On the table – Thoughts about Kashmir

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Two weeks ago I was making dinner: pasta with lamb as in the tradition of the part of Italy I come from and doon chettin, a walnut chutney typical of Kashmir. I wanted on our table the rough but heartwarming flavours of both his mountains and mine.

That evening, after dinner, we got to know that Khurram Parvez, a Kashmiri human right advocate who has been working for decades to denounce the brutality that his people has been subjected to, had been arrested (with accusations devoid of any legal justification). The day before his arrest, he was disallowed to board on a plane to Geneva where he was meant to speak at a meeting of the UN Human Rights Commission.

I can’t stop thinking about the flavour of that dinner, about the comfort that comes from the food from home. I also can’t stop thinking about Khurram Parvez’s wife, who does not know when she’ll share a meal with him again, and about all those women in Kashmir who are crying while preparing the favourite dish for their sons who have been killed in the past three months.

After 84 days of crackdown in Kashmir, winds of war blow between India and Pakistan. On both sides, armchair strategists invoke the power of a nuclear attack. Inebriated by nationalistic fascism, they do not consider that the border that separates them is only a fictional line traced on paper and that the possible consequences won’t stop at the frontier to ask for permission to cross.

Newspaper headlines and the occasional international attention, have used this chance to concentrate on the abstract dimension of the conflict sweeping aside what this actually means for the people. Yet again Kashmir is discussed as an expanse of land on either side of a line drawn on a map rather than as a land that belongs to a people who has been fighting for decades for the right to decide for themselves and their future. The abstract geopolitical discussion becomes the excuse to ignore that the armed forces destroyed the yearly apple harvest and burnt the cultivated fields; to look away from the seized ambulances, the night raids and the undiscriminated arrests.

How many more empty places at the dinner table, how many more meals full of absence are going to be needed before we recognise that the right to self-determination is inviolable and sacrosanct? How many more mothers will have to cry for the loss of their sons before we understand that violence and brutality will not eradicate the quest for freedom?

A tavola – Pensando al Kashmir

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Due settimane fa preparavo la cena: pasta col sugo d’agnello come da tradizione abruzzese e doon chettin, una salsa di noci tipica del Kashmir. Volevo che a tavola ci fosse tanto il sapore delle sue montagne che delle mie: sapori ruvidi che scaldano il cuore.

Quella sera, dopo cena, siamo venuti a sapere che avevano arrestato (con accuse prive di giustificazione legale) Khurram Parvez, un attivista per la difesa dei diritti umani che da anni lavora per denunciare la brutalità di cui è vittima inascoltata la gente del Kashmir. Il giorno prima di essere arrestato, gli era stato impedito di imbarcarsi sull’aereo per Ginevra dove avrebbe dovuto partecipare alla riunione della Commissione per i Diritti Umani delle Nazioni Unite.

E’ da quella sera che continuo a pensare al sapore di quella cena, al conforto del cibo di casa, ma anche alla moglie di Khurram Parvez che non sa quando potrà condividere di nuovo un pasto con lui e a tutte quelle donne che in Kashmir in questi giorni piangono mentre preparano il piatto preferito dei propri figli che sono stati uccisi in questi tre mesi.

Dopo 84 giorni di scontri ininterrotti in Kashmir, tra India e Pakistan tirano venti di guerra. Da entrambe le parti, gli strateghi da salotto cantano le lodi di un attacco nucleare. Inebriati di nazionalismo fascista sembrano non considerare che il confine che li divide è una linea immaginaria tracciata sulla carta e che le possibili conseguenze non si fermano a chiedere il permesso di varcare la frontiera.

I titoli dei giornali e la poca attenzione internazionale hanno raccolto al volo l’occasione per concentrarsi sulla dimensione astratta del conflitto lasciando passare in secondo piano quello che questo scontro significa per la gente. Ancora una volta il Kashmir ritorna ad essere discusso come uno spazio conteso al di qua e al di là di una linea sulla mappa invece che come il luogo di appartenenza di un popolo che da decenni lotta per il diritto a decidere per sé e per il proprio futuro. La discussione geopolitica diventa la scusa per distogliere lo sguardo dai raccolti di mele distrutti e dai campi coltivati bruciati dall’esercito, dalle ambulanze sequestrate, dai raid notturni e dagli arresti indiscriminati.

