too had her eyes closed, but her head was gently swinging from left to right to the beat of the music and she kept whispering (as if in quiet spiritual ecstasy) the Arabic expression Subhanallah, subhanallah …’
My grandfather knew enough Arabic to realise that the song to which my grandmother’s sister was swinging and praising the Almighty for was about an (Egyptian) Romeo who was lamenting his past as a heart-breaking flirt.
After giving a sideways glance to the driver to make sure he didn’t understand Punjabi, my grandfather politely asked my grandmother’s sister: ‘I didn’t know you were so much into music.’
‘Allah be praised, brother,’ she replied. ‘Isn’t it wonderful?’
The chatter woke my grandmother up: ‘What is so wonderful?’ She asked. ‘This,’ said her sister, pointing at one of the stereo speakers behind her. ‘So peaceful and spiritual …’
My grandfather let off a sudden burst of an albeit shy and muffled laughter. ‘Sister,’ he said, ‘the singer is not singing holy verses. He is singing about his romantic past.’
My grandmother started to laugh as well. Her sister’s spiritual smile was at once replaced by an utterly confused look: ‘What …?’
‘Sister,’ my grandfather explained, ‘Arabs don’t go around chanting spiritual and holy verses. Do you think they quote a verse from the holy book when, for example, they go to a fruit shop to buy fruit or want toothpaste?’
I’m sure my grandmother’s sister got the point. Not everything Arabic is holy.
Even though I was only a small child then I clearly remember my grandfather relating the episode with great relish. Though he was an extremely conservative and religious man and twice performed the Hajj, he refused to sport a beard, and wasn’t much of a fan of the Arabs (especially the monarchical kind).
He was proud of the fact that he was born in a small town in north Punjab that before 1947 was part of India.
In the early 1980s when Saudi money and influence truly began to take hold on the culture and politics of Pakistan, there were many families (especially from the Punjab) that actually began to rewrite their histories.
For example, families and clans that had emerged from within the South Asian region began to claim that their ancestors actually came from Arabia.
Something like this happened within the Paracha clan as well. In 1982 a book (authored by one of my grandfather’s many cousins) claimed that the Paracha clan originally appeared in Yemen and was converted to Islam during the time of the Holy Prophet (Pbuh).
The truth, however, was that like a majority of Pakistanis, Parachas too were once either Hindus or Buddhists who were converted to Islam by Sufi saints between the 11th and 15th centuries.
When the cousin gifted his book to my grandfather, he rubbished the claim and told him that he might attract Saudi Riyals with the book but zero historical credibility.
But historical accuracy and credibility does not pan well in an insecure country like Pakistan whose state and people, even after six decades of existence, are yet to clearly define exactly what constitutes their nationalistic and cultural identity.
After the complete fall of the Mughal Empire in the 19th century till about the late 1960s, Pakistanis (post-1947), attempted to separate themselves from other religious communities of the region by identifying with those Persian cultural aspects that had reigned supreme in Muslim royal courts in India, especially during the Mughal era.
However, after the 1971 East Pakistan debacle, the state with the help of conservative historians and ulema made a conscious effort to divorce Pakistan’s history from its Hindu and Persian past and enact a project to bond this history with a largely mythical and superficial link with Arabia.
The project began to evolve at a much more rapid pace from the 1980s onwards. The streaming in of the ‘Petro Dollars’ from oil-rich monarchies and the Pakistanis’ increasing interaction with their Arab employers in these countries, turned Pakistan’s historical identity on its head.
In other words, instead of investing intellectual resources to develop a nationalism that was grounded and rooted in the more historically accurate sociology and politics of the Muslims of the region, a reactive attempt was made to dislodge one form of ‘cultural imperialism’ and import by adopting another.
For example, attempts were made to dislodge ‘Hindu and Western cultural influences’ in the Pakistani society by adopting Arabic cultural hegemony that came as a pre-requisite and condition with the Arabian Petro Dollar.
The point is, instead of assimilating the finer points of the diverse religious and ethnic cultures that our history is made of and synthesise them to form a more convincing and grounded nationalism and cultural identity, we have decided to reject our diverse and pluralistic past and instead adopt cultural dimensions of a people who, ironically, still consider non-Arabs like Pakistanis as second-class Muslims.