Saturday, 14 January 2012

Pakistan Down Under

Pakistan Down Under

Some twenty thousand Pakistani migrants have made home in Australia, the majority of those were able to do so only after the relaxation of White Australia immigration policy. For decades since European colonisation, the governments in Australia had practiced this rigidly racist policy most religiously, until political bigotry began cracking up to the economic and business demands of the mid 1970s.

On their part, Pakistanis seemed to have found opportunities of settlement abroad ahead of the change of attitudes Australia. Already, a considerable number of Pakistani workers were well on the way to establishing their pockets of presence in northern England; and the emerging labour markets in the Persian Gulf, the Arabian peninsula and the Middle East offered them rather convenient employment nearer home. Opening in the United States and Canada was yet come.     

Nearly half-a-century after the beginning of migration from their homeland, in search of enhanced livelihood and settlement deals all over the world, the size of Pakistani presence abroad has touched enormous scales. According to one source, the aggregate of Pakistani Diasporas abroad can be estimated at seven million, that is, fairly close to as much as the whole population of London or Lahore.

In larger context, therefore, the Pakistani presence in Australia constitutes only a nominal 0.3% of the Diaspora. Also, in a local context, when compared with other ethnic segments of the post-colonial demographic map, the number of Pakistani migrants making Australia home remains significantly humble. But then despite the modesty of its size, some members of Pakistani community have made it to high-profile professions like medical practice, law, banking, finance, information technology, engineering and public service. This is in stark contrast to their counterparts involved mostly in hard labour employment in the United Kingdom of the 1960s or vacancies storming up in the Gulf and Middle Eastern job markets soon afterwards. In a way, the success in getting more lucrative employment is also a reflective of the socio-economic progress achieved in Pakistan during the same period.

At the same time, it is not easy for everyone to follow the pathway to better employment straightaway. In the very stages of their race for suitable employment, many migrants get detracted. There is no dearth of fairly well-educated Pakistanis in Australia who ended up in ordinary services; from plain security-related jobs to cleaning or cab driving. Many others remain unemployed, dependant upon the minimal welfare benefit. They are, of course, bitter and unhappy about their circumstances but it takes a while, from few months to may be a couple of years, for them to muddle across the local requirements and networking integrates with system.

Zulfiqar Hussain, who obtained doctorate in plant breeding from one of the reputed agricultural institutes in the United States, returned to Pakistan with great hopes. He failed to survive at what was home and was obliged to migrate to Australia on the basis of his exceptional education and skills. Currently, he lives west of Sydney and works as a security guard. “I am not the only example in my category. One of my friends, Iftikhar, Ali holds a doctorate in Theoretical Physics from the University of Birmingham in England. He had to serve as cab driver for nearly four years before finding some college teaching employment”. Zulfiqar Hussain had considerable list of highly qualified Pakistanis, many of them scientists, doing odd jobs. He was at a loss in understanding the merit of skill-migration. “After qualifying to migrate on the basis of what your education and expertise are, you end up doing something totally unrelated”. He remarked.

As a consequence sharp rise in the business of higher education, and few scholarship grants offer by the government, up to five thousand Pakistani students are reported to have arrived in Australia in recent years. Still, the number of Pakistani students remains far less than their counterparts from India, especially from the Indian states of Gujrat and Punjab. Due to conflicting perceptions of stakeholders involved, the wholesale business of higher education seemed to have become an issue in itself delivering unforeseen pressures on immigration and employment policies. Apparently, the extravaganza to make money out of education business has levelled out against the ambition among foreign students to seek permanent residence in the boarding country. This is an arena where India, China and other countries in the close neighbourhood of Australia are players much bigger than Pakistan. Even today, the popular destinations of Pakistani students, seeking higher education and training abroad, are Europe and the United States. Fewer look towards Australia and New Zealand; and it is understandable for a number of cultural and logistical reasons.
Due to a preference for urban lifestyles, and in line with the trend established by migrant communities from other parts of the world, the majority of Pakistanis tend to find homes in big cities like Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide, Perth and Brisbane. Very few tend to live in rural country towns. Still, there is no parallel to what is popularly nick-named as Little Pakistan for the relatively prominent presence of the Diaspora in places like Jackson Heights in Queens, New York; or Bradford’s
Oak Lane
and Birmingham’s Alum Rock in northern England, or like Azizia and Khobar in Saudi Arabia.