Quanti altri posti vuoti a tavola, quante cene piene di assenza ci vorranno prima che ci si renda conto che il diritto all’autodeterminazione è inviolabile e sacrosanto? Quante altre madri dovranno piangere i propri figli prima che ci si accorga che la violenza e la brutalità non riusciranno a sradicare il desiderio di libertà?

No looking away: From Kabul to Kashmir

This article was first published on Kashmir Reader on the 25th of August 2016.

 

AZADII don’t understand those who don’t understand that politics comes also from the belly. Beyond the viscerality of a political existence, there are always contingent factors that, by chance or by necessity, force me to confront the reasons of what I chose, and the values for which I live. There is no looking away.
This time the occasion has come from a cup of salty tea, typical of Kashmir and of the Himalayan valleys on either side of the contested border between India and Pakistan.

A couple of days ago I was talking with one of my colleagues, he comes from Hunza, a picturesque and isolated valley 2500 meters above sea level in the extreme north of Pakistan. We were discussing about regional variations in recipes, habits and tradition of the salty tea. As he knows that I like it a lot, after our conversation he made it for me for breakfast. What he calls sheer or shur chai is a version (with butter and without baking soda) of what I know as nun chai and what for me represents the flavour of Kashmir.

Sitting across from each other, we had our tea in silence: our thoughts lost somewhere further East, in two different beautiful valleys of the Himalaya. As I was sipping from my cup, with my body in Kabul and my heart in Srinagar, he filled a bowl with bites of old bread, poured tea over them and ate the whole as a soup, nostalgically thinking of the breakfasts of his childhood.
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My cup of sheer chai made me face what I had been avoiding for days.
As I write this I am sitting in Kabul, in a beautiful late summer day that started with an unreported explosion while I was making breakfast. By nature I am not particularly fearful, squeamish or impressionable, and years of work in countries in conflict made my skin pretty thick. Yet, what is happening in Kashmir feels incomprehensible, utterly incommensurable.
It has been for more than forty-six days that I have felt the need to write about the mayhem that has taken over Kashmir, but every passing day made finding the words more difficult. I kept procrastinating, used the fact that I am busy as an excuse and looked away. My guilt, however, kept growing: my silence was becoming a form of complicity. This is the time to speak up, to take sides: the end result of a concerned silence is not different from a lax or irresponsible indifference.
For the past forty-six days the Valley has been under siege. After the killing of Burhan Wani, the young, indigenous, non-Pakistan sponsored, rebel commander fighting against Indian rule in the name of self-determination, Kashmir erupted and took it to the streets. This was by no means unannounced, the rage was simmering and slowly mounting under the surface. Those who cared looking, knew far too well that it was only a matter of time. Nobody, however, could predict that things would escalate to this level.
India responded to protests and stone pelting with an iron fist: with an unprecedented and unimaginable violence. In forty-six days almost seventy people have been killed, at least 6,000 were injured and more than 500 have been hit, mostly in the eye, by pellet guns. Curfew has been extended to both day and night, making it almost impossible even to buy milk. The Border Security Force has once again been deployed in Srinagar, a frightening reminder of the 1990s, certainly not a measure encouraging dialogue. A few days ago the Army prevented the distribution of petrol and an ambulance driver was shot at as he was taking several wounded people to the hospital.
India Kashmir Protests
After the 8th of July, when it became clear that the use of so called non-lethal weapons such as pellet guns would be part of the daily updates, it occurred to me that I had never seen one (why should I after all?) and I could not really grasp how the idea of non-lethal could possibly sit in the same sentence with a firearm. Not knowing how else I could educate myself on the subject, I thought I would check on YouTube. After a bit of browsing, and studiously trying to avoid gory images, I stumbled upon a video shot somewhere in suburban America. The protagonist was a white young man who was defending the efficiency of the pellet gun with spherical projectiles against those detractors who were trying to discredit its firepower. To demonstrate the accuracy of his thesis, he shot at a watermelon at a close range. The fruit cracked open, and the young man showed to the camera with great satisfaction that the watermelon’s inside was smashed beyond recognition.
My heart stopped and I wondered why it was that I did that to myself. I just could not bring myself to think that this was what was happening in Kashmir, to the faces of children as young as five. And not with spherical projectiles, but with modified, irregular pellets that would tear to pieces whatever they would encounter.
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Pellet Scars, Mir Suhail

