By Zarminae Ansari
A long time ago (we won't mention how long ago..!) in a land not so far away, a teenaged girl in Karachi won a CIDA scholarship to attend an international school in Canada - the Lester B.
Pearson United World College of the Pacific on Vancouver Island (known as Pearson College -www.pearsoncollege.ca), attended by some two hundred students from over 60 countries. The Pakistani girl fell in with what became known as "The Sub-continental Clique" - comprising the two Pakistani students and the four Indian students on campus. They got together and were involved such innocent activities as cooking ready-mix kheer, watching videos of Indian movies and singing along to songs they had grown up with on both sides of the border.
Aman ki Asha made me realise that I made lasting friendships with Indians as a high school student in an international school in Victoria, Canada, then later as a graduate student at MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and recently as a professional working in the UAE. Having stayed in touch with them over all this time, I felt this was a good opportunity to revisit that time in the context of Aman ki Asha. So I sent off some questions via email to my 'desi' friends from Pearson College.
Here is the email conversation I had with Ashwin W. Joshi, PhD. who lives and works in Mumbai as Executive Director of the Schulich School of Business (York University, Toronto, Canada) campus in India, and Anaheeta Pestonji, "Part-time Copywriter, Full-time Mom" as she describes herself.
Ashwin and I actually met when he visited our campus after graduation, and ended up hanging out because of the sub-continental clique. The visit to Delhi that Anaheeta mentions could never have happened the same way in today's political climate. During the Mandal Commission riots of the 1990's, I was part of an architecture students' delegation to the ARCASIA conference. An angry, torch-carrying mob attacked the bus we were leaving the airport in and broke all the windows. But the rioters actually let us GO because we were Pakistani! This was a protest against their government rather than an attack on us as Pakistanis. We were all shaken up, but irritated a hysterical colleague, I called Anaheeta to take me away from this madness. I assumed, correctly, that she would drop everything and pick me up.
After a few days, her father asked her who I was. She said "Daddy, it's Nini, my friend from school in Canada".
"No, but where is she FROM?" he asked.
Apparently, there were plainclothes men parked outside their gate for the duration of my stay. They lived in a cantonment area, and he was an admiral or something! Anaheeta and I had a good laugh and reckless teenager that I was, I decided that I would go to all the bazaars I wanted because I felt "safe" that there were people "looking after me" that I could call for help, in case anything happened. Ah! The folly of youth....
Over to our email conversation:
Q: What or how was your first interaction with a Pakistani?
Ashwin: Faheem Abbas and Atiya Khan at Pearson College (fall 1984) in Victoria, Canada.
Anaheeta: At Pearson College, I met you in the fall of 1986.
Q: What was your first impression? Did it change?
Ashwin: Thanks to Imran Khan I had the sense that Pakistan was a fairly liberal and western oriented society (it was 1984). Both Faheem and Atiya, the other students on campus, were consistent with this impression.
Anaheeta: I did not think of you as a Pakistani but as someone who looked and spoke reassuringly like me. So, first impression was one of 'desi' familiarity and therefore, comfort. Did that change? Not at all. We remained in touch after leaving PC and you even visited me in Delhi a few years later.
Q: Was it different from what you expected? If so, what surprised you the most?
Ashwin: Embarrassed to admit but I did not realize that Urdu and Hindi were so similar as to be almost one and the same. Someone asked us what language we were speaking and I said Hindi, Atiya said Urdu.. .almost simultaneously... and we both laughed.
Anaheeta: I had no expectations but I did have preconceptions of conservatism, burqas, hurly burly Pathans...the usual cliches. I'd say Mustafa was more the Pakistani I would have expected (no offense intended towards Mustafa). You, on the other hand, were more sub-continental. I have to say, your personality was way larger than your nationality! But now and then, your views, especially when it came to discussions on nationalism/our joint history, did not match what I knew 'the facts' to be. That's when we often differed and argued... it was out of those many interactions that I began to realise that there are no unshakeable facts and history is ultimately a point of view...It just depends which side you are on. That, I believe, is a life lesson I learnt through you at PC.
Q: Do you think initiatives like Aman ki Asha will have an impact?
Ashwin: Absolutely. Aman Ki Asha type initiatives cannot hurt. What is in our control is to foster people-to-people contacts to develop a sense of the commonality that binds us. I laud this initiative and would like to see more along these lines.Developing people-to-people, artist-to-artist, business-to-business contacts is definitely the way to go forward. Inter-governmental posturing will remain but we need to make that less relevant and more ceremonial...kinda like the ritual dance that happens daily at the Wagah border.
Anaheeta: Every bit counts. Music, art and culture bring people together and reveal their commonality. The more we interact, the more we will realize how easily we connect. Do I think Aman ki Asha can influence the larger political stalemate? No. But that should not be its measure of success. With Aman ki Asha, we are onto a good thing. We're talking and singing, laughing and listening. That to me, is enough. Let us not expect more. Peace at the political level willnot happen in a hurry. There are many forces at play that are beyond our understanding and control. Why wait for them to sort out before we can meet?
"There is more in you than you think," said Kurt Hahn, the German educationist and founder of the United World Colleges (www.uwc.org) who established the first one in 1962. The UWC mission statement is about making education "a force to unite people, nations and cultures for peace and a sustainable future." The idea of international understanding was deeply ingrained in me thanks to the experience of studying in a United World College. This was a very special junior college - its entire existence was based on the idea of international understanding.
"How can there be peace without people understanding each other; and how can this be if they don't know each other?" asked Lester B. Pearson, the Nobel Peace Prize-winning premier of Canada. The UWC initiative was the answer then - perhaps as Aman Ki Asha is today.
Palestinian and Egyptian students became friends with Israeli students at these schools, as did students from other countries and cultures at odds with each other.
UWC Presidents include Prince Charles, and now Queen Rania of Jordan and Nelson Mandela. When I went to Canada, there were UWCs in USA, Italy, UK, Swaziland, Venezuela and Singapore. Now there are a total of 13 UWCs including in Hong Kong, Norway, the Netherlands, Costa Rica, Bosnia and Herzegovina - and one in Pune, India to which Pakistani students, unfortunately and ironically, may not apply.
The writer is an Islamabad based architect who first formed friendships with Indians as a student at United World College in Canada
Wednesday, November 03, 2010
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The News on Sunday Special Report: India Pakistan prisoners more editions
We probably didn't need to do this Special Report. Newspaper stories don't matter when it comes to Indians in Pakistani jails and vice versa. In fact, 'vice versa' sums it up. We do to them what they do to us.
Except when the two countries decide to begin talking, yet again! This time a little before the foreign secretary level talks, some Pakistani prisoners were released by India (and vice versa must have happened) and some more were release....read more
For the past 2 years the Jang Group and Geo have been working on a project of great national interest; one that we hope will help usher in an era of peace and prosperity in the country and indeed, in the region. And one that hopefully all Pakistanis can be proud of. more
The Jang Group has entered into an agreement with the Times of India Group, the largest media group of India, to campaign for peace betw