My selfish desire to not be a stereotype

Published: November 9, 2010

Pakistanis are often pigeonholed into a pre-set idea in the US.

At the documentary production company where I worked over the summer, one of our ongoing projects was a film about four Senegalese teenagers chosen to come to the U.S. on basketball scholarships.  At the end of the film, the boys return to Senegal, and one of them says, “We were the lucky ones. Now it’s our turn to give back.”

“Ah, that noble, selfless spirit!” my boss once remarked with an ironic laugh, as we had just finished watching a fresh cut of the film. “Isn’t that just so African?”

“No,” I thought to myself, slightly annoyed at her levity. “There’s nothing African about it. That’s what anyone would say…”  And as these thoughts went through my mind I suddenly realised that this attitude, this sentiment that the young Senegalese boy had expressed and which to both of us was so completely natural and unquestionable – this attitude was not universal.

It was a third world phenomenon – a third world burden.

We’ve all felt it, growing up in Pakistan – an intense altruism combined with intense guilt. We know that we haven’t done a thing to deserve the blessings we were born with, the schools, books, servants, cars and computers that we took as a matter of course; and that knowledge makes us extremely uncomfortable, especially when we go out and see the reality on the streets.

So, we feel this compulsion, this need to absolve ourselves by “giving back”, by doing charitable works, by devoting some part of our lives to this country that gave us so much simply by a stroke of chance.

This sentiment formed a large part of my motivation for applying to journalism school. Journalism, for me, was a way to “give voice to the voiceless”. It was my way to “make a difference”, to “bring about a change” in my country, and other such lofty objectives, which I liberally elucidated in my personal statements.

I was being serious, too. Ever since I can remember, I’d had this sense of responsibility to “represent” Pakistan, to tell the world “the truth” about my misunderstood and maligned country. How and why I wanted to do this was irrelevant – I just knew that I ought to, that it was my duty. And so, I would dutifully watch the 9pm PTV Khabarnama with my dad every night, scan the front pages of The News or Dawn every morning before going to school, glue myself to CNN and BBC as soon as I returned home in the afternoon – feeling very good about myself, very clever and “aware”, because, after all, this was going to be my cause, this was my calling.

Then I came to the U.S., and found a precise pigeonhole sitting in wait for me – the young, educated, uber-ambitious, hyper-intellectual Pakistani-Muslim woman, an increasingly-coveted creature in the West. Falling into this pigeonhole, I was expected to be an authority on “all” things Pakistan – at least the western conception of it – from the “war on terror” to the safety of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons, relations with China and India to the sociology of the Taliban, violence against women, the rights of minorities, jihad in Islam, arranged marriages, the latest connivances of the president/prime minister/military dictator, whichever incompetent and corrupt nutcase happened to be in power, the number of casualties in the latest suicide attack…

I couldn’t have any other interests, and people didn’t expect me to have a conversation about anything else. Anything but the destruction, misery, and despicable politics of my country.

And, to a degree, I lived up to the stereotype.

When former President Musharraf declared emergency in November 2007, when Benazir Bhutto was assassinated in December 2008, when suicide bombs and drone attacks were reported in the New York Times, the people I passed by in the corridors on my way to class would look at me with an intense pity, even a kind of awe, as if I were the most unfortunate person that they knew. As if, every time a missile struck or a bomb exploded anywhere in the country, whether in Islamabad or the remotest part of the tribal belt, I was somehow directly affected, I somehow had an obligation to grieve. And I would return their gazes with a wan smile, a nod of the head, acknowledging their sympathy and concern with the air of a martyr.

But you know what? Sometimes I faked it.

Deep down inside, I knew this person wasn’t me. This person, posing to be the face of the Pakistani nation, a walking repository of information and statistics, the sharp-witted political analyst of tomorrow – it wasn’t me. I wasn’t an authority on anything except my own experience, and my own experience was as far removed from the poverty, violence and corruption that comprised of the news headlines as could possibly be.

And what if – what if I didn’t even want to be that person?

What if all I wanted to do in life was travel the world and take beautiful pictures? Did that make me a “bad” journalist, a “bad” Pakistani?

