Being a Pakistani abroad

19 Aug 2011

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—Photo Illustration by Faraz Aamer Khan/Dawn.com

‘Where are you from?’ is generally the first question people here in the Emirates will ask you. That is because with people from over a 100 nationalities settled in the UAE, this is quite literally, the melting pot of cultures – (melting pot of course would also refer to soaring mercury levels!)

When you meet people through work, or friends or merely at the park or at a mosque and if you do strike a friendship, this question, like I said features quite early in the conversation. The other day, I met a girl at the mosque and when I asked where she was  from, she said, “I was born and bred in the UAE and have been here all my life.” I could easily make out that she wasn’t a local Emarati, so I wondered aloud if she was in fact a local. To this the girl replied abashedly and almost grinding her teeth, “Well, my parents hail from Pakistan, but I’ve never really lived there,” she added defensively.  So the girl was a Pakistani herself, because as is common knowledge, Arab countries do not grant their nationality upon you even you’ve lived in their country for generations, or if indeed you are born on their lands.

In a place like the United States or Canada, where one does eventually receive citizenship, many Pakistanis with foreign passports refer to themselves as ‘Americans’ or ‘Canadians’. A Pakistani woman I know who settled in Sydney a few years ago insists that she hails from Down Under. I personally don’t understand this. Just because someone owns something other than that green passport, does it change their roots?

I have often come across Western educated Pakistanis who after being born and brought up in the Pakistan have left it and have settled in the US or UK. They now read Urdu with a perplexed expression on their faces, almost as though it were ‘cool’ to stutter whilst reading Urdu, because you ‘forgot’ it.

It seems mystifying at first, the fact that sometimes Pakistanis abroad do anything to conceal their nationality. It should be noted that I am not making a generalisation here as there are some Pakistanis abroad (myself amongst them) who are perfectly happy and proud of being Pakistani, and couldn’t care less about what anyone would think. They read Urdu with zeal and are glad to say that they belong to Pakistan.

However, I have also encountered quite a few who seem to think being connected to the land is one of their greatest misfortunes. As we look further into this behaviour, we realise that they do have valid reasons. First after 9/11 and more recently the OBL Drama in A-bot-a-baad, Pakistanis especially in the West are looked down upon. The word ‘terrorist’ hovers around and a balanced person with a fairly harmless agenda in life is looked upon with scepticism. A Pakistani friend who moved to the United States from Dubai now tells anyone who asks that she is from the UAE, even domestic help she plans to hire on an hourly basis, because personal experience has taught her that saying ‘Pakistani’ will invite needless suspicion from just about anyone.

In the UAE, I can personally vouch for the fact that anyone who is not a local (Emarati) or a gora, is subject to some kind of prejudice, and Pakistanis too are scrutinized in a circumspect manner.

With the current situation in Pakistan, where nearly every day one wakes up to the horrifying news that there was a bomb blast in such and such place, and with our infamous track-record, not to mention our political leaders, the wariness people sometimes feel around Pakistanis is somewhat justified. But the fact that an entire nationality is shown disrespect, for the misdeeds of a few bad eggs, is very unfortunate. These are tough times to be a Pakistani. You are stopped at the airport and questioned ruthlessly, you are looked down upon in other countries and the word terrorist seems to be on everyone’s mind.

One wistfully thinks of how wonderful it would be if being Pakistani was once more considered a privilege rather than an unlucky aberration. This land was acquired with lots of hard work and struggles by honourable men and women. Cynicism, I realize is a staple in our people but the fact is that we need to believe, in ourselves and in our country. We as the youth need to know that Pakistan, with its indomitable spirit may yet rise again, and that it is us who can make a real difference.

Mehmudah Rehman is a Dubai-based freelance writer who blogs at Ummanaal’s Musings.

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.