The Zeitgeist Politics

Global Politics with a focus on The Middle East

BREAKING: Pakistanis may offer you tea and biscuits while hating on your freedoms

with 14 comments

The man brandishing a gun is probably dangerous, but he may also offer you biscuits. Credit: GETTY Images

It seems like every day there’s a new steaming pile of nonsense published in the mainstream media about the Muslim world. For a geographically disparate grouping of countries that’s so incredibly important geo-politically it certainly isn’t easy to find informed comment and analysis, certainly not in the papers that constitute regular reading for many people in the West. If people are still beating the ‘clash of civilisations’ drum and decrying that ‘they hate our feedom’ then we know we have a problem.

Take National Geographic, a magazine that claims to have been “inspiring people to care about the planet since 1888.” If the feature about Pakistan it’s running this month, written by John Lancaster, is anything to go by then the inspiration is going to lead to more misinformed pity, orientalist ‘Other’-ism and fear-mongering. This might help people to ‘care’ but it does nothing to improve the greater scheme of things.

Lancaster was the Washington Post’s South Asia correspondent from 2000-2006 and was based in Delhi. I find it difficult to fathom how a man who spent so long embedded in one of South Asia’s greatest cities could so spectacularly fail to understand the situation on the ground in any kind of complex cultural context. I haven’t even been to Pakistan but his latest piece for National Geographic is so obviously horrible that it makes my nostrils bleed with the stench of it.

I was unable to get past the opening page’s introductory abstract before vomiting in my mouth a little bit:

The Taliban would not be amused. On a sunny winter afternoon in Lahore, the local culturati have turned out in force for the annual show at the National College of Arts. In the main courtyard young men and women mingle easily, smoking and sipping from cans of Red Bull. Some of the men sport ponytails, and one has a pierced eyebrow. [NatGeo Page 1]

“The Taliban would not be amused.” We have a new winner ladies & gentlemen! If I could get a piece published in National Geographic simply on the basis of things that go on in Pakistan that would not amuse the Taliban I would surely have multiple book deals by now. I challenge you all to preface the next four things you write, no matter what topic, with “the Taliban would not be amused.” Since the Taliban are generally not amused by much it seems, it’s the perfect blanket opener for any piece.

And it doesn’t get any better from there. Lancaster leads us into a web of juxtapositions all reliant on one single premise: that Pakistan is a weird conservative Muslim country that’s really poor and has lots of terrorism but OMG they also like normal Western-type stuff sometimes! Some of their men wear ponytails! One dude even had a pierced eyebrow! Maybe later they’ll all get together and have an early 90s party, wear flannel and watch Home Alone!

Even when Lancaster gets investigative, actually talks to people and describes specifics it fails to get any better. For example, to illustrate the sore thumb nature of Aitchison college, Lancaster chooses to provide us with the following:

The Aitchisonians, thoroughly versed in Amer­ican pop culture, chatter at dinner about the relative hotness of J-Lo and Salma Hayek. Both they and their teachers are infused with a strong sense of Muslim identity and, at times, grievance, especially toward the United States. “We all thought you were a spy,” one of the teachers told me after I spent time teaching at the school in 2009. “We hate Americans.” [Page 4]

Wow, isn’t that a curious paradox! Those crazy natives can talk about American pop culture on one hand but hate on America on the other! Why is it, that in the age of the internet and global media, it’s still considered legitimate journalism to point out that people in other countries know about American pop idols? What is that meant to illustrate exactly? And why is their interest in American pop culture supposed to be mutually exclusive to their opposition to US foreign policy?

But it gets worse. Watch Lancaster clumsily segue from a paragraph about women who dance for men in dingy clubs to Sufis:

“The wildest dancing I saw in Lahore was not in a theater but in a place of worship.” [Page 4]

Or be amazed by how Muslims surprisingly respect Jesus. We’re supposed to have the prior expectation that Muslims all hate Christians and want to kill us, remember?

