Conversations in the North

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November 23rd 2007
Published: November 23rd 2007
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Gilgit. Northern Areas. Pakistan.
Liberation Day Celebrations.

As proof of the army's training, professionalism, and combat-readiness, we the crowd are treated to a mock operation, with soldiers repelling down ropes from an airborne helicopter to secure the area. I saw the same yesterday: total and complete *amateurs*. One was too scared and had to be pulled back in. It took maybe 20 minutes for 8 people to disembark. I'm sure that's enough time for all Taliban in a 10 mile radius to show up with RPGs and blow the thing out of the sky.

I'm redeeming the time writing a postcard: "Greetings from Pakistan! This is a lake near a glacier I hiked to the other day. I bet it doesn't match your mental image of Pakistan... It's beautiful here but it's getting cold."

After the show I go over to the fair area to kill an hour or so before I go to the DC's Office (DC? District Commander? Deputy Commissioner? DC!) to get a visa extension. Has it been a month already? A group of "college" boys pass by and we eye each other. J said travelers behave like dogs circling around and sniffing each other. One of them has a photocopied booklet with "Y-JESUS" in big words on the cover. I simply must talk to him.

"I'm doing a presentation tomorrow for English class about 9/11. This is information I got from the internet."

He shows me the papers: "Why is Jesus relevant today?" The usual: "looking for meaning in life? We are the keepers of the sacred words." What does this have to do with 9/11? Are you Christian? No, I'm Muslim. I'm confused.

As a good host he shows me around the stalls. As a good guest I meekly follow. There are some artillery pieces and a handful of automatic assault weapons captured from the Indian Army. And some high-tech cold-weather clothes, mountaineering gear and even an oxygen tent for the wounded: these are used in the ongoing fighting in the Siachen glacier, perhaps the most bizarre aspect of the Indian/Pakistani dispute over the Kashmir region (which, incidentally, the Northern Areas once was a part of, and whom today we are celebrating its independence from.)

It's 2pm. Maybe the DC will stop by his office for a few minutes after the parade. I tell my host (Rezak) I must be going. He accompanies me. I can no longer restrain myself: But what do those papers have to do with 9/11?

He's triumphant: You see? This here on the cover is the World Trade Center! This man... he explains it here... see (he flips to a section about "The Passion of Christ" and has a full-page picture of "Jesus") *this* man is responsible for September 11, *not* Osama bin Laden!"

I'm dumbstruck. So... Jesus Christ plotted and carried out the attacks on the WTC? There must be a misunderstanding... I gently prod: "so this word 'Jesus'... what does it mean?" "He's the grandfather of this man (he flips through the pages) who wrote this booklet." "And this... this word 'Christ'?" Nevermind. The names are different in Islam. I can't let him go up in front of his class and make a fool of himself tomorrow... or worse yet, have a whole classfull of people thinking this grandfather-guy Jesus is the real culprit of 9/11. I explain that Jesus is Hazret Isa, and Christ is English for Masih. I flip over to the picture.. "and this is Hazret Isa!"

No, it's not possible. I know that in the time of Hazret Isa there were no cameras or videos, so it's not possible that this is a picture of him!

I know... (this is hard to describe)... this man, Mel Gibson -- did you see Mad Max? Well, that guy made a movie about the death of Hazret Isa. And this picture is of the actor in that movie.

We've arrived at the DC's Office. The soldier on duty says it's closed but we go in anyway. In the dusky room is a man sitting -- clearly not The Man, but he might either be another petitioner or he might be somebody who can make your life easy or much harder. Remember Sudan. Never jump to conclusions. I briefly explain the situation as if commiserating. But you see... my visa expires today! He looks at my passport. We talk about how not many Turkish people travel. People come and go, I'm given a form to fill out, and there are left four of us sitting in the room: Rezak, the (now-confirmed) official with local hat and glasses, a third man looking in his 30s (we'll call him B), and my humble self, shivering as all my warm clothes are trying to dry on the line back at the hotel. I'm the only one wearing shalwar-kameez.

Muslim? Muslim. What do you think about your national hero Mustafa Kemal? Me personally? I think he was a very good soldier but a bad president; many of his policies were very bad for our people. Yes, you can say the same about our president Musharraf too... Tell me what is the situation with your prime minister... what's his name? They say he's radical Muslim. Well, truth is he *isn't* radically Muslim at all. Then why is your military opposed to him? Well.. compared to our military and in our country everyone who practices is a fundamentalist. And you? Do you practice? Sometimes. (Everyone laughs) How about Ramazan... do you fast? Well, this year I was /musafir/.. travelers don't have to fast. Are you sure you didn't plan it that way? (More laughter) How many years have you fasted? You mean completely? Zero. It's just that this year I have the excuse of being a traveler. In your country there is alcohol? Yes. And the women? We have everything... some dress like Europeans, others wear hijab, others even wear niqab... but they are few. And brothels? Do you have brothels? Yes, we do. They have brothels everywhere, in every country -- even in Pakistan, even in Iran... but they're secret. In Turkey they're official. B turns to the official: but what's the difference between drinking and having a brothel? Both are /haram/.. Yes, but.. there *is* a difference! (We laugh). So what is your experience in Pakistan; is it like the news says? You know.. the news is always trying to show Pakistan as a dangerous place.. but even with the crazy people like some Pashtuns (I know they aren't Pashtun here) I don't feel dangerous, because they're all very hospitable. That's true... Muslims are very hospitable.

