While this quotation comes from a story about the experiences of a Jewish American businessman during the fervour of the 1960s in New York, it also seems apt to one’s experience of being part of the foreign press corp during England’s recent visit to Pakistan for the test series.
In the West, it can often feel that, as the cracks in our carefully cultivated moral supremacy grow ever larger, we retreat into a worldview that is increasingly black and white; a seismic battle between good and evil. We double down instead of looking at past mistakes as sunk costs.
The issue is, of course, that we live in a world which is messy, complicated and ever changing. 800 years before Roth, Rumi, the Persian poet, Islamic scholar and Sufi mystic, said that ‘somewhere between right and wrong there is a garden…I’ll meet you there.’
That this winter’s tour, set against the backdrop of Imran Khan’s shooting and the all too usual political wrangling that dominates any narrative about Pakistan, was happening concurrent to another sporting event held in the Muslim world – one that took up many more column inches on both the front and back pages – only exacerbates this point.
The irony was missed on those fans in armchairs back home that the vitriol and anger they unleashed upon Qatar, a country of 300,000 people they’d barely heard of the week before, sat in contradiction with the pride they felt at England’s cricket team deigning to return to Pakistan in the face of apparent ‘mortal danger.’
Ben Stokes’ generosity to donate his tour fee to victims of the floods was juxtaposed with Harry Kane’s umming and ahhing over whether to wear a rainbow flag. Their opposing fortunes on the field of play seemed to mirror this.
As such, for the Westerner, where our cherished institutions appear so robust up until the point that they are not, to be in Pakistan was to feel alive; not just living, but alive in the most visceral, Rothian sense of the word.
There’s no getting away from it – to see Pakistan through a Western lens is an exercise in getting things ’wrong and wrong and wrong again.’ And to love Pakistan feels redolent of the poem ‘Valentine’ by Carol Ann Duffy about real love; ‘I give you an onion. It is a moon wrapped in brown paper./It promises light/like the careful undressing of love./[But] it will blind you with tears/It will make your reflection/a wobbling photo of grief.’
For us, the world became ‘safe’ in 1945 when ‘liberal democracies’ overcame ‘evil’ and history then stopped in 1989 as the Berlin Wall came crumbling down. But, of course, for so many living in the developing world, the ‘Global South’, history was just beginning and safety is an abstract term. Like Duffy’s onion, layer upon layer is stripped away only to reveal more layers underneath.
My home in Beirut was safe up until the point that 3,000 tonnes of ammonium nitrate exploded, decimating half the city. A moment later it was safe again and no one history will ever tell the story of what truly happened; the evidence conveniently disappearing, along with 218 lives, into a mushroom of smoke and debris and a crater 124m wide and 43m deep.
In 1947, the blood trains of partition were scrubbed clean of the one million dead; all physical evidence removed until the point it only existed in literature and in the memories of the few who still survive.
So too, when Benazir Bhutto was killed in 2007, the fire brigade were first on the scene and they too got busy scrubbing – hearsay, conjecture and conspiracy replacing concrete proof, bleached to everyone’s detriment. In 2023, who shot Imran Khan is a question that will illicit a thousand different responses. And let’s not start on the extraordinary case of exploding mangoes…
But then we have cricket and if the sport means anything, surely it has to be as an antidote to all the confusion and noise going on in the background. To bring these two worlds, diametrically different and exactly the same, together.
There can be no doubt that Islamophobia is rife in the West, exacerbated by the Cavafy-esque rhetoric of Trump, Johnson et al. described in the poem ‘Waiting for the Barbarians’ – the word itself derived from the Ancient Greek for those who speak a different language.
And like Tom and Daisy in Fitzgerald’s seminal novel, The Great Gatsby – a lasting tribute to Western hypocrisy – there can be no doubt that we’ve been ‘careless people.’ We ‘smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into [our] money or [our] vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept [us] together, and let other people clean up the mess [we] had made.’
But for the travelling fans I spoke to, they described a clarity of vision that had been murky before they came. One, who clearly had been enjoying himself in the hotel bar mistook me for a local – dressed, as I was, at the time in Shalwar Kameez. ‘We’ve been lied to. This country is a state secret,’ he slurred.
Graeme, a school teacher from London, relayed his experience of visiting the shrine of Quaid-e-Azam where he struck up conversation with a Karachiite. The next thing he knew, he was guest of honour at the man’s son’s wedding – and he reflected if a visiting Pakistani would be granted that kind of hospitality in his own neck of the woods.
Diane, an 81 year old from the North of England revealed to a group of strangers how, at home, she felt unnecessary, ignored, forgotten. In Pakistan, she said, she felt truly seen for the first time in over 20 years. Another lady in her mid-50s, shopping for headscarves in the bazaar, questioned her own views on oppression. Discrimination is never quite as simple as it seems.
When I spoke to Najum Sethi, his first interview with a Western journalist since his reappointment as PCB Chairman, he stated that ‘while the lack of respect from the outside world is very sad…at the same time [Pakistan] haven’t been able to sell their side of the story.’
But with international cricket back in the country and the PSL bringing a plethora of foreign stars, perhaps now they can and prove Cavafy’s prophecy correct: ‘What’s going to happen to us without barbarians? Those people were a kind of solution.’