I have learned a lot from living in Pakistan over the last four years. Among other things, I have learned not to take things for granted, such as electricity, green grass, and proper cheese, since these are things that you really miss when they’re not available. I have also learned a new language (Urdu) and am starting another one (Farsi), an appreciation for new styles of music, and also that Islamabad International Airport is to be avoided unless absolutely necessary (not for nothing was it recently declared to be the worst airport in the world).
Yet Pakistan has taught me a lot more than just these things. Here, as a tribute to the people of Pakistan, is the single most important thing I have learned since moving here:
People Are People, Not Stereotypes.
When we look at the world it is so tempting to deal in generalisations. The world is so infinitely complex, so varied and confusing, that it is simply too much for most of us to cope with. A common response is to retreat into stereotypes and generalisations as a way of imposing some kind of order on the vast and bewildering morass of humanity with whom we share this planet. Think about any country, any nationality, and it is a pretty safe bet that the images which pop into your mind owe more to stereotypes than to reality: British people are all awkward and cook badly, Americans are all arrogant and insular, French people are always on strike, Germans don’t laugh, Koreans eat dogs, and so on. We use these stereotypes as a way of feeling superior, feeling more knowing and more important, than others.
I remember having this stereotyping influenced resoundingly shattered when I visited the USA for the first time. British TV and culture in general had given me the impression that Americans are all dumb, overweight, and arrogant – and then I encountered actual Americans, all of whom were polite, hospitable, funny, kind, and genuinely interested in the rest of the world. Except, perhaps, for US Border Control agents, who, to put it mildly, are not the best ambassadors for their nation.
This lesson has been reinforced time and time again during my time in Pakistan. For the first time I have lived among a Muslim majority, surrounded by Muslims all day, every day, for four years. Even as I typed the world “Muslim” the same lazy stereotypes popped into my mind: 9/11, Islamic State, Iraq, Afghanistan, religious homogoneity, oppression of women, and all the other crude and malicious labels which the Western media casually slaps onto the faces of the couple of billion Muslims in the world. I probably expected to encounter devout Muslim men, quiet and submissive Muslim women, and that all of them would exhibit a vague sense of distaste for me, a Christian, living amongst them.
Well, it didn’t happen, and I feel ashamed of even harbouring such suspicions. I have encountered devout Muslims, atheist Muslims, rich Muslims, poor Muslims, Muslims from areas so remote that they don’t know how to use an escalator, Muslims so Westernised that they know more about London than I do. I have met Shias, Sunnis, Ismailis, Muslim missionaries from the Tablighi Jama’at, Muslims from sects I have never heard of. I have met quiet and meek male Muslim scholars and bold, vivacious female scholars. My Christian faith has been both an item for polite concern (“why don’t you convert to Islam?”) and also for genuine delight (“I knew that there must be religious people in the West!”). I have been robbed at gunpoint, had my pocket picked, had my laptop stolen at a Lahore bus station, and have frequently been offered tea, vegetables, and taxi rides, all for free, all from poor people, simply because I am a guest. Interestingly, I often feel as though the people I meet are also having their preconceptions challenged: a Westerner who is polite? A Westerner who learns our language and respects our culture? Hmm, perhaps these goras (foreigners) are different from what I had been told…
The infinite variety of the world’s inhabitants cannot be reduced to a series of clumsy labels. It is stupid and arrogant even to try. God has created a world of immense and delightful variety, too diverse ever to become boring, and in boiling it down to a string of lazy clichés we are insulting both him and his creation and widening the divisions between people of different cultures
People are people, they are not stereotypes. In a world of growing division, a world in which hostility and suspicion grow day by day, we simply must stop treating our fellow human beings as though they were one-dimensional stereotypes. We can each do a huge amount to promote world peace by simply stepping across the cultural chams which divide us and getting to know one another – as Muslims, as Christians, as atheists, as human beings.
It is fitting that I learned this lesson from Pakistan, a profoundly misunderstood country. Thanks for the hospitality, Pakistan, and for the mangoes, and for the hospitality. I love you all very much.
Even you, Mr Lahori Laptop Thief.