By Nadeem F. Paracha
January 16, 2015
In the last decade or so, I have been able to travel extensively across much of Europe, Asia and the Americas. During my travels, I noticed how rare it was to find non-businessmen or non-pilgrim Pakistani travellers.
For example, in Europe, if you tell someone that you were a Pakistani on vacation, you are bound to get curious looks. They mostly (if not only) know about Pakistanis who have settled there or come only for quick business trips.
Every year, during my travels, I find less and less Pakistani rovers on the streets of Europe, the US and even in many Asian countries. The only ones you do see are those travelling to Dubai or maybe to Malaysia and Turkey.
However, I do come across a healthy number of Indian travellers.
It follows, naturally, that many of the people I meet across Asia, Europe and the US take me for an Indian too. This does bother me a little, because it brings to light the political and cultural perils of a nation and people that have just stopped travelling for leisure and for sheer travelling experience.
Wise men across history have rightly emphasised the need for travelling, especially in how it opens your mind to things, people and habits outside your own social and belief systems; and how this infuses an instinctive realisation in the traveller about the importance of plurality and tolerance; and how tiny, rigid and sometimes rather delusional the world of an isolationist is.
Of course, over the past many years, it hasn’t been easy for Pakistanis to acquire visas of a number of countries. Also, the economic situation of the country has made it tough for most Pakistanis to even think about taking a vacation abroad.
That is certainly a cause for concern. I say this because the moment you step into another country, you begin to realise that life can indeed be lived without constantly contemplating the fate of a government or the status of one or the other’s religious beliefs.
To know that is to realise just how narrow our worldview has become — we work and then come back home to watch political talk shows on TV or just talk faith, and nothing else.
The human mind is far too vast to be stuffed with only cyclic political gossip (mistaken as political analyses), or with a rather unhealthy obsession with faith.
Slipping out from the confines of such a myopic existence (through travelling) will tell you just how quickly things like music, literature, sports, theatre, et al, are vanishing from our list of things to do and enjoy in Pakistan.
There is no doubt that as a nation, we face gigantic economic and political problems today; no doubt that we are in a state of war against ogres and Frankenstein monsters that we created or allowed to breed due to our short-sightedness and misplaced arrogance.
But think about it. Go through the histories of some of the most powerful reform movements and it is clear that none of these were complete without the inclusion of hefty cultural contributions by poets, playwrights, musicians, artists and even sportsmen.
Our entire standpoint on life or about what needs to be done has unfortunately shrunk to an extent where all we are left with is a constant need to make lofty moral and faith-based judgments and denunciations, believing that ‘positive’ change can only come in some form of a convoluted moral order.
That’s all we talk about now: Faith – the correct version, the wrong version, the distorted version, this version, that version …
In basic terms, there is only one version, spread across many different cultures.
We just have to accept it, live with that. One faith, different cultures. We are only one such culture (out of the many), and just different from the ones we judge to be better or worse than us.
The only other topic we love to talk about is what gets passed these days as ‘politics.’ The lesser said about this, the better.
Everything else has become unnecessary. It seems all of us have become myopic political animals with an extremely slender understanding of politics, something which now colours the understanding of our faith as well.
We’ve forgotten where politics ends and where faith begins (or vice versa).
'I am from Surinam!'
Whenever I travel now, I look forward to meeting people who are not always judging me through religious and ideological biases or figuring out where I stand politically.
That, however, can be a problem if you are a Pakistani, because then most non-Pakistanis seem to just want to talk to you about your faith as a Muslim. Truth is, I’d much rather talk about music, sports, food, drinks, and art — subjects one rarely gets to talk about in Pakistan these days.
So what do I do? Let them call me an Indian? No way. Because then all they want to talk about is friggin' Bollywood! Don’t know much about that, I’m afraid.
So this time when I went travelling, I decided to introduce myself as a citizen of Surinam!
I got this idea way back in 2003, when, while travelling across Europe, I started talking to an Indian. He swiftly switched from English to Hindi when I told him that I was from Pakistan. I asked him where he was from in India, and he told me that he wasn’t from India at all. ‘I am from Surinam!’ he announced.
**As it turns out, Surinam, a small country in South America, has a huge ‘brown’ Hindi-speaking population.
So this time that’s what I told people in various European countries: ‘I’m from Surinam’.**
And lo and behold, I got what I wanted — lots of discussion on fishing, hurricanes, beaches and drinks. Absolutely nothing on faith, terrorism and wife-beating!
A fantastic time I had.
Not that I don’t ever want to talk about such things, but not while I’m travelling. Especially not with someone who till a decade or so ago most probably thought Pakistan was a tiny Island west of Madagascar but only recently suddenly realised it was not near Madagascar but north of the burning oil fields of Iraq — a place where a majority of folks race camels, beat up their wives and blow up things. Like, all the time.
But jokes apart, on most occasions, I found the majority of Europeans and Americans to be very tolerant and genuinely interested in hearing about how life was like in a nation like Pakistan. The real test comes when during a trip, foreign channels begin to report a terrorist attack in Pakistan and how not much was being done about such attacks.
That is when one really struggles answering a question like, ‘where are you from?’
I always say ‘Pakistan.’ And proudly so. But the truth is, it is getting increasingly tough to say it out instantly. Now I hesitate a bit.
And that's not a good feeling at all.