Visiting the Homeland – Our own White Saviour Complex

Lahore

Recently, I travelled to my country of origin; Pakistan.

The nation gets a lot of press. Stereotypes exist about most countries, but few exceed the capture of the public imagination that Pakistan has unwittingly managed to achieve. So I found myself consciously navigating some of the difficulties of interacting with ‘back home’ from the perspective of an ‘educated’, Western mind (not entirely Anglicized, mind you).

I was keen not to expect the country to conform to the headlines; constant explosions, acts of blatant misogyny and endemic corruption. As HONY put much better than I ever could recently, limited headline space lends itself to negative news; most countries in strife are depicted with disproportionate negativity in Western (and probably all) media outlets. So I wasn’t expecting chronic insecurity and societal meltdown – I understand people still get on with their lives, and that the idea Pakistan is on the verge of becoming a failed state is a horrendous mischaracterization of the nation.

Sure enough, the country pleasantly surprised me. I was not made to feel unsafe even once, in the mountainous regions or the cities, and if I was it was more due to the audacious traffic and winding mountain roads than any aspect of culture or social norms. The Kharokhorum highway is an incredible feat of engineering, and Lahore’s streets were remarkably clean and well-kept, and we encountered no obvious corruption or police misbehaviour. I don’t mean to say there aren’t great problems facing the country, but the idea it is an unliveable hell and filled with angry extremists is patently absurd.

Now, to my difficulty. How does an outsider, a Western, British-Pakistani Muslim, go about evaluating and discussing the faults and shortcomings of ‘back home’? It is no easy matter. Firstly, one needs the humility to accept people who live in the country know it far better than our reading of the headlines allows us to. Secondly, we also need to accept norms and cultures may very justifiably be different back home from Western society.

These don’t come naturally for one simple reason; the ‘White Saviour Complex’ that we criticize so unfailingly ourselves, is also something we have implicitly accepted and adopted into our own narratives of back home. This is evidenced by how many immigrant communities, a few generations down the line, almost instinctively cast disapproving proverbial glances back in the direction of their ancestral lands.

We enumerate the many ‘backward’ elements of the culture of our elders, and by extension our countries of origin. We also presume that, merely by virtue of our Western education, we know the solutions to most if not all the problems of our nations, implying that the people there are in their less-than-ideal situation simply due to their comparative lack of competence. Isn’t that arrogant?
We make sweeping generalisations only based on the headlines we read giving no thought to the possibility there may be more to the country than that; we essentialise entire nations with the bad, ignoring the mountains of good. And there is always good.

Sheltered ‘Brit-Paks’ lounging in leafy suburbs, radically divorced even from the reality of inner-city London, making broad pronouncements about the hopelessness of Pakistan and the backwardness of its culture, makes me want to do things I would rather not verbalise. It is horrendously naïve, arrogant and ultimately a product of the broader Western narrative, into which we have been rather successfully integrated. Responsibility for this cultural failure lies only on us, and nowhere else, even if the forces of influence that push us in this direction are fundamental to Western society.

This cannot mean that we refuse to discuss the situation of our countries of origin at all. Rather, we need to acknowledge our views can often spill into prejudice and ignorance, both of which can very easily occur in relation to one’s own people. Thereafter, it would hopefully be easier for diaspora communities from developing countries to have a meaningful engagement with said nations. This would benefit the latter, but also the former in allowing us to adopt a more balanced approach to fusing the cultures of Western society and that of our ancestral homelands.

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Definitely Not Confused – Pakistanis & ‘Brit-Paks’

BritPak

“So are you from Pakistan?” she asked. I proceeded, for not the first time since arriving at university, to explain that Pakistan was my country of origin, Britain my country of nationality and that I had grown up elsewhere.

“Ah, confused.” she stated, matter-of-factly, nodding her head in a part-sympathetic, part-patronizing manner, as if she knew all she needed to know to psycho-analyze my very existence. Well, I thought, I certainly didn’t come here for judgement to be passed on me by passer-byers, but since you are offering your self-evident wisdom to me for free, I suppose I ought to be grateful.

So marked the beginning of a prolonged background experience for me at university in dealing with my peers from my ancestral homeland; mostly rich Pakistani kids from a handful of elite schools and families. ‘Background’, because such views never bothered or distracted me for more than a moment in those 3 years, yet I always felt this sentiment lingering in my interactions with them.
I state the following with the caveat in mind that many of the Pakistanis I met on campus were agreeable and open-minded chaps, but this phenomena has occurred far too often for it to be anything less than a social trend.

For some reasons, many Pakistanis completely fail to understand the very concept of a comfortably British Pakistani community, with English as its mother tongue and Britain as its primary country of allegiance. It is either a conceptual shortcoming, or sheer ambivalence towards individuals who form part of this community (most of whom didn’t make the choice of migration themselves anyhow). Perhaps at the back of their minds they believe those who left Pakistan for greener pastures have somehow betrayed the nation, although as much is certainly never said. Perhaps they harbour some kind of rivalry or jealousy with Pakistanis who have become successful abroad. Perhaps their condescension stems from our inability to speak Urdu, or perceived ‘Anglicisation’. I admit I have yet to figure out the source of this misunderstanding, but it certainly baffles me given they are an otherwise intelligent and cultured group of students.

