by Rohail Salman
As an individual, there are so many identities (or labels) that apply to me: a Pakistani, a Muslim, a man, a historian, and so on. On their own, these identities are not too different from millions of others in the world. But it is the combination of all these identities that made me pursue a career as a historian, and it is also the combination of all these identities that acted as the biggest roadblock in doing so.
I was just 7 years old when Pakistan went through its third and my first (so far) military “coo.” I say “coo” because that’s what a 7-year-old me understood when all of a sudden, all the TV channels went blank, and then the electricity went down for the entire day. And then when it came back, the whole family sat huddled around the TV listening to this army man make a speech. I had no idea what was going on, but as I would learn not much later, Pakistan’s civilian leadership had been overthrown and the military had taken over in a bloodless coup d’état, mere miles (I will come to my hate for this measurement in a bit) from where I lived. Just two years after that historical event, 9/11 happened. What would an event that took place oceans away have to do with my identity or my career? The answer: everything. Little did I realize at the time, but the sight of that second plane flying into the second tower on CNN in my living room would change so much for me. The weird relationship between Pakistan and the United States would come into the limelight for the first time in my life following these events, and that is when this became a subject that I wanted to know more and more about.
My journey into studying history was as accidental as it was fateful. Reading history was one of my favorite things to do as a child. Born into a family that ran a centuries-old furniture business, I was privileged enough to be able to buy whatever books I could. But that is what it always was—a hobby. History was never a subject that could be studied seriously, as a means to a living, or, God forbid, as a profession. The only people in my family who were not business people worked in banks, and those two options were the only ones that my narrow-mindedness would consider professions. All throughout my schooling, there was a distinct focus on creating professionals, rather than good, well-rounded students. I went to an old missionary school in my hometown, the same school that my father had attended, and his ancestors before him. It was an elite, but relatively affordable institution, but like the rest of Pakistani educational institutions, it reeked of bias, prejudice, and severe narrow-mindedness. Even in school, as I geared towards becoming a banker, (which in Pakistan is a far, far less extravagant career path than in other parts of the world), I enjoyed studying history. Or, whatever history was taught to us. Combine a nationalistic syllabus, pepper it with post-colonial insecurities, and throw in a bit of religious dogma, and you have the perfect concoction to assemble brainless zombies—and that is what we got from our textbooks. I was, however, fortunate enough to have some of the best history teachers in school, who taught me that there is always more to studying history than what you read in textbooks and that there is so much out there that everyone needs to learn.
When you’re boarding your flight to America, and you get pulled into secondary questioning at the immigration desk, your fears start getting real. A little harassment combined with useless questions is all I got, and I was prepared for them, but I would be lying if I said that that did not shake me a little. And all this is before I even stepped foot on US soil.
But who has time for that when you’re going to become a hotshot banker, wearing a suit to work every day and rolling in cash, right? That’s why when I got into the best business school in Pakistan for my undergraduate studies, I was ecstatic, my family was ecstatic, and my friends were super impressed (all the ladies were going to dig me . . . finally). But a year into my accounting and finance degree, I realized that that was not what I wanted to do and was not what I was good at—at all. I was, in fact, horrible in a cut-throat environment that stifled learning, and was in danger of being expelled from the university if I did not get my act together. So, I took a leap of faith, and changed my focus to a social sciences degree. I still remember the shocked look on my dad’s face when I told him. “What are you going to do with a social sciences degree? It’s worthless spending so much on your education when you have no future. And you’re a man. This is most definitely a woman’s subject.” That last bit hit hard, not just from my father but from everyone around me. For some reason, social sciences in Pakistan are considered a feminine pursuit, and a taboo for men, without much explanation as to why. I guess the word patriarchy could apply here, but this is not even a sliver of the kind of discrimination women in Pakistan have to go through every day, for everything. Still, despite the odds, I chose to persist, and ended up graduating from the very same university, a much more well-rounded, aware, and happy individual.
It was time to find work then, and the words of my father and all those who like to talk rang loud and clear in my head. I chose to start my professional life as a history teacher in a high school. I was 21. My students were at least 18 or 19 years old. It was a tough and extremely frustrating experience trying to get students who were almost the same age as me to respect me enough to learn something from me. By the end of the two years of teaching there, though, I was proud to know that not only had I made those students into more aware and inquisitive people, but had supported their hopes of pursuing something in the social sciences, just as I had. Even though I wanted to stay on as a teacher and keep assisting the students as I had been doing, I felt that I needed more education and training in the subject, so I could come back and make even more of a difference. That is why I decided that there was little more I could do with my undergraduate degree, and applied to graduate programs in both the US and the UK.
And then I got into a PhD program to study history in the US. It was by far one of the happiest moments in my life, and up to the point where I was leaving for the US, the only emotion I felt was excitement. It did not matter that I was going to be further from home than I had ever been. Or that my Pakistani friends had had a rough time in the country. Or that there was a presidential candidate who was running on an anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim platform. Who would elect that guy, amiright? But when it was almost time to leave, the obvious feeling of homesickness swooped in, mixed with an anxiety about how things would be for me in the US. This was a country I had only heard and read about. I had no idea what to expect from the education system. And I couldn’t sleep without the lights on in my room, how was I even going to sleep alone, so far away from home? Had I made a bad decision? Should I not go and just stay home? All these feelings are natural for a 23-year-old going away for the first time. But when you’re boarding your flight to America, and you get pulled into secondary questioning at the immigration desk, your fears start getting real. A little harassment combined with useless questions is all I got, and I was prepared for them, but I would be lying if I said that that did not shake me a little. And all this is before I even stepped foot on US soil.
