Monday, November 4, 2013
Pique November 2013
Pique November 2013
The biblio bus
From a humble mobile library to an enormous educational feat – Rabia Ahmed meets the Alif Laila Book Bus Society
Wednesday, October 23, 2013
Printed in the WWF 'Book of the Flood: An Anthology' (2013)
Dadima was never so starchy unless something upset her. When the Taliban did what the Taliban do, this time in Swat, she became cracklier than a starched cotton kurta. Her hair froze in upright positions, her forehead was pressed into tight creases, and there was no getting past her without being ripped at.
Dadima has her own comfortable place in Model Town in Lahore (we live there with her), so she didn’t have to deal with those heroes herself. It was her son, my uncle Ali (and periodically his wife, Mina), who lived in Swat, and it was they who suffered during the Taliban’s brief stint in that region, and Dadima always takes her children’s problems very personally.
Ali chacha hadn’t always lived in Swat. He once had a nice little business in Karachi, until people who didn’t see eye to eye with him on certain matters torched it. He and my aunt had obviously been expecting something like this because their suit cases were packed and waiting in the spare room, and they left for Lahore within the day.
For the next couple of months my aunt Mina stayed with us while Ali chacha made frequent trips to the ancestral home in Swat, not far from Miandam.
We have so many memories of that home, my cousins, my siblings and I. We spent long summer holidays in the V-shaped valley, playing and fishing in the surrounding streams, and climbing the mountains with one of the adults. Once, my father disappeared for hours while on a hike by himself. People did not have cell phones in those days, and after an agonising wait he reappeared supported on the arm of an inarticulate Pashtun, his ankle bound with someone’s turban.
When his ankle was okay again, he took us all to a tiny settlement halfway up the mountain. The man who’d brought him back lived there. Had it not been for him, my father would’ve lain hurt under a walnut tree for God knows how long.
Dadima did not come along, but she sent provisions with us to last the whole village the entire winter that followed, because people in Swat are normally cut off from surrounding areas when the snows arrive. My father paid for extensive renovations to his benefactor’s house, and my uncle endowed the settlement with its first, and only, bathroom, proudly located in the centre of that small cluster of homes. Of course they had no piped water, so the flush tank would have to be filled manually.
My aunt Mina said that when she and Ali chacha were returning home after cutting the ribbon so to speak, she saw some women running their hands in a bemused sort of way over the flush, and wondered if she should have demonstrated the right way to use it, ‘with my clothes on, of course, and just pretending, naturally,’ she added hastily, but Ali chacha’s eyes still bulged at the idea.
‘Don’t even think about it,’ he said, ‘and anyway it’s not your responsibility anymore.’
Mina chachi said it was definitely her responsibility and the responsibility of every person in this country, but she allowed herself to be towed away, perhaps because Ali chacha was gripping her elbow so firmly.
Mina chachi was born and raised in Sweden, where, as we chided her later, people took their responsibilities more seriously than she did that day; while my father said his brother was ‘a rotten spoil sport.’
It was to this house that Ali chacha went from Lahore, sometime in 2002, and converted it into a hotel. My memories continued to centre on it, now as a comfortable hotel with a billiard room and pool, surrounded by the same magnificent countryside.
But only a few years later, the Taliban took over in Swat. You’d think that all that breathtaking beauty would inspire them with a measure of serenity and humility, but I guess the sight of God’s splendour does not affect us all the same way. Increasingly, people and particularly women, were losing their freedom, and businesses being torched in the same way as Ali chacha’s factory had been, and for basically the same reasons...a difference of opinion on matters such as the right to exist, and co-exist.
Although Mina chachi had continued to spend half her time in Lahore because that is where their children studied and lived (with Dadima and us), when Swat ceased to be the safe place it had once been, she didn’t want to leave my uncle’s side. Once again he pushed her firmly out of there, and she returned to Lahore to bite her nails and pace the floors.
Two women in a brittle frame of mind was almost more than the family could bear, so that was a difficult time for all of us, quite aside from our worry concerning Uncle Ali’s safety. Dadima alternated between begging him to come home, and praying for the eternal damnation of the soul of each and every militant. But Ali chacha was adamant and remained in Swat. He probably viewed the situation as an opportunity to vindicate himself on a mindset that had already hurt him and his family once. He agreed, however, although not without protest, to convert the hotel into a low key rest-house minus the uryani and fahashi ; in other words, the billiard room and pool disappeared, because as in the Urdu idiom, they simply invited the bull to ‘come gore me.’
