Deep Down in the Heart of Texas, a Little Bit of Pakistan Zindabad
By Michael Kugelman
Growing up in a middle class family in southern Punjab, Rauf Arif often dreamed of coming to the United States to acquire a higher education. He wanted to use his advanced degree to make meaningful contributions to the education sector back in Pakistan.
Eventually, Arif, along with his wife, Lamia Zia, followed through with this dream:
They moved to the United States to pursue their graduate educations. First, they went to the University of Kansas, where Rauf was a Fulbright scholar and Lamia worked at the prestigious Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics. Then, they relocated to the University of Iowa, before moving to Texas.
Rauf is now an assistant professor of communication at the University of Texas campus in Tyler, a small city of about 100,000 located about 150 kilometers from Dallas. Lamia is an independent journalist and political communication researcher.
They recently hosted me in Tyler, where I gave several lectures to some very impressive students. Rauf and Lamia are quite impressive as well — and they’ve only deepened my long-standing admiration for the US-based Pakistani diaspora.
Both are very much products of Pakistan and the surrounding region.
Lamia is a Pakhtun from Islamabad, and her parents are from Afghanistan. She speaks six languages. Rauf is from Punjab. At Partition, his parents and other relatives walked for a month from Indian Punjab to Lahore; the grueling journey claimed the life of his father’s brother.
Rauf and Lamia met while working in the newsroom of The Nation newspaper, where they served under the late Ayesha Haroon. Lamia was the only female reporter during that time. She would later work for Geo, and Rauf for CNBC. They were comfortably ensconced in Islamabad’s journalist community; numerous high-profile media personalities attended their wedding.
I was curious to hear about their experiences in Texas. This is a state that has suffered through a recent series of disturbing attacks on ethnic and religious minorities.
Earlier this month, for example, an Iraqi man who had recently fled his country to escape the threat of IS was shot dead in Dallas — while he was taking pictures of freshly fallen snow.
At the same time, I’ve always been struck by the similarities between Texas (and the American South on the whole) and Pakistan.
Both are known for their hospitality, their good food, and their emphasis on family.
They are also both known for their conservatism and religiosity. And, unfortunately, for extremist groups — such as the KKK and the Taliban.
Despite various challenges, Rauf and Lamia have adjusted quite well so far. This says something about the resourcefulness of the Pakistani diaspora, but also about the United States.
They describe the city of Tyler as fairly tolerant (the presence of a large college campus, and the sophistication and progressivism that this brings, certainly helps in this regard). Incidents of discrimination tend to be rooted in naiveté rather than ill intent (in restaurants, for example, Rauf is sometimes greeted in Spanish).
Rauf and Zia recounted a telling story: Several months ago, some young people appeared in front of Tyler’s Islamic Center bearing placards calling on Muslims to leave the country. A priest who happened to be driving by stopped, and encouraged the protestors to leave. They refused.
The priest then called the police, who quickly arrived and stood quietly outside the mosque to ensure that people could safely enter and exit the facility. The imam instructed worshipers to ignore the protestors. They did so, and the incident ended peacefully.
Lamia and Rauf are not the only Pakistanis in Tyler — in fact, to my surprise, there are about 100 Pakistani families there, many of them quite well off. We drove through a fabulously wealthy neighborhood (it could have been Beverly Hills) where many doctors live; Tyler, in fact, has some of the best medical facilities in the United States.
Quite a few of those 100 Pakistani families live in this neighborhood. In essence, when it comes to the socioeconomic pecking order in this small Texas city, Pakistanis are kings of the hill.
Alas, Lamia and Rauf don’t live in this neighborhood — but they are still doing quite well for themselves. They’ve slowly assimilated to the ways of Texas: They are big fans of fajitas, even as they sometimes go against the grain — such as by opting for a small car over a super-size SUV.
At the same time, they retain links to Pakistan. They cook paratha; they know which local establishment offers authentic tea from Peshawar; and they periodically make the trek to a well-known halal grocery in Dallas to secure Pakistani kabobs.
Still, this is what I find most impressive about them: In several years, they hope to return to Pakistan — just as Rauf had originally dreamed of doing back when he was growing up in southern Punjab. So many Pakistanis relocate to the United States and never really go back.
Rauf and Lamia appear genuinely interested in taking the skills and education they’ve acquired here, and putting them to good use back in Pakistan.
Pakistan is a country where many challenges — bad political leadership, subpar levels of research and development, few graduates with advanced degrees — can be attributed to a decades-long process of brain drain.
For this reason, the future plans of Rauf and Lamia provide the country with some welcome cause for hope.
(Michael Kugelman is the senior program associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC. - Courtesy Dawn)