A few days ago, I came across some videos of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, speaking at Columbia University. I looked up some more videos of Ahmadinejad and realised there was one thing all of them had in common: whether he was speaking to Larry King on TV or giving a talk at an American university or at the United Nations, the Iranian President always spoke in his own language.
It is not because he does not know how to speak in English but it is because he is proud of his mother tongue, Farsi, and does not wish to speak in any other language when representing his country. He speaks in Farsi even though some of his candour is lost when translating his speeches. This made me wonder what it is that we, the educated elite of Pakistan, are afflicted with, as we take every opportunity to express ourselves in a language that is not ours. Do not take me wrong, I believe there is nothing wrong in speaking English or learning it as an effective means of communication. In fact, it would be ironic to be sitting here writing this article in English and then criticising those who speak it. But does that mean they should prefer it to Urdu?
Most representatives of Pakistan, whether political, athletic, cultural or artistic, have adopted English as their language of choice rather than Urdu. Many of them cannot even speak English properly or do it with accents which are incomprehensible, to say the least. The same applies to the rest of us; our children attend the best possible academic institutions but once you ask them to read from an Urdu newspaper, they read like it is written in Klingon. They know who Shakespeare and Milton is but have no clue as to who Ghalib was or have never even held a book written by Iqbal or Munshi Premchand.
What good is a school that churns out yuppies who have no clue as to what their own culture is? Is it a surprise then that we see western traditions becoming commonplace in our society while our own heritage is pushed into a dark corner with the sign board ‘uncool’ on top? Why do we then act shocked and surprised when people do not take ownership of this nation, or when there is no one to protest even when injustice has become the norm?
No doubt it has to do with our colonial past and we still carry that chip on our shoulders. The easiest way to get anything done in Pakistan is to scream in English and it works in all spheres of life from not getting a ticket from the police constable, to getting a table at a crowded restaurant. Speaking English automatically grants a person the right to be heard. The ones who cannot speak a word of English are obviously, the “have-nots,” who will never be spoken to with respect and will be exploited at every opportunity because they are so ‘uncouth’.
They say a nation starts on the road to doom when its identity is threatened. We, however, have made it even easier by tearing apart our own identity to reinvent ourselves as chameleons who will wear whatever mask is suitable to get the job done. Giving up on our own language is just the first step, I shudder to think what is next.
Published in the Dawn Blog on 28/12/2010