Cultural exchange is the best remedy for bigotry, prejudice, and even cultural narratives in these increasingly nationalistic times. To counter these specific vices, I was honored to represent my institute and my country at the 14th edition of the South Asian Economics Students Meet (SAESM) in Dhaka, Bangladesh in January, 2018, with some very talented and amazing colleagues. With representation of students and faculty from India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Nepal, and Bhutan, this was a truly cosmopolitan South Asian affair. The World Bank’s aim of #OneSouthAsia was the norm at the entire conference, and I saw it first hand in the areas of events, academics, and, above all, clearing up misconceptions.
Starting in reverse order: The truly cherishable moment of the conference was destroying the misconception that Indians and Pakistanis cannot live in tandem or that they are intolerant to each other. From the very first icebreaker at a Chinese Restaurant to an admittedly tearful goodbye at the motorway, we saw this narrative of hate being dismantled. In my relevant Politics and Sociology courses, I have taken it as an axiom that culture is socially constructed. And, when you do not know the culture of a so-called “other”, there have always been fear and consequent prejudice against “them”. However, it was a beautiful, unadulterated feeling to see how much the entire region had in common—how what I had read came to life. From enjoying the same films, music, biryani, humor, and a sense of adventure, I saw how I truly had friends from across the regions whom I had never even imagined to meet before. We have the same yearning for peace, as exhibited by the respect we gave to each other during the heat of competition. We have the same appreciation for beauty. We saw in awe the sunset in the majestic Bay of Bengal after the ferry ride. We joked, gossiped, and had common standards of fun—as exhibited by the late nights my friends from all the countries spent in the floor room lobby listening to music and playing charades.
However, the friendships developed were complemented by rigorous and respectable competition among the countries in the areas of conference events and research paper presentations. Activities included the truly rigorous Budding Economist Competition and Quiz Competition, in which national pride was on the line. I was truly in awe to see the level of effort and passion showed by my colleagues in these. But perhaps the most special part of the conference for me was the inaugural Inter-Country British Style Debate Competition organized by the conference to discuss economic issues. Partners were by lottery and, as fate would have it, I was drafted with my Indian co-speaker, Deepak. It was a poetic affair—why would it not be? Pakistan and India working and eventually winning the debate competition together; despite the shroud of political difference usually highlighted. The truly inspiring moment for me was to witness the entire hall look at Deepak and me in an awestruck fashion as we spoke our hearts out in the grand auditorium to win the tournament. That will remain perhaps one of the most touching moments of my life
At the end, I would like to appreciate the core activity of the conference. All of my colleagues spent the entire semester writing regression analysis-based papers to present at the conference, in themes as diverse as education and trade. My friends Ibrahim, Ramsha, and Hadi won the Best Research Paper Awards in their respective themes. Ibrahim even won the overall best research paper award at the conference. We were all really proud of him. As for the events aspect, we finished runners up in the Economics Quiz Competition and shared the Parliamentary Debates victory with India. None of this would have been possible without the support of our esteemed mentors and instructors: Dr. Turab Hussain, Dr. Irfan Qureshi, and Dr. Imtiaz Ul Haq. In terms of joy, making my professors and the country proud stood equal in learning that I had friends all over South Asia.
Sarim Jamal is in his senior year at MGSHSS.
This article was first published in the MGSHSS newsletter, 'Guftugu'.