Quite literally, by hitting in the eye, the Indian government forces are not killing people directly, is attempting to kill the idea of the future. It is systematically trying to remove the possibility of looking at the future in a manner that differs from what is envisaged by those in power. This makes me wonder who is it that is really blind: those whom violence have deprived of the sun light or those who think that violence and brutality can kill ideas.
How far can this go? Would an entire population deprived of eyesight stop seeing the way towards freedom, the path to azadi?
I think of my friends, of those who hold a very special place in my heart, of the mothers whose teenage sons are protesting in the streets. I think about the anger, the fear and the right to decide for themselves.
How can one write about all this? Where are the words to be found? The other night a friend told me that there’s no point in writing in times such as these because there is really nothing left to add. Maybe it is true, there are no words to give measure to such a horror and what I am writing is irrelevant, but never like now does silence feel culpable.
At times I wish we’d live in a simpler world where a cup of salty tea could be the trigger to start changing things.
Freedom’s terrible thirst, flooding Kashmir,
is bringing love to its tormented glass,
Stranger, who will inherit the last night of the past?
Of what shall I not sing, and sing?
Agha Shahid Ali

A cup of salty tea

I don’t understand those who don’t understand that politics comes also from the belly. Beyond the viscerality of a political existence, for me there are always contingent factors that, by chance or by necessity, bring me back to the reasons of what I chose and the values for which I live.

Today the occasion has been a cup of salty tea, typical of Kashmir and of the Himalayan valleys on either side of the contested border between India and Pakistan.

A couple of days ago I was talking about it with one of my colleagues, he comes from Hunza a valley 2500 meters above sea level in the extreme north of Pakistan. We were discussing about regional variations in recipes, habits and tradition of the salty tea. As he knows that I like it a lot, he made it for me for breakfast. What he calls shur chai is a version (with butter and without baking soda) of what I know as noon chai and what for me represents the flavour of Kashmir.

As I was sipping from my cup, with my head in Kabul and my heart in Srinagar, he filled a bowl with bites of old bread, poured tea over it and ate it as a soup, nostalgically thinking of the breakfasts of his childhood.

My cup of shur chai made me face what I have been avoiding for days.

It has been for the past forty-three days that I have felt the need to write about what is happening in Kashmir, but every passing day made finding the words more difficult. I kept procrastinating and my guilt kept growing as I felt that my silence was becoming a form of complicity.  

For the past forty-three days the Valley has been under siege. After the killing of a young rebel commander fighting against Indian rule in the name of self-determination, Kashmir took it to the streets and India responded with an iron fist and unprecedented and unimaginable violence. In forty-three days almost seventy people have been killed and hundreds have been hit, mostly in the eye, by pellet guns. Quite literally, the Indian Army is systematically removing the possibility of looking at the future in a manner that differs from what is envisaged by those in power. Over the past few days, curfew has been extended to both day and night, making it almost impossible even to buy milk. The day before yesterday they prevented the distribution of petrol and an ambulance driver was shot at as he was taking several wounded people to the hospital.

I think of my friends, of those who hold a very special place in my heart, of the mothers whose teenage sons are protesting in the streets. I think about the anger, the fear and the right to decide for themselves.

How can one write about all this? Where are the words to be found? Last night a friend told me that there’s no point in writing in times such as these because there is really nothing left to add. Maybe it is true, there are no words to give measure to such horror and what I am writing is irrelevant, but never like now does silence feel culpable.

