First they came for the Bustards, and now they’re taking over your license plates … or are they?

A couple of years ago Pakistan was hit by a sign that it may have actually taken the first (or possibly 15th) step towards becoming an Arab colony, at least culturally. Out of the blue emerged these vehicle registration plates with the number either in Urdu or simple numbers and ‘Al Bakistan’ painted in white Arabic font on a red strip. Jaws dropped, frowns were formed, laughs were had and people were rendered speechless at this totally new and unexpected phenomenon. Why would Pakistan be called ‘Bakistan’? When did the name of the country change? Why borrow Arabic words or alphabet sounds while the national language still remains Urdu?

A few months later these number plates got an additional word: Al Bunjab. The new plates have ‘Al Bunjab, Al Bakistan’ written on them in Arabic. And this has become quite conspicuous now. From a motorbike to a car, every other vehicle in Lahore, at least, seems to have been hit by Cyclone Arabic.

“I was googling the world Pakistan today and mistakenly typed in a bracket ‘[’ instead of a ‘P’, as one usually does when in a hurry. I was shocked to see that in the address bar, Google not only recognised the search term, but also turned it into, no points for guessing, Bakistan,” development professional Hassan Belal Zaidi said of the extent to which the trend has expanded.

He went on to add: “I think it’s like the Jews putting sheep’s blood on their doors for Passover. These people know something we don’t and they want to be safe whenever whatever is coming lays waste to life as we know it. All we know is, it’ll come from the Middle East and it’ll speak Arabic.”

This is not it; at least, not yet. I hope. Earlier, there was quite a lot of debate whether the ninth month of the Islamic calendar should be called Ramadan, Ramazan, Ramdan, Ramzan, or even Ramdhan or Ramadhan. The discussion, surprisingly, still continues. What suddenly made people replace the ‘z’ with ‘d’ (‘z’ has a ‘d’ sound in Arabic) still needs explanation. Greetings exchanged have also become ‘Ramadan Kareem’ instead of Ramazan Mubarak. And then earlier this year, our religious affairs minister made a statement that the federal government planned to introduce Arabic as a compulsory subject in schools.

Columnist, analyst, journalist and culture critic Raza Rumi’s take is: “Nothing is more telling than the literal identity shift of Pakistan taking place in Punjab. Number plates with Al Bakistan amounts to changing the name of the country. I would suffer from an identity crisis if I were to be called Rada instead of Raza. Intriguing how the administrative apparatus in charge of issuing number plates and registration is complicit in the Arabisation process. I also saw a much higher number of camels during the last Eidul Azha (please note it is not Adha for most of us but will be soon called that). Allah Hafiz.”

Are these the first few signs Pakistan is moving towards Arabisation? Is the land of five rivers slowly giving way to sand dunes, camels and date trees? Well, maybe not.

“I had gone to Dubai a few years ago where I saw similar number plates that I liked. They somehow looked cool. On my return I thought why not get one for my car, but with a twist. A few months after I got my car’s number plate designed with some Arabic, I saw a lot of vehicles bearing the same design. I felt good to be a trendsetter of sorts,” Abuzar Butt, a young car showroom owner, told us.

Hafiz Muhammad Ali, a bike owner, who also had the same kind of number plate, said: “I saw so many cars with these fascinating new number plates. I clicked a photo of one, took it to a plate maker and got one made for my bike too.”

The number plate makers can’t be blamed for this for they are merely doing their job. “I’m just a regular plate maker. I will make a plate according to any design you provide me. And this is also the case with these Arabic ones. I get the designs and I make them,” said Niaz, a number plate maker on Jail Road.

What appears is that while this is not the government-prescribed design of a number plate, it’s not exactly illegal either. However, if law be followed, those with such fancy plates could be penalised. Traffic police wallas seem to be fine with anything as long as it’s legible. And anyone can get any kind of number plate designed.

But not everyone is amused by vehicles becoming ‘Arabised’. Rizwan Saleemi, a businessman, says: “Most of the people who are doing this belong to upper-middle class Punjabi families based mostly in Lahore and other cities of Punjab. They are going through some kind of a paradox. They want to enjoy everything modern consumerism has to offer; a good car, preferably modified, mind/ear blowing sound system, giving their girlfriends a spin in their brand new Corollas and Civics every now and then. But wait a second, what about the fancy Altima they had when they used to roam around Riyadh, Dubai or Qatar? They had a nice Arabic plate on that elegant ride; let’s get made one for my car here in Pakistan.”

The second reason, he says, is the “ridiculous amount of romanticism of Punjabi middle classes with their presumed Arab roots”.

“These plates, sadly, look fancy to the majority, but I personally despise them. This is surely one of the signs we are adopting Arabic culture, and we have seen many already. Basically, culture thrives on middle classes, and Punjabi middle classes are no more there for their culture and language. So more Arab culture to see in the coming days,” the angry young man speaks his heart out. Hold on … how do you say “angry young man” in Arabic.

But that’s not all. Arabic number plates may have gained popularity in a short span, but this design is not the only foreign ‘gift’ to Pakistan. There are a few expensive luxurious cars in Lahore with UK-style number plates. The reason was the same: they liked the design and got it made. Does all of this look cool? Is this just vanity or impending cultural invasion? This is for the public to decide, because really, everything seems to be working here.

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