London Mayor Sadiq Khan was asked a very strange question when he walked across the Wagah border from India into Pakistan. A BBC reporter inquired whether his visit to Pakistan was “like coming home”. His response was quick: “No, home is south London, mate”.
Khan was born to a working class British-Pakistani family in Tooting and grew up in the city of which he is now mayor. It was in his neighbourhood that he served as a member of parliament from 2005 to 2016. He has neither lived in Pakistan nor had a home here so the reporter’s identifying him as a “Pakistani” is a bit of a boo-boo. Before his political career London’s Muslim mayor was a lawyer specialising in human rights, often fighting discrimination cases. More recently, Khan secured Home Office funding for a new community sponsorship scheme in London and a coordinated approach to the resettlement of Syrian refugees trying to find their own home in a new city. On offer are homes, job and education opportunities, orientation support and English language classes. It may make him unpopular with some, but is in keeping with City Hall’s most-quoted slogan during his tenure: “London is open”.
That London’s mayor is so grounded in his city has me thinking about where I stand. I moved from Pakistan to the UK about 15 years ago and the time since then has moved both quickly and slowly. My work has been primarily Pakistan-focused, taking me ‘back home’ to Pakistan consistently. Yet my frame of reference has become increasingly expansive, my understanding of local occurrences is also conditioned by parallel knowledge that I have picked up elsewhere. This lurching between destinations has been confusing. Is home the past, a nostalgia-soaked memory of loss or is it the present reality of where one lives? How does one reconcile the values and ethics of these two places? Where does one belong, if one belongs anywhere at all?
In a world where migrants became a walking sea over the last few years, the idea of home itself is on shaky ground. For many of us who have left one temporal home for another in a different country, the factual contemporaneity of the idea itself is elusive and constantly shifting. Homi K Bhabha, one of the foremost theorists on the diaspora and post-colonial society, argues that the question “what is your cultural identity?” is in itself largely unanswerable. This is because “cultures are not a seamless whole. There are discordant elements; there are divisive elements; there are divergent elements”. The angst, which Bhabha calls the “anxiety of belonging”, may occur in the society where you were born or even where you choose to move to because you may not feel fully integrated into either. But perhaps it is this very space, that of the so-called misfit, which is the most exciting one to occupy. It allows us to defy societal parameters, to go beyond expectations and explore more diverse spatial occupations.
I for one am proud of my ‘Pakistani-ness’ while being aware that I may not always fit in conveniently into its more conventional parameters, especially in the manner in which it is evolving today. The polarisation in Pakistani society makes me wonder sometimes if the twain shall ever really be able to meet. Because ultimately polarisation can never be about diversity; it is about the inability to live together.
Equally, while I may not always feel uniquely ‘British’ or get every punch line in Only Fools and Horses, politically I find myself allying more easily with the liberal democratic ideals of my adopted country than with the ideological narrowing that is occurring in Pakistan and the way people are being squeezed out of the equation. It doesn’t make me less Pakistani to feel totally alienated from the triumph of might over common sense in Faizabad or to find Imran Khan’s dismissal of liberals as bloodthirsty extremists as anything but hypocritical considering his intolerant trajectory. I am quite happy to be a cultural hybrid on the outskirts of a culture, an ‘in-betweener’ rather than someone who cheers on a monolithic nationalism. And I will not do it over the dead body of a small, persecuted minority.
In some ways, those of us who migrate do so as part of a narrative. We make conscious judgements with reference to what we lose or gain: a better job or ease of travel with a different coloured passport is usually the assumption. But these choices are equally about differing values or choosing another home that doesn’t need you to live in constant protest. In this narrative, home may not be what we return to in the Conradian sense. It is possible to have more than one home; we may begin to feel comfortable in different places within varying contexts. This may increase our cultural anxiety. But is it imperative to ground oneself that firmly in one domain? There is no such thing as a forever home; even those of us who never physically move may find ourselves at different vantage points.
Maybe we need to look at what we think of as home anew. Home, after all, is not a static concept. It is not a linear diary of patriotism as defined by growling trolls on Twitter. Similarly the internet has also freed up the communities we participate in. Limiting ourselves to a thin identity is short-sighted, be it in or out of Pakistan. Us misfits, who supposedly don’t fit in here or there, are the lifeblood of creativity and growth in more than one society.
As dual citizens or overseas Pakistanis, we are often vilified in Pakistan. We didn’t stay back, we didn’t do enough and we didn’t contribute. We are not good enough to vote or to be voted in. This is often claimed under the illusion that those living in Pakistan are all perpetually employed in selfless nation-building. According to the State Bank, overseas Pakistanis sent remittances amounting to over $18.5 billion in 2016 alone. Try keeping the Pakistani economy afloat without that. It certainly is a whole lot more of a contribution than those living in Pakistan who send their money out to offshore investments.
The writer is a journalist based in London and works with the BBC World
Service as a broadcaster. Twitter: fifiharoon