Nearly a decade and a half ago, I got married to a Canadian in Toronto. My mother’s incessant demands, innuendoes, emotional breakdowns, insults and ‘third party’ interventions finally got the better of me. And so I decided to get married in Canada. Little did I know, at the time, that not only would my family be happy with the prospects of me getting married thousands of miles away, but they would be joining me for the happy occasion.
With all this good luck on my side, I decided the time was ripe for me to go on my journey of religious discovery. My wife agreed to come along. Some weeks later we were in Syria, a country that I had visited some years earlier. I didn’t like the prospect of studying Arabic at the University of Damascus, and so went across the border to neighbouring Jordan. I enrolled at an Institute that taught classical Arabic so I could read classical texts and understand the literal word of God. I was as impressionistic and naive as ever. I thought by becoming a ‘good’ Muslim, educating myself in the ‘real’ Islam of the traditional ‘Ulema’ (the clerics) I would somehow find inner-peace. It was also an exciting time. This bug-bear of mine followed me over many years as I dabbled in the language and culture of the practising Muslim, and finally had the wherewithal to follow my dreams.
But, the experience wasn’t cracked up to be what I’d imagined. To say I was disappointed would be an understatement, although it took me some years to come to this realisation. But every cloud has its silver lining, and my experience opened up the world of subtle prejudice, the sort you can’t recognise unless you go looking for it. It also kick started a hobby of mine that has taken me through the pages of numerous books on social relations and power dynamics, and the complex history that engenders such processes. In practical terms, it showed me how people suffering from delusions of self-importance think of themselves despite being couched in the language of humility and fraternal brotherhood. I discovered a pecking order where ‘certain’ Muslims sat at the top of an idealised but imagined ‘calling’ whilst others looked on as spectators, less important, less significant, but dependable ‘cash-cows’ to help sustain the ‘imbalance’ on show.
In this world of universal faith, religious patronage and fraternal love, the type that gets you feeling all fuzzy, I got the strong impression that ‘Pakistanis’ are not ‘celebrated’. But, even back then for some reason I would never say that I was from Pakistan either, finding the idea repugnant to every bone in my body. I don’t know why or when I started to feel like this. There was something about ‘Pakistan’ that made a lot of my peers feel uncomfortable, or at least those who had some inkling of the wider world.
The pro-independence ‘Kashmiris’ from my region hadn’t helped. They accidentally gave some of us a platform to voice an underlying cleavage that predated us by decades, and so you would hear people say, “nope, we’re not from Pakistan, we’re from ‘Azad’ ‘Kashmir!’”
By saying this, the small minority that would say stuff like this, and admittedly most of us hadn’t even come across their arguments, didn’t actually know what they were saying. They were merely pointing out that they weren’t Pakistanis imbuing ‘Azad’ Kashmir with an illusory identity that was at odds with the imposition of ‘Pakistan’. One thing was for sure, they weren’t saying that they were ‘Kashmiris’. And yet this was the impression that seeped out of their internal foreboding. This ‘conflation’ was never of their doing though. Writers with an impressionistic understanding of these interactions haven’t helped the situation parroting the trope that ‘Mirpuris’, the majority-Pakistani community in the UK, were somehow ashamed of themselves, that’s why they say they are ‘Kashmiris’. So that would mean, Mirpuris were ashamed of being Pakistanis? If that’s the case, why do the majority still, even to this day, instinctively affirm a Pakistani background? But, more crucially, why are so many Pakistanis similarly ashamed of their own background?
It’s a ludicrous assertion at best, and if the writers had bothered to familiarise themselves with the social culture of the wider region and the corresponding caste-backgrounds (landed and occupational), they would have realised that the term ‘Kashmiri’ means different things to different people. As they were moving in circles not predisposed to this way of thinking, they formed judgements that were skewed.
But, there was one moment in Jordan that made me think really hard and proper about everything that I was about to experience. It stirred in me feelings that have seldom left me. I wasn’t present at the time, but my wife narrated what happened. There was a girl from America of Mexican descent, she used the term ‘Hispanic’. She was a ‘convert’ although I recall her using the term ‘revert’. The first time I saw her, I thought she was ‘Pakistani’ and never thought anything of it. Apparently, my wife thought the same as did some of her non-Pakistani friends. I had a couple of conversations with her and I remember, one time, speaking about the ‘pyramids’ in ‘Mexica’ and discussing the claim that some ‘Arabs’ from ‘Egypt’ got lost on the high seas and ended up in her part of the world. Apparently, they built the pyramids. I get the impression, she was somehow linking her heritage with a wider ‘Arab’ identity. Of course, none of it is true for obvious historical reasons not worth going into here.
As the incident goes, some of her new acquaintances at the Institute asked her about her origins. They said, they thought she was Pakistani. She shrugged off the comment, saying “I’ve never heard that one before, I always get ‘Arab’ or ‘Persian’”. She seemed perturbed but no one thought anything of it. Until a day or so later, her ‘Dutch-born’ roommate approached the ‘offending’ parties and narrated what actually happened. She said, her friend was inconsolable and cried. She was upset that she was confused for looking like a ‘Pakistani’. My wife, being one of the ‘instigators’ said, it wasn’t meant to be an ‘insult’ but just a casual remark. The ‘aggrieved’ ‘victim’s’ friend said sympathetically, “I understand that, but try not to say that she looks like a Pakistani again as it’ll upset her.” My wife thought the whole thing was weird, laughed uncomfortably, and never thought about it afterwards.
This incident was a precursor to other incidents. She recalls siting with some ‘American’ ‘revert’ friends at a beauty parlour in Amman as they were browsing through a magazine. They happened to gaze upon a famous Indian actress called ‘Ashwariya Rai’. One of the girls, a ‘convert’ noted that she was ‘half-white’. My wife casually corrected her by saying, no, her parents are both Indians. She refused point black to accept that she could be ‘Indian’. My wife tells me she explained that lots of Indians have light eyes and are a lot more fairer than Ashwairya Rai. But, the entire group dismissed her and that was the end of the conversation.
