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People not governments: America and Pakistan

July 25, 2011

My recent posting, “An over diagnosed nation” received more hits than anything I have ever written. Yet ironically, scrolling down the 62 comments left you will see that many continue to diagnose. The problem is….was the opening line of many emails I received as a result of the blog.

The diagnoses continues: it’s the population rise that is the ultimate cause of problems; weaponisation is to blame; corruption; India; Jinnah; the British; climate change; some even suggesting that Pakistanis are genetically flawed and are therefore a hopeless case (I kid you not).

One frequent theme is to blame the Americans: The CIA’s involvement in propping up the ISI in the early days; drone attacks; their involvement with India; their involvement with Afghanistan; using aid as a political bargaining tool; the Raymond Davis killings; and I’m not even going to begin to prise open the Bin Laden case.

In researching public opinion in Pakistan last year I discovered that “Americans” were viewed negatively by 85 per cent of the population (we Brits just a few points behind). When I was in Karachi recently a friend advised me to point out to people that I wasn’t from the USA in order to maintain my safety. I realised then that perhaps there are people about who would attack me because of the passport I carried. Being who I am, it made me want to pretend I was American – to confront such feelings in people.

One of my main research interests is in picking apart public perceptions – and with a background in diplomacy, perceptions of nationality at the fore. My first trip to Israel over 20 years ago taught me to separate “Israeli people” from “Israeli Government” and an understanding that whilst everyone was individual, commonalities across borders frequently occurred (there are many less talked about commonalities between Israelis and Palestinians). I also understood that I would hate my own values as a human being to be judged solely by the actions of fellow countrymen, or by the actions of my own government (as I am sure would many Pakistanis).

Some of my email traffic has responded to my request for dramatic examples of cooperation – although sourcing stories around this still remains a problem (continue to send them please). One particular message moved me because it was from an American girl – who appeared as frustrated as I about the media perception of Pakistan.

Cynthia first visited Pakistan to help with flood relief in 2010. “I came to experience a people, a nation that was contrary to what the media portrays,” she told me. And without getting too sentimental about it, the aid worker says she “fell in love with Pakistan” and decided to relocate to Islamabad permanently. 

She describes her travels “all over this beautiful country” as being a pleasure and an honor. Cynthia says she is welcomed in communities that non-Pakistanis and even many Pakistanis would be “afraid” of traveling to, and claims that everywhere she goes (yes, even remote tribal areas) she is treated with “courtesy and respect” - with perhaps a little curiosity and a degree of suspicion. 

Reading her story, I understand that I too have prejudices brought about by ill-informed and frightened whisperers. She addresses these, “it seems unlikely that a single, American girl with no children would be able and willing to live a reasonably normal life here. But I do”. She puts it all down to her belief in treating people with kindness and respect whilst at the same time expecting Pakistanis to take the lead in developing their communities. “It doesn’t matter that I am not fluent in Urdu, Pashto, Saraiki, Sindhi, etc...people recognize the language of expression. And compassion is a language we all understand”.

Cynthia’s story is not dramatic, it is sweet and heartrending, and maybe I wouldn’t have included it in this article if I didn’t have something more to share about the American/Pakistan people-to-people friendship (as opposed to the government to government one). 

I was contacted recently by a group of American passport holders who have recently set up an organization called MiWorld.  MiWorld by-passes the mainstream media and helps real people tell real stories. I was delighted to discover that one of their first MiWorld stories is set in Pakistan, for these are not Pakistani Americans, simply Americans. The story is told by another American passport holder, a Texan man called Nadeau, who was robbed at gunpoint travelling between the northern territories back into Islamabad.  It may sound like a bad news story, but it is the telling of this story that is inspirational. It has all the ingredients that a nasty tabloid headline writer would love: Pakistan, floods, American, violence – and yet the MiWorld team have managed to turn it into something very dynamic and poignant. I’m not going to say any more – read The Execution That Wasn’t for yourself – and ensure you scroll down and watch the short film. 

So without sounding too much like a diagnostician myself, the problem is….. there are not enough stories like these and voices of people like Cynthia being shared more broadly – despite our connected world – we still turn to mainstream media channels for “news” that often breeds hatred and mistrust. Surely it’s time to rise above it – and at the very least see a human being for what they are, not for what passport they carry.

Caroline Jaine is a UK based writer, artist and film-maker with a background in media strategy, training and diplomacy.  She writes regularly for Muslim Voices and the World Bank blog, and a book about her time in Iraq is being launched in October 2011.  More about Caroline’s work and her contact details can be found on www.jaine.info

 

The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.