Pakistanis in America
I first visited Washington in 1969 and so small was the number of people who looked as if they could be from Pakistan and India, that every now and then, one was asked, “Where are you from”, followed by, “How do you speak English?” In Washington where I landed, there were no more than a couple of Indian restaurants. Today their number it is not possible to count.
One of them on Connecticut Avenue, which all good Pakistanis as a rule pronounce as “Connect-ee-cut” rather than “Conneticut”, was called Taj Mahal. That was where the then press counsellor at the embassy — Syed Nazim Qutb — often took me to lunch. Regardless of how cold it was, he would put on his Humphrey Bogart raincoat and we would walk from 1235 Massachusetts Avenue, where the embassy was at the time, to the restaurant. Taj Mahal still stands but Syed Nazim Qutb is long gone. Its name has not changed, but what it is like now, I do not know because I haven’t gone there since it is associated with a departed friend.
Washington has changed. It was then called the murder capital of the United States and though the murder rate is still quite high, I am not sure it can still claim that dubious title. There were areas around 14th Street in downtown that were pretty rough. If you were looking for drugs or ladies in short skirts and long cigarette holders, that was where you were told to go. Although nobody has yet been able to put the oldest profession in the world out of business, the 14th Street is pretty respectable now. However, there are still many areas in Washington and its suburbs from where those who are mindful of life and limb stay away.
In 1969, if one was looking for spices that go into our food, it was not easy to find them. Today, there is a Pakistani or Indian grocery store every few blocks. I recall going into a record shop — yes, those were LP times at 33 and a quarter revolutions per minute — where to my great thrill I found in the small section of “Eastern Music”, a Nur Jehan LP. I still have it 36 years later, though Madam is gone, but what of it, her voice lives.
As I said, Washington has changed. There are Pakistanis and Indians everywhere. Although the number is much smaller than it is in New York, there are also scores of Pakistani cab drivers. The other day, I met an Indian woman whose family originally came from Lahore, who told me how moved she was when her Pakistani cab driver refused to take any money after a long ride. When she insisted, he said, “Bhainji, paisay twaday kauloon hi lainay nai; hoar paisay dain walay barray nain.” (Sister, am I to take money from you when there are many others who would do the necessary?)
Even if there were no Internet, one can learn about the goings-on back home from several Urdu newspapers printed here. They can be picked up free from any grocery store, or sweetmeat outlet (the bad news about cholesterol has yet to travel to these establishments) or halal gosht stand. Many Pakistani sweetmeat sellers are rolling in money because their clientele eats everything that the rest of the world believes is lethal. The Pakistani mithai-buying frenzy is at its peak during Ramadan and around the two Eids. People cart away loads of the stuff one mouthful of which contains more sugar than a normal person should need for the entire year.
If you pick up an Urdu newspaper published in New York, you will be amazed at the inroads our people have made in business and industry. However, physically, they may be living in America, but in most other respects, they could be taking in the sun on a winter afternoon in Sharaqpur Gharbian. In some neighbourhoods, the sight of our men walking around in their pyjamas is not uncommon.
There are of course the rich and stylish Pakistanis — mostly doctors and businessmen — most of whom live in grand homes that cost millions of dollars. I asked the mistress of one such home, what sort of help she needed to dust and vacuum her sprawling villa. “None”, she replied, to my amazement, “I do it myself.” While that is commendable, there is no question that by the time she has done the dusting and the mopping and the vacuuming, she falls to the ground in a heap with exhaustion. She has to be an exception as most Pakistanis of means import their cooks and naukaranis from home. As to how the imported help lives and how it gets treated, that is a story for another day.
Khalid Hasan is Daily Times’ US-based correspondent