Finally, I would like to mention a third incident. My wife was with some ‘Pakistani’ friends from the Institute having been invited to a gathering that included some elderly Arab women. They noted that the Pakistani guests in attendance only partially looked Pakistani, as if that was a compliment, but the hostess, another ‘American Pakistani’ didn’t ‘look’ Pakistani at all, that she had ‘features’ that weren’t ‘Pakistani’ features. One of the group tried to explain that lots of Pakistanis look like the hostess, but an elderly Arab woman refused to even entertain the idea becoming quite animated. A well-travelled ‘Jordanian’ woman present weighed in by saying, she had lived in Pakistan’s capital with her diplomat husband for many years and had seen many women, ‘much fairer’ than the hostess. Her interlocutor refused to accept her ‘testimony’, saying, “mustaheel (‘impossible’), she does not look Pakistani at all!”
The Pakistani hostess for her part kept quite.
These incidents are not unique. The people that made these comments were making what appeared to them, at least, to be innocent remarks. There’s nothing sinister about them and neither were they motivated by any malice.
But, that’s not the reason for mentioning these incidents.
There is a wider point that I would like to explore by pointing out that none of the people making such ‘generalisations’ were ‘fair’ themselves, or had ‘light-eyes’ sufficiently characteristic of an ‘identity’ drastically at odds with a racially-imagined ‘Pakistani’ identity.
I’ve lived in Jordan and travelled the Middle East. I’ve been to the northern regions of Pakistan and my own hilly and mountainous region in the western Himalayas north of Pakistan’s Panjab Plains. This region is home to diverse populations, that has over the course of millennia been invaded and settled by Central Asian nomads and tribes looking for riches as some stayed whilst others headed for the Plains. From the direction of the Indus Valley Plains gradually over thousands of years, and Indo-Gangetic India over the past millennium, pastoralists and mercenary-like tribes fleeing conflict, wars and upheavals, have during different periods sought sanctuary in the hills. After 1947, another huge huge wave of displacement took place. Muslims from the direction of North India and the Deccan Plateau sought shelter in West Panjab and Sindh whilst non-Muslims, indigenous to the areas of West Pakistan left for the Dominion of India. In fact a lot of Bollywood’s most famous personalities have recent roots in the western Himalayas.
Colonial ethnologists, for their part, noted the huge diversity of the people that lived here, and ascribed a foreign origin to certain clan backgrounds to remote ancestors from far afield, conjecturally I am keen to add, and according to race theories which we would find objectionable today. Colonial cartographers surveying the Salt Range Tract, a region beyond the flat and fertile Plains of the Panjab in the Himalayan foothills, pointed out that it didn’t really belong to India. They were of course contrasting this mountainous terrain with the Indo-Gangetic Plains of North India. The region is undulating and rugged in its appearance. It has a charm of its own.
I know enough from my direct exposure to the purported ‘racial’ identities of a number of ‘nationalities’ in this part of the world to not make crass ‘generalisations’ about what ‘Arabs’, ‘Iranians’, ‘Turks’, ‘Afghans’, ‘Pakistanis’, ‘Middle Easterners’, ‘South Asians’, etc look like. I recall in Syria, my wife noting how she had imagined ‘Arabs’ to look different to the ones she was encountering in Damascus. That was the end of the conversation at the time, as I only started to think about such issues later.
In her mind, growing up in Toronto, she had heard so many times that certain Pakistanis looked like ‘Arabs’ whilst others did not. She had obviously encountered ‘Arabs’ in Toronto, so I guess in Syria she was trying to locate these ‘Arabs’ outside her imagination.
The ‘image’ in her head was of course a constructed one.
I remember as we started to look for an apartment in Syria with the assistance of a Syrian-American, an amenable chap, he casually noted that my wife looked ‘Syrian’, and he would never have thought that she was ‘Pakistani’. I recall the apartment owner saying to my wife that she looked ‘Arab’ and in the customary habit of Arab hospitality, invited us to meet her family. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve heard people say to my wife that she doesn’t look Pakistani. Usually, if not always, these conversations are triggered by members of ethnic minority communities looking into the Pakistani community, claiming that the Pakistanis they encounter somehow look like ‘them’ but not like the mass of ‘ordinary Pakistanis’, a rather perverse sentiment if you think about what is actually being said. Pakistanis, unaware of the unequal power-dynamics being deployed, haven’t helped as they merely concur with the ensuing insights; “oh you don’t like Pakistani! Yeah I know, a lot of people say that,” as if they are being complemented in some bizarre sense.
She recalls growing up in Canada, and being casually told by her ‘white’ friends that she didn’t look ‘Pakistani’. On one occasion, she recalls her Italian teacher being ‘surprised’ to learn that she and her ‘Christian’ friend – another shock – were Pakistanis. Subsequently, my wife went to the bookstore and purchased an illustrated book on Pakistan. She showed her pictures of ‘Pakistanis’ from various regions in the hope of educating her about the ethnic diversity of Pakistan. Not many people know this, sadly not even Pakistanis, but Pakistan is one of the most ethnically diverse countries on earth. And so I get the faint impression that there’s something negative about ‘looking’ or ‘being’ ‘Pakistani’ however patently absurd such an idea. I think my wife similarly was affected by that attitude. I mean, for one thing, why would she take the time to try and educate her teacher?
She could have just ignored the comments as ‘nonsense’ albeit non-malicious and innocent. After all, a lot of common-sense observations turn out to be false once probed.
