What Does Pakistan Have to Do with Haiti?


Following is the text of Ethan Casey’s speech at the TEDx Princeton Library event at Princeton Public Library, Princeton, New Jersey, June 1, 2011.

For a year I’ve been trying to get my head around the weird coincidence that the two countries I care about most deeply and personally were both devastated in 2010 by horrific natural disasters: the earthquake in Haiti and the severe flooding in Pakistan.

I wonder what the meaning of that might be. Of course events don’t have inherent meaning, and certainly coincidences don’t. They just happen; they just are. So where can I go to find meaning, if I must? What, if anything, do Haiti and Pakistan have to do with each other?

(If a picture is worth a thousand words, then I hope that the two pictures I’ve just shown give a sense of what I see as the most important connection.)


As a friend of mine put it years ago, Haiti is a place for big questions. I’ve been trying to understand it for nearly thirty years, and its politics, history, and culture have many twists and turns that are still opaque to me. But one thing I know is that anything that’s true of Haiti is true of the world as a whole. And that’s a truth that’s not complicated at all, only hard to swallow. We deny it because it’s less painful – in the short run – to avert our eyes. As Tracy Kidder, the author of the celebrated bestseller about Dr. Paul Farmer, Mountains Beyond Mountains, once said to me: “I’ve learned so much about the world from Haiti – some of which I almost wish I hadn’t learned.” To me Haiti feels like home, because I was sixteen years old the first time I went there. My early experience of Haiti informed my later responses to very different countries, particularly during the five years I lived in Asia in the 1990s. I saw chronically desperate Cambodia, and tortured Burma, and deforested Thailand, with the eyes of someone who had seen Haiti.

In my work these days I meet and speak to Pakistanis routinely, both in Pakistan and around the United States. One question they never fail to ask me is, “Why did you first go to Pakistan?” It’s a very understandable question, and it’s one I’ve never been able to answer adequately. Why Pakistan? Why did I go there in the first place, and why do I keep going back? I often respond by quoting John Lennon: “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” But hovering implicit behind the question is the history and atmosphere of mutual suspicion between Pakistan and the United States: Why would you come here? Why are you really here? I often find myself teasing the suspicion into the open, by jokingly telling them that I’m with the CIA.

​But the truth is that I really am an unaffiliated private citizen who first went to Pakistan in 1995 out of personal curiosity, eagerness to learn, and a search for adventure. My reason now for continuing to return is more considered: I feel a responsibility to continue writing and talking about the Pakistan that I know. The Pakistan I know is very far from perfect, but nor is it the Pakistan that you see on TV. Todd Shea, whom you’ll hear from later today, likes to say that the American public hears 2 percent of the story about Pakistan 100 percent of the time. (Sorry for stealing your line, Todd.) Pakistan is a real place, with real complexities, populated by 170 million real human beings, some 40 percent of whom are under the age of 15.


Both countries are prime examples of what the Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Adichie, in an excellent TED talk in 2009, called “the danger of a single story.” We Americans tell ourselves a single story about Haiti, and a different single story about Pakistan. Paul Farmer titled one of his books The Uses of Haiti. We use Haiti rhetorically and ideologically and, every time there’s a new fitful spasm of American interest in Haiti, our uses for it rear their heads anew. It’s never an edifying thing to see, and it’s maddening to those of us who know Haiti.

We have different uses for Pakistan, and these are not unlike the uses we used to have for the Soviet Union. If Haiti meets our need to have someone to pity, Pakistan fulfills our need to have someone or something to fear. Fear, pity, and contempt are easy, self-indulgent emotions. Much more demanding is to cultivate and practice respect. Respect implies distance and difference. To practice it entails acknowledging that difference is inevitable and even desirable. There’s a wonderful verse in the Quran that makes this point eloquently: “O mankind! We have created you from a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that you may know one another.”

Something else that connects Haitians and Pakistanis is their experience as immigrants and visitors to this country. Friends of Haiti know Edwidge Danticat as a wonderfully sensitive, eloquent Haitian-American novelist. I admire Danticat’s novels, but the book of hers that I consider a masterpiece is her nonfiction memoir Brother, I’m Dying. It tells the story of her 81-year-old uncle, who helped raise her, who fled violence in his Port-au-Prince neighborhood in 2004 and made the mistake of asking for political asylum at the airport in Miami. U.S. Immigration officials threw him into the infamous Krome Detention Center and denied him his diabetes medication, and he died in detention. Danticat’s anger is controlled and highly disciplined, and her book is above all a beautifully composed story about family love, immigrant struggle and aspiration, and the tortured and all too intimate relationship between Haiti and the United States, told by a Haitian who is also an American.

