Pakistan Perceived Abroad

Specifically, fashion week was reported as being a political protest against Talibanization, and this was description of the events was met with great discomfort by many commentators. From major news media like the UK’s Guardian to bloggers the response was the same – why does everything in Pakistan have to relate to Taliban in the international media?

This is a great question to think about. Mary Bowers, who writes for UK newspaper The Times, provides an important look into the mindset of the outside world when they try to understand Pakistan, and the difficulties that they have in understanding our nation properly. Obviously, the greatest responsibility for properly understanding and reporting on another country falls to the international journalists. They are the ones whose words will be read by their fellow countrymen. But it is also important for us to understand how we are perceived abroad so that we can make sure to correct any misperceptions or misinformation from foreigners around us and in the media.

“Can we do anything in Pakistan without it being linked in some way to either appeasing the Taliban or kicking sand in their faces?” asked blogger XYZ on, who also had a few choice words to say about my methods of journalism (which incidentally I would gladly tackle off-pitch if I know the name of the faceless cackler to whom I make my argument).

Mr or Ms XYZ was writing in reference to an article I wrote over the weekend for The Times entitled “Pakistan fashion week pushes back boundaries”. In it, I couched fashion week in terms of a defiant action in the face of radicalism and conservatism – a tack taken, I noticed, by most of the other international media present. Considering this, and saving the riposte for another time, I’d like to answer XYZ’s original and very pertinent question with an apologetic but hopeful ‘not yet.’

Last week I was interviewed by three South Asian television stations, two of them Pakistani. Their immediate questions were all the same: why couldn’t the West report on Pakistan without mentioning terror? Well, for precisely the same reason that for years, few articles about the United States failed to mention the blunders of George Dubya, or that a piece about Hollywood can rarely omit botox and colonic irrigation. Not everybody voted Republican (as it turned out in 2000, the electoral majority didn’t); for each surgically enhanced smile there is certainly a tramp living among the rats off Hollywood Boulevard.

Pakistan throws parties and puts on fashion shows; it wears jeans and listens to hip hop. It smokes joints and drinks beer and catches up on all the latest HBO box sets. You can get a good plate of sushi in Lahore and a decent macchiato in Karachi with relative ease. But it’s also impossible to enter that restaurant parking lot without having your bonnet and boot checked for devices. I wouldn’t be able to pick up a bottle of Johnnie Walker from an Islamabad supermarket on my way home,  or have hopped on a bus to the local shopping mall as a lone woman. Any visitor to the country couldn’t fail to notice the road blocks, the armed guards, and the number of automatic weapons on any stretch of pavement. The fact is, a journalist arriving at the opening of London Fashion Week would not have a car full of policemen dedicated to her protection.

The first point to be made, therefore, is that however normal it has become for residents, Pakistan still has a problem that foreign commentators find fascinating. Not least because in the UK we can in some ways sympathise. Going through police checks and repeatedly handing over IDs or having venues double searched for explosives reminded me of what it was like to grow up in the 1980s and early 1990s in the midst of IRA terror. We were comparitively blessed to escape such constant vigilance, but at the time we considered it humdrum. How immune we are even now to walking through infra-red body sensors before getting on a plane, or listening to announcements about unattended baggage on the London Underground. This wouldn’t have happened on September 10, 2001. Sometimes outside eyes can see what others cannot.

Secondly, and more cynically, the challenge for the journalist is to package a story in a way that will woo editors and educate and entertain readers, without patronising their sources or betraying journalists’ most unforgiving of masters: the truth.

Put bluntly, even if a Western journalist wanted to ignore the bombs and threats, Pakistan’s fashion week will not yet make the editorial schedule on its own merit, not least in the week where New York closes its catwalks and London’s open. The story for the UK commuters making their way through the drizzle on a grey February morning is not that Pakistan has favoured canary yellow taffeta over last season’s cornflower blue satin, but that it has a fashion industry at all. If that’s ignorance, then mea culpa.

I blush in acknowledgment of the phrase ‘parachute journalism’ and all that it (often correctly) implies, and the perils that come with a job that require reporters to become five-minute experts on everything.  But some – often the acronymed and unaccountable world of the blogosphere – like to suggest that journalists are at best automatons, “led up the garden path” by their sources,  as my critic suggested. At worst, they are guilty of that most overused of phrases, “lazy journalism.”

People talk about parachute journalists as if they’d be quite pleased if the rip cord broke on their descent. Some think that we dust ourselves off and dash as quickly as we can to the nearest air-conditioned hotel room with wifi connection and stay there until it’s all over. Our stories are apparently researched by a quick skim through the ‘culture’ section of the Lonely Planet guide. But we also pack a few books and local newspapers, or a list of useful contacts in with that parachute, we go to social gatherings and make phone calls, and talk to people whose geographical and cultural territory is their birthright.

And then we walk through that territory with the eyes, ears and prejuduces of a mediated resident citizen of our own country. I want to argue that this is a most necessary of evils.

Our readers’, editors’ and journalists’ prejudices in the UK are formed of a war that has cost us over 260 lives in Helmand, a spate of attempted bombings at London airports, stations and roads, and a successful attempt which killed 52 people and wounded over 700. Along with other coalition forces, we are fighting an unwinnable war against an enemy we don’t understand. Two colleagues working for UK media have been killed in the field in as many months. The idea of a fashion show in Pakistan is light relief – we find ourselves in a situation where we have what might be peversely termed ‘tragedy-fatigue’. Perhaps you will understand why radicalism is our frame of reference.

Ask any foreign correspondent who has been stationed for a significant period of time, and they will tell you that the most difficult thing about their job is remembering the worldview they’re writing for when all they have to hang on to is the voice of their editor on a crackling phone line. They are in the unenviable situation of having to assimilate into an alien culture and plunder its rich resources, whilst wrapping themselves in the mindset of that distant land called home once in front of a computer screen. They face conflicting pressures from their neighbours and from their mother ship. They tread a fine diplomatic line. This loneliness, what we might call the ‘journalist’s condition,’ is documented by writers from Graham Greene to Evelyn Waugh.

When I was working as a nascent freelancer in New York, I asked a good friend of mine – the stationed correspondent for a well-respected UK broadsheet – why the sassy, alternative pitches I’d been throwing back home were falling at the first hurdle. “Guns and diamonds,” he replied. If it wasn’t about either of those, no one would want to read it. Did my pitch include mafiosi? Police corruption? Scandal amongst the young, rich and beautiful? Because no one wanted to hear about housing projects being demolished or the Madison Avenue jewel thief who was found not guilty.

Pakistan can and will shake off the yoke of terror reporting. But it will take time, and more stories such as fashion week, to portray Pakistanis with what they deserve: a human face and a sense of humour. But shortcuts only bewilder readers: only the slow chipping away of decades of cemented perceptions can counter that greatest and most ignorant of faceless beasts: fear.

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