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Conversations in Karachi

karachi-street-market

Almost without exception, the hundreds of people I’ve met in dozens of countries are usually happy to meet an American. Most people are smart enough to separate a government’s policies, which they may or may not agree with, from an average citizen who happens to be traveling in their country.

As previously reported, I often end up having the same conversations over and over in different parts of the world. I don’t always respond to the usual “Where are you from?” icebreaker question right away, but after talking with someone for a few minutes, I don’t hesitate to say I am from the U.S.A.

In Pakistan, where I spent the better part of last week, this was certainly the case. The stock dialogue usually goes like this:

“Oh, you are from America. That is a very nice place!”

“Yes, well, Pakistan is nice too. I’m happy to be here.”

“Really? You like it here?” (They usually sound a bit surprised.)

“Yes, very much.”

And so it goes, ad nauseum, the same conversation everywhere with a few variations.

On the way back to the Karachi airport after my four-day visit, the taxi driver and I have this conversation for a while, and then he leans forward and says, “You know, I want to tell you something about America.”

As he says this, I have déjà vu all over again. I have seen this movie before, and I know exactly what comes next.

“American people very nice,” he says, sounding like a Pakistani Borat. “Pakistani people like American people very much.”

Yes, I know what comes next, because I’ve heard it in Uganda, in Vietnam, and Romania.

“But Mr. Bush,” he says. “We don’t like him… or Mr. Musharraf either.” (Mr. Musharraf is the president of Pakistan, although he’s in the process of being impeached this week.)

Then there are the references to Guantanamo, Iraq, the difficulty of getting visas to the U.S., and so on. It’s usually a bit depressing to hear the litany, and there’s not much you can say except “Sorry about that.” But this time, since we’re closing in on November, I have a better response.

“Well,” I say, “We are having an election in America very soon, and next year there will be a new president.”

And here is the part of the conversation I did not expect, the one variation in the simultaneous love of America and indictment of post-9/11 U.S. foreign policy that I hear pretty much everywhere.

“Yes! The election!” the driver says, taking his hands off the wheel and looking at me in the back seat as I frantically watch the road in front of us. “You will have Mr. Obama as president!”

I laugh at this unexpected statement. Should I try to explain that Obama has not yet been elected, and there is in fact another candidate in the race? It’s probably too complicated.

“You know of Mr. Obama?” I ask.

“Of course,” he says. “Everyone here is talking about him.”

After careful deliberation, the taxi drivers of Karachi have apparently decided to endorse Obama in the American election. When I finally do ask my driver what he and his friends think of the other candidate, he says, “You mean Mrs. Clinton?”

***

One of the things I love most about traveling is conversations like that one. Every time I meet someone like my driver in Karachi, I walk away with the conviction that I couldn’t make these stories up if I tried. I have my share of misadventures, but I also meet incredible people of all kinds. I don’t usually have a desire to live my life the way they do – I probably won’t be moving to Pakistan anytime soon – but I almost always appreciate how different people view the same world.

Later, at the KHI airport, I sit in the departure area waiting for the check-in desk to open up. I look at the departure sign, which reads as follows:

Dubai
Abu Dhabi
Dubai
Kuwait City
Hong Kong via Bangkok
Colombo
Jeddah via Riyadh
Doha

Two-thirds of the flights are to the Persian Gulf, where laborers head off to work for nine months or more. There are also a lot of kids here, though, and a lot of women who don’t keep their distance from me as much as most of them do in the city.

The check-in begins on time, and I go through the second security check. At 1:40 a.m. we finally take off to Hong Kong, with a stopover in Bangkok to drop off half of the passengers. My next stop is Brunei, a small, sleepy Islamic monarchy surrounded by Malaysia. It’s the last stop on the trip, and after this, I’ll be headed home.

###

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24 Comments

  • Heather says:

    Ha! Yes, I’ve had the same conversation myself – notably in Egypt about 1 month after 9/11. I felt sad, though, because I really didn’t think I could return the compliment and say that American people liked Egyptian or Middle-Eastern people and just disapproved of their leaders.

