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Not Talking About Pakistan

Feb 2013

Questions about Pakistan are now a fact of living here, no different from damp weather or calls from salespeople. Some I deflect, and others I frame around my own terms.

I drew a secret line around the borders of Pakistan and rarely stepped over it. In the fall of 2007, I began teaching Islamic history at a small liberal arts college in San Francisco; even though my classes on South Asia and the Middle East could easily have included Pakistan, I made sure to exclude Pakistan from all my syllabi. To avoid ever having to talk about Pakistan, I changed the name of a course a predecessor had titled “History of South and Southeast Asia,” to “Indian Civilizations.” This now meant that the course took a leisurely route through the Indus Valley Civilization, the coming of the Aryans, the spread of Jainism and Buddhism in North India, the rise of the Mughal Empire and concluded with British colonial rule and the formation of India and Pakistan in 1947. But, after an emotionally charged lecture on Partition, I would begin a section on modern IndiaLUMS early morning and say nothing of Pakistan after the moment of its creation. My class, “The Modern Middle East,” covered American wars in Afghanistan but my syllabus screeched to a halt at the Pakistan border.  Although the country inevitably featured in class discussions about U.S. foreign policy, I assigned no readings on Pakistan. In my other classes, I stayed away from the twentieth century, which meant that the question of Pakistan never arose.

Outside the classroom too, I was something of an expert at not talking about Pakistan. This was a feat, given the interest that Pakistan generated. Being Pakistani meant that well-meaning students would frequently tackle me in corridors and ask me what I thought about “the current situation” in Pakistan. Most of the time, this was an excuse to tell me what they thought, namely that America needed to bomb the hell out of Pakistan because the country was a den for terrorists. In some instances, the student would add, as a considerate afterthought, that he hoped my family was safe. I would respond to student comments such as these with non-committal statements about the banality of the nation-state. My retreat into vagueness would diffuse the conversation, and I would hurry away. This constant bombardment and the defensive maneuvers it called for left me with little energy for words, and no space at all to know what I thought about the Pakistan in which people around me were interested. What I did know was that there was a Pakistan somewhere that belonged to me and it was under attack; this meant that I needed to protect it because doing so was the same as protecting myself.

When asked to give guest lectures on Pakistan, I would analyze the politics of talking about Pakistan instead, and refuse to discuss the place directly. Once, I was asked to make a presentation on the Pakistan Earthquake of 2005, and I agreed only because I trusted the professor who had invited me to speak to her class. I was tired of images of suffering, helpless brown people waiting for Angelina Jolie’s benevolence, and I wanted the class to know about the heroic efforts on the part of Pakistanis for their own people. I saw my talk as an offensive on behalf of Pakistan rather than the solitary, defensive war I was fighting. In another instance, at a student event focused on injustices around the world (which included the usual images of the suffering and the brown and the female and the poor), I spoke about the injustice of intervening in other countries in the name of justice, a point I would make in my own classes without directly referencing Pakistan. Both talks were well-received, and I appreciated the sensitivity and intelligence of the students with whom I spoke afterwards. Students such as these helped me remember that there were possibilities that lay outside the daily blur of pain through which I experienced my surroundings. Read on >>

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47 Responses to Not Talking About Pakistan

  1. Aban Usmani on Feb 2013 at 12:37 AM

    I came across this article through my niece on the Facebook. I am happy to know you are living your life…sometimes we do need to escape our lover as if possessiveness and love don’t go togethor
    I am overwhelmed…hailing from Lahore having Karachi & Swat as my memorable vacations of childhood…My both were born in SFO…I have a lot of family on the Baltimore east coast to saginaw MI…
    Love the passion and the low of life
    Hope there will be a day when I could take a sabbatical like your and never return from Lahore
    It might never happen since I am in Riyadh KSA where things are different / probably more conducive towards survival than in US
    dying bit by bit is the difficult part

  2. mkz on Feb 2013 at 1:26 AM

    I felt the exact same way when I left Karachi after spending my whole life there to study abroad, and did the same things. I especially refused to talk about Pakistan. I had always thought about how stupid and foolish that was, but reading this really made it click.

