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Sunday, July 17, 2016

Getting Stuck in Someone Else's Conflict - Chapter 3

It all began to seem more familiar than I had wanted it to - a proud nation on a historical crossroads got fucked over by several superpowers in 1948 and a conflict that was at first about freedom and self-definition, became one of intricate alliances, political backstabbing and religious devotion.  A nation in a continuous dilemma whether to fight or accept foreign rule, was met with a heavy-handed response and a lack of economical and political development. An economy that existed primarily on the fruit of their own labor, with a cultural center that attracted tourists, but a periphery that was poor, uneducated and mostly unemployed. A people so suspicious of any authority that it has become rife with mistrust and conspiracy theories about evil plotters trying to bring them to ruin.  It was their precious resource - water, that everyone was after, and their situation was everyone else's fault but their own.
They were mad. About their disbelief in the political process that had failed them repeatedly, about the alleged torture and rife human rights abuses, and religious leaders were supplementing their disenchantment with political mobilization and eternal promises of a fight that could be won, if only they believed in them. And it's not like they had anything better to believe in anyway.

The escalation seemed to reach a plateau by the third and fourth day, emanating to 30 something dead and thousands of injured amongst both the civilians and the army/police. "No new deaths today," I gave the daily morning report to Shagoo et al, "so at least we got that going for us. But protests are still going on in the center of Srinagar, and the curfew is still in place." We were searching for indicators of a calm in every possible venue - the 4 day funeral procession of Wani, the continous calls for a strike by religious leaders, the levels of supplies and resupplies in the stores, and the now famous Ashraf-chicken indicator, but there was no certainty to be found.  Plane tickets to Jammu and Delhi, the only way out of Srinagar at this point, had fluctuated wildly and every day prices rose to at least triple their usual price, but two days later were already at normal prices. At each new tomorrow prices rose again as people were hoping that the day after tomorrow would be calmer, only to postpone the prediction by one more day.
Nimrod and Almog's feet began to get itchy, as their blasé expressions were gradually displaced by agitation. It's not like it was their first time arriving at a new city only to see the guesthouse and nothing else, but this time it wasn't their choice. Flying out was not an option for them since they were relatively short on cash, but more importantly they were carrying a hefty amount of provisions that don't fly well. Once a day they would ask Shagoo whether he could find them a jeep to go to Manali, or Kasol - the Israeli Meccas of North India, since Almog had a birthday coming up and his trip was ending in a few weeks. But Shagoo had no good answers for them. Though he had only known Almog and Nimrod for a few short days, he knew of the typecaset they represented well.  He spent the last decade in the very scene Almog and Nimrod had come from - providing essential services for Israelis all over India who were self medicating their PTSD and exhaustion from a world rife with complexities they eagerly left behind. He wanted to help them reunite with their friends and allow them return to their natural habitat, where "sachi"s - an Israeli slang-term for sober people, were almost non-existant. But he couldn't. There was no one willing to make the drive. Yet.

"I Sachi 9 months now," Shagoo mentioned at some point while rolling yet another perfect joint for Ghunom. He had given away the personal value of this feet by the sheer preciseness of the number 9. He was counting. But while the ever optimistic, "what can I do", Shagoo, continued to display an unnerved veneer, his smile cracked into a complete facade of despair and lack of joie-de-vivre. He began half-jokingly playing with the idea of joining Almog and Nimrod for the long ride as well, "it's not like I have anything better to do here anyway."  His season was over and not coming back.  There would be no more tourists in Srinagar, and there would be nothing for him there for at least a few months. 10 long years of building networks of travelers, and travel agencies sending scores of adventurers his way. 10 years of trusting the people, his people, to finally let go of the old and allow his new to emerge in a peaceful, Indian, Kashmir. 10 years of demystifying a conflict and reassuring the hesitant that "all was good," had begun to crumble as the New York Times and Washington Post had finally dedicated headlines to the calamity unfolding on the footsteps of his home. He wasn't giving up yet, there would be time to rebuild again, but that time was not now. It was time for a quick round to his youthful days in Manali and Kasol as well.  Or at least to play with the idea.

