At Home Nowhere

By Hamza Usman

An inevitable question Pakistanis always ask me is, “what are you?” Often, I’ve wondered the same question. Besides ‘Pakistani,’ I don’t know what else to say.  I’m not Balochi or Sindhi. I can’t speak Punjabi. In my house, besides English, Urdu is the only other language spoken. When people ask me what language my parents speak, that’s what I tell them. Unlike many of my acquaintances, I don’t come from a town or village in interior Pakistan. Like millions in Pakistan, my family migrated from India. My grandparents’ families originate from Delhi, Lucknow and Aligarh, the bastions of Urdu-speaking peoples in India. In Pakistan, I am merely a ‘Muhajir;” an Urdu speaking migrant from India, now living in Karachi.

My family, like millions of others, came to Pakistan believing Jinnah’s ideal, searching for a homeland that was ours, for all Muslims, with freedom, tolerance and dignity. During those waning years of the British Empire, freedom across the Subcontinent was not a novel idea; it was a dream that had existed for decades. Students from the Aligarh Muslim University took up the cause of an independent homeland for Muslims; the university was known for the caliber and number of intellectuals it produced espousing the cause for an independent Muslim state to exist alongside a Hindu majority one in the Subcontinent. Thinkers like Mohammad Iqbal and Sir Syed Ahmed Khan were noted luminaries associated with the institution dubbed, ‘the Oxford of the East.’ Iqbal is largely celebrated in modern day Pakistan as the first ideologue championing a united Pakistan; today, his small rectangular tomb, a simple, stone structure in hues of dark crimson and burnt sienna, ensconced between the magnificent Badshahi Mosque and the grand Lahore Fort, welcomes visitors keen to learn about Pakistan’s past; a chapter of rich, Mughal heritage often obscured by the shame of Colonialism and the turbulence of Partition.

Other notable alumni of Aligarh Muslim University include Pakistan’s first Prime Minister, killed by an assassin’s bullet in 1951. In his place as Pakistan’s second Prime Minister came Khwaja Nazimuddin, another Aligarh alumnus who was Pakistan’s second, incumbent Governor General after Mr. Jinnah’s sudden death in 1948 less than a year after Pakistan’s creation. Ghulam Mohammad, Pakistan’s third and last Governor General was also an alumnus; Ghulam Mohammad’s legacy of unchecked corruption and senility  heralded the beginning of Pakistan’s trials by promoting vice-regal politics, weakening democracy and laying the seeds for President Iskander Mirza and Field Marshal Ayub Khan to set a notorious precedent and declare Martial Law in 1958.  Coincidentally, Ayub also attended Aligarh Muslim University briefly.

One lesser known alumnus was Abu Bakr Ahmad (A.B.A.) Haleem, a noted scholar and educationist. Professor Haleem began his career in the Department of Political Science and History at Aligarh in 1923. Ayub Khan was one of students. By 1934, he was Pro-Vice-Chancellor of the University and played a pivotal role in Pakistan’s formation by serving with the All-India Muslim League until Partition. Writer Mukhtar Masood describes Professor Haleem’s welcome to Jinnah, stating, “Mr. Jinnah, we are teaching history and you are making it.” After the birth of Pakistan, Professor Haleem was appointed the first Vice-Chancellor of Sindh University at the behest of Jinnah and later, the first Vice-Chancellor of Karachi University thus filling the noble distinction of being the first Vice-Chancellor for both institutions. In addition, he served in a variety of different roles and positions for the purposes of propagating education and progress in Pakistan. I refer to Professor Haleem because he was a lesser-known luminary who contributed to forging Pakistan’s identity in its early years; he was also my Great-Grandfather.

Following in his footsteps, I too graduated in Political Science and History, and like him, moved to Paris. His association with the Sorbonne and the University of Paris inspired me as I strolled down the Boulevard St. Michel as he once would have decades before, deep in thought, stopping at the Jardins du Luxembourg to sit in silent contemplation amidst the babbling fountains and the verdant green grass. Like him, I spoke French almost fluently. Like him, I expressed a desire for multilingualism and learnt Italian. Professor Haleem spoke over five languages; he even spoke Mandarin. According to my grandfather, he was invited to China to give a speech to Chairman Mao-Zedong on Chinese history.

In the late Professor’s time, the concept of nationhood was being redefined and the notion of identity that still troubles Pakistanis surfaced.  Gandhi argued that religion could not imply a separate nation since language, customs and culture dictated that, not belief. Jinnah contended that religion defined values, customs, beliefs and ideals, thus characterizing Muslims as a separate nation. With neither side willing to budge from their respective positions, the outcome of this arduous conflict was the Partition of the Subcontinent in 1947.

Like me, Pakistan is still undergoing its identity crisis. Debate still looms whether the state is secular, as Jinnah envisioned, or Islamic, as his successors outlined. Its maturity and development into a cohesive nation has been hindered by weak democracy, military dominance in addition to poor governance, lack of resources and partisan politics. Like the former Yugoslavia, Pakistan is a federation of various ethnic groups, tribes, sects and peoples. The most poorly-defined of these groups are the so-called ‘Urdu-speaking’ Muslims that migrated to Pakistan after Partition from all over India. They are defined solely on the basis of language and stigmatized by the local, ethnic populations whose ancestors have pre-existed on Pakistani soil for centuries.

