The idea that those who return to their Middle Eastern or South Asian roots are doing so to fight in civil conflicts is a common story line pitched by most media, but Danish-Pakistani Mahvish Ahmad is trying to broaden perspectives in more ways than one.
Over the past few years, Ahmad has become an established journalist, political scientist and anthropologist, and has been a driving force behind a more nuanced view of Pakistan in Nordic and Western media.
Ahmad left the blustery North and moved to Pakistan in 2010, where she began teaching political theory and feminism. She soon became a foreign correspondent for DR, Information, and TV2, as well as for international outlets such as the BBC. In addition, Ahmad wrote for a number of Pakistani newspapers and various international publications, which resulted in her founding her own independent publication, Tanqeed.
Although born and raised in Denmark, Ahmad’s connection to her Pakistani heritage runs deep, as she travelled there every summer as a child. Moving to Pakistan was always on the agenda for her, because of her strong relationship with her extended family and the Pakistani culture.
“If you trace back your ancestry, it’s the history of that part of the world, which essentially produced you as a person,” she says.
As a second-generation immigrant, Ahmad admits it can be difficult establishing an identity inbetween two cultures. In Denmark, she says, there appears to be a general consensus that you can’t have more than one cultural identity.
“Denmark and Pakistan are both ‘home’, but trying to figure out how I’m going to be in both worlds is difficult. They each have their own sets of questions and debates and very different sets of concerns,” she explains.
When Ahmad left for Pakistan, she had no specific objective, except to learn.
“Denmark seems to have a limited understanding of Pakistan. They say, ‘let’s send 50 million kroner to Pakistan and help those poor sods figure themselves out,’ but I have a problem with that kind of approach,” she said. “Pakistan has a very rich history of movements and a lot of issues that never get talked about.”
Ahmad began teaching at a university in Pakistan’s cultural capital, Lahore. The following year, she relocated to Islamabad, where she began working as a full-time foreign correspondent for Danish news, returning home only once a year.
In the midst of conflict reporting, Ahmad’s objectives became clear when she noticed that much of the Danish press did not accurately reflect Pakistan’s identity or key issues.
“The press plays into stereotypes. Either Pakistanis are totally different, or they are the same, but they can’t handle a nuance between the two,” she said. “There are two kinds of news stories they’re interested in: one is the typical story about bombs, and the other, which is just as problematic, is about the elite. They say, ‘look at these Pakistanis, they party like us and they date like us, do drugs and drink like us, and they’re brown people and are Muslims.’ But these people only represent about 0.5 percent of the population.”
“There are lots of people who don’t blow things up, that aren’t on the radical right, and that don’t indulge in that glamorous lifestyle, but they still criticise Western foreign policy and have lives that are different from yours,” she adds.
A new perspective
Her new publication Tanqeed was born to remedy this misconception. She teamed up with fellow journalist Madiha Tahir, who has written for The Wall Street Journal and Al Jazeera, and is currently pursuing a PhD at Columbia University in New York. Tanqeed, Ahmad explains, means ‘intellectual critique’ in Urdu, the national language of Pakistan.
“I actually picked up the term in a communist studies class in my first year,” she said. “The left is not very big there, so I used to attend this study circle that would happen every Sunday next to the tea shops, and we’d talk about Marxism.”
The monthly journal, assembled by an editorial team of thirteen journalists and academics, provides a comprehensive and critical coverage of Pakistani and South Asian issues. “There’s a lot of debate in which people have abstract discussions about abstract ideas, but don’t sufficiently include the concrete experiences of people actually living through war,” she explains.
According to Ahmad – who is currently pursuing a PhD at Cambridge University, but plans to return to Pakistan within the year – Tanqeed comes from a new perspective, often reaching to the heart of issues, most notably by using war refugees as key sources in press coverage.
“There are a lot of people out in the world who say they have an opinion or expertise on the country – people who become the faces of Pakistan on panels in Europe and the US – but have never really lived there, and don’t have any sense of the deeper history,” she says.
“A war refugee should not be covered as just someone who needs humanitarian aid, but as an entire person who has an opinion. There is an inherent racism in not letting people analyse their own situation,” she said. “They possess an analysis that is arguably more accurate than the analysis of an academic expert.” M