In Egypt, our tour guides made similar remarks. I was very uncomfortable with the male tour guide looking at her lecherously and wanting to sit between us as if he was a member of our family. He wasn’t complimenting her in my mind, and I doubt she liked his compliments either. The streets of Cairo can be fraught with difficulties for women dressed in ‘Hijabs’ and loosely-fitting garments. I don’t know how some Muslim men can reconcile this behaviour even as women are dressed in ‘modest’ attire, walking meekly so as to not offend their prying eyes, a story for another day.
In Jordan, as I rode various taxis to different destinations, and it became clear that I was not a ‘native’, I recall being asked where I was from, and the conversations were interesting. I’ve never thought of myself as looking like a ‘Malaysian’. I was once asked if I was from Nepal. I don’t think I look Nepalese but what exactly is the ‘Nepalese’ ‘appearance’ for me to entertain my own stupid question? I used to say my parents were from Kashmir (I don’t say that anymore). But the response from my ‘Arab’ interlocutors was always the same if not predictable, “India or Pakistan?” So people have heard of ‘Kashmir’ and the conflict to ‘imagine’ what the diverse nationalities of Kashmir State ‘should’ look like through ‘stereotypes’ of what Indians and Pakistanis ought to look like.
If you don’t immediately fit a stereotype, people try to assign you to more closely-fitting stereotypes, that’s the nature of ‘stereotypes’ and it isn’t necessarily a bad thing. This is not what I mean by subtle prejudice or benign bigotry. I’m talking about something less innocent.
In Anatolian ‘Turkey’, I was holidaying with a group of friends, five of us in total. I recall, the hotel reception man saying, he thought we were ‘Turks’. I recall now how different he looked from his fellow ‘national’ from Istanbul, a guy with light brown hair and piercing blue eyes, someone I could have easily confused as an indigenous ‘white’ guy in the UK. When I think of ‘white’ guys, for some reason, I never think of Southern Europeans or Mediterranean people as being ‘white’ which is clearly an absurd position. Having watched American movies all my life with a particular penchant for the ‘thriller’ and ‘action’ genres, I’ve never thought of Sicilians as ‘white’, but clearly that’s how they identify and are identified by the powers-be. I had no inclination to say to the receptionist that he looked ‘Turkish’ and the other chap ‘white’ (howsoever absurd the ‘racial’ connotations involved). It just never occurred to me to say that at the time. But what exactly constitutes ‘white’, ‘brown’, ‘black’, ‘Asian’ or ‘European’; these are ambiguous racial terms that have no corresponding biological value.
They are social constructs, and pretty sloppy ones too. They tell us more about the historical epoch in which they were developed than the ‘peoples’ being described through them.
As we went shopping, and tried to barter with the shop owners, I would practise my Arabic with those who could speak some Arabic but not English. And they would ask like clockwise, if we we’re from neighbouring Syria? As we got progressively ‘tanned’ and ‘darker’, the shop keepers would ask if we were from ‘Libya’? I recall being shouted at by an elderly ‘Turk’ for entering a tourist Mosque in my shorts, (they weren’t that short) but he would have hit us had another younger ‘Turk’ not politely intervened. The young chap spoke to us in ‘Turkish’ but we explained in English that we’re tourists. Our ‘foreign’ misdemeanours were enough to dissipate the tension between us and the elderly man, as we hurried out of the Mosque!
In Britain, as I wrack my head around the nature of such innocent interactions, to the backdrop of ‘anti-Mirpuri’ bashing by fellow-Pakistanis, the ‘urbanites’, I’m perturbed by the amount of Pakistanis who remark having just returned from their holidays that they don’t look like ‘Pakistanis’. I’ve met so many young men and women tell me brazenly, almost as a badge of honour, that they don’t look ‘Pakistani’. I’ve heard everything from ‘Brazilian’, ‘Spanish’, ‘Italian’, ‘Greek’, ‘Arab’, ‘Persian’, ‘Latino’, and even ‘Irish’. To me, they look like Pakistanis; if I saw them on the street, I wouldn’t confuse anyone of them for the nationalities they claim. And if they saw me, they would never think once, “hmm I wonder where this guy’s from.” It just wouldn’t happen! If ‘foreigners’ are unfamiliar with your people or the part of the world you originate from, they try to put you in a box that their familiar with. It doesn’t mean you’re somehow ‘less-Pakistani’ or worse, ‘special’ because you don’t look like the ordinary mass of ‘Pakistanis’. We know who ‘we’ are because we’re constantly around our ‘own’ people and so we take our diversity for granted irrespective of having green or blue eyes, being incredibly dark to incredibly fair, curly hair, brown hair, tall, short, having ‘fine’ or ‘broad’ features – however we imagine these features.
But then again, what qualifies as the Pakistani ‘look’ or any ‘look’ for that matter?
I’m speaking of phenotypes, or the observable characteristics of individuals shaped by genes and environment. This is a complex area of our human autonomy, even though it’s a tiny percentage of our DNA make up. How we are perceived ‘racially’, aside from innocent stereotypical perceptions of ordinary people, is heavily influenced by power-dynamics that seek to ‘whiten’ or ‘Europeanise’ standards of beauty. We can’t divorce this historical baggage from our conversations. This is one of the abiding legacy of colonialism that decolonised peoples everywhere help perpetuate with their inferiority complexes. When Pakistanis self-flagellate about their non-Pakistani appearances in some self-affirming sense individually, they are not proffering a physical description about their persons. They are in fact offering value-judgements about their people’s racial worth. The idea that someone looks ‘Pakistani’, is of course a ridiculous notion at best.
I do not doubt that the people making these comments think they’re actually making common-sense observations. They just don’t realise how backwards their observations actually are. If they sat with anthropologists, biological evolutionists or geneticists, I’m talking about a particular group of experts who know a thing or two about the mistaken idea of ‘racial’ appearances, they would feel quite embarrassed about the ‘common-sense’ racial myth ideas they revel in.