    And I wondered if they weren’t being too generous in separating us so firmly from the actions of our leaders. Mind you, the political climate was rather different 7 years ago. But isn’t that what democracy is about, being responsible for the actions of our country?

  • Hm…there’s a nugget for the McCain campaign. oops …Global recognition needs a little work, guys. 🙂

  • kimg says:

    unrelated question –

    how does your list of 197 countries to visit compare to the “over 200 countries” represented at the olympics?

  • Chris says:

    @Heather,

    Good points. I was also asked (in Karachi) “What do the American people think about Pakistan?” I had to consider that one for a while, because I didn’t want to just say the obvious thing – we don’t usually think much about Pakistan at all.

    @Janice,

    Yeah, Obama definitely has McCain beat on global recognition. Although on the other side, the McCain camp would say that is actually a point in their favor.

    @KimG,

    Related answer – I haven’t seen the actual Olympic list, but there are a few teams there that compete on their own even though their citizens “belong” to a larger country. For example, Puerto Rico has its own team even though Puerto Ricans have U.S. passports.

    See this article for more –

    http://www.slate.com/id/2105234

  • Cris says:

    Hi Chris,
    I can’t remember how I found your site, but during the last 2 days I’ve read it all, each article, and I’d like you to know you’ve got a new fan here!
    I’m happy I found it, I was willing to comment each of your articles, but it would be too much. I like it in every way.. the ideas, the stories, your writing style.. but what really captivated me was how the things I read here have been touching my heart and spirit.
    So thanks for shearing these words.
    I’ll certainly keep spreading them away.. and I’ll add your site to our favorite sites list, I’m sure our readers will enjoy it as much as I do!

  • Sula says:

    That’s an interesting post.

    Whenever I meet a traveller from the U.S and they say “I’m an American” I usually answer: “So am I. I’m South American”.

    Here in Brazil we learn in school that America is devided in 3 parts – North, Central and South – and you’ve probably heard this before, but most people here will think it’s kind of strange when they hear ‘America’ this or Americans’ that. It’s kind of like if France decided to call themselves the Europeans pretty much excluding all the rest of Europe from being associated with the title. We’ll never get into a fight because of that, but I tell you, it will always feel weird for us.

    Why am I saying this? Well, along with the wars, the elections, the Kyoto protocol and the Bush issues, this is a subject that always comes up whenever I meet travellers from the U.S.

    Oh. And no matter where I travel to, I pretty much end up having the same conversations too: “Is Brazil really that dangerous?” “Are all Brazilian women good looking? “, “Do you like soccer” and even “do you play soccer?” “Is it true Carnival lasts a month?” Over and over and over again 😉

  • moom says:

    Yeah, I don’t know why Latin Americans have a problem with this. The country is called “United States of AMERICA” and everyone around the world calls them Americans. No-one thinks of Brazilians as “Americans”. It isn’t a case of American cultural imperialism or something. I’m Australian BTW.

  • Eva says:

    “Should I try to explain that Obama has not yet been elected, and there is in fact another candidate in the race? It’s probably too complicated.”

    Don’t you think that’s just a liiiiiittle bit arrogant? Most people are perfectly capable of understanding the concept of electoral competition in a democracy. Wait, democracy…that’s probably why it seems complicated to AMERICANS!!

    Way to perpetuate negative stereotypes, Chris, good job!

  • Chris says:

    @Cris,

    Thanks – that is really nice of you! Your blog looks great as well.

    @Eva,

    Sorry to hear that you don’t like Americans, but that’s not really the point. In the paragraph right after the one you quote, you can see that I do ask about the other candidate.

    @Moom and @Sula,

    Now there is a more civilized conversation, thank you. I do tend to find that in most places of the world (other than Latin America) when someone – almost anyone – says something about America, they are usually referring to the U.S.A., unless they are more specific and say “North America” or “The Americas.”

    A Brazilian traveling abroad would usually say they are from Brazil. Someone else said in another comment thread here that Argentines (for example) are Americans too. I really don’t think most people see it that way – they see Argentines as Argentines, and so on.