  3. rizwan on Feb 2013 at 2:14 AM

    crazy good essay. moving as hell.

  4. Mohammad Khosa on Feb 2013 at 3:03 AM

    Beautifully written. I love the expression of thought which obviously comes from the heart. You’ve evoked a lot of long forgotten emotions. My compliments to the writer on both her writings and her romantacism about Pakistan.

  5. Hassan K Bajwa on Feb 2013 at 4:46 AM

    Dear Taymiya,
    Thank you for this wonderful piece of writing. I cannot tell you how much i can relate to what you have written. As a person of mixed danish and pakistani heritage i understand completely the impossibility of trying to explain or even define what it is about Pakistan that we can love and appreciate. And so few people in the world understand that loving where you come from means that you love the things that are amazing as well as the things that are terrible (even as you seek to change them). Of course most love their nation of origin without really understanding that love with the clarity that comes to those who have the benefit of the perspective that comes from being away from that place.
    And while the journey to this clarity is painful i believe that it strengthens ones love even as it lends one great patience in dealing with the attacks that come from those who simply cannot know better.
    Once again thank you

  6. Nada on Feb 2013 at 5:52 AM

    I am severely conflicted right now which is why I’ve come to write. It’s like coming home after a long day and finally collapsing in the lap of your mother where somehow things always make sense and any and all fears can be taken care of. I think about how easy it is to manipulate our emotions these days and how much information we’re all really exposed to within a span of 20 minutes. We read, we click ‘like’ and we comment on so many different things that after a point we stop realizing how these fluctuations affect our emotional mapping. I read an article about a Saudi cleric raping and torturing his 5 year old which inexplicably moves me to tears..to tears of anger, of heartbreak and grief at how everything seems to be degenerating around us. It’s like living in a house and having bits and pieces of it blown away and not being able to make it stop. So, I let the emotions engulf me and I feel all of it instead of running away. I embrace the pain, the anger and I allow myself to vent and ask questions. How much more? Is this what the world is coming to? I think and I think till my brain starts spinning and I’m not sure how to put it all together again. White, jarring light. Within the next few minutes, I come across an article written by Taymiya Zaman about Pakistan, that is all at once so beautiful it makes me happy to be alive and so heartbreaking, I wish I could somehow piece it back and fix it. Soft, glowing radiance. There is pain and there is beauty that leaves me torn between wishing I had better navigational skills because I really could use some direction right now and hoping neither my cynicism nor my idealism get the better of each other. Does one overplay the other? I feel extreme anger at this world whilst at the same time, feeling so grateful to be alive because there is someone out there called ‘Taymiya’ that took the time to write down her emotions so beautifully. Then it hits me-maybe it doesn’t have to be an ‘either’/’or’. There is both- beauty so ravishing it makes your heart burst and pain so real,it makes you wonder when it will all be over and maybe that’s what life is about. It’s a balancing act between allowing yourself to embrace all that is beautiful in people and the world whilst knowing that there exists brutality of the same degree. All within the same radius. All within 20 minutes.

  7. Danish on Feb 2013 at 8:26 AM

    Really well written. I can really relate to most of what you have written. really enjoy reading it.

    • Ansar on Feb 2013 at 9:56 AM

      Oops you enjoy reading this article. There are bearded people who enjoy slaughtering our army people. Reading this article I feel sad about my country.Rather enjoying it praying which might save our country from ruins

      • Danish on Feb 2013 at 8:41 AM

        Ansar, what are you talking about? If I had not enjoyed reading it, would it automatically make things better in Pakistan?

  8. Naveen Malik on Feb 2013 at 1:21 PM

    Asslam u alaikum, I cried when i read this- hadn’t realised the tears had fallen until i saw them on the lihaaf- It is winter is lahore again – I live here- it is exactly as you descibed – People want to leave and I cannot tell anyone why I dont want to- But you have – Thank you – Jazakillah. I miss the Pakistan I grew up in – Its seems part of another world which comes back to haunt time and again. I havent a newspaper subscription and I don’t have a tv. I rarely bother listening to the news. Maybe my way of doing what you are- Of retaining the utopian dream – I dont know- All i know is maybe someday….

