Big Apple blues

Many Pakistani-Americans still refuse to take to a zealously religious identity.

Ibrahim Sajid Malick July 08, 2012

A Pakistani-American who considers himself a native New Yorker was shocked the other day when I asked him to tell me if he could spot a single Pakistani worker in the restaurant where we met. We were having lunch at Haandi, a busy Pakistani restaurant in midtown Manhattan — a place frequented by Pakistanis who demand authentic halal food. You know, the type who eat paya for breakfast, biryani for lunch and nihari for dinner.

Yes, that authentic type!

Not finding any Pakistani worker in a hardcore Pakistani restaurant, my friend was puzzled, to say the least. To confirm that it was not an aberration we drove to Jackson Heights, a neighbourhood in the northwestern portion of the New York City borough of Queens — a neighbourhood known for its diversity. South Asians think of it as the South Hall of New York. We went to another famous Pakistani restaurant and I tasked my friend with finding any Pakistani worker there as well. The only person he could spot was the owner of Dera, a Pakistani indeed!

In the process of compiling the ethnography of Pakistani-Americans in New York I have interviewed individuals, followed numerous families and surveyed several groups and, among many other things that an anthropologist looks for, I found a noticeable change in the past 10 years — poor and undocumented Pakistanis don’t live here anymore.

I have adhered to the cannons of reliability by validating my observations with data collected by the US Census Bureau, reports on immigration by Homeland Security and sporadic news reports in both vernacular and mainstream media.

By poor, I mean those desperate enough to accept any work, at any wage; vulnerable recent immigrants who are easily exploited by those who had arrived before them. The undocumented immigrant who, simply by virtue of crossing a border, has taken risks and ignored security, favoured effort over comfort, and innovation over stability; the cannon fodder of the American growth machine for decades. The undocumented new immigrant, at least from Pakistan, no longer lives here.

But that’s not all.

New York City and Pakistanis who live here have changed significantly over the past several decades. This city used to be a melting pot, where people from all parts of the world ‘melted’ to form a homogeneous society with a common culture. But this ‘melting pot’ experiment was challenged by proponents of multiculturalism, who asserted that cultural differences within society are valuable and should be preserved, proposing the alternative metaphor of the mosaic or salad bowl — different cultures mix, but remain distinct. I remember Mayor David Dinkins telling Pakistanis in 1989 that they were part of the great ‘salad bowl’ and they could celebrate their ethnic identities yet fully participate in the culture of New York City.

Whether we talk about a ‘melting pot’ or a ‘salad bowl’, the use of metaphors to establish ideology is extremely important because what figurative language communicates and carries with it is the charge of affect. In the aftermath of 9/11 as Muslims in general and Pakistanis in particular became the subject of scrutiny — the uniqueness of each culture in the salad bowl backfired for Pakistanis. Like rotten tomatoes in the salad bowl, they became easy target for picking and discarding.

Most of the Pakistani newcomers to New York used to make Midwood, Brooklyn, their home. This was an enclave often referred to as “Little Pakistan” which, on September 11, 2001, was home to nearly 50,000 Pakistanis. And that unfortunate day in America’s history saw the beginning of Little Pakistan’s undoing. In 10 subsequent years, the once thriving community had to deal with legal repercussions, surveillance and raids by federal and local agencies, and strenuous financial pressures leading to the structural and organisational adjustments and readjustments.

Special Registration

The USA PATRIOT Act in October of 2001, by some accounts a most draconian piece of legislation, passed through the US Congress like a breeze following the terrorist attacks. The law, among other things, introduced a special registration system for non-immigrants from designated countries, which included Pakistan. The special registration system, in addition to tracking entries and exits of those subject to it, also required that designated individuals periodically report to the Homeland Security Immigration Services and keep the agency informed of any changes in their situation during their stay in the US.

Every Pakistani who was not a permanent resident (a Green Card holder) or United States citizen had to report to the immigration offices. It was a game-changer for undocumented Pakistanis — they had a choice, either to register and face deportation hearings or voluntarily leave the country. Within a year of 9/11, the New York area Pakistani community had lost nearly 10,000 of its estimated 120,000 residents — many of them fleeing America in pursuit of liberty and opportunity elsewhere. Moreover, a large number of Pakistanis were deported often leaving behind part of their families.

Professor Stanley Diamond, an anthropology professor at my alma mater the New School for Social Research, used to say that culture defines the marketplace. Professor Diamond was right — Little Pakistan in Midwood, Brooklyn, that once was a busy, bustling marketplace where sweet shops sold lassi in traditional fashion, a neighbourhood where you couldn’t walk a block without someone speaking Punjabi or Urdu, where any Pakistani could feel at home — the very essence of that marketplace had changed. Streets became deserted, stores lost their glitter and the lines outside the Coney Island mosque for Friday prayers thinned dramatically.

