For starters, let me strictly define a common American (No, Kim Kardashian in not a common American). Common American refers to a software techie who makes a hundred thousand dollars a year, a woman who single-handedly owns and runs a beauty salon (originally from Vietnam), a café-owner and a young film student you can bump into in a downtown coffee shop, a young girl from Nevada auditioning day in and day out dreaming to make it big in Hollywood or Hispanic teenagers who care little about high school GPA and more about running their own business one day.
These people are rather too commonly found if you are walking, not driving, around LA all by yourself.
My blog, however, is not about their commonness. Rather, it is about the commonness of their reactions and reflections on the very mention of my country, Pakistan. Wait, it gets interesting.
My four-month stay in Los Angeles has taught me more about my country than the lifetime I spent there before I came here. Pakistan — seen earlier as a small country next to India — raises eyebrows even with the very mention of the word.
It is not that Americans don’t stereotype. Who doesn’t? But 9/11 altered perspective in a way that goes beyond stereotyping, sharing a thin line with prejudice. Now, it is more like a silent consensus.
Let’s not dig Newsweek’s notorious headline declaring Pakistani the most unsafe country in the world; let’s keep it for later. Let’s not even dig into American media’s stashes of videotapes showing bearded men stoning and burning effigies of American presidents; protesting the knighthood of Salman Rushdie; let’s just altogether forget for a while about the cosy family photos in front of the infamous Quetta military garrison commemorating Shaheed Osama Bin Laden. For this is what we are. And anyone who tries to argue otherwise either doesn’t want to face up to reality or lives in Clifton.
Remember what John Stewart said after Osama’s assassination “My president (Musharraf) you lied to me”.
So what is it about Pakistan that these Americans don’t like after all? I mean we were there wholeheartedly during 9/11 weren’t we, or at least those who appeared on TV? Exactly, that’s why. An average American believes that Pakistan is a haven for all the bad guys, so they must be brought to task. Others believe, Pakistan is Iran’s best friend and that’s their biggest mistake. Huge.
First, rest assured they are likely to know as little about Pakistan as a Pakistani would about climate in Seattle. My husband’s colleague, the aforementioned techie, is supposedly well-read. He knows his current affairs, or so I was told. I was quite impressed by Dave’s knowledge of Pakistan’s internal politics — Musharraf’s policies, his unceremonious exit and the circumstances surrounding it, Bhutto’s assassination and how the north has been a continual battleground for decades.
Just when I opened my mouth to commend his knowledge of my country’s internal affairs, he asks me if I’m from Kabul. “That’s Afghanistan, I’m from Pakistan,” I tell him thinking he just mixed up the two. “Oh I thought it’s the same thing”. So much for reading Ahmed Rashid, Dave!
And poor Dave is supposed to hold the bar higher.
That Americans know very little about Pakistan which is the underlying reason for their contempt is not entirely true. Americans do know little, but that isn’t the reason why green passports are hurled around like pigs on JFK without any substantial objection from any social sector. The truth of the matter is — whatever little these people know of us, thanks to popular media — borders largely on war, illiteracy, terrorism and now acid-throwing.
Contempt does stem from insufficient knowledge but when you add propaganda, it becomes dangerous.
At the end of the day, no one likes Pakistan; those who read Time and Newsweek criticise us in high-sounding words; the ones who read Cosmo just want us out of their way.
For most of them, Pakistan is not different from Uganda, and of course they don’t know where that is either. The Vietnamese lady aka spa-owner, when she found out I’m from Pakistan rolled her small mouth into an uncomfortable hole as if to whistle. “Oh bombs bombs all the time. You scared? You do good, come here”. Sequential bombing of Naval office, FIA building, Holiday Inn and secret service offices in and around Lahore crossed my mind like a hazy, uncomfortable nightmare. I curled like a child in her chair and said “Come on, it’s not that bad”.
I couldn’t tell her she was right. She’s from Vietnam; she understands.