Pakistani Expat Stories – The Feminist & The Film Maker
Both belonging to families with origins in Karachi, settled in San Jose, California, for many years, with a few common close family friends, Sahar and Imran tied the knot a few months after being introduced to each other at the Islamic school they graduated from. Three weeks later, they moved halfway across the globe to a tiny little island called Singapore.
Sahar and Imran are not your regular young expat newlywed Pakistani couple in Singapore, though they might look it at first sight. Yes, they are enjoying the bliss of early marriage, planning their future and reminiscing about home in the US while trying to make this unfamiliar environment home for a while. But, no, they are not living the easy expat-package life in a costly condominium on the income scales of bankers and marketing managers. On the contrary, one is a student and the other a fresh graduate; one is a passionate filmmaker and the other a passionate activist. Starting out initially surrounded by expats as friends, Imran and Sahar went through a process of adjustment and re-alignment, quite different from most expats.
The space for studying filmmaking at NYU Tisch School of the Arts (Asia) in Singapore, was offered to Imran when the couple was quite far into their engagement, and Imran shares that it was a big decision to make.
Sahar: Initially I was really worried about moving to Singapore since it’s so expensive and I was coming here as a fresh graduate, and Imran a student. We moved into a fancy condo but it was really difficult financially adjusting to socializing with friends who were living comfortable expat lives. We got through the first year … but I really wanted to get a job. In a place where friends are your only family, you need to have money to be able to socialize. The people we associate with understand our situation, and are very supportive, which has helped us a great deal. I’m really thankful for it. This is temporary, and we understand that.
On the other hand, I think it’s awesome in some ways that we got married and moved here straight away. It really helped our relationship develop and grow.
Imran: This move has been really good for us a newlywed couple. We have grown to understand and support each other through the biggest decisions. Sahar and I are like a team. We balance each other out which makes it easy to get through the stress. Financially, I came here on a pretty big scholarship, and had savings from my 4 years working as an engineer. That, and our families’ support made it possible! The school turned out to be great, and I’ve really grown as a filmmaker.
Sahar Pirzada graduated from UC Berkeley with a BA in Development Studies, and is currently working at Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE) as a Training Institute Executive. Sahar conducts workshops at corporations on workplace discrimination, workplace sexual harassment, and inclusion, as well as youth programs in schools on sex education, healthy relationships, safe partying, media literacy, body image. She is the Program Coordinator for an UN-funded project called “Gender Equality IS Our Culture!” which works to reclaim culture as gender-equitable. Sahar is also a mentor with Muslim Expat Network (MEX).
Imran J Khan graduated from UC Davis with a Bachelor in Bioengineering and worked as an engineer for 4 years before taking the plunge into full-time filmmaking. Two short films he is working on include The Drone and the Kid, filmed in Lahore in 2013 about a young boy who befriends a drone operator, and Timmy II, filmed in Singapore, about a half-robot-half-human trying to find himself. Imran has submitted both these films, along with a few others, to film festivals for screening.
FUCHSIA: For someone who has only visited Pakistan a few times, how is it you seem so familiar with it, like you know a lot about it, and share its cultural identity?
Alot of my friends at college were Pakistani Americans like me and we were a part of the Pakistani Students Association. Every year the college held an Urdu culture show featuring qawalis, juggal bandi and political skit. It is ironic that as the main organizer for that show for 3 years running, I still can’t speak Urdu although I can understand it.
There was a course offered at UC Berkeley that changed my life; it was called “Reimagining Pakistan” … they also offered Urdu at this course. The course was about looking at the lived experiences of Pakistani beyond the stereotypes, beyond the discourse of Pakistan being a war-ridden state where women are oppressed and terrorism is rampant. We looked at Gilgit, Baltistan, where social reform is happening through the use of poetry, and how they are trying to hold on to their regional and cultural roots.
This course introduced Sahar to the real Pakistan, different from that which she experienced from within her bubble of foreign-return privilege whenever she visited.
FUCHSIA: Growing up, did you feel confused about your identity as a Pakistani American?
Sahar: Yes, all the time. In fact, I’m still confused. Although my parents are originally from Pakistan, I’m probably the most Pakistani in my family. For my father, his main and primary priority was for us to be Muslim before anything else. It wasn’t until college, and the Pakistani community there, that I got in touch with my Pakistani identity which in itself portrays my being Muslim. So I’m Muslim first, then Pakistani and very American.