    Anyway, it is just a description – not a positive or negative (and certainly not arrogant, as someone else said) euphemism.

  • Cris says:

    I am Brazilian and in some ways I agree with Sula.. we’re all Americans.
    I’ve had this kind of discussion a few times.. but Chris is also right saying that the world call people from the U.S. “Americans”.

    What to do? I call them North Americans.. always.. doesn’t matter if the other person is saying only Americans. I call the country the U.S. and not only America.

    I am from America too.. but if I say this here in New Zealand, people will certainly think I’m referring to the U.S.
    And of course, I’ll always say that I am from Brazil or from South America, proudly.

    BTW, a friend went to Pakistan and told me that one very important item to carry in a conflict area like that is a Brazilian shirt (specially the football one), he’s passed smoothly through borders and made a lot of friends, thanks to that shirt!

  • John Maszka says:

    An Escalation of the War in Afghanistan and Pakistan is a Very Bad Policy.

    Conservatives and liberals can argue the merits of the surge in Iraq, or the need to deal with terrorism now rather than later. I want to focus on something else: the impact of the perspective of 1.5 billion Muslims around the world. I’m not implying that it is somehow homogeneous, just relevant; more relevant than my opinion at least.

    Taking the war on terror back to Afghanistan (and most likely Pakistan) is bad for a number of reason: the perspective of the international Muslim community; the fact that a military solution has not worked thus far, so why keep kicking a dead horse (especially when it has the potential to trample you); the delicate balance of power in the immediate region and in the broader scope; the likely negative reaction of other states; and last but not least, its potential impact on the price of oil.

    Pakistan’s reaction to the Bush Doctrine has been somewhat mixed. Musharraf is caught in the middle between pleasing the US to ensure continued military and economic support, and the preferences of his constituents who resent the US presence there. The region is already very unstable because of this tension between the US applying pressure from the outside and the internal desire of the populace to rid themselves of the unwanted American presence.

    We can say the exact same thing about Afghanistan, Karzai is in a very similar position as Musharraf. In 2006, Karzai had to start rearming the warlords to maintain order. Similarly, Pakistan was forced to recognize the Islamic Emirate of Waziristan in September of 2006. The Islamic Emirate of Waziristan is a loose group of Waziristani chieftains, closely associated with the Taliban, who now serve as the de facto security force in charge of North and South Waziristan.

    If Senator Obama becomes president, and refocuses the war on terror in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the best we can hope for is another five to six years of what we’ve seen in Iraq. But this best-case scenario is very unlikely.

    In addition to a multiple-front war, we would not be dealing with a fallen state as with Iraq, but with two established states. This could possibly work in our favor as long as they continue to remain on our side. But as already mentioned, the tension is high, and there is a very delicate balance keeping Karzai and Musharraf in power. What happens if we lose the support of Karzai and/or Musharraf to the popular demands of the people? Or they lose control of power? Or are assassinated? We could find ourselves at war with the sovereign states of Afghanistan and/or Pakistan, not just insurgent forces there. If we consider the history of this region, we realize that this is not as far-fetched as it might sound on the face of it.

    As we all know, the Taliban was comprised of Sunni Islamists and Pashtun nationalists (mostly from southern Afghanistan and western Pakistan). The Taliban initially enjoyed support from the US, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates in the early 1980s to fight the Soviets. By 1996, the Taliban had gained control of most of Afghanistan, but its relationship with the US and most of the rest of the world became strained. Most of the international community supported the Taliban’s rival, the Afghan Northern Alliance.

    Still, even after the US began to distance itself from the Taliban in late 1997, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates continued to officially recognize the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. Even after 9/11 when Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates officially stopped recognizing the Taliban, Pakistan continued to support it. The Taliban in turn, had tremendous influence in Pakistani politics, especially among lobby groups- as it virtually controlled areas such as the Pashtun Belt (Southeast Afghanistan, and Northwest Pakistan) and Pakistan-administered Kashmir.

