Beggar at Ghazi Chowk


Marooned Passports

18 Nov 2012

Published in the Daily Princetonian 16 November 2012.

“I believe we can keep the promise of our founders, the idea that if you’re willing to work hard, it doesn’t matter who you are or where you come from or what you look like or where you love,” he said. “It doesn’t matter whether you’re black or white or Hispanic or Asian or Native American or young or old or rich or poor, able, disabled, gay or straight, you can make it here in America if you’re willing to try.”

At that moment I felt very American. These were the values I, too, stood for. I wasn’t able to vote for Obama, but I stood by him in that moment. I believe that the choices we make, not the identities we are born with, shape who we are and determine our value to the world. That day, I chose to be American.

But just a week or so before the election, I was trying to convince someone that I was not American at all; I was merely passing through and needed a concrete reason to stay. I told him that I had to find a job that would help me justify staying in America.

“Justify to whom?” he asked.

“Myself.” I said. “I don’t care what anyone else thinks.” Or so I liked to believe.

There had to be a reason more meaningful than the fact that I found a job here. Surely I could just “find a job” in Pakistan.

The running idea was that the natural progression of my life must take me back to Pakistan; whenever I choose to delay it, I must have a reason to do so. I could find a job in Pakistan, I told him, so what I needed to justify staying in America was something clearly more beneficial or meaningful than going back home.

“Going back” is a funny theme that seems to follow international students before they even manage to set foot out of their countries. Every now and then someone comments on the progress in our lives: “Great to hear you’re doing so well; don’t forget Pakistan,” meaning don’t forget that you are needed here, don’t forget that you are Pakistani and will remain so your whole life, don’t forget that this is who you are.

I haven’t forgotten Pakistan. I never will.

I stay up to wee hours of the night to cheer on the cricket team. I sulk the entire day when we lose. I follow the newspaper everyday as if I’m there, perhaps even more so than I would if I were there because Pakistanis tend to become numb to pieces of breaking news they receive every 20 minutes. I am proud to be Pakistani, proud of the connections I have made in Pakistan, proud of the common values I share with many Pakistanis.

But here I am in Princeton, N.J. for nine months of the year. This year I stayed for the summer, too. American current events affected me as much as Pakistani ones. But here I am ineligible to vote in America and probably incapable of voting in Pakistan because next year’s elections will not have absentee voting.

So I am arguably neither truly American, nor truly Pakistani. I cannot voice my political opinion in either country, yet the government affects me in both.

Both America and Pakistan mean a lot to me. I love my two homes, Princeton and Lahore, dearly. Today, however, the color of my passport has too much of a sway in how I can contribute to societies than it deserves to.

Wouldn’t it be a more perfect world if my Pakistani-ness remained only a fact about where I was born and melded away into irrelevance in every other way?

Often being Pakistani — or being American, for that matter — is made out to more than it really is. I am not Pakistani because I am anti-India or anti-American; I am Pakistani because I was born there. I believe that all citizens should be treated equally by the state, and so did Jinnah, Pakistan’s founder. But Jinnah was clearly not American, and neither am I.

In his inauguration speech as president, Jinnah asserted that what kept Pakistan from freeing itself from oppression was our inability to look past our ethnic and religious identities. And at the birth of Pakistan, what mattered was the well-being of the people — regardless of who they were, where they were from or what God they believed in. The past must be forgotten, and we must cooperate and prosper as one. The “angularities,” as Jinnah put them, of our differences must vanish.

Today I wish that the angularities of our differences in national identity also vanish. The world over, jingoistic patriotism and belief in national identity has led to oppression, to class superiority and to war. Today our problems are global. Many of our lives are also global. In a perfect world, our nationalities should only exist to help identify us, not to define our identities.