Monday, September 28, 2009

Chocolate Americans

My cousin said something to me yesterday that took me a little by surprise. "I don't understand why the world thinks Pakistan is such a militant, backward country. In my experience, we have more freedoms now than ever before." Really? Wow. I mean, his perspective is perhaps slightly skewed - he comes from quite a wealthy family. When he told me this, we were cruising the neatly trimmed streets of Gujranwala Cantt, the posh, army-dominated district of Gujranwala city about a hundred kilometers northwest of Lahore, in his father's Honda City sedan. The area is the Brentwood of Punjab (or the Bridal Path, if you're Torontonian). We passed by homes that in Canada or the U.S. would be considered mansions - individually designed, palatial properties oozing rupees.

For Pakistan's elite, life is perhaps better than ever. The rich are raking in money and there is a very determined push amongst them to appear more westernized in the face of all the negative press Pakistan is getting these days. I'll call it the Negative Space Syndrome: the more you tell them what they are not, the more vociferously they will try to prove that's exactly what they are. Modern and progressive is the prevailing image these days, which is doublespeak for Western.

Can I blame them? Of course not. The fact is that the West has become synonymous with modernity. To be modern means to wear jeans and t-shirts and sport spiky hair (my cousin also told me about a trend sweeping the Pakistani A-list that requires one to wear jeans to formal events). The modern Pakistani speaks perfect English and knows the difference between a salad fork and a dessert fork. He, or she, listens to music based on western elements - 4/4 time signature, 4-bar phrasing, and if you can squeeze in an electric guitar, so much the better - and watches television programs that depict other Pakistanis living western-style lives in smartly decorated homes with manicured lawns and designer furniture. The progressive Pakistani is a voracious consumer, and damn proud of it (this doppelganger, you see, is a little behind the times, flagrant consumerism is not the dirty little secret it's becoming in the west, at least not yet). Oh, and yes, of course he plays golf.

There are more of these chocolate-Americans than you'd think. Pakistanis just want to fit in; they want in to in-crowd. As much as I'm a little miffed by this copycat caravan, I also have to admit that a part of me wishes the west would pay a little bit more attention to it. I mean, this is what they want is it not? For Pakistan to be modern? Wouldn't it be nice if all of us could sit around the same dinner table without worrying about embarrassing cultural faux-pas? Not to worry, Ma and Pa Smith, Ma and Pa Khan have learned the ropes! Well, some have, those who can afford it, in Karachi and Lahore, and in gated communities like the one my cousin lives in in Gujranwala.

Is the number growing? I can't say for certain but it certainly feels that way. There are a handful of television stations that now cater to this demographic. Dawn TV is the most well-known, Pakistan's only all-English news and lifestyle network that runs shows like Breakfast at Dawn (talk show), A Taste of Fusion (cooking show), and Framed (all about the arts). It seems to be doing well and growing.

The world, unfortunately, still doesn't know much about it. The western media remains fixated on that other Pakistani face: the bearded, fanatical, scowling mug so typically imbibed by western audiences. Personally, I don't blame them. They - me included - are after news, not to promote Pakistan. That, I'm afraid, is up to Pakistanis. Some efforts are being made, however. Dawn will be broadcasting in the U.S. soon. Watch out for it. You may be surprised by what you see.


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