Walking Past the White House: The Same Garden


by Maniza Naqvi

As I stepped into the park I saw that two large trees had been felled. The sight saddened me. I was unable to identify what kind of trees they were—I don't know much about the species of trees — now they were a pile of chopped wood marked off by yellow tape—as if a crime scene. I felt such indignation, such sadness as if I had walked into my garden and found that someone had vandalized it. I looked around me, for an explanation. How could this have been done without notice, without—well–without my permission! Ridiculous this, my reaction but there it was. There was no one to ask and I was too afraid to walk up to the security guys guarding a checkpoint near the park to inquire. So I thought up of reasons: It may have been the storm the other night that had brought them down or a fungus or some other molestation that had killed them. There would have to be a good reason, a very solid rational explanation. Knowledgeable custodians of the park—expert gardeners would have had the authority to do this, I was sure. And they would know better than mere walkers through a park, like me about such things. The deed was done, the trees were cut. That was that. In fact I had only noticed these two particular trees once they were a pile of wood. Now, their stumps were as though monuments to themselves or to amputations caused by closed processes, or to the kind of instant culling that can take place in Washington of what are seemingly solid and rooted.

A few days earlier, I had passed by an old man seated on a bench his protest placard placed next to him which read “At least the war on the environment is going well.”

This garden reminds me of other places- —I realized something—everyday this walk—-the way it is—the brick pathway—the sunlight coming through the canopy of trees— reminds of going to school in the mornings in Lahore—-here now the pathway is not lined by hundred year old mango trees but shaded by equally majestic Gingkos, Oaks, Frangipani, Magnolias, and a Bald Cyprus labeled as such at the Southwest corner— I found out in my search for the names of these trees—that this Park used to be an apple orchard in the 18thcentury—–The trees, the dappled sunlight on the bricks—the whole sense of it—the morning light—my reaction to it so visceral so deep, such longing and nostalgia of something so beautiful and innocent and perfect. And just as I was thinking of this perfection I came to the realization– that there is no such place—it is a delusion—for that perfect place was in a place where a military dictator was in power and was in the process of jailing, trying and hanging an elected civilian Prime Minister. My attention was drawn to the protesters in front of the White House, today they are Ethiopian. And in this perfect peaceful garden, in this lovely morning light, the context unchangingly was of war, and today there were more revelations military courts, secret courts and surveillance—only now fugitives are seeking asylum, not here but rather from here. I felt I was walking on a path right back to home—

In front of the White House the marchers protest human rights violations in their country. They chant slogans asking President Obama to stop support to the military and the Government there, as two fellow countrymen, perhaps from the embassy, took pictures and video-taped them.

A few squirrels gathered in front of me—and stayed put as I passed by—not darting away—and I could not help but wonder whether these too were security items–little drones—fitted with cameras—for a moment I had this thought—creeping myself out—were the bees here—in this park—like the bumble bee that kept hovering near me was that a drone? Now nothing seemed implausible.

Nearby, the church bells ring a slow beat of ten. I feel a sense of slowing down—it might just be the quietness of August in this town but this is an unfamiliar sensation—-this pace—this unfamiliar territory that I might be walking through here tomorrow and the day after instead of being on a plane to elsewhere. This sense of permanence might be caused by my daily walks through Lafayette park— my own garden in this town. I've been a resident for a long time but for the most part I've been absent—being there at the most for a few weeks at a time and that too, mostly to pay bills, catch up with friends and run errands–keep the plants in my office watered, alive. I have spent more time in places as far from here as the Steppes of Central Asia or on the banks of the Drina, the Indus, the Mekong or the Nile or the highlands of Ethiopia. A shelf in my office holds dozens of Moleskin notebooks from these trips over the past two decades, a testimony to all the note taking of facts—in whose margins lie the beginnings of stories, which occurred in the moment and were hurriedly, in a sentence or two, for memory jotted down.

As I stepped on to the empty street though the light was still red, not a car in sight–the man behind me followed my lead and then said to the woman with him—”C'mon honey–You know what they say—what is it—- do what the natives do?” I half turned and smiled—I hoped it looked flirtatious—the smile—and not grateful, which it was— for his graciousness. This was their house, their garden which I imagine as my own.

Walking Past the White House: Andrew Jackson and the Deadness of Generals.