Aamir R. Mufti : The Pakistani-Greek Diaspora Comes of Age


Aamir R. Mufti is Associate Professor of Comparative Literature  at the University of California, Los Angeles. A Greek translation of this article has been published in the Greek daily Avgi

On October 21, an organization known as the Pakistani Community in Greece Ittehad (“Unity”) held its presidential elections. As its name suggests, it is the leading political organization of the community of Pakistani immigrants in Greece, a population thought to number perhaps as high as eighty thousand. Its long-serving president, who did not run for re-election, is the irrepressible Javed Aslam Arain, a ubiquitous presence on Greek (and Pakistani-Greek) television. The election was a hotly contested one, and one of the issues at stake was the legacy of Aslam’s 7-8 years as president of this organization. (“Arain,” pronounced a-RA-een, is an northeast Punjabi caste name, not a family name, per se, and he doesn’t seem to use it as his surname often in public.)

The polling quickly turned into scenes of chaos, as paying members of the organization, often traveling long distances to exercise the vote, could not be found on the rolls. Two of the leading candidates, including Aslam’s hand-picked successor, Malik Abdul Majeed, consequently announced a boycott of the election, while the third candidate, known as Haji Afzal, declared victory before the vote count had been announced.

The committee in charge of the polling subsequently cancelled the vote in light of the problems, which was held again on November 11 after recreating the list of voters, and Majeed was declared the winner. Through his hand-picked successor, Aslam is likely to stay very much close to power in this organization.

There are many issues at stake in this electoral conflict. There is a class division between some factions, charges of personal arrogance, and a fight over the language and idiom of community politics. The fact that the incumbent is ubiquitously present in the Greek-language media, has the ear of both Greek and international human rights NGOs, and even the trust of some politicians and senior officials—all these things have been held against him by his critics and opponents.

They charged that he is disconnected from the struggles of ordinary Pakistanis, has damaged the community’s relations with the Pakistani embassy, and is more interested in building international celebrity for his organization than in the hard daily slog of building a community. Some even argue that an aggressive campaign of demonstrations against fascist violence directed at migrant workers is deleterious to the safety of Pakistanis and that the community should instead negotiate with Chrysi Avgi to find a modus vivendi.

And then there are the strange news reports of Aslam’s brief detention last spring on an Interpol warrant, requested by authorities in Pakistan, for abetting illegal immigration of Pakistanis, leading him to apply for political asylum in Greece. Whatever the facts of the matter, he does not appear to be a favorite of officials of his country of origin.

Irrespective of his personal and leadership shortcomings, it is hard to imagine any of his rivals being able to build coalitions with left forces in Greek society as he has been able to do—a dire necessity in the fight for physical survival against rising racist violence. It is symptomatic of their limited world-view that they generally view such attempts on his part as a sign of his egomania and elitism. And the call for negotiations with the neo-Nazis seems to suggest a dangerous lack of understanding of the nature of their enemies.

Regardless of the final outcome of the election, what this debate and conflict suggest is the coming of age of the Pakistani-Greek community, especially a middle-class that is relatively secure about its place in society. The members of this middle-class are running successful small (and some not so small) businesses, working in the private sector, the professions, or state bureaucracies, raising children who go to Greek schools and inhabit the language and wider culture fluently, engaging in vigorous religious and political debates internal to the community, and even informally assuming some of the functions of indifferent state agencies, especially the police and judicial system.

For instance, just a week or two before the voting in which he prematurely declared himself the victor, Haji Afzal had led a Greek-Pakistani media team up a hillside outside Athens, where they discovered, on camera, the badly decomposed body of a Pakistani teenager allegedly killed and abandoned by boys he had known, after a failed bid at getting ransom from his family in Pakistan. In the extended televised report of this entire expedition, there was not a single Greek policeman or official in sight, with the candidate presenting himself to the TV audience as the protector of the community.

All the main political parties of Pakistan are active in Greece, reproducing their homeland conflicts and petty rivalries, as if according to a script, on Greek soil.

These Pakistani-Greeks have their own TV stations, print- and internet-based news outlets, mosques and religious centers, musical and cultural events and organizations, town-hall style meetings, and press conferences and briefings. Most of the content at these outlets and venues is either in Punjabi, the native language of the overwhelming majority of the community, or in Urdu, the national language of Pakistan and the main medium of public discourse there.

This media landscape has some colorful fixtures—such as a leading political talk-show host who is also a highly enthusiastic crooner on and off the airwaves; a rather striking woman singer of Urdu, Punjabi, and Hindi hits who suddenly breaks into Greek mid-song; and an aspiring politician who is universally (and apparently without irony) referred to as Saddam Hussein due to a slight likeness to the late Iraqi dictator. Talk about instant name recognition in politics!

These media outlets routinely host energetic debates about how the victims of fascist violence should organize and respond—as Pakistanis, as Muslims, or as working-class migrants alongside other religious and national groups.

Whatever the fantasies of right-wing Greek nationalists, and despite the tightening of immigration laws, this middle-class does not appear to be going anywhere. Short of a social upheaval of unprecedented proportions that would badly damage the country as a whole, it is now a permanent part of Greek society, and in another ten to fifteen years at most, there will be a whole class of young adults who think of themselves as Greeks as much as Pakistanis.

But beyond this relatively small middle-class is the mass of migrant workers—mostly young, male, single, uneducated, and unskilled —who constitute the majority of Pakistanis in the country. And undoubtedly the biggest internal social issue confronting the community is this class division and the ability of the middle-class to relate to the needs of their disenfranchised and deeply vulnerable compatriots.

It is of course this class that daily bears the brunt of the violence of the neo-Nazis—“chrysiavgi,” pronounced to sound like one word, is now a seamless part of Greek-Punjabi vocabulary. Yes, there is indeed now such a thing, a mix of Punjabi dialects and informal spoken Greek, with various English words and expressions also thrown in. In all the Pakistani languages, “Greek” (as in persons or the language) is, as in Arabic, “Yunani.” In Greek-Punjabi, the equivalent is “Greeki” and the country often referred to as “Greek”!

There are daily incidents of ambush, beating and severe injury involving Pakistanis—and, of course, immigrants and refugees of all nationalities—throughout the country—the main subject of public conversation inside the community. Aslam refers to these young men as “the new working class of Greece,” but they are in actual fact an underclass at the very bottom of the labor totem pole, engaging mostly in informal, irregular, and grueling forms of work.

The growing immiseration of the native Greek population under the globally enforced austerity regime has, not unexpectedly, put downwardly mobile Greeks on a collision course with this mobile population of impoverished workers. Will this electoral fight between factions of the middle-class result in a coherent politics of struggle for the right of Pakistani migrant workers to physical safety? That remains very much to be seen.

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