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Eid or Christmas?

This was my sixth blog entry from the ShantiSalaam tour that I co-organized with Hawah and V:shal in 2006-2007 to promote communcal harmony in South Asia.

8:04 a.m. – We got to Lahore yesterday, where I've found myself homesick for the first time since leaving.

The day was interesting and relatively uneventful.  We explored and prayed at the overwhelmingly beautiful Golden Temple in Amritsar, which is the epicenter of Sikhism.  A few blocks away, we visited a memorial at the site of a 1919 massacre in which the British Army killed thousands of peaceful Indians gathering to voice dissent.  The scene was re-enacted in the movie Gandhi starring Ben Kingsley, and seemed horrific from what we could tell.  We looked into a well in which hundreds of people threw themselves to escape the torrent of bullets…probably killing themselves even before the British army approached and finished the job with a hail of yet even more.  The experience reminded me that – however much systemic and pervasive injustice our world faces today, we have it quite well in the contemporary U.S.

Then we drove to the border at Wagha, where Hawah and I (Vishal's returning to Delhi in order to spin a DJ set Sunday night and spend some more time with his grandparents in Chadigarh) navigated a slow, but otherwise unobjectionable bureaucracy to cross into Pakistan.

First we couldn't enter with any Indian currency; then we couldn't enter with more than 500 Pakistani rupees.  Then we had to go through Indian immigration, then customs, before repeating the ritual on the Pakistani side.  We saw a veritable army of coolies (porters) carrying loads of tomatoes in boxes on their heads, illustrating perhaps the least efficient process I have ever witnessed: a delivery truck approaches one side of the border; every last item in it is unpacked and sent with a coolie on a one kilometer walk; the coolie then walks to the border and passes it from hand-to-hand to another coolie on the other side, undifferentiable from the first in all respects but for the conspicuous change in the uniform: blue on the Indian side, and a curious combination of red and green on the Pakistani side that evoked Christmas.  The second coolie then has to walk another kilometer to another truck waiting on the other side of the border.  You might suggest that the measures are at least important for some sort of security reason, except that there appeared no screening process (that I could discern, at least).

Christmas and Eid nearly intersect this year, Eid being celebrated on the first of January, only 7 days after Christmas.  Because Islamic holidays are based on a lunar calendar, they shift roughly 10 days from year-to-year, so this is the first year of confluence in a generation.  And it's bizarre: we saw a Christmas tree in the hotel we reached in Lahore; there are massive billboards everywhere; and my uncle who came to meet us spoke of Eid shopping, conjuring images of festive consumers all over the planet going through precisely the same consumptive ritual, before we later noticed the neighborhood we're staying in inundated by shoppers well into the night. 

That's not the only way in which I've been struck by Lahore, which has defied more or less every expectation I held before coming.  First of all, the streets are broad, paved, and nearly devoid of trash – a far cry from the norm in India, where "streets" tend to be aggrandized dirt paths pockmarked by all manner of rocks, holes, and detritus.  Lahori streets even have lane markers! 

At the same time, the degree of development has its social costs: there appear above the heads of women covering their heads (some of whom even wear bhurkas) billboards of scantily-dressed white models hawking lingerie.  My uncle suggested that the backlash against Westernization that we in the West call "Muslim Fundamentalism" emerged predictably.  The writing appeared on the proverbial wall as early as the late 70s, when the culture of consumption, work and sex arrived before the economic capacity was established to support a secular middle class.  That support seems to exist now, but the cultural forces seeking to drag Muslim countries into a new Dark Age have already managed to secure themselves a social foothold.  The President here has escaped several attempts on his life, any of which could have swung the keys to this nuclear-armed country into the hands of religious zealots.

Then again, the keys to the prototypical nuclear-armed country, and the only one so selfish and short-sighted to actually deploy nuclear weapons against human populations – the U.S. – have been held by fanatics since the turn of the Millennium, so who’s counting?

Another arena in which I've been disappointed here is my sudden sense of isolation.  India seemed open-armed to me, and despite encountering fairly high language barriers in some areas (like Himachal, for instance, where I was largely relegated to hand signs and smiles), I felt at ease everywhere I went.  In contrast, Lahore strikes me a bit like New York in its bustle and the ease with which one can pass among the throngs unnoticed.  Maybe it's related to the particular events of last night.

My uncle whom I met last year in New Jersey at an elder aunt's funeral came to meet us, and helped us secure a reasonably-priced hotel in the area before dropping Hawah off at a nearby music school and taking me back to his place.  It turned out that the organizers asked Hawah to open the set (which I'm dying to ask about once he wakes up), while I sat in my uncle's house and struggled to make conversation. 

On the one hand, missing the event is really nothing at all, as Hawah had to miss our first workshop in Sidhbari in order to drop off files for our flyers (all of which we inadvertently left with Vishal at the border) at a printer, while Vishal's missing both Lahore and Islamabad here in Pakistan.  But on the other hand, it seemed emblematic of an attitude here that, as a child, I felt in my parents. 

My uncle softly ridiculed our Project, asking why I attended Stanford Law School.  The rest of my family – whom I'd never met before, and whom I knew only through stories – had the graciousness to chuckle at news of my efforts as an artist or organizer.  I took it with a smile, but seethed within before finally letting it go later and chalking it up to the insensitivity and small-mindedness that I always felt pervaded my family.  It's amazing how provincial well-educated people can remain, and how deeply the status-obsessed Western ethic can destroy the capacity for families-in-Diaspora to connect across borders. 

The most frustrating part is that I even jumped through all their damned hoops: I taught at one of the most renowned legal institutions in the world, for God's sake!  Why am I still trying to prove myself?  And that's just it: I don't need to prove myself to them, nor will I. 

There's a certain denigration of art here, at least relative to my professional training as a lawyer.  My parents and I used to get in shouting matches about my dreams of pursuing music, and while my Uncle and Aunt were far less judgmental (and my uncle even shared word of a vibrant local musical heritage), there were certainly many chuckles from everyone to whom I explained ShantiSalaam's aims and methods.  And, just to be fair, I can offer a rigorous refutation within that framework: legal training conveys skills, which can be bent to any use; I wield my art as a tool for international diplomacy, which serves an incalculably immense public good; whereas the representation of private clients – however lucrative – normally entails rent-seeking behavior with no relevance to anyone else. 

I have no need to labor under the judgment of those whose vision remains clouded by the life of this world and its various illusions.

And that's just it: I hadn't felt that need until I reached my family here in Lahore.  It was the worst part of growing up Pakistani in the U.S., and now – while seeking my ancestral roots – I find myself right back there again.  Perhaps there's little else one can expect when returning to an ancestral country after a 30-year absence.  And as long as I speak Spanish, and feel so welcomed in countries that speak it, why come to Pakistan? 

Perhaps I should separate my experiences with my family from those with strangers, who have seemed consistently welcoming and supportive.  On our way to Lahore from Wagha, we stopped at a random gas station in order to use the phone.  My cell phone hasn't had network access since we entered Jammu several days ago, and I've been hopelessly out of touch with most of our contacts here in Pakistan.  I needed to call my uncle to figure out where we should go, and after a 15-minute struggle to get a connection, the proprietor of the phone service refused any payment and bid me farewell.

In any case, Hawah just rolled over and shared word that we have another gig at the music school on Tuesday.  It seems we'll have a few things here to keep us busy, after all.

9:53 a.m. – So Hawah apparently rocked the spot last night – we’ve got a recording session and performance on Tuesday, in addition to a wide crowd of folks who dig what we're doing and with whom we're spending time over the next several days.  

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