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Friday, July 15, 2016

Getting Stuck in Someone Else's Conflict - Chapter 1

Have you ever wondered what it's like to be a conflict student from Israel in the middle of someone else's conflict while traveling casually through India, listening in on a conversation of the guesthouse owner and his buddies with two stoner Israeli twenty something-year-olds, one flying out that night and the other planning on going to see the ganga fields in the area, while another, Michal, just landed from Israel after rushing to catch her flight to meet friends she had met in Israel, Kashmiri friends from Israel, that is? And then there was Almog, who just told me he plans on running to a village with no cellphone reception to get wasted for three weeks because he’s so pissed, about nothing in particular except for being stuck in this odd situation.

I had just finished adventuring in Ladakh, allowing the peak of Stok Kangri to be the peak of Ladakh for me. I had organized a shared jeep through some agency, and happened to end up with Almog, and his two friends Nimrod and Gilad. They were exactly what you would think three tall, male, post-army, Israelis would look like -  a neglected beard and unkempt hair, droopy, red-shot eyes and an attitude that permanently exists within the thin red line between haggling in good faith and mild aggression.

I only had a cab ride to share with them, and embraced the idea of bringing out the stoner side I had neglected in my more recent play-like-an-adult bout, even if that side would only come and play for a quick 16 hour drive down the winding roads leaving the Himalayan Plateau. But while Almog begged the driver to stop multiple times to vomit, and Gilad seemed consistently pissy, I kinda slept through the whole endeavor.  I listened to a podcast or two and the recent Grateful Dead reunion show accompanied some thoughts when I awoke from yet another “bump” that connected my head to the ceiling, violently.

We all awoke for the last hour or so of the ride, as the sun began to shine, with only the dramatic change from a rustic desert to lush greenery indicating the length of our travails. The dusty sideways of a bustling city’s road at dusk, awaiting the roar of the people to raise it once again into the wind was juxtaposed with a serene and expansive lake. Mountains opened up in plain sight as the street wound down as we arrived in Srinagar, Kashmir.  At the empty dock we were to be picked up by Shagoo, our Kashmiri guest house owner, arranged by the vast network of Israelis in India.  I tagged along, not desiring to begin searching for adequate housing, knowing I would do my own thing the next day anyway. For now, I was a free rider.

Shagoo immediately began acting out the regularities of guest-house-owner-greets-Israeli group of four.  “Sababa-Kababa, I show, I show, you come, look look. Here can Mastul.” There was a front lawn on the non-boathouse guesthouse on the lake, with shade covering the tables displaying premium real estate for future lounging, and we all came to the conclusion that we would stay here. “But first rest”, Shagoo told us, “ today Eid anyway, city very busy.  Tomorrow better.” Shagoo was referring to Eid al-Fitr, the Muslim festivities at the end of Ramadan that tends to bring out crowds of predominantly male teenagers into the restaurants and streets. We went into town for a quick breakfast at a local joint and encountered the exact stereotype Shagoo had implied - a group of restless adolescent boys who had just finished breakfast and glanced at us simultaneously maliciously and curiously. It was not dissimilar to the feeling of wandering through The Old City of Jerusalem on the border between quarters, on a relatively tense day - alert but calm; but just as at home, I also acknowledged to myself that I’m more likely to be over-interpreting the situation.

We wrapped up breakfast and found a boat-taxi to take us back into our portion of the lake - Gate 15. The threesome had decided to go back to sleep, but I wanted to see more.  Taking longer than usual, drawing out each mundane task, I finally resisted my languid urge and got off my ass.  I was still on my Stok Kangri high, and wanted to climb another mountain, to get another look at something from up top. “Yes, yes.  Good idea. Hindu Temple on top. You can walk, you can tuk tuk”, Shagoo began saying, unknowingly emphasizing the Kashimiri accent’s Persian melody, “and come back and we go dinner.”

