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Inspiring Graduate Stories: Taimur Khan

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Taimur Khan studied and navigated disparate cultures on the way to earning his Ph.D. in anthropology.
Taimur Khan studied and navigated disparate cultures on the way to earning his Ph.D. in anthropology.

When Taimur Khan arrived in the United States, he had difficulty adapting to a new culture. The technology was more advanced, conversation could be less formal, and American English was different from the form he spoke in his native Pakistan. But he’s doing quite well now. He earned his Ph.D. in anthropology at American University, and he’ll walk at commencement this week.

Academic culture itself posed some additional challenges, but he navigated that world, too. Khan will start this spring as an adjunct faculty member of the Anthropology Department in AU’s College of Arts and Sciences.

“AU is awesome. And in the academic community, I’ve made a lot of good friends,” Khan says. “It was a great experience in every way.”

Before ever setting foot on U.S. soil, Khan was accustomed to living as a cultural minority. As an ethnic Pashtun growing up in Pakistan, he was part of a marginalized group trying to preserve its language and identity. This became not just a personal predicament, but the foundation of his scholarly research.

Preserving Identity

Khan was born in Pakistan in December 1980, about a year after the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. To resist the Soviets, jihadi culture took root in Afghanistan and spread to Pakistan. The Pakistan of Khan’s parents gave way to a more conservative Islamic state.

“The rightists were coming into power, and it was changing society. And the progressives and leftists were suppressed,” he says. This new anti-communist, religious fervor was especially strong in Peshawar, a Pakistani border city where Khan grew up.

The majority of people in his province spoke Pashto, but Pakistan adopted Urdu as its national language. Even as Urdu was only spoken by a small percentage of elites, the language was used to create a sense of “otherness” towards Pashtuns in Peshawar.

“We couldn’t speak our language at our schools. It was looked down upon, and we self-censored ourselves,” he recalls. “When I was younger and my sister was in 5th or 6th grade, I would talk to her in Pashto during the break at recess. And she would say, ‘No, don’t talk to me in Pashto.’”

As an ethnic group, Pashtuns were routinely belittled. “They would consider us people who are socially backward, belonging to the Middle Ages,” he says. “There were a lot of stereotypes.”

This was partly over the Pashtuns’ connection to Afghanistan, but it was also tied to Pakistan’s conflict with India. Urdu was a symbol of Muslim nationalism, and Pakistani leaders sought stronger ties to the Arab Middle East. Regional languages—not just Pashto, but others—were considered “Hindi-influenced” and met with suspicion.

“It’s disowning our own history, and with that goes disowning our own language,” he says.

Withstanding War

Khan also had to worry about violence. During his college years, the Taliban rose to power. After Al Qaeda perpetrated the September 11 terrorist attacks, the U.S. accused the Taliban of harboring Al Qaeda in Afghanistan. The ensuring war was felt heavily in the porous Afghan-Pakistani border areas, and Khan remembers a few incidents quite vividly.

While taking his master’s preview exam at the University of Peshawar, bombs were going off nearby and the tests were postponed. In the mid-2000s while teaching at Edwardes College—a missionary school associated with the West—Madrassa students stormed the university gates. The marauding students were in their twenties and teens, but Khan remembers seeing kids that appeared as young as 10.

“I looked out the window, and there were a number of people just running towards us,” he says. “They broke doors, smashed glass windows, everything.”

Graduation Day

Khan earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in English literature and language. He first came to the U.S. in 2006 to teach Pashto language at James Madison University. Upon returning to Pakistan, he taught in one of the first gender studies departments in the country.

He came back to the U.S. in 2010 to attend AU, as his interest in social sciences led him to study cultural and linguistics anthropology. While earning his doctorate, his mentor and supervisor was William Leap, now a professor emeritus in the Department of Anthropology.

Expanding beyond his personal experiences, his dissertation is titled “Pakistanizing Pashtun: The Linguistic and Cultural Disruption and Re-Invention of Pashtun.” He conducted much of his research through social media—collecting data from Facebook and Twitter, participating in discussions, and interviewing people.

He’s now hoping to turn his dissertation into a book. “That’s what I’m working on now. I want the book to be available back home, and I see it as kind of a political project.”

Though his family is unable to see him graduate, some of his good friends will attend the commencement ceremony. It’s a short walk up the aisle, but he’s traveled a long way.