Urdu was a hybrid language growing in prominence under the Delhi Sultanate, but it wasn’t until the emergence of the Mughal Empire in 1527 that Urdu became a language of the regal court. It evolved from a derivative of Farsi to amalgamate Arabic, Sanskrit, Turkish and Hindi influences. As late as the siege of Delhi in 1857, Urdu remained a language of the elite and refined, lending much of its court-like stature to literature and poetry. Urdu speakers in places like Aligarh contributed greatly to Jinnah’s movement of an independent Muslim state in the Subcontinent. As a result, at Pakistan’s birth, Urdu was to be its lingua franca. Ostensibly, this would not only curtail any one ethnic group from dominating national affairs, it would also reinforce national identity through the use and extension of a common language, keeping the federation united.[1]

Naturally, this created tensions that still exist today. Pakistan at Partition was divided into East and West with only Urdu as its national language, however strong opposition and campaigning from Bengalis in East Pakistan made Bengali a national language during the 1950s. Pakistan’s Post-Colonial legacy ensured that English was not only its official language but lent its presence to its law courts, bureaucracy and military.  After its brutal Civil War in 1971, East Pakistan became Bangladesh and Pakistan was left with Urdu as its only national language. English remains the language of the elite, the powerful and the source of high-paying jobs. Prominent families send their children to English or American schools in the hope that acquiring this language will be a passport to success. As Zubeida Mustafa describes in The Guardian, “people believe that English is the magic wand that can open the door of prosperity. Policy-makers, the wielders of economic power and the social elites have also perpetuated this myth.[2]

And this myth affects the language spoken in my home. Today, the Urdu around me is not the Urdu spoken during Partition. At that time, Urdu’s poetic language structure, its rich vocabulary and literature was common to most speakers. My generation has been fed a bastardized version of Urdu; an Urdu with informal tenses, new verbiage, interspersed with English to create what some call “minglish,” influenced by the melting pot of Karachi’s different cultures. The Urdu I speak can barely be called Urdu; it is Urdu to get by. I can order a cup of tea but I cannot wax eloquent on anything. When I watch television, news anchors speak a strange language and I struggle to read the ticker because I was never formally taught to read Urdu and I don’t know anyone who speaks the pure Urdu that once characterized my homeland.

Pakistan was envisioned as a poly-ethnic state where religion bound peoples together. The effect of nation-building has backfired since inception because ethnic identities remain prominent. Urdu has not achieved the massive national trickle-down effect it was intended to. Urdu is the first language of only 8% of Pakistanis whereas Punjabi, is spoken by almost 50% of the population.[3] In addition, over 70 smaller provincial languages and dialects exist in Pakistan.  Today, whilst much of the mainstream media as well as state-run public schools communicate in Urdu, it is not a first-language for Pakistanis by far. Those homes with access to English find a diminished impetus for learning Urdu as pragmatism and practical exigencies dictate the study of English, primarily because all higher examinations with the exception of Islamic studies in Pakistan are based on the Western models of education.

In my case, Urdu’s oral traditions and rich cultural legacy is lost to me. In Nehru’s words, “I have become a queer mixture of the East and the West, out of place everywhere, at home nowhere.”  I cannot read Ghalib unless it’s an English translation. I cannot even read the Urdu newspaper. I read Saadat Hassan Manto, revered as one of Pakistan’s greatest writers, in English. Often I wonder what richness of language is lost to me, what word play and complex grammatical structures I shall never understand, nor the depth of connotation that one Urdu word conveys but none in English compare.

Upon my return to Pakistan in 2009, I was faced with a quandary. I wanted to document the richness of this country and its cultural heritage; I wanted to highlight its history and its crumbling monuments, preserving those stories and retelling them for a new generation that doesn’t understand what Pakistan is, or what it once was. This new generation, fed on misinterpreted views of Islam accounts for much of the radicalization of the past few decades. I realized that if I needed to undo General Zia’s legacy of Islamization, I needed to show that the people living here weren’t always militant; that before there was a homeland for Muslims, Sikhs, Christians, Hindus, Parsis to name a few lived side by side in peace with Muslims.

Working for a television station, I was making a documentary film but realized my shortcomings when my co-producer handed me a script to OK. The script was written in Urdu. Like a toddler struggling with an elementary primer, I held my finger over each word trying to decipher the script, until I gave up a few lines after and told him it seemed OK to me. What else could I do? When a colleague amazingly remarked that I could speak French and Italian, I turned to her and in my broken Urdu, asked what use was it if I couldn’t speak the language of my own people?

After a few months of struggle, I left the documentary film-making world because of my language handicap and ventured toward Communications. I struggled with the bitter taste of irony, that I, privileged, educated, capable of helping this country through the miasma of failure, extremism, violence and stagnation, was powerless because I couldn’t speak the language properly.  Unlike Professor Haleem who made a difference to change Pakistan for the better, I was restricted and hindered by the same hopeful language that gave this country a voice. Today, my Urdu is mish-mashed with English incorporating more colloquial slang than literal Urdu. Like my Urdu, I find myself a mix of different peoples and personalities, Pakistani at heart, but at home nowhere.



[1] Tariq Rahman, “Language Policy, Multilingualism and Language Vitality in Pakistan,” Quaid e Azam University  <<>> (accessed January 17 2012).

[2] Zubeida Mustafa, “Pakistan Ruined by Language Myth,” The Guardian Online, January 10, 2012, <<>> (accessed January 17 2012).

[3] Hywel Coleman, “Teaching and Learning in Pakistan: The Role of Language in Education,” Islamabad: The British Council, 2010.

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