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Pakistanis abroad: Ismail and Ishaaq

July 20, 2012


-Illustration by Faraz Aamer Khan.

Sheer destiny – and nothing else – played a hand in ensuring that Ishaaq was born in a well-to-do and educated family. This good fortune ensured that Ishaaq was raised well.  He went to private schools and learnt how to swim at the Gymkhana, where his father was a member.  His mother pushed him to work hard and be diligent in his studies, as a result of which Ishaaq scored well in his O and A levels, and got admitted to a leading university in the United States. Since graduation, Ishaaq has found a cushy job on Wall Street, owns an apartment overlooking mid-town Manhattan, and has risen to a corner-office in a tall Skyscraper.

During his childhood, Ishaaq’s only friend was Ismail, the son of the maid who works in Ishaaq’s house. Ismail’s mother worked two jobs to fend for her eight children. Ismail grew up in a 2-room rented ‘house’ (if you can call it that) on the far side of the railroad tracks. Both the same age, Ismail and Ishaaq got along perfectly, studied and played together. Ismail was ‘better’ than Ishaaq in many ways; he was smarter (academically) than Ishaaq, and had a mean bowling action. But unlike Ishaaq, Ismail went to the local government school for his ‘education’ (which is all his family could afford), and that too was discontinued after eighth grade – when Ismail’s father was shot-dead during an attack on the Church that he attended. Since then Ismail works in a tyre shop near Mall Road during the day, and spends the evening looking after his mother who is now too old to work, and is suffering from Hepatitis C having consumed contaminated water from the local tube-well.

Ismail and Ishaaq are no longer in touch. Ismail thinks of his long-lost friend, every once in a while. He has heard from someone that Ishaaq is in New York, which is the capital of England. Ismail wonders how life must be there. And this imaginative detour is Ismail’s respite from reality. Ishaaq, on the other hand, no longer remembers Ismail. Between the new job, the Audi he just bought, the down-payment on the apartment, the hot girl he met at a friend’s birthday party, and the new Thai restaurant that has just opened two streets away … there is just no time for anything else.

The universe of Ismail and Ishaaq will never again collide.

And this divide, between the worlds of Ismail and Ishaaq, raises countless questions of national character and personal responsibility. Does Ismail – living in the slums of Lahore and trying to make ends meet, having never been afforded his fair share of opportunities in this life – claim anything off Ishaaq? Or can he only curse the stars for having been born in the ‘wrong’ house, at the ‘wrong’ time, in the ‘wrong’ country? And much more importantly, does Ishaaq owe any responsibility to the Ismails of Pakistan? Is his success not primarily a function of fate (much more so than his hard work)? Would Ismail not have done just as well (if not better), given the opportunity?  And if so, is it not incumbent upon Ishaaq to concertedly work towards bridging the gap between the Ismails and Ishaaqs of the future? Can this responsibility really be hidden behind paper-thin capitalistic arguments of pursuing personal opportunity and happiness (to the exclusion of the larger ‘others’)?

I am aware of the fact that the proposition, as stated, suffers from generalities – many Pakistanis have shifted abroad out of sheer compulsion, or for education, and many are doing all they can for the country and her people within the modest means they have.  But these exceptions do not detract from the fact that most others have simply chosen the ‘good life’, in a place without load-shedding or potholes in the road, with clean drinking water, health insurance and designer brands! Responsibility has been substituted by convenience. Virtue has been replaced by success. And, in the process, those whom divinity has blessed with intellect and inspiration, have chosen to prefer comfort over compassion, leaving Pakistan to the vices of time.

There is no legal argument to support the reversing of our national brain-drain. There is a logical case one can make, in earnest.  In fact, logic dictates perhaps the exact opposite – there is very little to return to Pakistan for.

This is, instead, an emotional argument. An appeal to the mystic senses of responsibility, selflessness and compassion.  Along with a fierce belief in our collective ability to turn around the destiny of our nation … not just for ourselves, or our parents and children … but for all those who sleep under the stars in this country, devoid of any hope for a better tomorrow.

We, who fate has bestowed with opportunity and privilege, owe a collective debt to that faceless Ismail who we all know exists, but we never bother reaching out to. We have all made a silent pledge, willingly or unwillingly, to carry the mantle of our national progress on his behalf.  It is time to redeem that pledge. It is no longer justifiable to hide behind career commitments or personal comforts, in an attempt to avoid facing this reality.

Pakistan is changing. Small revolutions are taking place – there is a resurgent Supreme Court, a dauntless media, a new political party, privatized banking system, and a growing influx of technology in agricultural and manufacturing sectors. And these developments require intellect, passion and hard work to materialise.

Ismail has no real way of understanding or contributing to these winds of change. The country needs Ishaaq to come back. Not only because of the blossoming (materialistic) opportunities, but mostly because perhaps this way we can work towards a society where the children of Ismail and Ishaaq have a better (fairer) chance of living at parity.


The writer is a lawyer based in Lahore, with a keen interest in fundamental and constitutional rights. Previously, he was Vice President in the Global Markets & Investment Banking Group of Merrill Lynch, New York.  He has a Masters in Constitutional Law from Harvard Law School and can be reached at:

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.