Ayesha Kazmi

A Caveat to All the Goras and the Pakis

In The Personal on 01/08/2011 at 22:03

Boston, compared to London, is relatively tame. It’s only a fraction of the size and appears, on the surface, to be fairly manageable.

London, by contrast, is a massive zoo. When I lived in South London, it would often take me over an hour to get places in and around central London. And it’s gritty. Really gritty. The grit got to me at first – but I’ve actually grown to really love it. London is an old city and the grittiness is iconic of its rather gritty history.

The one aspect that truly adds to the grittiness of London’s history is virulent European nationalism. Having been responsible for launching numerous crusades and world wars – Euro-centric nationalism, I cannot help but to feel, must be in the lifeblood here.

When I moved to the UK, I experienced something I never thought I could imagine. While I knew that being an American technically made me a foreigner, my clear western sensibilities and obvious knowledge of the English language couldn’t set me apart from being a member of English society for too long, especially once I got into the swing of things. Right?

Actually, it was quite the contrary. I came to realise that being ethnically Pakistani would entirely colour my experiences.

I didn’t quite get it. The fact that I was with US passport, born and raised in the US, and had only been to Pakistan a few times in my life – visiting family over the summers as a child – didn’t mean much. The fact of the matter was that a country that I had fairly minimal contact with my entire life, and therefore little overall consequence to my identity, was suddenly placed as the albatross around my neck.

And I had been called a Paki way too many times for me to consider it flattery or a one off. The wider society didn’t like people like me. It aroused a certain tension in me I didn’t even know existed – admittedly, despite having grown up in the racist United States, it was a tension I didn’t even know was possible. Clearly, my bourgeois sensibilities cushioned me from America’s stark realities.

I didn’t get it. How was it possible that Pakistan, a country that I interacted with so little in my life – despite having a love for all the superficial bits: food, fashion, never mind only being able to speak Urdu at second year level, meanwhile detesting Bollywood & Lollywood – come to occupy my existence so suddenly in Europe of all places?

I got it from all sides. Not only were the politicians and constantly reminding me of my Muslim Pakistani background, but so were all the Pakis around me. “You are a Pakistani girl, and therefore you must [wear shalwar kameez/attend the wedding/behave like this/think like that or do the other].” It was like everyone on all sides attempted to lay my expected life-path out for me.

If my marriage wasn’t forced, it was arranged. Since my parents were obviously from some village in Pakistan, I was probably poor and uneducated. If I was educated, it was probably just enough of an education to get me married off. I “left” my family and now belong with my husband and his family and their extended family and family friends that I just met suddenly take primary importance in my life over the people I’ve known and grown up with. I should wear shalwar kameez even when lounging around at home. I should like Bollywood films and should agreeably attend screenings with various members of the community. I should be over the moon when someone I barely know or care about just got engaged/married but because they happen to live one or two streets away from my in laws, I should happily acquiesce to the sudden bombardment of about a billion wedding related dances and events suddenly filling up all my weekends. Great. Just great.

Let me begin by addressing the goras out there: I didn’t have a forced/arranged marriage. When I met my ex-husband, I genuinely fell head over heels in love with him and we both mutually agreed to get married. My parents aren’t from some village in Pakistan, and neither are my former in laws – we’re from the main cosmopolitan cities: Karachi and Lahore. In terms of my education? Well, I am more educated than the average person in Britain.

And to all the Pakis out there: I cannot express to you how much I hate all these God forsaken wedding parties: mendhis, mayoons, dholkis; being expected to plan a dance sequence for the next event for someone I barely knew rather than hanging out with my husband or my own group of friends. I hate these events more than picking out an ingrown toenail. I hate the culture of them: the expectations of the community aunties for me to attend and having to dress up to impress them. I resented showing up to any and all of those events to have the aunties swooning over me inquiring about whether I got my outfit from my mother or my mother-in-law, where the jewelry came from, or that red lipstick would suit me better than the nude shade I was wearing. All of this wedding party frenzy made me want to gouge my eyes out. I hated the sheer gluttony of it all; watching the unseemly overweight 50 year old plus women undoubtedly clutching onto their youths with their cheap fabric strings, scarf down 500 different oily dishes. What’s more, I hate the gossip that buzzes in the air. There is no dignity found at these parties. What’s more, these events were meant to take centre stage in my married social life.

I will never forget the time I went to a dholki (dance party) for someone I didn’t even know, when I walked into a room to dine with a bunch of  young women my age who were gathered talking. When I walked in, a young woman was talking about someone she clearly despised. I remember her saying “If I saw her lying dead in the street, I would walk past her. If someone asked me, I would deny knowing her.” Everyone laughed. I practically fell out of my chair when I realised she was speaking about her mother-in-law.

The thing that gets me the most is that in modern Pakistan, this cultures no longer defines the mainstream. People have simply moved on.

So, how is it, then, that a bunch of Pakistani ex-pats in London have gotten stuck in a Pakistani flavoured 1950s time warp?

Welcome to the world of second generation young British Pakistanis.

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  1. As a second-generation Brit (of Pakistani descent), I could not help but agree with practically everything you have written!

    I have spent what feels like my entire life, fighting the prejudices and expectations of my family/community and friends/non-Asian peoples!

    There is, as you say, a complete and utter time-warp within the British-Pakistani community. I wish it stopped with my parents generation, but alack – no! As a teacher, I see these primitive values/ideals perpetuated amongst the next generation, alongside their complete and blatant adoption of non-Islamic practices – whether that be taking drugs, having girlfriends, smoking – whatever!
    There is a complete dichotomy that they live, one life at home, another outside.

    As for the Asian community as a whole, it seems that being away from the motherland has instilled in them a deep need to hold together to the fabric that bound them at birth. ‘Preserve their values’ – despite the fact that the vast majority of them have only come to understand these values after they themselves have ventured far wide of them.

    I’ve had everything from ‘girls don’t cut their hair’ to ‘girls stay at home, don’t drive, don’t need to go to school, must learn to cook and keep a clean house’ etc etc. Thank Allah for giving me the strength to fight for what I believed in!

    Don’t get me wrong, there are good parts to the community, the strength that they give one another in tough times. The sense of unity at times like Ramadan. However, it’s always spiced with something unsavoury even at those times. Sadly.

    I’m looking forward to moving to London soon and finding some like-minded ladies who break the mould and think for themselves!
    A hijabi rocker? Yes please!

    • Bless you for your kind words!! Yes – what goes on in Britain with the Asian community is indeed a unique phenomenon that took me by complete surprise! There are things about it that I both love and hate – strengths and weaknesses to the glue that binds!

      If you’re interested in knowing more about “Hijabi Rockers” – you should read more by my co-author Remona Aly who wrote this piece in the guardian

      http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2010/feb/14/why-muslim-women-like-hard-rock

      Also keep your eyes peeled on this blog for more by both of us! I will be writing a follow up to this blog piece soon

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