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Pakistan: Let's Keep the Conversation Going

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My column under the Blogs heading on Dawn.com was cancelled last week. That's too bad, but it's the way it goes; journalism is an inherently unstable line of work. The reason was budget constraints; my wonderful editor, Zeresh John, told me she was especially sad because I was Dawn's only blog contributor based in America.

As a working journalist, my policy is to seize every honorable opportunity I'm offered to speak to audiences that I want to reach, and always to make the most of it while I can. The wisdom of this policy was underscored when, also last week, Current TV fired the political talk show host Keith Olbermann, who had interviewed me on March 12 about the massacre of women and children in a village outside Kandahar, from his show Countdown.

I have no opinion on the merits of Olbermann's firing or of Dawn's budget. I'm grateful to both for inviting me onto their forums. But I've learned not to count on sustained support from media or other institutions, because all institutions and relationships are so unstable these days.

A case in point, of course, is the relationship between Pakistan and the United States. The Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid has a new book just out (I'm reading it now and will be reviewing it here soon), whose title is to the point: Pakistan on the Brink: The Future of America, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. It's written with urgency and without illusions, and it correctly blames everyone.

"At times," writes Rashid, "both sides seem to have an underlying death wish -- both have had enough of the relationship, both are defiant, yet each needs the other; neither wants to revive the relationship under false pretenses, yet neither can muster enough vision or assume enough responsibility to discuss a new paradigm."

Rashid writes from a position of both unusual access to institutional sources on all sides and unparalleled, hard-earned authority as a ground-level reporter. His frank memorandum to politicians and generals in both Pakistan and America should be heeded; I hope it will be. At the same time, I'm concerned to continue doing what I can do to be helpful, from my different vantage point. I believe that an important part of that is to help maintain a productive and mutually respectful conversation among non-official Pakistanis and Americans, including -- an important group -- Pakistani-Americans.

I have no illusions about our ability to influence policymakers or help end the war in Afghanistan or the violence in Pakistan. But I'm concerned with doing whatever we can, regardless, and we can achieve a lot more by taking initiative to talk and work together than by worrying and complaining. And it's precisely because relations at the state level are so poor that private people must do all we can to build and sustain a conversation and relationships within our own realms of influence.

So this article is an appeal to you -- this means you, whether you're Pakistani or American or both -- to stay in conversation with me, and with each other, whether through my writings or directly. I'll always welcome any opportunity to write for both Pakistani and American publications, or to appear on television, but I can't control when or whether those opportunities will happen. In the meantime, in the wake of losing Dawn as an outlet, I intend to write much more often on my own website and to build both it and my new email newsletter into places where the necessary conversation can continue to happen, and on a bigger scale.

I also do as much public speaking as I can, all around the United States and Canada. I often describe this to Pakistanis as reaching out to mainstream America "one church basement, one Rotary Club, one university class at a time." This is the way it needs to be done, but it can be done more efficiently and with greater impact. My Pakistani-American friends in Wisconsin are showing real leadership in this; my April 19-29 visit there, when I'll be speaking at public and private high schools, churches and mosques, bookstores, and the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is a model for how I believe Pakistanis and "mainstream" Americans can and should be reaching out to and getting to know each other.

This is not a matter of only feeling warm and fuzzy in an intangible way about how we're all human and in this together. It's a matter of taking action together to make the world and our societies better, especially because the governments of both countries are not doing this (and are in fact doing a great deal of damage). We could debate which government is more at fault, but that would be a distraction from the effective work that we ourselves should be doing. For example, millions of Americans have no health insurance -- and I happen to know that the influential Association of Physicians of Pakistani Descent of North America (APPNA) is taking steps to set up free clinics in cities around the U.S., staffed on a volunteer basis by its members. That's the kind of U.S.-based and concrete leadership that's good for everyone, including the Pakistani-American community and, by extension, Pakistan.

I need material support, which means financial support, in order to continue and build on what I'm already doing as an advocate in mainstream America for the humanity and interests of Pakistanis. I'm going to continue candidly asking you for that support and telling you what forms I hope it will take. If you'd like to know how you can support me, please ask. But much larger than my needs is the urgent need we all share to pull up our socks and make ourselves useful in both Pakistan and America.

I want to work with anyone who wants to do this. For starters, please subscribe to my email newsletter (scroll down to the "Join Our Mailing List" link, or go directly here) or join my Facebook page. You also can reach me directly through the Contact page of my website.

ETHAN CASEY's next book, to be published in 2013, is Home Free: An American Road Trip. He is the author of Alive and Well in Pakistan: A Human Journey in a Dangerous Time (2004), Overtaken By Events: A Pakistan Road Trip (2010), and Bearing the Bruise: A Life Graced by Haiti (2012). He is also co-author, with Michael Betzold, of Queen of Diamonds: The Tiger Stadium Story (1992). Web: www.ethancasey.com or www.facebook.com/ethancaseyfans