Politics of Identity

When listening to the gossip of elderly men in the barbershop or several small restaurants along Coney Island, you realise how little we know about Pakistani-Americans. Every pundit in the media and every social scientist (very few indeed) that has written about Pakistanis in America tries to explore the complex and diverse reasons for the foregrounding of religion in the identities of their object of study.

It is true that post-9/11 policies of the US government and fear mongering by the conservative American media has led to an increased sense of in-group solidarity and identification on the basis of religion for some Pakistani-Americans, but to say that Pakistanis who live in New York have taken to a rabid religious identity is far from true.

Munday namaaz nahee parthay (boys don’t offer prayers),” complains Chauhdry Abrar, in his native Punjabi at a barbershop on the corner of Coney Island and Newkirk Avenue in Brooklyn. Another elderly gentleman chimes in and reminds me that none of us were that religious in our youth.

But the irony is that while these elderly Pakistani men worry that the younger generation is losing interest in religious activities, two FBI agents, who are supposedly under cover, wait outside a small restaurant diagonally across the mosque to keep an eye on the people who come for Friday prayers. I say supposedly, because everyone knows that these are undercover agents — why else would two American men in black suits wait outside a mosque in the hot summer afternoon? Maybe they just love watching jumma prayers.

Munir, a senior at Abraham Lincoln High School, isn’t intimidated by these men and says: “I think it’s funny, to be honest. Everyone knows who these guys are. We don’t care because we are not doing anything wrong.”

Munir may not care, but I do.

I have always argued that identity is fluid and contextual. I am a Pakistani when someone in New York asks me ‘where are you from?’. When the same question is posed in Lahore, I am from Karachi. I am a ‘man’ when around women — I am a ‘straight man’ around gays and an ‘old man’ around young kids.

But here is the sticking point — whether I practice religion or not, in the US I am Muslim because of my name, place of origin and possibly because of the clothes that I wear.

Faced with ideological profiling, discrimination, devaluation and disparagement, religious identity has become the key marker for a few young Muslim men and women. I met some young Pakistani women who were born and raised in New York who not only cover their faces with the hijab completely but also do not show picture IDs to male security guards.

I asked a young woman behind the veil where she was from — she said “Brooklyn”. No, she didn’t say Pakistan. She was born in Coney Island Hospital to parents from Pakistan. Her father who used to be a lecturer in Pakistan has driven a cab for the past 20 years on the streets of New York. She has lived on the intersection of Coney Island Avenue and Newkirk Avenue all her life. From Kindergarten to college, she attended the public education system.

But she is an anomaly. The majority of Muslim women dress modestly. Some wear scarves and plenty dress in ways that are consistent with their American peers. During my research I have also met several young Pakistani girls who cover themselves so they don’t have to worry about what clothes they must wear to school — or whether they have a boyfriend or not. It simply relieves them of peer pressure. And, yes it is plausible.

For many it is more than not having brand name jeans with matching socks and bra-straps that force these bright and immensely intelligent women to wear the hijab. It is a sign of dissent, of courage — a sign of protest and yes, of course, for many it is their religious duty. These young women use the discourse of religion and identity for personal empowerment.

A handful of boys in high schools and colleges in New York accentuate their religious identity by praying in public places and wearing religion on their sleeves. But again this is a very small minority.

During the trial of Dr Aafia Siddiqui in New York, I met a few young Muslim men with beards flying all over their faces and prayer beads in hand. There was one who had a miswak. The Marshal who had searched his bag was puzzled to see this miswak and asked, “What do you do with it?” It is important to note that although a majority of her supporters in the courtroom did appear to be Islamist, most of them were not Pakistanis. “Where are all the other Pakistanis?” commented one Islamist supporter in obvious disappointment. In fact, most of her supporters in the gallery were African-American Islamists.

And although an anomaly that day in the courthouse, this young man was born in Queens. He has lived in New York and studied at several American schools and colleges. But he feels his religious identity provides a positive role model, compared to his parents’ under-employment and is an alternative to the street and drug cultures in his neighbourhoods.

Many scholars have argued that the search for identity makes these impressionable young men and women vulnerable to radicalisation. But this search is part of the process of defining one’s relationship with the world that usually takes place without necessarily leading to ‘radicalisation’.

Radicalisation requires an interpersonal interaction with other actors who stimulate and influence the process. And, this is where the rub lies. Devaluation, disparagement and ideological profiling, lack of equal opportunities for career advancement and integration with mainstream society are those factors that can stimulate and influence the process of radicalisation.