Once, one of my father’s friends – an “uncle” – asked me what kind of “issues” I was interested in covering as a journalist. “Politics, economics, business?” were the options he gave me.

I decided to be bold this time. “Actually, I’m more interested in culture and travel,” I said, stealing a glance at the yellow National Geographics that lined the bookshelf. “I want to be a travel writer.”

The uncle’s face fell to a grimace, as if I’d said I wanted to tight-rope dancer at Lucky Irani Circus. “Well, there’s a lot of use in that,” he muttered.

So, we come back to the third world burden, where every son or daughter of the land who is able to “escape” abroad for a better education or a better life is tacitly expected – no, duty-bound – to “give back”, to “represent”; to have other aspirations or interests would be considered strange, unworthy, or irresponsible, a “waste”.

Don’t take me wrong. I love my country, and I do want to give back. But I don’t want it to be out of “duty”, or worse, guilt. Most of all, I dislike the stereotype, the stereotype that hounds countless other Pakistani women, especially journalists like myself, that prompts the same automated response from all media outlets in New York City:

“We don’t have any use for you here. However, if you were in Pakistan…”

Yes, I know.  I need to be in Pakistan, I need to talk only about Pakistan, if I want to be a journalist, if I want to further my career, if I want to make a name for myself. I need to write an exposé on madrassas, investigate Faisal Shahzad, interview a militant, acid burn victim, or young girl orphaned by the floods – I need pictures of devastation, tales of suffering, tinged with the spectre of extremism, I need to exploit my country’s wretchedness on HD-cam for the world to see, and then tell myself I’ve done a good deed, that I’ve done “my bit” to give back.

No, thank you. Give me a ticket to teach English in China, a spot on a Mount Kilimanjaro expedition or a horseback tour of Colorado any day. I’ll give back when I want to, the way I want to.


Manal Khan

A freelance writer and photographer based in Madrid, Spain, who loves old cities, tall trees, dark chocolate, and being inspired. She is a graduate of the UC Berkeley School of Journalism and a Lahore native. Manal blogs at "Windswept Words" (

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

  • Majid Urrehman

    I would say it is a golden opportunity to come back to Pakistan. You do not need to report so called negative news to your employer but you can highlight all the good things in Pakistan.
    Believe you me, world out there has not idea what Pakistan is all about. They believe what Indians tell them. I have not seen any foreigner who came to Pakistan and then could not praise it all his life.Recommend

  • Tippu

    And this is how the sell-out begins.

    Its starts with, i dont want to go back right now, just a few more years and then ill return. And then before you know it, you have lived more of your life abroad then you have in pakistan. This is when change really happens and now you cant go back anymore. Ah well. Too bad you think. Im sure others will fill in for me. But the others are doing the same thing.

    Have seen this movie way too many times. And it always has the same ending.Recommend

  • Usama Zafar

    Excellent piece of writing!!! This is the best thing I’ve read so far on tribune!! Keep it up and keep posting other stuff!!!Recommend

  • Humanity

    We know that we haven’t done a thing to deserve the blessings we were born with, the schools, books, servants, cars and computers that we took as a matter of course

    After God, thanks goes to a secular, liberal Muslim Quaid and those who struggled and stood for a free homeland.

    While each one is free to carve his or her destiny, we must all rally for the country to realize the dream that the Quaid had envisaged. A country where people will live as equal citizens under a rule of law as a civil, progressive nation.Recommend

  • Naeem Siddiqui, Australia

    Manal Khan,
    I 100% agree with you. the so called ‘prestigious’ western news papers like WSJ, NYT, WP, Guardians are always look for trash when it comes to Pakistan, they always look for i.e exposé on madrassas, investigate Faisal Shahzad, interview a militant, acid burn victim, or young girl orphaned by the floods, pictures of devastation, tales of suffering, tinged with the spectre of extremism.

    Being a Pakistani journalist you are only welcomed if you could arrange all this bad news/reports and ugly photos to fill the hunger of these so called ‘prestigious’ western news papers.