I climbed the 9 km up the hill to the Shankara Temple, where my pal from previous travels Jesus Christ was said to have visited a while ago, you know, when he was still around for the first time. But the real reason Hindus come to pray here was mostly to pass time during their holy pilgrimage to The Amarnath Yatra - where one of their holiest shrines was revealed for only one month a year inside a snow covered cave, located an hour Srinagar. The view from the top revealed the glamour and clamor of a city on the crossroads of empires, switching hands as regional capital for the Moghuls, the Sikhs, the British and now the Indians.  A slew of Hindi pilgrims lingered aimlessly on the side alleys, alternating between religious ecstasy and casual downtime.  It was Josh, the American sporting a “Teach for America” t-shirt and a cluelessness of a first-time traveler that caught my eye. “Where have you been teaching,” I asked, naturally re-embracing my American accent after its recent hiatus in favor of an Israeli one, “I had an ex who did the same thing” I opened up to conversation nonchalantly. “Oh yeah, we're in Memphis”, he said, slightly relieved by the unlikely encounter with another American, “yeah, me and my buddies are all TfA there, and decided to make a quick trip to the east before we began our second year.”

Josh began the introductions with “this is Matt, Trey…” and whatever other names Josh may have mentioned and I’m either making up or twisting not-so-ever-so-slightly. They had just finished a grand tour of Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand and Delhi, in a month, and now had a few days to burn before heading home, and wanted to escape the heat of Delhi. “Oh my brother went to Emory as well, but for law”, Trey said glaringly, half spitting and sputtering in my direction from excitement after our introductions, “and my brother just graduated from Emory Med”, Evan added stoically. I threw around my usual impress-the-americans-with-cool-life-story lines, casually mentioning wilderness therapy and waiting for a “wait, wait. What’s that exactly? Wilderness. Therapy?”, only for me to downplay the thrilling lifestyle of 8 days in the field with teenage addicts shifting from monsters to men. They asked if they could send a few students my way. Ha ha.
We played the what-we-share-in-common game of quasi-Yankees living in the South, and all got excited about the novelties of Southern hospitality and the fact that “everyone just smiles at you all the time.”
They were rushed away by their Kashmiri tour guide who was still hoping they would manage to make a stop at the Mughal Gardens before sunset. I caught a ride with them back to the lake and upon parting gave them my full name to find me on facebook, “I’m the Daniel Arnon with the snow in the background of my profile pic, not the Israeli teenage girl.  Some people get us confused, you know, same name.”

50 ruppees and 15 minutes poorer, I returned to the guest-house to find Almog, Gilad and Nimrod, all slowly awaking and getting ready for a nice Dhaba dinner on the main street. A short boat tour, a quick visit with Ashraf - the boat-kebab guy who sells grilled meats on the lake, and a tuktuk ride later, we found a nice place to eat. “Four Thali” Gilad bellowed at our server, still cranky from the long drive this morning, “and this come chapati, yes?” he added, softening his tone a little. It did.

Dinner ended with satisfied faces while the hubub of Eid and the Yarta overflowed onto the boulevard adjacent the lake, cramming the wide sidewalks and the streets.  The tuk-tuks easily maneuvering between stand-still traffic jams, while street vendors sold juices and necklaces of the Mughal dynasty. We hurried back to Gate 15, splitting up momentarily after an argument erupted about whether it would be quicker by taxi or by foot. Gilad and I walked, and arrived first. We found a boat guy for a reasonable price, and Nimrod reemerged after defiantly insisting on not-walking back to our gate, with a fresh pack of cigarettes, a bottle of coke and a carton of chocolate bars. “Just in case we get hungry,” Nimrod grinned at us widely, raising the box ever so slightly and displaying all 14 bars as his bargain of the day.
I had been placed with Almog in our shared room, and we pleasantly organized our belongings, preparing for some hard-earned sleep.  Or at least I had.  They still sat outside for a little while longer as the neighbors began to congregate in Shagoo's local "play-room" coming to entertain and be entertained by his usual slew of Israeli travelers.