But we don’t need to rely on biology, anthropology or related disciplines to inform our redemptive insights. Understanding the history of power relations between ruling elites and their subject populations will shed light on why we take ‘racial myths’ for granted. As direct beneficiaries of that past, a lot of media and marketing companies in the West trade in these racial myths when they want to sell their products all the while they ascribe ‘status’ to certain groups compartmentalising diverse peoples according to an imagined heirarchy. Very rarely will you come across Indian or Pakistani models in British commercials; however attractive they are and whatever their appearances according to the established standards, they simply aren’t ‘fashionable’ enough. It’s a bit like the Indian accent and how it is socially presented in sitcoms; there is nothing innately wrong with the Indian-English accent, disparaging attitudes are however influenced by the power-dynamics I’ve mentioned above. And so however large the Indian or Pakistani population in the UK, the showcasing of British Indian or Pakistanis models is off-limits for large commercial companies selling their wares. The process in question is not one-way though; Indians and Pakistanis contribute to their own effacement when they refuse to challenge such unfair power-dynamics. Current attitudes, not only make such discriminatory practises possible but rather inevitable.
To be fair to the ‘Irish’-looking guy in the scenario I mentioned a little earlier, his paternal grandmother was in fact Irish, and she spoke perfect ‘Pahari’ better than most of my generation, which just shows these ‘anxieties’ are not shared by everyone. As my peers inadvertently, and in some cases, deliberately undermine their ‘Pakistani’ background, this lovely woman used to go about her business wearing shalwar kameez and speaking Pahari to the elders. She never once felt this practice was beneath her dignity as she was also home in her Irish identity in England.
I used to not care about such comments, and then I would became irritated. Now I’m positively embarrassed for my ‘fellow’ Pakistanis with whom, I like to add, I don’t share a ‘nationality’ for political reasons. For what it’s worth, my country, the slither of land Pakistan Officialdom calls ‘Azad’ Kashmir has a semiautonomous status where the people are treated like cattle, no better than 3rd class citizens in their own homeland. This has been widely reported by NGOs but sadly most Pakistanis are unaware of how ‘Azad’ Kashmir is governed and the backlash it is creating on the part of people who otherwise would have had no qualms with the idea of Pakistan.
Things are now moving apace in ‘Azad’ Jammu & Kashmir.
How can I say I’m ‘Pakistani’ without offending the sensibilities of people of conscience fighting for justice and dignity? But I still share a heritage with the ‘Pakistanis’ of the North in the Himalayan foothills of Afghanistan, Pakistan and India, and I feel connected to them profoundly. I also share a heritage with the peoples of the North Indian Plains, from where my paternal line descends, a heritage for which I have nothing but profound admiration, and a little remorse given what I know of my clan’s retreat from Old Delhi. I feel sorry for my people, and all the Pakistanis who want to erase something of themselves daily. Pakistanis that are honest with themselves, know exactly what I’m talking about. All they have to do is prick their conscience if indeed it still works.
Displaying one’s unquestioned patriotism for Pakistan despite the inequality that characterises ‘Pakistani’ society, merely entrenches the elite’s control over Pakistan. And we all know the identity of this elite. Those singing from this hymn sheet are deluded with nothing to show for their patriotism except ‘fuzzy’ love. It’s a bit like taking one’s ‘racial cues’ from the modelling agencies with their inbuilt bias for European appearances aside from token gestures for the ‘fashionable’ minorities notwithstanding the problems members of these communities have to face daily. In both cases these structural hegemonies discriminate those on the fringe of the established order.
But there is also something perverse about our imposed weakness through our own agency. As Pakistanis gleefully take delight being told that they don’t look like Pakistanis or ‘Indians’, basically their own people, they are ashamed of who they are precisely because they don’t know anything about their parents’ life-stories. They know very little about the subcontinent’s wonderful heritage, conflating their new territorial identity with the priorities of an ideological project bent on separating them from their fellow ‘Indians’. It doesn’t occur to them that one of the earliest Civilisations of mankind, the Indus Valley Civilisation, is firmly located within Pakistan. Successive governments of Pakistan have shown scant regard for the preservation and celebration of this ancient heritage. Archaeological sites sit in ruin. Funding is almost non-existent. Hinduism is too pagan
This malaise that sits at the heart of the modern Pakistani identity isn’t simply about physical appearance and racial difference, again vacuous concepts borne of not understanding genetic mutations, natural selection and genetic breeding populations but about disconnecting them from their Hindu and Buddhist past.
The Indus Valley Civilisation seems too pagan for Pakistan; India for its part actively claims this heritage despite most of the Indus Valley sites falling within the territory of Pakistan. How far some Pakistanis are prepared to go to deny this shared heritage is anyone’s guess. But, as they grovel to belong to ‘identities’ that are all illusory except in their minds, this ‘impulse’ is entirely of their choosing.
I don’t want to discuss Pakistan’s terrible cleavage with India except to say it continues to play a big part in the current anxieties. I can’t help but note how this ‘fracture’ that had originally given way to priorities that falsified Pakistan’s past for political reasons is now effacing ordinary Pakistanis of their deep roots in a land that they’ve every reason to be proud of. The alternative is what we are now seeing, a deep ‘void’ in the very souls of diaspora Pakistanis and their acute feelings of ‘disconnectedness’.
The myth of ‘Muslim Pakistan’ has not produced reciprocating relations with the Muslim World westwards of the River Indus. It has merely given Pakistanis a complex; as they run away from India into the arms of their Muslim brethren, they don’t feel fraternal love. The result is an inferiority complex that the rest of the world can sniff out instantly. The other Muslim nationalities have their own anxieties, and you can see this in how they seek imaginary racial bonds with Europe.
