I remember a friend of mine – she’s beautiful to begin with, with bone structure that would put Jolie to shame but unlike most Pakistanis, she’s a composition of contrasting colors and shades that’s difficult to find in this part of the world. She’s totally desi, with blond in her hair, green in her eyes and skin that’s not quite pale, but peachy and infused with earthy undertones that blends back into her eyebrows, giving her a particular celestial quality.
I repeat, she is beautiful. But she’s beautiful beyond what makes you and me beautiful – she’s unique.
She is a Pathan. In a crowd of brown skins and dark hair, the exclusivity of her look makes her the natural ideal for beauty standards in the country.
Looking at her, I used to envy her, and in quiet moments, still might. I think to myself, I want to look like that. I want to be that objectively beautiful, I want to be unique. But I’m not – I’m ordinary. I look like everyone else in the region. The most I’ve got going for me in terms of physical distinctions is a scar under my chin, a mark on my cheek from Chickenpox and dimples that pepper my cheeks, which I adore but it’s not exactly exclusive to me is it? In a group of other dimpled folks, which includes cousins and close friends, I can’t help but feel like I’m a CD case in one of those complete DVD box sets – grouped together, compatible and every single one of us dimpled.
But you know who is unique? My friend, Ali; his friend, Khizar; their friend, Raina – a whole community of people with contrasting colours and shades and they all have one thing in common: they’re Pathan. Granted, they’re not all blonde, not all blue-eyed – and not all fair-skinned, but all distinct in their own way, all unique and therefore all, by association of the word ‘Pathan’, desirable.
At least we Punjabis think so.
Pathan hote hi pyare hain is something you’ll hear often, not from Pathans themselves, but from us. But that’s not even the most enviable quality about them. They’re proud of who they are, and what it means to be Pashtun – a brave warrior-race, harboring a strong sense of community that, as an outsider, is quite alienating, and all this in its entirety is what we feel we lack.
I remember I got in a car once with Ali, and his two friends Khizar and Suleman. From the get-go, they started off in Pashto, with me just squirming around awkwardly in the front seat. Ali then barks, “Hey! In Urdu!”
Not five sentences later, they’re going off in Pashto again. Again, Ali shouts, “Yaar, Urdu mai!” then as a second thought he adds, “Or English!”
On account of my social anxiety, I manage a timid “I don’t mind, do whatever” and he gives up, only in that he feels it’s his duty to remind them one more time what languages they’re allowed to speak.
Except immediately after, Ali sets off in Pashto himself and I’m left to suffer wordlessly in the ride. Sitting as the only non-Pathan in that car, I found it rude. And yet, even that didn’t stop Ali and his friends from talking to each other in a language that someone else in their company did not understand.
Later, he said about it, “We can’t help it, it always happens.”
To recount this anecdote is just to say that this spirit of kinship runs very deep, and at the heart of it is Pashto.
If you’re in a group of people, and two are Pathan, chances are they will gravitate towards each other – and whether young, old, upper-class or lower, they will speak to each other in Pashto. And still, the fact of the matter is, you won’t ever hear a Punjabi youth speaking to another in Punjabi – not conversationally, unless specifically to make a point.
And why’s that?
Well, to put it bluntly, Punjabi’s real unsexy.
Primarily spoken by the old guard or the lower classes with a harsh twang, Punjabi’s deep association with crude ‘80s films makes it highly unpopular with urban populations, especially with the urban middle and upper class youth. Punjabi does nothing to bind us, and in fact, works over to alienate us even more. As a result, we’re very jealous of this sense of community and the language that serves as the mechanism to strengthen their bonds. Both are extraordinary to us.
And yet, simmering under these feelings of inferiority, or born out of it, is a raging superiority complex that manifests itself in terrible ways
Pathan hote hi pyaare hain, lekin lecher bhi hote hain, ghaleez bhi aur jahil bhi.
Those are the general spoken-aloud sentiments that permeate our society. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard, “Pathan sai shaadi nai krte” or “Pathan paghal hain” from the people around me – the implication being that they’re “fags” in the first, and violent misogynist schemers in the second. But to my parents’ credit, I don’t feel as if I ever grew up hearing this – the first time I heard anything of the sort, I was in my late teens and even then, I couldn’t quite comprehend what was being implied, and what it had to do with being Pathan.
“Perfectly good Punjabi daal-eating people talk like me when they speak to me. I don’t know if they do it on purpose, but they do it, thinking I don’t notice but I do.”