We woke up the next day relatively late and the allure of maintaining stoner-Israeli-twenty-something-year-old status for another day seemed even more appealing.  After all, I had never had the 6-9 months to travel leisurely through India that most Israelis had entitled themselves to.  I was trying to cram in as many adventures my three weeks could afford, and the "Chai, Chillum, Chapati" scene in India was also on the list. So I went with it. Hesitantly.
I began piecing together what it was I even wanted to see in Srinagar, and how I could get a glimpse of this also-famous conflict of theirs over who Kashmir reaaally belonged to - India, Pakistan or neither. "No no, the border is far far away" Shagoo told me, introducing prepositions for the first time in a sentence and allowing his 12 years of living in London to bring out his non-Indian English, "here in Srinagar all is quiet.  We go out later and I'll show you around. You come with me and see no problems." It was hard to explain that I was kinda looking for the problems, mostly to have another point of reference to tourism in a conflict zone.
Shagoo and I talked about where I could go in a few days, and we settled on Aru - a small village in a close-by national park, and from there I would take another bus to Jammu and then to Amritsar, in Punjab, to see the holy Sikh temple. I had told to go see the Waga border ceremony between the Indian and Pakistani militaries in which an elaborate and mildly aggressive dance is performed by both sides, symbolizing the countries' "brotherhood and rivalry", as wikipedia put it, only to shake hands at the end only to be repeated the next day.  "Think about it," I told Almog, the more talkative and philosophically inclined of the three, "wouldn't it be cool if we could introduce a ceremony like that in Bil'in? Instead of shooting tear gas grenades and rubber bullets at people every week in response to protests, we would just be dancing in front of the Palestinian Police?" He grimaced at the thought, but allowed it to linger longer than I had expected.

And as the plan began to form, fully knowing that a travel plan in India is not a blueprint set in stone but rather a loose connection of dynamic proposals, I sank into the idea of just hanging out today.  I mapped out the tourist recommendations for Srinagar, and postponed my initial day of exploring a new city til tomorrow, allowing the serenity of lounging by the lake to settle in. By two O'clock I had finally succumbed to the concept of a "waisted day", and we asked Shagoo to have Ashraf come deliver lunch at the guest-house. "Good, good idea. A little bit of Balagan today in city" Shagoo said, adding the second part in almost a whisper while emphasizing the Hebrew word for a messy situation. He knew that we knew what it was like to have a little balagan every once in a while. "But tomorrow, we go out together, and I take you see all cool parts in Srinagar and we go together and see that everything is okay. And I find shared taxi for you Daniel to go Aru, still waiting to hear from friend."
The internet was working well at Shagoo's house, a delight for me after a week of Ladakhi internet - which meant you never knew if it was actually working.  So I looked up to see what kind of balagan the Kashmiri's were facing these days, and whether I could try to piece it together while I was here. "Kinda cool," I thought to myself, "to see how people dealt with these situations and to fully be a tourist in someone else's 'situation' as we call these in Israel."

A quick internet search began to reveal a slowly unraveling situation. Burhan Wani, 22, a blooming leader of the terrorist group Hizbul Mujahideen - an Islamic pro-Pakistani separatist movement, had been targeted and killed by the Indian military. And while Wani was not very "productive" in his insurgent capacities to launch successful military-style attacks, he had become the face of a rejuvenated vanguard of youth returning to take arms in support of separation after years of a gradual regression in violence.  It was Wani's public persona as the face of the popular resistance that the Indian army had "assassinated", as the separatist newspapers in Kashmir were calling the event, and this act would not go by silently. The funeral processions would be held that evening, and thousands had begun to pour into Tral, Wani's village on the highway between Srinagar and Jammu, to see his young body wrapped in the Pakistani flag. He would find his final resting stop next to his brother, who was also shot by Indian Security forces and possibly tortured  a year ago. A general strike had been called by a local political leader in response to the killing, and during the protests some people had been injured and a few had died. So they were imposing "curfew-like conditions", and we would be staying put tonight.

"Holy shit," I thought to myself "is this serious? what's the level of concern? and how do I calibrate this to Israeli levels?" I began to dig deeper into what was going on, when I suddenly realized that this all happened in the last few hours while I was still busy making plans. I just ran into someone else's conflict. "How cool is that", I thought to myself quietly, actively trying to hide the little twinkle that had sparked in my throat, leading the meeting point between my upper and lower lips to twitch ever so slightly.
Michal arrived only moments later with Ze, Shagoo's brother, and was promptly introduced to the family, bearing the best of gifts from Israel - Tehini. She was trying to get acquainted with the family of her friends, but both Ze and Michal were a little bit shaken. "Yeah, it was kinda tense out there, but it's all calm" she told us reassuringly, "lot's of police on the streets and most shops were closed." Michal had easily placed stoner-boys 1,2, 3 and me initially into the same type of India trip, and felt she had to take a more heartening tone.
"I invite Ashraf to come for dinner tonight again," Shagoo said assertively, and we collectively acquiesced.