It turns out Rezak is Shia, the official is Ismaili, and B a Sunni from nearby Chilas (regarded as the most conservative town in the region.)

We talk about inter-communal strife: it's only some people who are ignorant who fight other people. Because we don't listen to our mullahs. What do you mean? Do the mullahs tell you to fight? The Ismaili official speaks up: no, but if your mullah is saying these other people are not Muslim, they are /kafir/... then of course you will attack them. (It reminds me of what someone in Quetta told me: Ismailis are "constitutionally" kafirs. Seems odd that the constitution would decide on who's an infidel and going to hell, and who's not.)

The Sunni says: Have you heard the story of Maryam Jamila? 9/11 and the War on Terror (sic) has been the best thing for Islam: because there's so much fear and propaganda against Islam and Muslims that people decide to learn about it and then they become Muslim! Yes, but... it's also been terrible for a lot of Muslims who've suffered, right? It actually helped us to remember the truth: the Jews and Christians are our enemies. We had forgotten that and were thinking we could be friends. But we're once again reminded that we cannot be friends. And after all, what does it matter? We're all going to die -- a few years earlier, a few years later... it makes no difference to the end result. Muslims now have no option but to suicide bomb.

Yes, but if you are only killing the oppressor that's good, but usually they kill one soldier and 50 innocent bystanders with him. And sometimes only innocent people. This is not real jihad. No (they agree) that isn't jihad. And also... you make a suicide attack and kill 10 people, then they say "all Muslims are terrorists" and they come with their planes and kill 100 people... and the violence never ends. Of course, I understand, if someone kills my brother or someone from my family, I won't think too much about who in particular was responsible, I'll just want revenge.. but how will the violence end?

Yes, it's right. Then I only want to kill all of them. I hate Americans. They really are the enemy of Islam. Look at Afghanistan, Iraq, Palestine (and Somalia and Iran and Pakistan and the list goes on)... it will never end.

But did you know that before the war in Iraq in London 10 million people marched to say "No! We don't want war!" And in America too -- not as much as in England, but maybe more than a million people marched in protest. Not all Americans are the same as Bush...

They agree: it's true. Not all Americans. But the government. And the people who support war.

This feels like Abraham's haggling over Sodom and Gomorrah. And they're right... those who support murderers are as guilty as the murderers themselves.

Now all the West is afraid of Muslims. They say Islam and Muslims are their only enemy.

Yes, and they're right: that's what Islam is and should be -- standing up to oppression and against injustice. (In a world of consumerism and greed, Islam has a chance to be a voice of sanity crying out in the wilderness. Like what the Catholic monk in Syria told me: God raised up Islam as a barrier against the evils of Christendom and the West. And why shouldn't He raise them up again, to seek justice in a world where injustice is the norm?)

We've had our tea. I must come back tomorrow; maybe the DC will be around then. Rezak signals it's time to go.

Out of respect for his elders Rezak hasn't been speaking so far. But he clearly has a lot on his mind: man is a social animal. Aristotle said that. And so I don't think religion is firstly important. First you must be a good human, and then you can be a Muslim or Christian or whatever. I don't think it's important if you're Sunni or Shia... if you are a Muslim that is enough. Most of my friends are Sunni... me and my friends have started a group called "Ittihad beyn al-Muslimeen", Unity Between Muslims. There we try to get the young people to come and see and we talk to them, because the future is the young peoples'.. the old people will not change anything, it's the young people who will cause change. And if they see unity and friendship when they're young then they will grow up to behave that way too.

I want to do a PhD in psychology... maybe in Iran. Iran? I like Iran very much. Yes, I think Iran is the best country in the world. You know in Iran during Friday prayers everyone leaves their shop open and no-one steals anything! (I've heard the same told about Saudi Arabia.. I think it's apocryphal). Possibly... The people there are honest, no-one will try to do some bad thing to you. Yes, and if they do, the government will take them away and punish them, so even the bad people are afraid to be bad.

We shake hands; I wish him luck with his presentation. Do a google search for "the truth about 9/11".. you'll find a lot of interesting stuff.

I fall to pondering the day's events. First be a human being...

Like a man in Pindi told me: everyone says they are Muslim or Christian or Jewish... but they are all liars because none of them do what their religion says. They say God is their Lord and Sustainer, and then they say they are fighting for God... as if God needed you to protect him! First you be a human being, then you can worry about the rest. Every religion teaches kindness and compassion and humility. But instead of doing these we argue and kill each other because what someone else believes isn't what we claim to be truth...

I must write a blog about this....

Footnote: Today back at the DC's office the Ismaili man told me about the sectarian strife in Gilgit. Said in 2005 someone killed the chief of the area and the Shia blamed it on the Sunni and retaliated against all Sunnis in the area. There was fighting and indiscriminate killing and there was a curfew for more than one month, and the army took over completely. All the military checkpoints you see in every intersection in town... they are from this time, and a precaution against further violence.


8th December 2007

Glad you're writing again!
Hi Ozgur! I'm amazed at all the experiences you've had and that it's been over 3 years that you started this trip! What made you cut your hair? I didn't recognize you at first! Looks good! Greetings from SLO and the Leonard-Gunderts!! Patricia

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