Leigh Anne Treistman |
“You are going where?” asked the shop owner incredulously. “Pakistan,” I replied. “Oh! The Middle East is really dangerous! ” she said sternly as she looked toward my mother with absolute shock and disapproval. With one look she had admonished my mother for allowing her daughter to travel to “a place like that.” “Pakistan is actually located in Asia.” I paused and waited as I watched her try to make sense of what she had been taught about Pakistan in the Western media.
I am an educator by profession, a traveller by choice, and a very patient person by nature. I hold the belief that travel is one of the most important tools we have to dispel myths and destroy faulty narratives, regardless of who has planted them. So, Pakistan’s next door neighbour is China and they actually share a border,” I explain. I pull out my National Geographic Atlas App on my phone and let the world spin a moment. I can see her mind spinning, too.
Hollywood has linked “Allah-o-Akbar” with suicide bombings every single time. These films are what I call soft recruiting tools by the US military.
I give a quick social studies lesson knowing already what she does not know: many Pakistani people speak English, but it is with a British accent, it is a democracy so people can vote, we are not at war there and Pakistan is a US ally, no you don’t have to be Muslim to live there, they have had a female prime minister, and yes, they too, have a McDonald’s. I wait. I can see the scepticism, but I also understand why she is so confused, just as many Americans are.
The truth is that Americans have been inundated with Hollywood films like American Sniper which portray all Muslims, no matter what nation they come from, like this: the women are suppressed, the men are terrorists, and the American soldiers are heroes. These films are dangerous. They sell a lot of tickets and they sell a lot of deadly ideas. Each time you hear the call to prayer, a bomb is going off. Hollywood has linked “Allah-o-Akbar” with suicide bombings every single time. These films are what I call soft recruiting tools by the US military.
Read more: Imran Khan: the leader
Our 18-year-olds, impressionable young men and women, do not have to wonder what the enemy looks like because it has been shown to them as entertainment for two solid decades. Simply remove the burkha and kill anything wearing a shalwar kameez. Often young people are deploying to a region of the world they are legitimately confused about. Like the shop owner, they do not know that the country being portrayed in the films they have seen isn’t even Pakistan. It’s what I call collective geography–and educators, media outlets, and Hollywood all portray it is as “the terrorists over there”.
Disclaimer: I come from a United States military family. Three generations of my family have been deployed to places like the Philippines, South Korea, Vietnam, Japan, Germany, Kuwait, Iraq, and Bosnia. If we are going to stop engaging in perpetual warfare, we are going to have to create meaningful relationships with people. We must reject the negative narrative as the only narrative. Tourism allows us to do just that. I run a counter-narrative by travelling and telling one story at a time. My conversation with the shop owner is both an offensive and defensive move on my part.
The truth is that Americans have been inundated with Hollywood films like American Sniper which portray all Muslims.
I am going to help dispel the myths one encounter at a time. But these narratives are not the only dangerous narratives that tourism can help dispel. Imagine this: I am a Jewish woman and travelled to a Muslim nation where I was warmly received. In fact, a Catholic girl, a Jewish girl, and a Muslim girl stood in a kitchen making a pot of black-eyed peas and cornbread on Christmas day in you got it…Islamabad, Pakistan. “I didn’t think you could even talk about Jesus in Pakistan!” my friends cried in astonishment. “I thought all Jews and Muslims were enemies!” my friends exclaimed.
Read more: Seven decades of Pakistan
So for me, the Western media portrayal of Pakistan was destroyed; one trip to Islamabad is all it took. It was Margalla Hills against a blue sky. It was fresh almonds roasting on the roadside. It was the smell of fresh Naan baking in a tandoori over. It was a flower stand with roses in shades of pinks and yellows. It was a fresh array of rhubarb and sugar cane on a vegetable cart. It was the sound of kids laughing and playing cricket on a cold, sunny, winter day in F-9 park. It was the juxtaposition of a Tonga, a motorcycle, and a brightly painted truck with poetry, sharing a roadway with sleek, black cars that I cannot even afford to drive.
It was hot tea poured into a china cup and an assortment of fancy desserts on trays. It was the sound of guitar and rabab, and the laughter of people who are welcoming and warm and offer hospitality like no other place I have ever seen. Like any city, it has its flaws and the social struggles are apparent. There is a Montessori school, a Beacon House, and a government-run school within walking distance. Nearby, a child who should be in school is working in the streets to help support a family. But this is every city I visit, no matter the nation I am in, including my own. The most essential narrative we can create, to replace the lies we have all been taught, is our own. And the only way I know to find out the truth about the world we live in, is through travel and tourism.
Leigh Anne is an educator and humanitarian living in the United States. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The views expressed in this article are author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.