If we meet at a party in New York you might ask me where I'm from. People usually end up asking me that. It's not that I'm very exotic looking. I am average height, slim, and I have ambiguously brown skin. I wear those dark-framed glasses that are pervasive in the legions of writers and journalists who find their way into this city, and I have plentiful facial hair that swells and recedes depending on the number of deadlines I am juggling. None of this makes me stand out terribly in New York. This is a city where the trains are filled with people from all countries of the world, each person with his own surprising story. That's one of the things I love most about being here. What might make you wonder about me is my language, specifically, the way in which I use and pronounce words. At first my American-accented English sounds perfectly natural. You will likely assume that I am American, and you will be right. I am American, and so you might judge it impertinent to explore my ethnic background. But in the flow of conversation, I might use a word — "supper" instead of "dinner" maybe — that pricks your ears as unusual. Or I might just launch, with passion, into a monologue about the sport of cricket. Then, spotting the lull in conversation, you may finally lean in and, over the pleasing din of courteous conversation, ask, "So, where are you from?"
"Pakistan," I will reply. "Well, my parents were both born in Pakistan." I was born in the American Midwest, but I have shuttled back and forth between America and Pakistan for my entire life. A year here, four years there, five months here, two weeks there; if I sit down to count it all, I might discover that I have split my time equally in the two countries down to the exact number of months. I'll tell you, "I'm 100 percent American and 100 percent Pakistani." It's true. Both countries and cultures are equally home to me. You might ask me where in Pakistan my family is from. I would tell you Lahore, and explain that it is the heart of the region in Pakistan known as the Punjab. I speak Urdu and Punjabi just as well as I speak English. For this reason, working as a reporter in Pakistan has been easier for me than it is for most other American journalists. And no, no one in Pakistan would think I'm from anywhere other than Pakistan.
I know that in your mind you linger on that word: Pakistan. No matter where you've been for the past decade, you've probably heard of this place, and often. You probably recognize the word well. It's a pop of a gunshot in the room. "Pakistan!" During the past few years you have been bombarded with information, images, ideas about this country, much more than you can recollect at this moment. But there are basic impressions: it is next to Afghanistan; it is next to India; it's Muslim; it has nuclear bombs, many nuclear bombs; it's the place where a man named Osama bin Laden was finally found. Whatever specific details you can recall are probably more or less accurate. So while I speak, you will be thinking of that Pakistan. But I also am thinking, as I speak to you, about the place that you picture in your mind — and to me it looks like a caricature, a dark parody.
Later in the evening, we might find ourselves together again, a group of common friends sitting around a coffee table loaded with empty glasses and half-eaten hors d'oeuvres. More comfortable and familiar, the conversation might flow more freely now and more honestly. Why is Pakistan such a mess? It's a fair question, but unless you have a few days to talk about this, I will try to point to the kernel of the problem. Pakistan is a unique country, and so it has unique problems. In August 1947, months before the state of Israel was created as a refuge for a nation of Jewish people, Pakistan came on the map as a home for all the Muslims scattered over South Asia. These Muslims were from dozens of different races and ethnicities and they spoke dozens of different languages and dialects. The one hundred million Muslims living in South Asia in 1947 made up more than a quarter of the world's Muslim population. Millions of Muslims packed up the stuff of their lives and migrated to this new state that hot summer, and Pakistan became the world's largest Muslim country at the time.
It was a remarkable new state. Most other Muslim countries that had won independence from European colonial rule during the twentieth century came to be ruled by kings or emperors or emirs. But Pakistan, emulating countries in Europe and America, aspired to become a constitutional democracy. Turkey was another Muslim-majority country that was formed as a constitutional republic after the First World War, and it self-consciously modeled itself after European countries as a staunchly secular state. But in Pakistan's case there was an important and fateful twist: Pakistan strove to incorporate Islam into its constitutional democracy.
