I didn’t hear about journalist Cyril Almeida‘s investigation and subsequent tweets against the restaurant La Maison through the news or any blogs he might have written. I heard about it from my friends on Facebook, people who are otherwise active in liberal circles and rightfully vocal against the many injustices of Pakistani society. They were complaining about his outrage that a restaurant in Pakistan bans Pakistanis unless they hold a dual nationality.

Read that again.

They were complaining about his actions, not the restaurant’s policies. Complaints like: Why the fuss? Why the hue and cry about racism? After all, aren’t Pakistanis themselves some of the most racist lot on the planet? And if you can’t go to that place because you have the misfortune of just being a Pakistani in Pakistan, then go somewhere else–why start a whole twitter campaign against the restaurant or question the legality of his policy? Perhaps you’re just envious. Perhaps you just really want some attention from those white people to feel good about yourself, don’t you? That must be it. Definitely.

The restaurant for its part insists this policy is out of respect for Muslim sensibilities because its menu consists entirely of non-Halal food. (Interestingly those Muslim sensibilities don’t matter when it comes to hiring someone to assist in cooking, serving, and cleaning up after this food nor is it something worth mentioning when looking for a bartender.) The owner Philippe Lafforgue even went to the trouble of emailing Almeida, ending with the words:

By the way this weekend I was reading the ads in the news and all the adds for renting house in Islamabad were for FOREIGNERS and MULTINATIONAL COMPANIES ONLY.
Swedish villas in Lahore are only on rent for foreigners. They refuse Pakistani people.
International club in Lahore and Sindh Club in Karachi do not accept Pakistani people, EVEN AS A GUEST.
If I go to [the] Diplomatic Enclave and if you go…I will go with my passport, just showing it, and you will have to take a ticket, pay the fees, and go by bus.
The guest house right close [to] mine is only reserved for CHINESE PEOPLE .
I will stop the list because I don’t want to waste your time. But yes, so many discrimination in this country.
But I don’t…
[Source ; this excerpt edited for readability]

Reading this reminds me there was a time when it was acceptable in this part of the world to say “No natives allowed in here…unless they’re serving you your tea.” You can’t say it in those words anymore, but there are always ways to get around such technicalities. Since when did “Pakistani” become synonymous with “Muslim”? How does possession of a dual nationality make a difference if they are still a Muslim? What about their sensibilities then? Since when did it become okay to be racist depending on who you were being racist towards?

But then I’m reminded how true the words of Lafforgue (and some of my friends) are: Pakistanis really aren’t allowed into the Diplomatic Enclave of their ‘own’ country, and entire chunks of our provinces effectively belong to either militants or foreign corporations; meanwhile a yet more subtle form of colonization has been quietly making its way through my culture and, if license plates are to be believed, I now live in ‘al-Bakistan’. Our repeatedly revised history is just as murky as our future, and we’ve learned things work out better for us if we just keep our head low and plod through the confusion without asking too many questions. Pakistani sovereignty is practically a myth, adorning our self-image not unlike the emperor’s new clothes: we can’t really see it, but the crafty tailors stitching together our official state narrative insist it’s there.

If once greed and political folly let colonial forces in, now greed and political folly disguised as religious devotion and patriotism provide cover for the same. Since the 1970s, Muslim Pakistanis can legally be denied service if they try to purchase alcohol; this is done in the name of Islam without a second thought to the fact that faith is not something that must be enforced upon you but something that comes from within, and that people must have the freedom of choice if any choice is to mean anything. A Muslim who doesn’t drink because alcohol isn’t available is NOT making an “Islamic” choice or living an “Islamic” life: he/she is making no choices at all, and living a life devoid of the responsibilities that come with those choices. When you turn faith into a political platform, both lose their essence and integrity. So of course Lafforgue can argue in favor of his decision on the basis of religion–who else hasn’t? And of course, an unspoken apartheid has long existed against the invisible majority of Pakistan: the 108.06 million people living below the poverty line. They cannot legally be barred from places for being Pakistani, but it’s easy to deny them service for being poor: the preferred tactic seems to be “ignore them till they go away”.

In the midst of all this, I’m left asking: What does it mean to be able to say “my country” when I am a second-class citizen in this country by virtue of belonging to it? What happened to the Pakistan where we could be equal in life, liberty and dignity regardless of our faith, class, race, sex or anything else? Did we bury its corpse in the pages of our Constitution? Or was it all simply a figment of someone’s imagination, literally a philosopher-poet’s dream–as we teach our children in school?

There more than 180 million people living on this little strip of land. If racism is widespread, if elitist oppression is rampant, does that mean we should stop no-one from being racist or elitist simply because we can’t stop everyone? Does that mean people who are minimally affected by the status quo–people who already belong to the elite, or as in this case people who have that oh-so-coveted proof they are “good enough to NOT be Pakistani”–can joke about how amusing it is that the rest of us call such things unfair? Is it okay for them to dismiss our outrage as trivial? Is it okay for all of us to dismiss such discrimination as simply part and parcel of being “ordinary Pakistanis”? What were the struggles of the Independence movement for if not to allow us a chance to live free, no longer treated like squatters in our own homeland? Where is the country that supposedly resulted from this? Where is my Pakistan?

Once upon a time, the land where my ancestors were born and lived officially became property of a monarch a continent away. They worked in fields that had been in their family for generations, but the crops they grew now belonged to the people of another country even before they were planted. The earth clinging to the ancient bones of their forebears was borrowed from the British Empire, and when those bones turned to ash & dust till you couldn’t tell apart what was dirt and what was human, the Empire owned the bodies that gave life to me.

This is what colonialism feels like: disintegrating from inside-out, bones to dust, till all your futures and all your pasts are owned by someone else. One might also argue this is what colonialism is: disembodiment, an illusion of independence and substance confined to the present. Perhaps you walk around thinking yourself free to move but the roads open to you are decided by another, and perhaps you talk about history but both your cradle and your grave are only as allowed to you by another. Rootless and erased, remade in the image of those who define you by dismantling you. In that way it is no different from the other forms of enslavement, and like them you have to experience it to be able to understand it. And also like them, it is easier to ignore it than to change it, especially after you’ve convinced yourself you’ve fought your way out of it. Bruises heal and scars fade, but that which lives within us has a way of lingering long after.

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