    Going back to the perception of the international Muslim community … When the US demanded that the Taliban turn Bin Laden over, it initially offered to turn Bin Laden over to Pakistan to be tried by an international tribunal operating according to Sharia law. But Pakistan was urged by the US to refuse. Again, prior to the beginning of US airstrikes against Afghanistan, the Taliban offered to try Bin Laden according to Islamic law, but the US refused. After the US began air strikes, the Taliban offered to hand Bin Laden over to a neutral state to be tried under Islamic law, but the US again refused. This is important because in the eyes of the greater international community, the war in Afghanistan was justified (at least initially). But in the eyes of the international Muslim community, especially given the Taliban’s offer to turn over Bin Laden, it was an unnecessary war. This, combined with the preemptive war in Iraq, has led many Muslims to equate the war on terror with a war on Islam. Obama’s plan to escalate the war in Afghanistan and Pakistan will only serve to reinforce that impression.

    Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal, an Islamic political party in Pakistan, won elections in two out of four provinces in 2003, and became the third largest political party in the Pakistani parliament – with substantial support from urban areas (not just border regions). This speaks to the tremendous influence Islamic groups enjoy in Pakistan.

    This strong influence is fueled by the fact that the Pashtun tribal group is over 40 million strong. The Taliban continues to receive many of its members from this group today. In fact, the Pakistani army suffered humiliating defeat at the hand of these so-called “insurgents.” Finally, in September of 2006, Pakistan was forced to officially recognize the Islamic Emirate of Waziristan. Many see the Pakistani government’s acknowledgment of the Islamic Emirate of Waziristan as not only a military necessity, but also a political one as well – a concession in response to the growing internal pressure on the Musharraf administration from the people of Pakistan who resent the US presence and involvement in the region.

    Just consider the many, many public protests against the Pakistani government’s compliance with the United States. For instance, on January 13, 2006, the United States launched a missile strike on the village of Damadola, Pakistan. Rather than kill the targeted Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Qaeda’s deputy leader, the strike instead slaughtered 17 locals. This only served to further weaken the Musharraf government and further destabilize the entire area.

    On October 30, 2006, the Pakistani military, under pressure from the US, attacked a madrasah in the Northwest Frontier province in Pakistan. Immediately following the attack, local residents, convinced the US military was behind the attack, burned American flags and effigies of President Bush, and shouted “Death to America!” Outraged over an attack on school children, the local residents viewed the attack as an assault against Islam. On November 7, 2006, a suicide bomber retaliated. Further outrage ensued when President Bush extended his condolences to the families of the victims of the suicide attack, and President Musharraf did the same, adding that terrorism will be eliminated “with an iron hand.”

    More recent troubles have escalated surrounding the Pakistani government’s siege of the Red Mosque where more than 100 people were killed. “Even before his soldiers had overrun the Lal Masjid … the retaliations began.” Suicide attacks originating from both Afghan Taliban and Pakistani tribal militants targeted military convoys and a police recruiting center.

    There are countless more examples; too many to mention in detail. Likewise in Afghanistan; April 30, 2007 for example, when hundreds of Afghans protested US soldiers killing Afghan civilians. Why can’t the powers that be recognize that we’ve been in Afghanistan for nearly seven years, and in Iraq for over five; a military approach is not working. If we must focus the war on terror in Afghanistan and Pakistan, let’s focus on winning the hearts and minds of the beautiful people of these countries, rather than filling their hearts with bitterness and hatred toward us. With their support, we can offer them the financial and technical assistance that they need to rebuild their infrastructure, their agriculture and their economy. With their support, we can offer them the needed resources to rebuild their human capital and start attracting foreign direct investment. But without their support, we cannot possibly have any positive influence in this region at all; our only influence will be that of brute force, bribery of corrupt officials, and outright coercion. It will be a long, hard, costly and bloody endeavor, and the people of these countries will continue to suffer.

    Let’s not forget that Pakistan has nuclear weapons. Let’s not also forget that this is a highly Muslim-concentrated area, the Islamic concept of duty to come to the aid of fellow Muslims would no doubt ensure a huge influx of jihadists in this type of a scenario. Why on earth would we want to intentionally provoke a situation that would not only radicalize existing moderates in the region, but could also potentially cause the influx of a concentration of radical jihadists from elsewhere into an already unstable region (that has nuclear weapons no less)? We would be begging for a nuclear proliferation problem.

