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September 5, 2017

Freedom in exile


September 5, 2017

There is a moment in Asghar Farhadi’s ‘A Separation’, where the protagonist, Nader, accuses Simin, the headstrong wife, of destroying the family’s life through her obdurate pursuit of emigration to a Western shore. The movie chronicles the couple’s life over the course of some weeks, as it spirals and descends into near chaos.

The unfortunate events – from the separation, the dysfunction introduced into the domestic routine, as Nader struggles to keep a job, look after his incontinent and aging father, emotionally safeguard his confused teenage daughter to the death of an unborn child in an accident – are all too absurd and random to appear believable, but convey Farhadi’s essential treatment of the subject of voluntary exile from one’s homeland.

He condemns indirectly this desire for foreign shores and the notion that economic disenfranchisement can be reversed or that state oppression can be escaped with emigration. Through the collapsing lives of Nader and Simin, he seems to offer the viewer a looking glass that portends a more troubled future. Yet he also examines the motivations behind such decisions: there is desperation wrought by poverty in the actions of the other main actors of the drama, Hodjat and Razieh, defeated and victimised by a collapsing justice system, neglected and oppressed under an authoritarian regime and for whom, therefore, revenge of any sort is the only remaining and sobering purpose in life, their sole means of emigration and escape.

Exile and emigration also feature hauntingly in J M Coetzee’s autobiographical novel, ‘Youth’, where the author leaves his native South Africa – a country too violent, too divided, too glaringly exploitative in his experience to hold any incentive of a future – to arrive in England, in the hopes of making a life in a more civilised world and attempting to launch a literary career. Instead he experiences disillusionment, alienation and a crushing loneliness. He navigates the streets of London, trapped in a repetitive, stultifying routine that takes him back and forth from his home to his workplace. The little poetry he produces in this time, he himself dismisses and is plagued with the prospect of battling through weekend after weekend of irredeemable desolateness, with the numerous art galleries, the bookstores and markets of London failing to provide sufficient distraction.

When he contemplates relationships with English women he finds himself failing to emerge from his own critical self-assessment in any positive light. He imagines how they may regard him with his gaunt, lanky frame and his elongated pale complexioned face – too ordinary, he declares, and his manner of dressing too unfashionable for the likes of a young English girl. So he fails in love, time and again. For the young Coetzee it appears, he has come to believe in his ‘otherness’ in a foreign land, that he has unwittingly embraced his alienation. When he learns of the chance arrival of a cousin from South Africa he is almost thrilled. There is hope in rediscovering the familiar, on treading known ground, but here too there is a conflict in re-embracing that which he chose to voluntarily abandon, a fear of being pulled back into a life to which he has bid goodbye.

Emigration and exile are necessary features of life in the third world perhaps. For countless Pakistanis, their homeland offers no prospects of a future or perhaps not the kind of future they imagine they deserve. Whether it is changing domestic circumstances, economic uncertainty, or sectarian oppression, or a quest for peace and tranquillity, or the desire for higher education – innumerable Pakistani’s have been forced to finally make this difficult choice. Difficult because all too often the learned experience from such journeys into exile reveals that the émigré never completely succeeds in putting down his roots. He is in a constant state of flux, eternally condemned to be in a state of preparation for further travel and painfully aware of the melancholy that accompanies adjustment in a foreign land. And the staggering realisation that along with the grating din, the dizzying movement and blinding colour of the developed, progress crazy, globalised Western world, there lurks often, beneath the mask of smiles and courtesies offered to the immigrant, an animal silence in the gaze of the foreigner.

For the settled diaspora, the trips back to their homeland seek to reaffirm that there is a real home, their own, a familiar soil. In such journeys, the emigrant’s experience of rediscovering his homeland is laced with the good cheer of the returning tourist and ends with the disappointing realisation that it is not time yet to weigh anchor, that the journey must continue, the exile must endure. Away from home, he vociferously defends his country and experiences a strange hyper-nationalism grow inside of him that he never knew existed. Because he lives within the insecurity of being judged and appraised constantly through the eyes of the native – who is after all superior for he has no compulsion to emigrate – he finds himself receding into a cocoon of familiarity that the enclaves of his own nationality provide, becoming increasingly parochial, religious and perennially unable to integrate in the host society.

For the economic migrant, the burden of financial necessity exposes him to the worst form of structural violence. There is no room for negotiation as the sheer immutability of his situation is recognised and exploited to the maximum. With absences from home stretching into years, sometimes even decades, children become estranged, fathers and mothers pass away, marriages are severed, and the violence experienced in continued displacement eventually corrodes body and soul. 

One may glean all the above from personal observation of the lives of exiled friends and family and through conversations with economic emigrants of Pakistani origin from taxi drivers to plumbers, and from poets to businessmen, and experience it in the course of any skilled or unskilled migration to a foreign land. Seventy years on, we have not managed to create a country that is safe and prosperous enough to allow the untold numbers of those forced to reside abroad to return to their homes. On their foreign remittances we greedily rely, applying spin and presenting it as a higher patriotism, a virtue. And we are now poised to enter yet again into troubled economic waters as all external economic indicators suggest that we will soon be making our way to the IMF, begging bowl in hand, and hoping to cut a deal on pledges of good behaviour and compliance in the future.

Meanwhile, as most Pakistanis are found lamenting, our passport holds no value and the outside world regards us with increasing suspicion, as a country and a people who consistently fail to deliver on their promises, particularly in the realms of human rights, education and health despite being signatories to almost all international conventions in these areas. It is a damning indictment on the leadership – past and present – of our country. Yet it appears that at present the only concern of the incumbent government and the opposition is electioneering, with all the hollow histrionics and calculated stunts that accompany it. For the countless emigrants from Pakistan, settled or otherwise, one can only offer that, perhaps, there is some freedom in exile.


The writer is a freelance columnist.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @kmushir


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