Tourism, Terrorism and Empire
In the life of many white westerners is a chapter devoted to the finding of oneself. This chapter may not occur at any given point in life, although most attach it to a life crisis; a divorce, a bankruptcy perhaps, the lazy end of youth and the horror of a boring, comfortable adulthood. At this point, the subject is expected to challenge one’s own thoughts and beliefs and gain some deep, inner knowledge of oneself that renders the memory of youth/rejection/illness far enough to be forgotten. All of this must be done through the encounter of something inexorably challenging and physically different: and located as far as possible from the new cars and perfect houses of white middle class life, ideally in a land foreign enough and far enough to merit the respect of others either awaiting or nostalgic about their own journeys of discovery
Enter India; the land of the friendly brown people, exotic enough to be sensual, and yet dirty and smelly enough to be real; two essential ingredients in discovery destinations of the wealthy, white seeker. In the world of cheaply bought jet-travel, no other country has been able to harness through clever marketing and strategic imaging; the market made available by the Western search for fulfillment. Be it the old people in the movie Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, or the wry truth speaking slum observing author Katherine Boo of “Beyond Beautiful Forevers”; India has cornered the market on providing rare, jewel like insights into self and spirit to a class of curious Westerners rapt by its complexity and uncertainty. It’s a perfectly brewed cup for those planning a search for the unique and un-replicable, for near every slum is a luxury hotel with the comforts of home, and inside the most rural of villages a helpful man who speaks English. The results are tremendous; India today is a clearly marked stop on the Westerner’s road to authenticity; yoga is the new religion in Brooklyn and chai the favorite drink at any Starbucks.
If India is the land of the friendly brown people, where the battling of filth, heat and mosquitos and such authentically sub-continental discomforts provides the visiting Westerner with a sense of challenges overcome and comforts confiscated; Pakistan predictably is its opposite. If Indians have managed to forge a reputation on welcoming whites seeking their wisdom, stoically swallowing their self-righteous judgments on their society, Pakistan has cornered the market on the sinister, the sly and the un-quantifiably dangerous. The Westerners that do waft into Islamabad (no one even bothers with Karachi or Quetta or Peshawar) are a straggly bunch, aid workers or journalists small in number and scared in nature. They stay in their hotels and count the uncertain seconds to their departures, warily eying everyone they encounter for the suspicious slump of a suicide jacket, or the bumping bulge of a bomb. Scenes from Zero Dark Thirty dominate and stories from Seal Team Six loop in an eternal circle.
Their fears are not Pakistan’s problem. Unlike India, terror-riven, naughty Pakistan banks not on drawing people to its shores, but on keeping the white people away. Americans cannot easily get visas and even their wars on Pakistani territory are fought by remote control, they cannot like but neither can they stop looking, they don’t like what they see but are obsessed by what they cannot see. And while it may seem different, the Pakistani recipe is not too far from the Indian one; as tourism and terror both yield dollars. If India has captured the corner of the white heart devoted to romancing self-discovery, Pakistan has gouged out the space for secret terrors via drones or droves of tourists; Pakistan and India are thus reaping their takes from their own little slices of the Western imagination.
At the same time both India and Pakistan, tragically or comically, opportunistically or cleverly remain defined by those whose superiority was technically overthrown when the British chopped up the subcontinent and all the brown people, Indians and Pakistanis clapped and cheered and called it the end of Empire.
Rafia Zakaria is a columnist for DAWN. She is a writer and PhD candidate in Political Philosophy whose work and views have been featured in the New York Times, Dissent the Progressive, Guernica, and on Al Jazeera English, the BBC, and National Public Radio. She is the author of Silence in Karachi, forthcoming from Beacon Press.
The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.