An American in Pakistan

The kidnapping eleven days ago of American development worker Warren Weinstein prompts this week's column. I don't know anything about the man except what I've read in news reports but, as an American who has spent a lot of time in Pakistan, I feel a personal stake in this story and a compulsion to reflect on my own philosophy of travel and, for that matter, of life.

A National Public Radio report aired Saturday quotes Usman Khan, an economics lecturer at LUMS who has worked with Weinstein, saying: "His favorite quote would have been, 'It's just being at the wrong place at the wrong time.' He said any local is equally facing danger as he is. He always looked very comfortable with what he was doing and the way he was doing it."

Come to think of it, I couldn't put it any better than that. For many years now, I've endured conversations with my fellow Americans in which they marvel at my willingness to spend time in countries they consider dangerous, not only but especially Pakistan. Such conversations are tiresome and exasperating, but I've trained myself to respond patiently and tactfully, to try to bring the truth home with a spoonful of sugar rather than a sledgehammer. I say what I believe: that if I wanted to be completely safe, I wouldn't get out of bed in the morning.

Americans are infamously timid about foreign travel, and I see it as part of my role as a traveling American writer to show other Americans that the outside world is both interesting enough and, with extended exposure, normal and familiar enough, that any danger is almost beside the point. Lines on maps notwithstanding, the truth is that there are no borders in this world; we're all in it together. None of us are entitled to absolute security, and in any case security is antithetical to freedom. You can't really have both, and I prefer freedom. And freedom isn't something the powers that be can or will give you; it's something each of us has to claim for him- or herself.

So I endorse and share Weinstein's attitude. If I didn't, I would have stayed home in Wisconsin, a provincial and largely rural state that's known as "America's Dairyland." I respect the people I grew up with who did make that choice -- I know that the choice I made is unusual and costly -- but I think it's worth noting that this year Wisconsin has become an epicenter of America's political crisis. You can stay at home and still find yourself in the thick of things.

Weinstein's point, as cited by Usman Khan, that "any local is equally facing danger as he is," deserves to be specially appreciated. To the extent that there is danger in Pakistan -- and there certainly is -- many Pakistanis are much closer to it from day to day than most Americans or other Westerners, even those who travel or live in Pakistan. I find myself remembering a conversation with Mohammed Faisal, a young man I met at a Pepsi Cup one-day cricket match between Pakistan and South Africa at Gaddafi Stadium in 2003. New Zealand Cricket had given individual players the option of staying home, rather than touring Pakistan. One could understand their point of view: It must have shaken the players, and their families back home, when a suicide bomber had killed fourteen people the year before outside their hotel in Karachi.

On the other hand, was it a proper cricket series between two national teams if fans in major cities were unable to attend matches, or if top players from one team didn't take part? And Pakistanis lived daily with the fact of bomb blasts. Why shouldn't New Zealanders, especially those who had chosen a public role as international cricketers -- as I, for example, have chosen a public role as a writer -- live with it as well?

"This kind of thing makes Pakistan seem like a dangerous country," said Mohammed Faisal. "Bangladesh toured recently, and it was entirely peaceful. They are human beings too. To say they will not come as white men is not a good gesture. They are raising it to the level of a political gesture."

We're all involved in politics whether we like it or not, especially these days, so it behooves us to take care what gestures we make. My preferred political gesture is to act on my belief that most people in all countries either wish me well or aren't interested in me one way or another (either is fine with me), and to express my refusal to live in fear through my writing and public speaking.

There's more to be said on this topic, but before ending for now I think it's necessary to note the elephant in the room: that Weinstein is Jewish. If that fact is in any way related to his abduction, or to some Pakistanis' attitudes toward it or him, then that should be occasion for much soul-searching in the Pakistani national conversation. I invest a lot of my time and credibility in urging Americans not to judge or mistreat Pakistanis because of their religious, national, or ethnic identity. I hope it goes without saying (though I guess I'll go ahead and say it anyway) that I hope to see analogous forbearance and humanity from Pakistanis.

Republished from Dawn.