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Published: December 29th 2007
Islamabad is a very sad city today. After yesterday's assassination of ex-prime minister Benazir Bhutto, three days of national mourning have been declared, and everything is closed: the markets, the shops, the bazaars. There are no taxis, no form of public transport. An eerie silence has befallen the deserted streets. Occasionally, small groups of people cluster together by the roadside. They look dejected, defeated, angry. In the process of moving hotels earlier, I pass some road blocks; young people stand around street fires and debris. There have been violent riots on the streets of many Pakistani cities last night, as people were expressing their anger and grief.
Zafar, my new host, looks like he has been crying when I arrive at the guesthouse. Looking at me through sad eyes, he says, 'Today is a very sad day for Pakistan. We have lost a great leader. It is terrible.' He advises me to either stay in my room or sit out in the garden. Everybody watches TV in silence, catching up with the latest news on the situation. Restless, I sit in the garden for a while with a pot of tea and write. The only audible noise comes from the
big grey & black crows as they croak what sounds like agitated songs of lament towards each other amongst the colourful grapefruit and orange trees. Everything feels slightly surreal and still. But obviously, this is not a relaxed stillness: the air is heavy and highly volatile, charged with the emotions of a wounded nation.
I go out for a walk in nearby Jinnah Market, where only the Afghan Bakery and Kabul Restaurant are open. A group of policemen carrying big machine guns sit on a wall and eye me suspiciously. 'Asaalam Aleikum', I say and nod towards them. They return my greeting hesitantly, obviously wondering what I am doing wandering the empty market on a day like this, one of the darkest days in the history of Pakistan. A middle-aged woman of gypsy appearance carrying a big plastic bag full of items on her head stares at me and turns as I pass her. In the process, the bag slides from her head and almost falls to the ground. Men in shawls stop to look at me with questioning eyes. A few men sit on chairs in the sun outside a closed cafe. For a moment, I toy with the thought of joining them and eating the pastries I bought in the Afghan Bakery, but then I think better of it. Maybe today is not the day.
In the afternoon, I go for another walk. I simply can't stay inside. Something draws me out. I want to feel the city, breathe it, sense its emotions. Seemingly without aim, I walk through the wide, tree-lined avenues. It's a beautiful day - the sun drenches the colourful autumn leaves. Autum leaves. It's strange to see them after the snow and ice of Chitral. It is quiet. So quiet. There is no traffic - I could easily walk in the middle of the road. The city is like a graveyard. I see very few people, only a few security guards, sitting by the kerbsides, cradling their AK-47's. Invariably, when they notice me walking by, they stop mid-sentence and stare at me. Then, I see something I've been longing to see since I have come to Pakistan: women walking on their own in the street. I spot a middle-aged lady crossing College Road, then, a little later, a young woman in glasses on 8th Avenue, clutching a briefcase. Then, a girl with headphones walks past. They walk proudly, purposefully, almost defiantly, as if in homage to Benazir.
After a right turn, I suddenly find myself on Faisal Avenue, and I see the missile-shaped towers of Faisal mosque ahead of me. I decide to walk to the mosque: it seems like an apt place to visit today. A family of four ahead of me on the tarmac is doing the same. When I reach the mosque, I find it deserted. There are very few people, the shoe counters are closed, as is the souvenir shop. I meet a group of women. They smile at me, as do the old bearded patriarchs that guard the mosque. I go up to the woman's gallery and sit in the quiet space, alone. I say a silent prayer for Benazir, for the people affected by yesterday's events, for Pakistan. I am overcome by a strange sadness. After a while, I go outside and sit on the marble stone slabs. Men kneel down behind me and pray. I watch as the sun sets, bathing the white building in golden colours.
When I arrive back in my guesthouse, I switch on the TV and see that there have been riots in Aabpara - the very district I left this morning - just behind my old hotel. There is violence all across Pakistan and curfews may be imposed. I feel a bit unnerved, but calm at the same time. As the Chitrali saying goes, 'This is life. What can we do?' What can we do indeed?
It will be interesting to see what happens next in Pakistan, with view to the elections and in general. I don't quite know what my next steps will be, as my passport is with the Indian embassy until Monday and I can't move from here before then. So I will remain in Islamabad, watching, waiting, following the news with the rest of the country. It's a strange place to be in. Being here at this time makes me more aware of the fragility of life, its transience. A few days ago, I finished reading a book that deals with just this topic: 'Veronika decides to die' by Paulo Coelho. It's the story of a young girl who attempts suicide, only to wake up in a psychiatric hospital and being told that she has irreparably damaged her heart and has only one week left to live. What follows is a meditation on life and death, as Veronika gradually realises that every day is a miracle. How intensely would you live if you knew you only had a day, a week, a month left to live? When the doctor tells her she has 24 hours left to live, Veronika asks for leave from the hospital for her last day, imploring him, 'I want to feel the rain on my face, to smile at any man I feel attracted to, to accept all the coffees men might buy for me. I want to kiss my mother, tell her I love her, weep in her lap, unashamed of showing my feelings, because they were always there even though I hid them. I might go into a church and look at those images that never meant anything to me and see if they say something to me now. If an interesting man invites me out to a club, I'll accept, and I'll dance all night until I drop. Then I'll go to bed with him, but not the way I used to go to bed with other men, trying to stay in control, pretending things I didn't feel. I want to give myself to one man, to the city, to life, and finally to death.'
In another part of the book, Coelho cites the words of an English poet: 'Be like the fountain that overflows, not like the cistern that merely contains.'
This sentence seems strangely poignant here today, in Islamabad, after the death of a woman whose life certainly overflowed.
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