"You see, I told you" Almog said in Hebrew with a self-satisfied side glance, " We're in Guest-House-Arrest!", a pun we only discovered when the conversation shifted to English to accommodate Ze. "You did say that," I conceded partially to Almog who had picked up on the bad juju earlier, "but we're not in 'guest-house-arrest', because no one is imposing it on you.  You can leave, but you can't really go anywhere, because there are no cars on the street." "If I can't go anywhere I like, then I'm under guest-house-arrest," Almog kept arguing sneakily, and I wasn't feeling like having another round of pointless discussion.  Twitter seemed to be the more productive choice.
Gilad woke up and came to join the front porch with us all, beginning to summarize his last 9 months in India for himself and his travel buddies of recent, before parting for Israel that night. "Yeah, man, Israel, okay, cool" he said to no one in particular. He had already come to terms with his imminent demise, but when the time really came he was still surprised that his India was actually coming to an end. "Oh, and there's a bit of a mess outside, so we're staying in for dinner again, with Ashraf" Nimrod said reluctantly, "but you'll be okay for your flight." The words lingered in the air for a few seconds when Gilad suddently shook his head and asked again what was going on. So I gave him the brief summary of what we knew - Wani, protests, curfew. We checked flights and they seemed to be in order.
They too were calibrating the levels of concern, and tried to understand the events in our own Israeli terms. "Imagine we had just assassinated Ismail Haniyeh," I said, pondering whether the analogy was accurate in terms of the level of escalation, with Michal saying that I may be pushing it too far. He was not the commander of an organization with such power, after all. "Ahh, okay," Almog said with an imaginary clicking sound going on in his head, "So, now we prepare the bomb shelters, cool." There was no physical or emotional reaction, not even a flinch. He was from Kiryat Gat - a town that's seen its fair share of rocket down-pouring, and he simply reached over and prepared another round. It was his turn anyway.
So we sat.
Nimrod, Gilad, Almog, Michal, Ze, Shagoo and myself, and neighbors once again began to congregate.

I was following the Kashmiri twitter feed and piecing together which newspapers were pro-Pakistan and which were pro-India, while an argument about whether it was even legitimate to have Shlomo Artzi, a local Israeli pop-singer on your playlist or not. Obviously not, he fucking sucks. Speckles of conversation floated leisurely in British-English, Kashmiri-English, Indian-English and Hebrew-English. Each dialect bending the rules of grammar in a different direction, while comprehension was always maintained, at least at some level.
"I love everyone here" Ghunom said excitedly as he arrived to meet again his friends from last night. Gilad and Nimrod had ever-so-slightly pushed his capacities for marijuana consumption the night before and they all got close. "I only wake up at 1 o'clock, but I sleep so goood" he exalted, as the conversation eased while it sought exclusively comedic relief. Ghumon, a light-hearted 50 something Kashimiri, provided the entertainment. Long silences followed by jokes, as long as the main issue would not be discussed. But the tension was there. Sitting beside us at all times.
And as the day came grindingly to a halt, and people began to go to bed, I entered my room to find Almog lying in bed wide awake glaring into the ceiling. I organized my things and prepared to glide into some Grateful Dead "space" to help me fall asleep, and hesitantly said "well I'm sure tomorrow we'll figure it out and it'll be cool." But Almog was unnerved, not by other's people balagan, but by his own internal shit. "If I want to get out of here I will. But mark my word, I will be spending my last three weeks in India, in Kasol. I don't need this bullshit."
I allowed the words to just linger, I had no response.
There would be plenty of time tomorrow for this kinda shit.
I gradually inserted my earphones and let Trey take over my thoughts.
Slipping in and out of sleep.
Songs beginning
and ending

"Truckin', got my chips cashed in,
Trucking', like a doo daa man...

Your typical city involved in a typical daydream
Hang it up and see what tomorrow brings...

Sometimes the lights all shinin' on me
other times I can barely see
Lately it occurs to me
What a long strange trip it's been..."

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