    Recently I watched a documentary on SBS (an Australian news channel) about Karachi prepared by Pakistani origin Australian citizen. Documentary is about so called ‘talibanization’ of Karachi, The whole documentary started in a suburb called Sohrab Goth (An Afghan Refugee camp on the outskirt of Karachi) and ended on the same place showing couple of madrasas, bearded and fat afghan Mullah with a big tummy and some teen aged afghan kids telling horrible things about Islam, women and Karachi!!

    If I were not born, brought up and got educated in Karachi I would have certainly thought Karachi is a city in Afghanistan, full of ugly slums, madrasas, mullahs and die hard fanatic talibinized afghan teen age kids Recommend

  • Zuhaib

    I hate stereotyping it sucks n so cruel to kill individuality n i believe many who do it do outta some fear n they continue to follow it quoting some silly reasons n then perpetuate it…..Recommend

  • Ghausia

    It does suck that they only want you to cover hard news from Pakistan, but if you think about it, you could do that for a few years and once you’ve earned respect and prestige, you’ll be able to cover the kind of stories you want to cover, whether in Pakistan or not.Recommend

  • Madeeha Ansari

    Well, hello :)

    It’s strange, though, what a strong effect one’s immediate environment has. The truth is that no one is really their own person. If the generic ambitious female were to come back and be immersed in the pressing social and political issues of the country, it could be that after a few months that’s what she will believe she was meant to write about.

    Then again, the initial decision is what will determine the course of ambition. And that is deeply personal.Recommend

  • parvez

    You are giving back simply by being honest. Enjoyed the article.Recommend

  • Shumaila

    Excellent post. I never knew journalists abroad were so forced to take up that stereotype. I can understand you buckling just so you could fill in the position of the pitied Pakistani, and I can more than understand your wanting to break free. So Hurrah for your last paragraph! Bravo, girl!

    You are an individual, first and foremost. You have every right to do what you want without feeling guilty about it. We all have that right. I think its brilliant that you’ve realised it and are going on to fulfill your dreams. Ditch the guilt too :P honestly. No one would be happy doing Pakistan-related articles when its only out of a sense of obligation or guilt or to fit that stereotype. You would be happier and more successful in doing the thing you love best. Then you can ‘give back’ all you want.Recommend

  • Talha

    Nice write up and something that is different from the usual stuff you read often on blogs.

    I do agree that Pakistan has been stereotyped into this hell hole which is true to a certain extent but the media does exaggerate and thus a highly negative image of Pakistan has been produced over the years.

    It wasn’t always like this though, Pakistan was an unknown country a few decades ago and people from other nations found it and its people to be mysterious and very cultured.

    Since this grand militant program started from the times of Zia, we were catapulted into world knowledge as a hardline Islamic state. Though the image was better then, things got much worse in recent times.

    I try and promote a good image of Pakistan but unfortunately many of our own project a very negative image.

    In my University abroad, my lecturers were very intrigued by me and my background becuase the Pakistanis they had met only enforced our negative stereotype. I didn’t and as I was different, they actually went to gather information on Pakistani’s in a positive light, one even gave a lecture about it in our large class, much to my embarrasment.

    The thing with our stereotype is that we can only change it if we change ourselves because certain people from our nation have completely maligned the rest with their own brand of ideology.

    For Jinnah, we must make this country work, we just have to, he worked so hard for us.Recommend

  • Habiba Younis

    excellent post, loved reading it!Recommend

  • Salman

    A wonderful post. Your feelings are shared by many, those at least who have been able to distinguish between opening up their horizons and “selling out” as mentioned in a couple of narrow-minded comments. Go, explore the world, and continue telling your story to those who haven’t been able to. You will educate, open up minds, and attain knowledge through your journeys that otherwise would be extremely difficult. And as far as Pakistan goes, there are already a large number of journalists, writers, authors, who have taken up the task to tell her story. Leaving aside the fact that you are first and foremost a human, a citizen of humanity before a Pakistani, your obligation should first be to yourself and to your path of knowledge and enlightenment. To those who only confine their identities to the borders which secure them, a global Pakistani will serve these “patriots” much better than the sheltered ones even if they don’t realize it. Recommend

  • Usman

    Pakistan is too is simply put a country where brutes thrive… there is no place in here for humanity…Recommend

  • Ultimate Cynic

    Excellent, candid piece of writing. One seldom gets to read such honest articles in today’s ‘we all have a duty to give back to Pakistan’ political environment. While I don’t disagree about that need more than ever now, I admire your self-introspection and boldness in being so frank about how you want to live your life: not to be dictated by critical conditions that are not your doing and yet still striking a balance between what should be done as compared to what you want to do.

