Pakistanis and Americans: We’re All In It Together

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Following is the text of the speech I gave at a dinner hosted by the Pakistani-American community of greater Milwaukee at Mirch Masala restaurant, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, April 20, 2012.

Before I say anything else, I must thank my good friend Dr. Ariba Khan, who has worked extremely hard for months planning a very full itinerary for this visit of mine to Wisconsin. Between today and next weekend, thanks to Ariba, I’ll be speaking at three high schools, three bookstores, Marquette University, UW-Madison and the Milwaukee School of Engineering, churches and a hospital, as well as visiting clinics and a mosque and doing interviews for the new book I’m working on, Home Free: An American Road Trip. I also want to acknowledge and thank Iram and Nadeem, Nighat and Danish, Rakshinda, and Ariba’s longsuffering husband, Kamal. As a friend of Pakistan and Pakistanis, as an American, and as a Wisconsinite, I’m very proud of what we’re doing together, and I see what we’ve already begun accomplishing here in Wisconsin as a model for how Pakistani-Americans and goras like myself can and should be working together in communities all around the United States.

And we need the leadership that your community is providing, because there’s a lot of work that needs to be done. Those of us in this room who have lived or worked in Pakistan know only too well its real problems and the challenges we face in trying to address them. As the journalist Ahmed Rashid summarizes in his ominously titled new book Pakistan on the Brink:

One-third of Pakistanis today lack drinking water, another 77 million have unreliable food sources, and half the school-age children do not go to school. The literacy rate is 57 percent, the lowest in South Asia and not much better than the 52 percent that prevailed at the creation of Pakistan in 1947. Half the population are not even looking for jobs, since they know they won’t be able to find them. The country needs at least a 9 percent annual growth rate to employ its under-twenties, who make up 60 percent of the population. The 37 percent of Pakistanis who are under the age of fifteen give Pakistan one of the world’s largest youth bulges.

I’m aware of the awkwardness and frustration that many of you feel, as Pakistani-Americans, about your ability to help in Pakistan: you’re from there but you live here; Pakistanis who live daily with Pakistan’s dysfunction and dangers express envy and bitterness towards the relative safety and comfort that you enjoy; friends and relatives back home remind you that you left. What I want to say to you tonight is that there’s not only frustration but also great positive potential in your in-between situation, and that America welcomes and needs you as well as your very impressive children. As a community, you are uniquely positioned to do enormous good for both Pakistan and America – and there’s no better position to be in in today’s world, because both countries are in urgent and desperate need, and there’s no higher calling for any human being than to be useful.

Pakistanis I’ve met understandably tend not to see everything that’s dysfunctional in American society. This is true both of Pakistanis who have never been here, because America to them is an abstraction, and of those who have studied or settled here and compare how relatively smooth and easy life is in America to the perpetual gard-bard and mess of Pakistan. I remember an earnest young man I met in Islamabad in 2003 who had such fond memories of his student days in Texas, which he remembered as “a fairy-tale place, where everything is in order.” He was in Texas before 9/11, mind you, but still. Anyway, I’m here to tell you, as an American, that America is a mess too. I grew up here in Wisconsin, in Oconomowoc, but my parents now live in Colorado Springs, whose city government has been aggressively cutting essential services. My dad recently told me ruefully, but not really in jest, that he can imagine a time soon when he’ll see guys at street intersections in Colorado Springs filling in potholes with shovels, then tapping on windshields to ask for donations, just like in Haiti.

If you find that anecdote funny, it’s because you know that it contains at least a grain of truth. The main message I want to convey tonight is that we’re all in this together, and that there are many ways we can and should be working together as communities and citizens. By the word citizens, I mean not only or even primarily citizens of the United States or of Pakistan, but citizens of the world. Human need is human need wherever we find it, whether in Multan or Milwaukee, Chicago or Shikarpur. Whatever good we do for our human brothers and sisters, it will be good not only for them but also for us and our communities.

