Saying 'That's just the way it is in Pakistan' is not going to help bring about change!
Jonathan Lethem is a renowned author and a fellow alumnus of Bennington College. In 2005, he advised the graduating class to ‘abandon Rome, if you think you can’. These words may just be the remedy to most of our problems.
I’m a complainer – everything from poor driving etiquette to bad grammar irks me rather consistently.
Over the past few months, I have muddled through offices in Islamabad looking for work. On a warm November morning, I put on a nice outfit and drove 40 minutes into town for an interview only to find a clueless receptionist on arrival, who informed me that the HR lady, who had made an 11am appointment with me, had not shown up for work as yet. The woman in question had my résumé that has my number on it, so I’m not expecting much when I say that she should have had the courtesy to call and cancel.
So I complained to my friends, family and even other interviewers. The resoundingly common response I got was,
“This is just the way it is here.”
I understand. I get it. I really do. But please do not mistake my agreeable nature as passive acceptance of the way things are here.
Human beings are creatures of habit. We learn to talk by imitation and we repeat the few items of our limited vocabulary over and over again until we begin to explore the world and learn new words. Pakistanis, being no less human than the rest of the world, also have a habit and perhaps the worst one of them all.
Somewhere along the way, we stopped thinking. We stopped thinking for ourselves, thinking about what we believe in, what we stand for and who we are as a people.
Over the course of the past few decades, perhaps owing to irregular regime changes and pronounced cultural shifts, our society’s collective thought process has developed tunnel vision. Today, more than ever, we are unaccepting and, quite often, downright intolerant toward ideas and belief systems that are foreign to us. But it doesn’t stop there, because once we decided that we always hold the supreme opinion, we also began rationalising our questionable choices with the perfect scapegoat:
‘That’s just the way it is here.’
If we trace this diagnosis back to its root problem, we shall find that Pakistan’s youth, especially the millennial generation, learned its beliefs through passive acceptance. We were never allowed the chance to question the norm, which was laid out for us at birth – our religion, our customs, our moral values and sometimes even our political affiliation. Most of us refused to question these ideas when we became adults and thus never tried to qualify our beliefs with our own thoughts.
For me, the big realisation came when I was 19.
While applying for a passport, I was required by the government to sign a declaration that I believed Ahmadis are non-Muslims. When I put my name down on the dotted line in my best cursive, every fibre of my being was telling me that I had done something wrong, something that I didn’t believe in. That was the beginning of a trajectory that has taught me to not be a passive acceptor, to question the beliefs that were bestowed upon me and in turn, to abandon my Rome.
I mentioned poor driving etiquette earlier and it is probably the most tangible form of disorder in our society. Drivers in Pakistan must feel that they’re thick in the middle of a Fast & Furious plot because they find it hard to maintain a lane, frequently over-speed and sometimes even drive on the wrong side of the road in order to avoid a U-turn. And all that seems tame when one comes across a motorcycle with a family of six perched upon it. These are not things that should have to be pointed out but that’s just the way it is here.
Pakistan’s population growth is out of control and is likely the root cause of most of its problems. And since sex is a taboo subject in the country, there is little to no discussion about the inclusion of sex education in school curricula solely due to the widespread belief that such inclusion would lead to cultural deterioration. Far be it from Pakistani education policy makers to realise the long-term benefits of sex education including population control, curbing the prevalence of rape and correcting the rampant misogynist narratives in our society.
Last September, Mubasher Lucman pulled out his pitchfork and went after the Lahore Grammar School for including Comparative Religion in their curriculum. His ‘exposé’ effectively unearthed the blatant bigotry that has become part of our culture. We are so consumed by our assumed supremacy that we refuse to acknowledge the possibility of learning from our contemporaries. From grades two through five, I went to a Nepalese-Tibetan school and learned everything from languages to science amongst Hindu and Buddhist children. Those three years taught me more about tolerance than any of the classes I’ve ever taken here.
Nigerian author Chimamanda Adichie spoke at TEDxEuston last year and during her talk (which is worth watching in its entirety) she said something incredible.
“Culture does not make people, people make culture”
She goes on to explain the fluid nature of culture and how the times, the people and major events define the ideals that flesh out the core structure of culture.
When I say that we need to abandon Rome, I don’t mean that we walk away from all that we know and start anew. On the contrary, I’m suggesting that we make an attempt to progress on the foundation already set by what we believe in – culture, religion, ethnicity and so on. And in order to promote such progression, we first need to allow ourselves the license to think.
This process of abandonment is meant to be uncomfortable and it will be. It is difficult to question norms and fundamental beliefs. However, it is vital to our progression that we are aware of our right to question. Just as we left our homes as children to learn and progress, we need to leave our fortresses now with the understanding that Rome lives within us.