From being a country that few could locate on a map, in just a few years Pakistan has notoriously become the focus of international media and politics. As a young girl, even when words such as nationalism and patriotism had not yet entered my vocabulary, being a Pakistani meant so much more than just an inhabitant of the country. It meant being able to belong, having a story of struggle and resilience that could be celebrated each year amidst songs and parades, and it meant feeling proud to say ‘I am from Pakistan’ and explain our ‘unique culture’ to a group of foreigners on international trips. But those were happier times, and the identity of being a Pakistani was much simpler to carry.
Fast forward 20 years and it’s possibly the hardest thing to be a Pakistani for many of us. Sure the whole world now knows what and where is Pakistan, but sadly its not for its culture or stories. It’s not even for its people. All that is hidden behind fundamentalism, stereotypes, and sensational headlines. I don’t need to explain anymore where we are on a map, rather I have to deal with a whole host of probing questions such as “so how did you manage to dodge all those bombs and more importantly religious fanatics to get yourself an education”, or “how is it that a country with so much religious, ethnic and political tension still on the world map”. As infuriating as the offensive assumptions, widened eyes, and backing footsteps are, it is fair to say that as Pakistanis, most of us have not attempted to provide an alternative identity of ‘Pakistani’ beyond those headlines and stereotypes. It’s just so much easier to introduce ourselves as what I call ‘Reluctant Pakistanis’ – distancing ourselves from all the problems, admitting that Pakistan is in fact a failed state, and switch nationalities if possible. Constant and blithering criticism of Pakistan from the rest of the world has eroded our confidence in ourselves. There’s nothing wrong with criticizing Pakistan but to talk only about the perils of Pakistan without talking about its promise is to be unfair to the country. Lucky for us, between the fundamentalists and the reluctant, there is a whole group of remarkable Pakistani citizens who have helped build that alternative narrative we so desperately need.
Pakistan surely isn’t an extraordinary country. But Pakistan is a country brimming with extraordinary people. They are not perfect characters, yet therein lies their beauty. Extraordinary Pakistanis don’t wait for a perfect opportunity, a perfect personality or a perfect external landscape to make an impact. Unlike the rest of us, extraordinary Pakistanis aren’t turned off by the problems plaguing Pakistan. Where we see hopelessness, they see problems they can solve. Where we see a failed state, they see a nation waiting to be saved. And where we see escape as the only viable option, they see selfless determination to put things right.
If the ‘rest of the world’ has been tough on Pakistan, we have been even tougher. This is partly a result of a deeply insecure national psyche that feels we can do nothing right and yet wants to put on a brave face for the world to show that we have everything under control. This is why we wait for external recognition before giving ourselves a pat on the back for something we’ve done well. It’s time we start recognizing and supporting our own people.
One of the treatments psychiatrists use to treat patients with low self-esteem is to encourage them to celebrate their own achievements instead of craving external affirmation. Building on this treatment, I dream of a day when Pakistanis replace their messiah/savior complex with confidence in their own extraordinary ability to take charge of their destiny. Only then will we realize, as a wise man once said, that we are the people we’ve been waiting for. With this in mind, let’s join hands to recognize and support the extraordinary feats of Pakistanis all around us. If we don’t share these stories about Pakistan, no one else will.