You’re white, and your career isn’t quite taking off. You could be anything – a stand-up comedian, a sports journalist, a teacher, or an academic – and you’re doing what you love but it just isn’t quite paying the bills. You play a few shows, or write a few articles but both fame and prosperity just about eludes you. That is the problem, everything is just about in reach but you aren’t really getting there.
What do you do? Well, you could hunker down and decide to make another go for it. Or, you could accept the level of success you’ve gained and decide that you won’t really ever ‘make it’ in your field and be content with what you have and make it your own. Who knows? Maybe something else will happen and you will manage to achieve your dreams.
Of course, there is a third option. This one is not very obvious, but lots of foreigners fitting our description are quickly realising it. If you’re white and your career isn’t working out, you just need to come on over to Pakistan. And this is absolutely not us tryna to paint a ‘PakPositive!’ image that the country is a treasure trove of opportunities. This is us saying that if you are a foreigner, particularly a white one from America or Europe, opportunities will be created for you in Pakistan, and the people here will give you an audience.
We’re not talking about celebrities
Bringing people that are already celebrities over to Pakistan is a completely different thing, but it is still important in understanding why the Pakistanis react the way they do to foreigners. For years, particularly because of the war on terror, Pakistan has been obsessed with the idea of portraying a ‘positive image’ of the country.
The line of argument is used to silence anyone criticising Pakistan, it is constantly forced down the throat of the media and is all in all a dangerous precedent. But it is an understandable one. For the longest time now, Pakistan has managed to stay out of the international spotlight. And since we consume western media in vast amounts, we look to it for affirmation of our place in the world. The little representation that South Asia does get in this media, however, has to do with India, and the lack of Pakistaniness does not sit well with people. Moreover when Pakistan is represented, it is usually in a passing remark in an action thriller about terrorists. That is why shows like Money Heist get so much attention here, because people are starved for recognition of their existence.
It is why ‘cultural critics’ like Nadeem F Paracha continue to fantasize about a time when Pakistan was a part of the hippie trail and Hollywood movies were shot in Lahore. It is also why Pakistanis desperately try to get any sense of affirmation possible. Just recently, Turkish actor Engin Altan Düzyatan visited Pakistan for a few days and stayed with Kashif Zameer, a TikTok star and the chairman of Chaudhary Group of Companies, who brought the television drama star to be the brand ambassador for his company. The money paid by Zameer to Altan was reportedly just above $1 million, and the visit was as expected. The actor was shuffled around different restaurants to eat desi food and asked to record videos expounding how good the food was, how unique Pakistan is and what a great time he was having.
Of course, there was nothing particularly new about this. Celebrities coming to Pakistan, or any country for that matter, is something that happens. They get paid for it in the big bucks and there is usually some businessman behind it that wants to feel important. In 1988 and 89, a real estate developer had brought over boxer Muhammad Ali to Pakistan for an undisclosed but reportedly big amount to innaugurate a few buildings. That much is normal, what is not is foreigners coming to Pakistan for the purpose of becoming celebrities.
In 2017, the Pakistan cricket team won the Champions Trophy, beating India in the final by 158 runs in one of the most comprehensive upsets in the history of cricket. Pakistan had gone into the tournament ranked 8th, and India was the number 1 side in the world at the time.
Before the match began, Dennis Freedman had been at a sports bar having a drink with a friend and getting ready to watch the game. A couple of balls in, Dennis tweeted that if Pakistan won the tournament, he would come to Pakistan to make a movie. He put his phone away and didn’t think very much of it.
Dennis by occupation was a sports journalist, but one without accreditation either by the International Cricket Council or the Australian Cricket Board. He was a freelancer that had some following on twitter and mostly wrote blogs, made youtube videos, and sometimes found himself quoted in places like Cricinfo. As the match progressed, Pakistan continued to outperform India and when they finally won, Dennis’ phone began buzzing incessantly. A barrage of messages and notifications hit him on twitter demanding that he make good on his promise to come to Pakistan.
Surprised but taken aback by the response, he decided to take a stab at it. The next morning, he set up a GoFundMe page and made an appeal on Twitter to Pakistani cricket fans to fund his trip to Pakistan. Overnight, Pakistanis had donated $6000 and arranged enough money for him to get his plane tickets and buy some equipment as well to come and make some youtube videos.
Now, the money does not sound like a lot because it is not a lot. In the larger scheme of things, what is a mere $6000 and a small trip that some Australian journalist made to Pakistan on the back of donations from cricket fans? But that isn’t where it ends. Because other than the money and the fact that when he got here he had more people offering to look after him and show him around than he had time to tackle, there was a much larger opportunity awaiting him. By his own admission, he had come to Pakistan with the expectation of making a few youtube videos. Instead, he found doors opening for himself and people lining up to be interviewed by him. From cricketers to the then PCB Chairman, Najam Sethi, Dennis went on to interview every significant cog in the Pakistani cricket machinery, all the way up to now Prime Minister Imran Khan, who famously dislikes giving interviews about cricket ever since joining politics. Dennis ended up making an entire movie, one that was painfully pro-Pakistan and ignored many of the pitfalls of Pakistan crickets and the mistakes made by the PCB.
Since then, Dennis has gained hundreds of thousands of Pakistani followers on social media. He continues to post predominantly about Pakistan, and in what can only be described as pandering, ridicules India and has integrated himself within the Pakistani sports community. He writes regularly for Dawn and has made deals with websites like Cricingif. His only credentials to explain the hype surrounding him is the fact that he is an Australian. Any Pakistani can say the things he says, mostly because he always has very basic talking points, but he gets attention because he isn’t from Pakistan.
And he is not the only one either. Jeremy McLellan is another example. The American comedian also came to Pakistan in 2017. While he came on his own money and wasn’t invited or paid to come, he has also made a career of being the ‘Pakistani’ comedian. McLellan had a stranger journey than Dennis. A Southern Catholic, he actually began his career in the United States doing gigs at libertarian conferences and Muslim community centers. McLellan had some Muslims friends that had introduced him to Muslim culture (they were Pakistani and it was Pakistani culture). Pakistanis living abroad, more even than the ones at home, are even more desperate from affirmation of their roots by white people. It very clearly became apparent that this was his niche. McLellan was not funny enough to ‘make it’ as a stand-up comic in the United States, so a concentrated group for which he did comedy became his market – and they accepted him wholeheartedly because he was white.
So in 2017 when he came to Pakistan, McLellan’s experience was similar. The red carpet was rolled out for him and he went away after doing shows for packed audiences. And while, once again, the money he must have made from this was not something that would be a cause for particular envy, what he did get was clout and a fanbase that could possibly be monetized and that ends up becoming a source of livelihood.
The case of Cynthia D Richie was similar, who unlike Dennis and McLellan, did not even have the semblance of a profession that might make her relevant, but her vlogging made her a near celebrity that ended up being involved and a part of corridors of power. But this is the thing. You do not just have to be famous, or social media savvy to make it in Pakistan. If you’re a math teacher in America or France, you can very well come to Pakistan and by virtue of being foreign sell yourself as better than any local person. People just trust you more and hold you in higher esteem, which is why it is such a lucrative business to be a white person working in Pakistan.