house of happy

Life adventures in prose and verse. Explorations of places, people and words. Stories and fun.

Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Welcome to Pakistan

We land in Islamabad at 3 a.m. on the day before the riots. I am wide awake throughout the flight, then, just as the plane comes in to land, a vast wave of exhaustion smothers my brain. I fall into a swift but crippling stupor right there, in Seat 27E, as a film still flickers onscreen and a voice announces unfathomable things in Arabic.

So now, as Kira and I stand in the doorway of our airplane, the lights of Islamabad airport swim and swirl into pretty orange shapes. The air is hot and solid, and smells of cattle. Warm and reassuring: instead of waking me up, it sends me into a dreamy bubble.

Easy therefore, to sleepwalk with the crowd and stand in the wrong passport queue. Easy to hear the sob stories of two smiling cleaners in the airport loo and part with my remaining euros. Easy to see Moona waiting and yet walk off in another direction. Easy to float by the taxi drivers, porters, officials, beggars that fill the airport building and the street beyond.

There seem to be no women present, apart from the odd incoming traveler. The place swarms with boys, men, black beards, grey beards, a sea of shalwar kameez. We drive home, along large leafy streets. And then to sleep. It is already 'the first day'.

Already 'the first day' and already clear that it's not an ordinary day. A 'Day of Love for the Prophet' was declared for tomorrow - and now everyone is preparing. Despite invoking Love, people seem to expect Anger. Locals speculate and wait in trepidation. Foreigners make elaborate 'security plans', all of which boil down to staying at home until further notice. The Americans have completely vanished.

From all the talk around town, tomorrow appears more like a relay race with a live bomb for a baton. A vast relay race, across the entire Muslim world. It will start well, with Love and Prayer, this much we all agree. Then someone will ignite the fuse and .. what? How can anyone foretell how far this will go, how deep the devastation?

One thing is clear already: this vengeful wave can do no good, help no one, just like the idiotic film that sparked it. How many have seen the film anyway? I try, but Youtube is blocked in Pakistan, on account of it. Still, this type of propaganda is usually petty, ignorant, spiteful, incendiary. Not worth paying any attention to it, and yet here we are talking about what checkpoints will be breached tomorrow, what embassies pelted with stones, how many people injured or killed. Oh, and why is it that those who want to incite hatred will automatically put the words 'Innocence' and 'Love' on the invitation?

And so, Day 2 is Full Lockdown. Tranquil morning, sky full of birds of prey. They hover above and we slow-bake on high terraces, straining to hear any sound from the front lines. We later learn that people died in the streets around us. There was tear gas, there were stones and bullets, flames and ferocious attacks. The phone network was down all day, depriving everyone of a powerful weapon: communication.

Day 3 is still deemed 'unsafe' but - since we don't find THAT out until later - we venture out. Everything is absolutely normal. The markets are open, people friendly, welcoming, no suspicion, no anger, no hatred here. I see one other foreigner doing her shopping; only one. All the others - still behind closed doors. This is what the fear-mongers wanted, isn't it? How sad, how sad.

Day 4 starts with a hike in the Margalla Hills, breath-taking. Yes I mean beautiful. And yes I mean hard work, led by Moona who fires off a million ideas as he strides up, picking flowers (thank you), distributing water and fruit (thank you) and marching us on, relentlessly (oh, thank you my love). Everyone we meet appears relaxed and happy. 'Look' - I feel like shouting - 'look newspapers, look America, look Oh foolish West and look Oh foolish East, THERE IS NO ANGER HERE!' We walk and breathe in the sun, the end of summer, the golden air, the hills, the heights.

Later we see crowds dispersing after another demonstration: THE CLEAN UP FOR PEACE - on Sunday morning students and professionals from three cities got together, picked up thrash, cleaned the streets, painted blackened walls, then quietly went home.

Later still, I read the statistics: about 45,000 people took part in the Riots. Around 200 took part in the Clean Up.

Oh. Still, it's a beginning. Frail hope, but hope nonetheless. When the numbers are reversed: then we can truly say All's Well.