“al-Bretannia” – my country!
There comes a point in a community’s timeline for its members to stand up and be heard. And that time has now come for members of my community, the British-Pahari community otherwise known as the ‘Mirpuris’. For far too long, our absence from the discourse on all things “British-Pakistani”, “British-Muslim”, “British-Asian” has allowed our fellow nationals – the proper Pakistanis if you like – to fill a cesspit that supposedly exposes our illicit dealings in the UK.
“Cesspit, that’s a little harsh – how dramatic!”
Perhaps I’m being ‘over the top’. I don’t know. But I know how I feel every time I pick up a book on “British-Muslims” or “British-Pakistanis” and end up reading about the misdemeanours of my ‘amorphous community’. Like most ‘British-Paharis’, yes that’s how we self-affirm, I don’t buy a book on ‘British-Pakistanis’ or ‘Muslims’ to discover sordid details about my community. I don’t go looking for the ‘trash-talk’ about everything that’s improper about my specific ‘nation’. Far from it. I just want to learn from other people’s insights in the hope that they’ve something tangible to teach me. And so when I do casually skip through the pages, I’m always stupefied to read in print, what all of us instinctively know to be ‘impressionistic’ tropes, now nuanced as valuable ‘insights’. It goes something like this, “whose responsible for all the shit that goes on in the British-Pakistani community?” The resounding, thumping, unequivocal answer is predictable “…the Mirpuris of course!”
I guess I’ve had enough.
But just so you know, it’s British-Pakistanis that like to call us ‘Mirpuris’. ‘Mirpur’ was the name of a District in the erstwhile State of Jammu & Kashmir, now split between India and Pakistan. The ethnic peoples of Mirpur occupy a vast cultural expanse that includes many regions in mainland Pakistan, “Azad” Jammu & Kashmir and Indian-administered-Kashmir. The same people that live in Mirpur also live in Attock, Rawalpindi, Jhelum, Abbottobad, Haripur and Mansehra, all of which are areas in Northern Pakistan beyond the Indo-Gangetic Plains. On the Indian side Rajouri, Poonch, Uri and Karnah all come to mind. They speak related ‘Himalayan’ dialects of the same language and share the same ‘hill-mountain’ culture. I doubt mainland Pakistanis in Britain will be attuned to these ethnic ‘facts’
Of course no ‘group’, however you define the supposed commonalities between its members is uniform. The few tempered and reclusive ‘experts’ out there who know a thing or two about ‘identities’, their ‘types’, ’causes’ and ‘group-identification’, who actually understand the nature of ‘power-dynamics’ in a society, and in our case that amorphous ‘lump’ of ‘Mirpuri-cum-Kashmiri-cum-Pakistanis’, yup, the local dilettantes are still trying to work out how to define us, tend to stay silent! They know how poisonous such ‘misrepresentations’ can turn out. More often, the impressions turn out to be false. Laypersons for their part are just amenable, and they can be excused for fanning the flames of what they hear from other lay-experts.
That’s just the nature of apocryphal ‘facts’.
But what do we say of ‘journalists-turned-experts’ who not only give a platform to such anecdotal representations but they profit from them as the custodians of some hidden insights? This is a particular brand of writers who think their borrowed ‘insights’ actually count for something. And yet their expertise is just assumed because they spent time writing a book. By virtue of publishing popular tropes, having ‘hung out’ with the ‘shakers and movers’ of a community – the knowledgeable ‘insiders’ if you like – they add their own veneer of respectability to claims that are otherwise fanciful. And they think that they’ve somehow demystified an otherwise complex social landscape.
It pisses me off when this happens, and in respect of my community, it seems to be happening all the more. But, my community is not unique. We’re not a peculiarly well-known band of ‘villains’ to feel sorry for how we’re being portrayed. Mainstreams everywhere have their fringe communities. And, as it so happens, if the mainstream is placed under scrutiny, its members feel under siege, they’re very quick to apportion blame to the less powerful members of their society.
You don’t believe me!
Just look beyond any number of popular tropes?
Look to the power-dynamics behind the tropes? For instance, when “Eastern Europeans” are scapegoated as the less-amenable “EU” immigrants in the UK given their propensity to do all the ‘dirty work’, no one ever questions the underlying proposition – why are immigrants being placed in different baskets? From a labour-shortage point of view, immigrants come because vacancies need to be filled. There’s a reason why immigrants are here – the economy absolutely needs them.