When Ali first says this, we’d just finished taking an intense exam and we were sitting outside in the grounds opposite the cafeteria. Instantly, my mind flashes back to the year I met him – he’d raise his hand and everyone would look at each other and smile knowingly. He’d speak and they’d purse their lips together, trying not to laugh. And when he finished talking, you’d hear an audible snicker ripple through the classroom, his strong Pashtun accent being the butt of the joke.
Everyone was giggling as he spoke – even he was grinning a little, slightly embarrassed, clearly unpracticed as he stumbled through his lines.
One class in particular that I remember – he was presenting. Everyone was giggling as he spoke – even he was grinning a little, slightly embarrassed, clearly unpracticed as he stumbled through his lines. But in that brief moment of quiet that followed a collective class laugh, someone in the back mimicked the last sentence that came out of his mouth.
As I heard it, my heart sank he looked up abruptly, eyes flashing with anger and hurt, but only momentarily, very coolly, only as long as it took him to take his eyes off his paper, focus on us and back. He returned to his presentation without a second thought.
This predominantly Pakistani issue of discriminatory and borderline racist behaviour that was in habit of being passed off as cultural in-jokes had always bothered me and I couldn’t help but think of these things when he spoke to me that day outside the cafeteria, though they’d happened almost a year ago. Often, I’d wondered whether he’d pay attention to these little episodes that worked against him in his daily life and here, in this one line, I had my answer. And again, my heart sank.
As we sit together, I try to offer something, some consolation – something – but nothing made sense. He just shook his head.
After a brief moment of silence, I ask if he’d ever felt discriminated against as a Pathan. There’s surprising insight in his answer – “I don’t know. I don’t think so. They’re just jealous.”
“Jealous of what? Why?”
And without a moment’s pause, without hesitation, he says, “Because we’re better than them.”
I laugh a little at the pettiness of the statement. He laughs, too. Then in a bid to ease the tension, he says, “Daalkhor, easy ho jao.”
As he returns to his shawrma, I glance at him, because that’s just it. I’m daalkhor – Punjabi and dark, and he won’t let me forget it. In his cool endearing little nickname for me, in his casual asides commenting on the colour of my skin that pepper our everyday conversation, these were just another set of cultural in-jokes, except this time, the joke was on me. I’m Punjabi. Ordinary. He’s Pathan – he’s extraordinary – at least that’s what society dictates, right?
In that moment, I realize this love, this hatred, this intense jealousy that we feel for them?
It goes both ways.
But jealousy in what sense?
Punjabis benefit more from these racial tensions and relations more than Pathans do. There are strong stigmas and prejudices against Pathans that aren’t there against Punjabis. Why wouldn’t Pathans as a group want the same sense of security and opportunities awarded to Punjabis?
Why wouldn’t Punjabis as a group want that same sense of strength and brotherhood that Pathans are known for? Why are we disallowed a celebration of ethnic identity, of native language, inour communities? Because some of D-rated ‘80s films? Strength in communities is wonderful. Celebrating diversity in all shapes and forms would be a strong step forward. Having an open dialogue on race relations, whether between Pathans and Punjabis or other groups is crucial.
If we can’t respect and honor ourselves, ifwe can’t respect each other, andhelp each other up, then we’re simply a band of tribes confined by our country’s border, and nothing more. But if we want to be better, then we need to do better.
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The common stereotype of a racist is a fat, white man hurling abuses at ‘niggers’, ‘Pakis,’ Jews and gays. Whereas once communists too figured on the hate list of white supremacists, they have now largely been replaced with Muslims.
But Western racist organisations such as the Ku Klux Klan, the British National Party and various other neo-Nazi groups have become self-parodies. If one sees a parade of neo-Nazi groups today, they, with their silly looking hoods, costumes and salutes, look no more than puerile caricatures of trite racism.
Their racism has become a costume drama. This is especially due to the way Western security agencies have dealt with these organisations and also because of the successes of the civil rights movement and its many revolutionary initiatives since the 1960s.
However, the political, economic and cultural disturbances triggered by the so-called ‘neo-liberal economics’ and politics in the post-Cold War era are now putting out a form of racism that has absolutely nothing to do with white power as such. It is not coming from loud white folks. On the contrary, and ironically, it is mostly coming from some of the races and creeds that have historically been under the hammer of white man’s discrimination and prejudice: Jews, Muslims and Asians.
One must also remember that this racism is not really a new occurrence. It’s been strongly entrenched in the psyches of its perpetuators for many years.