“A white-bearded man gripped my arm. “We like Jesus!” he declared in English. “Jesus is a prophet too!” [Page 5]

Laetr, Lancaster spends an entire page telling us about how dangerous madrassas are supposed to be and then surprising us with how hospitably he was received at the one that he visited:

I didn’t expect to get past the gate, so I was surprised when, after a phone call or two, we were invited to return later that day to meet the nazim, or chief administrator. “It is in the tradition of the Prophet to be hospitable,” said Mau­lana Imdad Ullah, greeting us in a small ante­room over tea and lemon biscuits. [Page 6]

You expect to be beheaded on videotape to the shouts of “Allahu Akbar!” and instead you’re served tea and lemon biscuits. Wonders must truly never cease for John Lancaster.

To wrap up the piece, Lancaster provides further shocking news, that Pakistan suffers from income disparity where some people are, like, really rich… in a poor country! [Page 7] Never mind that this occurs in practically every single developing nation the world over, the sheer injustice of it all is still supposed to surprise us.

And just when you think that maybe it’s over, maybe Lancaster has gone through every single possible cliche in the book and has finally run out, maybe he will be forced to contribute something new to the broad field of writing about Pakistan, the piece ends with the most common traveller’s cliche of all:

I hadn’t been there long when an elderly woman walked up to me and extended a cardboard box. “You must have a sweet,” she insisted. “It is being offered in the saint’s name.” I was touched by this gesture to a stranger, which reassured me that somehow Bulleh Shah’s teachings had not been forgotten—and might yet prove more enduring than the Taliban’s. The taste of the woman’s offer­ing lingered for a long time. [Page 8]

Excuse me while I dry retch some more. I forgot that in order to write a successful travel piece about a developing country you need to mention that the locals are surprisingly friendly and hospitable and will even offer you things, in spite of their despotic government/conservative religion/terorrism/poverty/crime.  You need to illustrate this with an example of a local, preferably someone old and very poor who doesn’t speak good English, who offers you a small meaningless token despite being a stranger. Cue the collective: “awwwwww!”

So Lancaster lived in Egypt and Delhi for years, was a bureau chief for one of the biggest papers in the US, and the best he can come up with for his National Geographic feature (!) is that Sufis dance, Jesus is a Prophet in Islam and that poor people in a “failed state” know about American pop culture while simultaneously hating on its foreign policy and offering him sweets. This could’ve been written by a student backpacker.

But the most dangerous thing about this sort of reporting is not the lazy nature of it, not the sad state of affairs that many of the world’s top publications still find themselves in and not the insult to our intelligence that it delivers. The danger lies in what it says about the reading public. We, as the loosely termed West, the educated elite that read National Geographic and The Washington Post, are supposed to see Pakistan as a country of poverty-stricken, ignorant and illiterate terrorists who ‘hate our freedoms’ with a vengeance and will nuke us at the very first opportunity. We are then supposed to be surprised by how friendly people in Pakistan actually are, how much they know about our way of life and in how much danger these relatively friendly, sort of liberal people are from some bogeyman (in this case the Taliban). Cue audience bemusement when US pop culture and foreign policy are erroneously conflated and we discover that people can simultaneously love J-Lo but hate US support for Israel. We are meant to be overcome with pity, curiosity and bemusement for the next 23 minutes, then we go to Starbucks, forget all about it and read an identical piece a week later and think exactly the same things.

The fact that the sheer orientalism, paternalism and outright ignorance embedded in this piece represent the status quo for Western readers everywhere scares me. It scares me a lot. These readers will go on to vote for governments that can go nuts with foreign policy towards countries like Pakistan as long as it’s positioned in a way that plays into their constituents’ ignorance. If we don’t have good quality reporting about places like Pakistan, how can people become informed about a place they might never be able to visit? Clearly, National Geographic ‘inspires’ with little more than the same token surface reporting that’s been written for decades and hasn’t changed much since the days of Kipling and Flaubert.