At times I wish we’d live in a simpler world where a cup of salty tea could be the trigger to start changing things.

Una tazza di te salato

Non capisco chi non capisce che la politica passa anche dalla pancia. Oltre alla visceralità dell’esistenza politica, per me ci sono anche sempre fattori contingenti che, per caso o per necessità, mi riconducono al perché di quello che ho scelto e di quello che per cui vivo.

Oggi l’occasione è stata una tazza di te salato, tipico del Kashmir e delle valli himalayane al di qua e al di là del confine contestato tra India e Pakistan.

Un paio di giorni fa ne parlavo con uno dei miei colleghi; lui viene da Hunza, una valle a 2500 metri d’altitudine nell’estremo nord del Pakistan. Discutevamo di variazioni regionali nelle ricette, di abitudini e tradizioni del te salato. Sapendo che mi piace molto, me lo ha preparato stamattina per colazione. Quello che lui chiama shur chai è una versione (con il burro e senza il bicarbonato) di quello che io conosco come noon chai e che per me rappresenta il sapore che associo col Kashmir. Mentre io bevevo la mia tazza, con la testa a Kabul e il cuore a Srinagar, lui ha riempito una ciotola con pezzi di pane vecchio, poi ha versato il te e lo ha mangiato come una zuppa, pensando con nostalgia alle colazioni di quando era bambino.

La mia tazza di shur chai mi ha messo di fronte a quello che da giorni cercavo di evitare.

Sono quarantatré giorni che sento il bisogno di scrivere di quanto sta succedendo in Kashmir, ma ogni giorno che passa rende più difficile trovare le parole. Ho continuato a procrastinare, incapace di affrontare l’impensabilità di tanto orrore. E con ogni giorno che passa cresce il senso di colpa perché sento che il mio silenzio diventa complice.

Sono quarantatré giorni che la Valle è sotto assedio. Dopo l’uccisione del giovane comandante di uno dei gruppi ribelli che combattono il controllo indiano in nome dell’autodeterminazione, il Kashmir è insorto e l’India ha risposto col pugno di ferro. Con una violenza inaudita e difficile da comprendere. In quarantatré giorni sono state uccise quasi settanta persone e centinaia sono state colpite, per lo più agli occhi, da fucili ad aria compressa. Fuor di metafora, l’esercito indiano sta sistematicamente rimuovendo la possibilità di guardare al futuro in maniera diversa da quella immaginata da chi sta al potere. Nei giorni scorsi il coprifuoco è stato esteso tanto al giorno che alla notte, rendendo praticamente impossibile anche solo comperare il latte. L’altro ieri è stata impedita la distribuzione di carburante e hanno sparato all’autista di un’ambulanza che trasportava dei feriti all’ospedale. Penso ai miei amici lì, a chi ha un posto molto speciale nel mio cuore, alle madri degli adolescenti che protestano per le strade. Alla rabbia, alla paura, al diritto di scegliere e di decidere per se stessi.

Come si scrive di tutto questo? Dove si trovano le parole? Oggi un amico mi ha detto che scrivere è inutile perché in tempi come questi non ci resta niente da aggiungere. Forse è vero, non ci sono parole che possano dare la misura dell’orrore e quello che scrivo è irrilevante, ma mai come adesso il silenzio mi sembra colpevole.

A volte vorrei tanto vivere in un mondo semplice in cui una tazza di te salato potesse essere sufficiente per cominciare a cambiare le cose.

Seasons in the Garden of Fidelity

This piece was first published in Chapati Mystery

AUTUMN

Anar

Anar is the Persian for pomegranate. It is one of those fascinating words that travel in space and time: from the Middle East to India through Afghanistan, anar is a word used in Farsi, Kurdish, Dari, Urdu and Hindi.

There is something magic and poetic to the pomegranate: it is a fruit full of symbolic meanings and is present in mythological accounts all across the world. For ancient Romans and Greeks it is the fruit of the underworld; for Christianity it represents resurrection after suffering; in Judaism it is a symbol of fertility and of the Promised Land; in the Quran it is mentioned as one of the examples of the beautiful things that God created.

