Otherness 🇬🇧

A word of explanation about the featured image: the only type of lemon that I have ever had and known about is the big one – the only one B. had tasted before my arrival was its baby sister – the small one. He thought I must have picked the big ones up in a supermarket because they had some qualities that he wasn’t aware of, whereas I simply had no idea the small ones existed in the first place!

In the dissertation which I worked on this summer I spent a lot of time discussing the notion of otherness. We are all well aware of the fact that there are different cultures, habits, customs and religions out there, that there exists cultural diversity defined as “the fact that many different types of things or people being included in something; a range of many different types of things or people” ‘Embracing cultural diversity’ and ‘equality and diversity’ seem to currently be amongst the most important issues and goals to be achieved in workplaces and educational institutions, particularly in the UK. Yet, when we go abroad on holiday, for instance, despite all the encouragement we are given to embrace diversity, how many of us actually accept the fact that different peoples around the world do things differently, perhaps in a way that we are completely unfamiliar with, that surprises or even shocks us? I think that this acceptance would truly demonstrate that we are able to ‘embrace this diversity’ instead of seeing (and judging) it through our Western system of values, and often as something weird and bizzare? How many of us perceive the locals as the others, forgetting that it is us – the tourists and visitors, who are the true others?

Since most of us have not been lucky enough to have been raised in various cultures, I sometimes think it is only natural and inevitable that we look at the world from our own perspective. However, no one has said that embracing diversity would be easy, quite the opposite, I think: it requires conscious effort and coming out of your comfort zonecourage and open-mindedness. It’s a considerable challenge, but one which in this day and age we shouldn’t shy away from.

I’m talking about this in order to contexualise a situation which happened a few days ago and showed me how the idea of otherness and embracing diversity works in practice. It has become our little routine to visit a nearby park, Fatima Jinnah Park, also known as Capital Park or F-9 Park, one of the largest covered areas in Pakistan, and named after the younger sister of Muhhamad Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan. As the sun sets pretty quickly here, by the time we get to the park after B. finishes work, it’s already quite dark. Walking in this massive park after dusk is an interesting experience – despite it being very popular with the locals even late in the evening, there is little lightning in the park alleys, and it is the moonlight which takes over the role of a street lamp, very romantic, by the way. Besides, you need to get used to the fact that there are dozens of bats flying right above your head – at first the thought was quite scary, to be honest, because I was always told as a child that bats go for your hair and once they get tangled, you need to have all your hair cut off (here children are told that bats eat your nose and ears), but soon you realise that they are actually harmless.

Anyway, on one of those evenings just before the dusk, I witnessed something that surprised and even shocked me a little: I saw two grown men holding hands! Had I been in Europe, particularly in the UK, I would not have even registered it, but in such a conservative country as Pakistan?? I wasn’t sure what to make of it, so I whispered to B. about what I’d seen. He laughed and explained that it is quite common and acceptable here for men to hold hands in public and it has nothing to do with them being gay; it’s rather an expression of their brotherhood. ‘Hold on a minute’, I thought, ‘how is it possible for adult men to hold hands without it being frowned upon, whereas even married couples don’t?’ I held onto that thought. Coincidentally, after the walk we went shopping, and there I saw it again: two adult men walking on the pavement, this time lit by street lamps, and playfully holding hands! And staring at me for being a foreigner! We looked at each other intensely for a short while, though long enough for me to realise something – I was seeing them as the other through my Western perspective and understanding of the world, whereas they were also looking at me as the other, and I recognised that I was the only true other in this situation. This realisation was very liberating, because I stopped trying to figure it all out. Es lo que hay, say the Spanish. It is what it is. Full stop.

men-holding-hands

Another example of this was rather tasty. On Tuesday and Wednesday last week there was a religious holiday here in Pakistan called Ashura, Day of Remembrance. On early Wednesday afternoon someone knocked on the door. B. opened and a few seconds later turned up with…food, a lot of food! It turns out that on that day people share food – they basically knock on your door and give you food for free! The same thing happened three times on the same day! I struggled to understand this, but again – do I really have to?

Finally, on Saturday we went to a small nearby village Shah_Allah_Ditta located at the foothills of the Margalla Hills (the other end to where we went the previous weekend) and only about a 20-minute ride on the motorbike. It was a marvelous trip! We managed to reach pretty high in the mountains from where there was an amazing view of the whole of Islamabad. Apart from taking photos, I also made several recordings, but as I can’t upload them here, I will post them on my facebook page. As you can see, my head is covered here – in recognition of the fact that I am the true other here, I myself felt it was not appropriate for me to take the scarf off and might have equaled lack of respect.

 

Truly embracing diversity, putting yourself in the position of the other and adopting a different perspective does not always come easy, but I am absolutely convinced that it is the only way to break down deep-rooted prejudices and challenge preconceptions.

 

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