Written by alexlobov

July 1, 2010 at 6:16 pm

14 Responses

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  1. “The fact that the sheer orientalism, paternalism and outright ignorance embedded in this piece represent the status quo for Western readers everywhere scares me. It scares me a lot.”


    You are scared of what? That people get a picture of what people are like in Pakistan? It seems you aren’t necessarily critical of the picture painted but that it has to be painted at all.

    Further, while it may be nice that all this is old hat to you, since you admit to never having been to Pakistan it’s precisely this kind of article that would have informed you about the people there before you became the world’s leading expert on the place.


    July 2, 2010 at 4:09 am

    • Jim,

      One can be informed about a country in a lot of ways apart from reading articles of this kind. That’s why we are discerning consumers of news media.

      You’ve probably never had a meeting with President Obama but you choose to believe some of what you see and read about who he is and what he’s like. This doesn’t make you an expert on him but it does make you a discerning consumer of information. I feel the same about Pakistan.

      My main criticisms of this piece are that it’s poorly written and that it doesn’t give an accurate picture of Pakistan in my view. If you disagree and think it’s a great piece that’s very accurate & informative then good for you.


      July 2, 2010 at 4:49 am

  2. as a born and bred pakistani, I’m extremely grateful to lancaster: he’s clearly been to a pakistan I’ll never know. Contrary to popular belief, we don’t give a damn about amusing the taliban, as we’re too busy having “western-style” fun (i.e. what we see in your movies and tv shows). We actually feel sorry for the majority of americans who probably find this life beyond their means. Don’t send us your politicians and hack journalists, we have enough of our own to worry about. We’d appreciate your business moguls, investors, and entertainers instead. Thank you!


    July 2, 2010 at 5:16 am

  3. hi,
    im from Lahore ,Pakistan and i thank you Alexlobov for your piece.
    im surprised why Lancaster and other foreigners ,while visiting Pakistan or while writing about it are so ill informed, all cliche
    bulleh shah, dope smokers at shrines , li’l old ‘nice’ lady/ weak old sweet ‘poor’ guy , the ‘hospitality’ .. give me a break..
    and why is it even worth mentioning for Lancaster that boys were discussing salma hayek or like western pop.
    we in Pakistan are NOT IN STONEAGE , its insulting to be seen and written about this way..
    so for pointing out this stupid piece and its ‘great’ research.. thanks Alex.
    Nat geo has disappointed me.


    waheed khalid

    July 7, 2010 at 8:26 pm

  4. As a Pakistani who is sick and tired of seeing his home portrayed as a place to be simultaneously reviled and pitied, this was an incredibly refreshing read.

    I’d like to suggest that your next piece be on the absurdity that is the “Muslim World’. Words cannot describe how much this term angers me- implying a gigantic homogenous empire where so many different nations are united under the banner of “Islam”.

    Really, how can I be surprised at people who think that Pakistan is in the Middle East or an Arab state when President Obama resorts to such cheap language?

    One of the hardest things for Americans and other foreigners from the “West” (as evidenced by Jim) to digest, is the fact that even their high-ranking countrymen who visit regions like ours may be just as jaded, cynical and downright deluded about the realities here.
    It sounds to me like Lancaster simply saw what he wanted to see and conveniently added a number of anecdotes to support his premise about us being a failed state filled with terror, oppression, etc.

    Thank you Alex- I invite you to visit us in the near future. You will not be disappointed.

    Kamil Hamid

    July 8, 2010 at 12:30 am

  5. Guys,

    Thanks for your interest in the piece!


    Addressing your point about ‘the Muslim world’, I think we have to look at how the term is used in context. I sometimes use the term too when it’s convenient to refer to something that literally affects all Muslims (like when I used it above to refer to how Muslim states are treated in the media).

    However, if a piece continues to make a whole bunch of stupid generalisations, erroneous analogies and irrelevant comparisons simply on the basis that all parties involved are part of ‘the Muslim world’ then you have a real cause for grievance. I see it often and it’s just sloppy, sensationalist journalism.

