World

Of New York Spring And Other Things

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Cherry Blossoms at the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens

Published in the Express Tribune Blog, May 24th 2011

Growing up in Lahore, the monsoon was my favourite season – those muggy, motionless afternoons when the air suddenly exploded into a river of orange rumbling down from the sky, leaving  jungles in its wake. In the Bay Area, every balmy day of the year was beautiful, except for the miserable characterless spluttering they called “rain”.

In Ithaca, my favorite season was Autumn – a firedance in the sky, bold and blazing, curling flames at your feet – and in New York, it has to be spring, the teenage of nature, blooming poetry from every stem, every lilting branch, a breathtaking ballet of pink and white to melt the numbest of hearts.

On such a blossomy New York morning last week,  my colleague Ryan and I were at Ground Zero, jostling through hundreds of New Yorkers and out-of-towners to catch a glimspe of President Obama as he arrived to lay a wreath at the September 11th Memorial Site, giving symbolic “closure” to the victims and families of the 9/11 attacks following Osama bin Laden’s death.

We didn’t see him, not even a fluttering hand through a darkened car window. But Obama became irrelevant once we actually started talking to people and recording their reactions to the news.

Reactions were predictable: One African-American woman beamed with pride that Obama had been in office “to do this urgent and important duty”.  A man who had lost four friends in 9/11 said he felt a sense of “relief” and “joy” beyond words; a young Latino-American who had recently joined the New York National Guard said that Osama’s death was a source of “unity” for the people of New York, that it showed “how Americans come, in all shapes and forms, whatever nationality you are, whatever colour you, you come as one.”

But what was unpredictable was these people’s, these ordinary, middle-class, tax-paying people’s calm acceptance of the fact that yes, this “war” was “not going to end with the death of one person”, and, more disturbingly, that it needed to go on, that it should go on. In the words of one 67-year old ex-Marine, “We have to be there in all of these countries to assist…so we can crush these people when they come in to try and hurt us. It’s not over.”

While Ryan asked the questions and I filmed behind the camera, I thought about the questions I would have liked to asked these people: “But do you know the real victims of your country’s fallacious war? Do you know who actually pays the price? What do you have to say to the families of the tens of thousands of innocent men, women and children killed in Afghanistan, in Iraq, in Pakistan because of this war? Were their lives less valuable than the 3,000 Americans who died here 10 years ago? Do you not see that what you’re calling ‘patriotism’ and ‘duty’ is decimating entire societies, entire nations as we speak?”

I said nothing of the sort. I was a journalist, and Pakistani on top of that, and the last thing I wanted to in that sort of crowd was get into an argument.

Turns out, somebody else was there to do it for me – a lanky, bespectacled and very articulate white dude by the name of Sander Hicks, founder of the “Truth Party”, a grassroots political group that believes in exposing, among other things, that 9/11 was a hoax. Wearing a black T-shirt with the words “9/11 Is A  F****** Lie!” emblazoned on the front,  Hicks shouted maniacally but fearlessly to the crowd, “Why am I here? Am I here to celebrate and validate a murder? Without a trial, without due process? Or am I here to think about what is really happening in our country? Do we justify war and torture based on 10 years of lies? I say no! And I don’t care if there’s a million people here saying I’m an a**hole, just for standing up for peace and truth!”

I’m still surprised that he got away with saying that, and a lot more, without even a scratch, though there were several jingos in the crowd who would’ve liked nothing better than give the provocative Hicks a square punch in the jaw. But shouting back “A** hole!” is about as far as they let their anger go.

Then, in the middle of the fray, a red-faced, white-mustachioed little man broke in.  Wearing a black leather jacket covered in Vietnam insignia, he cried in a thick Texan drawl: “You know what I would’ve done if I were President when 9/11 happened? I would’ve nuked the entire Middle East, starting with Mecca!”

So far that day, I had been watching and listening to everybody almost in the third person, a perfectly neutral body. But at those words, I felt my heart plummet like it would at a vertical drop on a Seven Flags rollercoaster, and a row of goosebumps shot up my spine as if I were suddenly caught in an Arctic gale wearing a T-shirt.  I looked up from the camera. My eyes stung; I thought I was going to cry.

It was pure reflex. Something essential and sacrosanct, seeded deep in my soul, had been momentarily convulsed, and at that moment  I could’ve clawed out the old geezer’s eyes.

There was a collective gasp from the crowd, and people were quick to admonish, “No, no, that’s crazy!”, “Not all Muslims are bad!”. Clearly, the guy was a loony, and it would’ve been stupid to take anything he said seriously. But his words stayed with me long after his black leather jacket disappeared into New York’s hubbub of loonies, and I thought, “So this is how it feels – to be on the ‘other side’ of extremism?”

We’ve had plenty loonies from our part of the world dispense similar tirades about the West, about the U.S., Europe or Israel – and God knows I’m not a fan of those parts of the world or their foreign policies. But to an ordinary citizen, who has as little control over what their government does as we do over ours, how would it feel, to be so sweepingly abused, to hear people talk about obliterating our very existence, burning flags and defacing temples as if it would have no consequences, as if it would offend or incite nobody; even for someone like me, deeply suspect of nationalism and all other -isms in general, I admit that it would hurt – that it does hurt.

It’s complicated. It’s complicated when imperialism is involved, when capitalism and neo-colonialism is involved, when there is a legitimate anger and resentment and struggle for justice, like in Palestine, or Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. It’s difficult to talk without the invective, without the bitterness, when you have been truly wronged; but all I can say is, let’s let humanity win.