  9. Sanjay on Feb 2013 at 3:13 PM

    “Dying a little bit at a time” is spot on. I related very strongly to your piece and it brought up all those feelings I get whenever I’m home or leave home. While I don’t suffer the indignities as much at immigration ( I am Indian), I have realized the hard way, that there are two kinds of migrants – those who are able to throttle their nostalgia and move on with life and those – especially artists – who will drive their cars with their gazes fixed firmly in the rearview mirror. You must find your own way to address it, otherwise it will eat you “bit by bit”. Diaspora movies and books will become your bogeyman. Watching and reading about immigrants making a fetish about spirituality and cultural preservation will sicken you with guilt and anger (at yourself, mostly).

    Once you have kids this feeling grows chronic, in my experience. Then, there are two “homes”, your childhood one and their America. You will find yourself constantly battling and weighing these contrasts all the time. Taymiya is fortunate she spent her formative years in Pakistan – she has a common point of reference with her parents, siblings and close friends. Once babies arrive in an alien country, then this cross-referencing becomes acute. The “outsider” is in your own home and now you must traverse the banal middle path.

    It is for this reason I’d like to head home soon. My sons are 7 and 5 and I want them to spend their formative years there and just live ordinary days upon ordinary days. I don’t need to explain turmeric to a dinner guest and holi is not exotic. It’s that important to me that I choose to leave at least for 8-10 years. The clincher for me was when I realized that they, or even one of them, could grow up to be a writer and write an acutely felt diaspora story! Haraam!!

    It’s very hard to make a choice to to call a place home. Some do it with compunction, some suffer tiny paper cuts every single day. I wish Taymiya and many others like us good luck in navigating this road.

  10. Sadaf on Feb 2013 at 3:38 PM

    Haven’t read such a balanced, emotive piece on Pakistan in ages. Painful but wonderful! One can so relate, with each and every scenario that she has depicted. Very few ppl understands that ‘ache in the heart’, and how sick you get of those around u bashing Pak…while you can’t defend… because at times there is nothing that you can say, no excuse you can give…and sometimes you know the bashing is because they love the country too and expect it to be so much better. And you can see each and every point of view whether it is ultra-religious or ultra-liberal and you keep on vacillating between cynicism and idealism and well you know….
    Thank you for such a wonderful piece!

  11. Said Chaudhry on Feb 2013 at 3:49 PM

    Wonderful essay. Have been in the same shoes as yourself. Read my take on my time in Lahore. “There is a secret in Lahore” http://saidcanblog.blogspot.ca/2010/12/there-is-secret-in-lahore.html

  12. shivam on Feb 2013 at 4:44 PM

    What a killer piece of writing. Even though I’m Hindu and Indian and diasporic, the reflection of life here in the bay vs life in the motherland resonated powerfully. I completely understand the issues of identity that assault those of us with feet in two lands, and how there is no one place to call home–too brown for america, and too western for the ancestral home.

    Powerful.

  13. ChiPak on Feb 2013 at 11:44 PM

    Nicely written, deeply felt, occasionally a bit obscure, but I enjoyed it. I also find it interesting that you and your sister are named after 13th century Muslim jurists. To those that use Pakistan and Islam to wound you, use your name(s) to recount the glorious intellectual and theological tradition you have inherited. It ought to be enough.

  14. Mike Cope on Feb 2013 at 1:58 AM

    Great piece! Put me in mind of Akram Kahn’s wonderful dance piece, “Desh”.

  15. olaki on Feb 2013 at 2:07 AM

    this is a moving article but in this entire article, there is no sense of how much pain your country and its policies have caused others. the mumbai attacks, the involvement in afghanistan – these have destroyed lives. murdered innocent children. your pain is understandable but the pain of the others who frisk you, send drones to your country is also equally real and deep

  16. gurjit singh cheema on Feb 2013 at 4:19 AM

    A delightful and heartwarming essay. Although I’m niether Muslim, nor from Pakistan but one of those guys from the wrong side of the line, I can empathise with you. No place like home. And it certainly puts Pakistan in perspective. No place is as bad as they make it out to be in the papers.

