The Third Migration

An edited version of below appeared in The Guardian’s Comment is Free 06/27. I decided to post the longer version here. Think of this as the first of many posts to come. Maybe even one of those book thingies…

“Pakistan is in a leaderless drift four months after elections” concludes Carlotta Gall in the New York Times, 24 June, 2008. Just two days later, comes news that “Baitullah Mehsud, the head of the Pakistani Taliban” has killed 22 members of an intermediary peace committee between the State of Pakistan and Mehsud. I guess there are some leaders in Pakistan, after all.

Pakistan’s “Talibanization” (akin to almost every -tion and -ism popular in the Western media, this too is a misnomer) in the northwestern rural regions and the stalled Lawyer’s movement in the major cities appear, at first glance, to simply reflect a deep chasm within Pakistani society. This division, if one should call it anything, is routinely understood as a manifestation of moderate vs extreme Islam. But that begs the question, why does it manifest itself along rural/urban, and class lines. Extremist ideology, as we have learned in the last 8 years, is just as prone to attract highly educated, professional class members as the unemployed, frustrated youth. We have to delve deeper into Pakistan’s recent past, if we are to understand the crisis it faces at the present.

Sub-continental history is dotted with intermittent mass movement of people – usually triggered by famine, war or worse – replete with attendant tales of distress and misery. One can put the 1947 migration at the top of the comparative heap and go from there. Even there, the focus is often on the Punjab end and not on Bengal. And similarly, the 1971 refugee crisis that lingers behind the borders of Bangladesh to this day. In fact, I would venture to say that there is little that one can declare about the young nation-state of Pakistan without examining the historical burden of migration.

In my reckoning, the early 70s saw the another key migration that receives little historical interest. It transported vast swath of men from the rural and semi-urban centers of Pakistan to the emerging oil-based oligarchies in the Gulf. Migration could arguably be the wrong word to use, since these workers did return home – but the net effect of constant circulation of male population amounts to the same. This economic migration created a back-flow of liquid capital to these same villages and towns in Punjab, Sindh and the Northwestern Frontier Province. While also providing a unique vehicle for the transference of the various strains of Muslim experience into the rather stilted one, currently on everyone’s lips – wahabism.

Between 1975 and 1985, the number of Pakistanis in the Gulf states rose from 205,000 to 446,000 annually with over 2.5 billion $ (per anum) in remittance flowing back.1 At its height in the mid-80s, nearly 10% of Pakistan’s adult male work-force was employed in the Gulf states.2 These migrant workers – over 80% were unskilled or semi-skilled – usually lasted about 4-6 years in the Gulf states and were replaced by other family, clan, tribe or village members. Their remissions home – goods and cash – were the dominant factor in bolstering Pakistani economy throughout the 1970s and 80s and one of the key factors in Pakistan’s turn towards West Asia under Bhutto and Zia ul Haq. The migration cooled down during the 1990s but the 2000s have invigorated the flow of workers. Currently, Pakistani workers are heavily employed in Dubai, Kuwait and Iraq.

This large-scale migration to the Middle East had significant effects on local economies and production cycles but I would just like to focus on its socio-cultural impact on Pakistan. The eco-systems of hundreds of small, rural villages never recovered from the double whammy of the loss of adult male members and the subsequent impact of petro-dollars – everything from sky-rocketing prices on land, abandonment of village industries, eschewing of educational options for children and a newly founded cultural zeal for consumer goods. Just as significant was the imported religiosity that came back with the workers.

Historically speaking, the wahabbi reading of Islamicate practices had found little purchase on the sub-continent. Mainly because the wahabbi theories of the sacred (and charisma) were at odds with clearly established cultural and religious practices in Pakistani culture which cherished its sufi saints. However, this third migration allowed vast population to un-learn their “decadent” and “deviant” practices from the “pure practitioners” in Saudi Arabia, Qatar or the Emirates. New practices took hold in the southern valleys and northern mountains – dupattas were replaced with burkas, sufi shrines with madrasas etc. This cultural turn dovetailed with Zia ul Haq’s explicit policies of Sunnification and the selling of Jihad as a necessary commodity to the Pakistani people. Palestine, Chechnya and Kashmir became the de-facto topics at every Friday sermon ranging from Doha and Riyadh to Dera Ghazi Khan and Rawalpindi.