I finally bought a plane ticket for the day after tomorrow, for the right price, and Michal, Nimrod and Almog rejoiced for me. "Well at least you're getting out of here" Michal said to me quietly. Shagoo came with good news for the first time in days, exclaiming hesitantly that there may be a public bus to Jammu today, but he wanted to see that they made it safely before sending us into open air once again, "we wait one more day, okay?" Our diet had been reduced to primarily snacking at this point, more out of apathy than the lack of food, and a handful of rice cooked by Ima would randomly arrive at some point in the day.  The TV was on intermittently, and Ze and Michal would spend long hours on the lake - where time was less stagnant and away from our watchful eyes.  To grow closer and further explore their reason for adjoining in Kashmir they needed space and time. The latter was abundant, but the former was severely lacking. They weren't working on a plan to get out yet as Ze was concerned to leave his family behind to go chasing potential rainbows, but Michal's three-week-India clock was ticking in a single direction.  "We'll wait to see whether Friday prayers are the watershed moment, and then we'll make a decision again. At least your clock is ticking in the right direction," she said to me, and she was right. My waiting had ceased to be aimless, for yet another tomorrow. It was about a real tomorrow that could not be denied, and had been paid for in full.

The day before leaving seemed like every other day before. The "play-house" congregants would come and go, and everyone mostly kept to themselves. Occasional conversations would flourish for a short while, only to be denied further development at the hands of a vibrating cellphone. Almog incessantly talked about the genius of the new Pokémon app and we finally came to recognize the extent of the hype when the Israeli president had caught a Pokémon in his official residence calling jokingly for security, or when the American Holocaust Museum posted an official request "to not catch Pokémons in the museum," as it disrupted the visitors' experience. I helped him find a way to download the app, not remembering that the app required the most mundane and taken-for-granted of freedoms we were being denied - the freedom of movement. Political conversations arose with Almog and Nimrod about their service and how to end our own little conflict but would end abruptly when Almog's exhausting argumentative tactic would subside my desire to hear his genuine opinions.
Hijaz had come to sit with us for the first time, and I only then realized that he too was a sibling of the Shagoo family. "I live in Finland for 16 years," he introduced himself reluctantly. I asked why he hadn't joined us earlier, but he said he liked to keep quiet. His regularly twitchy leg was raging nervously at the attempt to finally interact with us, as he explained the wonders of Lapland. "In summer, sun all day long. But in winter, no sun at all." He was proud of his adopted homeland of a decade and a half, and had worked as an assistant in a small hospital. "I make for you Finnish pancakes later" which turned out to be pretty much regular pancakes made by a 220 pound Kashmiri man while singing Finnish songs, under curfew, for Israelis. "Finnish pancakes?" Shagoo asked, to which I responded with "No. Just starting!", but only I laughed at the obvious pun that would work only in a preposition-less world.

Shagoo had finally found a driver willing to take me to the airport the next day. The taxi ride's price was double, and cost a third of the flight to New Delhi, but this was of no concern at this point.  The flight changed multiple times, as the booking company was unsure about the status of flights from Srinagar.  I ended up buying three different plane tickets, with only the last actually sticking, and I knew that if need be the charges would be canceled.  The first flight had been at 12:30, and the new flight was 15:30, but Shagoo asked me to go to the airport at the same time still.  I'd be safe there, and it would be better to be early anyway.

There was no more conversation. They had all been had. Nothing new to say anymore.
We, the ones who had somewhere else to go, were just waiting to get out.
The others were just waiting for it to end.
So I waited for the day to end.
And it did.

The preparation for the drive to the airport the next day seemed tense, while everyone maintained an aura of "all-as-usual." It was the mundane that seemed so awkwardly familiar. Friending people on Facebook and packing my belongings appeared to resemble a return to my not so distant travel-time experiences. Only the decision to wear shoes instead of my usual flip-flop-to-the-airport attire signaled the indeterminate nature of the short ride ahead. Just in case I need to run.
I was still on the phone with the travel agency, trying to ensure that at least two of my three tickets would not be charged, when Shagoo politely asked me to get going.  I said my farewells to my non-elected companions to guest-house-arrest, and settled my still-standard bills with Shagoo. He refused, as everyone else had done, to accept a surcharge for the experience. We hopped onto his boat, and he took me silently to Gate 15 and ensured that the taxi would go straight to the airport.
I had my camera out expecting to see ravished streets and violent protests, only to be trodden through side-allies with armed guards at every turn. They stood tense, anticipating the calm to end abruptly as it had the days before. Few convenience stores were open, but with the shudders still half closed, as mostly elder women and children pounded the unpaved streets to resupply.  The few men wandering aimlessly were gazed at by the many men in uniform as another ambulance stormed by.  I continuously snapped pictures through the cracked windshield of our taxi - stray dogs, stone damaged military jeeps, and the occasional fruit vendor, trying to recoup another day of lost wages.
The entry to the airport was a three-fold escapade, involving multiple checks and endless verification that I was in fact an American as I had claimed, neglecting to mention for the first time on my trip that I identified first as an Israeli. The outer front lawn of the airport was inundated with hundreds of people, passing time leisurely in the safety of the countless armed guards. A constant stream of young men and old were paraded through the airport, all wearing a white buttoned shirt and black trousers - a precursor to the uniform they would adorn shortly. Weary faces of men who had come to suppress an uprising, reminding me of the faces of friends who got called to reserve duty in Israel. The uniformed officers were laughing, and displayed a convincing nonchalance that projected certainty and safety.

