We were having dinner with a Pakistani family in Toronto a few months ago. The food, unsurprisingly, was excellent. We chatted amicably about Pakistan and the things we appreciated and admired about it. Our hosts found this strange, saying that they saw nothing good in Pakistan, but only corruption and anger. It is odd but true that some of the staunchest critics of Pakistan are expatriate Pakistanis. My wife and I found ourselves in the odd position of praising Pakistan to Pakistani people, who only wanted to criticise it.
The man who had invited us to dinner looked me straight in the eye. “Of course you enjoy Pakistan” he said simply. “You can leave any time you like”.
The statement was made so simply, so truthfully, that it cut through me like a knife. He wasn’t being malicious or critical, he was merely stating the truth. And it is undeniably true. My white skin and British passport give me a uniquely privileged position in Pakistan.
Think about it: if I ever want to leave, all I have to do is buy a plane ticket and head to the airport. I have enough money for it, and a choice of airlines and destinations, and I could be out of here in five hours. I could come back in a week, or a month, or not at all. If I get in trouble in Pakistan the British High Commission will (at least in theory) take the responsibility of getting me out of it.
And then there’s the traditional hospitality which Pakistanis extend to foreigners. I am regularly waved through police checkposts. I am never asked for bribes. Everyone treats me like a celebrity, to such an extent that I am actually embarrassed by it. A few weeks ago I was queueing at the bank to pay my electricity bill. When the people in front of me discovered that I was a foreigner they all stepped aside – all twelve of them – and let me go first. I was profoundly embarrassed but rather touched.
All of this is very nice, and very unfair. Why should I be treated differently to anyone else? If I were a Pakistani citizen, especially one without the benefit of wealth or personal connections, life would be much more difficult. Is that fair? Not in the least. But that’s the kindness of Pakistanis for you.