That’s the thing about Pakistan. Every time things go wrong, massively wrong, and then we have someone out there who gives us reason to hope. Aisamul Haq Qureshi, playing the US Open finals in both men’s and mixed doubles, meant so much not only because no Pakistani has previously reached such heights in tennis, but also because his success came amidst the worst controversy Pakistani cricket has seen, because his words did more for Pakistan’s image than any diplomat’s and because his partner in the men’s singles was Indian.
Just when Pakistanis were thoroughly dejected with the floods having washed away a fifth of the country and ace Pakistani bowlers allegedly implicated in a shameful spot-fixing scandal, Aisam gave us the gift of being the first Pakistani tennis player to play in the final of a Grand Slam competition. It matters less that he did not win, but we know he did his best. He put the spirit of sport into his game and honoured Pakistan in spite of having lost the title to the famous Bryan (Bob and Mike) brothers. And while allegations against the Pakistani cricket team hurt flood fundraising activities in Britain, Aisam’s dedication and hard work has paid off to bolster Pakistan’s image in the US such that the Bryan twins have donated $5,000 to Pakistani flood relief and are planning two fundraisers in the next month to raise more money for this purpose. Aisam has torn down misconceptions and stereotypes through both actions and words. “We are a loving, caring, peace-loving people,” he told the crowd at the men’s doubles final, and there is little doubt that his words would have been far more convincing than those of a government functionary.
There is currently a raging debate in the western world with respect to the ability and willingness of Muslims to integrate as functioning members of society. Surely there is an aspect of Islamophobia and sheer racism in the nature of this debate. But also, there are a group of Muslims so extreme that they advocate against democracy, against paying taxes, against sport even, and although their numbers may not be grand, their mere presence in western society provides the impetus for those wishing to paint Islam in a light entirely incompatible with modern society.
Aisam however is living proof of how Muslims, even those directly from a country as maligned in the press as Pakistan, are perfectly normal human beings with similar aspirations and willingness to promote peace over war. The fact that Aisam also plays mixed doubles and proudly recounts his mother’s tennis career provides food for thought to those who only see Pakistan portrayed as a country where women are either killed for honour or forced out of an education by terrorists. Though this is only one side of the reality in Pakistan, it is the side that most readily grabs global headlines.
Aisam’s success left the American press no option but to give the other side some airtime as well. “Bryan Brothers win 3rd US Open doubles title but Pakistani wins crowd,” ran the Los Angeles Times headline. Having previously partnered with Israeli player, Amir Hadad, and currently with Indian Rohan Bopanna, Aisam is the perfect peace ambassador. The Indo-Pak Express, as they are lovingly called by their fans, has tremendous significance for the region. Many Pakistanis, even those keen on peace, often shy away from South Asian societies because of the tendency of Indian hegemony permeating such initiatives. But the ‘Indo-Pak Express’ operates on parity. Pakistanis and Indians feel equally involved and equally important in an Aisam-Rohan match and that is why none of them have trouble being on the same side. Regional peace is essential for the progress of both our countries and it would be wise to follow the lead set by our young and promising tennis stars.
Published in The Express Tribune, September 21st, 2010.