But from a power-dynamic perspective, some immigrants are more important, they have prestige and privilege, others are not so important because they are less-powerful. These sorts of immigrants do not matter in the overall scheme of things. Who cares if what’s written about them is false and why bother asking the more probing question, “why is the comparison being made in the first place between good immigrants and bad immigrants? The jobs immigrants do will always be diverse, that’s just the nature of modern economies, right?” But you’ll hardly ever hear anyone speaking disparagingly about ‘German’ bankers, ‘French’ Models or ‘Scandinavian’ teachers – given how we imagine ‘immigrant communities’. Very rarely will the media shine its torch on them, and yet they exist, like every other ‘generic’ immigrant group, and they absolutely have their rotten apples.
The fact that a populist like Nigel Farage from UKIP can weigh in on such conversations, married to an EU ‘immigrant’ from EU-prestigious Germany, shouldn’t be lost on any of us when he laments, for instance, the “criminality” of the Slovakian and Bulgarian “Roma”. And you don’t see the Slovakians and Bulgarians coming out from under their bunkers to defend the Roma, absolutely not. Some in these ‘mainstreams’ make the point of trying to point out that it’s actually the ‘Roma’ doing all the pickpocketing, the thieving – they’re the benefit cheats! Some go as far as saying, “give them ID cards, so we can distinguish the Roma from the true ‘European’ nationalities they assume” unaware of how that makes the architects of the EU project feel in Germany. And this from the mouths of individuals who work on the same orchards as the Roma picking apples so they can feed their children in an alien land!
This way of thinking is ubiquitous. People everywhere want to blame the least powerful members of their society for their own misfortunes. In mono-cultural Britain not so long ago, back in the days when the land was green and the people ‘pale’, the ‘powdered-whites’ blamed their ‘duskier’ ‘peasants’ for all their society’s woes. They even shipped them off to the new colonies where new ‘mainstreams’ emerged and ‘fringe communities’ arose. Times change, new identities are constructed, the ‘bad guys’ are no more, and the ‘new ruling’ class morphs into its ‘timeless’ ‘national’ label. Bias and prejudice remains. It just assumes new personas as people aspire to be like the dominant group, hating everything about their past lives. Even surnames are misappropriated as individuals consciously move away from their older memories of where they actually came from in the hope of coalescing with the ‘established’ nobility. Dave the ‘water-carrier’ who made his fortune collecting and bottling mineral water becomes David ‘Paxman’ and his descendants begin to reimagine the ‘world’ his ‘ancestors’ came from. This history has been well-documented in many societies. We’ve even got a new academic discipline – ‘whiteness studies’ – the world starts to feel different, people develop new priorities, the underclass assert themselves, we start to ask new questions and the paradigms shift.
In Britain those poor, destitute unwanted ‘whites’, there was even a pejorative term for them ‘white trash’, were a constant irritant for the Eugenicists of the time. But, gradually they evolved into a ‘working class’ of their own, now gainfully employed thanks to the industrial revolution and the progressive march of imperialism. But, at the end of the day, all good things must come to an end and the blame game begins in earnest. Economies contract, and people want simple answers to their ‘new’ problems.
We don’t do soul-searching in these British Isles, we do finger-pointing!
“Where are all the jobs?” “The Immigrants have taken them!”
“Why is there so much crime in this area?” “It’s a poor area dimwit, what did you expect! It was messed up before, and then the immigrants arrived!”
Such is the pecking order. And this is exactly what has been happening with my community.
“Why is there so much honour-crime in the British-Pakistani community?” Wait for it. It’s coming…“the Mirpuris commit honour crimes!” “No, not us – respectable ‘Urdu’ speaking Pakistaaanis – we don’t commit honour crimes, we’re originally from the cities – we’re immigrant-aristocrats – our ‘secular’ and ‘liberal’ values… (imagined no less) …are tied in with the sophistication showcased by that lovely, distant, country of ours’ called Pakistan – a beacon of human rights and human development built on the banks of the River Indus!” Just look at Pakistan’s lovely Crescent and Star!”
But, someone, somewhere inevitably retorts, “But you Muslims are extremists!” You don’t want to integrate with the rest of us, ‘foreign-loving’, ‘open-minded’, ‘progressive’, ‘cosmopolitan’ ‘global citizens!’”
