Thursday, 29 September, 2022
HomeOpinionStep aside Arabic, now Mandarin is the new 'English medium' in Pakistan

Step aside Arabic, now Mandarin is the new ‘English medium’ in Pakistan

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I can speak Pashtu but I can’t write it, I pray in Arabic but I can’t speak it, my English and Urdu requires finesse. And now add Mandarin to the list.

Iqbal may have reminded us to buckle down and prepare for the grandest assessment of all Sabaq Phir Parh Sadaqat Ka, Adalat Ka, Shujaat Ka Liya Jaye Ga Tujh Se Kaam Dunya Ki Imamat Ka (Review all you were taught of truth, justice, of bravery — for you will be asked to lead the world).

Challenge accepted, but goddammit, why do they keep changing the syllabus in Pakistan?

Weren’t we just done memorising all things under the tutelage of British Raj for the United States to step in, and then to have Saudi Arabia nipping at the heels? And now with the new CPEC dawn, the Pakistani question paper has changed all over again, and looks more Mandarin.

I grew up in Rawalpindi in the 1980s at a time when the photographer shop around the corner would display long-haired US Marines wearing shalwar kamiz posing with guns channeling the best of Pashtun Fashion Week. They took on our ways. Our TV screens were where smarmy American sitcoms came to die and Uncle Sam was a friendly chachoo. We grew up idealising American pop culture, even though my grandfather preferred British comedies. Of course, the Russians had plans for us too, for we have ‘Warm Waters’. But then did a better job sending cheap air-conditioners, tins of sardines, chocolate covered raisins, inexpensive notebooks and a lot of vodka from Afghanistan that middle-class Pakistanis eagerly bought.

A bit ironic because the Russians wooed the Indians with the ballet, literature and a love for science and mathematics.

The rise of a more ‘official Islam’ in Pakistan coincided with the Iran-Saudi Arabia turf wars. Being the political love-children of the US-Saudi-Pakistani ménage à trois meant a trickier reading of political Islam and a growing Wahabi influence in South Asia. Pakistanis also became confused regarding their geographical placement in the world. The qibla (the direction of the Kaaba) had been set towards Mecca 1,400 years ago but never before had a nation willed its Global Position System location to a point 2,500 km away from where it was. As its moral campus had shifted to becoming a ‘Muslim nation’ with Arab roots, it required a concerted erasure of a multifaceted South Asian understanding of Islam. Very soon, the nation would rather you referred to it as West Asia rather than gasp South Asia, please (i.e. the land Before Islam).

The first casualty (and the unkindest cut of all) for the children was that our TV cartoon shows that kept getting trimmed to accommodate the late afternoon news bulletins that now had to accommodate Arabic too after English, Urdu, and Koshur (Kashmiri language). As Ayesha Jalal famously said, Pakistanis are illiterate in more than one language.

I can speak Pashtu but I can’t write it, I pray in Arabic but I can’t speak it, my English and Urdu requires finesse. And now add Mandarin to the list.

Quite soon, the American weekly magazines showed images of the US troops arriving on Arab shores during the first Gulf War, justifying their intervention with quotes from the Quran translated into English: “And if two parties of the believers quarrel, make peace between them”.

And the post 9/11 decade ended with good Muslims and bad Muslims, good Taliban and bad Taliban, and things have never been the same again for us. Our awkward linguistic and cultural performances around Americans tried to grapple with deciphering George Bush’s rhetorical ‘Either You Are With Us or Against Us’.

But as I said things can never be dull in Pakistan. Just as we settled down to the old and new sheriffs and sheikhs in town, the Chinese arrived to make things even more interesting.

The relatively liberal Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto had sent a Pakistani dance troupe to China. It was followed by a proposal to have a China-Pakistan joint TV production that had a Chinese character moving to Pakistan to learn Kathak dance. But by the time the proposal saw fruition, the puritanical era of Zia-ul Haq had set in. A horrified Pakistan tweaked the script to propose the Chinese protagonist move to Pakistan to learn not Kathak but hockey!

Years later, we did have a Pakistan television drama in the 1980s featuring a Pakistani woman moving to China to learn about naturopathy, and a Chinese protagonist moving to Pakistan for hockey. However, equally remarkable was the tearjerker TV play about a Chinese and a Pakistani man stuck in a tent working on construction and road expansion works in the Karakoram Highway — the Pakistani discovers that his new bestie is married to his old (Chinese) flame and the heartbroken man dies in a roadworks accident trying to save the Chinese friend.

Not too long ago, there was an advertisement for a popular masala brand that showed a lonely Chinese woman in Lahore who learns how to make biryani and makes friends in the neighbourhood in the process. Of course, this advertisement became so popular that it spawned many spoofs and how biryani became part of ‘friendly invasion’ trope.

So, I should be happy now that more and more Pakistanis are signing up every day to learn Mandarin, and that there is a Mandarin language weekly newspaper, right? But not before I have an answer for the driver in Dhaka who had asked me once: “So this Obama is not Amreekan, right?” And to my fervent ‘No, no, he is’, he added: “He was not theirs, but even then they were eager to have him as a president. But, we, we were yours, why didn’t you accept us?”

We are ready to worship English, Arabic, and now Chinese. But why do we stop at Bangla, Sindhi and Pashto?

We have been so nervous about promoting and teaching ‘local languages’ and equating them with notions of separatism. Dear Iqbal sahib, a generation of Pakistanis has been willing to meet your challenge. Now, as Mandarin is set to become the new ‘English medium’ in Pakistan, we are, once again, bending backwards to lead the world.

Aneela Babar is a gender and cultural studies specialist, and the author of ‘We Are All Revolutionaries Here: Militarism, Political Islam and Gender in Pakistan’.

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