Terrorism: The Single Story of Pakistan - Acumen

Terrorism: The Single Story of Pakistan

By Henry Chim on December 19, 2014

Henry Chim is a Global Fellow working at Acumen’s housing investee AMC in Lahore, Pakistan. On Tuesday, the Taliban took their war on education to a new low with an assault on a school in Peshawar that killed 145 people. Below, Henry reflects on the effects of terrorism on Pakistan.

When I attempt to fathom what happened in Peshawar, I imagine a room full of 145 bright flickering candles being extinguished in one single blow. Why isn’t there more love in the world? The kind of love that can end this madness is the same love that allows us to forgive and understand those who stand behind these atrocities.

To love is to understand, and to understand is to seek truth beyond the single story. Yet, the single story is more often than not how we see the world… Asian students are always good at math. Men are pigs. Colombia is full of drug lords. Indians can only work in IT. IT professionals are socially awkward (see where racism stems from now). Everybody in the “country” of Africa is starving. Corporations are evil. Governments are lazy.

During my career in management consulting, I was told over and over again that I needed to build my brand in one specific area. It’s as though it’s impossible to comprehend that someone can execute effectively across multiple disciplines, so we get pigeon holed because that makes our expertise easier to sell and explain to people. And that is the appeal of the single story – it is easier for us to take in.

When I found out I was Pakistan-bound for my Acumen fellowship, the responses I received from friends were either of genuine concern for my safety or of tasteless jokes about suicide bombers. I’ll admit to sharing a few offside jokes myself. After all, Pakistan is perceived by the West as so backwards and hopeless that inappropriate jokes about the country are made acceptable in our society.  The reality is that much of the world thinks of Pakistan as the prolific breeding ground of modern-day terrorism, as though there is some sort of sick incubator that places a terrorist on every street corner of the country.

Here is my real account of living in Pakistan.

I arrived at the Lahore international airport on November 22 with no idea what to expect for my year ahead. I slightly panicked when I couldn’t find my colleague who was supposed to pick me up. Frantic and out of ideas, I entered a hotel booking office to see if there was a way I could get onto my email. Without any strings attached the man at the agency invited me inside his office, provided his personal Blackberry to check my email, let me use his phone to call my colleague and graciously offered me part of his delicious chicken biryani dinner while I waited.

I had a similar experience during my first fruit shopping experience. Working within the confines of a complete language barrier, I handed a 100 rupee note to my neighbourhood fruit vendor and pointed at his bananas and oranges knowing fully that I was putting myself in a position to get ripped off. I was shocked when my neighbor verified that that I got local pricing on my bag of fruits. I have happily given this fruit vendor 100% of my business since then.

Every single person I have met in Pakistan has been overwhelmingly warm and kind. The worst that I have experienced is paying a rickshaw driver 50 cents above market rate for a lift. This is hardly the culture of a people you would affiliate with terror. I would go as far as to say that Pakistan is the most hospitable country I have ever been to, and I am slowly falling in love with it. The rugged nature of Pakistan brings out the warmest humanity in the toughest people I may ever meet.

Terrorism is a brutal reality in Pakistan that paints ugliness on what is otherwise beautiful. What happened in Peshawar was tragic and heartbreaking. 141 innocent people, mostly children, died and those who should be held to justice also perished as part of their plan. In November a suicide bomber at the India-Pakistan Wagah Border killed 55 innocents. I am left emotionally exhausted and saddened when fathoming the hatred behind these actions. In these attacks, the people of Pakistan lost their friends. Sons. Daughters. Fathers. Mothers. Sisters. Brothers.

My brief time living in Pakistan has brought me closer to empathizing with the people of this country. I feel deeply saddened, angry, frustrated and confused about the attack. When I look at my Facebook newsfeed, now filled with updates from my newfound Pakistani friends, I see remarkable solidarity for the victims of those impacted by the most recent attack. I can’t help but look back in shame at my own past perceptions of Pakistan.

As my coworker aptly put it “The US hasn’t had a significant attack since 2001, yet they’re seen as the freedom fighters in the world against terrorism. We are constantly under attack and then we are labelled the terrorists. No, we are fighting the terrorists and we have been fighting them since the beginning.”

black box

December 16 will forever be etched in Pakistan’s history as Black Day. It has been remarkable to see the wave of profile photos on Facebook from my new Pakistani friends change to a flat black in memory of those who passed away on this day.

My heart bleeds for the people of Pakistan. Every single day they live with the threat of another attack. They are the victims of terrorism, not the creators of it. What is the price we pay when we look at the surface of things rather than the depth of things? And what other single stories do we have in our heads which preclude us from truly understanding each other? I hope that as the world watches the people of Pakistan stand in unison to mourn for their country, we can all start finding the courage within ourselves to change our single story of Pakistan and to appreciate the courage of each Pakistani child that continues showing up every day for class.

I wish it were as easy as replacing all the hatred and misunderstanding in the world with love. The cycle of change starts with each and every individual. As for me, I have to find the courage to ask myself the hard questions and stop accepting my own single stories of how I see the world.

Let’s start with this story of Aitezaz Hasan, a brave 15 year old boy who gave his life in January to stop a suicide bomber from attacking a school.

Here is the TED talk that talks about the danger of a single story and inspired my thoughts for this blog.

May the victims of Black Day rest in peace.


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