In the outer west of Sydney, however, many Pakistanis have found residence in the relatively run-down suburbs of Mt Druitt and Rooty Hill, where high rates of crime and unemployment have posed various degrees of social challenges until recently. Typically, the attraction for Pakistanis is the mosque in Rooty Hill. As numerous social scientific studies, conducted upon the religious and cultural sensitivities of various migrant communities transplanted abroad, indicate, the mosque offers a strong source of inspiration where Muslims, especially from South Asia, are concerned. By living in the vicinity of a mosque, or an Islamic school, the first generation of Muslim migrants attempt, in their own peculiar way, at seeking solace in some sort of the much desired journey back home. Reliance upon religious themes could be viewed as an act of re-conversion to the original faith.

Although a small community, the first generation of Pakistani migrants in Australia remains divided from within. As if the political and sectarian divides back home continue to pursue them abroad, the number of various Pakistan associations and mosques continues to multiply and flourish. In Sydney and its surrounding suburbs alone, the number of mosques has risen from three to well over a dozen. Nearly ten Pakistan associations operate under different interest groups claiming patronage with various party political organisations back home, from Muslim League and People Party to smaller ethnic and sectarian groups. This preference to relate with the politics of what once was home, more than what actually makes home, is typically indicative of the migrant psyche to live in past rather than present.

On the average, Pakistani community tends to socialise among their own kind. Apart from the mosque to which a group of people report for prayers, the next uniting factor is the local halal or kosher meat outlet. Like offering prayers behind the right Imam, equal amount of care is taken in ensuring the religious legality of meat, and at times an elaborate investigation is conducted to ascertain the credential of halal meat sellers. There is no shortage of Pakistanis who keep the tradition up with the highly celebrated 19th century poet, Asadullah Khan Ghalib (1797-1869), who subscribed to the Islamic prohibition in relation to pork and yet preferred his own personal discretion over alcohol. 

Such a rare complex of peculiarities makes it harder for Pakistanis to merge in the mainstream, especially when the majority of Australians themselves are used to insular living. In fact, the current polarisation over international security tensions has drastically inhibited, if not reversed exactly, the wishful desire for multi-cultural integration. In spite of the shared keenness on democratic parliamentary traditions, as well as cricket, Pakistani migrants attempting to settle in Australia are very likely to take time and a couple of generations in striking a mutually acceptable cultural deal.

Today, the defensive isolation of Pakistani communities abroad can not be attributed solely to the challenges associated with achievements and shortfalls of one or another model of multiculturalism. It is a very serious image problem people originating from Pakistan are obliged to confront. In recent years, Pakistani migrants find themselves caught in an increasingly polarised world. Even the ferocious course of events in the Middle East, Palestine, North Africa, Southwest Asia and elsewhere is none of their making; they can not escape the sharp focus of media attention. It has become a challenge for them to escape the conflict of loyalties between their past and present worlds. From the raging of jihad in Afghanistan in the 1980s on to the physical elimination of Osama Bin Laden three decades later, they have felt the desire to offload the burden of unsolicited psychological anxiety.           

But then the picture is not so depressing all the way. Some early signals of changing attitudes are evident. One of the striking features of Pakistani migrants living abroad, Australia or elsewhere, is their almost complete regard for law and an overall tolerance of other members in the civic community. Set against the prevalence of laxity at home, this aspect of Pakistani life abroad is somewhat paradoxical. All those falling an easy prey to the temptation of sifarish, rishwat, bureaucratic short-circuiting and search for political influence take it for granted to obey the rules in a foreign situation. Likewise, the ethnic and sectarian divisiveness of home seem to give way, rather conveniently, to preferences for multiculturalism and equal opportunities. In Australia, just as is the case in other so-called foreign countries, Pakistani migrants abide by the law of the land. Instead of getting unnecessarily entangled into ethnic and religious background of their neighbours in the suburb and colleagues at work, they  accord due respect to fellow citizens; expecting, of course, the same in return. One sound example of this civilised behaviour comes from the friendly disposition towards their counterparts from India. Once liberated from the mindset they were somehow bound to live up with in the subcontinent, a good number of Pakistani migrants in Australia seemed to have rediscovered, without wasting much time, the delight of common ground. After all, they share the original ethnic stock, speak the same Bollywood lingua franca and consume more or less matching quantity of curried masala day and night.   

Max Masood: September 2011

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