After an 11 year absence, I had the chance this past summer to visit the country of my heritage and birth – Pakistan – for two weeks. Albeit brief and as cliche as this is going to sound, I emerged from the experience completely changed. Somewhere along the way, I had completely abandoned a huge part of my identity – my identity as a Pakistani. Somewhere along the way, I had become almost ashamed to be associated with the country and its people. It wasn’t necessarily a conscious effort, but a lingering feeling of disassociation strengthened within me over the course of four/five years.
I grew up between worlds: I was immersed in various cultures and communities from an early age. My all-American town, growing up in NY, was a heavily Jewish community. The closest family friends, even though my family was strongly religious and Sunni, were Hindu and Bohra Ismaili. In fact, my best friend as a child was a practicing Hindu and my adopted grandparents were Bohras. I had a brief stint in a Muslim school, but that ended quickly, and with it any real experience within a non-cultural Muslim community.
My friends during Middle and High school, in Canada, consisted of staunch Atheists, Agnostics, Baptists, Sikhs and all those in between. It wouldn’t be until first and second year university that I would not only meet fellow Muslims but actually become friends with them.
Throughout this time, I saw myself on a spectrum. I was Pakistani insofar as I was born there and the involuntary immersion into the culture by way of my parents’ own strong identity and commitment to their ethnic and cultural heritage. My family is Kashmiri, but having migrated to the Punjab at the turn of the century, also have a strong Punjabi identity. Our family business involved a deep relationship with Pakistani culture – in terms of handicrafts and carpets – so the art of region was also something I always had a deep appreciation for. My maternal grandfather is a bibliophile, which I suppose was somehow passed down to me and over time I would develop a deep appreciation for Urdu poetry and literature even though I am unable to write it and am unable to read very well. Throughout my lifetime, I have been to Pakistan a total of 4 times (including my birth; I was 5 months when my family moved to the United States)
Thus, my Pakistani identity has been very all over the place. In its stable presence throughout my life it has been heavily unstable because Pakistani identity itself is not a singularly defined identity. There are many layers to any Pakistani’s identity – be they residents or non-residents.
But along the way during my teenage years, I became what my friends would endearingly call “white-washed.” I became “white” – whatever that means. I suppose what it really means, problematically, is that I am very North American (minus poor old Mexico). In my habits, outlooks and approach to life I’m more North American than anything else – and, unsurprisingly, that ‘North American’ experience is largely defined by the White experience. And, equally unsurprisingly given my diverse experiences with different communities, I was influenced by that ‘White’ experience and it became, to a large extent, my own. Obviously not entirely as an immigrant, ‘brown-skinned,’ Muslim and veiled woman, but in terms of perspectives, way of speaking, demeanor ..for all those intents and purposes I was “White.” I distinctly remember a friend, in the 9th grade, once saying that while I was “brown” I wasn’t really, so she could easily gossip with me about the “other brown girls.”
When I began to engage with my faith more seriously, trying to understand it, its adherents and my own relationship with it, I began to take on a solely-Muslim identity. I had always been a strong adversary of any form of nationalism and even patriotism, even though you’d find me, as a child and teenager, completely in the patriotic spirit come July 1st, July 4th and August 14th.
Or Hockey Night in Canada.
But I do hold great disgust for ethno-nationalism in particular. An arbitrary pride which blinds rationality was never something that ever really interested me in the least. As I became a stronger practitioner of my faith, the more my identity became completely Muslim laden. Western Muslim. That’s who I was and that is completely how I have come to see myself during the past five years.
But, that real white girl in me just had to rear her head out.
I came to a point where I began ‘experimenting’ with different cultures in that sort of condescending way; unintentional and certainly never in a malign manner, but in a way which looked at a given culture and also said in that most annoying baby voice “OH well aren’t you just such a fulfilling culture, way of life and language different from my own! Yes you are! Yes you are!”
