Op-ed writer: Ushah Kazi
The tragic, final moments of George Floyd sent shock-waves around the globe. Just the latest in a burgeoning list of Black Americans who had been killed, his death was a painful reminder of everything that still hadn’t changed. Right down to the anguished words, “I can’t breathe.”
In the wake of the now viral video, protests were organised across the US, in turn inspiring protests and shows of solidarity around the world. Among this outpouring, were open calls from the global South Asian community, to stand in solidarity with Black Americans.
Pakistani celebrities also joined the conversation, almost immediately followed up by call-out culture. Zara Noor Abbas shared a gut-wrenching video of a young girl, breaking down as she talks about her experiences with racism. Someone responded that Zara’s dissent against racism was interesting, given that she had starred in the commercial for a fairness face wash. Zara’s reply was rather scathing. Literally ending with, “a face wash is killing no one.”
Following this, my Twitter feed was flooded. On the one hand, I saw videos of activists on the ground, hurting, and chanting; a powerful show of strength in the face of systemic injustice. On the other hand, I saw some prominent names in Pakistan either lauding celebrities for their stance on racism, or ridiculing them for tweeting “Black lives matter” when they’d endorsed fairness creams in the past. And, I couldn’t help but notice that there was a gap in this cascade.
I pointed out as much when I tweeted something along the lines of,
“Dear Pakistan, Lyari, which is where most of Sindh’s Black community (Sheedis) reside is undergoing gang-violence, and you’re tweeting about how racist fairness cream ads are. Check your privilege.”
One Step Back
Now, with a grand total of twelve Twitter followers, this was very much a shot into the abyss. I didn’t expect a response; it was much more of an outlet for my own anger.
Growing up in Sindh meant that I was cognisant of the Sheedi community. I vaguely knew that their lineage could be traced to Africa, but had very little information about their history, or why it mattered. Then one day, my mother, who was conducting a seminar on Sindhi language and culture at my high-school, gave an impassioned speech about Sindh’s forgotten heroes. She mentioned the names of our own hidden figures, comparing them to international stories that Pakistanis drew inspiration from. She spoke about the civil rights movement in the US, and how while we were inspired by the Black leaders risking their lives, we didn’t even know who Hoshu Mohammad Sheedi was.
That name stuck in my head, because I had at approximately seventeen, been completely unaware that a Black man had played a significant role in Pakistan’s history. I discovered that Hoshu Sheedi, as he is affectionately called, was a general in the Talpur army, who was most remembered for his military campaign against the British forces of Charles Napier. At the battle of Hyderabad in 1843, he died uttering the words, “we will die, but not give up Sindh.”
It dawned on me that his calls for anti-colonial dissent had preceded the ‘great Indian revolt’ of 1857 by fourteen years. And then another thought; I had read about the battle of Hyderabad before. In a history book, for school in fact. But, while this book mentioned Napier and his forces, the name of Hoshu Sheedi was not included on those pages. It should be noted that this was a history book approved for a British Council GCE course. So, years after independence, we were still being instructed in the colonial versions of our own stories. And, there seemed to be no place for Hoshu Sheedi in that narrative.
Lessons and Erasure
In the words of Czech writer Milan Kundera, “the struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.” In the culture of Sindh, storytelling has a very special place. It is the cornerstone of not just cultural preservation, but life itself. So, I have to wonder, when we take people’s stories away from them, what is the extent of our injustice?
My family is rather prominent, with longstanding ties to Sindhi media and journalism. So, some months later, as I sat across from a prominent journalist (also a family member) I was really excited to be quoting the story of the brave, Black general, who had given Sindh one of its most powerful slogans. His response took me by surprise. Not only did he discredit Hoshu Muhammad Sheedi’s influence, but he dismissed the idea that slavery had ever existed in Sindh. No explanations were given for a community that was carrying the burden of our collective past. It wasn’t a conversation; it was a delineation of what was important in contemporary Pakistan, and what wasn’t.
