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Summer Qassim

Summer Qassim

Posted: February 10, 2010 04:00 PM

Who Has the Akbar Zib?

What's Your Reaction:

The Saudis rejected Pakistani diplomat Akbar Zib as Ambassador (at large?) on the grounds that his name translates to 'biggest dick.' I alternate from feeling sorry for the guy, to marveling at reading the words 'Pakistani', 'diplomat', and 'biggest dick' all in the same sentence.

These types of linguistic faux paus happen all the time (scroll down to comments) -- from other Pakistani last names like Butt, to the unfortunate Vietnamese immigrants in America named Phuc.

But the Saudi dismissal of the proposed Pakistani ambassador hints at a little more than simple discretion. There's an interesting relationship between Arabs and Pakistanis that is often discriminatory and hints at a perceived superiority. And sometimes that's reinforced by Pakistanis themselves. It's like a little brother or sister who adores his or her older sibling and follows him around, copies him and doesn't quite get it right.

I'm an American born to Pakistani parents, and my four plus years in the Middle East gave me some insight into the ways in which a lot of Arabs conceive of themselves vis a vis other cultures. I was in the Levant -- Syria and Lebanon to be specific -- where Arab interactions with Pakistanis were limited, except for the few who lived or studied abroad and mingled with Pakistanis. But even then, there were easy generalizations like, 'Man, my roommate was Pakistani, he was smart!' These interactions were distinct from those in the Gulf, where Pakistan exports its male labor, and where Pakistanis make up a large segment of the banking and finance field. One Lebanese who had worked in Abu Dhabi told me in a mildly resentful, amused way: 'You can't do anything in banking without consulting a Pakistani!' In contrast, in my entire time in Lebanon, I met one Pakistani, a guy who ran a restaurant in the Sri Lankan part of Beirut, which catered to the hired Sri Lankan and Indian labor. But this lack of Pakistani interaction made the Gulf-generated sterotypes an easy go-to.

Arabs, like all cultures perhaps, are prone to cultural and linguistic snobbery. Some that I saw came from defensiveness (perhaps rightly so - these were the Bush years when Syria was maligned as part of the Axis of Evil, Iraq invaded, and Lebanon bombed and blockaded by Israel), some was to combat the all-too-pervasive stereotypes about the region (Lebanon as a war zone), or the inhabitants (Muslims in a post-9/11 world), and some plain old cultural pride - 'We invented algebra (al jabr) and even the alcohol (al qahool)', much like the stereotypical proud immigrant father in My Big Fat Greek Wedding. Some was religious -- the King of Saudi Arabia, because Mecca falls into the geographical domain of his nation-state, holds bragging rights as the 'protector of the two holiest cities in Islam' and 'Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques.'

Abhorrently, there seems to be some sort of nebulous, unspoken sliding scale of discrimination amongst Eastern/Muslim countries, based on racist assumptions as skin tone (degree of fairness), perceived linguistic superiority, economic superiority, and cultural pride. Pakistan seems to fall in the middle of that perceived hierarchy, not quite trumpeting its own merits (and indeed tending towards self-deprecation) as much as say, Arabs or even Iranians/Persians, both terms that themselves refer to a historical legacy as either Aryan or a former empire. Part of this lack of patriotic bravado can be attributed to the fact that 'Pakistan' is a modern concept, born out of a modern theory on religion tied to a nation-state and not part of an ancient civilization; part of that also due to Pakistan's position in the world economy as borrower not lender. But some of that is based on Arab assumptions of linguistic and cultural pride, more than Pakistanis and even Afghanis, Indians, Sri Lankans and Bangladeshis, which many Arabs look down upon. In Beirut, for example, there were awareness campaigns in the form of photo essays displaying Sri Lanka's natural beauty, designed to stop discrimination against Sri Lankans, since the only interaction many Lebanese had with Sri Lankans was as hired help. Many other South Asian countries get lumped into that same category. Incidentally, I've heard some Pakistanis bemused at this perceived linguistic superiority, especially since most Pakistanis have some level of English ability, an ability which they deem superior to many of their Arab brethren.

This is not to suggest that any one group is wholeheartedly racist. For every discriminatory attitude are people who are above that, who are informed and able to look beyond clear-cut categories, and I have many wonderful Arab friends just like that. But I have gleaned some of this underpinned discrimination from my interactions at large in the Levant. When I would tell people I was Pakistani, I more often than not got a shocked look followed by 'Well, you don't look Pakistani', which was meant as a compliment. Being Pakistani apparently conjured up the visions of beat down, poor, unfairly treated workers in Dubai, or women clad in colorful ethnic costumes, since the Subcontinent is one of the last places where traditional dress is still mainstream. The symbol that was Benazir Bhutto was an easy go-to for those who followed politics, and when she died, I was in Beirut, and people admitted that she was pretty, as is the delightfully Lebanese wont.

Pakistanis are guilty of contributing to this hierarchical relationship by tending to revere the Saudis, at the very least deferring to them in religious matters, especially considering that few Pakistanis have learned Arabic but actively read the (Arabic) Quran. Pakistan has also borrowed culturally and religiously, first in taking on the Arabic alphabet, then absorbing Arabic words into Urdu, and of course with religion. Nowadays an increasing Arab fetishism is discernible in Pakistani cities. Amongst the religious set, it's vogue to wear the checkered scarves and long robes sans pants for men and the traditionally Arab abaya robes and headscarves for women, despite the fact that the Pakistani shalwar kameez and dupatta (baggy pants, long shirt and scarf) cover one up and adhere to principles of Islamic modesty. Pakistani firms have investment deals with Gulf countries so that Karachi can look like Dubai. Even language is affected - the traditional and poetic Khuda hafez or God be with you, taken from the Persians, is now steadily being replaced by Allah hafez, with the argument that Allah, an Arabic word, is more reliably religious than the Farsi word for God, Khuda.

There is a real sense that Arab = authentic, especially since most Pakistanis hold onto Islam as a key facet of their identity, collective and individual.

I bring this up because the Saudi rejection of Mr. Akbar Zib can certainly be justified on the grounds of refusing to repeatedly pronounce an offensive slang term in Arabic official discourse. But what is also interesting is that the Saudis can accept every Tom, Dick, and Cheney with no problem. Dick is also used in Arabic slang (diik) -- both for the rooster and the other thing. There seems to be more than just prudence at play here. Maybe it's the older brother snubbing the yearning younger brother. Or maybe it really does boil down to a primitive, alpha male-like cultural competition as to who has the Akbar Zib.