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NON-FICTION: DETAILING THE DIASPORA

April 01, 2018

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Once neglected by the political elite, today the diaspora is ethnically represented across the British political spectrum, as exemplified by London’s mayor, Sadiq Khan | Reuters
Once neglected by the political elite, today the diaspora is ethnically represented across the British political spectrum, as exemplified by London’s mayor, Sadiq Khan | Reuters

Pakistan is a country built upon the mass migration of its citizens. Its birth triggered one of the largest migrations in our recent history and, ever since its formation, the country has been shaped by the migration of its citizens to foreign lands — some searching for economic prosperity, others for basic human rights. However, the increasingly hostile anti-immigrant sentiment in Europe and the United States has cast a shadow of uncertainty over their plight and thus, the future of Pakistan itself.

The Pakistani Diaspora: Corridors of Opportunity and Uncertainty, edited by Rashid Amjad and published by the Lahore School of Economics, is an anthology of 17 academic articles on the nature and consequences of transnational interactions resulting from the migration of Pakistani citizens. The anthology — the first of its kind to be published in Pakistan — aims to collate different perspectives in the field of diaspora studies in order to suss out a nuanced image of “social and cultural issues of integration and identity”, and provide policy recommendations for urgent governmental issues related to migration. However, even though the book manages to present a multifarious image of the Pakistani diaspora, it fails to cut deep into the philosophical and theoretical underpinnings of processes linked to migration today.

Fareeha Zafar’s article ‘The Making of the Pakistani Diaspora’ lays down a working definition of ‘diaspora’ which undergirds each article: “Diaspora brings together communities that are not quite nation, not quite race, not quite religion, not quite homesickness, yet they still have something to do with nation, race, religion, and longings for homes which may not exist.” The diaspora consists of first generation migrants and also “naturalised citizens” who maintain ties with the homelands of previous generations. Often this transnational interaction is based on a romanticised notion of the homeland rather than the actual lived experience of Pakistan.

Despite being light on theory and heavy on policy, an anthology presents a crucial contribution to academic discourse on Pakistanis living abroad

In 2017, the Pakistani diaspora was estimated at 9.1 million, though some studies estimate it to be somewhere around 15 million. These communities are spread all over the world, from North America to Europe, and from the Middle East to South-East Asia. According to the book, the economic remittances they send bolster Pakistan’s economy to the tune of 5-7 percent — just a bit short of its total exports of goods and services.

These remittances have, to some extent, skewed Pakistan’s social hierarchies by reshuffling its class structure. While families seek to increase their fortunes by investing in the migration of a family member (usually a young male), low-skilled migrants often face grim realities in their new environments. Employed on wages far below the average, they get trapped in a system of economic exploitation, whilst provoking resentment for undercutting the local working-classes.

In ‘The Cost of Migration from Pakistan to Saudi Arabia and the UAE’ Rashid Amjad, G.M. Arif and Nasir Iqbal study the very dear costs of obtaining work permits for the Middle Eastern countries, often arranged by ‘visa consultants’ and repaid from workers’ remittances. Surprisingly, the book does not elaborate on the system of ‘kafala’ — the sponsorship system used to monitor migrant labour in some countries of the Middle East — which has had a devastating consequence for many migrants, trapping them into forced labour and economic precarity.

In the US and the United Kingdom, the Pakistani diaspora has managed to establish itself more strongly as a community. Over the decades, successful migrants have inspired and invited others to join. In Parveen Akhtar’s ‘The Political Success of the British-Pakistani Diaspora’, we observe how post-war Pakistani migrants tended to arrange transnational marriages for their children with close relatives, as a means of spreading opportunities among their wider clans. Considering such marriages to be lacking in romantic ‘legitimacy’, the latest Conservative government has perceived them to be a back-door to economic migration and a threat to the ‘British way of life’. Thus, the UK has introduced increasingly stringent policies to control marriage-migration. Marta Bolognani’s fantastic essay ‘The Impact of Transnational Marriages on Pakistani Spouses in Britain’ explores the underlying assumption of marriage-migration regulations, arguing that the “common thread is of assuming the existence of a stereotypical migrant spouse of a fixed character and nature.” In this context, integration is seen as the sole responsibility of the migrant/ethnic minority while the role of the British context is overlooked.

The diaspora does not only send back economic remittances, but social and political remittances, too. The political activities of the Pakistani diaspora are also multi-directional. In her article, Akhtar charts the evolution of the diaspora from a politically irrelevant minority to a major base that participates in the political life of the UK as well as of the ‘homeland’. Once neglected by the political elite, today the diaspora is ethnically represented across the British political spectrum, an example of which can be found in the person of Sadiq Khan, the mayor of London. Many Pakistani politicians and activists are also based abroad. From the late Benazir Bhutto to Tahirul Qadri and Altaf Hussain, our politicians have run major political campaigns in Pakistan from their homes in the UK and Canada.

The diaspora also engages in transnational activism, image diplomacy and — as demonstrated in S. Akbar Zaidi’s essay ‘Circuits of Knowledge: Learning from the Pakistani Academic Diaspora and Teaching Them in Return’ — on knowledge networks. The very existence of such linkages refutes an intellectual orientation which conceives the nation-state as the main container for social processes.

However, this critique of methodological nationalism is merely implied, instead of being properly explained in the book, and therein lies the shortcoming of this anthology: it is heavy on policy but light on theory. Students in the early stages of their enquiries will find a lot of useful information here, but few of the fundamental concepts that constitute key discussions within diaspora studies.

The book avoids the big questions: what is national space, how is it produced? What do borders represent? What is a nation? The last section of the book is dedicated to policy recommendations on diasporas and development in Pakistan, yet the concept of development is treated as a fact rather than a contested issue. The inclusion of such perspectives would have enriched the book and helped young students in Pakistan to better understand the dangers of nationalism and neoliberal development, so often obscured by the political commonsense that dominates their environment.

Having said that, this book provides remarkable insights into the migrant experience, paying tribute to their resolve, and the patience and ingenuity with which they build their lives. In today’s political climate, they face increasingly hostile demands to conform to Western national ideals — except that this is a difficult condition to meet. Most migrants live in diverse societies that lack consistency of character, values and ideals. It is not always clear to which version of national identity one is expected to conform. At the same time, they are also expected to demonstrate loyalty to a mythical homeland by preserving their ‘Pakistaniness’. Thus, diaspora communities find themselves in the cross hairs of a bitter, culture war, with their sense of belonging questioned by each side.

In spite of such challenges, the diaspora has “managed to carve out a political, social and cultural space for itself.” It has created new histories and identities, new interactions across borders and nationalities that have enriched our world and made it ever so complex. Of course, as is true for any community, the diaspora is not without its issues, but it is mainly characterised by a subversive, creative spirit. As calls for borders and walls become louder in the West, and as Pakistan deports Afghans, it is important to tell the story of these people whose movement challenges restrictive and simple world views. And for this reason, despite its shortcomings, this book is a crucial contribution to the academic discourse in Pakistan and beyond.

The reviewer is a journalist and researcher in migration studies and the philosophy of law at Humboldt University, Berlin

The Pakistani Diaspora:
Corridors of Opportunity
and Uncertainty
Edited by Rashid Amjad
LSE, Lahore
ISBN: 978-9697502042
337pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, April 1st, 2018