Yesterday one of Pakistan’s most well-known news anchors tweeted what he called was “a beautiful story”, so I clicked on the link and was taken to this article by Syed Hammad Ali called “An Englishman in Pakistan”. It’s all about the life of Matthew Vaughn, a UK national who decided to move with his wife and child permanently to this nation.
This isn’t the first time I’ve read this sort of article, but it’s the first one of its kind I’ve read in a long time, and my reaction to it was one of immediate irritation. Laudatory articles about Westerners who discover the beauty of Pakistan and the simplicity, warmth and generosity of its people, and then take it upon themselves to inform the world of this great secret were two-a-penny back in the early 2000s. The War on Terror had just begun, Pakistanis were being racially profiled for the first time, and we were desperate to prove to the world that we weren’t as bad as we were made out to be.
But somehow, when we told the world this, the world didn’t seem to believe us. The testimony of a white person, though, was taken more seriously, given more credence rather than mistrust, not because of the content of the message but because of the identity of the messenger. Suddenly the newspapers were awash with similar breathless testimonies of Westerners who came to Pakistan and discovered it wasn’t the morass of terrorism and violence portrayed in the Western media. And they took it upon themselves to tell the world what they’d discovered, “saving” us and our reputation from slander. And then they write a book about the gentle, simple hospitable people of a complex, poor, violence-ridden nation and their adventures in this land, dodging danger, drinking cups of tea, loving Pakistanis but hating the government, bureaucrats, politicians.
The message: white people are more reliable when speaking about Pakistan than Pakistanis themselves. I call this phenomenon The Magical Gora. And what they do when they explain Pakistan to other goras? Gorasplaining.
Gora is, of course, the Urdu word for “white man”. It’s a descriptor, literally meaning someone with white skin. It’s not a racist slur, but it is used by Pakistanis to denote someone’s foreignness, their outside status, in a country obsessed with tribalism and belonging.
But the Magical Gora is a trope, an entity that causes irritation to all those who encounter him. Like the Magical Negro who saves white people in film, the Magical Gora is meant to save Pakistan and Pakistanis from the harsh judgment of the outside world, because only he can.
At this point I must make it clear that I have tremendous respect for the academics, researchers, professional journalists, and other foreigners who come to Pakistan to work, to study, to conduct research, or teach. I have tremendous respect for people who have married Pakistanis and come to live in this country, raising children and families. The contributions of countless diplomats, medical workers, scientists, have helped to make our country stronger and to encourage strong personal relationships between our country and theirs. I have nothing but love and admiration for people like Dr Ruth Pfau, Elsa Kazi, Geoffrey Langland, Władysław Turowicz, and so many more, who gave up their own countries and lived and worked in Pakistan all their lives.
I’m not even annoyed with Matthew Vaughn, although he says some things in the article which the journalist should have pushed back on — there are no positive books in bookstores about Pakistan (false); US Embassy Islamabad staffers who don’t want to read his book in case they start to like Pakistan (huh?); being given gifts and food for free when people find out he’s British (I wonder why); “serving the church” (what does this mean?). At the very least I want to know how Vaughn and his family got a visa to live indefinitely in Pakistan, when Pakistanis who want to live in the UK have to jump through rings of fire to prove their bona fides to the UK government.
The journalist who wrote this piece should have stepped back from the idea that Pakistan needs any and all positive coverage — it’s 2018, after all — and perhaps been more critical of the messages behind these statements. At least he should have been aware of the echoes of colonialism behind them — the white privilege, the tendency of Westerners to treat third world countries like their personal discovery playgrounds — and written a tougher article. But the publication he works for probably didn’t want that.
Because essentially this is not a problem about Westerners, it’s a problem about Pakistanis. We need to realize that it’s not what white people say about us that matters. It’s our own actions and our own representations that are critical and vital to how we are perceived in the world. When we hand over the burden of representation to the Magical Gora, we lose our authority to speak about and for ourselves. Representation cannot be outsourced. By speaking with authority, honesty and intelligence about ourselves and our problems, by refusing the easy feel-good emotions of a rosy picture, we gain respect in the eyes of the world and self-respect in our own.