A Gallup Pakistan poll released on Feb. 15, 2013, shows 92 percent of Pakistanis disapprove of U.S. leadership. Similarly, a recent report by the Pew Research Center said roughly three out of four Pakistanis consider the United States an enemy – up from 69 percent last year and 64 percent three years ago.
If polls and perceptions are to be believed, Pakistan and the United States seem worlds apart when it comes to how to tackle the question of war and peace because a trust deficit dominates their tense bilateral ties. However, when ordinary Pakistanis and Americans meet, they bring down many stereotypes about each other, narrating stories that are different than the popular perceptions. This is also the story of Arasalan Asad, a senior producer and reporter with Pakistan Television (PTV).
When Asad applied to “study and take an active part in journalism as practiced in the U.S.,” he was clear how he wanted to spend his four weeks. He wanted to explore the opportunity of working in a Western media outlet to understand the different facets of American life and how they relate to the question of Pakistan.
Under the program for journalists, announced by the United States Educational Foundation in Pakistan and implemented by the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ), more than 74 journalists across Pakistan spent four weeks in U.S. newsrooms in 2011 and 2012. In the project, set to continue for another two years, 160 Pakistani journalists will work in the U.S. Similarly, American journalists visited Pakistan for a two-week program to “learn the realities of Pakistani journalism and national life,” according to ICFJ.
Today when Asad narrates his work and impressions during the one-month stint with Bloomberg TV in New York, he sometimes feels like an odd man out. Though his friends jokingly call him an “American agent,” he understands that his narration of American life, completely at odds with popular anti-American impressions in Pakistan, is the reason for the unwelcoming sobriquet.
“The first shock was that ordinary Americans are not worried about Pakistan. Most didn’t know where the country was on the map and those who made a guess placed it in Middle East,” says Asad. “They are more concerned and worried about their local issues.”
He remembers the day he worked alongside American journalists at Wall Street wearing traditional Pakistani dress, Shalwar Kameez, with a small replica of the green and white Pakistani flag on his chest. “A number of people inquired about the flag’s colors. When I told them that white represented minorities of Pakistan, they were pleasantly surprised.” By interacting, Americans came to know a Pakistan beyond the headlines.
After a few days in the Bloomberg TV studio, Asad made a beeline for Coney Island to explore the lives of Pakistani Americans. “It is rightly called a mini Pakistan. With restaurants serving traditional Pakistani meals, billboards in Urdu, women with headscarves; you feel you are roaming in Rawalpindi or Lahore.” It was quite different from the perception that Pakistanis have difficulty living in the United States.
Narrating these impressions, Asad encounters naysayers who point to the United States’ “policy of expansion” – Iraq, Pakistan, and the so-called “endgame” in Afghanistan as American troops plan a pullout.
“Relations between states are complex and driven by a number of varying economic and geographical interests. But when people meet people, they understand life is not all about ‘them versus us,’” says Asad.
He adds that when American journalists visit Pakistan, they also go through a learning curve. “They come to know that Pakistan is much more than terrorism and fundamentalism. They are fascinated by its diversity of culture, its natural beauty and the hospitality of the people.”
When he had an opportunity, Asad frankly discussed with American officials where their policies went wrong in “our part of world and how people in Pakistan and Afghanistan have suffered.” For him this may not be a game changer when it comes to U.S. policy, but at least a different view was conveyed.
Knowing that the uneasy relations between Pakistan and the United States will continue to ebb and flow as American troops prepare to leave Afghanistan, he thinks that people-to-people contact is the only way out of the practice of demonizing each other.
Daud Malik lives in Rawalpindi and has a background in journalism and development. THE DAILY STAR publishes this commentary in collaboration with the Common Ground News Service (www.commongroundnews.org).