Robin Yassin-Kassab

You People

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My contribution to the Journal of Postcolonial Writing’s Pakistan Special.

Seventeen years ago, as a very young man, I arrived in Karachi. Apart from six months in Beirut in my babyhood, this was my first time outside Europe. I didn’t know what to expect, although I had stereotypes from my British experience of what a Pakistani was (a Mirpuri, with brown skin and eyes, probably a cab driver).

The airport was spacious and anonymous, until the exit. Here tens of faces squashed against the glass doors, most of them cab drivers trying to make a personal connection. I was offered hashish in the cab, taken to an expensive hotel – which I refused – then to a hotel for cockroaches, but very cheap and very friendly. The man at the desk had black skin and blue eyes.

I liked Karachi. It was bustling, lively and engaging. The food was spicy and the weather was pleasantly hot. There appeared to be no social restraint on spontaneous conversation with strangers. It wasn’t Britain. I was pleased to find a word or two of Arabic helped greatly.

On the third day I booked a flight to Islamabad. The travel agent asked when I’d like to travel.

“O, in about a week.”

“A week? But it’s Muharram the day after tomorrow.”


“You want to leave before Muharram. There’ll be trouble.”

He gave me a hasty rundown of the Karachi political scene – Sunni-Shia conflicts, the MQM, etcetera. Most of it went over my head. I understood the basic flow: bloody chaos.

“OK. I’ll leave tomorrow.”

I didn’t mind being hustled out. I was aiming for Rawalpindi anyway. Although he was still in London, my friend Ejaz lived in Rawalpindi. It was Ejaz who invited me to Pakistan. He told me about the sun, the mountains, all the wonderful stuff to smoke.

One of his friends picked me up. He drove me around Islamabad, which is, as they say, only 15 minutes from Pakistan.

“So what do you want to do? There’s the Faisal Masjid. There’s.. um..”

He used to be in a rock band. If you know Mohsin Hamid’s Mothsmoke, I was on the edge of that world.

“If you don’t mind – you’re not religious? – I just need to give some money to someone.”

Of course I didn’t mind. We parked in a car park. My host left me for five minutes. He returned with a bottle of whisky. I declined a slug. He glugged a third of the bottle, broke into a sweat, and turned the key in the ignition. “So what do you want to do?”

As it turned out, he was pretty religious himself, an ardent believer as well as a borderline alcoholic. He was a recovering heroin addict, which was his excuse for the alcoholism. (It goes without saying that I met several heroin addicts in Pakistan, including a desperate journalist who would steal from my wallet and then tearfully admit the theft once he’d had his fix. This bright, clean-hearted man was running out of options. He’d hold down a newspaper job for a day or two before being found slumped and unresponding in the office toilets.)

My host was a lovely bloke. So were his friends. We spent a week driving in the misty hills above Islamabad, to Murree, Abbotabad, once as far as the astounding Kaghan valley.

During back-seat discussion of an emotive geo-political topic, probably Kashmir, one of the friends referred to me as “you people.”

My host defended me: “Robin’s one of us. A Muslim.”

Apologies all round. But who I was in ethno-religious terms, and what that meant, became a thematic question of my time in Pakistan.

There was the man who called the office where I worked. “What’s this Robin Yassin? Is it a Jew?”

My first day in Karachi I bought a shalwar kameez and was immediately mistaken for a Pukhtoon. At least, old Pukhtoon men kept stopping me to (I guessed) ask directions. Maybe they were saying I looked silly in my new shalwar kameez. In Rawalpindi I was often taken for an Iranian. I recently re-met the younger brother of a Rawalpindi friend, who told me he’d assumed I was a gora. In a mountain village a man sat on a log to observe me, then announced that I was Japanese. That was the strangest. And the instant I stepped off the minibus in Chitral a man ran up to embrace me, breathing, “Welcome my Syrian brother!” Which was refreshingly accurate (I’m half Syrian, half English). At the parrot-infested shrines of Uch Sharif my companion told the public I came from Syria. “Sham!” they repeated. A magical word! The men sitting on the ledge of the ablutions pool kissed their fingers.