I became that way with various Middle Eastern cultures. The more I became involved with the Muslim community, with a primarily Arab group of friends and the more I studied the region and language, as per my degree, the more ‘Arab’ I became. It didn’t help that people would mistake me for an Arab all the time. And for a long time, I liked being mistaken for an Arab. Truth be told, it was ‘exotic’ to me. I’m ashamed to admit it, but it was. Being Pakistani was boring. Being mistaken for Egyptian, Lebanese or Palestinian -dear god, especially Palestinian – was just so much more exciting. I remember if someone would guess right away that I was Pakistani, I’d actually feel offended. As though I was inadequate in some way.
It disgusts me to remember feeling that way. But I did. I had pushed away from my Pakistani identity so much and so toughly, in an attempt to reclaim a purely Muslim and a purely Western identity, that I had become, unconsciously, a self-hating Pakistani. The same type of characteristic I would admonish some friends for had become a part of my own character.
But within the last year there, there’s been a sort of Pakistani renaissance within me. In a way, it’s resonant of the white kid trying to find some culture cliche I experienced with my self-induced Arabization. But in another way, it’s a real attempt to understand my own relationship with Pakistan, with Pakistanis and my general heritage.
It began, as it always has, with the art. I have always loved the Urdu language, but within the past year I have fallen deeply more in love with it. Urdu combines the most beautiful vocabulary from Farsi, Arabic and Turkish to create a language which, in its pure form, is nothing short of striking poetry. In trying to translate poetry, for instance, into English I found the latter to be completely inadequate to fully convey the connotations present so strongly in the original Urdu text. I finally understood ‘lost in translation.’ This love of the language for the time, in my life, made me want to instill it in my children and made me wish for a spouse who would appreciate the language and its various manifestations in art. It became, just momentarily, a semi-conscious dealbreaker on that front.
All of this evolved and my exploration of my Pakistani self was heavily assisted by the constant demonization of Pakistan and its people. It made me more aware of my own particularity.
And when, recently, I returned to Pakistan after a decade of being apart I found myself completely shocked. Not at how ‘different’ people were, but how I had allowed myself to see people who shared similar heritage, who were born on the same soil where I was born – however arbitrarily – almost dehumanized. How my self-disassociation over a period of four years, in particular, and the framing of a specific perspective by the portrayal of Pakistan in the mainstream North American media had just made me forget how real they were and how real my place amongst them, however small and however ‘foreign’, actually was.
I never hated myself for being Pakistani nor did I ever ‘hate’ or even dislike Pakistan and Pakistanis. I fell into an all too common trend of pushing away from myself an integral part of who I am in an attempt to assert who I would like to be; how I would like to be seen. I’m not Pakistani in the fullest sense – I certainly cannot relate to the vast majority of Pakistanis; my demeanor gives me away as a foreigner and while I get cultural nuances, I am still overwhelmingly unaware of much in regards to culture, history and politics. Nationalism and patriotism still disgust me. Even at their most minimal. My identity is still heavily laden with its Muslim and Western perspectives and being. I am, however, Pakistani in that it is part of my particularity. I was born there. My entire family still resides there. I speak the language. I enjoy the culture. And I eat the food. It’s superficial, perhaps, but it’s still real. But when I returned to Pakistan, I fell in love with the country and its people. With all the absurdities, the things that still annoy me, disgust me, bother me, anger me – even with all of that, I couldn’t help but just falling in love.
Even the humidity. And I really hate humidity. Like, it disgusts me. But I’m currently yearning for it, achingly.
And don’t get me wrong. I’m not complaining. I’m not trying to cry about identity problems. I don’t have any, truth be told. I’m pretty at peace with who I am and what I am. Instead, I’m just confessing to myself, first and foremost, how I’ve tried to suppress certain parts of my identity in an attempt to satiate the hunger of other parts (or so I assumed) and in an attempt to create new aspects to my already layered self. The thing is, I know I’m not the only one who is experiencing this. That like a lot of other Pakistanis, in particular, I just got caught up in finding another culture and society to call my own in a weird way. And this is, I think, related to our perception of Pakistan and Pakistanis as inadequate in comparison to not only our North American mentality and way of life but in relation to other countries we would often compare it to, namely India. An inferiority complex grows silently within a lot of us North American Pakistanis, coupled with our White-washedness, which forces us to turn away.
But like all good white kids in college, we go looking for culture and often, but not always, end up where our roots may lie.
Written in August 2010.