Thursday, August 16, 2012

STAYING IN PAKISTAN

Posted on August 13, 2012, by
REALLY VIRTUAL
By: SOHAIB ATHAR
A 35 year old guy from Lahore, Pakistan currently living in Abbottabad. I have been playing with computers for 20 years, making money from them for 14 years, and experimenting with a coffee shop for the last 1.5 years.

I have been asked countless times why I am wasting my life Pakistan and why haven’t I applied for immigration yet. This post has been lying in my blog drafts for many months – today seems to be an appropriate day to publish it. Happy Independence Day.

A few months ago, I asked a friend who was in Sweden for studies if he was planning to come back to Pakistan any time soon. “Are you kidding me?” was the incredulous reply that I got. Last year, the same friend was discussing how to ‘make a change in Pakistan’ with me over Skype.

I was not really surprised by his response. Over the years, I have seen dozens of my friends leave Pakistan one by one. 45 of my 50 classmates from school, and an even higher ratio of my university class fellows are no longer living in Pakistan. I have seen them change from Pakistan-loving students going abroad for just a couple of years to get their degrees, into expats, and later, into ecstatic foreigners updating their Facebook status when their passport color changes from green to blue or red. One by one, their H1B visas have transformed into green cards or European citizenship, their toddlers have grown into teenagers that are no longer fit for the harsh Pakistani lifestyle, and their careers and mortgaged houses have helped them to cut off their remaining ties with Pakistan.

The few friends who still have parents in Pakistan because they could not go through the ‘family reunification‘ process do visit Pakistan every few years, usually armed with video cameras, to film the land of their birth, to show to their friends in the land that they belong to now. To me, they are visitors, though their legal status may still be overseas Pakistani. My own uncles and aunts are amongst those people, urging their nephews and nieces on each trip to ‘not be a fool and apply for citizenship to another country – any country’, promising that a ‘brighter future’ awaits us. Maybe they advocate immigration due to their unease at the thought of people still wanting to live in a third-world country while they made their choice to upgrade their living standards, or maybe they are just proud of their accomplishments – but usually, they sound more like immigration agents than visiting relatives.

Many of my friends still stuck in Pakistan have their Canadian or Australian immigrations in process, they call it their ‘safety-net’ but we know better. They know they will end up joining the rest of the escapees, spend their lives abroad, and perhaps a few of them will choose to coming back in the final years of their lives, just to retire and be buried here. I have seen it happen before. I expect to see it again. After all, it is our own Pakistani mindset that changed the phrase پاکستان زندہ باد (Long live Pakistan) to پاکستان سے زندہ بھاگ (Get out of Pakistan alive) – a phrase that ceased to be funny many years ago.

Imran Khan believes that expats and overseas Pakistanis can bring about an economic revolution in Pakistan – probably because he hangs out in a different crowd than the average Pakistanis, but I doubt that the thought of direct or indirect economic revolution ever crosses the minds of my overseas Pakistani friends. I would love to be corrected on this – I think that except for a handful of Pakistani entrepreneurs who have made mad money abroad, the majority of expats can only bring a few thousand dollars per person to Pakistan on the average as remittances, and that too only while they have immediate relatives alive in Pakistan to send money to. I believe that after two or three decades, their family members will either die or join them abroad, their ties with Pakistan will finally be severed, and they will have no reason to send their hard-earned money ‘back home’, resulting in a Pakistan that got a bit of dollars and pounds over a few years, and lost a lot of talent – many future generations of talent.

The scenario doesn’t seem much different from the international aid that our rulers are constantly begging for – the only small difference being that the aid would be willingly given by people-formerly-known-as-Pakistani . I am not sure if an economist (and I am not one) would confirm or refute my theory, but I believe that those of us living in Pakistan that leave a 50 rupee tip for the waiter, spend 100 rupees on a rickshaw ride or buy a 500 rupees t shirt from a local shop are contributing more to the Pakistani economy than all the overseas Pakistanis that manage to send a few million rupees back home to their families in Pakistan – after working hard for a major portion of their lives – to buy a decent house so that their Christmas holiday visits to Pakistan are more pleasant.

My father was born in India in an area called Dehradun. With its lush valleys and winding roads, Dehradun doesn’t seem much different from Abbottabad. When my father discovered Youtube recently, and was checking how much his birthplace has transformed, I recalled my grandmother’s stories about the 1947  Partition, the loss of life and property that the family had to suffer and the relatives that were left behind. Just as I will not move to Dehradun to grow old and die, it would be illogical to expect my friends’ kids or my cousins to come back to Pakistan, to the villages and mohallahs of their parents, just to contribute to the economy of their parents’ homeland – a country they can’t really call their own – one riddled with poverty and terrorism and all the troubles of the world that their parents ran away from.

Nationalism has been called the ‘measles of mankind’ – living in Pakistan, we have seen more than our share of man-made boundaries turning some men into emotional fools and others into tyrrants and opressors. To me though, choosing to stay in Pakistan is not about nationalism or patriotism – but leaving it is about cowardice and laziness.

My friend and family abroad did not leave to be ‘citizens of the world’, and most of them did not end up trotting the globe to live their lives to the fullest, or to gather wisdom from other cultures. Their reasons to leave Pakistan were more basic. They left to lead easier, more secure  lives, to make more money and to drive fancier cars. The academic types left to get their PhDs, and then decided that Pakistan does not offer the kind of opportunities in their field of their research that would motivate them to come back. For one reason or another, they managed to stay out of this country. There is nothing wrong with choice they made, they are free to live their definition of a good life, but I do wish that instead of coming back to die in Pakistan, a few of them decide to come back to live. As ‘foreign-returned’ Pakistanis, they will automatically be part of the elite class, and will even get to watch the same TV shows and follow the same sports events that they are currently investing most of their remaining lives in.

I watched this video (in Urdu) recently,  in which Hasan Nisar, a brutally honest Pakistani columnist or a traitor/CIA agent, depending on your ideological inclinations, claimed that if America opens its doors for Pakistanis today, all healthy Pakistanis will be gone in less than 24 hours. I think his generalization is off by a few hundred people – there are at least a few of us who will choose to stay when given the choice to leave, not because we hate the West or don’t want to earn more money, but because our definition of happiness involves improving what we can improve in the system that we live in instead of switching to another system to live predictable, easy lives. Some of us who choose to stay in Pakistan, idealistic fools that we may be, do so to try and make a change in our surroundings, a much harder task than changing our surrounding.

As John F. Kennedy put it:
Do not pray for easy lives. Pray to be stronger men.