I remember a friend of mine – she’s beautiful to begin with, with bone structure that would put Jolie to shame but unlike most Pakistanis, she’s a composition of contrasting colors and shades that’s difficult to find in this part of the world. She’s totally desi, with blond in her hair, green in her eyes and skin that’s not quite pale, but peachy and infused with earthy undertones that blends back into her eyebrows, giving her a particular celestial quality.
I repeat, she is beautiful. But she’s beautiful beyond what makes you and me beautiful – she’s unique.
She is a Pathan. In a crowd of brown skins and dark hair, the exclusivity of her look makes her the natural ideal for beauty standards in the country.
Looking at her, I used to envy her, and in quiet moments, still might. I think to myself, I want to look like that. I want to be that objectively beautiful, I want to be unique. But I’m not – I’m ordinary. I look like everyone else in the region. The most I’ve got going for me in terms of physical distinctions is a scar under my chin, a mark on my cheek from Chickenpox and dimples that pepper my cheeks, which I adore but it’s not exactly exclusive to me is it? In a group of other dimpled folks, which includes cousins and close friends, I can’t help but feel like I’m a CD case in one of those complete DVD box sets – grouped together, compatible and every single one of us dimpled.
But you know who is unique? My friend, Ali; his friend, Khizar; their friend, Raina – a whole community of people with contrasting colours and shades and they all have one thing in common: they’re Pathan. Granted, they’re not all blonde, not all blue-eyed – and not all fair-skinned, but all distinct in their own way, all unique and therefore all, by association of the word ‘Pathan’, desirable.
At least we Punjabis think so.
Pathan hote hi pyare hain is something you’ll hear often, not from Pathans themselves, but from us. But that’s not even the most enviable quality about them. They’re proud of who they are, and what it means to be Pashtun – a brave warrior-race, harboring a strong sense of community that, as an outsider, is quite alienating, and all this in its entirety is what we feel we lack.
I remember I got in a car once with Ali, and his two friends Khizar and Suleman. From the get-go, they started off in Pashto, with me just squirming around awkwardly in the front seat. Ali then barks, “Hey! In Urdu!”
Not five sentences later, they’re going off in Pashto again. Again, Ali shouts, “Yaar, Urdu mai!” then as a second thought he adds, “Or English!”
On account of my social anxiety, I manage a timid “I don’t mind, do whatever” and he gives up, only in that he feels it’s his duty to remind them one more time what languages they’re allowed to speak.
Except immediately after, Ali sets off in Pashto himself and I’m left to suffer wordlessly in the ride. Sitting as the only non-Pathan in that car, I found it rude. And yet, even that didn’t stop Ali and his friends from talking to each other in a language that someone else in their company did not understand.
Later, he said about it, “We can’t help it, it always happens.”
To recount this anecdote is just to say that this spirit of kinship runs very deep, and at the heart of it is Pashto.
If you’re in a group of people, and two are Pathan, chances are they will gravitate towards each other – and whether young, old, upper-class or lower, they will speak to each other in Pashto. And still, the fact of the matter is, you won’t ever hear a Punjabi youth speaking to another in Punjabi – not conversationally, unless specifically to make a point.
And why’s that?
Well, to put it bluntly, Punjabi’s real unsexy.
Primarily spoken by the old guard or the lower classes with a harsh twang, Punjabi’s deep association with crude ‘80s films makes it highly unpopular with urban populations, especially with the urban middle and upper class youth. Punjabi does nothing to bind us, and in fact, works over to alienate us even more. As a result, we’re very jealous of this sense of community and the language that serves as the mechanism to strengthen their bonds. Both are extraordinary to us.
And yet, simmering under these feelings of inferiority, or born out of it, is a raging superiority complex that manifests itself in terrible ways
Pathan hote hi pyaare hain, lekin lecher bhi hote hain, ghaleez bhi aur jahil bhi.