The first Pakistani constitution declared the country a "democratic state" that would be guided by "principles of democracy, freedom, equality, tolerance and social justice as enunciated by Islam." While in one passage it stated that "the Muslims of Pakistan should be enabled individually and collectively to order their lives in accordance with the teachings and requirements of Islam," in the next it promised "adequate provision" for minorities "freely to profess and practice their religion and develop their culture." The first article of the constitution gave the country a name: "Islamic Republic of Pakistan." It was the world's first Islamic democracy. President Harry Truman of the United States wrote a letter to Muhammad Ali Jinnah, Pakistan's founding father, to tell him that the new country "embarks on its course with the firm friendship and good will of the United States of America." There had never been a constitution quite like Pakistan's before, and there has never really been a state like it ever since. This unique birth, I will suggest to you, is really when Pakistan's troubles began.
It had to be this way. The country was to be home to millions of people who did not share one language or ethnicity and sometimes engaged in vastly different cultural practices. The people of Pakistan did share a common religious identity; they were nearly all Muslim. And so it was hoped that despite all differences, this common Islamic identity would seal the nation. From the very beginning, people doubted that such a nation could ever work, and it was always going to be a tough challenge for a young state. Pakistan's experiment in Islam has been afflicted from the very beginning; the country's military has consistently disrupted democratic evolution, and the people's chosen representatives have failed, again and again, to live up to their promises. But the truth is that conditions outside the country never really helped, either. Pakistan sits right at the crossroads of the Middle East and South, Central, and East Asia. Just consider Pakistan's neighbors: China is to the northeast; India lines the eastern border; Afghanistan and Iran are to the west; the Persian Gulf nibbles on the southern coastline. It's a tough and volatile neighborhood.
And then, of course, there's America. It's very far away, but for better or for worse, America has been there at every tortuous twist and turn in Pakistan's modern history. Other countries in the world might be able to draw an imaginary line in time between the end of the Cold War and the beginning of the War on Terror, but for Pakistan, America's first global war bled fluidly into the next. The Cold War finished in Afghanistan and the War on Terror began there, and both times America chose to fight its war through Pakistan. America and Pakistan, my two countries, have been locked in a tormented embrace for my entire life and ever since Pakistan became an independent state. This nearly perpetual state of international war has taken its toll on Pakistan, but it's not all America's fault. To blame America would be a lazy explanation for the deep problems of a complex country.
I am a journalist and I have covered this latest global war from the front lines in Pakistan, and people sometimes ask me about the violence I have witnessed. Many thousands of people have died in Pakistan. Many have died by the bombs dropped from the robotic airplanes, called drones, which the CIA flies remotely over villages and towns in Pakistan's northwest. But the great majority of Pakistanis have violently died at the hands of other Pakistanis. Why are Americans bombing Pakistani villages? Why are Pakistanis murdering each other in extraordinary numbers? This violence is difficult to explain. All violence, I find, is difficult to explain. To be honest, I do not fully understand the reasons why people take each other's lives, but I have seen plenty of violence and so I know that there cannot be a singular, easy reason to explain every life lost.
I could try to describe the violence to you. I could try my best to explain how sizzling slabs of human flesh tend to cling to the walls or hang limply and quietly from tree branches after a bomb has ripped through a bustling marketplace with deadly ease. I could describe the trajectory along which a suicide bomber's limbs tend to scatter and what that might tell us about the kinds of explosives he is using. But you probably don't want to hear all this right now, and I don't like talking about this much either. So I will sanitize this talk of violence. I might speak abstractly about "military offensives" and "tactical leverage" and "political motives" and "instability."
Still, conversation about violence always becomes too morbid and too gloomy to continue. Exhausted by our collective curiosity about the world faraway, we might just drift back closer to home, back to the lighter experiences of being. We might chat about the richness and poorness of life in our shared city, New York. Maybe someone has discovered the best food-truck selling fish tacos deep in Queens. And as people begin shuffling out the door I would call after you. Clasping your hand, I would bid you a fond farewell. I would tell you that I sincerely hope we meet again at "one of these things."