But this inferiority complex can be reversed if we so choose. Think about our ‘Mexican’ friend, she had an emotional meltdown on being told she looked ‘Pakistani’. Such a reaction is clearly extreme, but it happened. So why would a Mexican, a convert to Islam from North America think like this? And why didn’t she just brush off the comments by saying “no, I’m Mexican, but thank you for the compliment”.
Perhaps, she had her own complex.
More to the point, ask yourself, who actually put this idea in her head?
Where did this impulse come from, from ‘us’ perhaps or the ‘Arabs’ we ‘admire’?
If you’re a young Pakistani girl, and you’re accustomed to being told you’re ‘pretty’ because you meet the conventional image of what’s beautiful; you have the ‘right’ ‘complexion’, ‘light-coloured’ eyes, ‘straight’ hair, ‘European’ ‘features’ – a racial appearance that’s all but imagined I’m keen to emphasise – and some random person comes along and tells you, “wow, you look like an ‘Arab’!”. And yet you know nothing about the diversity of human populations in general, of ‘Arabs’, ‘Europeans’ and all the other generic groups in particular – you’d probably take it as a compliment too, not realising that the description itself is on account of something profoundly ‘perverse’. The remark itself feeds into ‘stereotypes’ of what ‘Indians’ are, and what ‘Pakistanis’ ought to look like.
And so what of the people who make such comments?
They are invested in a worldview that’s outright false.
Their casual statements tell you something about them, their priorities and anxieties, as opposed to ‘you’ or an ‘Arab’ racial identity. This is not the fault of ordinary ‘Arabs’ I’m keen to stress. The overwhelming majority of ‘Arabs’ are absolved from the inferiority-complex of Pakistanis. They have their own inferiority-complexes. They’re having a hard time as it is because of ‘Western’ prejudices that they are somehow ‘primitive’ and ‘violent’, throwbacks to an age progressive peoples everywhere have left more than a century ago.
The ‘Arab’ label in many parts of Europe and North America has become a slur to be avoided at all costs. Today you have many Arabs from North Africa and the Levant keen to emphasise their nationalities as ‘Algerians’, ‘Lebanese’, ‘Christians’, ‘Maronites’ etc., as something separate from an ‘Arab’ identity. But, as others go around behaving ‘extra special’ with their ‘Pakistani’-Muslim peers who admire them on account of the Islamic heritage and the Arabic language, wrongfully conflating the two, they aggregate an importance they don’t deserve. For Pakistanis, the ‘Indian’ cleavage has not helped either as they begin to feel a ‘bond’ that’s illusory with little or no reciprocation.
But let’s turn these remarks on their head.
If in your mind, the ‘Arab’ who said, “wow, you look like an Arab” didn’t look like an ‘Arab’ in the sense she didn’t have the appearance of our ‘imaginary’ and ‘quintessential’ ‘Arabs’, and so you casually remarked, “does that mean you don’t look like an ‘Arab’?
How do you think she would react?
Do you think she would respond by saying, “oh of course you’re right, I don’t look like an Arab!”
I bet you she’d be taken aback.
Rather than empowering her through this imaginary identity, you’ve just unwittingly disempowered her. And her response would run something like this… “no, no, you don’t understand but Arabs are diverse looking people. “We” live in more than 20 countries in both North Africa and Asia.” So, when she said you looked like an Arab, which Arabs was she exactly referring to? Ordinary “Algerians”, “Yemenis”, “Saudis” “Moroccans” “Sudanese” – the vast majority of ‘plain-looking’ “Arabs”? Or are ‘Arabs’ in her mind the ones strutting the red carpets of Arab Award Ceremonies with their bleached blond hair whilst wearing blue contact lenses – the quintessential “Arabs” of your warped imagination?
Of course every nation has its beautiful people, India and Pakistan aren’t short of their photogenic celebrities either – but why is it, Pakistanis don’t conflate the appearances of their most cherished personalities with themselves?
To revisit this perverse question within the context of subtle prejudice, what do ‘Yemenis’, ‘Saudis’ or ‘Sudanese’ “Arabs” exactly look like? What about Moroccans, Algerians or Tunisians? What about Egyptians? Or Iraqis? What about the Lebanese? Which Arabs do you look like, when someone tells you, “you look like an Arab”, and why is it always the fair-skinned Pakistanis that look like ‘Arabs’ but not dark-skinned-Pakistanis? And there are millions of dark skinned Arabs all over the Arab world. Many Arabs live in Africa and have admixtures from sub-Saharan populations, tribes and peoples with whom they share a past. Google their pictures if you like. Be adventurous and visit their countries and learn about their wonderful cultures. There’s much more to people than their purported appearances. These cultural realities better reflects who we are as ‘peoples’ than the constructed identities we worship in our own minds because of power-dynamics and the legacy of colonialism.
But why are all these ‘Arabs’ positively excluded from a purported ‘racial Arab’ identity when you’re told you look like an Arab?
Of the other nationalities I mentioned in passing; this diversity is also true. Brazilians, in particular are mostly of African-descent. What you see on TV is not an accurate reflection of the people who live in Brazil. Again, this perverse reality merely shows you how the elites of Brazil view themselves, and how they want the world to imagine ‘Brazilians’. Many Brazilians of African descent are fighting back and have created movements to challenge the hegemony of a small elite that wants to project the image of Brazil through its own self-image.
But this holds true for a country like Iran. The projected ‘racial’ image is other than the reality, and tells you something about how those embodying such attitudes value certain ‘appearances’. On numerous dating sites, you have ‘Persians’ describing their ethnicity as ‘Caucasian’ or ‘white’ even as options exist to tick the ‘Middle Eastern’ or ‘Asian’ box. These individuals are laying claim to an identity that is merely imagined in their minds. I doubt far-right racists with a penchant for Paki-bashing in our part of the Western Hemisphere would spare them a good ‘beating’ or racist slurs because they were innocently mistaken as ‘brown people’.
