Article: When I crossed the No Man’s Land…
by Saadia Sabir (Pakistan)
The tragedy is that two people are separated only by fences, on a land, which they both call ‘border’. They live so nearby yet are so far off. They want to live in peace in their own countries but are least bothered peace with each other. They believe in stereotypes about each other. They never interact and have perceptions of each other based on ignorance. The two people are: Pakistanis and Indians.
“They aren’t destined to live this way. They can coexist.” The realization did not come just sitting idle at my work desk on a rainy day. I was born and grew up in Chitral, situated at a drive of 16 hours from Islamabad. There was little for me as a kid to do other than play cricket with my siblings or watch TV with family. I often saw on the television Kashmiris throwing stones at the Indian army. The conflict terrified me as a kid. The image of India I grew up with was that of a gigantic monster trying to snatch Pakistan’s shares. Little did I know that I would get a chance to visit the gigantic-but-not-monster India free of the terror of conflict. I never thought about visiting a place that, I was told and taught throughout my life, is the cause of all the troubles Pakistan is having. Naturally, it never fascinated me. The day I crossed into Wagha, my life totally transformed.
The process of transformation, however, had started before the visit. In my sophomore year at university, I got a chance to study for a year in the United States under an exchange program called Near East and South Asian Exchange Program. The program brought together young students from 16 other South Asian and Middle Eastern countries. It was during the country presentation at the program orientation in Washington DC that I first encountered the Indian participants. They made literal fun of the Pakistani flag. “The green shade in our flag is better”, one of them said. It felt as if the same stones came been thrown at me. This did not stop there and they passed on more offending remarks about Pakistan which made me dislike them. More! They had reinforced their image and my group too left no stone unturned in showing them their place.
But then something changed in the course of a few days. The common language, common dislike for American food, and shared craving for desi food naturally brought us (Pakistanis and Indians) closer. We started spending more time together. We celebrated a Bollywood night, danced on ‘chal chayya chayya’, and played dumb Charades on Hindi movies together. In less than a week, we bonded so well that we found ourselves making plans of having a get together at the Wagha border. Our plan was to see each other and wave as long as we could from the other sides of the fence. Not only these good times, but we also had the opportunity to learn about the indopak conflict from eachother’s perspective, and realize how certain things are wrong on both sides. Five years have passed since then. We are still connected in an unshakable bond. We talk often via social media but the planned get-together never happened. Those days, however, gave us life time of memories. We bade each other ‘good bye’ after seven days of the orientation, leaving each other confused – we really have moved on. Have our people back home too? Have our countries too? Are they still fighting? We were at so much peace with each other that it seemed as if the indopak conflict has been resolved, for once and all.
In 2015, I came across the annual Global Peace Youth Fest – GYPF in Chandigarh, India and sent in a random application. Getting selected got me contemplating a lot – ‘jauun ya na jauun?’ When I finally decided to go, I was not sure what to expect. I stopped thinking about the trip. I did not mention it to a lot of people because I knew they were going to raise many questions which I was not prepared to answer. I did not want to get into a war of words constantly having to clarify myself on why on earth am I going to India? Some of the people who knew about it were so sure that I would not get visa that I started doubting my visit. I finally got my visa a week prior to the conference.
I was travelling with five other people, four of them I had met for the first time. When I crossed the border into the no man’s land, I was overwhelmed. I wanted to have the feelings and moments captured. A few minutes into the overwhelming excitement, I was disappointed. Nothing much changed except for the sign boards. Once on the other side, we got an innova car booked for our long toad trip itinerary. At the Brothers Dhaba in Amritsar, I took an hour to decide what to order as the menu was totally vegetarian. I was frisked at the thought of how to survive without meat meal for the next ten days. The next thing I saw was a young girl of almost my age riding a scooty and I almost cried out of excitement as I had never seen a girl riding a bike or scooty in Pakistan. After getting over my excitement, I took some pictures with my wishful eyes. Our next stop was Haveli in Jhalandar, where not only I ate diverse and delicious street food but it was also an experience of how religiously and culturally diverse the country is. I could see people from all background and segments of society in one place.
We had come a few days before the actual conference to first visit the other cities [fortunately] marked on our visas. From Jalandhar, we headed to Agra to see the wonder. The next morning, when we reached Agra we planned to buy ‘Indian entry tickets’ for Taj Mahal assuming no one would recognize us. It fortunately was also the world tourism day and the entry was free for all. Confident that we won’t get recognized that we are not Indians, we bargained with the tourist guide. He constantly tried asking where we were from? When we got him guarded about our Urdu accent and dressing, we told him the truth and shared details of the visit. That is when he confessed he had recognized us. He seemed very excited and the first thing he asked was if he can visit Pakistan? “Janta ka kya dosh hai es sab fasaad mai, ye sarkaroon ka khail hai” he said. It was a hot day. Taj Mahal was quite crowded so much so that we got divided into two groups without finding each other for three hours. This experience was very frustrating given we had no roaming on phones and no other way to communicate. The guide got equally worried and helped us a lot more in finding the other group. On my way out of Taj Mahal I saw a group of women and men dancing around Ganesh Mahraj throwing colors at each other. The symbol of love, the dancing, and colors (from the Indian movies) had just got all real. Fascinated, I took some pictures when a little girl from the crowd held my hand, put colors on my face, and asked me to join the crowd. “Come! Come with us” she said in English. I replied in Urdu that I am waiting for my friends. She asked me, “How do you know Hindi? You don’t look Indian”. I told her I am from Pakistan and asked for a picture with her. She hugged me and posed for the picture. She slipped away with the crowd and kept waving back till we got out of each other’s sight.
