Tale of a disillusioned Pakistani in Europe


Senior Member
Dec 25, 2013
AMSTERDAM — On a recent visit to Amsterdam, I settled down to enjoy a cheese sandwich in a café along the famous Prinsengracht when a teenager at a nearby table asked me where I was from. I assumed he was intrigued since I’d just signed off from an animated phone call conducted largely in Urdu.

“Pakistan,” I replied. The teenager started laughing and slapping the back of one of his peers, who blushed and hunched low. The exchange spoke volumes about the Pakistani diaspora’s evolving engagement with its native country.

The Pakistani diaspora in the Netherlands is small, numbering less than 20,000 in 2009 according to Dutch statistics, but closer to 40,000 by Pakistan’s count, perhaps owing to illegal immigration. (The total population of the Netherlands is close to 17 million.) While it’s difficult to generalize on the basis of a few, short exchanges, the consistent tone of my encounters with these and other Pakistani-Dutch people left me with the strong feeling that the diaspora is increasingly disillusioned with its cultural heritage, and is looking to distance itself from Pakistan.

At the café, I asked the teenager why he was laughing, and reminded him that there’s nothing wrong with hailing from Pakistan. By way of reply, he started pointing at his embarrassed friend and told me that he was from Pakistan, too.

“His name is Butt! He’s going to grow up and make bombs!” As the jibes continued, the young man of Pakistani origin became increasingly uncomfortable and insisted that he wasn’t from Pakistan. “My parents are from there,” he clarified. “You know I hate that place.”

I wouldn’t have made much of the teenager’s shame if I hadn’t run into another young Pakistani man the next day, this time at a tacky souvenir shop across the road from Amsterdam Central Station.

Faisal was born in Amsterdam; his parents migrated from Pakistan in the 1970s. He works in his father’s shop and returns home each evening to enjoy his mother’s Pakistani cooking. Many of Faisal’s friends are Pakistani and he’s happy to sing the latest pop songs out of Lahore at the slightest opportunity.

But he is ashamed of his parents’ homeland. “I hate telling people I’m from Pakistan,” Faisal confessed. “They’ll assume I’ll cause trouble, so I wish I had nothing to do with it.” Insisting he had no interest in traveling to Pakistan, Faisal mocked me for choosing to keep up ties with the country. “There’s nothing there — no food, no electricity, no hope. Everyone who can leave, should.”

Notably, the young Pakistanis I met in Amsterdam are not enamored of their lives in the Netherlands, and in my conversations both young men complained about the high cost of living, the lack of social mobility and growing racism. Their grievances seem common in the Pakistani-Dutch community.

“But anything,” as Faisal put it, “is better than living in Pakistan.”

Faisal’s sentiments are a damning indictment of Pakistan’s image abroad. But they also spell real trouble for the country’s economy.

Pakistani coffers depend heavily on foreign remittances: at the end of this fiscal year, Pakistan will have received a record $13.5 billion in remittances, a 21 percent increase over last year’s $11.2 billion. Government officials laud these impressive figures as a sure sign of overseas Pakistanis’ growing confidence in the state and national economy. But given the vitriol of young Pakistani–Dutch people, this confidence seems to be waning.

First-generation immigrants like Faisal’s parents may still feel a sense of allegiance to Pakistan. But Faisal and others of his generation are likely to be less generous with their earnings in coming years.

It’s time for the Pakistan government to take stock of its spiraling reputation, and to plan both how to rehabilitate its image abroad and stabilize its economy without banking on foreign remittances.

Leaving Amsterdam, I met an elderly train conductor of Pakistani origin who was excited to meet someone from his home country. On hearing I’m a journalist in Pakistan, he said, “Move here, daughter, where life is good. There’s no point wasting your energies in a place that’s going nowhere.”
Huma Yusuf is a columnist for the Pakistani newspaper Dawn and was the 2010-11 Pakistan Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington.


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