I sat in the corner of the outer area, waiting patiently for the coming five long hours to pass. I smiled at people who glanced at the only white person around, and offered a smoke to those sitting next to me. Mohmmad came and sat nearby, waiting for an opening to begin the conversation. "Where from?" he asked, emphatically smiling at me, "What you tell people about this when you go back to America?" He didn't wait for the pleasantries of my experiences from Srinagar, as others had done before.  He seemed agitated and wanted me to know the truth. His truth.
I paused hesitantly, searching for the correct words to use - terrorist or freedom fighter, legitimate protests or riots, curfew or strike? What was he looking for so I could give him the answer he was searching for to get him to talk more? But it didn't matter. He was willing to correct my story anyway. "I will say that there was some bad times in Srinagar, and I hope for peace," I told him diplomatically.  I had learned once before that hoping for peace was almost always the most ambiguous answer you could give in these situations.
"There will be no peace until there is freedom for Kashmir," Mohmmad said to me passionately. "The Indian want to take it from us, but we will never allow it. Life is not worth living without freedom." I looked at him momentarily and knew there could be only one response - "Inshalla," I said to him, mustering my best Arabic accent I could find. He smiled warmly. "The only weapon I have against the Indian invader is a stone, and so I use it. But they, cowards, come at us with their guns and shoot.  You know how many times I tortured?? Yes Yes, I been tortured by Indian Army three, four times, since I kid." The scholar in me was searching for definitions of torture and to question his claim, but I calmed the stupid scholar down and allowed the stream of verbiage to continue apace. He counted the abuses he had incurred and the friends he had lost.  He accredited the Indian oppression to the water and resources Kashmir was endowed with, and then simplistically reduced the conflict to intrusive American foreign policy.
"Who you think did 9-11" he asked me, as I stumbled to find a pleasing answer. "It's America who did it, so they could invade Afghanistan, and then take Iraq's oil" he responded before I could even think of a reply. Though I asked why the US would want to simply conquer Afghanistan, since his rationale for Iraq while wrong was still plausible, he could only muster that Americans had an innate desire to take over Asia. "But not me," I told him reassuringly, "I just want peace. And you know many people in America don't like these wars and think they were a big mistake," I attempted a slight push-back to see if he would bite, but it just flew by him. He expanded into a brief history of their conflict, marching me through the dates as I had done with Ayu only just a few days before. 1947 - independence, and the acquiescence to temporary Indian rule and the promised plebiscite that never happened, 1957 - formal incorporation of Kashmir into India, a slew of wars in the middle, and 1989 with what he claimed were rigged election, and the first rise of Hizbul-Mujaheedin, 2010 and the suppression of riots. His spin was the one I had seen on twitter from the Islamists, praising the Mujaheedin and the separatist political leaders for their brave fight against the occupation.
It was easier to experience their strife through twitter, in the calm of Shagoo's guest-house.  Though stormy and emotional, it lacked a face that anguished and hurt like Mohmmad's.  He was sitting in front of me, being careful to lower his voice when a soldier walked by.  The conversation was gaining attention by the Hindi passers-by who wanted to interject, but knew not to. He needed to vent, they thought to themselves, a few smiling sympathetically, maybe thinking that he might be bearing even a shred of truth. He wasn't wrong, he had experienced wrong-doing first hand and he was angry. Viciously angry and despair had taken over.
He would fly to Delhi in an hour to support his flailing building supply business.
The bodies on the street would be collected, the injured would be treated and the buildings would be rebuilt.  He would sell his supplies to both Kashmiris and the Indian military, and capitalize on the changed reality just like everyone else. He got up to finally to catch his flight after pleading with me to share his story as he ambiguously grinned with rage at the Indian officer nearby. He had already pelted his anger at the Indian forces in Srinagar, and now was the time to begin to rebuild. "Next time you come to Srinagar, you come stay with me, and I'll show you the most beautiful places in Pahalgham, Tral, Anantag and Shopian," names I had become intimately familiar with over the last few days as the center of the militant forces, "here is my phone number and facebook.  Call me when you come again."
I was tempted I have to admit.

And maybe I will come back.
After all, I still haven't seen what Kashmir really has to offer.

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