Relocating is never easy. Being uprooted from a life built around the things one knows and relates to is hard. It was the first quarter of 2008 that I came to Kashmir. Born and brought up in the Saudi metropolis of Riyadh, it was difficult adjusting to the life in Srinagar, ‘a city that always sleeps’.
One of the oft repeated questions asked of me is if I speak Arabic. The most annoying incident was at a wedding where one of the attendees, a complete stranger, concluded that I did not live in Riyadh because I do not speak Arabic. Riyadh is a metropolis; there are people from different nationalities and speakers of many languages. The huge influx of migrant workers, from maintenance workers to salesmen to doctors and engineers, would ensure that my interaction, as a child, with non-English speaking Arabs was very limited. Back then, in our daily run to the local grocery store, we were more likely to ask for things in Urdu rather than Arabic.
Though the country’s religiosity is rooted in the teachings of the puritan cleric, Muhammad bin Abdul Wahhab, its impact and influence wanes at times. I lived in a world within a world. Growing up, International Indian School was my school and second home. Today to me it seems like one of India’s wonders abroad: an amalgam of the diversity that India comprises of, in a single institution. There were Tamil, Malayali, and Hyderabadi; Gujarati, Marathi, and Bihari; Hindus, Christians, and Muslims. Religion was important, but it did not define us; ethnicities and cultures were respected, in some instances venerated. Being a part of and growing up in this microcosm of India, my perceptions about the country were shaped in a way that I came to realise and admire the pluralistic ethos of India, the India that lives in the hearts and souls of people far away from the murky and vicious circle of the social media banter.
Our class work would begin with a daily ritual when the school–thousands of students, the last I know there were close to ten thousand boys enrolled, and hundreds of teachers–would stand up in their classrooms to sing the Indian and Saudi national anthems, and take the ‘national pledge’. We would stand up, raise our right arm at shoulder level, extended to the front as our palms faced down, and chant in unison the statements in the pledge. This particular part resembled much like a Nazi show of patriotism. As kids we would chortle at and disagree with the latter part of the opening statement, “All Indians are my brothers and sisters.” That childish immaturity faded away, and so did the morning ritual. This line, however, would come back to me later. It was the spring of 2008, I was staying with a close family friend. This downtown locality with its intertwining alleys seemed claustrophobic and puzzling, throughout my stay I would never be able to find my way back home if I tried. The fact that everyone knew everyone in this part of Srinagar was heart-warming. Not long after this the Valley erupted over the Amarnath land transfer. Witnessing first hand and for the first time the brutalities of state forces on the streets, I’d think to myself if this is what brothers did to brothers?
In Saudi, I remember some of the flyovers arching over what seemed heaps of sand at either ends. At first I would think it was ugly and wonder why but later realised the significance (in my own interpretation). It was a part of their old desert landscape in the midst of their bustling new modern metropolis. The landscapes would change soon and the barren sand would be covered with lush green grass and flowers and cacti, perhaps resembling an oasis. The Saudis are proud of their culture and heritage. It is perhaps best reflected in the words of King Faisal. Named as TIME magazine’s person of the year 1975 the same year he was assassinated, King Faisal had in 1973 cut off oil supply to the world market in protest over the US support to Israel. He is reported to have told Henry Kissinger, the American Secretary of State who had just landed to negotiate the embargo, that he and his ancestors survived on dates and milk and would return to them again.
Another aspect that showed their strong connection with their traditions was that the western outfits, though popular, were not worn on important occasions. I was enrolled at the local mosque to learn how to read the Qur’an. Most would come wearing robes. The instructor would admonish those that came wearing western clothes. When I was in Riyadh, I could see more Saudi youth wearing white robes than western outfits on any given day. Except for the kids who wouldn’t, probably because it restricted their movement and sports. The solution to traditional outfit and sports was wearing trouser beneath and lifting and tying the robe at the waist while they played. Something they also did when running away from a scene of mischief. They love their football and bebsi (Pepsi).
I was surprised to see how in Srinagar three or four masjids close by, each taking turns to call out the azan- the Islamic call for prayer, because each had its allegiance to a different sect. The masjids in Riyadh have no labels beyond the names given to them. There were no sectarian classifications, masjids would be constructed such that all the people of the area would pray regardless of whether they tied their hands above the waist or below. There were only two religious occasions, the two Eids, when the air would fill with festivities and celebration all around. Shab and other occasions would be marked by private devotion instead of fuming hysteria over loudspeakers.
I remember being frightened in my early days Kashmir, the fiery shrieks over loudspeakers resulting in an inaudible repartee. Years later I have come to believe that people here give more importance to the display of religiosity than actually being religious in their personal lives. It was peaceful and soothing there. Here I would as a kid and an outsider consider it the sound of an unknown approaching doom.
Srinagar is an odd place, a haphazard expansion of concrete. Whimsy defines this cluster. Strangers abnormally stare at others and quiet shamelessly too: for they do not even flinch when one notices the staring. Everyone just seems to be sadistically discouraging others while doing nothing themselves. Life is slow, suffocating, and uncertain. I have been living here for quite some time now but ironically the last time I wasn’t suffocating was in the Wahhabi stronghold. Have I adjusted to the life here? Not really.