Pakistan: The land without people
August 10, 2011 § Leave a comment
One of the things that frustrates us here at APP the most is the way in which Pakistan is spoken about in the West, especially in the U.S. Discussions and reportage of Pakistan are always embedded in a narrative that makes some very negative assumptions about Pakistan, and one that always highlights the security angle of Pakistan above all else (i.e., either as a place to be feared or, much more rarely, as a place to be rescued).
One major assumption that undergirds this narrative is that Pakistan is a land without people. Not literally, of course, but all too often reportage on Pakistan completely misses the local human element. Actual Pakistanis themselves, as real people and not just as stock characters or as mere scenery for the “real” story, never make an appearance in such accounts. The best recent example of this is Nicholas Schmiddle’s ridiculous account of the U.S. Navy SEAL raid to kill Osama Bin Laden. There has already been considerable criticism of Schmiddle’s account based on journalistic principles, but a great analysis is the one by Myra MacDonald, a journalist who has lived in and covered Pakistan. MacDonald notes:
In a post over the weekend which prompted me to re-examine the New Yorker story, Jakob Steiner at RugPundits complained about Orientalism. That in turn led me to look at how small a role Pakistanis play in the story. Pause here, and consider that Pakistan is a country of some 180 million people of diverse religious, social, linguistic and cultural backgrounds. People who fret about their children’s education and grieve for their parents like the rest of us. People who in the office will bitch around the water cooler, and over dinner talk about the weather. And yes. I simplify people’s lives, because those of us who live them (signpost irony here) know how simple they are.
Then start perhaps, by noticing the dog has a name and a breed. He (she?) is called Cairo and is a Belgian Malinois.
Yes, that’s right. We learn more about the dog accompanying the SEAL team than we ever do about any actual Pakistani.
MacDonald goes on to point out the contrast in attention paid in the piece to a very important local Pakistani, the man who first alerted the world that something big was going down in Abbotabad: Sohaib Athar, who tweeted that there had been a helicopter crash that night which seemed very unusual to him (and to the rest of us on Twitter who happened to see his post in real-time, including me). Here’s MacDonald again:
The first person to comment publicly on the raid did so on Twitter, a resident who asked what a helicopter was doing in Abbottabad so late at night. He is a man with a full name, a profile and an online identity, who I and thousands of others found and followed easily enough on the day bin Laden was killed. In the New Yorker article, he becomes merely “one local”.
Read the rest of the piece, it’s a great reminder not only that coverage of Pakistan is truly opaque, but also that it doesn’t have to be that way, and that at least some smart journalists get it.