I heard the word Xenophobia for the first time when I attended my International Relations 101 class. My high school existence was pretty idyllic where acing Calculus was my biggest challenge. I had no idea that there existed a world where anyone can fear or hate the other for being just that – ‘the other’ – someone who looked different, spoke a different language or believed in a different God.
We Pakistanis hate ‘the other’ with unmitigated gusto. The capacity to hate ‘the other’ is not exclusive to us; there will always be some people everywhere who are more bigoted and dislike ‘the other’. What makes our hatred of ‘the other’ unique is that it has a constitutional sanction in shape of the Blasphemy laws and Article 295 and we feed that hatred through curricula demonizing ‘the other’. These laws and others have created an atmosphere of violence and vigilantism that not only shatters the very fabric of society; it makes the whole country insecure – for everyone – the persecutors, the persecuted and everyone in between, but more so for the religious minorities, women and those who raise voice against that vigilantism.
As a person who is interested in minority rights, I have been following up on all the terrible things that go on in the name of vigilantism but it was all kinda abstract for me before I met Bee through a mutual friend. Bee is a smart, educated young woman from a well off family who looked fairly satisfied with her life. When I started cribbing about my lack of decent employment (for me anything that pays me less than a gazillion rupees is pure unadulterated crap which basically means all the things I have ever done), she too mentioned that she would like to do something more dynamic and challenging but she cannot leave her job. When I asked why, she told me that being an Ahmadi, she is afraid that she will be judged and/or hounded for her faith. She feels safe in her current employment because it has a relatively liberal and multicultural environment – something which is generally lacking in Pakistan. As someone who has resigned from a well paid job in protest because a colleague refused to furnish a written apology for bad behavior or because I did not feel like waking up at the crack of the dawn, I was deeply saddened to know that one could be forced to stick with a dead end boring job because the alternative could be harassment or persecution.
I may sound like an idealist (Which I most certainly am NOT) but I strongly believe that the key to overcoming the hatred is to start being friends with at least one of ‘the others’. Once you get to know one ‘other’, chances are that you would not jump too quickly to judge and persecute the rest of ‘the others’.
I want to salute everyone who goes out of his/her way to include ‘the other’, to make friends with ‘the other’, to extend a helping hand to ‘the other’ and to fall in love with ‘the other’. They certainly make this world a better place. On a personal note, I mourned the deaths of Shahbaz Bhatti and Salmaan Taseer this year and learned about the fear that Bee has to face every day, but I also learned that people can come together in most incredible ways. I cherished the unions of the friends who dared to love ‘the other’ – a Greek friend from college married an Arab, another English class mate married a Bangladeshi, a Pakistani friend married a German and another Pakistani American virtual friend married a half Japanese half American and is now expecting a baby who is ¼ Japanese, ¼ American and ½ Pakistani. Three of my friends opened their hearts and homes and adopted babies from other countries. Anyone who has ever adopted a child would know how lengthy and at times heart breakingly tedious the process of International adoption is, but they persisted and they persisted because they had the capacity to love ‘the other’.
For once in my life, I want to be an optimist and believe that if my beautiful, wonderful and amazingly awesome friends can overcome the fear of ‘the other’ and grow to love ‘the other’ as partners, lovers, friends and children, the rest of the world can follow suit.
Thanks to my most amazing parents and my fantastic friends who taught me about compassion and understanding, I too have learned how to appreciate, respect, cherish and love ‘the other’, irrespective of the differences, at times perhaps because of those very differences. Here is to the human capacity to love ‘the other’.