Shackles of Identity – With Guilt from Pakistan

There were times when traveling internationally must have been fun for an average Pakistani; but no more, it seems. What the connection to violence and terrorism has done to the “Pakistani” identity over the past more than ten years is apparent from this person’s story whom we’ll call “Azad”.

Azad became a Canadian citizen a few years ago and has been a peaceful and liberal addition to the Canadian society. His Pakistani origin has usually not been a cause of trouble for him in Canada. But when he traveled home this time, he was left embarrassed and disgruntled by the treatment by American immigration officials at airports.

“At the Canadian airport the US authorities singled me out every time, though not their Canadian counterparts. The US authorities also interrogated me on their own soil as well.” These words from Azad show just a glimpse of the suspiciousness that has enveloped the presence of a Pakistani person in the west.

The trial of this Pakistani didn’t end here. When his plane landed at a US airport – via which route he was to go to Pakistan – the same story was repeated. What followed is described by Azad as: “My name was announced on loudspeaker and two US homeland security officials interrogated me at the counter in front of all other passengers and I felt humiliated. It rendered me upset and embarrassed.”

And if that was not enough, his luggage – already checked by Canadian authorities – was detained and he was informed, after he had reached Pakistan, that his bag was confiscated and opened by the US authorities for further probe. He had to travel to the nearest big city to receive his luggage, feeling frustrated and victimized.

Interestingly, Azad had no problem at any airport when he visited the US as a tourist a year ago, though his Pakistani origin was known to the authorities from his travel documents. The suspicion thus seems to have been associated with multiple factors. If you are a Pakistani tourist coming from Canada to the US, it’s okay. But if you are returning to Pakistan to visit your family or see your homeland, you can be an object of suspicion. Maybe two things Pakistani – identity and homeland – make a stronger case of suspicion. But who knows?

Azad has the right to complain about the psychological and, to some extent, social harm done to him as an individual; but what he also acknowledges is that Pakistani identity has suffered because of the nature of acts its bearers have involved themselves in on foreign soil. Whether it’s Ajmal Kasab in India or Faisal Shehzad in the US, the destructive mindset by a handful of dangerous Pakistanis has cast its shadow on Pakistani identity throughout the world.

Yet, not for a moment should the international reader consider that Pakistanis face embarrassment and guilt for bearing the stained identity in the west. Right on their own soil, they have their daily dose of suspicion by those they call fellow countrymen. Gone are the days when a carefree boy could scamper about the fields and streets in his small peaceful town. Today, he is searched when entering a bank, the local hospital, a mosque, and the post office. “Azad”, literally meaning “free”, is not free anymore. His identity marred by people he never associated with or even knew has become his shackles – whether in east or west.