    On a personal note, I’ve been in the travel business and in journalism. And I wanted to become a travel writer too. Haven’t been able to do it so far, but your writing’s reawakened that resolve. Thank you Manal! Hope to bump into you on the trek to Concordia some day! :-) Recommend

  • manalkhan

    Thanks for your comments. I’ve seen the “sell-out” type, and I used to judge them too, till I moved to the U.S. myself. Now I feel that the pressure to come back is sometimes the very thing that keeps so many people away – if we as a society were just more accepting and nurturing of people’s interests and ambitions then there’s no reason why people would not want to come back. As for me – I’m not a huge fan of living in the U.S., and the only place I want to settle permanently is Pakistan. But before I do that, I want to travel as much as I can while I’m young so I don’t have regrets about it later on. Recommend

  • manalkhan

    Thank you everyone for your comments!

    I was initially a bit nervous about posting this because I thought it might be misunderstood. But your comments were so very encouraging. There are days when I miss home so much I want to leave everything and jump on the next plane to Lahore – but where we end up living often isn’t in our control. So, yes, apart from what we do in our jobs, the best way to present what is beautiful and positive about our country is by being good people.

    And travel, while we’re at it! :)Recommend

  • Tippu


    I fully understand your love for travelling and exploring what the world has to offer. But i fail to understand why that need can not be met while living in pakistan. Why the need to live abroad??

    You remind me of me, which is why i need you to think carefully of the reasons behind your choices before you make them. I moved out of pakistan in my primary school years. And strange as it may sound, had grand ideas about going back and giving back. The dream died after about 15 years. I know i can no longer return. Not because i dont love it. i do. But because i (and perhaps the people in pakistan) have drifted away from each other with time. And strangely enough, it is the elite in pakistan that has drifted the furthest from me. I do not understand them anymore when i visit despite the fact that they are well travelled. And our value set is different. That killed the dream for me and i have perhaps joined the sellout cadre myself as a result.

    If you decide to stay back, and not return to pakistan. Keep in mind that you will not be able to go back after you have lived abroad for about 15-20 years. Not because you dont want to, but because you can no longer fit in. Not even amongst your own. There is no harm in whatever choice you make, but whatever you do, always be true to yourself. Your mind will also play tricks on you, to justify one path or the other. But as long as you are clear in your objectives, you will make the right choice. God Bless.Recommend

  • Hassan

    Very well written, go ahead Manal travel the world you can give back in many ways by raising awareness about our country everywhere you go, dont worry about what will happen tomorrow, you have been given an opportunity make the most of it. Best of Luck!!!!!!!Recommend

  • Sher Khan

    Nice stuff! Don`t worry about Tippu, first he talks about selling-out and then he has never actually lived in Pakistan since he was 6.. what a jackassRecommend

  • Mustafa

    @Sher Khan:
    I feel that tippu has given a very honest response to the authors comment, based on his personal experiences. And I feel that manal, and most others who have lived abroad would agree with tippu on the fact that adjusting back to the life in Pakistan gets difficult when you’ve been exposed too long. Just stuff like load shedding starts getting to you, and I believe it’s more difficult for girls because the differences between the west and Pakistan in terms of clothing, freedom etc are wider for them than they are for guys.Recommend

  • Mustafa

    @manal: an excellent article that incites self introspection into a number of readers who are in a similar position! Keep up the good work, and may God help you make the right decision. Recommend

  • adnan

    That’s eloquently put. I left Pakistan when I was 10, returned with I was 16, and then left again at 23. And despite my nomadic lifestyle in and out of Pakistan, your comment strongly resonates with me. Each passing day, I feel I’m drifting further away from Pakistan – not only from the few friends I have back home, but also from the city I once called my own. My belief and value systems have also diverged to the point that it is difficult to talk politics, religion or even things as mundane is household help. And its only been 5 years – another 4-5 years and it will not be possible for me to settle back in. Living abroad has implications that aren’t apparent immediately – they just creep up on you.

