Little did I know that a sojourn to recover from a trauma would turn into exile for me. Exile — forced, self-adopted or incidental — is banishment from your context. Almost a liminal space; where you suddenly know no belonging.
In the discourses of diaspora, the exiles are a marginal story. The ‘diaspora’ for a middle-income country like Pakistan is a source of remittance, a vehicle of transferring jobs, knowledge and skills. The exile is an odd feature of the story — a continuous affront to the nationalistic pride, contrary to the ‘image’ that states want to project and diplomats to peddle.
For decades now, a good number of Pakistanis have lived in such a state of being. Under the various military regimes — especially in the 1960s, 1980s and 2000s — several political activists, writers and even high profile politicians had to be away from their countries.
Intellectuals such as Prof Fazalur Rahman and Daud Rahbar who were the rationalists that our society needed, spent their lives in academia abroad. Their works are cited globally but have limited or virtually no traction within Pakistan.
Similarly, Tariq Ali – the flamboyant leftist of the 1960s — is a voice for the global Left movements save for his own place of birth. The examples are countless and varied. Yet, the common theme is exclusion, loss and purging of a society that needs only a certain type of scholars, artists and activists.
Dr Javed Ghamidi — Pakistan’s best-known rationalist Islamic scholar has been living in Malaysia for the past five years. Ghamidi’s work is hugely influential and has the potential to reshape the private and public manifestations of faith in Pakistan. However, he escaped a few suicide bombers who were nabbed just in time; his close associates were killed or attacked. I met him in Maryland a few weeks ago and his view was clear: The ‘moral pressure’, as he put it, of endangering others keeps him away from Pakistan.
This resonated with me as I witnessed precious human life atrophy in front of me last March. What scares me is precisely this nightmare: Of meditated or accidental harm to another human being on my account.
No other Pakistani exile is under global spotlight as the brave teenager Malala Yousafzai who lives in the United Kingdom with her family. The awards, accolades and inspiration across the globe are not enough to assure that Malala would not be targeted if and when she returns to Pakistan. This is the ultimate paradox of being a Pakistani in the 21st century. You are brave, modern and prepared to take risks, but the state may not protect you.
After my escape and subsequent travel to the United States to be with my family, another Pakistani writer and publisher, Shoaib Adil, fled Lahore in July 2014. Adil’s magazine Nia Zamana (New Age) was Pakistan’s only fearlessly liberal publication in Urdu. In Pakistan, we worked together on many stories and Nia Zamana reported the unspeakable issues. Shoaib Adil was harassed and taken to a police station for having committed blasphemy for serialising a book authored by an Ahmadi judge along with other bold topics he covered.
The words ‘bold’ and ‘brave’ in Pakistan’s context imply what in other societies may be considered a call of conscience. The June 2014 issue of Nia Zamana as Adil mentioned in an interview, highlighted the murder of Rashid Rehman, a human rights lawyer who was killed for defending Junaid Hafeez, a young scholar jailed for blasphemy. Afterwards, Adil said he received calls warning him of “dire consequences.” For months, he was in hiding. Since his arrival in the US, the hard copy of the magazine has shut down. Now an electronic version has been restarted. Life, as they say, goes on.
Several other Pakistani writers live in exile. Hasan Mujtaba, a poet and a columnist, struggles in New York to meet his ends. Khawar Rizvi in Washington D.C. is another journalist who was picked up by the authorities and left the country nearly eight years ago. All of them meet up, talk about Pakistan, write, opine and speak but their uprooted-ness is palpable.
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The friends-in-exile list grows. I met Iranians, Arabs and Latin Americans who have faced similar situations. But a Pakistani immediately becomes part of your story. Professor Shemeem Akhtar, author of several books, teaches at State University of New York, Purchase College. When I met her in August, she narrated how in 1998, Islamic clerics at Allama Iqbal Open University where she taught then brought charges of blasphemy, among others, against her. Akhtar feared vigilante attacks by extremists, suffered a hostile work environment and lived under threats. And she had to escape.
And what do people do in exile? Not all are fortunate. A young journalist from Sindh, Kashif Sarmad, currently in Texas, works at a gas station and wants to re-enter journalism. Asif Magsi from Balochistan, also living in the US, is finding ways to survive. He told me that threats still come his way via Twitter, Facebook and unwanted emails.
If you continue your work as an exile, then you face a barrage of mail and opprobrium. A senior official reportedly told someone that I staged the attack on myself to obtain immigration. Twitter accounts linked to Islamic extremists remind me that I am not forgotten and I should watch out. The jingoist social media teams are quick to call me a traitor for speaking my mind while ‘living abroad’. I am planning to write a cookbook now and if the logistics work out perhaps start a cooking show on TV. That is the most ‘positive’ communication I can think of.
Before I polish my culinary skills, in my bid to do something ‘safe’, I recently joined Ithaca College as a scholar-in-residence. One of the first persons I met here was Professor Asma Barlas who left Pakistan in the 1980s after she was persecuted for her opinions. Barlas, while in the Foreign Service, was charge-sheeted (and dismissed) for calling Gen Zia ul Haq a buffoon in her private diary, and for making critical remarks against the judges subservient to the military regime. Later, she joined Daily Muslim and her critical editorials got her into trouble. She fled from Pakistan and rebuilt her life; and now teaches at Ithaca College.
All I could think of is how Pakistan lost another exceptional mind. Other than the voluntary ‘brain drain,’ Pakistan also needs to remember those who wanted to but could not stay back.