Not Talking About Pakistan by Taymiya R. Zaman

Black trees and moon courtesy of Adeel Anwer

Silhouette of tree branches against dark sky with moon in distance. (Adeel Anwer)

Questions about Pakistan are now a fact of living here, no different from damp weather or calls from salespeople. Some I deflect, and others I frame around my own terms.

I drew a secret line around the borders of Pakistan and rarely stepped over it. In the fall of 2007, I began teaching Islamic history at a small liberal arts college in San Francisco; even though my classes on South Asia and the Middle East could easily have included Pakistan, I made sure to exclude Pakistan from all my syllabi. To avoid ever having to talk about Pakistan, I changed the name of a course a predecessor had titled “History of South and Southeast Asia,” to “Indian Civilizations.” This now meant that the course took a leisurely route through the Indus Valley Civilization, the coming of the Aryans, the spread of Jainism and Buddhism in North India, the rise of the Mughal Empire and concluded with British colonial rule and the formation of India and Pakistan in 1947. But, after an emotionally charged lecture on Partition, I would begin a section on modern India and say nothing of Pakistan after the moment of its creation. My class, “The Modern Middle East,” covered American wars in Afghanistan but my syllabus screeched to a halt at the Pakistan border. Although the country inevitably featured in class discussions about U.S. foreign policy, I assigned no readings on Pakistan. In my other classes, I stayed away from the twentieth century, which meant that the question of Pakistan never arose.

Outside the classroom too, I was something of an expert at not talking about Pakistan. This was a feat, given the interest that Pakistan generated. Being Pakistani meant that well-meaning students would frequently tackle me in corridors and ask me what I thought about “the current situation” in Pakistan. Most of the time, this was an excuse to tell me what they thought, namely that America needed to bomb the hell out of Pakistan because the country was a den for terrorists. In some instances, the student would add, as a considerate afterthought, that he hoped my family was safe. I would respond to student comments such as these with non-committal statements about the banality of the nation-state. My retreat into vagueness would diffuse the conversation, and I would hurry away. This constant bombardment and the defensive maneuvers it called for left me with little energy for words, and no space at all to know what I thought about the Pakistan in which people around me were interested. What I did know was that there was a Pakistan somewhere that belonged to me and it was under attack; this meant that I needed to protect it because doing so was the same as protecting myself.

When asked to give guest lectures on Pakistan, I would analyze the politics of talking about Pakistan instead, and refuse to discuss the place directly. Once, I was asked to make a presentation on the Pakistan Earthquake of 2005, and I agreed only because I trusted the professor who had invited me to speak to her class. I was tired of images of suffering, helpless brown people waiting for Angelina Jolie’s benevolence, and I wanted the class to know about the heroic efforts on the part of Pakistanis for their own people. I saw my talk as an offensive on behalf of Pakistan rather than the solitary, defensive war I was fighting. In another instance, at a student event focused on injustices around the world (which included the usual images of the suffering and the brown and the female and the poor), I spoke about the injustice of intervening in other countries in the name of justice, a point I would make in my own classes without directly referencing Pakistan. Both talks were well-received, and I appreciated the sensitivity and intelligence of the students with whom I spoke afterwards. Students such as these helped me remember that there were possibilities that lay outside the daily blur of pain through which I experienced my surroundings.

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