All this enquiry into my identity. But it’s Pakistan’s identity which is in question, not just by me. Western newspaper features promise relentlessly to reveal ‘the true face of Pakistan’ – the bomber, or the singer at shrines, or the secular intellectual. The Salafi, the Sufi or the civic-minded. Tariq Ali in a good 2007 piece for the London Review of Books compared the numbers and found attendees at a saint’s death-anniversary outpeopled those involved in the campaign to reinstate the Chief Justice, who in turn vastly outnumbered participants in a pro-Taliban demonstration. But what do numbers mean?

I supposed a job with a newspaper was the way to examine Pakistan. More to the point, I needed some cash. I tried The News, and was granted an interview with the founding editor Maleeha Lodhi (later Pakistan’s top diplomat in London and Washington). I told her I’d been to Oxford. She told me I could work as a subeditor. Soon I tried writing a piece for the Capitalights page. I remember interviewing tourism officials for this piece, wandering the broad and flowery suburbs of Islamabad. It’s endless suburb, a languid maze. The lawns were lushly watered, while hydro-power cuts (the not-quite ubiquitous load-shedding) meant the fans weren’t stirring the soupish air of Rawalpindi. But I remember researching this piece and thinking, I want to do this job for ever. Finding things out.

In the Murree Road office there were endless glasses of dood putti and endless good cheer to keep you tapping through the noise to almost three a.m. We ate chicken and rice half way through the shift. At the end I got a lift home through a street of savage dogs which used to throw themselves slavering at our windscreen.

I remember my colleagues fondly. There was a journalist who showed me the bullets trapped in his back since his university battles against Zia partisans. There were clever, principled young journalists like Mazhar Zaidi, who went out to hear the stories of Christian villagers falsely accused of blasphemy. My clearest memory is of an earthquake, not a big one by Pakistani standards but bigger than any I’d experienced previously, big enough to shake the building. Awe-struck, I wondered to the window and peered out. When I looked back into the office it was empty; everybody except me had left for the street. My second clearest memory is of the night Benazir Bhutto entered office for the second time, bringing with her Farooq Leghari as President. They replaced Nawaz Sharif and Ghulam Ishaq Khan, to violent PPP rejoicing. Bullets banged and whizzed outside the office as the news came in. Stupefied by curiosity once again, I stuck my head out of the window. My colleagues pulled it back in. This was just across the road from Liaquat Bagh, where Benazir was assassinated in 2007.

After my first story I was given free rein. I interviewed Eqbal Ahmad, and a poet, and a film-maker. I interviewed the Europeans (and an Algerian) staying in the Islamabad tourist camp (entry forbidden to Pakistanis). I wrote an opinion piece when the Palestinian-Israeli Oslo accords were signed. (I said they wouldn’t work. Can I have my medal now?)

I went on a journalists’ trip to the Federally Administered Tribal Areas to observe the Americans stamping out opium cultivation. Out there it was a rare man who didn’t have a kalashnikov slung across his shoulder. Several of the family compounds had anti-aircraft guns fixed to their towers. But the people we met were always warm and hospitable. I asked one farmer if he minded growing turnips instead of opium. Hadn’t they traditionally used opium as a diarrhea treatment? “No problem,” he beamed. “The next valley is thick with it.”

I had some difficulties finding suitable accomodation. There didn’t seem to be much on offer for a single man except student residences and workers’ barracks. For most of the time I lived in a room in a building of single men in Satellite Town. I used to cook a meal when I returned from work and eat it on the roof as the fajr chorus screamed about me. The neighbourhood was friendly. It included a hijra, laughed-at but loved, who was offered free glasses of juice and sweets as he pranced about the shops. This didn’t fit with the British stereotype of Pakistan.

