In A Land of Decay

Share on

Burma Town, Jamaat-e-Islami, sugarcane cubes, Islamabad, jihad, Indus River, clementine, Himalayas, young brides, tandoori chicken, militants & God’s will.

Burma Town is located on the outskirts of Pakistan’s neat and newly organized city of Islamabad. This week’s rain has damaged the already rugged spiraling streets, leaving puddles the size of boulders. Women with scarves over their heads, their children’s hands clutched at their waist, stride by carefully, stepping over muddy water.

A Shell gas station and a lanky man selling cigarettes and paan, a tobacco-flavored leaf brimming with aromatic spices, serve as landmarks. With the car window open, a balmy breeze mixed with the stench of fuel and tandoori chicken, makes me want to faint.

Every year I travel to Pakistan—to discover a country of 180 million people whose lives are laced together with deeply held secrets. If time permits, I visit distant relatives and feast on freshly cut sugarcane in cubes that are sold by the bucket. This time I am meeting a male militant who, disguised in civilian clothes, invited me to his home.

On a good day, when traffic moves at a steady pace, my driver-for-hire can reach Burma Town in less than an hour. Locals tell me this string of neighborhoods is flooded with refugees, migrant workers, and exiles from Kashmir, a far-away valley perched high in the blue-white mountains nestled between India and Pakistan. Burma Town is also an ideal hideaway for militants waiting for jihad, a distorted version of holy war. When called on by Pakistani security agencies, these men pack their bags, say goodbye to their families and trek up the steep Himalayas to cross the forest into India. No one knows if they will live or die fighting—thousands died in battle in two previous wars as militants stubbornly fought to reclaim Kashmir.

Deeper into Burma Town, I am struck by its desolation. Growing up in Texas, I found a different Pakistan in faded black-and-white photographs in my parent’s album: photos of children with shining faces in a boat on the Indus River; of young brides decorated in red and gold, seated next to a selected suitor; of a grandfather holding me proudly in his firm arms as I lean against his white-pressed shirt.

My driver, who I affectionately call Mamou (Uncle) as a sign of respect for an elderly man, skirts a car to the left, then the right, moving carefully over potholes. He has thick, fuzzy eyebrows, a Roman nose and dominating eyes. While driving, he pulls at his long, shaggy black beard freckled with gray.

“Where’s the white mosque?” he shouts at a man in an outward-facing tailor shop. The man points ahead. “This place is impossible,” Mamou snickers, turning to a young man with golden-brown hair and hazelnut eyes named Junaid sitting next to him. Together, they chime on about the good times when life was unburdened by corruption and political backstabbing.

“You’ll find it,” I said. Loops of fuse-box apartments crisscross unpaved roads. I read a large blue sign in white letters: Jamaat-e-Islami (JI), Pakistan’s largest Islamist political party. Mamou confirms the JI billboard is a convenient cover for HuM, short for Hizb-ul-Mujahideen (Party of Fighters), a militant outfit set up by Pakistan to fight another militant group in the early 1990s.

Locals tell me this string of neighborhoods is flooded with refugees, migrant workers, and exiles from Kashmir, a far-away valley perched high in the blue-white mountains nestled between India and Pakistan.

Nowhere in the silhouette of a half-bright sun is a white mosque. We pass slender trees, branches dangling into the road. “He said it was here,” Mamou sighs. “Oh Almighty! Lead the way!” Mamou begins a series of incantations, pealing the air with his husky voice. Where are the frenzy of men, rickshaws and donkey carts? I wonder. Nearby is a park of scrubby trees and a beggar, sweaty and silent. Mamou continues driving up the empty road.

A few yards ahead, the mausoleum’s white dome rises up. At this hour, I assumed Boori Town would be a colossal gallery of life: women bantering over the price of fruit and vegetables in wooden carts; boys running barefoot through sheets of yellow grass; a cacophony of motorbikes, rickshaws and cars pushing through a single lane; and the sound of car engines and laborers in auto shops.

“It’s Friday,” Mamou murmurs. I forget it’s noon, the hour when men in clean baggy clothes whisk into the mosque to pray to the chorus of the imam.

Mamou makes a phone call, his voice angry and tired. The militant, a heavy-set man with a bushy beard and a mop of oiled hair appears. I will call him Shahnawaz. “You are lucky I made it,” Mamou says to the stranger, his eyes shaped like half-moons. “I was ready to turn around.” The two men greet each other like old friends and the car stops in front of a black steel gate.