In all these cases, there is something less innocent about these imagined imagined identities, ones we take for granted almost every day. This is what I mean by ‘subtle prejudice’.
But, let me reframe the discussion slightly.
Pakistanis know of their own internal problems, as ethnic rivalries exist all over the country. Pakistanis are prejudicial to one another, just listen to what some Pakistanis say about Pakistan’s various ethnic groups. These are tropes they’ve inherited from their parents and peers. Why would you think, for one moment, that ‘Arabs’ do not slur one another about their ‘appearances’, ‘behaviour’ or ethnic idiosyncrasies? I recall a Syrian girl in my youth speaking disparagingly about ‘Yemenis’ and how Syrians “looked nothing like ‘Arabs’ from Yemen or Saudi Arabia”. She was keen to point out that Syrians were ‘Arabised’ and wrongly get confused with the original Beduins of Arabia. She was clearly speaking about ‘racial appearances’ and not the cultural diversity of the Arab world. This was an online exchange, and I casually said that I had some Yemeni friends which triggered her tirade. Trying to picture her now from her pictures, I can honestly say there was nothing quintessentially ‘Syrian’ about her physical appearance to warrant the idea that ‘Syrians’ look different from ‘Yemenis’.
This internal disquiet, of our own choosing, exists everywhere as it does in Europe, India and the Middle East.
It has become a fact of daily life, bigots, racists, prejudicial people exist everywhere – they tend to be unaccomplished or unfulfilled, living in their little ‘group bubbles’. They want to be part of something not necessarily associated with their own people, which in their minds, gives them real ‘prestige’. They make racist comments frequently thinking nothing of it all the while they perceive themselves to be enlightened and non-judgemental.
These are all examples of what experts call ‘prejudice’ that leads to subtle discrimination.
I get the feeling because Pakistanis are embarrassed about who they are, they directly influence how they are perceived by others. No one likes a sycophant no matter how wealthy or attractive he or she is. If you claim a privileged station for yourself, whilst you’re eager to carry someone else’s shoes, you won’t get any ‘respect’. Respect is reserved for ‘equals’. It’s never handed out to those whom you consider to be your ‘inferiors’. In a utopian paradise, these things don’t happen. But in our modern world with its lingering colonial past, prejudice is on display everywhere. It is a fact of ordinary life.
The internet and social media circles have become a repository of such attitudes.
Even ‘educated’ people are prejudicial, this is no different to how our enlightenment thinkers from Europe behaved. All the while they were engaged in cutting-edge science and challenging ‘religious’ beliefs in many ways aloof from their less-educated peers, they subscribed to the popular race theories of their time. Being smart, attractive, wealthy, powerful, from a noble or aristocratic family, doesn’t protect you from bigotry, whether it’s subtle or malignant.
And so, if you insist on hanging on to the coattails of imagined identities of people, whom you admire, your non-Pakistani friend would never say, “hey, cool, I look Pakistani, thanks for the compliment, Pakistan has a wonderful ‘exotic’ culture, the people are amazing dude!” ‘People’ can empower or disempower themselves. If you choose to disempower yourself by being enamoured by someone else’s ‘illusory’ identity, you will inevitably disempower your own ‘identity’ and the people you’re connected to even as you see yourself ‘different’ from your ascribed group.
If you hate your background, ask yourself, “who taught me this hate?” If your enamoured by a particular ‘nation’, ‘group’ or ‘people’, ask yourself, “who taught me this infatuation?” If you’re smart, you’ll quickly come to the conclusion that there’s a lot more going on in the background than impressionable people harbouring common-sense attitudes. And if you don’t like the status quo – because it’s unfair or wrong, then change it. If you can’t change it, don’t aid it by behaving like a sheep trying to fly under the radar all the while you feel the inner-strength to ‘poo-poo’ your own people perhaps less privileged than you.
The Idea of White Privilege
To conclude this discussion, I would like to give you some perspective to the complexity of ‘race-relations’ by citing ‘white privilege’ or the idea that life is just easier for white people in the West. It is a proven social reality that obtains in many parts of the West and is the direct consequence of western-European colonialism. However, there is no such thing as a corresponding ‘racial identity’. There is no such thing as a ‘white’, ‘European’ or ‘Caucasian’ group, race, or people. Just as there is no such thing as ‘black’, ‘African’ or ‘Asian’ races, these are social constructs not biological realities.
If you ask any number of African Americans about race-relations in America, they will tell you that if you happen to look like ‘white people’ in America, doors open for you despite being ‘black’ on paper. If you look like a black man, you’ve got more chances of being shot by the police. It doesn’t matter how ‘fair’ you are, or how ‘light’ your eyes are, it’s about passing for a ‘white’ person, ‘looking’, ‘sounding’ and ‘behaving’ like the dominant class that doesn’t have to fight for basic entitlements.
If you can’t pass for ‘white’, you won’t benefit from ‘white privilege’ irrespective of how light your eyes are or how straight your nose is – again, you are imagining ‘whiteness’ because of an illusory identity; not all white people have ‘race-defining’ phenotypes or the physical appearance of the quintessential white ‘race’. Historically, it was European race-scientists, who peddled the myth of the perfect European (Nordic) appearance. Today, white privilege is about ‘entitlement’ and group-solidarity, and not some warped view of racial identity.
It’s that simple.
This is what I mean by white privilege.
But yet, if you come from a poor ‘working class’ estate in Britain, and you’re classified as ‘white’ but you’re unemployed and uneducated (NEET; not in education, employment or training), what ‘privilege’ are people talking about when they ascribe to you an ‘identity’ that offers you nothing by way of social or material ‘perks’?
This is what I mean by illusory identities. Norms you take for granted can be a lot more complicated in the real world.