    Thinking about one’s objectives and then making the right decision is great advice; knowing when that decision point should occur is the difficult part. Recommend

  • Jill

    Very interesting perspective. I really enjoyed your honesty. I have been searching the web for information on Pakistan, due to the fact that I am headed there for work in coming weeks.
    I have always had the desire to experience different cultures…I believe that you can read all you want and take information from different areas, though until you travel to the country and attempt to experience it for yourself, you really have no idea. I believe that our personal experiences are our gifts to eachother, being able to relate and understand.
    Being from a foreign country now travelling to your country I only pray that I meet someone like you to share your experience, to give me a better understanding. I see that as such an amazing gift, to open anothers eyes to your culture and abling them to have an idea or vision as to what to expect. I believe that you are giving back just by being a apart of your culture wherever you are. In my travels I have been pround to be a representation of my country to others.
    Thank you for sharing! Keep up the great writing!Recommend

  • Tippu

    @Mustafa: Thanks for the support :)

    @Adnan: You are correct about the timing of the decision. Not an easy thing to do. But after about 15 years, that decision point itself disappears. It too drifts away. And the cause is not load shedding or lifestyle. It is the people. It is a sad thing to realise that you have mentally drifted so far away from each other that you can no longer understand with folks back home. The thought process, the values, and things that matter, are all different. 15 years is the critical timeframe that ive noticed. Beyond that, it is well near impossible to go back. Recommend

  • rabia Ahmed

    Great job: refreshingly honest, and very well written! Recommend

  • Dr Imran Ahmed

    I liked the article. I sympathise with your rebellion against being stereotyped.

    Yes, I am a denizen of a wretchedly poor, crisis ridden, violent and unjust third world country, I wish to help my country; but I can still have “normal” personal aspirations which would be hypocritical to deny.

    Learn to live with the guilt or learn to absolve yourself.Recommend

  • Tyrone

    @ Jill if ur comin to Karachi get in touch!

    @ the author: ‘No, thank you. Give me a ticket to teach English in China, a spot on a Mount Kilimanjaro expedition or a horseback tour of Colorado any day. I’ll give back when I want to, the way I want to.’

    Not sure about China but for any of the other two I’m in.


  • Urooj

    I don’t know the world you live in, but all around me I see no one who feels he has to “give back.” Everyone I know, who’s from a good background (especially those who get to go abroad) actually do not hold any such ideals.Recommend

  • Dr Imran Ahmed

    @Urooj, that, I feel, is going too far. In my own family and friends there are many many people not only desiring to but actually giving to the extent that it causes inconvenience and even hardship.

    I lived in England for 26 years despite which my kids who were brought up there seem to feel and occasionally act on the desire to give back.Recommend

  • Sabahat Zakariya

    This was a truly brilliant piece. Honesty like this is rarely on display in ‘Pakistani’ journalism.Recommend

  • UZi

    Truly brilliant piece, this. What I don’t understand is how someone who wrote THIS awesomeness could write something as appalling as the blogpost that was published yesterday. Why! :-(

    That said, this piece has been added to my list of “favouritest pieces of writing. Ever.” :-)Recommend

  • rehmat

    Very thoughtful comments. I think that most Indians would have agreed with you 10 years back but now some Indians have started going back to India. Of course the professions of those going back are typically IT or banking which are booming in India. Very few scientists return. I think that the economic opportunity back home also has a lot to do with that decision.

    After all, isn’t USA (or UK for that matter) have very different values, culture and even climate from back home at the time you move there? Many Indians and Pakistanis are not even fluent in English when they move. But you make the adjustment because of the economic opportunity. If there was opportunity back home, believe me, people would make the adjustment.

    This is not meant to be point scoring match between India and Pakistan but the fact that Pakistan too can realistically hope to attract its talented diaspora back if the right economic policies are pursued and opportunities created.Recommend