    We like to assume that we would have the upper hand in such a scenario. But we have been in Afghanistan since October of 2001. And we have yet to assume the upper hand. The fight in Afghanistan has the potential to become much more difficult than it already is.
    Nor would it be unheard of to expect other major powers to back these radical jihadists with economic and military assistance in much the same way that the US backed the Taliban and al Qaeda in Afghanistan against the Soviet Union. Beyond the fact that roughly 1/5 of the world’s population is Muslim (approximately 1.5 billion people- 85% Sunni, 15% Shia, Ibadiyyas, Ahmadis and Druze), we have to remember that Muslims are the majority in 57 states (out of 195). Most have Sunni majorities, which gives them added political power.

    China has traditionally backed Pakistan. What would China do if the US were to find itself at war with Pakistan?

    India has tremendous economic and security interests in the region. Let’s not forget that while India has been in nearly continual conflict with Pakistan, primarily over the Kashmir issue, it has the second largest Muslim population in the world next to Indonesia. What happens if India sides with the US? It will have a very difficult task justifying that position with its very large Muslim population. A US/Indian alliance could also spark more terrorist attacks in the Kashmir region. Or, if radicals gained control of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal, a nuclear attack against India could spark a nuclear altercation between the two nuclear powers. What if radicals then gained control of India’s nuclear arsenal?

    On the other hand, what happens if India for some reason (either via a coup or due to internal pressure) were to side with Pakistan? It seems unlikely now, but not completely unrealistic considering the on-again, off-again relationship between the US and every country in that region. We constantly flip-flop in our foreign policy. An attack on Pakistani soil would be a perfect example of this type of wishy-washy foreign policy, as the Bush administration guaranteed Musharraf that the US would never do such a thing.

    Also consider the US position on Kashmir (which has a predominantly Muslim population); Pakistan wants a plebiscite, as called for in a 1949 UN resolution. India refuses a plebiscite, claiming Kashmir and Jammu as an integral part of India. The US is arming both sides through billions in aid to Pakistan and selective proliferation to India, but insists Musharraf stem terrorist activities flowing from Pakistan, and discourages India from attacking Pakistan. Yet an escalation of war in the area could backfire badly.

    Beyond all that we still have to consider a slew of other states such as Saudi Arabia, Iran, Russia … etc. All of which have economic and/or political and security interests in the region. How will they react to an escalation of the war in Afghanistan/Pakistan?

    Finally, what would such a scenario do to oil prices? The oil embargo of 1974 (in support of Egypt and Syria in the Yom Kippur war against Israel) in retaliation against the US for its support of Israel had devastating economic and political consequences on the US and much of Europe. Also, the more recent boycott of Danish products across the Muslim world, in retaliation for the 2005 cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, demonstrates the ability of the international Muslim community to act collectively.

    Escalating the war in Afghanistan/Pakistan will also demonstrate the fickle and hypocritical nature of America’s foreign policy. We supported the Taliban when it served our interests (to oppose the Soviets in Afghanistan) in spite of clear human rights abuses, but still we condemn the Taliban (and much of the Muslim world) over the very same human rights abuses (against women …etc.), while we also continue to ignore similar or same human rights abuses in China, Saudi Arabia, Israel … etc., when it’s convenient to do so.

    We did the same thing with Saddam Hussein; arming him in spite of clear and egregious human rights abuses when he was our ally, and condemning the same actions when he wasn’t.

    The US practices selective proliferation with India, and selective sovereignty with those it chooses (today Pakistan, tomorrow someone other than Pakistan), while violating the sovereignty of other states depending on its whim at the time.

    We insisted that the Taliban turn over Bin Laden, but the United States has refused on several occasions to return foreign nationals (being held on death row in America) to their state of domicile because the US wanted them to face execution, and the home state did not uphold the death penalty. We also continue to refuse to acknowledge the ICC because we don’t want American military personnel tried in an international court. How is that so different from the Taliban wanting Bin Laden tried in an Islamic court?

