Walking Home

by Shadab Zeest Hashmi

PhotoWhen home comes back to you as a calamity, its name appearing with death tolls and gut-wrenching photos of its youngest population, it feels as if the place itself, its memory, is lodged inside you like a bullet. The wound, inflicted by the War-terrorism binary, is a complicated wound, worsening with time. Peshawar, my hometown, has been in its throes for more than three decades. But who cares to remember?

On my way from my son's piano class to the farmer's market, I walk, carrying in my mind images of children in bloodstained green school uniforms, coffins, and the excruciating pain on the faces of the mourners of the Peshawar Attacks. I'm in a daze; grief-struck, isolated from what is around me. I walk bearing voices. In the cacophony of eyewitness accounts, sirens, prayers and news media, I hear the ghosts of my own past with heartbreaking clarity. The voice of a teacher, a sacred thing in my culture, recalled on so many occasions in my life as a migrant, comes back now with an instruction to hide under the desk. I know this voice, not this instruction; it is a different time. Eyewitness accounts are chilling. Pretend to be dead. The child who whispered this to his classmate, hiding under a desk, as bullets were fired, was killed, while his classmate, the eyewitness who followed his advice, survived. He survived, we survived but we only pretend to be alive, weighed down as we are by despair.

The despair of Pakistanis against the tyranny of Taliban on one hand and the tyranny of the US sponsored wars on the other, is countered by faint glimmers of hope, of the people finally protesting institutions, organizing themselves to rally against those who use religion to bully, blackmail and butcher innocents: a movement against the silencing of the ordinary Muslim, the ordinary Pakistani, Muslim or not. The focus of this movement is to restore social justice, to dismantle abusive religious rhetoric and to strengthen the country against international pressure.

It comes as a relief that this movement, in its nascent stage, recognizes that military offensives or summary executions of the Talban in government custody, will only cure the symptom, not the cause of terrorism. One of the best analyses of global terrorism I've come across and am currently reading, is the work of the renowned scholar Akbar Ahmed's book The Thistle and the Drone, a study of the conflicts between central governments and rural, tribal societies in the Muslim and the non-Muslim world: “Just as the drone is an appropriate metaphor for the current age of globalization, the thistle captures the essence of tribal societies.” Dr. Ahmed details the ways the center and the periphery differ in their psyche and motivation: “The problem was that many such tribes and communities wished to benefit from globalization but not to compromise their thistle-like identity. They also had to contend with central governments more interested in monopolizing globalization's many benefits—developments in information technology, transport and communications, medicine, trade, and commerce—and in the central government's policy of promoting the politics, language, and culture of the dominant group at the center. Little more than crumbs—a cell phone here, a job in a security form there—fell to the periphery. ” He continues: “It is in the interest of the United States to understand, in all the tribal societies with which it is engaged, the people, their leadership, history, culture, their relationship with the center, their social structure, and the role Islam plays in their lives. These issues are, in fact, the subject matter of anthropology, and those commenting on or involved with the war on terror, therefore need to become better informed about the anthropology of tribal societies. Without this understanding, the war on terror will not end in any kind of recognizable victory as current military actions and policies are only exacerbating the conflict. “

In Pakistan's case, the dynamics of extremism borne of revenge for political and economic wrongs and imperial exploitation, the use of religious zeal as fuel for this revenge, sectarianism, a government that is corrupt to the core, a military that imposes and feeds the psyche of dictatorship, compounded with Pakistan's role as a US ally in the Soviet-Afghan war and the US sponsored “war on terror,” and a host of challenges that the largely agrarian society faces, are overwhelming in their enormity and complexity. The recent strides in technology, business, literature and arts, humanitarian work and many other fields, show Pakistani talent, competence, and the ability to overcome challenges; adequate leadership is the urgent next step.

While I ponder the Peshawar Attacks, I'm naturally reminded of the Soviet-Afghan war decades ago, of Peshawar's proximity and the terrorist attacks that began then as a consequence of Pakistan's involvement. I'm reminded of Afghani war orphans, refugees and their destitute, dignified humanity. I'm reminded of a breathtaking mountain-scape, butter golden afternoons, “dry fruit” (raisins, peanuts and pine nuts) in pockets, china and stainless steel chiming over fitful crows, the crisp azan, the call for prayer in Arabic with a pushto inflection, and flowers. I remember Pink Floyd, ABBA and the red cassette player, the voice, even the footfall of every teacher walking through the school corridors; I remember our gray school blazers. As I walk through the farmer's market now, it strikes me that the place that is lodged inside me is either unknown to those around me or they know it only in the context of terrorism. I break down at the sight of marigolds.