Assistant professor Najeeb Jan of geography moved from the United Kingdom to Pakistan as a teenager, creating experiences that play out today in his classes from “Human and Political Geography” to “Political Islam.” Coloradan student writer Alex Bak met with him to discuss his childhood, the future of Pakistan and the war on terror.
How did spending your teen years in Pakistan influence you?
I had a great time in high school in Pakistan — those years (1981-87) were my most fond and memorable. While I was in Pakistan I was exposed to, very interestingly, television and drama. I started an acting career, playing a young Afghan refugee in a TV drama that was the official entry for Pakistan at the Cannes Film Festival. That experience got me interested in the fates of children who were real refugees. That lingered and opened up questions about politics and issues of social justice.
How is life in Pakistan different from what some would expect?
I think most people probably have no concept of what life in Pakistan is like. If they are curious, it is increasingly in the framework of the war on terror. There are aspects of living [in Karachi] that are very similar to any cosmopolitan city. Most people in my high school spoke English, for instance. What surprises people is I played everything from basketball to soccer, went to parties, raced my car in the streets — it’s not remarkably different. Karachi is very modern.
Where is the country headed?
Pakistan is an extraordinarily complex place. It has a democratic underbelly, which unfortunately has been suppressed. It is developing a strong civil society base and has tremendous economic potential. There’s a vibrant, committed and concerned group of young people. Most people want to be part of the global world. The key for Pakistan is to make long-term peace with India. Without that, the problem of extremism will continue to fester.
What are your thoughts on the conflict in Afghanistan and its impact on Pakistan?
The conflict in Afghanistan has a direct bearing on Pakistan. Pakistan bears one of the highest civilian casualties in the war on terror. The fates of the two countries are bound up on some level. It’s difficult because one does not want the Taliban to gain more influence. However, policies of violence may only promote the rise of groups like the Taliban. The key issue is not simply going in and taking them out but also thinking how best to contain this problem. It’s like having a bad kidney. Going in with a knife and cutting it out may seem like the right thing to do, but if you go in the wrong way and cut incorrectly you may kill the patient.
How does your background influence the way you raise your two children?
Anyone who’s taken my class knows one of my deepest enemies is identity. I think we get locked into categories that are often imposed upon us. My aim for my children is for them to think critically about who they are as human beings instead of saying, “We are from this culture and this is what we do.”