FUCHSIA: What made you join AWARE, and how has it been?
Sahar: Since I graduated I wanted to work in the nonprofit sector and spend my time in a way that mattered. I started volunteering with AWARE when I arrived in Singapore, and, 6 months down the line from chairing one of their campaigns, they offered me a full-time position. I was really excited to find something that I believe in, and get paid for.
One thing AWARE has taught me is that it pops the bubble we live in. Singapore isn’t vey organic, and by working here, I have been able to see the real Singapore that a lot of us are oblivious to.
Women in abusive relationships, workplace sexual harassment cases and discrimination against women on maternity leave – these are just a few of the circumstances Sahar comes into contact with on a day-to-day basis.
Imran: (Since joining AWARE) Sahar has developed an increased sensitivity to these issues, and is better able to interpret and process real-world events, create more informed opinions based on them.
Sahar: Yeah I feel smart! (giggling) On a serious note, I feel blessed to work in a supportive environment with a strong community of women that understand I’m a newlywed trying to manage a household, juggle work and figure out life in Singapore. Also I feel more informed, more thankful that I have a voice to speak up against these issues.
FUCHSIA: Imran, what made you decide to switch from Engineering to filmmaking? And if you were so passionate, what took you so long?
By the end of high school, I knew I wanted to go into the arts; I was acting in theatre and it opened up a different world for me. While I was doing engineering I was making funny videos/skits for the Muslim student association, and this is around the time that YouTube came about and videos went viral, and I started receiving messages from all over the world.
(Check out “Extreme Home Makeover – Islam Edition” on YouTube)
After graduation, I made films outside of work. Some people are able to juggle a full time job with arts on the side. I realized very soon that it didn’t work for me. The films I made were so few and far between that I had to make a clear decision, and here I am today.
I feel like I have a unique voice as a film maker. Everything I do has a bit of me in it, I can’t escape myself. Hence, any story that I’m telling, even if it has a dark side or a dark subject matter to it, there is a lot of light that I bring to it through my form of expression.
Coming from my background with lots of engineers and a few doctors in the family, film isn’t something my parents would have chosen as the track for me to go down. In fact, when it comes to films, there is no track! You have to pave your own path! That’s hard for parents to sign up for; they wanted me to do Engineering, so I did. However, they saw my dedication when, alongside my classes, I worked at night on my short film and still pursued my passion; they saw me grow and develop in a different light, and when it was time to take the decision they were really supportive of us moving to Singapore. I feel like this support was because I respected their wishes and did Engineering. Maybe if I hadn’t done so, I wouldn’t have had their approval in which case I wouldn’t have pursued it. Life isn’t just about having what you want.
FUCHSIA: Tell us about The Drone and The Kid, and making a short film in Pakistan.
Imran: The trip to Pakistan for this was partially crowd-funded. I did a kick-starter campaign where people donated if they liked the idea. We had people donating from all over the world. We publicized through our social network, and made the film on a really low budget. I was in Pakistan for 6 weeks and language was a problem since I’m not fluent in Urdu. I collaborated with a television producer in Lahore, who was my connection in hiring the crew, seeking out locations and finding actors.
I have to say it was the most difficult thing I have done. It’s a combination of infrastructure challenges, and finding reliable and professional people to work who understand film. Although, we would have faced that issue anywhere unless we had our own crew, which I couldn’t do at this point in time for cost reasons.
I’m optimistic about the future of cinema in Pakistan with its rich culture and a very dynamic and complex environment that is waiting to be explored. Pakistani cinema is in its infant stages, but is developing.
FUCHSIA: You graduated from an Islamic school, and are now training to be a filmmaker – how do you balance the two?
I’m aware that whatever is in you will show through your work. If I’m making films that resonate deeply with me, then it’s inherent that they will have themes and ideas that resonate with me. As a practicing Muslim, it’s going to come through in my films, whether I like it or not.
There are ways to talk about issues that anybody can relate to, while still staying true to my principles, my views and my experiences … but if anyone can watch and understand the theme behind a film, it is made universal. That’s what I aspire to do.