Wait for it. It’s coming…
“Nope, you don’t understand the subtleties and complexities of the British-Pakistani community. The least educated Pakistanis, hmm…, you know the sort that live in the ‘North of England’ are from Mirpur, ‘Azad Kashmir and they’re not really Pakistanis, at least not like us progressive sorts with our grammar-English!” They mean to say they speak the ‘Queen’s English’ unaware of how even the BBC accent has changed over the years.
And then, wham, bam, they hit you with caveats and the assumed wisdom of the grapevine couched in sociological observations.
“Not all Mirpuris are that bad by the way. Just the majority! Most of ‘them’ are uneducated, live off benefits, sell drugs, kiddy-fiddle, beat their multiple wives, breed like rabbits and…” wait for it, it’s coming “…they’re poor and come from a rural place, from hills and mountains – that’s not really Pakistan but AZAD KASHMIR!”
And then you confront the glees and self-assuredness of individuals who really don’t know what they’re talking about, “by the way we’re from the cities, Lahore, Karachi, Islamabad, in these bastions of high-brow culture these kinds of things don’t happen!”
Of course, it’s all bollocks. The extremists are blowing up Churches, Mosques, schools, hospitals in the cities. They’re killing minority groups everywhere. The honour crimes you read about in Pakistani newspapers – the sort that get reported – happen in the cities and not just in the villages. Yes. Absolutely. It’s members of the citified gentry that are currently throwing acid on women’s faces, their egos bruised by having their advances turned down by inconsequential ‘poor women’ sick and tired of a patriarchal society that has its male votaries, and its most outspoken defenders living in the cities. You have cases of women being physically abused, pelted to death in front of court houses in the city by people living in the city as the Police watch on. Can any of us not be forgiven for asking, “wow -Pakistan’s cities seem a lot more violent than its villages. Is this really about cities and villages or something more profound – like ‘attitudes’ and ‘values’?”
And so when you hear another self-affirming Pakistani admonish you in his highfalutin accent, “my friend, it’s the Mirpuris that marry their cousins, not us, they are backwards!” Please spare a thought for us, the rest of us, who don’t have people speaking up for us because of the power-dynamics I mentioned earlier. Just scratch your head and ask your own questions as to why one section of a supposedly ‘self-coherent’ BME community is so keen to push the blame further down the street.
Let me just give you one insight – one backed up by the “experts” and not your average journalist-Joe turned ‘detective’. Cousin marriages are practised by more than a billion people on earth. They are also practised by Pakistan’s self-affirming city dwellers. You don’t believe me? Do your own research and read about studies written on consanguineous marriages in Karachi, for instance. The number is in the millions. Yes, health experts are trying to stop the practise because of all the congenital diseases that come from it.
But, of course statistics are on a much better footing than impressions, so here’s a ‘fact’ for you as quoted in a Pakistani newspaper, The Express Tribune in 2014 whose readership is mostly made up of ‘citified’ Pakistanis. According to the Department of Human Genetics at the University of Health Sciences Lahore, approximately 82.5% of ‘parents’ in Pakistan are blood-relatives. Now, I don’t think much has changed since then, but in any case Mirpuris make up less than 0.1 percent of the entire Pakistani population. Technically, they don’t even feature in Pakistani government statistics because the area of ‘Azad’ Jammu & Kashmir is treated differently and not necessarily benignly. So, why blame the Mirpuris for such a practise in the UK simply because it’s assumed that it must be on account of ‘them’ “because that lot are from the villages” – because the upwardly-mobile, self-aware ‘citified’ Pakistani ‘libertines’ are telling you so. There’s a subtext here that you need to familiarise yourself with, sadly one I have no time to discuss but it has a lot to do with upward-mobility and social-climbing.
For ordinary Muslims, the practise of cousin marriages goes back to the earliest days of Islam. The Prophet of Islam was married to a member of his extended network who descended from a ‘common’ ancestor. His companions were married to their cousins. Imam Ali, the fourth Caliph, was married to Fatima, the prophet’s daughter who was, of course, his cousin.
But cousin marriages aren’t solely a feature of Muslim societies. From Egyptian Pharaohs to European Royal families, everyone has been dabbing their feet in this pond. Even a great luminary like Darwin was married to his first cousin. And what about that other great mind, ‘Einstein’, yup, he too was married to his first cousin. Even the founder of Pakistan, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, for a time, was married to his cousin. But to hear – through Fergusson’s ‘trope-telling’ – a British Pakistani comedian whose parents are from Lahore and Rawalpindi say on behalf of her sophisticated cohorts, “I know Pakistanis who think of Mirpuris as self-ghettoizing cousin-shagging Neanderthals”, could get her killed in Lahore and Rawalpindi. I’m not joking either. This is not hyperbole. She can only share such insight because she’s living in Britain and precisely because of power-dynamics that she doesn’t understand.
