Playing to the homesick crowd
by Imaduddin Ahmed
The Friday Times | 24 March, 2006
For expatriates, cricket represents a tangible symbol of being Pakistani and gives hope that better times lie ahead [newer version]
I grew up in England, yet I never felt ‘English’. I was born in Lahore but emigrated months after via San Francisco to England, where I would live the next 18 years, before returning to the San Francisco Bay Area for university.
“To be born English is to win first prize in the lottery of life,” colonialist Cecil Rhodes once asserted. Not born English, but naturalised as a Brit at eight, I missed out on that prize. I grew up wondering whether second prize, of being ‘British’, was available.
Graffiti at parks and at secondary school in London – “Pakis go home” – suggested not. Entering pubs with friends (not that I drank at the time) in rural Lincolnshire and feeling stares would remind me that no, I wasn’t white, I wasn’t English, I wasn’t home.
To be fair, it was only ever a minority that made me feel that way. Not feeling at home wasn’t just down to exclusion; my parents too contributed to that feeling, instilling in me pride in being Pakistani and Muslim.
I was a member of the world’s fastest growing religion, a follower of the Last Prophet, and the prescribed path. I was a national of a promising state, which was the guardian of the glorious religion and was protected by a formidable army. (This was not only pre-2007, after which Pakistan well and truly descended into chaos, but pre-Benazir, who hadn’t yet betrayed and disappointed the masses. The 1980s were still a time of optimism.) Pakistan was where my first language was spoken, and where open arms and feasts awaited us. I remember asking my parents as a four-year old when we were next returning ‘home’ for a holiday. From the age of six, with passion and a sense of belonging, I used to spend hours pouring over world atlases and geography books, looking up statistics and ferreting out ways in which Pakistan featured in top-ten lists. I was bursting to boast to my native English classmates, but I didn’t know how.
In primary school in Sunderland in the north of England, I discovered another classmate who shared my sense of belonging to the motherland. Imran would share his homemade pakoras and chicken tikka, we’d talk in Urdu and sing Jeevay Pakistan. These gave us a shared bond of identity, while showing the others that we were proud of what we were. Amidst a lot of moving around within England – Wimbledon, Barnstable in Devon, Liverpool, Sunderland, Otley in West Yorkshire, Wolverhampton, Sutton in Surrey and Thurlby-by-Bourne in Lincolnshire – the one truth I held on to was that I was Pakistani. Surrounded by foreigners, I would entertain my Lahori cousins with imitations of the latest funny regional accents I’d encountered. In school, I competed with my classmates in sports and in academics with a sense of national pride locked deep inside me – I was Pakistan’s covert ambassador.
A cognisance of that competitiveness dawned in 1992, as Imran Khan lifted the cricket world cup. Nevermind that I didn’t have a clear concept of what cricket was. The headlines in BBC’s Radio Times magazine announcing the spirit and heroics of Imran’s Cornered Tigers was enough for me to grasp something that was an identifier of my country’s qualities of talent, passion and competitiveness.
My English classmates didn’t take my new-found confidence lightly. On the playground, friends hurled accusations of ball-tampering. British tabloids harangued the emergence of heroes, who had become thus at the England team’s expense in the world cup final and the ensuing Test series in England. They followed the architects of England’s destruction, fast bowlers Waqar and Wasim, onto a Caribbean beach, exposing their womanising and pot-smoking ways. As for me, I was satisfied: if my friends were sufficiently antagonised to go on the defensive, then they’d clearly accepted an element of the superlative in Pakistan.
This answer, however, was to be rudely brought into question very soon after I had discovered it. (Since when has an identity crisis ever progressed in a linear fashion?) I visited the motherland after a gap of three years. I didn’t return to England particularly impressed with Pakistan. Infected mosquito bites the size of mole hills scarred me; miserable nights were wasted in sickness. I returned to the UK with memories of hot summer days that forced play to be abandoned, of a television network that broadcast only one channel with rarely a glimpse of a cartoon. This contrasted starkly with other foreign expeditions. The conclusion: there were other countries in the world that were far easier to fall in love with. To top it all, I was told by some family members that I wasn’t a ‘real Pakistani’. My one truth, that I was Pakistani, was shattered: to what tribe did I belong?
Fast forward to ’99. Speed-star Shoaib Akhtar, trickster Saqlain Mushtaq, all-round lethal mastermind Wasim Akram and barbaric Moin Khan are blazing Pakistan to the cricket world-cup final at Lord’s in London. The explosive Pakistan team and festive fans, other Pakistan ex-pats and UK citizens, are the life of the tournament. ‘British Asian’ pop band Cornershop – making light of a stigmatised association by its name alone – is topping the charts. British Asian self-effacing sketch comedy Goodness Gracious Me, aired on BBC TV, is the talk of the schoolyard and demystifies some household stigmas for my classmates. Vijay, the other Asian in my year at secondary school in the fens of Lincolnshire, and I are bombarded with tales of what our classmates learnt about our culture the evening before, “Would you like to go out for ‘an English’ [meal] and enjoy some really bland food, mate?” British Asian culture is in vogue. Partly orientalised, partly better understood, we ride our surge in popularity.
At the national level, England watches as a nation within a nation waves Pakistani flags, the slogan ‘Paki pride’ gains street credibility. Youths blare horns on nights that Pakistan wins and I – embarrassed to ask my parents for more pocket-money – forsake my Year 11 prom to join the ranks of the green shirt wearers. (I’m sorry, Katherine. I wish now I’d been a better man.)
Resentment started brewing that the English, out of the contest very quickly – no, they weren’t going to win first prize in the 1999 world cup – were excluded from nationalist festive celebrations happening within their country, by a group of people apparently British, but no longer even pretending to be English. Once a charming collective of vociferous Pakistan fans who’d endeared ourselves to the British Press, we turned into demons when some idiots from our midst started invading pitches while matches were still being played – it just wasn’t cricket! The media and the English had their excuse to stop liking us.
None of the media I read or watched linked the rise in negative press about British Pakistanis in 1999 with the Conservative Party’s tough-on-immigration campaign of 2001, or linked it with the British National Party’s (BNP’s) promise to encourage repatriation of immigrant citizens.
Tony Blair, fortunately, batted away these anti-immigrant parties with his second election victory as Prime Minister. Notwithstanding, the BNP’s campaign was an insult to my integrity as the child of law-abiding, tax-paying citizens who served their adopted state’s National Health System (NHS). I had no less right to not be asked whether I wanted to be repatriated to Pakistan than Queen Elizabeth had to not be asked whether she wanted to return to Germany. What, after all, would become of British patients without their more than 120,000 foreign-trained medical doctors? Death or . . . yes, death. I simply couldn’t imagine polite, queuing and charmingly timid English patients competing with rambunctious Nigerian medical tourists for beds in Indian hospitals. The BNP’s campaign, and the hurtful slogan “Pakis go home” that I’d grown up with, left me feeling ashamed. Ashamed for not successfully being recognised as a Brit. Ashamed too for not wanting to return to Pakistan, a difficult country to inhabit. If competing in school against my English peers had been my first nationalist challenge to myself, making Pakistan a place I’d feel happy to live in was to be my next nationalist goal.
And so that’s where I headed.
Only once have I ever broken into tears while watching sport. That was
this winter, when, in my hometown of Lahore, Shoaib Akhtar and Danesh
Kaneria did their part to vindicate my return, ripping through
England’s conceited expectations of a white-wash with unabashed
passion and pride.