Life in the ghetto

Educated Pakistanis are leaving the country in droves.

Various theories have been propounded to explain why more and more people (´intellectuals´ as some would call them) are leaving Pakistan for the West; the general impression being that they have no place for their country in their heart. The truth, however, is that it is Pakistan which spurns them and not the other way around.

This is especially so since Pakistan is rapidly evolving into a society where the primary determinant of social worth is money. Intellectual pursuits, whether in academia or the performing arts, are not only constrained by arbitrary and, frankly, ridiculous censorship, but are also regarded as the path of losers.

Take the case of historians. What hope do they have in a country that has no academic infrastructure worth speaking of and, more ominously, no desire to create one? What role does the study of history have in a country where children are taught that Pakistan came into existence the day Mohammed Bin Qasim stepped on subcontinental soil, harem and all, in the 8th century? How does one propose to engage in genuine research, given an academic environment where the state is constrained to teach Pakistan Studies instead of History because of the inconvenient fact that History predates Pakistan?

How can there be any questioning and debate in a society where the tentacles of state-sponsored and state-tolerated obscurantist orthodoxy reach into almost every arena of life? Yes, people are free (almost) to do what they like within the four walls of their own or somebody else´s home. There, they can have sex, drink alcohol, dance. They can even watch the latest Indian film on the laser disc player.

But, at the end of the day, this is not enough. A ghetto, regardless of its comfort, remains a ghetto. Which is why so many people today want a life outside that ghetto. And those who, through luck or ability, do manage to escape and create a life elsewhere should not be condemned for seeking basic freedom.

Have property, will agitate
A telling example of the schizophrenia that envelopes Pakistan´s ruling establishment can be found in a question from the Islamic studies examination, required to join the civil service of Pakistan: "The Holy Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him) was the best and most perfect man of all time. Discuss." It is difficult to conceive how anyone would dare "discuss" this issue at any depth, with a blasphemy law hanging over their heads. As for the Holy Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him indeed after the uses Pakistan has put his good name to.

Despite what apologists may have to say, Pakistani society is a study in ever-increasing conservatism and conformity. The Islamabad government has just elected as President a bigoted, sexist, minority hater. After a lot of hemming and hawing and the writing of a few obligatory English editorials on the matter for the minuscule English-speaking audience, like so much else, it was taken lying down.This is not a blanket indictment of the people of Pakistan but a sad reflection of 50 years of stymied political and intellectual growth. A state shackled by ideology, insecurity and retrogressive rhetoric has ensured that the parameters of public discourse be progressively narrowed over time. Today in Pakistan, politically and cul­turally, there is no place at the margins. You are either mainstream or you are out. The Constitution of Pakistan, and the state, the upholder of that Constitution and public moral standards, continue to legalise discrimination, bigotry, prejudice and exclusion.

Academics, writers, poets, scientists or just ordinary individuals who do not agree with these limitations are outsiders. Either they have to be wealthy enough to maintain some autonomy or they will have to simply conform. Some fight to be immediately marginalised, but not everyone is brave enough to suffer thus.

Of course, there are a few fearless ones who continue to question and propose alternatives. Lawyer and human rights activist Asma Jahangir is one of them, but she is in the fortunate position of being financially advantaged. Several years ago, when this writer was toying with the idea of returning to Pakistan and saving it (the idealism of the young), Jahangir surprised me by asking whether I owned two properties, one to live in and one to rent. The answer being in the negative, her advice was that the dotted line be toed until I achieved the required level of economic independence. Rather scornfully, I retorted that money does not give one happiness. "Yes, I agree, but it does make unhappiness a lot easier to deal with," was her crushing and (in retrospect) perceptive reply.

Still A Pakistani
There is much that is wonderful about Pakistan. Interesting, and sometimes brave and committed people, are some of its greatest assets. Above all, it is my home. Regardless of where I am I will not stop being A Pakistani.

But, within Pakistan, self-censorship is endemic. It is so deeply ingrained that creativity has no place in the Pakistani mind. Already, having written this article, 1 have opened myself up to charges of being an "anti-Pakistan element". I could be tried under the blasphemy law, the hudood laws, the prohibition act. In all probability, I will not get into any trouble, till I actually become a problem, at which time this article may come back to haunt me.

Do I want to live with this fear? Will I be able to say what I think over time if I live this life of sustained fear? I grew up in Pakistan and already my capacity for self examination and airing the truth is limited. I should not allow it to get any worse.

Life in a country which has forgotten how to tell the truth is not desirable.

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