    Rather than blindly accepting that America holds some God-given moral superiority over the rest of the planet, we need to realize that everywhere, humanity has a God-given right to live, love and prosper. Our children have the right to grow up in an environment free of air strikes and constant assault from an external enemy. They have the right to attend schools without fear of being maimed and killed inside of them. And they have the right to be children, instead of orphans. No state has the right to take that away from your children, or from mine.

  • Chris says:

    @Cris,

    Yes, as you point out it is something that can be seen either way. That’s good advice about the Brazilian shirt!

    @John,

    Wow, you definitely win the award for longest comment ever. I think it is about twice as long as the original post. 🙂

  • Cathy says:

    Hi Chris,
    I too am a recent devotee of your site. I came by it through Seth Godin’s blog. I am a midwesterner – those folks that are part of the US of A should note that what easterners (I am formerly from metro NYC) call the midwest and midwesterners call the midwest is not what a westerner would think. They are a bit confused by this moniker. My pals from Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, Wyoming always seemed a bit perplexed that Chicago is “midwest” – they think of it as east. As they say a rose by any other name still smells as sweet… We all try to identify ourselves to differentiate who we are. I try to say I am from the US when I travel abroad unless I am unsure of the people I am talking to. But like Chris and the rest of you who posted… always, always, always, people love the US people but most often not the US politics … this was the same before Bush and will be the same after Bush. When I travel I try not to be the “ugly American” and I betcha my friends from Brazil and Argentina would *never* identify with that moniker! Keep up the good work Chris! ciao!

  • Rick says:

    Great post Chris and such engaging comments from the readers!

    I’m now wondering about the Pakistani cab driver’s “approval” of Obama. I wonder if he thinks Obama might have a more open agenda to actually help with the underlying problems in the region and maybe work toward a more systematic solution that will be better for local people and the US? Or might he think that Obama is weak and will let things get out of control? Lots to think about between now and November.

    More posts like this and less about desks please.

    peace, Rick

  • moom says:

    Personally I’m annoyed by people from the US (to avoid saying “Americans” :)) referring to people as “Asians” and only meaning people from East Asia. That’s only about a third of the continent. I’ve got strong connections to Israel. It’s in Asia too!

  • Gabrielle H says:

    It’s interesting how much of our cultural identity is caught up in the name. We have trouble adjusting to being called anything else by people from other places that don’t associate those names in the same way. I don’t think that it’s at all insulting or displays any kind of arrogance; I think that people’s reaction to hearing their homeland described in a different way to what’s familiar is a reflex one. We need to adjust our thinking and it feels strange. I’d liken it to metric-imperial conversion. We are used to one, and even if we can easily do the conversion we will never be comfortable thinking in the other.

  • Elisabeth says:

    From the taxi driver’s lips to God’s ear!

  • Eva says:

    @ Chris

    All I’m saying is that you are perpetuating stereotypes. I have no problem with Americans (North, South or Central), but I still think your comment was patronising/patronizing <– neither of those look right to me. Capital letters (when coming from me) usually indicate sarcasm. And yes, you did ask about the other candidate. Well done.

    Canadians, in my experience, do not like to be called “Americans”, exactly because that term is usually associated with the U.S. Just thought I’d throw that in.

  • Eva says:

    @ Moom:

    Israel is in Europe – it has been participating in the Grand Prix EUROvision de la Chanson since 1973.

  • moom says:

    Yes Israel participates in Eurovision but it has always been considered to be in Asia since the days of the Roman Empire. For example, Turkey is partly in Europe and partly in Asia. The Bosphorus is the water channel that separates European Turkey (Thrace including Istanbul) from Asian Turkey (Anatolia). And if Turkey is in Asia the Middle Eastern countries to its south are also. The United Nations describes this part of the Middle East as SouthWest Asia.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Southwest_Asia

    Geologically speaking most of Israel is on the African plate and Turkey has a platelet all its own… There is also an Arabian plate.

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  • Very nice post 🙂 i like it 🙂 love Karachi Thanks for sharing this post 🙂

  • very good read, thanks for shairng, Chris. 🙂

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