That’s all we have, to keep us alive and save us from total catastrophe. At the end of the day, it’s the ordinary citizen’s sympathies and consicence that we can appeal to, we can touch; it’s their ordinary humanity that we can depend on, not any politician’s or government’s. Let’s not sacrifice that, no matter which ‘side’ we come from.

Pure beauty

 

Egypt

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Without prognosticating, analyzing, rationalizing – irrespective of what happens next week, the next day, or the next hour – I think what’s happening in Egypt right now is beautiful.

It’s one of those moments, those rare historical moments that you read about in your classroom within the pages of a textbook,  and it all seems so distant, almost fictional, and as you memorize the facts for tomorrow’s quiz you believe quite firmly in your heart that nothing like that will happen in your lifetime. Because you were born too late, because  such grand, moving events just don’t happen anymore…

When rank and class and position, the neighbourhood you live in, the clothes you wear, the work you do, the dialect you speak,  everything that separates you from your fellow countryman or woman on any ordinary day suddenly melts away; when, for once, a system that is based on divisions and duties and somebody else’s rules breaks down, and people speak with one voice – not hundreds, not thousands, but millions. Then, there is no power, no number of tyrants, tanks or tear gas in the world that can silence them.

I’m not there in Tahrir Square in Cairo, but I can feel the thrill, the exhilaration that something momentous is unfolding before my very eyes.

It feels a little like the time when Obama became President in 2008. Irrespective of what came after, the broken promises, the disillusionment, that moment itself was pure magic; when a joy and a hope stronger than anything else swept over us at the I-house in Berkeley, and people from every corner of the world cried and cheered and celebrated in a unison that couldn’t be explained, only experienced.

Or the time when Pakistani students rose up against General Musharraf’s martial law in November 2007, abandoning their books and taking to the streets with a passion that nobody knew existed, and young people in Pakistan felt – even if only for those dramatic few weeks – that we actually had the power to change the society we lived in, for the better.

What ensues from such extraordinary moments isn’t always better, or different from before. But isn’t life more about the moments than the monotonous spaces between them?  The birthdays, the marriages, the revolutions and revelations, those precious fleeting moments of unadulerated emotion that you savor and look back to forever?

Egypt has had its moment. Egypt will never be the same. The Arab world will never be the same.

And Egyptians aren’t thinking, “What if Mubarak doesn’t step down after all? What if the constitution isn’t changed at all? What if another puppet dictator takes over in his place?”

These questions and speculations and eternally encumbering “what-ifs” don’t bother them, shouldn’t bother them. The Egyptian people have spoken. They have shown their courage, their humanity, their unity to the world, and to themselves. That is the power, that is the point. That is what matters.

Travel Slideshows

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Achelya, friend!

Here are some of the slidehsows I’ve been working on since I joined the Huffington Post as a Travel intern. No traveling myself yet – at least physically! – but I have been learning a whole lot about the world, and getting a million more ideas about places to go and things to do. Oh, world, you’re just too vast and beautiful and interesting for one lifetime!

Deep in the Hindu Kush mountains of northwest Pakistan lies the remote and picturesque Chitral Valley – home of Tirich Mir, the 14th-highest peak in the world (25,550 ft), and of the legendary pagan tribe Kalash.

With more than 110 peaks that rise over roughly 22,965 feet, the Himalayas are the longest, highest mountain range on earth. They straddle a mighty 1,500 mile-long swath across Nepal, Bhutan, Tibet, India and Pakistan, and are home to 9 of the world’s tallest peaks, including Mount Everest.

We love places of worship – their grandeur, their peacefulness, their architectural beauty. We especially admire mosques. Here’s our pick of 24 beautiful mosques, from Morocco to Malaysia, which reflect the great cultural diversity of the Muslim world.

Monasticism is an important institution in many religions, especially Buddhism and Christianity. In part for defense, and in part to facilitate the process of detachment from worldly concerns, monasteries were often built in highly remote and inaccessible areas.

On the dusty, noisy, chicken-crossing streets outside Accra, the capital of the English-speaking West African country of Ghana, a tribe called the Ga is making its name in the business of coffins. The coffins come in a variety of shapes and sizes, from cars to Coke bottles and cell phones.

Imagine a time and place when a yellow cab, car or train wasn’t the only way you could get from point A to point B… Bikes in Beijing, gondolas in Venice. But outdoor elevators in Chile? Giant plastic balls in New Zealand, art-on-wheels in Pakistan?

Living in New York City, with its endless jungle of gray skyscrapers, even a patch of blue sky from the office window is enough to make our day. Imagine living in one of these 15 stunning towns and cities, where at every turn you’re met with a wondrous explosion of color!

The world is full of breathtaking mountains, pristine valleys, thundering rivers and waterfalls – and what better way to explore these scenic locales than on a raft?

Which one of us hasn’t dreamed of living in a castle, a tree-house or a hobbit hole as a child? We dream of it still! And though many of us eventually settle for regular (rectangular) homes and condos, some adventurous people out there just go ahead and build what they dream.

Ever wonder how it would feel to jump from a plane 13,000 feet in the air?Terrifying, yes – but also inexplicably exhilarating, tiny and powerful at the same time. And the vision: you couldn’t be the same person after diving down the highest peaks in the world, or beholding a bird’s-eye view of the Great Barrier Reef.