What I mean by that is that, while I hope and expect that you will continue supporting health care, education, and disaster relief in Pakistan, I also hope you’ll do even more than you already do in the same areas right here in Wisconsin. And I argue that, in the spirit of enlightened self-interest, being seen to be doing that work here will be good for your Pakistani-American community and, by direct extension, for Pakistan itself and your friends and family there. Being seen to be actively helping to solve the problems afflicting American society will give you more of a presence and voice both in domestic American debates and in conversations about the relationship between America and Pakistan, which as we all know can use all the help it can get. I’m proud of my Pakistani-American friends, and when I speak to mainstream American audiences I always make a point of emphasizing, for example, how so many of you responded with your money, time, and medical skills to the suffering in the wake of the devastating earthquake in Haiti. We’re all in this together. Or, as a Haitian saying puts it, Tout moun se moun: all people are people. We’re all brothers and sisters, children of the same God.

So if there’s anything I would fault Pakistani-Americans for, it’s for being too shy. I understand why, especially in post-9/11 America. But one thing that’s true about this land where we’re all immigrants or children of immigrants is that if you don’t toot your own horn, nobody else is going to toot it for you. And you can’t expect them to; they’ve got their own horns to toot. So don’t be shy. Be proud, and be visible. Because, frankly, you’re just as vulnerable if you stay quiet, and if you make yourselves heard you will make yourselves respected and listened to.

Before I end I want to say a little about how I see my own role and what I’m planning to do next. I write and speak about the Pakistan that I know and love because, as an American who was embraced by Pakistan and Pakistanis as a young man way back in the mid-1990s, I feel a duty to counteract the distorted impression of Pakistan that most Americans today get through the toxic American media. And, I think, simply because I’m a friendly fellow and a pretty ordinary-looking white guy, I can say things to mainstream American audiences that they might not hear if you said them. So, as I like to say, we’re teammates. A cricket team needs both bowlers and batsmen. We all need each other to pitch in and make ourselves useful. None of us can afford to have any other attitude, especially anymore, because there’s too much work that urgently needs to be done, and each of us is able to do some of it. So I’m doing what I can.

My specific plans for the rest of 2012 include continuing to promote my book Bearing the Bruise: A Life Graced by Haiti, and to spend the autumn from early September to mid-December driving around the United States to prepare to write my next book, Home Free: An American Road Trip. I have a goal of pre-selling 1000 copies of Home Free, and I hope you’ll help me meet that goal by ordering your copy from me tonight. Both of those books have a lot to do with Pakistan and the Pakistani community, and one of the earliest and most important chapters of Home Free will be about Wisconsin. I hope to see all of you again when I come through here again in September. And everywhere I go around America in the fall, I’ll be finding and creating opportunities to tell American audiences about the Pakistan that I know and love.

I invest my own time and money in my books and public speaking, and I operate my work as a small business. By purchasing or sponsoring any of my books, you’re supporting my work both present and future, and the more support you can offer, the more I can do. Another thing I’d like to do this year is to adapt my two Pakistan books into a shorter book geared toward young people. I have in mind that that book will be accessible and enjoyable as well as educational for American college, high school and maybe middle-school students, and that it will introduce them to both the hospitality and the adventure that I’ve enjoyed in Pakistan, as well as to the human suffering of Pakistani people in the ongoing wars, the 2005 earthquake, and the horrible floods of 2010 and 2011. I might title it Why I Went to Pakistan, and I’d like to finish it by the end of this summer. And if you sponsor copies, that will not only cover my printing costs and the time I’ll need to spend writing it, but also ensure that when it’s published I’ll be able to start giving away copies immediately to American students and teachers.

Regardless, I’ll be continuing to work with Ariba, and with anyone else who wants to work with me, to identify recipients for sponsored books and physically deliver the books to them, and to build bridges by speaking as often as I can to college and high school classes and assemblies, religious congregations, and civic groups all around America about the Pakistan that I know and love.

Finally, I want to thank all of you again for welcoming me back. As troubled as America has become, in some ways it’s a better and more interesting country than it was when I was growing up in the 1970s and ’80s. That’s apparent to me here in Milwaukee, and it has a lot to do with immigrant communities like yours. It’s good to be home.

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