Pakistan: Lessons in Story-Telling and Micro-Politics

I arrived in Pakistan about a week ago, but the stark realities of every day life here still leave me awe struck. I arrived last Saturday to find myself behind the Dutch field hockey team, all of us waiting for our foreign passports to get stamped for approval. While many others with a foreign passport were directed to a second line, for those not as privileged as a celebrity sports team, I used my American accent and the “I’m a US citizen” card to stick to the shorter, faster line. It’s unsettling to practice an authority that was won for you by others over years of political and economic success, providing you a power that you rarely use. But then again, I was on standing a line to get through customs, and maybe I’m overanalyzing theories on neo-imperialism.

The family that I stay with here is also very protective. They live in a well off neighborhood of Lahore, but still maintain a sense of fear and paranoia of Pakistan’s state of criminality. I’ve heard countless stories, sometimes as minor as maids stealing jewelry to worse, more deadly schemes staged by some house cooks. “Your uncle was at a wedding where the groom didn’t show up. He was kidnapped as he was walking out of the cake shop before his reception. God only knows how he managed to make it back from wherever he was left to die”, my Aunt told me. It’s good that I’m hearing these stories while I’m also reading The Black Swan, a book on human perception and probability. Essentially, what the book explains is that our sense of risk is distorted by sensationalism of “black swans”, events that we otherwise would never have expected but rationalize into our framework by ascribing illogical causes.

I think that sensationalism is an excellent way to describe Pakistani culture. With a developing media culture, Pakistanis are glued to their news channels to get the 24 hour coverage of bombs and guns, a new form of entertainment perpetuated by cohesion within social circles. What’s left are relationships that are developed through the entertainment of story telling, fear mongering, depression. Is it possible that the narratives spun through cohesion creates fixed roles for people to fill, some choosing to play the part of complacent bystanders, others that of the corrupt politician, and some the role of the criminal.

But this sad state of things is once again dependent on the structures that bind you. I’m here interning for an energy project finance law firm and a public policy research team. While in these environments, I’m free from the anxiety that’s ever present in my host family’s home. The people that I’m surrounded by at my internships seem much more relaxed and when conversations do dwell on Pakistan’s many crises, they leave a sense of rationalization, distance, and yet so much more depth.

I find the function of politically charged conversations interesting. I hold a strong belief in the impact that micro-politics have on social norms, all vague terms soon to be explained. I think that instead of finding ourselves frustrated with distant concepts like corruption and criminality, perhaps we should focus on the impact that the conversation has on our values. For example, a friend and I were having a conversation on Pakistan’s apparent corruption and I felt that my friend’s contextualization of the practice slightly legitimized it. I immediately felt obliged to voice my intolerance towards such “practicality”, demonstrating how such a personal conversation can turn into a vehicle for the development of social norms. Sometimes labeling our society into a government and the people makes us forget that we too are part of the public.