In possession of a valid, limiting difference

It was a Wednesday night much like any other Wednesday night during my four-month long summer vacation. The weather was warm, the mood lazy and the Islamabad air filled with an alien uneasiness. The city no longer exhibited the soothing calmness that I had known it for. To be sure, that probably had as much to do with me as it did with the war(s). During my previous year at Williams, there had been points when I was simply unable to go on as usual due to the irony of studying in a country whose government was using its military presence to deprive the citizens of my own country their rights to their property and lives. For the past six weeks, I had been waiting for news about my visa application to attend the Williams-Exeter Programme at Oxford. None was forthcoming. I was supposed to report to Oxford that very day, and with all 25 of my fellow WEPO students already settling in there, I was becoming increasingly aware of the essential differences that divided me from them. I was beginning to recognize that the privilege of our Williams community shrouds the differences that exist.

So when I decided to check the status of my application online just before going off to bed, I was absolutely ecstatic when I found out that my application was now “ready for collection.” Mentally preparing to fly to London in a couple of days and telling myself that my world wasn’t completely crazy after all, the next morning I walked out of the visa application center holding a large sealed envelope. I opened the envelope, and in an instant the uneasiness in the air was replaced by dread and the visa stamp in my thoughts replaced by the “notice of application refusal” in my hands. Disappointment soon turned to anger as I realized that my application was refused because “I did not appear to be in possession of a valid visa letter.” It was the same visa letter, issued by Oxford, that had gotten the other 25 WEPO students their visas. Somewhere along the line, I had forgotten what was more important than the visa letter in my application: my nationality, my religion and my name.

I booked a flight to New York instead of London and arrived in Williamstown three days later, on Sunday, Oct. 4. The Dean’s Office was quite shocked when I turned up on Monday. In any case, a petition was filed and an exception granted. I was enrolled at Williams for the fall. Perhaps it was the utter shock in my friends’ reactions to my predicament or perhaps it was the way in which everything here in Williamstown stood in such stark contrast to the realities of the world outside that made me realize the madness of the situation that we find ourselves in. We consider ourselves part of the same community here at Williams, and yet our expectations often differ substantially from pretty much everyone outside of this community. While these differences in expectations serve to distance us in any case, it is the difference in the actual treatment we receive outside (as evident in my difficult experience of applying for a visa) that makes us truly alien to each other.

You might argue, of course, that the fact that we are different makes the Williams community an integrated whole. I am familiar with such “diversity” rhetoric, and I do subscribe to some of it. But it is when our backgrounds go from being merely different to being contradictory, I believe, that our formal attempts at “community building” and “understanding each other” end up being not only inadequate, but also fairly naïve.

So as I check the news for death tolls every morning before brushing my teeth, the immediacy of the present takes my mind off the implications of the history of power, of modern imperialism and of exploitation. It takes my mind off the fact that at some point in my Williams career, I became very cynical of governments, large corporations and non-profits of many sorts. I increasingly began to question not only why I was here, but also why all of us were here. I am not exactly sure what I mean by “here,” and if I say we are blind, I speak not just of the “Purple Valley.” I am arriving at the reluctant conclusion that if Williams is preparing us for any world at all, it is not the one that exists out there, outside the safety of our rhetoric and our academic loftiness and our repulsive privilege. It is one that sustains us inside our privileged shell – a sustenance that continues to ignore those who have to deal with the reality of our privilege.

Muhammad Asad Liaqat ’11 is a philosophy and political economy major from Rawalpindi, Pakistan.

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