Trailing behind them, I push past the gate into a small, airless room. There is an old TV on a silver cart, a rice cooker on a bleached rug and a queen bed pushed against the wall. A stovetop and a sink for dishes make for a kitchen. The place smells of apple, wood and tea. A woman with a cherubic face and dark brown eyes wearing a burnt orange floral print shalwar kameez—loose trousers with a tunic top—leans forward.

“Do you live in Pakistan?” she asks. “No? Where did you come from? How long will you stay? Are you comfortable? Do you want something to eat? Don’t worry. We’ll eat later. I’m glad you’re here. You came so far to see us. I will make tea. Stay here.” She speaks in a rapid but sweet voice. Shahnawaz glances up and down, averting his eyes from me in a show of modesty. I want to take a closer look at him and ask him: Why did you get married when you want to die a martyr? He might say that marriage is a tradition of the Holy Prophet, who had many wives, and he was following divine law. Men like Shahnawaz rarely admit that they marry for sex and companionship. “They need to have a normal life too,” Junaid privately said to me when we were in the car.

I want to speak directly to Shahnawaz, to understand the reasons men join violent jihad; how men like him can mix marriage and martyrdom; how a person so obsessed with good and evil can sit across from me with a kind smile and pretend that his life is normal.

Asma returns with a tray of steaming chai, a knife and a platter of clementine and cherry-red apples. She smiles widely, joyous to be hosting an American woman from a place she knows only from old Hollywood movies on Pakistani television.

I learned that Asma was born into a poor family. Her father gave her hand in marriage to Shahnawaz, who had told her parents his first love is jihad. Asma cared deeply for her siblings and often sheltered her sister and sister’s children from her brother-in-law, who was an alcoholic. Asma had been married five years and couldn’t conceive. On hearing this, Mamou’s eyes brighten and he raises his voice and leans back into the cushion of his chair. “She is a curse on this house! There is an evil spirit inside of her and it has to be released!”

“Look at the blotches on her face,” he continues with strange enthusiasm and sits forward again, folding his large hands together. “She is heavy too.”

Shahnawaz nods in agreement.

I hold Asma’s hand and whisper, “Don’t listen to them. That’s nonsense.” Asma forces a smile, her eyes pale with guilt. As the men relax into their chairs, I pat her hand.

“Come,” I tell her, and walk away from the men’s denuding gaze. She walks by my side into the cold and desolate streets. We draw woolen shawls tightly around us and move toward the blue-black horizon, passing by the mosque and houses brimming with soft voices. “We don’t know who’s around,” Asma says. “We shouldn’t go too far.” I tell her there is nothing to be afraid of, even when I know there is no security for women in this country.

“It is God’s will” explains everything. Why a child dies at a young age; why a woman has cancer; why a tsunami wipes out an entire village; and why a woman like Asma cannot conceive.

“Don’t worry, you can talk to me here,” I say.

“Mamou is right,” she says shyly. “It is all my fault. I’ve been to many doctors. They say the same thing. ‘You are irregular. You will not have a child.’ And so it is.”

“You haven’t been to the right doctor,” I protest.

“Every man wants a child. It is his right, and I am helpless.”

“It is God’s will,” I reply, using the convenient popular across the Islamic world. “It is God’s will” explains everything. Why a child dies at a young age; why a woman has cancer; why a tsunami wipes out an entire village; and why a woman like Asma cannot conceive.

“He loves me very much,” she says, proud of a man she knows will leave her when he is asked to fight. “My husband says he doesn’t care about having children, and I told him he has my permission to marry another woman. But he could never do that to me.”

Across the Islamic world, children are the center of a home. Without them, a house is empty and endlessly gloomy. In many countries, including Pakistan, women believe children elevate their honor and status, which strikes me as hypocritical knowing that the Prophet of Islam had only four daughters and no sons—two died in infancy. According to Islamic tradition, the birth of a daughter guarantees a woman’s entry into Heaven. Islam nurtures girls, and yet, Muslim culture begs for boys.

“I didn’t know this would be my life,” Asma says. “I thought my husband would be able to put me through school or I could work to help him buy a house. We may not have much but at least we are happy.” By day, Shahnawaz is a mechanic in a car shop, working ten hours a day. Once a month, he disappears into the foothills of northern Pakistan to visit his militant leader-guru and collects a stipend for his service and loyalty to a make-believe revolution.