The truth is, I would feel good about our encounter. I am caught in a war between two places I inhabit simultaneously. Pakistanis frequently kill American soldiers in Afghanistan. Pakistanis have tried to attack and kill civilians in many cities around the world. The American military and the CIA, meanwhile, will likely kill many more Pakistanis in any given week. The militaries of the two countries, all handshakes and stiff smiles for the cameras, seem to extract special satisfaction from terrorizing each other. The two countries are entangled in a secretive war that is unlike any other in the world. And that is why I would feel especially good about our meeting, because amid all the lying and cheating and killing and all the cloak-and-dagger diplomacy, I would have been able to tell you at least some of my story. I live for these moments of storytelling.
But I must be honest: I also know that I failed once again to explain the real story about a country that you really were hoping to learn more about. You see, it all goes back much further than six decades of history. In some ways the country's story goes back more than fourteen hundred years, to the birth of Islam, or even before that to the creation of language, or maybe even to the rise of mountains and the carving of rivers in the land millions of years ago. When I told you that I speak Urdu, the national language of Pakistan, I could have also explained that the word "Urdu" was used to describe a mélange of different ethnicities that settled in military encampments in the shadows of the Himalayas centuries ago. "Pakistan" is actually an Urdu phrase, I might have added, made of two words: pak which means "pure," and stan which, like the English word "stand," describes a state of being. The country is literally called the "Space of Pure." Since you don't speak Punjabi, you would not have realized that when I said that my family is from the Punjab region, I was actually saying that they are from a "land of five rivers." I never got to tell you that there is a seven-hundred-year-old grave on the banks of one of those rivers that, I am told, belongs to one of my ancestors. I never got to explain that the city of Lahore is named after Loh, the son of the mythical Hindu god Rama. There were so many avenues we could have taken to travel to the heart of the matter, but they mostly went unexplored.
It's not your fault or mine. How could you even begin to understand the story of a whole nation in one brief encounter? How could we even expect to understand each other's life stories in all their perfect contours? It would be impossible even if we lived down the street from each other. And stories of nations are convoluted and distinct, just like the stories of our own lives. Nations, like people, use stories to construct a particular place for themselves in this world. Nations have memories too — while you might remember that pep talk on that long drive home, the nation recalls the speech by the great leader atop the hill. You have that especially painful schoolyard fight, and the nation has that bad war on the border. You survived the terrible accident, and the nation lived through the great civil war. There was that move during middle school to a new city, which changed you forever, and the nation recalls the great migration, which changed everything.
Nations, like people, collect these stories as they grow. They line up words and they cement them together to build sentences, and these sentences join together to form concrete stories. These stories are stacked one upon the other with each passing day. And then one day, the special place in the world is built. From inside this palace of stories, we look out at the sprawling space around us and at the other palaces of stories built by other people and nations, some near and others far in the distance. From inside this space, we can explain to the world our existence and answer those questions that seem so tough when asked by an outsider, like "Where are you from?"
The words that make up a nation's history are vivid and colorful to that nation, because they choose those words carefully. Your stories are familiar and stirring because they are your special stories. And each story builds perfectly on the last one, because it is nations, like people, who decide the architecture of their existence in this world. When you pick one story from this edifice and share it with a stranger, it doesn't always translate. A word that you might have learned from your grandfather or from your founding father, which so clearly evokes a warm feeling in you, might sound like garbled noise to a person who speaks another language. And since others don't know how a particular story fits into the larger structure, they can never understand its full value or its meaning. At the end of it all, only you understand the grand scheme of your palace of stories.
Excerpted from THE FAITHFUL SCRIBE: A Story of Islam, Pakistan, Family, and War by SHAHAN MUFTI. Copyright 2013 by SHAHAN MUFTI Published by Other Press. All rights reserved.