June 30, 2014

Converging Headlines

by Meher Ali

Meher Ali '15 is a Royce Fellow researching "The Hidden Left: Communist Activity in Pakistan During the 1950s."

Three days before I arrived at London Heathrow, bleary eyed from an early morning flight, another international airport, almost 4,000 miles away, fell under fire of a deadly terrorist attack. The Taliban militants at Jinnah International Airport in Karachi killed 13 people before security got the situation under control, and in the meantime, I heard the news updates from my family in the city, sending me messages on WhatsApp from their homes only miles away from the violence.

At Brown, or at home in my quiet Midwestern suburb, the violence and turbulence of Pakistan’s present situation can feel not just remote, but a little unreal. That’s not surprising, really. What’s unexpected is how even in Pakistan, where I spend time ever year, seeing the news of bombs going off nearby can still feel distant. I know what you don’t see on TV: how things go on, how daily life - with all its little mundanities - rolls forward, unperturbed (as much as it can be) by the political turmoil, the terrorism, the killings. Things go from bad to worse, but you go to work as usual in the morning. That’s real life, and everything else is background noise.  

But my time in London has been different. My research project takes me, every morning, to either the National Archives or the British Library, where I browse through British Foreign Office records and newspaper archives looking for traces of Leftist activity and progressive politics in Pakistan’s early history. The Foreign Office documents are all interesting, formal reports that contain a lot of good information, but it’s the newspaper archives that really absorb me: thousands of pages of history unfolding in front of me, day by day. And somehow, as I scroll through these papers (on a rickety microfilm reader, the bane of my existence), the headlines of present day grow louder. And they finally become more than just background noise.

It’s the historians job to try and look at the past objectively, and anyone who has done historical research knows the struggle of trying to keep the biases of today from affecting your study of the past. It can be even harder, though, sometimes, to stop the past from seeping into the present. After hours of rolling through yards and yards of microfilm, things begin to get blurry. Headlines seem to soften and melt and blend together, and the bigger patterns start to appear. “Indo-Pakistan Conflict,” “Pakistan not Complete Without Kashmir,” “Minority Grievances,” I read, over and over. After another hour, I go home. I check the daily Pakistani news: “India, Pakistan Exchange Fire on Kashmir Border.” For a second, I feel genuinely depressed. Do things really change?

I began this project with the hopes of challenging, in some small way, the increasingly dangerous national ideology that dominates history writing in Pakistan. I felt I appreciated how understanding the past affects how we tackle the future. But right now, with 1950s newsreels spinning endlessly through my head and today’s breaking news playing on the TV behind me, I feel like I am just beginning to see the ways in which past and present can mix and mingle and become one. And I’m glad, because it reminds me of the value of work like this - the hope that, by reevaluating our past, we just might find a way to stop ourselves from repeating it.

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