In the last few years, pomegranate has been a constant presence in my life: it strangely became associated to life in a country in conflict as well as to the positive sensations of the small pleasures that make life special.

The taste of pomegranate is connected to vivid and precise memories of places and moments in time.

After her first trip to Palestine, my mother came home fascinated by the discovery of the freshly pressed pomegranate juice. Its unforgettable colour, its rich and thirst-quenching flavour. While talking, we realised that in different points in time, both my mum and I had pomegranate juice at the same stall: in East Jerusalem, in the Old City, just to the right of the Damascus Gate.

In Kurdistan pomegranate is the pride of Halabja – the city that has become the symbol of the Kurdish genocide and claims to have the best anar in the world. The flavour of the pomegranate I had there is, in fact, hard to forget. On top of a hill, in the golden light of sunset, after a visit to the cemetery where the victims of Saddam Hussain’s gas attack are buried, with Ayub who worked for the New York Times and told us about the bombs over Baghdad during the Second Gulf War.

And now in Afghanistan, where pomegranate help remember the passing of time, as one of the signs of the changing seasons. When Radio Capital journalist asked me a few days ago what will be the flavour I will miss the most once I will leave Afghanistan I answered: “Pomegranate” without even thinking. I had the first of the season – the special one from Kandahar – talking about the future with Andrea, in the garden of his house in Herat. And again under a pergola in Istalef, a little village nested on the mountains: we picked the fruit from the tree and ate it while looking over the valley suspended in time.

WINTER

Paraphrasing Marquez. Snow in the time of war.

It started to snow yesterday evening. My first snowfall in Kabul. It started slowly with small flakes that grew bigger through the night until dawn, when the city was entirely covered in white.

This morning I go out early, on my own.

There are very few people on the street. The fresh snow allows me to negotiate my path between the frozen road and the non existing footpaths. The uncertainty of my steps forces me to look down, towards the dirty mix of snow, smog and ice, in search for stability and safety.

It takes me a deep breath and a bit of self control to realise that I am missing out and to lift my eyes off the ground.

And once again the city surprises me with the poetry of its unexpected beauty. What surrounds me pays me back for these efforts.

With my nose upwards and snowflakes on the lenses of my specs: it’s all right – I tell myself – even if it takes fifteen minutes to walk five hundred meters and a bit of breathing to fight the fear of slipping and falling: it’s all right.

A boy with a green woollen hat smiles and says hello. Salaam, I reply.

It is all so beautiful.

The softened sounds: the magic of silence in a place where the noise of traffic and helicopters dominates the soundscape. The icy embroidery on the naked branches of the trees: a delicate parenthesis in a city scarred by bombs first and by the bad taste of the post war reconstruction later.

A car runs past me sloshing brown snow all over and pulls me out of my reverie. I wonder what army tanks covered in snow may look like, I wonder if the white coat may make them look less scary.

The brown slosh is a powerful coming back to my present: a reminder that is important to think of beauty in relation to its context and that is important not to forget to keep looking around.

SPRING

Quasi Fellini

Dedicated to Pierce O’ Broin

Rain, rain. A slow and cold rain. It is supposed to be spring, but it seems it has gone hiding somewhere. The dull grey sky paints an eerie atmosphere that looks like one of Giorgio De Chirico’s paintings.

Kabul is strangely beautiful in this light.

Mud softens the sound of our steps, I have the displacing feeling of looking at myself from the outside.

The camera is set on black and white.

Pierce and I walk on the street trying to avoid puddles. It feels like stepping into the Afghan version of a Fellini movie.

Quasi Amarcord. Including Nino Rota’s soundtrack.

Below the hill of Tappeh-ye Maranjan sprawls the whole of Kabul. This is where people go to fly kites on a Friday afternoon. In a makeshift market of improvised stalls, car booths are full of colourful kites and children crouching next to torn rugs balanced between a stone and a puddle sell spools of bright red, blue, green string. There is a cart selling strawberries and one selling popcorn, a cart selling ice cream, one dates and one sunflower seed.

