Growing up as a second generation immigrant of working class parents in the West Midlands, I easily identified with being Pakistani more so than British. Indeed being a Muslim came before being British. There was a comfort in this; as Pakistanis and Muslims we were as good as anyone else in our tight knit local community. My grandparents and parents dreamt of returning to Pakistan having made their fortune. Each evening, just before we went to sleep, our paternal grandparents who lived with us would tell us all about Pakistan; the sunshine, the happy family life, the security of being within a Muslim community, the local fruit that tasted so much better than what we had in England and so on. In short, over time they built up an image of Pakistan that was founded upon an idyllic dream, one that would be shattered upon visits to Pakistan in the coming years.
England was never home, it was never permanent; which was just as well as the English were dirty, bad-mannered, immoral, didn’t look after their elders and were therefore destined to lead lives full of great unhappiness, and if that were not enough, having parted this mortal coil, they would burn in hell for eternity. So it was fortunate that we had no intention of remaining in England and therefore risk being contaminated by the infidel locals. Indeed this was probably also the reason their unfortunate cricket team kept losing, and why Imran Khan looked like a Greek God when compared to Graham Gooch. Oh yes! ‘Our’ team had even come close to toppling the mighty West Indies, whereas England was struggling to register a win. How proud we were of Pakistan!
But there was also an undercurrent of confusion; my grandparents and parents loved English people individually. There were the neighbours, my dad’s colleagues, parents of our school friends; they were lots of lovely English people all around of whom my family were very fond. But they were different somehow, not to be gotten too close to. We didn’t dwell too much on our beliefs that these non-Muslims would go to hell. We didn’t need to dwell on them, after all we had our family and friends back ‘home’, with whom we would surely be reunited in the coming few years.
This is the atmosphere in which my sisters and I grew up (my brother came along many years later). In time this fragile and confused foundation began to crumble. This is perhaps not the time to document the events that played key roles in shattering our perceptions of Pakistan and England, (and neither could I hope to recall them all) other than to mention that they included close friendships with Non-Muslims, the death of close family members in Pakistan and England, university educations for three of us and a sequence of disastrous visits to Pakistan.
To recount one such visit, my mother, brother and I went to Pakistan in 2007. By now I was a university lecturer at Southampton and holder of a PhD in computational chemistry, my brother was a scholarship boy at King Edward IV School, Birmingham; we had become comfortable in our skins as British citizens. Despite wearing only Western clothes in England, my mother asked me to wear traditional Pakistani clothes, the shalwar kameez; I didn’t hesitate to do this, having no desire to cause any problems. This would be the first and least upsetting of the concessions I would make on that trip. We stayed in our ancestral village of only 15 houses, near Rawalpindi. A village in which i was not allowed to leave the house if there were non-local men simply standing outside someone else’s house; it would bring shame upon the village if they looked at me, an eligible female.
In the evenings family and friends would come to visit us, and often ask about England. Defending England and the English only brought accusations of us having deviated too far from ‘our own’ culture. I soon discovered that ‘our’ culture included emotional blackmail of girls to marry where their parents wanted, girls waiting on their brothers hand and foot, women not being allowed out of the village without a male chaperone, open verbal abuse directed at Muslims of other sects such as Shias and Ahmedis, a blind eye turned to corruption, a blind eye turned to men dating multiple women simultaneously but women being disowned for even speaking to a man outside of the family. This was a shock to us. I recall one incident in particular when my brother was taunted by our cousins for declaring that gays should have the same rights as heterosexuals. A few hours later when he offered to help an aunt with the housework as she was clearly struggling, my cousins deduced that he had done so as he clearly was gay and therefore not a real man. I am not ashamed to admit that at times my brother (15 at the time) and I were both in tears, with anger, frustration and sorrow too. If we spoke out the family would accuse us of having become too Western or in my case, in the case of a female speaking out against what the men of the village were saying, then clearly I had become an immodest, shameless disgrace.
This visit to Pakistan more than anything else cemented my alienation from Pakistan and my sense of belonging to England. I was finally able to admit freely, first to myself and then to my family, that I love Shakespeare, Keats, T.S.Eliot, E.M. Forster. I love Warhol, Bacon, Hockney and I am not ashamed of it. I loved Liverpool Football Club in a way i never could the Pakistan cricket team, in short I am English.
This relationship with Pakistan is not so simple however, for I have experienced remarkable acts of generosity and kindness in Pakistan, have met some truly wonderful people, have seen great beauty in the mountains and rugged terrain and the intense brightness of the stars in the village skyline devoid of any artificial light, I have loved the smell of the jasmine flowers at night and the unique smell of cow-dung fuel during the day. So while I am English, my life revolves around England, and would never consider living in Pakistan, I do have rather a love-hate relationship with the latter.
The writer is a female, academic scientist at the University of Southampton, British with Pakistani heritage.