I went to school with a fellow from Pakistan named Zahid. He was upper-class Pakistani, like most all the South Asians who attended UT in my day. Zahid got a EE degree and enjoyed living here in Austin and has worked in the electronics industry since his graduation in ’84.
Zahid tells stories of life, growing up in Karachi, and one of his better ones is about how well regarded America and Americans were back in the ’60’s and ’70’s when he was a kid there. This is despite the Vietnam War, the Bangladesh war, everything else. There was a really deep well of goodwill and affection in those days. Part of the interest and attraction that Pakistanis had towards to the US was on account of the Space Program. From what Zahid says the moon landing was a bigger event there than here. Everyone in his circles followed the space program and talked about it all the time and followed all the space missions on TV and the radio and newspapers.
Apollo 13 came along, and it was big news in Pakistan. Nobody there or here was at the time sure that after the oxygen tank explosion if the astronauts were going to make it back. Everyone in Pakistan was following the story closely, worrying about what was going to happen. The newspapers’ lead articles, lead radio news every day was the Apollo 13 story and the astronauts’ lives in mortal danger. Thursday of that week, the Imam for Pakistan got on Radio Pakistan, and announced that on his direction Friday’s special prayers were going to be offered in mosques across the entire country for the safe return of the astronauts. He urged everyone to attend. Zahid went, and said that the mosques were full, as full as he’d ever seen them, as ordinary Pakistanis from every walk of life went to the mosques to pray for the safe return of the Apollo 13 astronauts.
People talk about how the United States has burned up all the goodwill it had in the immediate post 9/11 days with our subsequent military stupidities in Iraq and Afghanistan. That’s true enough, but the problem is deeper than that. The reservoir of goodwill that the US once possessed was in my lifetime so deep that ordinary Pakistanis would drop what they were doing and go to special religious services to pray for my countrymen in danger. The reservoir of goodwill that we once had that was so deep and strong is now gone completely, for the rest of my lifetime. That all went away long before 9/11, and we didn’t notice it because we weren’t looking, and maybe we really didn’t care that much, either. Whatever our military might is, it is puny and insignificant to whatever it was that we once had that had such a hold on the hearts of ordinary Pakistanis. It is gone, and I shall never see it again the rest of my days. Wish that I could. Wish more that we would be worthy of it, again.
DANIEL WHITE can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org