However, such wahabbization of the rural and semi-urban landscapes in Pakistan – stricter, more literal interpretation of Qur’an, demonization of non-believers, anti-Semitic rhetoric, racism, desire to “fund” jihads was never a clean process of import from the Gulf or imposed from the top. It remained a gradual and organic process that de-legitimized established practices – such as Aleopathic Pharmacy – while distorting others – the spiritual guide was transformed into one who cast, or fought, black magic. It is hard to find a household, a conversation, in current day Pakistan that is free of such concerns. The practitioners combine the Protestant zeal of the wahabbi priest (to mix my descriptors) with the bank-tellers command of charges due: $10 for destruction of marriage, $20 and a incantation for ruined libido. All wrapped in literal reading of Qur’anic text.

Jihad that.

One cannot go further with in examining this process of wahabbization without taking into account gender and familial issues – the impact of this third migration on the father-less families or the socialization patterns of entire families (and in some cases entire villages) engaged in manual labor in one Gulf state to another – always beholden to the kafeel. What are the attitudes of this particular Generation X towards the State? Can we really begin to inquire about the success or failure of the Lawyer’s movement without examining the third Migration? Can we really talk about Democracy without taking into account the social lives of millions of Pakistanis as second or third rate citizens, with no rights in Law as a person, in the Gulf state?

The twining of heightened security-related issues and weakened grasp of social heterogeneity has resulted in a long list of rather un-inspired political theories on the nation of Pakistan that do their best to remix Crisis, Crossroads, Failure, Ideology, Military, Mosque and Pakistan into a coherent narrative. On the other side, our efforts to understand fundamentalist appeals to Muslim are bogged down in juridical debates between the medieval Ibn Tamiyya and the modern Sayyid Qutb. Neither of these approaches have proven fruitful. It is time that we broadened our scope of inquiry – to examine carefully labor and migration, civil and social structures, law and order, rights and claims of the many peoples of Pakistan.

  1. Halliday, Fred. “Labor Migration in the Arab World”. MERIP Reports, No. 123, Migrant Workers in the Middle East (May, 1984), pp. 3-10+30 []
  2. Imdad, Naghma.`L’émigration pakistanaise dans le Golfe et ses répercussions sur le pays d’origine’, Revue Tiers Monde, 1985. 26(103): 553-566. []


I highly recommend that you go out and watch Tarsem Singh Dhabdwar’s The Fall. Think of it as a companion piece to del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth – obsessed with stories, story-tellers and the corrosive realities that surround them both. I was hesitant to go see it, until I read Ebert’s interview with Tarsem (worth reading every line) and the details of the amazing on-location filming and the commitment to his vision. Also worth reading is another interview with ion-cinema (as well as these tid-bits about the framing device). It is not a film upon which you can hang too heavy an analytic curtain – the story and the sub-text is simple enough but it does contains some traces of a quixotic endeavor that is endearing. So, yeah. Oh, the visuals are amazing (especially of Jodhpur and the Jaipur observatory). Go Tarsem and the power of a broken heart.

Falak Sufi Memorial Prize

via BASAS:

I wanted to draw your attention to a new annual accademic prize that has been instituted for Humanities and Social Science students studying at a university in Pakistan.

The Falak Sufi Memorial Prize has been established to support innovative work on women and gender in South Asia by Pakistani undergraduate and graduate students. This prize is meant to honor a Pakistani student in a Pakistani college or university for his or her excellence in research and writing in the fields of women and gender studies.

The Prize aims: firstly, to recognize undergraduate and graduate students interested in the topic who often have had lesser opportunities for such recognition, and secondly, to contribute to the vibrancy of the study of humanities and social sciences in Pakistan.

This Prize was established to honor the contributions of Falak Sufi, a Pakistani scholar of women and gender in South Asia.

For fuller details on the rubric of the Prize, kindly refer to:
Please circulate this post as widely as possible to relevant individuals and bodies.

You can learn more about Falak Sufi here or in the remembrance of friends.