Those are the general spoken-aloud sentiments that permeate our society. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard, “Pathan sai shaadi nai krte” or “Pathan paghal hain” from the people around me – the implication being that they’re “fags” in the first, and violent misogynist schemers in the second. But to my parents’ credit, I don’t feel as if I ever grew up hearing this – the first time I heard anything of the sort, I was in my late teens and even then, I couldn’t quite comprehend what was being implied, and what it had to do with being Pathan.
“Perfectly good Punjabi daal-eating people talk like me when they speak to me. I don’t know if they do it on purpose, but they do it, thinking I don’t notice but I do.”
When Ali first says this, we’d just finished taking an intense exam and we were sitting outside in the grounds opposite the cafeteria. Instantly, my mind flashes back to the year I met him – he’d raise his hand and everyone would look at each other and smile knowingly. He’d speak and they’d purse their lips together, trying not to laugh. And when he finished talking, you’d hear an audible snicker ripple through the classroom, his strong Pashtun accent being the butt of the joke.
Everyone was giggling as he spoke – even he was grinning a little, slightly embarrassed, clearly unpracticed as he stumbled through his lines.
One class in particular that I remember – he was presenting. Everyone was giggling as he spoke – even he was grinning a little, slightly embarrassed, clearly unpracticed as he stumbled through his lines. But in that brief moment of quiet that followed a collective class laugh, someone in the back mimicked the last sentence that came out of his mouth.
As I heard it, my heart sank he looked up abruptly, eyes flashing with anger and hurt, but only momentarily, very coolly, only as long as it took him to take his eyes off his paper, focus on us and back. He returned to his presentation without a second thought.
This predominantly Pakistani issue of discriminatory and borderline racist behaviour that was in habit of being passed off as cultural in-jokes had always bothered me and I couldn’t help but think of these things when he spoke to me that day outside the cafeteria, though they’d happened almost a year ago. Often, I’d wondered whether he’d pay attention to these little episodes that worked against him in his daily life and here, in this one line, I had my answer. And again, my heart sank.
As we sit together, I try to offer something, some consolation – something – but nothing made sense. He just shook his head.
After a brief moment of silence, I ask if he’d ever felt discriminated against as a Pathan. There’s surprising insight in his answer – “I don’t know. I don’t think so. They’re just jealous.”
“Jealous of what? Why?”
And without a moment’s pause, without hesitation, he says, “Because we’re better than them.”
I laugh a little at the pettiness of the statement. He laughs, too. Then in a bid to ease the tension, he says, “Daalkhor, easy ho jao.”
As he returns to his shawrma, I glance at him, because that’s just it. I’m daalkhor – Punjabi and dark, and he won’t let me forget it. In his cool endearing little nickname for me, in his casual asides commenting on the colour of my skin that pepper our everyday conversation, these were just another set of cultural in-jokes, except this time, the joke was on me. I’m Punjabi. Ordinary. He’s Pathan – he’s extraordinary – at least that’s what society dictates, right?
In that moment, I realize this love, this hatred, this intense jealousy that we feel for them?
It goes both ways.
But jealousy in what sense?
Punjabis benefit more from these racial tensions and relations more than Pathans do. There are strong stigmas and prejudices against Pathans that aren’t there against Punjabis. Why wouldn’t Pathans as a group want the same sense of security and opportunities awarded to Punjabis?
Why wouldn’t Punjabis as a group want that same sense of strength and brotherhood that Pathans are known for? Why are we disallowed a celebration of ethnic identity, of native language, in our communities? Because some of D-rated ‘80s films? Strength in communities is wonderful. Celebrating diversity in all shapes and forms would be a strong step forward. Having an open dialogue on race relations, whether between Pathans and Punjabis or other groups is crucial.
If we can’t respect and honor ourselves, if we can’t respect each other, and help each other up, then we’re simply a band of tribes confined by our country’s border, and nothing more. But if we want to be better, then we need to do better.