Many Pakistanis have an inferiority complex.
That’s pretty obvious.
But, so do many people around the world even if they want to nudge themselves above ‘others’ in this imaginary pecking order. We can however free ourselves from our imposed insecurities, whilst disempowering the people who like to claim ‘us’ as ‘them’ because of their own inferiority complexes to ‘bolster’ their own self-‘image’. It will take more time to change attitudes built on prejudice and self-insecurities, but let the individuals insisting on their illusory ‘identities’ become a parody of themselves.
Let’s educate ourselves first, then remind others of their ‘self-effacing ways’.
Charity begins at home.
For one thing, self-hatred is a disease that affects a lot of people across the world. People do not fit neatly into boxes and categories though. There is merely one human species which we commonly call the human ‘race’ somewhat sloppily, but we are all part of this ‘human family’, having descended from the same distant ancestors.
Why some ‘nationalities’ are more celebrated than others is about power-dynamics and not some inherent ‘greatness’. Such attitudes have a very recent history. When we try to periodise this history, we’re talking about European colonialism. The ideas of ‘race’ belong to a period of European colonialism.
Wherever the European colonialists went, they also spread ideas about their self-importance. Other foreign rulers before them did exactly the same, except they didn’t create race fictions. This particular form of malignant bigotry in its most ugliest manifestations owes its origin to our ‘European’ ‘cousins’ and they’ve been trying to shrug it off ever since the horrors of the Nazi Regime were displayed to the whole world. And I’m not talking about Poles, Bulgarians or Slovakians, or the descendants of poor ‘white’ people who were shipped off to the colonies amidst anxieties that they were ruining the ‘white’ race. Even a term was invented for such powerless souls – ‘white’ trash, and I’m speaking about people with distant ties to the British Isles.
How many of us are aware of this history?
We don’t tend to speak about this history in our conversations because of the power-dynamics I mentioned earlier. Many ‘nationalities’ not necessarily connected with the colonial powers benefited from the ensuing power dynamics as they settled in the New World. At first they weren’t considered ‘white’ or ‘white enough’, but in time this slowly changed as the new “whites” committed their own racial transgressions against the outsiders – the ‘non-whites’.
‘Arabs’, ‘Iranians’, and others, have all been affected by the residues of this history. They all suffer from the same insecurities as they spend millions of dollars trying to ‘whiten’ their complexion, thin their noses and die their hair blond. Just watch any number of ‘Iranian’ or ‘Arab’ singers perform and you’ll instantly notice the blue contact lenses. Whitening creams are not merely the obsession of ‘Africans’ or ‘Indians’, a lot of people around the world partake in this ‘self-cleansing’ daily – the Arab world has its fair share of brands too.
Some Iranians in America have written about their delusions of thinking they were ‘white’ only to be deflated on discovering that their ‘white’ peers thought otherwise. I would hazard the guess that a lot of their ‘race’ detractors came from the progeny of people who weren’t historically considered ‘white’ either. For some Iranians invested in the idea of an ‘Aryan’ identity, seeking proximity to whiteness through the colonial construct of the ‘Aryan’ race, they do not understand that the actual idea was first germinated in British India by colonial ethnologists describing India’s ruling clans. The actual term itself was borrowed from what colonial ethnologists deemed to be India’s most ‘quintessential’ sacred language, Sanskrit. Sanskrit was the language of Brahman priests, but there were of course other sacred languages. The idea of the ‘Aryan race’ was read into the Vedic canon by colonial ‘experts’ speaking about themselves and their own accomplishments! Discovering India’s distant racial heritage was merely a subsidiary priority for the English ‘Aryans’ who were reconstructing the origins of their great white, ‘Aryan’ ‘Nordic’ race, something very separate from any connections with the biblical lands of the Semitic ‘races’.
Some enlightenment thinkers in Europe, no less than the likes of the great Voltaire, felt in India, they had an ‘ideal’, something they could use as a counterweight to the stifling traditions of Christianity, borne of a backward ‘semitic’ ‘race’ in the ‘Near East’. Other intellectuals were less enamoured by Voltaire’s new found love for Vedic India but they shared his racial proclivities – Nietzsche is a good example. I doubt Voltaire would have extended his affections to his ‘contemporary’ Indians whom he criticised for their superstitions. Most of Europe’s enlightenment thinkers were ‘intellectuals’ and many were not afraid to say the ‘unthinkable’ but as I said, when it came to ‘race ideas’, they weren’t aloof from the conventional theories of their time either. They thought there was a scientific basis to such ideas. We now know through modern scientific research that they were ‘very’ wrong.
When these racial ideas were wedded to politics, they proved disastrous, not just for the ‘victims’ of race violence but for the very individuals harbouring such ideas. Race ideas have lead to racism and the denial of our shared humanity. It is therefore a criminal offence in Germany to deny the holocaust, not because of a Jewish conspiracy against the German people, but because of well-placed fears that ordinary people could again be manipulated to murder people. We all know about the 6 million Jews butchered to death in Nazi concentration camps, but what about the Germans? Tens of thousands of German women were raped by the Red Brigade; ‘Aryan race superiority’ was as elusive to these victims as was the progressive march of the most powerful ‘race’ on earth. Ordinary Germans soon discovered the fraud of Nazi race claims. A lot of ‘Germans’ albeit as the less able bodied were similarly “euthanised” for the greater purity of the Aryan race.
Whenever we do think of race, we should never forget the hatred that has accompanied it.
When we turn our attention to modern-day ‘Iran’, and appraise her ancient culture, an amazing feat of human achievement, we discover disjointed narratives because of how colonial historians presented that history. Most Iranians seem to be impressed by what the colonialists ‘taught’ them of their shared Indo-European heritage, but they seem to be unfamiliar with why the colonialists were obsessed with an ‘Aryan’ heritage in the first place. From this vantage-point, Iran is merely an extension to the race narratives being peddled in colonial India.
