Two tragedies, two Pakistans

By Pervez Hoodbhoy
Published in Dawn on June 24, 2023

ON Monday, the national flag flew half-mast to mourn the hundreds of Pakistanis resting in their watery graves under the Mediterranean. In lieu of roughly $7,500 apiece paid to trafficking agents, the ill-fated ones had hoped to start a new life in Europe.

Like cattle, the Pakistanis were herded under the deck of the Adrianna, a decrepit fishing trawler overloaded with Egyptians, Afghans, and Palestinians on the upper deck. When it went down, Pakistanis had the lowest survival chance — just a dozen of some 300 survived.

The drama after every such event is being duly played out. FIA reports arresting a dozen suspected human smugglers and has broadcast photos of some with handcuffs. Big deal! If the traffickers haven’t yet restarted work, they surely will after Eid. Soon, an immigrant-weary Europe will forget the Greek coastguard’s unconscionably tardy, half-hearted attempt to rescue the distressed trawler.

Meanwhile, the world was transfixed by a complex joint US-Canadian-French rescue mission to find Titan, a missing submersible vessel.

Operated by a pilot, the four ultra-wealthy curiosity-seekers on board had paid $250,000 apiece for taking a voyeuristic peek at the Titanic’s resting place. Among them were two British-Pakistanis. Until its tragic doom was finally confirmed, news channels ran the oxygen countdown clock in successive news bulletins.

One can fault the sensationalist Western media for breathless moment-by-moment coverage of the tiny submersible, while a much larger human tragedy was only routinely reported. On the other hand, now is a good moment for Pakistanis to reflect on the existence of two very different Pakistans.

Two recent maritime tragedies remind us of two non-communicating, very different Pakistans.

Separated not by geography but by wealth and opportunity, the two have little contact or knowledge of the other. Misconceptions thrive, including the drivers behind life-risking migrations. If we are to ever understand this, then we must be prepared to accept the critical role played by social mores and mindsets.

In his path-breaking book (2011) titled Masculinity, Sexuality, and Illegal Immigration — Human Smuggling from Pakistan to Europe, Ali Nobil Ahmad, a Pakistani who now heads a project on international migration in Nairobi, finds the pull of deep-seated psychological forces no less important than the push of economic forces. His research of 15 years ago remains solidly relevant today.

After interviewing dozens of young immigrant men from lower middle class backgrounds, Ahmad concluded that lure of adventure and libidinal frustration drives migration of even relatively economically secure ones.

Risking life and limb, they strive to escape a conservative society where every form of contact with women — other than a family-arranged marriage — is forbidden. A faraway world beckons wherein pleasures of the flesh are tauntingly visible through advertising and general openness.

Fearing their sons will fall prey to the wiles of western women, parents often marry them off before departure. Indeed, on the doomed trawler were young men from Gujrat, Sialkot, and Mandi Bahauddin. Local TV and social media is filled with images of weeping newly wed wives and crying babies.

From time to time, I encounter fine young men desperately seeking exit. I do not have the heart to tell them they have no chance of doing well. For them, schooling meant blind memorisation — and that too of heavy doses of religion.

Their knowledge deficit and conservative values thus sets them apart. The burqa issue resounds throughout Europe and unassimilable immigrants have become increasingly unwelcome. Many are quietly left to drown before they reach the shores.

And now, for the other Pakistan.

My last month’s lecture tour across the US provided me fascinating glimpses of an entirely different genre of Pakistani immigrants — the ultra-wealthy. Whereas wealth-by-stealth is the norm in Pakistan, many who are US-based create genuinely new products and count among the richest of America’s rich. Several measure their net wealth in fractions of a billion dollars. A few have crossed whole number limits.

Luck, of course, was on their side. None was born in a home where food was ever short or had to travel by public transport. With one exception, all went to private ‘O’-‘A’-level schools and then sought education overseas. Well settled there, they are liberal minded and eat and drink and marry by choice. America has no mini-Bradfords or mini-Birminghams.

At the lower end of this super scale are mostly medical doctors. Though trained at Pakistan’s elite medical universities, they experienced shock and awe when confronted by high professionalism in the US hospital system.

The best ones survived — and then thrived — and made their fortunes by starting health-related businesses. In general, they are not technically innovative. But one NED mechanical engineering graduate I met effectively leveraged the 200-year-old field of thermodynamics to create a novel heat exchanger leading to a rapidly growing company.

At the highest end are the billion-crossers. Most live in Silicon Valley and combine high engineering skills with business acumen. Person X, a Lahori of progressive bent, created a super-fast semiconductor chip that laid the basis for several major companies and nearly drove Intel out of business. Person Y, who I knew as an engineering student at MIT from 50 years ago, died recently after revolutionising computer vision. Person Z, much younger, is doing the same in cybersecurity and cloud computing.

But one question perpetually recurs.

India and Pakistan are both deeply unequal, largely impoverished countries. Yet, why are there so few Silicon Valley type Pakistanis but so many Indians?

By population, the ratio should be one-to-six but, in fact, it is more like one-to-40. The answer was given by sociologist Max Weber a hundred years ago. Wealth production within a society correlates directly with overall values, culture and worldview.

Like Darwin’s finches, the Pakistani from Mandi Bahauddin and the one settled in Silicon Valley have identical DNA. But, as in the Galapagos Islands, rocky ground here and fertile soil there is causing two different species to emerge.

The former seeks to escape for survival reasons, but also carries his conservative worldview overseas. The latter — a child of privilege and opportunity — seeks assimilation into American society as he moves yet further up. The story of Adrianna and Titan will die away. That both carried the same people will be forgotten.

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