I have been incredibly fortunate enough to meet dozens of Pakistanis from all over their country as a part of the international exchange programmes I work with through my profession. My life and my thoughts of the greater world have changed drastically since my first encounters with those groups five years ago. By “changed” I mean they’ve opened up my world and my mind. Here’s how.
In general, Pakistanis know much more about the United States (US) than Americans do about Pakistan. That is largely due to the influence of US media, i.e. Hollywood. Because of that exposure, I continue to get lots of questions about what it’s like to be American and whether the real US is just like the version on the big screen. In many cases, my examples of life in the US bear no resemblance to what my Pakistani friends have seen on television. It’s not that my friends are disappointed to hear that the US is in fact neither an action-adventure movie nor full of modern cowboys shooting off their guns. Rather, they are happy to get an authentic description of the US. This includes of how much of the US is made up of physically beautiful places which are both peaceful and full of people that are welcoming and interested in the rest of the world, including Pakistan. Rarely do I have conversations with my own American friends about what it’s like to be American. Thus, my Pakistani friends’ curiosity about the US have caused me to think more deeply about what being American means to me.
It’s very hard to answer questions from my Pakistani friends about the large and varied place called the United States, from just my perspective. Although I’ve traveled to many of the 50 states, the most consistent thing I learnt was that there is a variety of feelings about what America is. Interestingly, my Pakistani friends have also felt a similar challenge of answering my questions about their entire country. This shared feeling has been a means to bring us closer together.
Since meeting my first Pakistani friends in 2016, I’ve had a lot to learn about their country. Besides long discussions with them, I’ve read over 40 books about South Asia. Because they know I’m a very avid reader, my Pakistani friends always have recommendations for books, especially those about poetry and history.
Before I met these friends, I wasn’t a fan of poetry. However, when I visited Lahore in 2017, I learnt something very interesting about the Urdu graffiti I saw everywhere around the city. In the US, while graffiti sometimes can be quite creative, it’s often angry, profane or confusing and considered a blight on public spaces. Thus, I was pleasantly surprised to hear that much of the Urdu graffiti was actually love poems! I also asked my friends about the writing on buses and rickshaws and learnt this was also romantic and playful poetry. I was then told about the strong history of poetry in South Asia. Even in the history books I’ve read there was always strong respect paid to poetic legacies of the region. My Pakistani friends have always encouraged me to learn more about their local and national poets. I’ve now read several collections of poems, most recently from Faiz Ahmed Faiz and Iftikhar Arif, and women’s poems edited by Sayd Bahodine Majrouh and Farzana Marie.
I’ve spent a month’s worth of time in Pakistan over the last five years. For the rest of that time, my Facebook and Instagram feeds have been a continuous supply of amazing photos and videos from all over Pakistan. My friends post almost daily videos of amazing places like the snowy and breathtaking Swat Valley, the warm beaches and dry mountains of Balochistan, the hustle of life in Lahore, Karachi and Peshawar and displays of art from all over the country. I’ve seen many things that sometimes remind me of places in the US. Mostly though, they make me want to return to Pakistan to be with my friends.
I’ve always been interested in languages and have studied French, German and Spanish. My Pakistani friends are always willing to answer my questions about their languages like, “How do you say brother/friend/how are you in Urdu/Pashto/Baloch/Torwali or Arabic?”. As they educate me on these simple words I add them to my notes. It’s a long and growing list of words and phrases that I hope to proudly utter on a future visit to Pakistan.
My Pakistani friends have shown me their incredible sense of connection to their country mates who are, in many cases, complete strangers. One example, repeated many times in my experience, follows. In my house, if I or my wife is going out to run errands we’ll say, “I’m going to the store. Can I get you anything?”. However, a Pakistani says, just as casually on social media, “Hey, I’m going to America, does anyone want anything?”. This means that they will field requests from not only friends and family but from a larger network to bring back small personal items such as make-up or phone accessories. On the flip side, when it’s found out that anyone (no matter if they are a stranger) is returning to Pakistan from the US, word gets out and that person starts getting requests to pack their bags with various items. For example, a friend from Quetta asked a mutual friend to bring back a two kg bag of Starbucks coffee. Another Quetta friend passed along several pounds of black tea to me, via a Pakistani traveler. If there’s a way to transport warm paratha across the Asia, Europe and the Atlantic Ocean to go with that tea, I would like to know about it!
I last visited Pakistan in 2019. Before our departure at the Islamabad airport, there were my friends again right there with me to see me off with all the love and warmth that they showed when I first stepped into Pakistan. What I get out of all these experiences with my Pakistani friends is inspiration. In the 1997 movie, “As Good As It Gets”, the lead character tells the woman he loves, “You make me want to be a better man”. That’s the kind of love I feel for my Pakistani friends. They make me want to be a better person; not only to my Pakistani friends, but to my US friends, to strangers and to my family.