  17. Nigel Foster on Feb 2013 at 5:35 AM

    Beautifully written. Thank you – Andre Aciman has a rival! Perhaps only a small consolation, but I’ve found that America in general can be as ignorant – often unpleasantly so – about my own country, England, as about Pakistan. I’ve lived in the Middle East, working both with and for Pakistani companies and hope to have a better understanding of your country than the average person. If I may a few brief points, hopefully not too obvious. Pakistan is still a very young country, a fact easily forgotten given the antiquity of those societies and beliefs that constitute it; unrealistic to expect an adolescent to behave like an adult. That isn’t meant as a slighting comment, only that Pakistan has yet to develop those societal checks and balances, institutions and controls, that make a country viable for all its citizens. And can any country really be founded on a religious principle? My own experience is that Pakistani people identify more closely with their home Province, their clan or tribe and with their own school of Islam, than with the country as a whole. In other words, their sense of nationhood is based on personal values and loyalties that may coincide with others, but are just as likely to conflict. Pakistan now seems less like a country than a collection of fiefdoms, all with different agendas and not even one school of Islam becoming totally dominant will ever unite them. My overall point is that Partition was a mistake. Sadly, I can’t think of the alternative. Thanks again for the beautifully written essay, both a joy to read and very informative. The link came from 3quarksdaily.com.

  18. Utkarsh on Feb 2013 at 11:07 AM

    So moving and beautiful. Frankly, I feel a lot of that pain for the country I’ve unofficially disowned, India, because though it may not have a violent image internationally, I do not see it having a good future with all the fundamentalism and corruption.

  19. Bilal Abbas on Feb 2013 at 12:21 PM

    Beautiful and sad, haven’t read something of this depth in a long time. I went to Lahore for college too, the experience was truly amazing. Best wishes in SFC

  20. Elavame on Feb 2013 at 3:23 AM

    I felt like you did. And I came back to my country. And it was the best decision I ever made.
    When I read this, all the sickening memories of having to defend my Pakistan against callous intrusive questioning in America came back and I am so glad I am not there anymore. I feel so protective about it, it was like every little cell was screaming each time anyone bashed Pakistan. I was sick of it, it was too traumatic. So I left. For a place that is like no other on this Earth: my Pakistan.

  21. Maddie on Feb 2013 at 7:10 AM

    This was absolutely beautiful and captured the entirety of the essence of being a Pakistani abroad. It feels like loving Pakistan is taboo, and admitting to that love makes you certifiably insane. But I love my Pakistan, even if she is the secret lover that might break my heart.
    Thank you for this, I literally have tears rolling uncontrollably down my face because every word brought back such bittersweet memories.
    Oh my Pakistan, I miss you so

  22. Aditya Dev Sood on Feb 2013 at 9:54 AM

    It’s been several days I’ve been reading your piece, only to realise its tropologies have infected my imagination, colouring the everyday things I talk and think about with such cadences as wafa and baemani and muhabbat. Extraordinary. Not that old-time love, but something deeper and even more painful.

  23. Madeeha on Feb 2013 at 9:29 PM

    It’s hard, being caught between extremes. But am glad you’ve come away with the Pakistan that you can own 🙂

  24. Farhana on Feb 2013 at 12:12 AM

    MashaAllah, wonderfully written. I am a Kashmiri living away from home and can relate to every bit so well. So many similar feelings , maybe more intense at times. What impresses me is the way you writers can put thoughts into words so beautifully. I’m sure there are millions across the globe who have similar feelings, but don’t have the ability/means to express. Your contribution to their feelings is invaluable!! God bless.

  25. Syed Faisal imam on Feb 2013 at 6:58 AM

    You are Pakistan,the Pakistan you left when you came to the U.S.
    Pakistan is changing and fast . Dimensions are changing and values are changing.
    Two factors,population and lack of resources, especially management.
    The land is there, the history is there; we are not able to gel it together to design our future.

  26. Summer on Feb 2013 at 5:23 PM

    Thank you for sharing your story. It was beautifully written. I go to school at San Francisco State University where there are many students from other countries. They too experience the complexity from being from misunderstood places while trying to form identities of their own. It’s a lot to ask from a 20 year old, to process international relations, family pressures, and the full time struggle of surviving an underfunded and crumbling public university system. We all have to be as kind as we can to each other to thrive and grow a better future.

