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Holding onto Pakistan

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khyberby Rabia Mughal

When I first moved to San Francisco people often used to give me a look of incomprehension when I said I was from Pakistan. I then had to explain its location using proximity to India and China as a guide.

Unfortunately Pakistan has gained such a notorious reputation since then that I now look back at that time of ignorance rather fondly.
 
My husband came to the US for college thirteen years ago and I met, married, and joined him some years later. Life in the US was initially a bit of a mixed bag.  Because of my visa status I had to give up important privileges like working and voting. Also, the American lifestyle baffled me. I stared in apprehension at the dish washer, flooded the bathroom in an attempt to clean it, and drove the wrong way up a one-way expressway.
 
The slow slog towards building an identity in the US meant starting from scratch. I went back to school, got a US degree, and many unpaid internships and a permanent residency card later started working as a journalist. American football started to make some sense and I learnt to stay safely on the right side of the road. 
 
But even as I assimilated a part of me remained staunchly Pakistani, in inadvertent ways, like my habit of always taking a cake to a happy occasion. And in other more deliberate ways, like celebrating the moon sighting on the last night of Ramadan at a Pakistani restaurant which for that one night had transformed into a bustling bazaar offering henna tattoos and glass bangles.
 
However, the lack of authenticity awaited me outside the warm glow of the makeshift bazaar and the car parked in front of the Vietnamese take-away hammered the point home. It was a Tuesday night in an otherwise deserted strip mall and I had to go to work tomorrow.
 
My state of nostalgia was further assaulted by the perception of Pakistan in the US. The rising wave of violence and endless stream of bad news led Newsweek to famously call Pakistan the most dangerous nation in the world in 2007.
 
I did feel a heightened sense of danger in my hometown of Lahore on my visits back home. My ten-year old niece talked about participating in bomb drills at school, my mother urged my father to take an alternative route to work after one too many instances of violence, and barbed wire sullied the once open and welcoming exterior of a major university where my sister works.
 
But Lahore is not so easily consumed by gloom. It has stood its ground for over a thousand years. It has produced poets, philosophers, politicians, activists, and housed a distinctive food, music, education, and literary culture for centuries. That culture still pulsates through its bustling streets and manifests itself through the spirit of its people.
 
On my latest visit back, there was a severe shortage of gas and electricity. I visited my tailor to pick up some clothes and he informed me in his usual nonchalant manner that they were not ready because the power had gone out again. He told me that business had been bad because of it, offered me a cup of tea, and said he was shutting the shop and headed out for a movie since there was nothing else to be done.
 
As I watched him walk away calling out jokes to his neighboring shopkeeper it struck me that he personified a national attitude that had salvaged Pakistan -- a time hardened ability to survive, to remain functional in the most difficult circumstances, to live with a heightened sense of danger without losing a sense of humor.
 
The blood splattered headlines about Pakistan easily send me into fits of extreme panic and pessimism. But these headlines and the tiny minority that is responsible for creating them are not Pakistan.
 
And even though it would be irresponsible and short sighted to trivialize the serious challenges that Pakistan faces today, it is also important to remember that it is home to hundreds of millions like the tailor who keeps his business ticking despite a power crisis, my father who still takes the same route to work, and the police officer who checks hundreds of car trunks for explosives everyday at the airport. 
 
These people are the reason Pakistan survives and in some ways even thrives. They are Pakistan and Pakistan is them.  
 
And that is the Pakistan I hold onto.

Rabia Mughal is a San Francisco-based journalist born and raised in Pakistan.


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