On the streets the dominant tone was one of good-humoured egalitarianism. I remember it best when I remember transport. I travelled to work by jangly bus, one of those Asian artworks of a bus, all bells and pattern. Usually I clutched to the external straps of the bus, on the roof and side, sometimes diagonally. Once my head hung lower than my feet. On the many occasions when my grip was unsure, fellow passengers propped me in place. Of course it was better to be inside, because then I could listen to the jokes. I stopped for carrot halwa – and an inevitable conversation about identity – before boarding the second bus. (Sometimes I stopped for salted fruit juice, which I could never get used to.) When I went shopping I travelled by horse cart, largely for the driver’s commentary on other drivers, their relations with their mothers and sisters. Once I was knocked off a friend’s motorcycle – unharmed; fortunately the Murree Road at that instant housed a political demonstration with drums and banners, a counter-demonstration, as well as the usual donkeys, bicycles, hand carts, trucks, buses and cars, so we’d been moving at no more than two miles an hour. Unseen hands replaced me on the back of the bike just as my friend realised I’d gone. And I remember swimming home from the bank the day the monsoon arrived, laughing with those I floated into.

So who is Pakistan? I mean in the abstract, beyond public transport.

It’s the rich. It’s the 22 families plus lesser recruits who staff the upper reaches of the PPP, the Muslim League and the military, so that whoever’s in charge they are. Feudalists and industrialists and hereditary holy men puffing on fine cigars.

It’s the army of course. All those millionaire generals and all those raw-eared serving men. Before I came to Pakistan I’d assumed an army was just for fighting. But no. An army is also for running hotels, hospitals and supermarkets, managing transport companies, undertaking great civil projects, and sometimes governing the country. The army seemed to be Pakistan’s closest approximation to a respected national institution, although it kept ruining its reputation by political interventions – and even in those days it was obvious that it served as a mercenary to American power. But the army’s influence was everywhere, in almost every proud family, down to the military aspect of the Faisal Mosque – which we did in fact visit a couple of days after my first host bought his whisky. “These are four missiles,” he said, pointing naughtily at the minarets. “One for Washington, one for London, for Moscow, for Tel Aviv.”

Most of all, it’s the poor, both urban and rural. Those who don’t have lawns to water, many of whom at the time of writing are in fact underwater. Those whose children die of diarrhea. But in an important respect the poor majority cannot be considered part of Pakistan, for the Pakistani state has never noticed them, or has at best considered them through a security prism, as potential trouble.

Then there’s the educated middle class, from which most of my friends sprang. They quoted Urdu poetry, American hip hop, the Quran and snippets from Shakespeare, putting Britain’s educated middle class to shame. Most were principled and enthusiastic. They were as young as I was, so they alternated between false cynicism and a genuine belief that they would build a better society. I had a friend whose father was a lawyer famous for framing innocents. One friend was a devotee of Qazi Hussain Ahmad. Devotee is too strong. He also smoked a great deal of charas.

There is, fundamentally, religion. Sunni, Shia, Ismaili, Ahmadi. Christian, Hindu, Sikh. Qawali hymns, roadside mosques, political movements. Charitable giving and sectarian killing. It’s all over the place, a constant topic of conversation and contestation even (or especially) among secularists. I loved Ramadan in Pakistan – my first in a Muslim country. For a few days of the month I was travelling with a film crew through Sindh and southern Punjab. At iftar our bus stopped and we shared food with whoever was sitting nearby, under a hot, bright moon. It was beautiful. Also in Pakistan I became aware for the first time of the deadly intolerance bubbling in some Muslim hearts. A daily toll of sectarian attacks ticked into the news office. Once I found myself listening in to an argument (not in the office) over the categorisation of communal enemies. Were the Shia a greater or lesser evil than the Jews? (O, I’ve been to Saudi Arabia since. I know how much worse it gets.)

