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Friday, March 18, 2011

The Curse of the ‘Almost Elite’

THEY speak English well, often with an accent that suggests time spent abroad. They’ve attended private schools and most have done their ‘O’ and ‘A’ levels. They dress with care, displaying designer labels on purses and jeans back pockets with the requisite nonchalance.

They watch the latest movies, skim through the latest books, eat at the hippest restaurants and make appearances at the trendiest parties. On a lucky weekend, their smiling faces may appear in the pages of a weekend society magazine.

These are Pakistan’s ‘almost elite’ — the people who hover around Pakistan’s landed class and coddle the delusion of belonging with painstaking persistence. They know the real rich well, perhaps better than the rich know themselves, having gone to the same tony schools.

Lacking largesse the real elite gather from acres of land or bevies of steel and textile mills, they compensate by the careful cultivation of personas that are somehow inherently invested with a degree of panache. These are the local executives of multinational companies, fashion designers, public intellectuals, doctors, hair-stylists and writers. Toting these identities, the ‘almost elite’ fulfil the necessary function of providing the admiring human haze that the truly rich require for the nourishment of their formidable egos.

But the ‘almost elite’ are not haunted by the demons of worthlessness that may beleaguer the wealthy. This is because, perhaps unlike the rich, they do have talent; arguably it is the very presence of an intellectual or artistic gift that has landed them into the coveted orbits of the wealthy. The tragedy of the ‘almost elite’ lies instead, in their cherished delusion that they are in fact the elite.

With each passing day, they assess the trinkets of belonging, the house in an affluent area (so what if they only have one), the cook and the driver that comes with it (so what if they’re not from the ‘native’ village) and the carefully preserved Dior purse, Vittadini tie and Versace jeans. Surrounding themselves with these testaments of affluence, they say ‘we are not the middle class … we are the elite’. This then is the tragedy that confronts Pakistan: the middle class, that bastion of strength which ensures stability and progress in any nation, is in this country unwilling to embrace the burden of their responsibility.

Instead of embracing their middling status and promoting the cult of merit that would ensure their own ascent, they live immersed in self-hatred focusing on the trappings of denial. The result is a denunciation of the value of work itself and the need to do it an embarrassment.

What a society emulates and anoints as the basis for power and importance is what in that context becomes sacred. It is not that Pakistanis are unique or isolated in their devoted paeans to the wealthy, an exercise found throughout the ages in all parts of the world. The inability to create a definition of success that originates solely from within or is the product of hardship is tied not only to an obsession with inherited wealth but also to mythologised ideas of historical origins.

The same effort put into the pretence of revelling in inherited wealth is also invested in the claiming of Arab, Persian or similarly exotic ancestry. Not being actually South Asian, then, is crucial to being good or privileged or socially viable, announcing to all that your presence in the current milieu is a fact not of your peasant origins but the conquering vigour of your ancestors.

Consequently, one victim of this self-hatred has been the languishing legacy of the Dravidian civilisations whose 1,000-year existence on the banks of the Indus has all but been eliminated, decried and devalued for its inability to establish itself as part of some lost ruling elite.

In the midst of terrible uncertainty, when Pakistan is plagued by assassinations and suicide bombings, the curse of the ‘almost elite’ spells doom. These are Pakistan’s best and brightest, educated and hungry for opportunity but whose inability to transcend self-hatred and claim their own ordinariness has translated into a national inability to conceptualise or celebrate the concept of a self-made Pakistani.

The bourgeois of any country are its greatest repository of talent; not poor enough to be embroiled in the brute demands of survival and not rich enough to nurse the affectations of disenchantment. It is this middle class, currently languishing in the futile project of denying its own ordinary origins, that must reinvigorate the value of the normal, the everyday and commonplace.

In a Pakistan where the ‘almost-elite’ ditch their illusions and embrace their own value, procuring a good bargain would be worthy of boasting rather than be seen as an embarrassment; cleaning your own house would celebrate the intrinsic value of self-help and acknowledging that you’ve never been abroad or weren’t born singing nursery rhymes in English will all be just fine; all a collective celebration of middling resourcefulness.

Pakistan then needs not some cataclysmic change that uproots this or that abstract evil; what it needs is a celebration of the ordinary, a wilful casting aside of the myths of our fantastic origins or the superiority of hereditary pedigree.

The renaming of the ‘almost elite’ as the ordinary but proud middle class is the first step in this process, a recognition that the hungry resourcefulness now wasted on the self-hating endeavour of pretending to be wealthy or foreign or Arab or landed can all be directed towards developing a love for the actual over the imagined.

Such a reinvention of a class desperately integral to Pakistan’s future can only be led by those whose position in the ever-precarious middle leaves them neither the resources of the rich who can flee nor the fatalism of the poor who silently perish.

Curse of the ‘almost elite’Rafia Zakaria,  is a US-based attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.  rafia.zakaria@gmail.com

More >>> Revolt of the ordinary | | DAWN.COM  

 ... LAST week I wrote a column titled 'The curse of the almost elite' that focused on the pervasive hypocrisy that plagues Pakistan's upper ...