By Hani Yousuf
A year-and-a-half of endless cappuccinos at hip East Berlin street cafes later, I still remained an outsider. Recently, a friend and contemporary at journalism school wrote a profile of me. “She could have been European or something. Just foreign. Far from ‘desi’,” wrote Sonya Rehman about me. I prided myself on the fact that I transcended borders. It was with this self perception, a degree from a top-ranked journalism school and enthusiasm that I moved to Berlin in January 2011.
I was soon disillusioned. My mother is German-Pakistani, although this kind of hyphenation does not exist in Germany. Born in Rangoon, Burma, she spent her early childhood in Chittagong, then East Pakistan, after which her parents moved to Dreieich, a village near Frankfurt. At the age of 17, she married my father and moved to Pakistan. She brought me up on freshly-baked waffles, potato salad and an odd belief of European supremacy. At the age of 26, I moved to New York. I had travelled before and lived in Europe for short spurts, but this was the first time I moved away from Karachi to live by myself for a long unbroken period of time. I was instantly a New Yorker. An impatient, nail-tapping, sample-sale-attending, Manolo-wearing New Yorker.
I loved the city and it loved me right back. I could scream at it, hate it, sing enraptured praises of it while walking down Central Park South – my favourite walk from Columbus Circle to the Plaza – and it would still remain mine. But, something irked me. US foreign policy and how it trickled into each conversation I had in the city bothered me. That the people didn’t criticise their government didn’t make sense to me and my conversations at bars became about conversations at bars last week and, maybe, jazz.
Europe must be better, I thought. “The US has no history, no culture,” I often heard my mother say, her accent normally starkly South Asia, would lean towards German. This statement was echoed by my European friends at journalism school.
My friend Sarnath Banerjee, an artist and writer I met in Berlin, often says that Europeans invented Eurocentricism. And, then they sold this idea to the entire world. I couldn’t agree more. It’s an idea I bought too. And, took with me to Berlin.
I also took with me the idealism of a young journalism graduate, who was severely critical of journalism practiced in Pakistan. German journalism, I found, was very like Pakistani journalism: pompous armchair reporters sat on their ivory towers and reported on the state in Gaza and Kashmir. Others wrote out of the Guardian and the New York Times without crediting them. Sometimes, they recreated scenes and passed it off as though the reporter actually saw it. The one difference was that there weren’t as many women. And, I realised journalism school had taught me much to unlearn.
As a young reporter with the finest journalists’ Rolodex that money can buy (in this case a 70,000 dollar tuition cheque made to Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism), skills built under my reporting professor, Paula Span’s able tutelage, I was expecting to report and write around the clock. On the contrary. I was asked to write about my life “growing up in rapidly Islamising Pakistani.” I wrote instead about how more women led Pakistani newsrooms than German ones. Later, I was asked to give the keynote address for the launch of Pro Quote, an advocacy group formed by high profile women journalists in Germany seeking to establish a 30 percent quota of women in newsrooms. Here, too, I was the “outside perspective.”
To top it off, I am slightly bourgie. A Muslim woman who doesn’t wear a headscarf, nor attempts to cover her legs. I traipsed around Berlin streets on my Jimmy Choos in a 50s-style office shift dress courtesy my favourite independent Berlin designer who recently switched careers into personal security, my handbag hanging from my wrist and my Audrey Hepburn-style sunglasses perched on my head for comic relief. I went to the Philharmonic when Simon Rattle or Zubin Mehta conducted. I cut an odd figure in both arty, bourgeouis and arty-bourgeouis Berlin and, being brown in the predominantly white neighbourhoods, I cut an odder figure. In short, I turned heads. More than I wanted to. “Sometimes, I want to cover myself with a burqa,” I told a friend over coffee, and some tears, one evening when I particularly felt exoticised. It must have been the time of month.
Friends, colleagues, people I met couldn’t quite make sense of me. I didn’t fit the Pakistani woman stereotype advertised by media. “Did you grow up in the west,” they asked me, but I had only lived a couple years in the west. “Are you from the westernised upper class,” they asked me. I didn’t quite know what that meant. But, these perceptions and speculations were not consistent either. I was called an oriental woman in the workplace. A friend told me that sometimes I was too much of a good thing for Germans. At another occasion, I was told that I was never in short of dates because I was exotic. An Austrian woman, I’ve already written about, told me that Pakistani women aspired to become “Us.” “Do you mean badly dressed,” I spat out, adjusting the straps of my jade silk cocktail dress. She was in jeans and sneakers.
But after all this anger and annoyance, the Occidentalist in me was afraid to move back. What if everything they said about Pakistan was actually true and I had just forgotten in the years I lived away how bad it was. I tried a test run for a few months. I was offered to lead the South Asia team for a start-up Berlin-based news organisation. “I want you to move back for a year,” said the managing editor, a non-white American woman. Associated Reporters Abroad is arguably the most diverse editorial team in all of Germany. And, I wouldn’t have to write about being a suppressed Pakistani woman, all I would have to do is report.
Tentatively, I booked a one-way flight back to Karachi. In the meantime, a piece I wrote was published in Spiegel Online. It was about stereotypes I encountered as a Pakistani woman living in Berlin. The piece went viral and elicited 249 comments in record time. “I hope she goes back home and gets raped,” read one of them. Reading through the first five, I thanked my stars that I was in Karachi and not Berlin. I was afraid that hatred could have more dire manifestations. But, I still went around in circles, wondering if I should go back to renew my freelancer’s visa. The irritation and anger I felt each time at the immigration office made me stop. But, that’s reserved for Part II.
I moved back to Karachi not because it was better than Berlin but it wasn’t all that different. True, I woke up to gunshots one night outside my house in Karachi, but the only time I’ve come close to being mugged was at an upscale department store in Berlin. My coat was picked up from the chair I left it on while trying on makeup. Outside temperature: minus 10 degrees. The customer service department wasn’t helpful. The patriarchy I experience in Pakistan seems less malicious than what I experienced there. But, maybe that’s only because it’s a patriarchy I’m used to.
In Berlin, the immigration officer I was negotiating with to give me a freelancers’ visa glanced at my strapless green maxidress and said to his colleagues, “Sie will Buchautorin werden.” His colleagues, men and women, tittered when he told them I was writing a book. In Pakistan, I don’t get that response. Some argue that it might be because I come from a privileged class. Maybe. But, either way, I have it better in some ways as a woman than I ever did in Germany. And, no one tells me to go back home.
I am often asked if I will ever go back to Berlin. The answer is of course I will. The year-and-a-half of being the “Outsider” was also a year-and-a-half of great friends, great cafes and fraught memories in a city that is unlike any other in Western Europe.