    And I most certainly do hope to visit very soon. 🙂


    July 8, 2010 at 3:33 am

    • Alex, I understand how easy it is to lapse into such language- I am equally guilty when I talk about “The West” (with no malice, you do do with Muslim countries), many times.
      However we all need to make a collective effort not to do this. It’s something that stems from colonial times and has carried on over to 21st century imperialism.

      A term such as the “Muslim World” often glosses over the internal conflicts that exist within this region. So many people, for example, talk about the “Taliban”, “Al-Qaeda”, “Hezbollah” and the Iranian regime as though the terms are interchangeable and as if these groups all have the same goals, share the same ideology, etc.
      Nothing could be further from the truth of course, but when one relies on media like Fox News (did you watch the latest Jon Stewart on that? Pretty hilarious), this is kind of mentality to expect.

      Over here in Pakistan we have very similar problems with far too many people seeking to conveniently lay the blame for our woes on a great “Hindu-Zionist” plot to destabilize the country.

      In both cases, people keep making dangerous oversimplifications which lead to outright fallacies of logic.
      I feel that as long as we continue to use the same terms and definitions that our governments do, we are limiting our and others understanding of the “other side”.

      I hope you enjoy your time here!

      Kamil Hamid

      July 8, 2010 at 4:59 am

      • Your thoughts are much appreciated Kamil, cheers!


        July 8, 2010 at 5:30 am

  6. With all due respect, you have written a hack job article, ripping off another one without providing any substance of your own. I don’t see a single point here.

    For a wandering visitors, perhaps next time provide a link of your own to where you may have taken National Geographic audience for a ride?


    July 8, 2010 at 1:34 pm

  7. I loved this piece. Thanks for posting :).


    July 9, 2010 at 1:41 am

  8. Gee! Let me get hold of some pretty cool applause for you, mr. Alex. Wait, I won’t do it since Pakistanis here must have already showered the garlands of praise upon you for writing such a refreshing piece. Seriously man, this means something, especially for Pakistanis living abroad (I’m in England).

    The exact stereotypical Pakistan which daft people like Lancaster portray to the world hurts a lot to the majority of Pakistanis who don’t even give a care to what is influencing them (be it the Talibans or the west), rather engrossed in planning how their day will go through and whether they’ll be able to make ends meet for themselves and their family. People like you know very well that Talibans and these home-grown west-aided barbarians make a very minor proportion of a normal Pakistani’s life. Its mighty sad when we come to the realization that the very minor percentage and the influence of it, is reflected as the image of Pakistan and what happens in there.

    Yes, I agree Pakistan has a bucket full of problems and issues, which to a certain extent, penetrate the world arena too and effect it, yet nobody likes to live under a tent of insecurity and disparity. At the end of the day, its all about perceptions and the way they are done regarding a certain area or its people. People outside Pakistan, and especially the west, need to broader the perception levels which, I’m sure, if done, will help mutual interests and benefit all and sundry.

    Cheers again for such a revitalizing piece!

    Masood Qazi

    July 10, 2010 at 2:04 pm

  9. Thanks for all your support and kind words, guys, glad (most of) you liked the piece!

    I agree with Masood’s point about perception. Countries and peoples are multi-faceted and complicated and when writers report on the goings on in a country it is difficult to write a piece that’s accurate and unbiased. The temptation to fax in cliches is great for many journalists. Given the complexity, it’s important to have multiple views and opinions on these things but unfortunately the current general view of Pakistan among the ‘Western’ public is a very narrow one. Hopefully this changes soon.


    July 10, 2010 at 5:48 pm

  10. […] on ordinary life in Cuba (whereas stories of that sort on Pakistan abound in the Western press; some such stories being incredibly patronizing and orientalist), including how life has improved since the Batista […]

  11. […] on ordinary life in Cuba (whereas stories of that sort on Pakistan abound in the Western press; some such stories being incredibly patronizing and orientalist), including how life has improved since the Batista […]

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