Reverse swing: The changing nature of west-returned Pakistanis

Anecdotes abound about how the offspring of Pakistanis who had been living like ‘true Muslims’ in Europe and US were shocked to discover that Pakistan wasn’t the kind of a pious place that they had imagined it to be. This is an intriguing development.

By: Nadeem F. Paracha

In 2011, a friend told me an interesting little tale. A cousin of his who was 26 at the time and was born and bred in London, was visiting Pakistan for the first time. My friend was somewhat surprised to note that the cousin when he arrived (with his parents) ‘looked like a cleric.’ His father had left Pakistan for the UK in the late 1970s after getting married. The couple settled in London where their son was born in 1985. Though the cousin had visited many European countries and the US, this was his first ever visit to Pakistan.

My friend was slightly amused by the cousin’s get-up. But what truly shocked him was when during a conversation, the cousin told him that he found Pakistanis to be ‘incorrect Muslims’ (sic) and that he believed they (the Pakistanis) have ‘polluted Islam.’

My friend must have been expecting a highly rational young man, refined by the education which he had received at UK’s finest schools and colleges. My friend was certainly not expecting a person who was now wagging a finger at the way Pakistanis followed their faith and bemoaning (in a British accent) how the same Pakistanis had contaminated Islam.

Get out of my dr--a painting by Faiza Butt

Till about the early 1980s, Pakistanis who had lived in a western country for a few years and then returned home were often understood to have become more learned, and, of course, ‘modern’. One manner in which this could be understood is through the portrayal of such characters in the Pakistani films of the 1960s and 1970s.

Most such characters in these films were shown to have come back from the UK or the US as rational, enlightened folk. These films habitually saw an educated urbanite as a reasonable, intelligent (and far less religious) person than the one who lived in a village. More often than not (in the films) such an urbanite was a Pakistani who had travelled to Europe or the US for higher studies.

This character’s modernity (attained during his/her stay in a Western country) was largely celebrated by the films as being a constructive social trait to have. This trait went well with the project of ‘Modernist Islam’ initiated during the Ayub Khan regime (1958-69). The regime however fell to a violent students and workers movement in 1968-69.

The 1970s saw the emergence of a populist left-liberal government led by Z. A. Bhutto. Unlike Ayubian Muslim Modernism, the new regime’s populism advocated social democracy which claimed to be more rooted in the political, economic and social ‘wisdom of the masses’. Let’s see how Pakistani films of the era treated this new zeitgeist.

In the 1960s Pakistani films had celebrated the US or UK returned Pakistani as a person with modern, progressive ideas. But in the 1970s he/she began being portrayed as a longhaired, guitar-slinging and dope-smoking hippie!

In Urdu films during the Bhutto era, the west-returned Pakistanis began being seen through the prism of the earthly ‘masses’. This was a presumption, really. A conjecture constructed by the film-makers most of who came from petty-bourgeois backgrounds. This was how they had begun to perceive the west-returned Pakistanis.

Imran Qureshi, Moderate Enlightenment, 2009. Private Collection, Venice. (via ArtMag by Deutsche Bank)

This did not suggest that Pakistani society had shifted to the right. Not yet. It was just that the largely exclusive urban liberalism of the Ayub era (in the 1960s) had evolved (through Bhutto) into becoming a more populist, mass-level notion, now related to ‘socialism.’ The petty-bourgeois found themselves sandwiched between these two strands of modernisms.

Thus Pakistani films of the 1970s were peppered with a narrative which claimed that it was fine to be liberal, as long as one remained in touch with the traditions of their country’s culture. That’s why whereas the ‘foreign returned’ Pakistani hippie was portrayed as a bumbling buffoon in most 1970s films, a Pakistani who was equally liberal but managed to slip in a dialogue or two about ‘eastern values,’ became an admirable and aspirational character.

Take the example of the super hit Urdu film, Mohabat Zindagi Hai (1976). In it actress Mumtaz plays a Pakistani girl so influenced by ‘western culture’ that she spends longs hours at the bars and nightclubs of Karachi. On the other hand, her fiancé (played by the great Waheed Murad) who has come back after graduating from a university in the UK, is shown to be a more sober and intelligent personality because he is still deeply rooted in the traditions of ‘eastern culture.’

Film poster - Mohabbat Zindagi Hai (1976)

He does not come back as a hippie buffoon but as a man who despite spending years in the west, remained ‘eastern.’ Such a character was a soft predecessor of what would become of west-returned Pakistanis a decade or so later.

The 1970s were also a time when a large number of Pakistanis began traveling abroad. The only difference was that most were now moving to oil-rich Arab countries (for work). It is important to remember that till at least the late 1970s, Pakistan was a lot more pluralistic and liberal than most Arab countries.

Thus, Pakistanis going to these oil-rich counties were settling in places which were under the yoke of strict, puritanical monarchies; or states that were still in the process of being ‘modernized’.

By 1980, these Pakistanis had begun to send impressive amounts of money to their families back home, triggering the emergence of a prosperous new urban middle-class in Pakistan.

Pakistanis were exposed to puritanical strands of the Muslim faith practiced by Arab populations. This, mixed with the rising economic status of these Pakistani ex-pats in Pakistan, saw them understanding their former (more ‘moderate’) religious convictions as something associated with their previously lower economic standing.

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 puritanical Islam. The adoption of this strand became like a badge of higher economic status. This conversion was also hastened by the policies of a staunchly conservative military dictatorship that had toppled the Bhutto regime in 1977.

A ‘successful’ middle class Pakistani now came to explain an educated urbanite to be a trader, businessman or a white-collar employee of a reputed company, but who, at the same time, was now more likely to regularly observe Muslim rituals and preferably adorn ‘Islamic attire.’

Anwar Jalal Shemza, City Walls 1961 - Tate Gallery, UK.

After 9/11 Pakistanis living in the West too went through such a transformation. No more were West-returned Pakistanis associated with cultural modernism or liberalism as such. Because even though this transformation had been gradual among the middle and lower middle-classes within Pakistan, it was rather quick among the Pakistani diaspora. It was further accelerated by the popularity of travelling Muslim evangelists catering squarely to the urban middle-classes.

Anecdotes abound about how the offspring of Pakistanis who had been living like ‘true Muslims’ in Europe and US were shocked to discover that Pakistan wasn’t the kind of a pious place that they had imagined it to be. This is an intriguing development. West-returned Pakistanis are now perceived as being ‘better Muslims’ than those living in Pakistan. This is exactly what my friend’s cousin believed.

Had Pakistani cinema been thriving today, I’m sure our films would’ve now been portraying the new West-returned Pakistani not as a modernist or a hippie buffoon, but as a shocked Muslim wagging a righteous finger at his countrymen and advising them to repent — in an American/British accent.
Lead Writer

Nadeem Farooq Paracha is a Pakistani journalist, author and cultural critic.