The most obvious has been the anti-Arab racism practiced as a state policy by Israel. The political make-up of this racism has always been evident, but it is the way this political policy has gradually shaped the social and psychological mindset of the Jews living in Israel that is most worrying. Israeli politicians are very conscious of this mindset and the hold it now has over the majority of Jews living in Israel and elsewhere. That’s why every time an opportunity is afoot for a peaceful settlement between Israel and the Palestinians, it is this anti-Arab mindset that influences the Israeli response.
It is also this mindset that makes a majority of Israelis vote for men and women who want to continue with Israel’s ferocious raids and incursions into poverty-stricken stretches of land populated by the Palestinians.
It was this mindset that violently ended the most promising deal between Israel and the Palestinians in 1995, when an incensed radical Jew assassinated former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin after he was close to signing a breakthrough political settlement with Yasser Arafat.
Arabs on the other hand, especially those belonging to oil-rich Arab monarchies, have exhibited various shades of racism against Muslims belonging to non-Arab Muslim countries residing and working in opulent Arab states. Recently there were reports that the Saudi regime had banned its men from marrying women belonging to Pakistan (and a few other developing Asian and African countries).
Racism is also present as a form of bigotry that has been part of India and Pakistan’s sociology long before they were two separate countries. It is deeply rooted in India’s ancient caste system, part of which then influenced social relationships between native Hindus and Muslims in South Asia. It is a racism exercised by not one perpetuator over the other, but by both. Now hundreds of years old, even to this day, many Hindus and Muslims living in India do not eat from the same plate or drink from the same glass.
The most disturbing aspect of this form of racism is the way it is blindly accepted as a social norm. For example, many offices in India still hire Muslims and the Hindu ‘untouchables’ to do the most demeaning chores, and it is an unwritten rule that these employees are not allowed to use cutlery that is being used by other office employees.
In Pakistan such treatment is meted out by Muslims to ‘underclass’ Hindus and Christians. It is an unwritten rule that they will not be allowed to share cutlery used by their Muslim counterparts and neither will they be allowed to prepare and serve tea or food to their Muslim co-workers.
Though most Hindus and Muslims of India and Pakistan do not overtly display such racism, it is very much present in the psyches of the people of both the countries.
Due to the legacy of the caste system in India a Hindu discriminating against another Hindu is a well-known social reality. But this nature of racism has not been alien to Pakistani Muslims either. It is as old as Muslim history in South Asia, and today it is still alive in even the most educated Muslim households in Pakistan as well.
Domestic servants in Pakistan, even if they are Muslims, will always have separate cutlery. They will have a separate glass, plate, spoons and are always required to sit on the floor. Some believe such actions are mainly due to the ‘unhygienic’ make-up of the class of people who become servants. This may have a grain of truth, but it is fairly obvious that basically this bias is yet another expression of the historical racism practiced between Muslims and Hindus of South Asia. It has more to do with a deeply engrained and inherent discriminatory mindset many Muslims and Hindus of the region have carried into the modern age (almost instinctively).
Recently out of such inherent cultural racist tendencies, a more conventional form of racism has emerged in India and Pakistan as well. In 2007, former Australian cricket captain, Ricky Ponting, complained about some Indian spectators who let out monkey noises at the Australian team’s only aborigine player, Andrew Symonds. If this wasn’t bad enough, the very next day, the South African cricket captain, Gerham Smith, accused a bunch of Pakistani spectators of making ape sounds at some of the South African squad’s black players.
Can you imagine ‘brown’ Asians hurling trashy racist taunts at blacks? This may seem outlandish, but if one closely looks at the class make-up of the racist pretenders, one understands their inanity.
A bulk of them (both the Indian and Pakistani batches), were from well-to-do, urban middle-class backgrounds. It is this section of the bourgeoisie that has benefited the most from the neo-liberal capitalist initiatives in both the countries in the last decade or so. They are a cross between social liberalism and orthodox religious and political conservatism.
In this day and age when material wealth is the main indicator of cultural and social trends (through advertising and the eventual ‘dumbing down’ of cultural pursuits), this is a worrying matter. Many will conveniently miss the irony and the unintentional parody associated with the act of Indians and Pakistanis being racist towards blacks. Instead, they will think of it as something to do with ‘patriotism’ or worse, the superiority of their respective faiths and concepts of morality.
It is a case of victims of racism not only becoming racist themselves, but becoming something even worse by cleverly decorating this frame of racial judgment with distorted religious declarations — quite like the white colonialists of yore.
Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, August 31, 2014