Once I got there, I realized how different everything was. People would talk different, look different, and act different. Hell, even the measurements were different. What do you mean it’s 2 miles away? How many kilometers is that? What do you mean it’s 80 degrees outside? If it’s more than 50, you’d melt. But after the initial shock of settling in, I felt like things were going well for me. I met my colleagues in the history department, who were more welcoming and inclusive than I would ever have imagined. My advisors not only liked the work I did, but wanted to work with me on it. I know it seems strange to say that, but coming from Pakistan, where you run after your advisors to get even a sight of them, having someone who encourages you in your work and helps you through it is a massive deal. It made me feel at home in my university. I was an aspiring historian, just like everyone else. I was a teaching assistant, just like everyone else. I was an equal member of the fraternity that was the history department there.
But it was not just the university I had to deal with, or the people within the university. There are those few moments of micro-aggression from people who meant no harm. “Oh, how do you speak such good English?”; “Oh, I don’t know, 300 years of colonialism maybe?” “Pakistan? Where is that, I don’t know.”; “Why don’t you check right next to the map where the US military has been since 2001?” Those people meant no harm. But, in November, when the presidential candidate that I had written off as a fascist clown became president, I was faced with something different. The fear felt after that was not a very normal feeling. It was a fear borne out of insecurity and uncertainty. We had no idea what we were going to do, or what was even going to happen to us. I say us because that’s how many people choose to see people like me, as members of a group in which everyone is responsible for the actions of a few, rather than individual actors with agency to do whatever we want. Every Metro ride since that day, I’ve plugged in my headphones and stood close to the door to leave the train as soon as possible. With incidents of verbal abuse becoming commonplace in public places, this is a fear that I constantly live with. When people make eye contact with me in closed public spaces, I look away, because I don’t want any trouble. If someone who I do not know says something to me, I pretend to not have heard, so there is no altercation. I’ve been lucky so far to not have experienced anything really harmful, but the fact that it can happen will stay with me. Still, this was even before the immigration ban. I mean what even was that, or is that? They said it’s not a Muslim ban, or a ban at all. But the many worried emails from your advisors and the university (not to mention the panicked calls from home) say otherwise. My entire second semester in the US was spent worrying that I might be asked to leave the country at any time, and my country wasn’t even on the “list.” I am sure everyone can tell, but that is not the most conducive environment for learning.
The response of the university itself was welcoming, even if somewhat lacking in concrete action. You can’t blame them, because it did take everyone by surprise. The university president and the college dean both assured the students that their doors were open, and that the university would assist everyone directly affected by the executive order. There was little more the university could have done in the wake of such a decision, or that is, at least, what I thought at the time. Assurances and a talk on immigration by the law school aside, I did not find much solace from the university itself in addressing my problems. I, for one, was not directly affected by the order—directly meaning I wasn’t going to be deported—but I would count myself as a person who was affected emotionally and mentally by this situation. It is true that the university has excellent counseling services that could be availed by me, but in times like these, I feel there is more that could be done. Maybe bring together all the international students or the immigrants in the university, and let them speak their mind to each other. Who better to help you through an unbelievable situation than others who are stuck in the same predicament. And that is an easy thing to accomplish. The International Services Office is great, but even they can’t be prepared to deal with problems that arose with this executive order. A little example from my own case concerns my confusion about whether I should go back home for the summer, or stay in the US, in case there were complications when I got back. But to do so, I needed work for the summer so I could pay my expenses. For international students, and history ones at that, on-campus jobs are pretty much the only option, and that is where I looked. Having failed to find any such employment, I took my case up with the department and the school itself, but aside from verbal assurances that I would find work, I did not get much help. I understand that the university is not a charity, and it’s not their responsibility to find work for me. But in exceptional circumstances, taking exceptional measures would not be too much. Creating such opportunities for students who would have a difficult time traveling outside the United States is something the university itself can do, and something that it owes its students as well. Maybe not for a case like mine, where I wasn’t directly affected, but there are so many more who were, and it makes complete sense to give them this opportunity. It is the responsibility of academia to step up in such a time, and guide those in trouble through this period. There is no limit to the amount of proclamations and verbal support that can be given, but is academia strong enough to tangibly support its students, be it Muslims or immigrants now, and any others in the future? I don’t count myself as an expert in academia or its workings, not by a long shot, and so I can barely say what should or shouldn’t be done. But I’m sure there are those who feel strongly about these issues, whether through shared experiences, or just a sense of responsibility instilled within when pursuing such a career.
It is the responsibility of academia to step up in such a time, and guide those in trouble through this period. There is no limit to the amount of proclamations and verbal support that can be given, but is academia strong enough to tangibly support its students, be it Muslims or immigrants now, and any others in the future?
It would be wrong of me to say that most of my experiences studying in the US have been bad. I already wrote about how good it felt to have advisors who cared about you and your work, but what I also love about studying here is the fact that talking to like-minded individuals, and even those who think differently, has turned me from an apologist into someone who is proud of his heritage and all the labels that come with it. Whereas I was scared that I would not be able to hold on to my Muslim-ness or my Pakistani-ness before I got to the US, I now feel proud to own both those aspects of my identity. Whereas I would be more sensitive to things I knew others would not agree with, I feel more comfortable sharing my thoughts on matters and expecting an open-minded discussion. Working in US academia has been a very tough learning process for someone from a country that never prepared us for this. But at the same time, it has been a learning process where all the people around you want to help you be better at what you want to do, and for that, I feel blessed. Now if only I could take my God’s name when I sneeze on the Metro from home to school without drawing suspicion, that would be great.
Rohail Salman is a graduate student at the George Washington University. He intends to study the role of South Asia in the Cold War, and vice versa and to analyze the complex geopolitical history of the region from a broader perspective. He completed his undergraduate degree in Anthropology and Sociology from the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS), in Lahore, Pakistan and then taught High School history in Pakistan for 2 years.
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