A group of kids with extremely long brooms pointing at the sky run around trying not to trip over the colourful strings.

– What are the brooms for?

– Look over there.

In the kite war, kids use the brooms to get hold of the falling kites – these are the kite runners, bedraggled and with broken shoes. They run and laugh and shout.

A few steps away there is a merry-go-round: a green pole with green arms and small dangling planks of wood. Boys and girls get hold of ropes and planks – when they are all ready, a man grabs one of the arms of the merry-go-round and starts running in circles. Round and round; faster and faster. Feet lift off the ground, legs get a tighter hold of the rope, a hand brushes the ground. Round and round; faster and faster.

A black, menacing cloud surprises us from behind. Rain coms fast. People start running to avoid getting soaked in the storm. We look at each other and smile with a shiver. It is time to go.

A different afternoon, a different hill. The ame black and white photos, the same persistent rain.

On Wazir Akbar Khan hill, in the north of the city, there is a swimming pool. Empty but freshly painted, it has three diving boards with bright yellow ladders: a strident contrast to the infinite shades of brown and grey of the city and the sky. Empty, but full of memories: it is rumoured that the Taliban used the highest diving board to execute political prisoners. A deadly jump with a stunning view and the city and the mountains as witnesses.

Outside the swimming pool there are reels of razor wire and a military barrack.

A girl walks past eating chips; she has a sailor’s hat and a coat of the same shade of blue as the pool.

Fellini. Amarcord. Nino Rota.

A few steps and a few puddles away, beyond the soft mud, there are the carcasses of two Soviet tanks; rusty, derelict, abandoned.

We look for the right angle for a photo.

In the background on the top the silhouettes of the diving boards, then the razor wire, the military barrack, the tanks looking over Kabul.

Untitled. Landscape with Soviet tank.

Rain becomes colder. We look at each other and smile with a shiver. It is time to go.

 

SUMMER

The eye of God. Kabul from above.

Dedicated to T.M.

Earlier this morning I sent him a photo I took last night: three dots – two yellow and one orange – in a black background. This is all my phone could record of the stunning view of Kabul I was surprised with.

Maybe you should delete it. The one in your mind’s will always be brighter.” Comes his response.

It is one of our usual early morning email exchanges. We generally talk about writing and the small, cherished details that life in Kabul offers us: they would be soon transformed into written words. Like the little bird that the guards keep at the entrance of the compound, or the policeman who stops the taxi driver to offer him dates to break the fast during Ramadan.

The last email of this morning’s thread ends with these words and no salutation: “Everything in Kabul is caged… the women, the birds, the bookstore, the city itself”. He is referring to his own writings and I can see the expression of his eyes while I read these words – very serious, concerned, almost stern and yet mixed with a glint of excitement for the new discovery – I could hear the intonation of his voice had he spoken them.

As I read his words, my eye fill with last night’s breathtaking view of Kabul. A friend invited us for dinner, she had anticipated that the rooftop terrace was what made her fall in love with her new house, she also mentioned that it would be the best place in town to spot the exact location of bombs and attacks as they may happen. I recorded the information without really making sense of it. Until last night.

We climb up the spiral stair case and an immense sky opens over our heads. We are on the seventh floor of a building in the very heart of the city: Kabul surrounds us in all her beauty.

I stand in the wind and turn on my feet, three-hundred-and-sixty degrees, the city is all around me: I feel happy and free and blessed with opportunity to experience a moment like this.

A gigantic orange moon is rising above the hills; I am surprised by the amount of little, dim lights: I was not expecting the hills to be so densely populated. The hills embrace that side of town as a crescent, they look like a necklace full of sparkling precious stones: an unintended homage to the wealth of this country.

There is something peaceful and liberating about the view. Kabul is not a city in a cage, this is a city that secretly hatches hope and the possibility of change. It is a city that is growing, aggressive and resilient, powerful in all the potentials that are yet to be revealed.