Following is the text of Ethan Casey’s keynote address at the Pakistan Day banquet of the Pakistan Association of America, Troy, Michigan, March 23, 2013.
There’s a question I get asked almost invariably, whenever I speak in public about a country I’ve known and loved for almost twenty years: Why Pakistan? I don’t think I can fully or satisfactorily answer that question, but this talk will be an attempt at least to acknowledge and address it.
The people who ask the question – Why Pakistan? – often phrase it as, “Why did you first go to Pakistan?” There are specific, contingent answers I can give to that version of the question. Most specifically, I first went to Pakistan in early 1995 because a fourteen-year-old Pakistani Christian boy, Salamat Masih, and his uncle were on trial for blasphemy, and the newspaper I was writing for at the time, the South China Morning Post of Hong Kong, wanted me to write about it. More broadly, I had become interested in the horrible and chronically disputed situation in Kashmir, I had already spent many weeks on the ground in the Kashmir Valley itself and several months in India, and I felt both a desire and a duty to spend time in Pakistan, in order to elicit and appreciate the Pakistani point of view on Kashmir. These were identifiable, proximate starting points for what has become my lifelong friendship with Pakistan.
I don’t think that’s what most people who ask mean by the question, though. Implied in it are a few other questions: Why do you care about Pakistan? Why do you look at and write about Pakistan so differently from so many other Americans? Why in the world would you go to a country with such a bad reputation? Why do you keep going back?
These questions are more interesting, and my books are attempts to offer full, proper answers to them. In fact, it’s not an exaggeration to say that it has taken me the effort of writing two full books, just to begin answering the questions for myself.
Which is to say that I can’t really explain my enduring interest in, and love for, Pakistan, but I can narrate it. I once told a New York literary agent that I had written a book about Pakistan. He responded by asking me: “What’s your argument?” I’m sure the agent considered himself savvy, but his question betrayed the fact that he looked at Pakistan the same tiresome way most members of the American political and publishing establishment do: not as a country and a society in its own right, but as a problem or challenge for America to deal with, about which it’s necessary for any writer to have an argument. Not only do I refuse to see Pakistan that way; I genuinely don’t see it that way. I don’t claim to know or understand Pakistan completely. But by the same token, I don’t know or understand my own wife or mother or father or brother completely. But I love my wife and parents and brother, and my own country, as well as I humanly can, despite their faults and flaws, as I know they also love me despite mine. My love for Pakistan is similar: human, based on flawed and partial knowledge and understanding, but honest and genuine. I was so surprised by the literary agent’s question – “What’s your argument?” – that I could scarcely blurt out my answer, which was and is: “I’m not making an argument; I’m telling a story.”
And the story I’m telling is about how – and, I suppose, why – I came to know and love Pakistan. Although I began my career as a political journalist, a “newsman” or “Asia hand” in the old-fashioned parlance, my books are not analysis but nonfiction narrative, written in the first person: travel books. That’s what they are, I guess, if you have to classify them. But The Daily Telegraph‘s reviewer of my book Alive and Well in Pakistan understood my real purpose – perhaps even better than I did at the time – when he observed that “The author’s real journey is a search for common humanity.” I’m still on that journey, still on that search. And I’m glad to report that I have been finding the common humanity that I went looking for.
I found it in Shakur and Nusrat, the young couple who managed the guest house where I lived in 2003 and 2004 in Lahore, when I was teaching at Beaconhouse National University. Nusrat and especially Shakur had their share of human foibles, which I took the liberty of depicting in Alive and Well in Pakistan. The same is true of Mrs. Zarina Sadik, my housemate at the guest house who so generously shared her stories and her family’s life with me, and of the gents at the Lahore Gymkhana who welcomed me into the world of their egos and rivalries on the grass tennis courts almost every day. And the high-spirited young men, especially the earnest, bearded teacher Mohammed Faisal, in the general enclosure at Gaddafi Stadium during an exciting one-day Pepsi Cup cricket match between Pakistan and South Africa. When I think of the reviewer’s kind insight – “The author’s real journey is a search for common humanity” – I think especially of Mohammed Faisal, who had come to see the match from a village near Gujranwalla, with twenty other young men in the back of a Toyota pickup truck, and who put his hand on his heart and told me, “It was you who made our journey memorable. At first I didn’t know what you would speak to us. I was a bit shy. But you speak to us very nicely.” And I think of Nusrat, who was chronically exasperated with her jolly but lazy and silly husband, and who, one day when she was leaving to visit her village in what was then still called the Frontier Province, showed me the black garment on her lap and said, “Sir, see my burkah!”
During my months as her guest, Nusrat and I spent many hours together in the sitting room, watching reruns of the American sitcom Friends, on an all-sitcom channel that used a voting system to determine which show to air next. We took turns controlling the remote: Nusrat would watch an Indian soap opera, then I would switch back to Friends on the sitcom channel. She didn’t understand much of the dialogue, but she enjoyed the zaniness of some of the episodes, she thought it was funny that the characters all sat around together all the time in the same coffee shop, and she was curious about the things she learned from the show about life in America. Nusrat was intelligent and curious about the world outside Pakistan, while at the same time maintaining a strong sense of who she was: she had integrity, in a context that had meaning and purpose for her. She always dressed and behaved with great decorum. She knew that I was from a different, non-Muslim world, and that was all right with her. She had enough human sympathy and imagination to consider how strange Pakistani mores might seem to me. When she showed me her burkah I smiled, imagining her in her village or on the bus, to the eye just another faceless cliché, and I reflected on how privileged I was to have come to know her as an individual.
