Memorial Days

Memorial Days

The second most unusual job I took after college lasted a pitiful 5 hours and 13 minutes. I was, briefly, a host at a high-end restaurant in Manhattan that served things that may as well have been featured on Star Trek. My short training session on Day 1 ended in an altercation with a Mexican Workers Union that was eventually settled out of court. (I try not to think of it too much.) But the most unusual job I had is also the one I held the longest: associate at a gallery in New York that dealt exclusively in Israeli art. I hadn’t planned on working there; it just sort of happened. My flat-mate was an Israeli and, as it happens when you meet one Pakistani abroad, you quickly get to know the whole crew. Soon I could recite the names of the top ten artists working in Tel Aviv with price lists and mobile numbers attached.

On the whole, the people I worked with were fun, intelligent and sufficiently Middle Eastern (“let’s order hummus for lunch!”). I relished meeting kids from a country I am not allowed to visit and therefore desperately wanted to, only to find that we got along fabulously. This was mainly because, as a Pakistani in an Israeli space, my existence projected tolerance, quirkiness and an excuse to say the word “Moslem” in whispers of wonderment. Frequently I was put on display at the reception, and every time a dignitary or patron would be taken around, they would inevitably be brought to my desk to meet the rarest of attractions, a Paki among Jews.

“He’s from Pakistan! Isn’t that marvelous?” (Audrey, the owner, shrieking.)

“Really?” the patron would say, eyeing me in a way that made me feel like a snow leopard in a cage at an African general’s luxury farm. “Is that true?”

“It is,” I would say, aware that now was my time to play the Exotic Fellow from the East.

“It’s like world peace in an office!” Audrey would cackle as she led the patron on to some expensive artwork. “Viva la UN! Ahahaha!”

There was only one time my origin became a prickly thing. It was around when the Arab Spring revolutions began to be televised around the world. The news of the young Tunisian fruit seller who set himself on fire was making headlines, and the swiftness with which the protests erupted across the Arab world shocked everyone, especially the US. Most people responded with baffled excitement, yanked by the notion of impending democracy in the region. (It seemed, you may remember, a historic moment.)

“So what do you make of it?”

The question was put to me by an old Israeli woman in large furs who was perusing a catalogue of Holocaust-era photographs.

“It’s great!” I trilled, before freaking out. “Wait, you mean the Arab Spring and not the Holocaust, right?”

“Right…”

“Right! Yes, it’s great, it’s really marvelous…”

Most of my Israeli friends, however, didn’t share this view. And for obvious reasons. The flowers in their neighborhood would eventually, they feared, spill into their own garden. (And what a horrible thing that would have been.)

Anyway, the Arab Spring has long since sprung and gone, leaving us with countless images of heroism, outrage, a grand public spectacle and sacrifice. The Tunisian fruit seller’s picture is trudged out every year, his family is interviewed, and the many people he inspired in his country are nudged into mourning.

“Every day here feels like a barsi”

And that is a ritual now familiar in Pakistan. Take the killing last week of Aitzaz Hasan, a 15-year-old boy who “sacrificed” himself for the sake of his fellows.

Hasan was somewhere outside his school in Hangu, a Shia-majority village in North-West Pakistan. Sensing the approach of a suicide bomber, he tried to stop him, ignoring the pleas of his friends. The bomber detonated the explosives hidden in his jacket and killed both himself and Hasan. The latter is now credited with saving over the lives of over 2,000 people who would have otherwise been at the center of the attack.

Hasan is rightly being saluted as the best of us, a national hero, a true patriot. But he shouldn’t have had to be any of those things.

As PMs and CMs shed crocodile tears and make disingenuous speeches about the valorous teen, I can only think of their vile culpability in his killing. Seeing Imran Khan make an emotive speech really made me angry. I mean, a 15 year-old boy had to run into the arms of a suicide bomber because he is too chicken to admit what the rest of the world has already figured out: the Taliban and their cohorts don’t want peace. They just want you in pieces. Khan, cowardly and self-serving as ever, will not admit this because to do so would require him to work: work on eradicating a scourge from the province he fought (and fell) so hard to win. Now you run it. Now what? Yeah, thought so.

A friend said to me the other night: “Every day here feels like a barsi. Every day is a year, or 40 days, or a week since someone died, or a village was attacked.” In short, every day in this country is a memorial for something bad. So give your awards and make your speeches and gain your presidential decrees. It doesn’t matter. Because at the end of it all, we won’t put up a fight.

Write to thekantawala@gmail.com and follow @fkantawala on twitter

This appeared here.

About thekantawala

Columnist, Writer, Pseudonym. This blog is an archive of my weekly column for The Friday Times but we can have so much more fun than that....
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