June 4, 2023 | Rome, Italy

Tangled cultures

By |2018-03-21T18:59:04+01:00January 30th, 2014|"Notebook"|
Pakistan can sometimes seem like an Asian version of Italy.

few days ago, I spent a pleasant evening solving the world’s problems over a well-cooked dinner. My companions were cosmopolitan and well educated. They represented the kinds of families who produced illuminated professionals, landowners and businessmen whose skills and civic-minded spirit created social reform and economic growth that drove progress between 1850 and 1950.

As a class, these people have lost influence in recent decades. But their sense of responsibility remains, even as they have bowed out of — or been pushed from — a society and political environment that care little for their ideals and contributions.

Over dinner, they expressed discouragement over partisan politics and a bloated, inefficient public sector that stands aside while infrastructure crumbles and the economy declines. They decried the tax evasion and corruption that tarnish the country’s image abroad and scare off international investors. A new privatization program and its chances were discussed. We shared concerns about a poorly-performing educational system that struggles to meet the challenges posed by China and India. Entrepreneurs at the table described Chinese competition and how scant help from national government and private enterprise, both prone to short-term thinking left them feeling abandoned. Yes, everyone agreed, tourism offered a potential source of income for the country. But it was not a government priority and shifting party politics made it impossible to implement a coherent plan.

Just another Saturday night dinner in Milan…

Only it wasn’t Milan; it was Lahore, Pakistan and my fellow diners were almost all Pakistani. If it weren’t for the occasional power cuts, I could have been in Italy or even the United States.

Though Pakistan, Italy and America share dilemmas, several factors make them more extreme and intractable in Pakistan. They include Muslim fundamentalism, barely-suppressed hostilities with India, and the complex situation in Afghanistan.

Take the gender gap as an example. While Italy rates low on international statistics, basic rights for women are not contested and no one burns schools that girls attend. Pakistan’s population in 2011 is four times what it was in 1950, a runaway growth rate that magnifies all problems.

Italians will hate me for saying it, but the two countries have more in common than the issues that can animate dinner table conversation in Lahore or Milan. They also share developmental roots.

Italy and Pakistan reflect what happens when territories that host wildly diverse populations, cultures and traditions are shoehorned into 19th-century ideas about nation states. As in pre-unification Italy, only a common religion — Islam in Pakistan — united regions with different languages, traditions and economic strengths. Pakistan’s mountain tribal areas are as different from its coast and urban centers as Sicily was from Turin in 1861.

Like Italy, Pakistan is a geo-political buffer zone, which has made it both victim and beneficiary of U.S. global interests. As the bulwark against Soviet influence in Europe, Italy received attention from the U.S. that perverted its electoral system and political growth. Likewise, Pakistan was the bulwark against the Soviet presence in Afghanistan during the 1970s. The world is still picking up the violent and chaotic pieces left from when Pakistan was the staging ground for U.S.-sponsored Mujahideen resistance to the 1980s Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.

Italians and Pakistanis both love conspiracy theories. Italians see Masons and shadowy “theys” behind everything; Pakistanis feel the U.S. or their own intelligence services pull the strings.

Italians say a history of foreign domination — Normans, Saracens, Spanish, French and Austrians — has contributed to making the country ungovernable. Equally impressive lists of invaders have dominated what is now Pakistan: (among others) Alexander the Great’s Macedonians, Persians, Huns, Moguls and the British. Unlike Italians, Pakistanis grudgingly admit that some invaders brought gifts, from Persian painting to the English language, a common-law legal system and British administration.

Though “amoral familism” — in which the family comes ahead of the public good — is a term invented for Italy, it also describes Pakistani society. As in Italy, trust in the state is low and kinship ties provide informal employment networks and step in when state services fail. In both countries, the larger question takes chicken-egg form. Are families and tribes necessary because the state is weak or is the state weak because families and tribes are strong?

When it was unified in the 1860s, Italy, like Pakistan was grindingly poor, fragmented and feudal. Seven out of 10 people couldn’t read, similar to some Pakistani rural areas today, where literacy rates sit well below the already low 46 percent national average.

There are huge differences of course. Italy will struggle in coming years to cope with its aging and diminishing population. Pakistan will instead face an explosion of youth for whom finding jobs will be difficult. And climate change, overpopulation and lack of water are challenges that cloud only Pakistan’s future.

Is there any lesson in the parallels between Italy and Pakistan? One might be that creating a civil society is a slow and complex process, and democracy may not be the most effective means of doing so. But the biggest lesson comes in the form of an Italian phrase: Tutto il mondo è paese.

Madeleine Johnson has written her "Notebook" column for more than a decade. She lived in Italy for almost 30 years, mostly in Milan, before returning to the U.S. in 2017. Her work has been published in the "Financial Times" and "New York Post."