Baloch identity and the World Cup

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As a child growing up in Malir in the ‘90s, the most exciting time was the month of the football world cup every four years. The entire town would turn into a mini United Nations, people cheering for different nations, with flags on full mast on rooftops. Well, mainly Brazilian, Argentine, and German colours but a few Italian and English flags here and there too. Tea cafes would be loud with arguments about which country was the favorite to win; the Pele vs Maradona debate, who was a better striker between the original fat/bald Ronaldo or the new more handsome one with a fitter body. And of course, the most important debate of all, if Queen Elizabeth had paid off the referees during the 1966 World Cup to allow the goal that bounced off the goal line.

All of this was happening in a small community who lived in a country with a fervor for only one sport, Cricket. Barely anyone in Karachi, besides Lyari and Malir, took an interest in Football. This was, in a way, our window to the outside world, which brought us, the Baloch, together every four years to be passionate about nations so far away that most of us had never visited. We all acted like we belonged to those countries.

Football was my way of knowing about the world too. I memorized the colours of all the flags of the nations who were competing to become world champion. I was a curious child, dreaming of one day being able to travel to all those faraway countries. I got my opportunity after finishing high school when I first moved to China and then to the United States. Recently, I even became a US citizen. Now, I proudly call myself a Baloch-American and cheer for the Star and Stripes.

This question of identity often comes up in conversations with my Baloch friends from Balochistan, some of whom live in the west. I have often heard people question if a Baloch person moving to another country still remains a Baloch after a few generations. This to me is a very serious question, as the entire Baloch identity is tied to the land, its culture and the Balochi language. After hundreds of years in the province of Sindh, my family has remained part of the Baloch ethnic group only because we have continued to speak Balochi. Many Baloch families after migrating to Sindh and Punjab eventually adopted the local languages, merging into other ethnicities. Such evolution is common all around the world and it is how humans have reinvented themselves in new communities.

People identify themselves as Baloch with different sets of ideas. There are some who argue that only people with brown skin who have lived in Balochistan for hundreds of years are entitled to call themselves Baloch. Some radicals even deny this claim to a very large minority of Afro-Baloch people with a darker skin colour who have lived in Balochistan as well. But genealogy alone can not be a determining factor of what someone’s identity is. Recently, I had the opportunity to conduct a genealogy test; the results came out to be very boring. Without any surprise, I found out that 80 percent of my ancestry is from the greater Balochistan and Fars region. The only surprising part to me was that the second most common DNA in my ancestry was from Punjab not Sindh.

Due to political turmoil, many of my Baloch friends have immigrated to Europe and North America. Many of them are now citizens in those countries. They are Baloch-Germans, Baloch-Canadians, Baloch-British, Baloch-Dutch and Baloch-Americans. There is much confusion found among these new immigrants on whether they belong to their new nations or not. I understand how difficult it is to be far from your people and the home you grew up in. A part of us is always left behind in the fields and alleyways where we spent our childhood. However, these questions become futile when you are living in a globalized world with communities dispersed around the world. Whenever I am back home, I feel that the desire to be connected to the rest of the world is even stronger.

Having said that, after 12 years, I have had the chance to visit Malir during this World Cup. The fervor is stronger than ever before. More flags and fans can be seen all around town. People living here have kept a strong identity of being Baloch yet they are in love with nations far away, especially the ones playing football.

My advice to my Baloch friends abroad is that you must not despair, all of us here back home are connected to the world through you and you are connected to your land through us. I am hopeful that one day peace will return, we will be back to our hometowns, drink a cup of tea, and watch the World Cup with our loved ones.

Zind hast, jahan hast o football ham hast

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Sheraz Baloch, an engineer by trade, is a film buff and passionate Liverpool FC supporter. He lives in the US and tweets @ShirazBal.