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‘I’m a Pakistani and you’re just a Paki’: The Pakistani immigrant experience

In Kamila Shamsie’s seventh novel ‘Home Fire’ there’s a line where Pervaiz, a British Pakistani, meets his cousin from Karachi who tells him ‘I’m a Pakistani and you’re a Paki’.

I grew up as a British-Pakistani-Muslim in the post-9/11 generation. My parents moved in the 90s with four kids in tow and settled in a small town in the north. They tried to ingrain in us a love for their home country so much so that when my brother was seven years old the school dinner lady asked him if he was vegetarian and he replied ‘no, I’m Pakistani’. Their immigrant insecurity was that we’d become too British, too removed from our culture, too removed from their values, too removed from them. Yet we were removed. We spoke to them and each other in English, only using Hindko when we wanted to make a joke funnier, visiting Pakistan every summer with alien abducted smiles on our faces mostly keeping quiet until we were alone and could speak to each other freely. We were the angraiz.

(The Coopers is a sketch from British show Goodness Gracious Me, where two couples try to show how English they are, and refuse to acknowledge their actual ethnic backgrounds.)

But as good as we were at ventriloquising the English we weren’t fully one of them either – we felt British and not Pakistani but not not Pakistani . Although my family lived in a predominantly white town, at home it felt like I was in Pakistan again. It was almost like my parents’ desiness became more exaggerated the further away they were from ‘home’,  an attempt to cling on to an umbilical bond that was all but given up. While this was a common immigrant experience, after 9/11 and 7/7 this insularity was seen as a lack of integration especially prevalent among Muslims which made them more susceptible to radicalisation. Suddenly Islam was on trial and so were we. Holding on to our culture and religion became a ground for suspicion. We had to prove we weren’t a Trojan horse about to turn deadly, that we weren’t hardwired to violence rather than a love for Nando’s. The test for loyalty was no longer Tebbit’s test of which cricket team you’d support (anybody but England) but one that demanded we perform our loyalty to the British state in every other way.

As a result, British Muslims attempted to be the model minority, repeatedly assuring people that ‘true Islam’ was not what the ‘bad seed’ extremists said it was, gentrifying the discourse by pointing out all the doctors, lawyers, Olympic medalists, GBBO stars who were Muslims, stressing how Islamic values were inherently compatible with Western ones. Over time, a good Muslim became a depoliticised one, one who stayed quiet about foreign policy, apologetic about what was wrought in their name, and allies in the government’s pledge to wipe out radicalism. Eventually some of us stopped. Not only because it wasn’t working but also because it made us feel even more alienated to continue trying. It wasn’t until Four Lions released and I heard Waj saying ‘ay up ya unbelievin kuffar bastards’ that I realised jokes could be a pressure valve in an environment that had become all too hostile. We started joking about how being left on read felt like terrorism and needing shariah law because the only sandwich options at lunch that day were bacon sandwiches.

A few years ago my parents retired and moved back to their hometown in Pakistan. They’ve been asked countless times why they would choose to give up first-world comforts and their answer is always ‘it wasn’t our country’. For them the equation was simple, they spent 20 years in the UK and didn’t call it home because they already had a home. It’s not so simple for next-gen immigrants. I moved to Lahore last year and my link to Pakistan has been questioned more than my Britishness ever was. A type of reverse colonial condescension clouds many interactions – conversations peppered with ‘you wouldn’t get it but that’s how it works here’ the subtext always ‘this is Pakistan meri jaan not England’. British-Pakistanis are often discussed in a derisive way with Pakistanis thinking the working-class, poorly-educated louts who migrated have seemingly ruined it for the rest.

I moved to Lahore last year and my link to Pakistan has been questioned more than my Britishness ever was.

It’s strange to feel adrift in a country your parents feel so at home in, to feel discomfort speaking a language you grew up listening to, to feel like an outsider even when so much of your background is the same. British Pakistanis constantly feel the need to justify ourselves, to give others the right of way, whether we’re in the UK or in Pakistan. It adds to the feeling of cultural homelessness and it means there’s two sets of people we have to convince that the only thing we’re responsible for is 90% of the filet-o-fish sales at McDonalds.

But people change and so do cultures. There are more of us living this hybrid life now where we see neither country in its native hues but are coloured by both. If there’s anything immigrant navel-gazing pieces like this one should do, it may be to reflect the challenges in yo-yoing between the two but encourage the oscillation as well.

Because as difficult as it is to pose as a ‘good Muslim’ around Brits and feel like a Paki when you’re around Pakistanis, there’s a need to hatch our own space, create our own sub-culture, refract our own experiences onto the mainstream instead of playing the mannequin challenge hoping for acceptance.

1 Comment
  1. Zeerak

    August 7, 2018 8:42 am

    You live there. Fine. But don’t accept their culture. In your sub-conscious mind you must posses a sense of unfamiliarity for them. Don’t go about their social values with a submissive approach. If you do that, I bet you wont be having these problems when you come back here. 🙂

    Jo door gaye they bhooley se
    launtein gey phir watan ko ik shaam (and they would settle in and love ut and will feel home here)
    Wo din phir aaye ga jab esa houga Pakistan. <3

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