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A short cultural history of west-returned Pakistanis

Monday 4 January 2016, by siawi3


Nadeem F. Paracha

Dec 31, 2015 12:56pm

In the 1950s and 1960s, Pakistanis who had lived in a western country and then returned home were usually perceived to have become more informed and ‘modern’.

One way of observing this is to study the way the country’s once-thriving Urdu cinema portrayed such Pakistanis. For example, across the 1950s and 1960s, most Urdu films that had a character who had returned from Europe or the US was usually portrayed as a wise and enlightened person.

Cinematic narratives in this context went something like this: An educated city dweller was seen to be more level-headed and less religious than a person from the rural areas. And such a city dweller was usually a Pakistani who had gone to the West for studies or work.

Pakistani film actor Santosh often portrayed the character of the wise and enlightened western-educated hero in Urdu films of 1950s and early 1960s.

Then, in the 1970s, Pakistan elected its first popularly elected government led by the left-liberal populist, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto.

Bhutto’s populism was a regional version of social democracy that was supposedly positioned to be more rooted in the common wisdom of the ‘masses’. It is even more interesting to note how Pakistani films treated this new phenomenon.

As the radical social youth movements of the 1960s in the West exhausted themselves, they became more faddish in content. These emerging fads and fashions also arrived in Pakistan.

So whereas in the 1960s, most Urdu films had celebrated the US or Europe-returned Pakistani as a person possessing modern wisdom and progressive ideas, in the 1970s he/she was usually portrayed as a wild guitar-slinging and dope-smoking hippie.

In Urdu films, during the Bhutto era, though the ‘level-headed’ US/Europe returned Pakistani was still perceived as being progressive, many of his more socially ‘liberated’ contemporaries were seen seen through the prism of the so-called ‘masses’.

Interestingly, this perception of the ‘masses’ was mostly helmed by film-makers with petty-bourgeoisie backgrounds, though such portrayals did not mean that Pakistani society had shifted to the religious right. Not just yet. It was just that the urban liberal tenor of the Ayub Khan dictatorship (1958-1969) had mutated (during the Bhutto regime) into becoming a more populist notion.

Thus, Pakistani films of the 1970s came with a new narrative that now suggested that it was fine to be liberal, as long as one remained in contact with the cultural traditions of his/her surroundings.

So where the Europe-returned Pakistani hippie was portrayed as a bumbling hippie buffoon in most 1970s films, an urban Pakistani who was equally liberal but managed to slip in a dialogue or two about ‘eastern values’, became an admirable aspiration. Again, this projection was more of a petty-bourgeoisie perception, rather than of the masses.

The rootless hippie types were also shown to belong to rich families as a way to attack the industrial classes that the Bhutto regime was denouncing.

Two faces of west-returned Pakistanis in the Urdu films of 1970s: The progressive-rooted in-‘eastern tradition’ fella, and the rootless, wild, dope-smoking hippie.

Two faces of western-return Pakistanis in the Urdu films of 1970s: The progressive-rooted in-‘eastern tradition’ fella, and the rootless, wild, dope-smoking hippie.

The 1970s were also a time when a larger number of Pakistanis began travelling abroad. The only difference this time was that whereas almost all Pakistanis used to travel to Europe or the US for work and studies in the 1950s and 1960s, many now began moving to the oil-rich Arab countries (mostly for work) from the mid-1970s onwards.

Up until the late 1970s, Pakistan was a lot more pluralistic than most Arab countries. Pakistanis going to these countries were actually going to places that were squarely under the yoke of monarchies and autocratic regimes whose states were still in the process of being ‘modernised’.

Soon these Pakistanis began sending impressive amounts of money to their families back home, triggering the emergence of a prosperous new urban middle-class.

The process that saw these Pakistanis being exposed to puritanical strains of the faith practiced by Arab populations and also enjoying a sense of their rising economic statuses back home generated a whole new strand of Pakistanis who now began relating their former religious and social dispositions as something associated with low economic status.

This is at least one reason why from 1980 onwards, a large number of urban middle and lower-middle class Pakistanis began sliding towards various shades of puritanism. Or at least pretending to.

This process was also hastened by the policies of a staunchly conservative military dictatorship that had toppled the Bhutto regime in July 1977.

A successful middle-class Pakistani now denoted an educated urbanite who was a trader, businessman, banker or white-collar employee, but who, at the same time, was now more likely to observe regular prayers and preferably adorn religious attire.

Pakistanis rearing to travel to rich Arab countries were often parodied in Urdu and Punjabi films of the late 1970s.

Pakistanis rearing to travel to rich Arab countries were often parodied in Urdu and Punjabi films of the late 1970s.

In the post-9/11 scenario, Pakistanis living in the West, too, went through this transformation. And though this transformation had been more gradual and slower among the middle and lower middle-classes within Pakistan, it became more pronounced within the Pakistani diaspora in the Middle-East, Europe and the US.

It was mainly accelerated by the popularity of travelling Islamic evangelists catering squarely to South Asian Muslims living in the West.

No more were West-returned Pakistanis being associated with cultural modernism as such. Nor were they free-wheeling wags.
So who are they now?

Anecdotes abound about how the offspring of Pakistanis who had been living in Europe and the US from the 1980s onwards were shocked to discover that Pakistan was not the kind of a Republic they had imagined it to be.

This was an intriguing development. West-returned Pakistanis are now perceived, or rather perceive themselves to be ’better Muslims’ than those living in Pakistan. This is how they like to distinguish themselves.

Had Pakistani cinema been thriving today, I’m sure the films would have now been portraying the new West-returned Pakistani not as a wise modernist or even a hippie buffoon but as a shocked Muslim wagging a righteous finger at his compatriots and advising them to repent, albeit in their American/European accent, of course.

Nadeem F. Paracha is a cultural critic and senior columnist for Dawn Newspaper and