Image is nothing: Pakistan as Andre Agassi

Published: May 20, 2012
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We allow the rest of the world to define what Pakistan is and then argue that, sure, we may be a failing state but we have pretty models. PHOTO: EXPRESS TRIBUNE / MUHAMMAD JAVAID

Even before he had won anything of note, tennis player Andre Agassi became a celebrity thanks to his “Image is Everything” ads for Cannon, which capitalised on his ridiculous blonde locks and cut-off denim shorts.

Although he would go on to reveal that the hair was augmented by a toupee and win a bunch of majors on his way to becoming a truly legendary player, Agassi admitted in his searing autobiography” Open” that he was never comfortable with his rockstar status, unearned that it was.

The lesson is clear: image is a self-created illusion that we generally use to mask our insecurities.

In the tortured analogy I am about inflict on all you unfortunate readers, Pakistan, or rather its upwardly-mobile classes, are Agassi, and the rest of the world can stand in for Cannon. Too many of us are willing to confuse image with achievement but the worst part is that the image we are trying to conjure is not our own but that of the entire country.

There is nothing wrong with frivolity for the sake of frivolity. The problem arises when we feel a pang of guilt for doing something that is fun and decide to soothe ourselves by claiming that we are only trying to project a softer image of Pakistan. On a purely personal level, this is very annoying for its obvious fakery. No one waltzes down a catwalk out of sheer anger at a New York Times front page story on the Taliban. Anyone who edits a lifestyle magazine only because our arts and crafts industry hasn’t been given its due in Vanity Fair might want to find a new job.

Promoting Pakistan’s “image” has effects more pernicious than simple irritation at the sheer stupidity and dishonesty of the enterprise. By using this line of argument we are essentially adopting a defensive posture. We allow the rest of the world to define what Pakistan is and then argue that, sure, we may be a failing state but there is some hope because we have pretty models. By being so reactive we have already accepted a flawed Western premise.

To return to tennis for a bit, consider the well-received speech Aisamul-Haq gave after reaching the final in the US Open doubles tournament.

Here was a sportsman in his prime having to essentially say that not all Pakistanis are terrorists. As image-building goes, this is a very debasing way to accomplish it. Even if Aisam’s spontaneous words were understandable, the reaction to his speech back home was anything but. We celebrated him not for being a damn fine tennis player but for building bridges and contributing to the world’s understanding of Pakistan without realising that such abasement only shows our yearning for outside approval and our dependency on them to define us as a nation.

It is an indictment of our elite that it seeks validation of our country from the West. Better not to talk about ourselves with outsiders at all than to buy into their narrative. Image is nothing if it isn’t accompanied by self-awareness.

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Nadir Hassan

An Islamabad based journalist who tweets at @Nadir_Hassan.

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.