If it wasn’t so disappointing, their unintentional irony would be cause for some bemusement.

They are the same people who speak English in Pakistan as a sign of their class, and look down on the middle and lower classes who speak indigenous languages.

They are the same people who seem so uneasy with the culture, religion and traditions of the great mass of Pakistani people, instead opting for overt Westernisation and conformity with homogenised global norms. I don’t mean to reverse the condescension, but who are you to look down on my identity struggles?

And do we struggle with our identity? Sure. Being British, Pakistani, Muslim, 2nd and 3rd generation migrants in a country that is changing rapidly, hailing from a nation mired in crisis and global scrutiny – that’s not easy. Nor is it so difficult to be debilitating to us as a community. We do have issues, but we are dealing with those issues ourselves – we don’t need input from outsiders that haven’t the slightest appreciation of our circumstance.

So thank you for your concern, but really, no thanks.

And, as it happens, I’m not confused at all – but you are.

Britain, Royalty & Modernity

Two men were arrested after the break-in

For all its modernity and development, the United Kingdom remains a monarchy. It might seem like something of an oddity that this increasingly liberal, areligious nation remains committed to this tradition of over 9 centuries. With the steady advance of free speech, public criticism and satire, all have been subjected to ridicule and scrutiny, and yet somehow this fundamental Renaissance-onwards movement has left our monarchy perfectly intact, albeit reduced to a ‘ceremonial’ role.

Some Britons consider themselves ‘Republicans’, committed to the idea that the head of state ought to be elected, or at least appointed by some body of politicians or otherwise. For some reason that I find slightly less than rational, I find myself disagreeing quite firmly with them.

This is largely sentimental; Queen Elizabeth II is just such a lovely old lady, isn’t she? In fact, some suggest continued support for the monarchy in Britain is largely due to her stature as monarch. That leaves a lot of questions to be asked for succession, given that Prince Charles has more outspoken politics – even if he is quite an affable fellow.
It is also born out of an attachment to tradition; the monarchy, broadly speaking the same family, has accompanied Britain through all manner of earth-shattering events, from the two World Wars to the rise and fall of the British Empire, pushing through Oliver Cromwell’s civil war and the revolution of 1848. I don’t believe the royal family is inherrently superior to anyone, not in the eyes of God; all are created equal. Yet surely there is much value in cherishing such a rich and longstanding tradition?

The royal family is quintessentially British; that has immense value in an era characterized by our increasing confusion over what Britishness even is. The same identity crisis can be seen in many nations today, buffeted by the homogenizing forces of globalization and neoliberalism. They are also a cherished symbol over the world- even in ex-colonies where British rule is viewed in hindsight overwhelmingly negatively (and rightly so)- William and Kate’s wedding was viewed with great interest. It is a symbol of British culture – it keeps us relevant. I have a sentimental attachment to that, but also a realpolitik, Machiavellian one.

There is value in tradition and symbols, but a large part of the public’s support is surely also due to the perception that the monarchy doesn’t really exert any power these days, and so its downsides are limited. Personally, I’m not convinced this is the case. The Prime Minister has been obliged to meet the Queen weekly for decades, and in high government circles it is well known that she is particularly astute and well versed in British affairs – as one would expect. Some may view these meetings as a formality, but I would not be surprised if there was some substance to these discussions that goes beyond exchanging pleasantries.

It would certainly make sense that a family so immersed in British public affairs and tradition, literally from cradle to grave spanning generations, would aggregate a commanding knowledge of what Britain is, ought to be, and what her interests are.  That this constant factor can act as an informative and stabilizing force in the background as political leaders come and go strikes me as a reasonable arrangement, although I suspect this is partly due to my affection for Queen Elizabeth II as an individual, and my perception that this arrangement has quite obviously not produced any glaring downsides in recent years. I imagine most of the British public would tacitly agree.

To be clear, I advocate no faux conspiracy. It is obvious the royalty’s functions are mostly ceremonial, and the royal family has long learned to respect the firm mandate of elected politicians; our current Queen quite clearly guards her neutrality and reserved-ness with the utmost vigilance (quite British, I’d say). But the political workings of any elite are often calculated, quiet and nuanced – shying away from the spotlight.  I’d bet the royals have many interesting conversations with people of significance in Britain, not least the Prime Minister, on a regular basis. They must exert subtle influence behind the scenes, in a non-invasive, non-partisan way. And that is not such a terrible thing.

So, for all my skepticism of the ‘establishment’, I have somehow ended up a sentimental royalist. Hats off to you, dear Elizabeth.