The 13-year-old, her long, black hair spilling over her shoulders, bounced uncontrollably on the seat of the airplane.
She was on her way to her family’s ancestral home, Pakistan; her beloved grandfather was meeting her at the Islamabad airport.
And she was excited.
It’s my favorite place in the world, she chattered to the American sitting next to her. I’ve only been there three times but I love everything about it and the food is the best anywhere.
Iran, that was the girl’s name, was on a three-week holiday to visit her extended family in a small village south of Islamabad. There were six in Iran’s party, all of them women, who were traveling from their transplanted home in England back to Pakistan.
Suddenly, Iran stopped her excited bouncing and looked at me with her large dark eyes.
I just wish that people understood how wonderful Pakistan is, she said. Why don’t they?
It’s pretty clear that Iran knew what she was talking about.
A 2014 poll by the Pew Research Center found that 70 percent of Americans possessed an unfavorable view of this South Asian country.
But much of that negativity, as the 13-year-old Iran said, is based upon a simple misunderstanding of Pakistanis themselves.
Americans, especially since the discovery of Osama bin Laden within Pakistan, have distrusted this Afghanistan-bordering state. News stories focusing on the country’s many problems have demonized the country and its citizens.
The entertainment media also have painted an unflattering image. Across movie and television screens, Pakistanis appear as simple caricatures — men as bearded oppressors and women as the shrouded oppressed.
But like the United States, the people of Pakistan are not so easily categorized or simplified.
Like Americans, Pakistanis are multi-ethnic and multilingual.
There are no fewer than seven main groups of people – Punjabi, Sindhi, Saraiki, Pashtun, Urdu speakers, Baloch and Kashmiri – who reside in Pakistan, a country about twice the size of Germany. In addition, there are numerous minority ethnic groups, especially in Pakistan’s remote north.
Many of the groups retain their linguistic differences, although Urdu is the official state language. Despite that, 93 percent of Pakistanis speak a language in the home other than Urdu.
English, because of the former British colonial rule in the region, is also widely spoken, especially among urban dwellers and the upper classes.
And while Islam is the religion adhered to by most in this diverse country – which was created as a separate state for Muslims fleeing an India they saw as striving for Hindu domination – other religions co-exist within the country.
Indeed, people without a deep acquaintance with Pakistan could scarcely be expected to decipher its hidden codes.
But because of Pakistan’s clear importance to the West, it would behoove most of us to plunge into its cultural depths.
Most assuredly, Pakistanis are not the culture depicted in the West. Sadly, however, it’s these images that have informed Americans’ perceptions.
Like people everywhere, according to Anatol Lieven, a journalist and academician who has spent the better part of 20 years in the country, they are a “complex patchwork of light and shadow.”
Lieven, who has written perhaps one of the better-known books on the country and its people, “Pakistan: A Hard Country,” readily acknowledges the ambiguities within the country’s diverse population.
He also extolls its virtues.
“Pakistan is one of the most fascinating countries of my acquaintance, a place that cries out for the combined talents of a novelist, an anthropologist and a painter.”
Confronting our stereotypes
My challenge to you is to launch a personal exploration of Pakistan and the Pakistanis to learn more about this multifaceted country and its cultures.
Numerous news agencies, both in-country and outside it, offer glimpses of life in Pakistan that most Western media don’t have the news space to cover.
And then there’s the books such as Lieven’s that march readers through the 70-year timeline along which Pakistan’s history is traced.
But perhaps the best way to discover the Pakistani people themselves is via the tantalizing literature of the region.
One of Pakistan’s most well-known writers, Khushwant Singh, has written numerous books and short stories that provide insight into the culture pre- and post-Partition. In addition, The Guardian recently published a list of its choices for the 10 best books showcasing Pakistan.
Make it a personal mission this year to learn more about this fascinating country and its people who are so essential to the politics of the United States and the world yet so poorly understood.