Sunday, October 10, 2004

Pakistan: The "Global" Idiot Box

[The advent of Pakistani television in America is in many ways a disaster for those from our country who have made the United States their home. Its deleterious effects are already evident and with time they will only multiply. It is now possible — and hundreds of thousands of Pakistanis are proof of that — to live in America in a physical sense, but for all other purposes remain in Pakistan. After 9/11, most Pakistanis have gone into a cocoon. The soap operas that flow from the three Pakistani channels — marriage being the one and only theme — provide them with the escape that they think they need. The fact that it makes them non-functional in an emotional and psychological sense in this society, matters very little. They don’t see this slide into the never-never land of a never-never Pakistan as anything but normal. Only rarely, if at all, have I seen a Pakistani at a museum, an art gallery or a theatre. Also uncommon, in fact, most uncommon, is the sight of a Pakistani family eating at a non-Pakistani restaurant. The unreality of the lives that our people live here is hard to believe but that is the way it is.]

The Pakistani cocoon

Khalid Hasan

Most of our people live in cocoons and remain unmindful of what goes on around them and show no interest in the culture, literature or politics of the country where they live. Of those who do try to reach out, a large majority do so out of snobbery. The unreality of the lives that our people live here is hard to believe

The advent of Pakistani television in America is in many ways a disaster for those from our country who have made the United States their home. Its deleterious effects are already evident and with time they will only multiply.

It is now possible — and hundreds of thousands of Pakistanis are proof of that — to live in America in a physical sense, but for all other purposes remain in Pakistan. Were it the Pakistan as it actually is, it could perhaps be a good thing, but the Pakistan they live is the Pakistan of soap operas and the India of pirated DVD movies. Since most of the movies that can be rented or bought are Indian, the average Pakistani also lives a vicarious life in an India of the mind where everyone is dancing and singing in large, costumed groups and chorus lines all the time. If someone who knew nothing about India were to watch only Indian movies, he would come to believe that the only thing Indians do is dance and, further, that every Indian excels in calisthenics.

There are now three TV channels from Pakistan available on the satellite dish for an average cost of $15 a channel. There is not a single programme on any of them that has anything to do with this country. All programming has been prepared for a Pakistani audience living in Pakistan, not for those living abroad. However, that is of no concern to those who watch these channels. They may be living here physically but their minds and hearts are elsewhere. Every important visitor from Pakistan who comes here reinforces this escapism by telling his audience that they may be living in America but their hearts only beat for Pakistan. The Pakistanis lap up this sort of rubbish and I have never heard the applause to be lustier than when such a line is delivered.

After 9/11, most Pakistanis have gone into a cocoon. The soap operas that flow from the three Pakistani channels — marriage being the one and only theme — provide them with the escape that they think they need. The fact that it makes them non-functional in an emotional and psychological sense in this society, matters very little. They don’t see this slide into the never-never land of a never-never Pakistan as anything but normal.

The Pakistani press — there are at least four weekly Urdu newspapers from New York — is even worse in the sense that little of its space or attention is devoted to the country where its readers live or to the problems that they have to deal with. I have in front of me one of these newspapers. Only the top half of the page carries news, the lower half ads, including one from “Bokhari Sahib of Brighton, England, who promises to solve every problem under the sun”. He is adept at countering and reversing black magic and satanic spells. He can also “bring back your annoyed beloved”. Over 60 percent of the stories on page one relate to Pakistan. The back page (the upper half only, the lower being ads) has 13 stories, 10 of them about Pakistan.

As for the editorial pages, the leading article is about Shaukat Aziz’s remarks after taking office. The paper’s regular columnists are (with or without permission) Abdul Qadir Hasan, Hasan Nisar, Munnoo Bhai, Abbas Athar, Ataul Haq Qasimi, Zahoor Awan, Raja Anwar and eight others. Of the 15 columns, only two are devoted to an America-related subject. Most columns and news is lifted from the Pakistani press. The example is typical. The younger generation of Pakistanis cannot read Urdu, so the newspapers that we see today will either go out of business or change with the times.

I am not suggesting that once you migrate to another country, you should erase the memory of the country you came from. All I am pointing out is that most of our people live in cocoons and remain unmindful of what goes on around them and show no interest in the culture, literature or politics of the country where they live. Of those who try to reach out, a large majority do so out of snobbery. All they perhaps want is a picture on their living room wall with a senator or a congressman. There are of course those who are seriously involved in American political and social life but their number is abysmally small.

Only rarely, if at all, have I seen a Pakistani at a museum, an art gallery or a theatre. Also uncommon, in fact, most uncommon, is the sight of a Pakistani family eating at a non-Pakistani restaurant. The unreality of the lives that our people live here is hard to believe but that is the way it is.

However, I must close this column as it is time for my daily dose of a Pakistani TV soap opera called Ye Shadi Nahin ho Sakti.

Khalid Hasan is Daily Times’ US-based correspondent.

Daily Times 10/10/2004