I also found humanity in the remarkable Minallah family, who have been on the receiving end of so much of Pakistan’s hard, painful history. I celebrated Eid al-Fitr with Athar Minallah, who later would fall into the role of spokesman for Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry during the lawyers’ movement, his sister the artist and environmental activist Fauzia Minallah, his courageous wife Ghazala Minallah, and their elderly German-born relative Helga Ahmed, who didn’t have to be a Pakistani but chose to become one for the duration of her long and admirable life. Some of you may know that Ghazala’s father, Syed G. Safdar Shah, was a Supreme Court justice during Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s murder trial and that, despite his personal dislike for Bhutto, he refused to vote with the majority and paid for his principled stand with lifelong exile. One can – and Pakistanis endlessly do – debate that or any other of Pakistan’s many political turning points. But knowing the Minallahs has given me insights into how, in Pakistan – just like right here in the USA – politics and the intimate personal life of any individual or family are unavoidably and too often painfully intertwined. Ghazala lived her father’s legacy at many dangerous moments during the lawyers’ movement, at one point literally shedding blood on the street. “I was not like Ghazala,” Fauzia told me when I returned to visit the family in 2009. “She really put her head in the lion’s mouth.”
It’s nearly ten years now since Alive and Well in Pakistan was published, and I find myself reflecting a lot on those ten years and on the preceding decade, the decade between 1994 and 2004, which the book covers. A whole lot has happened in those two decades. The funny thing is that when Alive and Well in Pakistan was first published, my attitude was that that was that, I had written about Pakistan, surely now I would move on and write about other adventures in other countries. Things didn’t work out that way. Pakistan stayed in the public eye, to put it mildly, and I began to understand that I had an opportunity and obligation to do what I could to counteract the ways in which American media dangerously distort, simplify, and misrepresent what I know as an all too flawed but complex, interesting, and likeable – indeed, lovable – human society. I call it the difference between the Pakistan I know and love and the Pakistan that you see on TV.
As I returned to live in the U.S. and began accepting invitations to tell American audiences about the Pakistan that I know, of course things continued happening in Pakistan, including violent things and, of course, as always, plenty of politics. Was Pakistan changing? Of course it was; every society is always changing. But the more things change, the more they stay the same, and I’ve learned to trust my own experience and judgment. In Pakistan there is always violence and politics, but there’s always violence and politics in America too, and everywhere else. These are aspects of our common humanity, and the search for that is my real journey. We can’t – and shouldn’t – avoid politics, but part of the challenge is to keep our eye on the politics as it perpetually unfolds, without letting ourselves be distracted by it. That’s easier said than done, but taking the long view helps. And you can take the long view only if you make a long-term commitment, if you’re in it for the long haul. Here’s something an American writer once wrote:
Some ugly specters are haunting Pakistan these days: the specter of an ugly end to the [current] government; violence and civil chaos; even, perhaps, an Islamic revolution. [Recent events] have led many to wonder if a major upheaval is brewing in Pakistan. Well, yes, surely something along those lines is indeed on the cards.
I wrote those words, in an unsigned leader editorial published in the Bangkok Post newspaper in November 1996, on the very day that Benazir Bhutto fell from power for the second time. What’s instructive is that any writer could have written those words, at almost any time. A lot of things have happened in Pakistan since then, and a lot of damage has been done, but the major upheaval I predicted so glibly and easily has still not happened. I didn’t yet know better. What I didn’t yet know is that, as Robert Harris put it, “There are no lasting victories in politics, there is only the remorseless grinding forward of events.” And the point should come across loud and clear when we reflect that Harris wrote those words in a novel about the Roman Empire. Another thing I didn’t yet know in 1996 was that Pakistan has achieved a hard-won nationhood. Pakistan exists, it is a historical and geopolitical fact, and as such it deserves the same respect as any other nation.
Many American writers have written things even more foolish than my editorial, but I want to single out one of them for special mention. In 1989 in Foreign Affairs, the house journal of the American foreign-policy establishment, Professor Thomas P. Thornton of Johns Hopkins University claimed that “The Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan reduces the need for an intimate relationship with Islamabad.” There’s so much stupidity and later tragedy contained in Professor Thornton’s arrogant and myopic words that I can’t even begin to summarize it all here. But I don’t think I need to. All of us in this room have lived and witnessed the history of Pakistan since 1989.
You might think that I should give Professor Thornton a break because he wrote his article so long ago. But there are always writers writing such things, and the way of looking at the world that they express is damaging. I take a different perspective; I insist that any writer who wants to write things that are true and helpful should write as if human beings matter more than states. This is the fixed point from which I look back at the history I’ve witnessed and documented, and forward to the writing and speaking I want to continue doing. These things are on my mind particularly this year, as I prepare to reprint my original book to mark its tenth anniversary and to write a new chapter covering events over the most recent eventful decade. Between 2004, when Alive and Well in Pakistan was published, and 2009, when I next visited Pakistan, so many things happened there that I titled my follow-up book Overtaken By Events. Since 2009, to make a long story short, a lot of other things have happened. But the remorseless grinding forward of events will always be with us and, when we look at each other, the proper place for events is in the background. Our focus should be on the foreground, where we seek and find our common humanity. The search for that should be our journey.
We all know only too well how flawed and fragile Pakistan is. But every nation, and every person, is flawed and fragile. Why do I love Pakistan? It’s a fair question. The best way I can answer it is with another question: Do you love your brother or sister? Do you love your wife or husband? Do you love your neighbor?