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By B. Qureshi, September (2010) edition of bazaar
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Pakistan Drowning
Pakistan Drowning

“It’s a poor country, but we sure had fun while we were there.”

I sat in a man’s office once, listening to an hour-long preamble about crab fishing off the coast of Karachi and hunting in the Sindh province. A few decades ago, his company rented a bungalow in Karachi. He described for me the solid wood furniture that had been brought from Peshawar in the north. “You can’t find anything like that coffee table here--I’ve been trying for years.”

Pakistan is a poor country. But for me, and for others who love it, it is wealthy. Not only is Pakistan agriculturally strong, but it has several world heritage sites, mineral, and natural gas reserves. For my mother, Pakistan is nights when jasmine flowers bleed perfume and sweet chai in china cups. For my husband, Pakistan is lush mountain rains and native fruits whose names can’t be translated into English. For me, Pakistan is a thriving textile industry and a country of hospitality. Not only will relatives urge you to “Eat more,” but the country has sheltered as many as five million Afghan refugees at a time.

What does the world know about Pakistan? Pakistan has its fair share of dirty laundry, which is publicly aired, but the grace of the country is rarely broadcasted. I know a few things firsthand. For one, you will almost never find a female domestic worker outside of Pakistan. Laws deter women from leaving the country unaccompanied by their families to labor in other countries, where their rights or honor might be compromised for a paycheck. In fact, when I first came to Kuwait my Pakistani husband encouraged me to wear a scarf, at least around my neck if not my head, and introduce myself as Pakistani rather than American. “We have a reputation of modesty, which will protect you.” And when this ride in Kuwait is over, Pakistan will always be a part of my future.

But what about Pakistan’s future? Stand near a faucet or beneath the showerhead and be reminded: this liquid commodity is the most valuable in the world, but too much of it is hell.

The old woman wiping her eyes with the corner of her shawl, as if the flood waters that soak her now pour from her eyes to meet their origins. A woman who can't afford formula for her infant, who doesn’t even cry. When all the Pakistani men I know are stoic, a Nowshera man crying because everything he ever had is gone. Another man helplessly lifting his hands to the sky, asking help not from any government or charity, but directly from a higher power. So far, at least 15 million have become victims of the deluge. Fifteen million. That is more than the number of people who were affected by the recent Haiti earthquake, the 2005 South Asian tsunami, and Hurricane Katrina combined.

Pakistanis who leave home do so with anticipation or momentary bravado, but they look back with regret at having forsaken a life lived on native soil. Not one of the 170 million wants to leave. Most of the Pakistanis I know worldwide are in a depressed funk. Pakistan is drowned. No sense of going back, or investing there. But we’re only as strong in the face of the world as our country is. Otherwise, who are we? What are our origins? Are we living in a country that is one of the poorest in the world? Or, are those of us who left doomed to wander, servants to another country and unsure what heritage to give our children?

When did we forget that the highest expression of love is helping those in need who don’t ask? The first step to equality, which is the very basis of the social ideals of faith, is the desire to equalize resources. The wealthy in Pakistan should not be jetting off to shop in Dubai on the weekend. The poor should not be without money for bread or shoes. How well does our religious principle of zakaat, giving alms to the poor, rated at 2.5% of all savings and gold wealth over a certain amount, provide for the poor in the world? I paid at least 30% of my annual income in taxes in the United States. Some countries in the world have nearly 70% tax rates, and in those countries, the gap between rich and poor has been decreased. We need to give more.

Pakistani Muslims this Ramadan will know what to do with their zakaat. Maybe other Muslims will give their zakaat to Pakistan, ignoring the discouraging, fragmenting arguments of race, or not agreeing with the Pakistani government. Most Pakistanis have no faith in their government either. As for the argument that Pakistan might be supporting suspicious elements, most Pakistanis just want to have a decent livelihood and a brighter future for their children. Political turmoil belongs to, and is the creation of, the politicians and their plays for power.

I urge all Pakistanis to donate to flood relief in addition to pledging zakaat. We should be grateful for the aid we're getting from other countries but we should not demand or expect it. Nearly 7 million Pakistanis live abroad, not counting their non-Pakistani citizen children. A reported 100,000 Pakistanis live in Kuwait alone. It’s time to take care of our own. It's our country. Change starts with us.


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