A barking dog shatters the stillness of the night and the sound of a tractor rolls through a yellow-green field. Back inside, Asma serves a plate of meat and sticky white rice, a staple for every Kashmiri meal. Mamou licks his fingers and steps outside to smoke. The gas heater rustles quietly like insects trapped in a tin can. Asma fidgets in her chair. In her eyes, I sense a life not-yet-lived. I think of the Dalai Lama’s key to finding joy, “Happiness is not really made. It comes from your own actions.” But how can Asma free herself from this toxic place? Who is going to help her find her purpose? How can anyone find mental clarity in a room cluttered with a husband and his desire for jihad? The evening ends expectedly: dinner, chai and small talk. Not enough time or space to know a woman burdened by the emptiness of days.

Many nights later, I return. At half past two, Asma curls into me under a pile of brown-and-gray blankets to stay warm. Our heads are wrapped in shawls. A biting chill permeates the air and a stench of smoke filters from an adjacent room, where Shahnawaz lies on his mattress, puffing cigarettes. Her round head presses against my shoulder and I whisper Rumi under my breath, “Were it not for love the world would be frozen.”

“I want you to stay,” she says.

Is it possible to befriend a strange woman in a strange place, even for one night? I imagine the two of us spending a restful weekend at the lake in Texas, my home away from Pakistan. I imagine a blossoming friendship akin to sisterhood with afternoons of sweet iced tea and late-night barbecues.

“You understand,” she whispers. “If he dies a martyr, I will be alone. At least I will be the wife of a martyr.” Her hands clasp around my waist. If she were to become a widow, I thought, she would not remarry. In most Muslim countries, women are the custodians of their husband’s honor, and a widow rarely marries again. Widows lived out their days in memory of a deceased husband.

I want to tell Asma I didn’t believe a man could love a woman while pursuing his dream of dying a martyr. Should I tell her that her husband is a convenient tool in a political war between India and Pakistan? I feel obliged to warn this young woman that the tragedies of war and the killing of innocents is not religiously or morally permissible in Islam. I grew up with the belief that God is good and that God is merciful. That no God would permit bloodletting for a purported political cause that benefited the elites of a given country.

I am here, I say over and over again, even when I know I will leave the next day and she will stay, couched under the sheets with a man she says she loves, her incongruous companion. Asma would later tell me that Shahnawaz chose to marry her because she is a plain-looking girl, obese, and with dark complexion. She believes he chose her among all the girls of the city because he needed a temporary wife. “Only a martyr would want a girl like me,” she says.

When I look at the clock, it reads 4 a.m. The affection between this woman and me is not romantic, but nurturing. A sliver of sun filters through the yellow curtains. Then the sound of boots, a creaking front gate and a call to prayer reverberating throughout the room. “I will make you tea,” Asma says. Over an old iron stove, she boils hot water and adds cardamom for flavor. Her husband is at work and the other tenants are in their rooms. We kneel before the gas heater, teacups in hand, drowning out the wild torrent of Burma Town’s crowded streets and a pandemonium of workers hammering on a house nearby.

“It doesn’t seem fair,” Asma says. “It’s just not fair.”

We say goodbye in silence. No tears, no gifts. It is simple and almost unpleasant. Mamou passes a line of school children in perfectly pressed uniforms. I smell the sweetness of wood smoke coming from tandoori bread ovens. A plump-cheeked man with a strained expression pushes a cart of vegetables away from morning traffic. Mamou drives past wilted trees, trucks rolling along dirt roads, the scent of decay. It is the longest drive to Islamabad proper, where I would collect my bags and prepare to leave Pakistan. I cup my hands and pray that the wind would move us through the browns and greens of this country and carry me home.

Farhana Qazi is a scholar and an internationally recognized public speaker on conflicts in the Islamic world. She is the author of Secrets of the Valley, a human interest story of women in Kashmir, to be released in winter 2015. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The International Herald Tribune, Foreign Policy, Newsweek, The Middle East Times, The Washington Post, Oxford Analytica, Reuters, The Wall Street Journal, Marie Claire and more. She is the recipient of the 21st Century Leader Award, presented by the National Committee on American Foreign Policy (NCAFP) for her service to the U.S. government.

Share on