Going home sometime tomorrow

Published in The Express Tribune – cover photo by Zahid Hussein

‘As the plane lifted off from Logan Airport, I strained to catch my last glimpse of the Boston skyline. Shopping at Filene’s Basement. Eating at the communal tables at Durgin Park. Going to the Casablanca to forget our hockey loss to Boston University […] With the lyrics to a Peter, Paul and Mary song – “I’m leaving on a jet plane, don’t know when I’ll be back again” – running through my mind, I flew home to Pakistan.’

So wrote Benazir Bhutto in 1973, the first of many dramatic returns. Her writing is nostalgic in the proper sense of the word: ‘nostalgia’ comes from Greek, meaning pain resulting from a desire to return home – one that may no longer exist.

For Shaheed Mohtarma, each Pakistan she came back to was unrecognizable from the last. She returned in ‘73, at the dawn of Bhutto. She returned in ‘86, to a junta that defined itself against Bhutto. And she returned in ‘07, to a broken mess that had outrun Bhutto, and would take the life of his daughter.

Roberto Bolaño once wrote, ‘All literature carries exile within it, whether the writer has had to pick up and go at the age of twenty or has never left home.’ Ms. Bhutto was nineteen on that jet plane, and many jet planes – and years of exile – were to follow.

As the press covers the prime minister’s heart surgery in London, as well-wishers pray for his health and happiness, as bureaucrats feverishly consult the Rules of Business, Pakistan lies in wait. Some say the premier may be out with two weeks’ bed-rest; some, like the song goes, don’t know when he’ll be back again.

The PM’s latest departure is for medical reasons, but he is familiar with reasons otherwise.  Exile – forced or unforced – has a rich history here. Even the Quaid, depressed by the Congress’s ‘Ram Rajya’ hocus-pocus, left for London in the ‘30s. He could be seen handsomely fuming on West Heath Road, and practicing law in the Privy Council. ‘I seem,’ he told Durga Das, ‘to have reached a dead end.’

These are the wilderness years: the road to doubt, dismay, and, if one’s lucky, resurrection. We now know that was not Mr. Jinnah’s dead end. Nor were the sands of Jeddah Mr. Sharif’s.

The PM does not, perhaps, agree with the Greeks – that the unexamined life isn’t worth living. But there have been moments of rare reflection in exile.

‘I did a lot of soul-searching,’ he told Mira Sethi, elaborating:

For what mistake am I getting this punishment? Tu mujhe itna bata zaroor yey kiss cheez ki saza hai. Takeh mein ainda repeat na karoun (Please tell me exactly for what I am being punished, so I don’t repeat my mistake). Whatever has been done, Allah tou hee behtar jaanta hai (Allah knows best). As prime minister I did a lot of good things, but I also did bad things, perhaps. Tou uski shaid mujhe punishment mil rahi hai (Perhaps I am being punished for that).

Not that rebirth is a conceit limited to Pakistan: after months of rotting in French prison, Voltaire too escaped to London, where he came up his masterpiece Letters Concerning the English Nation. Hugo had to flee England itself to finish his finest work. And Hemingway penned The Sun Also Rises in self-exile, which best captures the essence of the ex-pat:

You’re an expatriate. You’ve lost touch with the soil. You get precious. Fake European standards have ruined you. You drink yourself to death […] You spend all your time talking, not working. You are an expatriate, see? You hang around cafés.

But these are gents that, more or less, returned to the soil refreshed and revived. For millions of Pakistanis, that’s no longer the case. If anything, the opposite applies: zinda bhaag is the new mantra here.

Millions are leaving the country: from students that never come back, to professionals that leave for greener pastures, to state employees on scholarships that disappear into the ether.

Yet the state would much rather inhale billions in remittances, than make a home for its most talented. When told a fifth of the masses would much rather make a run for it, who can forget ex-PM Yusuf Raza Gilani going for a zinger. ‘Why don’t they just leave then?’ asked YRG. ‘Who’s stopping them?’

But for a twenty-something embassy official with the world’s worst job, sir, no one’s stopping them, and they’re leaving in droves.

We have the (dubious) distinction of the seventh-largest diaspora in the world, and its exploding outwards. Not that there’s much alternative: were they all to return to tomorrow, the state does not have a fraction of the economy to absorb them. As Tufail Hussain Malik quoted in another paper, brain-drain is better than a brain in the drain.

Worse still is what the diaspora is coming to feel: that the land they left is a pit of violence and wickedness – Pakistan’s image problem abroad is just as dangerous as its opportunity problem at home.

There are plenty ideas for reversing the flow. During his time at the HEC, Dr. Atta-ur-Rehman piloted a scheme for expat professionals to return to public universities, and impart what they’ve learned. Examples range from India all the way to New Zealand – aimed at more jobs and bringing its best back home – and it’s time we took notice.

Or not. Mr. Sharif will return to lead one of the world’s most populous nations, while the population tries its best to join other nations. But Pakistan is ever-changing.

When she touched down in 2007, Shaheed Mohtarma didn’t understand the past is another country. One can only wish that the prime minister, when he recovers and returns, will have understood. Ms. Bhutto had ‘Leaving on a Jet Plane’ on her mind, far removed from another anthem on migration:

Going home without my sorrow/
Going home sometime tomorrow/
Going home to where it’s better/
Than before.

Yet for millions of Pakistanis, tomorrow’s a long way from home.