I’m No Terrorist


Samira Shackle in Aeon:

We are sitting in a room the size of a football pitch in an upmarket area of Karachi: men and women in our mid-20s, most smoking cigarettes. On a coffee table in front of us sits a two-litre bottle of imported Famous Grouse whisky and an equally outsize bottle of Absolut vodka. Occasionally, a servant — a young man the same age as us — enters to remove dirty glasses or refill the ice bucket. Outside is a fleet of cars, and three armed guards; two working at the gate of the house, and one who accompanied a guest. The group is debating the merits of the iPad mini. Sadia bought hers on a recent trip to New York. Faroukh interjects: ‘You’re so lucky you have a US passport. I’m dying to go. I’ve been waiting for my visa for eight weeks now.’ Talk turns to the torturous process of travelling with a Pakistani passport. One young woman says with outrage that her parents recently had a visa application rejected by the US embassy: ‘I mean, what the hell are they going to do? Blow up the White House?’

In the eyes of the world, Pakistan equals terrorism. For young, privileged Pakistanis wishing to travel to the UK, the US or France, that means submitting to a visa application process that can take months to allow for extra security checks. ‘I feel self-conscious, even apologetic when I’m travelling internationally,’ said Komail Aijazuddin, a 28-year-old artist from Lahore. ‘I’m not always made to, but myself I feel it.’ Ghazal Raza, a 26-year-old NGO worker from Peshawar, in north-western Pakistan, describes being pulled out of a queue in Bangkok airport. ‘They said: “You’re a Pakistani passport-holder. We have to do a full security check.” When you travel, you know what people think of you and your country.’

Like many others, Ghazal blames overly negative media portrayals of Pakistan. But the hindrance of the Pakistani passport also underscores deeper questions about national identity. When I first met Komail, at his house in Lahore, he showed me the clause printed on every page of his passport: ‘Valid for every country of the world except Israel.’ ‘In order to get my passport to leave the country, I have to say that Israelis don’t exist, and that Ahmadis [a persecuted Muslim sect] don’t exist, and that I believe in the Prophet and the last word of God,’ he told me. ‘Fine. But what do the Israelis have to do with it?’