It’s kind of funny to realise how stupid some cocky people are as they try to put down others less-threatening. But, in any case I doubt she’s more accomplished than Einstein or Darwin, or more ‘refined’ than the ‘cousin-shagging’ Royals of past ages simply because, in her mind, she lives in a nice suburb of Birmingham! If indeed she comes from an enlightened people from the heart of civilised Pakistan – as many self-affirming urbanites would have us believe – she can prove me wrong by flying over to Lahore on her private jet – PIA is apparently bankrupt – and say exactly what she said in front of her city peers. I doubt very much, the citified Muslims of Lahore and Rawalpindi would like the idea of their most famed personalities, religious or otherwise, being described as ‘cousin-shagging Neanderthals!’
They’d probably lynch her.
To sum this up, it is unfair to apportion blame to the Mirpuri community for the social ills of the British-Pakistani community. This is exactly what has been happening. As social commentators and observers move effortlessly in their multicultural – one dimensional – circles listening to their ‘insecure’, ‘aspiring middle-class’, ‘Pakistani’ friends and peers, they end up giving credence to tropes that are untrue. Some of these writers are just ignorant of the anecdotal claims being made, putting into print ‘garbage’ and contributing to a narrative that is just ‘bollocks’. There are no other words in the English language to adequately describe such behaviour. Impressions do not give way to facts – that’s why we have experts.
British-Mirpuris are a product of their society, as immigrants from “Pakistan-administered-Kashmir”. They too have their grievances against fellow-Pakistanis not least because they feel their region is being exploited by a political elite living in mainland Pakistan. They are not wrong in saying they have given more to Pakistan than what Pakistan has ever given them in return – this inconvenient fact is becoming a burden too heavy to carry for some. A huge ‘cleavage’ can be seen developing on the ground, as ordinary youngsters in Mirpur are prepared to toy with the idea that ‘India’ would’ve probably been a better choice than Pakistan – ‘attitudes’ can and do change even if the foreign ‘elite’ bussed in from the Punjab Plains are impervious to the feelings of the common folk.
Sadly, some of the activists from my region confuse political structures with the bigotry of ordinary people and create their own tropes and false narratives against ordinary Pakistanis. The crucial point being, you don’t see mainstream journalists repeating these particular tropes in Britain.
Why is that then? Well, because it’s about power-dynamics!
And yet the social and cultural practises of the “Mirpuris” are not peculiar to ‘Azad’ Jammu & Kashmir. These practises are ubiquitous throughout Pakistan, in both cities and villages. For the citified gentry of Pakistan to think of themselves as the embodiment of sophistication in the UK all the while they distance themselves from the ‘hillbillies’ of ‘Azad’ Jammu & Kashmir is truly mind-boggling.
Aside from why they would make such distinctions between various groups from Pakistan, we should look at their substantive claims. What exactly are they proud of when it comes to extolling a ‘city identity’ (‘sheri’) as opposed to a rural one (‘dhiati’)? They need to be reminded about the reality of Pakistan – yes that landmass that has become the butt of international jokes, not least Pakistani ones.
This is a country that sits at the bottom of international development indices. It’s a poor country with a massive population and a tiny government budget, procured mostly through foreign aid, loans and remittances. It is a ‘corrupt’ country, internationally recognised as a ‘corrupt’ country, where an unelected army calls the shots whilst its civilian-elite bicker with each other, siphoning funds earmarked for the poor. Pakistan does not produce anything. It does not contribute anything to science and technology. Where exactly are its patents? Its few notable academics are renowned on account of their western university credentials – many of whom have left the country to teach in North America and western Europe! The ‘elite’ sends its children to foreign universities. When the rich get ill, they quickly head for foreign hospitals – they have money, and lots of it, so their visa applications are less likely to be denied. Without exception, they invest their money in foreign countries and even deposit their savings in foreign banks. They don’t trust Pakistan’s weak institutions not least because they come from the same people who apparently run the country – or at least that’s how they like to present themselves abroad! The cities are no more a collective liberal utopia than the villages are nightmarish dystopias. Life is hard for ordinary people whether they live in villages, towns, cities or mud-houses. If you don’t come from the ‘elite’ and are socially and politically connected, you’re screwed, literally!
