A few days ago I had an Alice-in-Wonderland experience. Having lived all my life in Karachi, I had until then never heard of the Pompei Restaurant. I was invited there by a visiting British academic, who declined my invitation to have dinner at our house and wanted to meet me at the Pompei instead. He seemed very surprised that I had never heard of the Pompei, which he seemed to know well.
Armed with the Google map directions, I still managed to lose my way but arrived a few minutes before my host. Stepping into the restaurant was like going down the rabbit hole: I left Karachi behind and entered Europe.
The furniture, the wall hangings, the light music, and the candle lit tables all made me feel as if I had been transported to Italy. I was greeted very politely by the valet and the gentleman at the reception and was taken to the table my host had booked for us. I sat down and looked around. The bar with impressive brass levers to pour beer caught my attention. I asked the waiter for a glass of wine in Urdu but my eagerness was met with a thin smile and the English response: ‘Sir, wine is not served here.’
At that moment, my host arrived. Before sitting down, he handed a bag to the waiter. The waiter took the bag and returned with two menu cards. The menu card was in English only but, despite the fact that English is the main language I use in my professional life, I did not recognize the name of single dish on the menu except for pizza.
My host graciously helped me with the selection of starters and the main course when he realized my ignorance of Italian cuisine. Before the starters were served, my host’s bag was brought back to him and a bottle of wine emerged. The waiter apologized to my host and said he wasn’t allowed to pour the wine for him. My host smiled back in the manner of a man of the world who understands cross-cultural differences and filled our glasses himself.
While savouring the novelty of eating Italian food and drinking alcohol, I did not omit to look around me and take note of the people who had by now filled the place. The majority were foreigners but there were also a fair number of locals. Nearly everyone was drinking alcohol and smoking. English was the only language I heard.
Feeling somewhat overwhelmed by the novelty of it all, it was good my host kept the conversation going by telling me about his interactions with Pakistani scholars, who he had been visiting as a UN ambassador in the previous weeks. His role was to provide consultancy on improving academic standards. ‘You guys don’t know how to write,’ he observed casually. In my mind, I was busy adding all the other things I had discovered in the last hour only that we didn’t know.
When we finished the meal, I of course tried to pay my share. However, I have to admit I was grateful to my host that he wouldn’t allow me. I also have to admit that I tried my best not to stare when he put his hand in his pocket and pulled it back out with a fist full of currency notes. The bunch of currency notes was so thick that he had a bit of a problem picking out 7,000 Pakistani rupee notes out of this thick wad of US dollars. He gave those 7,000 rupees (ca. 70 Australian dollars) in the same manner as if they were worth 70 rupees. We had just spent around 7% of the average annual per capita income in Pakistan on a meal!
I thanked my host for his generosity and we parted ways.
Walking back to my car, I kept on thinking about my experience: I had just stepped out of Pakistan for a few hours without ever leaving Karachi. The material difference between the Pompei Restaurant and its surroundings was spinning in my head. I also thought about the role of language in this world of mirrors. Pompei exists in Karachi because of the development industry and the foreigners who come here as part of international institutions, which are supposed to help our poor economy. But are they really helping by creating islands of opulence that are unrecognizable to the average citizen? For me Pompei seems like a new sovereign state maintained by international money that has come to us from the World Bank, the IMF and other international bodies – ostensibly to reduce the deep and pervasive poverty in Pakistan but practically to be enjoyed by whom?
I was also musing on the intercultural nature of this encounter: a British and a Pakistani academic meeting in an Italy-themed space in globalized Karachi sounds very cool and postmodern and like a coming together in some global, hyprid, even ‘metrolingual’ space. But is that what had happened? To me, the encounter felt as one that accentuated difference and increased distance between people of different cultures. Had this encounter not turned me into someone utterly deficient: an academic who doesn’t know how to write? A customer who doesn’t know how to order? A local who doesn’t belong?
My last thought was about resistance: who is going to resist this new economy and its language? How can we truly achieve meaning in intercultural communication in a grossly unequal world?