The human-bond that developed in seconds kept my heart warm until we reached Ajmer Shareef, the land of Sufi Hazrat Moin uddin Chishty. We were oblivious to the exhaustion from the long road trip until when we woke up the next morning in a small yet beautiful and clean hotel near the Dargah, having peaceful sleep. When I opened the window of my room, I saw the minaret of the tomb, the very sight of which swamped my soul. I could not wait to visit the Dargah. We were invited by the Gaddi Nasheen of the Dargah, Syed Salman Chishty, to his house for breakfast and lunch. He was also our reference for the Ajmer visa. He guided us throughout the pavilions of the Dargah and the main shrine – all of which was a journey of spiritual awakening. People from all religious backgrounds prayed, cried and traded their Holy Books at the dargah. All of them in so much harmony with each other which the Great Ghareeb Nawaz envisioned and taught. We wanted to spend a day more at the dargah but were time bound. The conference was starting in a day in Chandigarh.
The car we had booked for the long road trip, the alternating seats, the Bollywood music on, the playing cards, the making adventurous plans for our next visit, the laughing till the stomach huts, the being out on the dhabas in every next city, the haggling with camera at all spots, we for the most times forgot that we were in an enemy country. We told no one we are from Pakistan. No one recognized us either. The journey was no lesser than reliving the movies ‘Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara’ and ‘Dil Chahta Hai’.
At the conference, what was most enchanting was that participants from other countries were not as much as the cynosure of attention, love, and respect as were the Pakistan participants: from organizers, volunteers, and Indian participants. We got invited for lunches and dinners, sometimes by total strangers. “Aap tou hamare mehmaan hain” they all said. On the cultural night families would come to take pictures with us. Many people had stories of partition how their ancestors migrated from different areas of Pakistan and that how they would love to visit those places in their life. My favorite person of all the people I met in India was Talwar Uncle. I had heard a lot about him from my friend Aliya, who he and his wife call daughter. She always so highly of him that I was really looking forward to meeting and get his blessings in person. He hosted us for a dinner where he repeated and persistently said he loves Pakistan as much as he loves India. He was born in a city near Lahore and had vivid memories of partition. He keeps record of every Pakistani who has visited his place. He owns a well-trained dog and lives with very caring wife: both of whom he loves a lot. When I got ready to leave his house, I found another calling in visiting India given his un-conditional love and hospitality.
Soon after the conference ended, we left for Delhi. During my stay of 10 days in India, I never got the feeling that I was in my enemies’ (as they say) land. The only not-so-favorite moment during the 10 days stay in India was a TV show that I participated in as audience. The session of the talk show “Punjab Speaks” was on peace but oddity arrived in the live program. The host and the guest speaker (one out of them a senior political reporter) constantly blamed Pakistan with us present there. We decided not to make a mess After the program, she spoke to us very nicely exonerating herself of what she had just done. This small incident was enough for me to comprehend how people in powerful positions from both sides have publicly been inciting hatred and misinformation for their own selfish games – when off the camera they know that we are just no different.
No wonder why being so close in our habits, in our struggle, in our shared dreams of peace, in our similarities, we (Pakistanis and Indians) are so apart. Distorted history from the text books, distorted facts from media and leaders with political interests are few of the reasons for the enmity of the two countries, beyond that we are the same divided by boundaries. People who know about my trip to India asked me (excited) how my experience was? And I tell them how I felt at home and welcomed. I tell them that people of India do not hate Pakistan or Pakistanis for that matter. I encourage them to visit whenever they get a chance. The trip is not over yet. I would go to India again and visit other cities that I couldn’t manage to see during my last visit due to visa restriction. Five years back I promised my friends that I will wave at them from the Wagha border. Five years into the promise, I not only marched to the common border we share but also crossed it. I invite my friends from India to cross the border into Pakistan and see for themselves that the people of Pakistan do not hate India or Indians for that matter.
Saadia Sabir is a graduate in Gender Studies from Fatima Jinnah Women University and works as Virtual Programs Coordinator with Foundation to Support Education Worldwide (FSEW). She is a rock-climber, hiker, reader, and a believer-cum-practitioner of gender equality.