It was argued that ‘Iranian Civilisation’ like ‘Indian Civilisation’ was the product of Aryan ingenuity, and the purer ‘Aryans’ had now returned from the direction of Europe to redeem that heritage. But this priority did not include creating a familial bond with ordinary Iranians, a mass of dubious ‘racial breeds’.
Some European race theorists were bold enough to speak ill of Iran’s Persian-speaking ‘Turkic’ rulers, arguing that they only enslaved Circassians and others from the Caucasus, the supposed homeland of the ‘white’ ‘Caucasian’ ‘race’ so they could breed beauty into their uglier subjects. To hear some Iranians today say that they are ‘related’ to Europeans through shared ‘Aryan’ ancestors has absolutely nothing to do with tracing a shared heritage. It is about grovelling to those who they think are their superiors whilst knowing nothing of their forebear’s actual heritage if indeed they were ever connected to remote ancestors in some ancient past. Some Iranians have noted how some of their contemporaries look down on their ‘Arab’ ‘semitic’ neighbours not even realising how shallow their modern (Indo-European) sensibilities are. But by feeling superior because of this colonially-induced past, a question could be posed; what have Iranians achieved practically from colonial race-theories?
Today, Tehran has become Cosmetic Surgery Central. Women walk around with bandages on their noses fresh from surgery; the new fad. It’s fashionable to have had a nose-job. They think that by thinning their noses they’re somehow trying to remould their ‘misshapen’ noses into the ‘quintessential’ ‘Persian’ nose. If indeed the quintessential Persian nose ever existed, why the need for so many Persians to change what nature has already bestowed on them?
Please don’t get me me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with corrective surgery. If by changing one’s appearance, a person improves his or her wellbeing, none of us should have the gall to pass judgement. It’s a bit like feeling ‘trapped’ in the wrong ‘body’; who amongst us has the ‘arrogance’ to deny someone ‘wellbeing’ and ‘internal peace’ because he or she has never experienced such intense turmoil? If someone wants gender reassignment surgery, have some compassion and count yourself lucky. You’re not living in that person’s body. If you’ve never experienced such mental anguish, you should be courteous enough to keep your opinions to yourself.
This is not what I am criticising.
I’m saying that there is no ‘perfect-looking’ nose. There are no perfect looking lips. There is no perfect looking complexion, ‘behind’ or breasts. This features are not indicative of the perfect ‘race’. Beauty is subject to changing fashions; again, we need to be alert to the power-dynamics behind those fashions, and how damaging they can be for impressionable individuals.
If a ‘broad’ nose was on the face of the people you’d admire, and they told you that ‘Jupiter’ was their ‘Father-God’ and you were an impressionable ‘so and so’, you’d be changing your ‘thin’ nose for a ‘broad’ one. It’s usually these sorts of people who become prime candidates for ‘designer babies’.
When will this madness end!
To try to change what nature has given you because of changing fashions is to be unhappy with yourself because of how you perceive others. Have some self-respect, forgot about the others, and care about yourself. There’s nothing in your DNA that predisposes you to change what nature has already given you. Natural selection has given you the ability to adapt to your environment, so why would you try to undue the work of nature?
If you’re religious and believe in a supreme creator God, why would you change what God has given you to look like others in order to feel happy? How by changing your appearance will you be happy, if indeed the look you’re striving for is unattainable? And who are you benefiting, those who look like this because of clines and breeding populations, or those aspiring to look like them?
And why can’t you be content with your own appearance?
Those who tell you otherwise are selling you a lie.
Lot’s of us are not borne fully functional. Be grateful that you’re not missing a limb, were born deaf and blind, or have a congenital disease. These beautiful souls don’t care for designer cheeks, or puffed up lips, they just want to live like everyone else without having to deal with their debilitating illnesses. Count your blessings. Count them one by one. At least most Pakistanis can be proud of these rare moments. You don’t see our women and men queueing up for plastic surgery, or at least, not yet.
It’s because of unjust social and political relations, and not imaginary ‘identities’ that individuals everywhere want to imitate and emulate those with ‘power’. They want to dress like them, speak like them, adopt their mannerisms and praise their personal histories, and even look like them. If you come from a society where you’re able to climb your way to the top, you’d probably want to lose traces of your former selves too, so you can hang out with the ‘elite’ with no ‘baggage’.
This form of upward mobility happens in a lot of places.
Names, surnames, backgrounds are all changed to feel that you now have a genuine stake in the new order. And it’s usually ‘insecure’ people on their way to the top, a little unsure about themselves, who start hating on their older peers.
But how many of us actually think, wait a second, “I just want to be me, and I want to carry something of my past as I leave a legacy for those who come after me to show them I was never ashamed of my forbears, so my descendants will have no cause to be ashamed of me”. I think that’s a more profound way of living, to achieve ‘well-being’ than choosing to become a pale imitation of people imitating the latest fads. The fads may change but your inner disquiet will remain.
‘Well-being’ can never come from imitating ‘insecure’ people especially as they strictly follow the changing fashions as their superficial ‘beauty’ depletes with the changing seasons.
We’re from the West, for crying out loud, have we not learnt anything from the anxieties of our peers? The sun-bed obsession and fake tan phenomenon in western Europe is a good point not least because it shows us how arbitrary definitions of ‘beauty’ are. To tell someone “she’s pale and needs to tan more” is not merely offensive, it exposes underlying assumptions of what constitutes modern norms of ‘beauty’. It is these fads that are increasingly being popularised by marketing companies that want to sell you their products by making you feel insecure.
Just be yourself and content yourself with the knowledge that you’re not a ‘sheep’ subject to the unreflective whims of your peers who’ve never once questioned their own lives.