Pakistanis are Arabs

OK – so clearly that’s nonsense … but while I have your attention ..

Back in 2012, the Aspen Institute held a discussion called “My Middle East” featuring authors from around the “modern Middle East”. This included participants from various Arab countries, Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Each author was given an opportunity to provide insight into their unique Middle Eastern experience. The brilliant Daniyal Mueendin was representing Pakistan. When it was his turn to speak, he started rambling about how the question was confusing to him as he was not a Middle-Easterner and so didn’t really know what to say – in other words, he missed the point completely i.e for all practical purposes (and particularly from the perspective of the audience) his cultural experience was Middle Eastern enough. I should add that the participants from Turkey and Afghanistan had no such problems. To me this brought to the fore an issue that’s been bothering me for a while namely a tendency among affluent, liberal Pakistanis to underplay Pakistan’s cultural affiliation with the Greater Middle East and instead fixate eastward, towards India, for such cultural linkages.

Now part of this understandable given the Pakistani state’s ludicrous attempts at exactly the opposite i.e. to deny any cultural connection with India and claim that Pakistan came to being the day Mohammad bin Qasim set foot here. But just because this position is extreme does not mean the opposite must be true – in fact, I would contend that truth lies somewhere in between and not quite in the middle.

Given the emotional nature of this debate, let me get some controversial things out of the way. This is not about genetics, race, politics – neither is it about the superiority of any one group of people over others. Personally, I’m desirous of peace with India and pray for peace, prosperity and progress for all the people in our troubled region (east & west). To me this is simply a discussion about the dominant components of what we call the culture of Pakistan.

Let me also clearly say at the outset – it is insane to deny the links between Pakistan and the Indian world. In fact, the very name “India” is dervied from the Indus river – the birthplace of ancient Indic civilizations and the Hindu religion itself. I would even argue that the historically proper name for Pakistan is “India” distinct from “Bharat” i.e. the region comprising modern day India. But that was all thousands of years ago and since then we’ve had some .. uh .. stuff happen what with Pakistan being at the junction of Central Asia, Middle East and modern India and people of various races but mostly of the same faith (Islam) passing through and often settling down.

Also, my point here is not that the culture of India and Pakistan is dissimilar. Instead my point is that the culture of Pakistan in it’s essence is not Indian. And so if someone claims that the culture of India and Pakistan is very similar, I would argue that that means that culture of India is, in essence, not Indian either.

Now it is obviously not possible for me to publish a dissertation on the origins of the culture of Pakistan here. Instead I hope that (in this age of Google and Wikipedia) a cursory examination of the origins of various aspects of Pakistan life that fall under the umbrella of culture – cuisine, dress, arts, poetry, literature, festivals, rituals, architecture etc. etc. – will reveal their origin in an Islamo-Persian Turko-Mongol past with a sprinkling of Arab influence. No doubt, everything has been Indianised to varying extents – but the essence remains extra-Indian.

Let’s just talk about cuisine for a second. If I throw a chicken tikka on a pizza, it doesn’t make pizza Pakistani. Pizza is Italian period. Similarly, the fact that countless people in India at this very moment are eating Tikkah and Tandoori Naan does not mean that the Tikkah (Persian), Naan (Persian), Tandoor (Central Asian via Arabia) are Indian. Spanish rice is a Mexican staple but no one calls it Mexican rice. The same should apply to the cuisine that is widely (and wrongly) recognized as Indian cuisine by the world today. Kofta, Biryani, Qorma, Tikkah, Naah, Kebab, Halwa, Qulfi, Falooda (I can go on and on) – the most clear indicator of the origin of these foods is the origin of their names (Persian/Turkish/Arabic). How can we then call this food Indian (assuming “Indian” here implies origin – as it should).

We can extend this argument to all aspects of culture – shalwar qamees (Central Asian), sherwani (Persian/Turkish), the Taj Mehal, Badshahi mosque, the poetry of Ghalib and Iqbal, the calligraphy and art of Sadiqain – all grounded in the Greater Middle East with influences from the India. Minor point: Iranian author Reza Aslan used Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s “Tablet and the Pen” as the title of his book on the literature of the Greater Middle East.

How, then, can one make the argument that this culture is Indian in character? I really don’t understand. If anything, we can argue that this is the culture of the Muslims of British India, distinct from the indigenous culture of India. In fact, wasn’t this the argument that was made to justify the creation of the state of Pakistan i.e. the Muslims elites were concerned that under a dominant Hindu majority, this “Muslim” culture would be crushed and lost (unless you believe the ridiculous idea that the purpose of creating Pakistan was the establishment of an Islamic State). If all this is true, don’t the Muslims of Pakistan due to their historical and geographical links with the Muslim world have the greatest claim to this culture?

In fact, what has happened since partition is something that was never anticipated. Instead of the resurgence of a dormant Hindu culture, the Hindu majority wholeheartedly embraced Muslim culture, rebranded it as Indian and in the process even managed to convince the Muslims across the border of the same.

And yet, frustratingly, it is Pakistanis themselves who make no effort to claim this culture and in fact attribute it to Indian civilization (go read some reviews of Pakistani restaurants on Yelp – inexplicably Pakistanis will always refer to their food as “Indian/Pakistan” – and yes – we say “Indian” first. Bizarre.)

Here I have another interesting observation. An argument is commonly made, in private and public conversations that goes something like this: “we (Pakistan and India) are the same people, same culture so why are we involved in the problems of the Middle East and they’re not?” which, in my mind, always brings up the question “but what if the opposite is true i.e. it is precisely b/c of our connection to the Middle East that we are involved in those problems and that maybe we are, in fact, not the same people”

In my opinion, much of what plagues Pakistan today is emblematic of a deep-rooted identity crisis. We need to figure out and accept who we are – pronto. I would argue that we are neither Arab nor Indian but a distinct group with a distinct culture that we can rightfully be proud of. And none of this has to come at the expense of our relationship with India. We can claim it as our’s. They can claim it as their’s. Happens all the time. Let’s just get on with it.


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