I often find myself telling Pakistanis the story of Edwidge Danticat’s uncle, to help reassure them that they’re not alone. I’ve heard many Pakistanis’ U.S. immigration stories privately, and many of them prefer to keep their stories private. But I’d like to share one with you. This March, in the city of Multan in Pakistan’s Punjab province, a wonderful family hosted me and photographer Pete Sabo. The head of the family is a physician who runs his own hospital and is a very warm, generous, and dignified man. I found him a master of the art of hospitality, which is to say that not only did he make Pete and me feel extremely welcome, he also refrained from embarrassing us by associating us with our country’s government. He embraced and honored us as brothers. But right at the end of our days in Multan, immediately before taking us to the bus station, he told me a story. I’m convinced that his timing was no accident, and I feel both honored and burdened by a duty to share the story with other Americans.

​Several years ago, the doctor traveled to Seattle to attend his nephew’s wedding. Twelve days later he went to the Seattle airport to return to Pakistan. He was leaving the United States, mind you. An Immigration or TSA official – he described her as a “large lady” – asked why he had spent only twelve days in America. He explained that he was a doctor and had to return to his patients and his hospital. She replied: “I don’t think you’re a doctor. I think you’re a terrorist.” She made him strip to his underwear, and the interrogation continued in the same vein for about 45 minutes. He conveyed all this to me in a quiet tone and with great dignity, as we walked to his car after visiting Multan’s famous Sufi shrines (which incidentally are now very depressingly surrounded by razor wire and guard towers against anticipated terrorist attacks). He ended the story by telling me that, when the woman finally let him dress and run to catch his flight, in that moment he decided that he would never again visit America.

Pakistanis and Haitians have in common that they both see the United States from the outside. And what they see is often ugly and cruel, because they live on the receiving end of the American power that we don’t experience, because we’re the ones wielding it. Haitian proverbs are highly distilled gems of wisdom honed over centuries of very hard experience. One of my favorites is: Bai kou blie, pote mak sonje. It translates as “He who gives the blow forgets; he who bears the bruise remembers.” Pakistanis I share it with always nod with understanding and recognition.Another connection is the recent disasters themselves. After the Haitian earthquake, many Pakistani friends of mine responded immediately and with real sympathy, concretely expressed. Pakistanis remembered their own earthquake of October 8, 2005, which killed 80,000 people. Hundreds of Pakistani physicians from the Islamic Medical Association of North America volunteered in Haiti after the earthquake there.

I’m afraid that American society missed the opportunity to show similar human concern for Pakistanis half a year later, when 20 percent of Pakistan was under water. I wrote an article then called “Pakistan Floods: Why Should We Care?”, which I published on the Huffington Post and on my own website, www.ethancasey.com. An email from Uzma Shah, a Pakistani physician in Boston, was typical of the many responses I received: “It’s hard to see pictures from Pakistan,” Uzma wrote, “and I can’t help but choke back tears when I see all that desperation. And amidst all the furor about all things bad and hard about Pakistan and ‘Islam,’ it’s comforting to read your article. Because at the end of the day, we are all human, living in one world, sharing the same life.”

It’s easy to explain our failure to respond adequately to the floods: Americans suffered from “compassion fatigue” after Haiti; Pakistan is farther away; a flood is a slow-moving disaster whose effects are less immediately dramatic than an earthquake. But it’s hard to avoid facing the effects of a decade-long national climate that has made Muslims the only group in America against whom it’s permissible, even fashionable, to be bigoted. And in truth, I’m also disturbed by our response to Haiti, which could be described as self-indulgent overkill. Half of American households “gave to Haiti,” as we tend to say – but there are real questions about whether that avalanche of money and sympathy did much real good.

What I saw on the ground in Haiti last August and September was that most international aid was still concentrated in Port-au-Prince, which explains the persistence of the demoralizing tent cities. Why hasn’t the aid effort been directed more toward productive paid work for poor Haitians, and in the provinces rather than the capital? Haitians understand the need: the buzzword among them has been “decentralization.” But most of the money and power remains in the hands of the international institutions that “just want to get their logos on national TV,” as one Haitian friend of mine cynically puts it.