  27. Omar Chughtai on Feb 2013 at 1:00 AM

    Thank you so much for writing this. I can relate with this hopeless love of Pakistan.

    I especially loved how you didn’t paint Pakistan as the opposite of the headlines. Pakistan is difficult, complex, scary, and home all at the same time.

    Thank you again for writing this brilliant piece.

  28. Anjum Hameed on Feb 2013 at 1:43 AM

    I could not figure out the point of this article. The very fact that the lady went back to the US, and was easily able to, shows the strength of her feelings for her motherland. I have lived abroad for 23 years, but I have never felt shy of proclaiming where I come from to foreigners. The look on their faces gives me satisfaction, they should know that our country doesn’t only exist of hijabs, or AK-47’s, or unkempt beards. I have never, and will never claim to be anything but, even though I now hold a passport that does not allow me dual nationality. I am extremely proud of this present passport, I will fight for the rights of the country it represents as is my sworn duty. But I will never be embarrassed to belong to where I was born, grew up, and what gave me my identity. “Pakistan” is what gave us the means and rights to go live abroad, study there, be what we are. Those with the beards and “Allah hafiz” issues are only representative of a fraction of a percentage of the country, as are those of us English educated, and bred ones. Both sides are polarized into believing they are right, while our words and deeds plunder the rest of the nation. I will discuss my birth country with love and affection with anyone, and if the argument gets heated, I will probably yell back. But I will never feel the need to shy away from it.

  29. Habib Qureshi on Feb 2013 at 3:48 AM

    I absolutely loved your article. And it makes me feel jealous and guilty. Jealous because I have never actually lived in Pakistan, but rather visit it rarely. Like one night stands, where the experience is fantastic but you have a guilt that you never really got to know the person. And guilty because now I don’t care to be honest. I used to read up on Pakistani politics and actively engage in conversations but like you, I live in a city where Pakistan-bashing is the norm & I got tired of the my constant yet feeble attempts at trying to explain to people how I think I might have just fallen in love with my one night stand. Now, I just don’t and can’t care. I am glad you feel this way about your home country.

    And I hope I do too.

    Regards,
    Habib Q

  30. israr on Feb 2013 at 6:31 AM

    many of the feelings explained in this articles are mine!! but i couldn’t write them down! brilliant one!

  31. Saeed Akhtar Malik on Feb 2013 at 12:46 PM

    M speechless. My eyes welled up number of times overwhelmed by the romanticism about Pakistan. Its rare that words fail me as they do right now. I just cant think or write enough. I know its far short of what I would have liked to offer, just not enough, but still, “My salute to my compatriot”.

  32. chris on Feb 2013 at 4:23 PM

    Comeuppance for Pakistanis. Pakistanis are pretending to be Indians In western countries and even in Afghanistan. Indians their sworn enemies! What a rotten, 2 faced people! The world knows about your realities now. After failing to bleed India through thousand cuts you low lives have been reduced to pretending that you are Indians! What indignity and insult! After trying to demonize Hindus, it is you who are demons and evil in eyes of whole world! Shame on you.

  33. Faheem on Feb 2013 at 4:35 AM

    This article is bullshit to begin with. The author writes she presented both Pakistani and USA passports to the immigration officer at Karachi. Then later on she states that she was born in USA. Thats a contradiction and it seems like this article is made up. I have lived in USA for 20 yrs and I dont know a single Pakistani american who was born in US who went thru the trouble of getting a Pakistani passport.

  34. Laiq Chughtai on Feb 2013 at 4:47 PM

    I hope more of us can come to terms with the entirety of Pakistan, all its lows and the highs, the retrogressive fundamentalism of conservatives and liberals alike and the sublime compassion of its people that makes life possible for its teeming masses. Only someone who has lived there knows Pakistan, and only someone who has left, truly appreciates it…

  35. mahmood anwar on Feb 2013 at 11:45 AM

    I started reading it while working late but couldn’t finish it. But it was on mind throughout the night & this morning, until I finished reading it just now. Very well written, thought provoking and deeply inspiring for people like me who have burning desire to go back home & “do something for the motherland”. It only added to my conviction and thank you Ms Zaman for that.