Pakistanis, however, confront a number of atypical factors, which can alter the course of this process. Spooks who stand outside the mosque on Coney Island Avenue and New York Police Department surveillance of Pakistani-American community are among those ‘external actors’ who stimulate the process. And then there are the ‘internal actors’, the moles, members of the community who act as informants and, in many cases, as provocateurs. They are often themselves victims who are then forced to spy on and entrap fellow Pakistanis. Both have become part of the landscape. A fixture one learns to walk around.

Let’s face it: Pakistanis today are facing a crisis that has few parallels in history. They are caught between the forces of extremism from within and the crushing onslaught of the West. Many Pakistanis find previous explanations of injustices — rich and poor, class-based economic systems, etc — inadequate to explain their current situation.

For Pakistanis living in the US this experience is compounded by religious discrimination, ideological profiling, and a lack of confidence in the government.

Rules of Averages

A majority of the young men and women I meet in New York acknowledge that they have felt discriminated against at least once, but they take it in stride.

“Who doesn’t get discriminated against?” asks Mateen, a pre-medicine student at New York University who participated in a silent march organised recently by the African-American and Hispanic communities to protest ‘stop and frisk’ by the NYPD. “We should respond to it for what it is: a violation of civil liberties.”

Tauqeer, a student of a public middle school in Manhattan, says: “Most of the kids who teased me in school were black, Hispanic or Chinese.” But his friend, also of Pakistani descent, tells me: “Nobody ever teased [me] because I never announced that I am a Pakistani. People think I am Indian or Dominican.”

But of course these narratives of the majority are never interesting enough to make the news. It is commonly understood that mainstream media creates, processes and disseminates information which determines our beliefs and attitudes and, ultimately, our behaviour. Consistently displayed messages create a false sense of reality and produce a consciousness that cannot comprehend or, even worse, willfully rejects the actual conditions of everyday life.

Many have argued that these manipulative messages become the ‘instrument of conquest’, by which the ruling elite tries to conform the masses to their objectives. By using ‘talking heads’ that explain, justify, and sometimes even glamourise the prevailing conditions of existence, mainstream media secures popular support for a social order that is not in the majority’s long-term interest. In the cacophony, which is often masked as intelligent debate, what remain unconsidered are the alternative social arrangements.

Talking about Indian writers in England, author Salman Rushdie suggested that individuals who are neither completely English nor 100 per cent Indians have “access to a second tradition”. He argues that this tradition is one of cross-connections, not roots. He writes: “The cultural and political history of the phenomenon of migration, displacement, life in a minority group,” constitutes its own community “cross- and intra-culturally.”

For a majority of successful Pakistani-Americans who locate themselves in the “cross-connected” community and do not assign much value to the “roots”, it becomes much easier to grasp and respond to the post-9/11 identity crises that has put a handful of young men behind beards and a few young women behind veils.


Saif, the owner of Dera, an authentic Pakistani Restaurant in Jackson Heights, Queens, agrees that Pakistanis do not want to do odd jobs anymore, but claims, “It is a matter of pride. Pakistanis don’t want to wait tables in restaurants.” But a cab driver, a patron of this restaurant disagrees: “I make a lot more money driving a taxi than I would working in a restaurant. I am my own boss. I decide when to work and when not to work.”

However, it would be wrong to say that Pakistanis are financially better off than before. The majority of the grocery stores that cater to Pakistanis in New York accept food stamps — part of a public assistance programme for financially struggling families and individuals. This is a recent phenomenon because earlier Pakistanis usually did not qualify due to the lack of legal status. Now those Pakistanis who live below the poverty line have choices — rely on government-offered security net and refuse to be exploited for minimum wage work or do something more enterprising like driving a cab — an opportunity that was not available to them before. In other words, Pakistanis who live here are not vulnerable enough to take any odd job that comes their way.

Goodness of the Ordinary

When I requested an interview with an aging Pakistani man who owns and operates a grocery store near Church Avenue in Brooklyn, he insisted that I ask my questions in English. Mo (short for Mohammad) said, “Please talk English. No problem I speak.”

I gathered all seriousness and asked: What do you think has changed for Pakistanis in Brooklyn in the last 10 years?

With a pensive face and a sober demeanour, Mo leaned back a bit. He thought for a minute, his face indicative of the internal deliberation that must be going through his mind, he gesticulated with his hands. In a very theatrical tone, he said: “Same old, same old.”

This article is part of a forthcoming book by the author on the ethnography of Pakistani-Americans in New York.

Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, July 8th, 2012.


Pakistani-American | 9 years ago | Reply

Best piece ever written on Pakistanis in new york. When does the book come out?

Plal | 9 years ago | Reply

I have been living in New York area long before 9/11 and I have observed that since 9/11,I find more women wearing some kind of veil and men with bear.I know some of them are very religious and Privately they depict US as evil incarnation-I wonder why they still want to live in US.

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