How do I know all this? Because, NGOs and well-wishers have been writing about Pakistan’s problems for decades. There is a huge body of knowledge that condemns Pakistan for the joke it has become. Besides, my family originates in areas controlled by Pakistan, on either side of the PAK-‘A’JK border. Members of my extended family live in the cities and villages that span this border. Aside from having witnessed life in the cities and villages first-hand, not a day passes in Pakistan except social and media commentators condemn ritualistically their country’s plight. From dirty water, intermittent electricity (the rich have generators), inedible food, carcinogenic cooking oil, malnutrition, stunted growth, massive poverty, huge corruption, sectarian squabbles, religious violence, enormous gender and wealth inequalities, a ‘dumbed-down’ population – the list is endless.
Then there are those who blame India for everything, literally everything whilst glued to the latest Bollywood movie. And what about the ‘conspiracy theorists’ – oh yes, the superstars of the intellectual class. For these ‘enlightened’ few, almost always from the cities, “911” was a mere figment of the western imagination and Bin Laden was never ever caught in Abbottabad, northern Pakistan. It was staged! It’s all one big American conspiracy to control ‘nuclear’ Pakistan – yes that ‘powerful’ poor country that needs billions of dollars of American aid to fight its own home-grown terrorists. Oh, lest I forget, there’s others who speak disparagingly of Malala Yusuf, that 12 year old girl shut in the head by the Taliban – yup, its one big conspiracy!
And all these guys are from the “cities”.
And we’re being told the real villains of the British-Pakistani community are from Mirpur? Give me a break, please! It’s time members of my community started to speak up. In 2005, when three of the 4, 7/7 bombers, were incorrectly presented as ‘Mirpuris’, no one from the community spoke up. Ever since then, all sorts of bogus claims are being made about our nefarious ways – there comes a point when you get sick and tired of listening to crap especially when you know it’s not true. For instance, there are no data-sets that tell us definitively the origin of the Pakistani sex-groomers; it’s just assumed on the basis of anecdotes and ‘numbers’ – i.e., impressions. The Beeston area of Leeds, apparently, was an area with a large Mirpuri presence and it turned out that the ‘Pakistani’ parents of the 7/7 bombers came from the Panjab Province. How do I know this? Because some journalists went ‘digging’ in the wake of Madeline Bunting’s bogus article written 9 days after the attack – Orphans of Islam; the history of Britain’s Mirpur population may help to explain why some became suicide bombers, and they discovered the error of her ‘impressions’. Imagine – an entire indictment of a community based on the mistaken identity of its members!
I guess respectable journalists should take heed when they want to pen writings based on such anecdotes and present them as objective observations of inter-communal relations all the while endorsing prejudices. “Al-Britannia, My country” by James Fergusson is one such example. In as much as he shares his wider-insights about British-Muslims, he merely gives credence to bigoted voices within the British-Pakistani community when he describes Mirpuris possibly on account of not understanding the subtext behind the anxieties – this rivalry is one-sided I add.
To be fair to the author – I actually spoke to him via twitter messaging and he seemed like a genuine guy looking for answers. He was unequivocal though that he wasn’t an expert and had so much more to learn. He was clear his insights were ‘impressionistic’. Some of the tropes he fastidiously recorded gave me a chuckle. He spoke of a ‘Pakistani’ guy from ‘Punjabi Attock’ living in multi-cultural ‘Sparkbrook’ perturbed by the “mono-cultural” neighbourhood of Alum-Rock a couple of miles away populated almost entirely by ‘Mirpuris’ – yup, those ‘cousin-shagging Neanderthals’ – lest you forget!” He went on to quote him, “There’s nowhere like it in the UK,… You hear Patwari, [a Mirpuri dialect] on the street. They’re a claustrophobic monoculture compared to us. I’d think twice about living there myself!” Immediately Fergusson endorsed the underlying proposition speaking about the differences between ‘Alum Rock’ and ‘Sparkbrook’ folk.
I’m from Birmingham – trust me, when I tell you, ‘Sparkbrook ain’t no Beverly Hills’ for this particularly rare ‘cosmopolitan’ resident to look down his nose at his Alum Rock peers.
It just goes to show that it takes a rare genius to religiously parrot what he’s been told in the hope of trying to shed light on an important topic. It takes an even rarer genius to think he’s actually made us all more the wiser.