Some years later, in a Canadian dorm, I discovered yet again how unfair this wanton disregard was. Reading a blog about our history, I discovered that Pakistan housed the largest population of Black South Asians, and that many traced their roots back to the slave trade. (Although, not all. The history of the Sheedi community is very complex and interesting.)
There is something to be said about how uncomfortable the region’s tryst with the slave trade makes contemporary South Asians. When popular narratives insist that all ‘people of colour’ are natural allies, how exactly can South Asians come to terms with the actions of their own ancestors? Perhaps then, the erasure is to be expected. But, it is born out of convenience, and hurts a community that deserves our support.
In 2008, Dawn did a feature on the Sheedi community, where they interviewed Yaqub Qambrani. At the time, he was one of the organizers of the All Sindh Al Habash Jama’at. When I read the article, one of his sentiments struck a particular chord, “we have the attached stigma of slavery; people still tell us we are slaves.”
I didn’t understand the extent of what he had said. Later, I realized that there are so many gaps in the documentation of the Black Pakistani experience, that an answer would be difficult to find. But more than a decade later, I did find one. Tanzeela Qambrani made history in 2018, becoming Pakistan’s first Sheedi lawmaker. When speaking about her journey, she was very candid not just about her own struggles, but about the history that she had inherited.
A promising and energetic student, she rose in the ranks of a political landscape. When she became a councillor in 2015, social media was ablaze with comments about how she would, of course, support the most monied, and powerful candidates. Because, as the “daughter of a slave”, this was a given.
Tanzeela Qambrani’s father was an advocate. Her mother, an educator. Her siblings have careers in the corporate sector. In her own words, she had a typical middle class, Pakistani upbringing. Save for one difference.
In an article detailing racism’s structural persistence in the US, Robin DiAngelo comments on various aspects of what she calls “white fragility”. It wouldn’t be fair to connect her research about systemic racism in the US to Pakistan, but I would like us to consider something. DiAngelo comments on the notion of “colour blindness”, and it should be noted that, “the argument that race shouldn’t matter, prevents us from grappling with how it does.”
In Sindh, a majority of the Sheedi community resides in Lyari, which also happens to be engulfed in gang-violence. Throughout their history, the community has been faced off against poverty, and struggled to empower itself. People like Tanzeela Qambrani showcase the fruition of their struggles. But that we had to wait until 2018 for a Sheedi lawmaker says a lot about how deep rooted racism in Pakistan is. And how far we still have to go.
In the Dark
Since I asked all of Pakistan to check its privilege, I think it’s only fair that I return the favour. As a fair-skinned Pakistani, I do not ever want to suggest that colourism is not damaging. Nor will I ever disregard the impact of fairness products. To respond to Zara Noor Abbas, no, a face wash never killed anyone (at least I hope not). But, making Pakistanis believe that something is wrong with the natural colour of their skin is a disgusting prejudice. And profiting off of it is shameful.
But, my sentiments remain. The murder of George Floyd raised questions about police brutality, systemic injustice and corruption. All of these apply to Pakistan’s own Black community. And, that we would shift the narrative to something a bit more controllable, is serving our own self-indulgent desires. But, it is also hurting an opportunity for us to know, and do better.
And, yet, when the violence is so long-standing, what exactly are we supposed to do?
Well, consider the story that I just told you. Like I said, given my minuscule Twitter presence, I wasn’t expecting anyone to listen to my words. I just set them out, because it was a truth that I was aware of. But, someone did listen. A day later, I got a message from Anam, the editor of The Newsrun. She asked me if I’d be willing to write about Pakistan’s Black community, because, “I want to educate myself and my readers.”
Today, you all are reading this rant (I mean think piece). And, I hope that the chain continues to grow. While I wrote this article, my younger sister said to me, “a story stays alive when you tell it.” And I think that’s a good place for all of us to start.
Ushah Kazi is a Pakistani culture buff and writer based in Canada. She has written for a number of Pakistani and Canadian publications. She has also published a book about Pakistani cinema titled, The Pop-Culture Junkie’s Guide to Pakistani Cinema, which is available on Amazon.