  36. tariq on Feb 2013 at 4:08 AM

    I am pleasantly amazed to see the love of Pakistan in so many hearts .. all well educated and well versed in the worldly affairs.

    I can some how feel what you feel in the Pakistan bashing sessions but I would suggest two things here
    * Do we justify as why we love someone? In love, you look at your beloved beauty and rest is out of focus. Tell them that I love Pakistan out of no reason and I refuse to give justify various acts/issues etc.
    * Fault finding is easy. Small people do it. We should sympathize with such people for being the inconspicuous specs of dust in the whole of humanity. Great people find positives and help shine & fly. You and most here are Great. Salute to all.

  37. Taymiya R. Zaman on Feb 2013 at 3:40 AM

    I never imagined that “Not Talking About Pakistan” would reach so many people; nor did I anticipate the emotion it has generated, of which much appears to stem from a sense of recognition–of being Pakistani and feeling similarly beleaguered, or of being someone all too familiar with love in other contexts! Thank you all truly for your thoughtful and generous responses to this essay.

  38. I Wish on Feb 2013 at 3:48 PM

    Beautiful article. No one else to blame. We Pakistanis have made Pakistan what it is. The present by their presence and the absent by their absence. I have been absent since 1969, but Pakistan continues to dwell in the heart. The heart sinks when Pakistan sinks which is most of the time. Not much to make the heart soar, a lot to make it sore. Same with Islam. We Muslims have made Islam into a sorry caricature of what it is; a great, liberating world-view which is meant to bring happiness and peace to people, not small-mindedness, intolerance, nit-picking, and suffering. Pakistan is an unfulfilled potential, hence the pain

  39. Enjum on May 2013 at 12:13 AM

    Thanks for a lovely essay. I’m sixty five and have lived with nostalgia for a large part of my life. In Pakistan in the fifties and sixties I longed to get away from the limitations of my society (and it was FREE SOCIETY in those days!), then I moved to Europe and learnt about their admirable preservation of their heritage, went back to Pakistan, had a blast like Taymiya working there, then migrated to America and felt nostalgic about Pakistan and Europe, then: uff, I grew up and stopped sitting between two chairs or driving with my eyes on the rear view mirror. I look ahead and enjoy everything around me: weather, people, food, culture, whatever… a place is what you make of it, period

  40. ikhlas fatima on May 2013 at 1:50 PM

    Very emotional article. My experience is a bit different, though similar feeling. When people learn where I am from they avoid discussing politics, any politics, even current affairs where these days Pakistan surfaces all the time. Sometimes I feel that they are waiting for me to leave so they can talk more openly. Sometimes they can be overly patronizing. Either way you know you are being singled out as an outsider.

  41. Shen on May 2013 at 5:00 PM

    Taymiya, thank you for writing such a brilliant essay. This resonates with me on so many levels – living in the US and the UK, moving back to Pakistan, then getting disillusioned and moving back to Dubai. Khadija and I have had the same discussions that you and she had, particularly about the increasing polarization of society – on being too conservative for the so-called liberals, and too liberal for the “conservatives”. One winds up being a stranger in one’s own land.

  42. Balam on Oct 2014 at 2:23 PM

    I read your post and I saw your pain and your joy of Pakistan through your eyes. You have great talent as a writer.

    I learned one thing and thanks for opening my mind — I will never ask questions to folks if I will they may not be comfortable (I felt your pain and its an eye opener …)

    But I am going to give my 2 cents which will hurt you (pls do not read bellow unless you can digest it):

    But I am disappointed mainly for your students. Imagine the pity of students that their teacher, a PHD doctor of History who is supposed to open their minds…is a coward who hides and runs for cover. Worst South Asia is supposed to be her main area of research!

    My 2nd disappointment is how can a girl/women who loves your native-country(pakistan) as much as you do…become an american citizen? You do not seem to share a single american value (other than the minor ones which you personally enjoy) …will you fight and die for America?

    You come across as someone wealthy who had all the money to study in US and become a “doctor” .. who really is no intellectual or has no passion for history other than the fact she is good at writing. You moved to US, became a doctor , took a job…because its the “in” thing to do?

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