“Those who tell the stories rule society.” (Plato)
“But let there be spaces in your togetherness and let the winds of the heavens dance between you. Love one another but make not a bond of love: let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls.” (Kahlil Gibran)
Last week I traveled to Seattle, Washington to participate in the annual conference of Modern Language Association. As the conference reached its end, I decided to take the train to visit Portland, Oregon. In our household Portland is the city of dreams and great memories: my wife lived here for quite some time and still fondly remembers the city and its culture. This trip for me, therefore, was not just an ordinary journey but rather a pilgrimage to a city that has been an important part of my wife’s past. I took some time to visit the very places that she must have visited often during her stay here and I also took a trip to a street where she lived, long ago, in a basement apartment. We do these things to remind ourselves of the importance of those we love and somehow, it seems, visiting the places dear to them also brings us closer to them. That certainly has been the case for me.
My wife also arranged for me to stay at a local bead and breakfast, in a historical house, owned by one of her old friends. It was while at this particular place, last night, that I had a most interesting conversation with the manager. As I was out smoking, Steve, the manager, came out and joined me. We started talking about the weather and from then to our pasts and our cultures. Steve was obviously curious about Pakistan and wanted to have a conversation about my culture. We ended up having a two hour conversation about the past, present, and the future of our two cultures. This conversation epitomizes for me the need for a different kind of storytelling, a different kind of narrative about the US and Pakistan. I realized that as someone who lives in that ambivalent space between two cultures–with no entrenched loyalties to either culture–it is my job to construct and tell a more complex non-binaristic narrative: a narrative that goes beyond the usual stereotypes and brings these small encounters and exchanges of kindness to the forefront.
We spend too much time demonizing each other: our mullahs always use the west and the US as the other, as the evil against which they must mobilize all powers of a fundamentalist and purist view of the world. As a result, so many of our children in Pakistan develop a sort of underlying hatred for the west and for the US without having ever met and having ever talked to a single American. On this side of the global divide, things are not much different either. The media and the fundamentalist forces of American life also foreground the Pakistani stereotypes in order to simplify and demonize Islam in general and Pakistan in particular. In these huge narratives of difference and distrust, the micronarratives of trust, respect, and love get totally lost.
So, here is my humble attempt at sharing the micronarrative. Last night Steve, who is now my friend, and I sat for over two hours and talked about our two cultures. In this conversation we both respected each other’s history and culture but, despite our different backgrounds and lived experiences, we were able to find a common thread to our existence. Steve is one of thousands of Americans that I have encountered in my life in the US: one of many decent, compassionate, and warm-hearted Americans who have enriched my life and made it possible for me to succeed and live a more meaningful life. These are the people I would like to acknowledge as truly American and truly human. These are the people who Pakistanis need to be told about: decent, compassionate, honest, and caring.
On the other hand, we also need to offer the best of our own culture, our hospitality, kindness, and generosity. If we share these micronarratives with each other chances are we will be able to see beyond the stereotypes, beyond hate and find a way of living in which Pakistanis and Americans can live in peace with mutual respect for each other.
So, as a commitment to this cause, I have decided to continue sharing these important micronarratives, for the stories that we tell our children are crucial in shaping their future. It is time we started telling the narratives of love and understanding instead of demonizing our others to stabilize our own identities.