I attended the urs of Bari Imam, a festival of popular culture as much as a religious event, and a genuine expression of social peace. Village delegations arrived from the mountains and deserts, setting their tents around their star attraction – a devotional singer or a malang. I read about the bombing of the shrine in 2005, then the cancellation of the urs in the last two years, for security and financial reasons. These days so much of Pakistan seems to have been closed until further notice.

I had a friend whose father was a nuclear scientist. This kind, devoted man took me up into the green northern wilds of Khyber Pakhtoon Khwa to meet Shah Sahib, a Naqshibandi Sufi. My Urdu by then was good enough for a basic conversation and a bit of politics, but not good enough to follow Shah Sahib’s theological reasoning. Yet I profited greatly from meeting him. He was a man of heavy gravity but not at all sombre. Lightness characterised his urgent handshake, his gently penetrative gaze, his brimming eyes.

And Pakistan is the land itself, which makes the people: boisterous Pakistani nature capable of constant renewal, whatever’s thrown at it, as full of difference as the Pakistani people, and as irrepressible as the people may well prove to be. In the Northern Areas, from valley to valley everything changed – the faces, the food, the words. At each station of my mountain journey I took out my notebook and asked for words in the local language. Burushos, Chitralis, Kalash – all manner of human being, including a long-haired German youth walking from Chitral to Hunza with a donkey.

Pakistan? It’s 170 million last time I looked. Any conclusion as to its essence would be a false one – almost as false as calling me Japanese – not only because of the variety of the people but also because of the variety within any one person. Isn’t it possible to be different things at different times of the day?

If I did come to a conclusion I’ve forgotten it. If I remembered it wouldn’t work now anyway. Pakistan is greatly changed.

I spoke to Ejaz recently. He’d just returned to Islamabad from Birmingham where his son had undergone a heart operation. “It was easier in the hospital,” he said. “The tension only lasted a few days. Here there are checkpoints everywhere but it doesn’t stop the bombs.”

My friend Tariq, a British Pakistani who works in the Gulf and visits Pakistan frequently, tells me, “You wouldn’t recognise it. Nobody knows what’s going on. You feel that all authority has collapsed.”

I can’t define Pakistan but I can still hazard a diagnosis of its illness (because it’s obvious, not because I’m an expert). Pakistan’s greatest problem is its failure to have achieved any measure of social justice for its people. Identity is its second problem, if it’s a problem at all. Pakistani leaders have sought to distract attention from the first failure by shouting about the second. And beware those who believe that identity must be officially protected. Their jump to chauvinism is short.

Given Pakistan’s brief, unusual history (since it’s in the name of common Muslimness that the country was founded), any collective identity must be Islamic. But an Islamic rhetoric, unless horribly distorted, threatens to refocus attention on social justice – on the collective responsibility to protect the weak, to promote literacy, to eliminate poverty, to enforce one law for all. So the rhetoric must be horribly distorted, until it creates an Islam of social scapegoating. This version of religion divides rather than unifies.

But prospects are not entirely bleak. Regardless of alarmist reports in Western media on the imminent break-up of the country, middle Pakistan does seem to be slowly developing a centralised identity, inevitably Islamic. There is an insufferable paradox in Islamic nationalism, this modernist notion of a localised and state-bound umma. But a more prosperous, better educated people would find the confidence to express an identity not shakily based on a formula or cultural short-cut, but on who at their best they already are – which is Muslim of course, among other things. As they are on the jangly buses.

There’s a Pakistan not just surviving but flourishing. With the exception of the media (which may have replaced the army as the closest approximation to a respected national institution), this Pakistan hasn’t yet found the institutions to represent it. But it’s there. It’s in the tone of Mohammad Haneef: cynical and sweet, curious and intelligent, tragi-comic, wry. That Pakistan is watching, feeling, waiting for the fuller realisation of its moment.

Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

April 28, 2011 at 9:20 pm

Posted in Pakistan

One Response

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  1. Wonderful piece!


    April 29, 2011 at 2:47 am

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