And here’s my other question: Those people that we cared so deeply about in early 2010 – who are they, and what are they all about? Haitians are more and other than charity cases. They’re human beings with a culture and a politics and a national history closely intertwined with our own. And – like Pakistanis – they’re incredibly resourceful people, because they have to be. We owe it to them, and to ourselves, to know them. Of course, it takes much longer than 18 minutes to know people properly. I’ve been getting to know Haitians for thirty years and Pakistanis for sixteen, and it’s this ongoing human education that I try to share with readers of my books.

Just as I returned to Haiti last summer, I returned to Pakistan for three weeks this February and March to witness the aftermath and human cost of the flooding. Pete Sabo and I visited three flood-affected areas: the Swat valley, the agricultural breadbasket of the central Punjab along the Indus River, and an area dominated by the Baloch ethnic minority in the far southwestern corner of Punjab province. In Swat, we saw a valley floor shockingly denuded of all topsoil. In the Punjab, we found brick-and-mud villages that were only just starting to be rebuilt, mostly by the devastated local people themselves, and heard complaints of incomplete and feckless responses by the provincial and national governments, and of international NGOs obtusely continuing to give food aid, when what people now needed urgently was paid employment helping rebuild the damaged dykes, to control the coming monsoon season’s anticipated flooding. As in Haiti, there was a depressing sense that no one in particular was in charge, and that there was no overall plan.


I spent a couple of months on several trips to Haiti between July and November 2004. That was an especially difficult time for Haiti and Haitians, following the second forced departure of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide that February. Regardless of what you think of Aristide himself, I would refer anyone who isn’t sure whether that event was a coup d’etat sponsored by the Bush administration to Paul Farmer’s article “Who Removed Aristide?” published in the April 15, 2004 issue of the London Review of Books. Farmer told me that he removed from the article any assertion that he “couldn’t buttress with 70 pages of footnotes.”

I came and went between Haiti and Miami several times in 2004. I like Miami, partly exactly because it’s so brazenly a Third World city. But in 2004, I found Miami maddening. One well-intentioned wealthy woman I met there asked me – as we sat beside her swimming pool – how I had found Haiti. I told her the truth. I’m not sure the truth was what she wanted to hear. She didn’t know what to say, so she said: “You stayed in good hotels though, right?”

I also visited Miami’s public radio station, where I played for the station manager part of a minidisk recording I had made during a demonstration in Port-au-Prince. I translated for him what one demonstrator had told me: “He’s saying they don’t want the Brazil football team to come to Haiti unless Aristide returns.” The demonstrators objected to the leading role Brazil was playing in the international community’s military and diplomatic response to the situation in Haiti since Aristide’s ouster. You could agree or disagree with them, but their position was easy to understand. But the station manager was incredulous. “What does one have to do with the other?!?” he asked in exasperation. I thought: If you don’t know, or can’t guess, then you’ve got no business running a public radio station in Miami. He declined to use my material.

I share that anecdote because I want to highlight the jarring disjunction between journalism as it’s usually practiced in the U.S. and what I believe journalism should be and do. This is an important subject, because of the implications for how Americans perceive the world beyond our shores. To me the way American habits of mind are reflected in the culture of American publishing is personified in the New York literary agent who asked me, when I told him I had published a book on Pakistan: “What’s your argument?” I was so nonplussed by the question that I could scarcely blurt out the answer. The answer is that I’m not making an argument; I’m telling a story. If I have an argument, it’s implicit. My books are first-person travel narratives, not only because that’s the kind of book I’m able and willing to write, but also because that’s the kind of book that rarely gets written about Pakistan in particular, and one I feel that country needs and deserves. The Daily Telegraph‘s reviewer was both kind and correct when he wrote, about my book Alive and Well in Pakistan, that “the author’s real journey is a search for common humanity.” Needless to say, I feel the same way about Haiti.

​The connection between Haiti and Pakistan that I want to leave you with is that we Americans reduce each to a single story, and that we’re very wrong to do so. Our lazy and self-comforting reductionism says nothing about Haiti or Pakistan, and all too much about us. The earthquake in Haiti and the floods in Pakistan were natural disasters, but they didn’t happen in a geopolitical vacuum. And they give us occasion to learn, and to exercise our imagination and human sympathy. The same God made us all nations and tribes, that we may know one another.