Most unwillingly, he hung a picture of the Ka’aba prominently in the foyer, as well as placards in each room with a ‘traveller’s prayer’ in Arabic, and large arrows that said ‘Ka’aba this way’ or something like that.
‘I hate doing this,’ he growled at my father. ‘Why do I need to prove myself? I keep my faith in my heart and that should be enough for anyone.’ But as the eldest my father generally had the casting vote. It’s all very feudal. He said that since my uncle’s heart was so full of religious faith, he must use his head instead (actually ‘use your head for a change’ were the exact words he used) and do what he could to ensure his safety for the sake of his wife and children, and the rest of the family.
For once Mina chachi sided with someone else against her husband, so, including her in his ill temper, Ali chacha left the room. Immediately, Dadima, standing all of an inch short of five feet to his six feet some, got stuck into him. When she finished, there was only an Ali chacha shaped hole in the floor where he had been reported standing just a few minutes before.
‘Amma’s learnt a thing or two from the Taliban, whatever she may think about them,’ was Aba’s smug observation.
So Ali chacha returned to Swat, and led an interesting life. He never slept in the same place twice, set alarms all around, and built secret rooms in the house. It became a safe house. More and more people, with or without their meagre belongings, were fleeing to other parts of the country. He took those who were on the militants’ hit list to the secret rooms with their eyes blindfolded, and smuggled them away afterwards. If the rest house didn’t make much money as a result, he earned much goodwill.
Since tourism, the area’s most popular source of income had disappeared, its place was filled by an already existing but now more flourishing illegal timber mafia that gave a percentage to the militants for the privilege of cutting down Swat’s trees. The locals joined in with a vim, felling timber and selling it to these merchants, who sent the logs downriver, or stored them along the river banks to be retrieved later. A man who tried to stop someone cutting down trees on the river bank was publicly whipped by a Swati Talib, who accused him of having designs on his neighbours’ halal ki rozi.
The Taliban took a bit more control every day and did what they had done wherever else they came into power. When the police surrendered to the militants, they shut down any business they considered un-Islamic, such as video stores, killed anyone they considered un-Islamic, such as girl students, and burned down hundreds of schools, especially girls’ schools, which they considered un-Islamic.
‘It’s a good thing Haaris and Sana never enrolled in school in Swat,’ a neighbour observed sagaciously, referring to my uncle’s children. ‘Sana might have had to wear a hijab!’
My father who was there, snorted, ‘I don’t mind if she has to wear a tent, honestly, so long as she’s alive enough to protest about it.’
Finally, later that same year the army launched a military action that contained the militants to some extent. It was an uneasy sort of peace, not enough to restore the urian room and fahash pool, but at least Mina chachi was able to visit her husband in Swat.
The following summer was hotter than usual. The local children returned to the streams and rivers, and Ali chacha invited Aba to ‘get lost in the mountains’ again. So we spent a week in the valley after a gap of several summers.
Swat had changed. Our favourite apiary at the foot of the house was burnt to the ground. The bazaars, although functioning again, were subdued in a way you couldn’t quite put a finger on. When store shutters were down, we saw that some of them had large green and white flags painted on them. It was apparently an indication of a place having been reclaimed by the army. In other places we saw large signs that asked people to be patient because the army was working to help them. The most noticeable change however was the awful thinning, in places a complete absence of the beautiful trees we used to love. I returned to Lahore with an uneasy feeling that there was more than age involved in this, my transition from childhood to maturity.
Soon after, the River Swat, already higher than usual, broke its banks. Ali chacha of course was right there. I will let him describe what occurred that summer of 2010 in Swat, but I warn you, he’s a bit... erratic as a writer.
My niece Fatima is right, I don’t have her passion for words, and neither do I have her cheek. In my day uncles were meant to be respected. I’ve always said that when we burped her as a baby, Fatima brought up the alphabet instead of milk. But she wants me to do this, and Mina agrees. So I will try to write about what followed, although mostly, I’m glad to be alive, that’s all.
It was unusually hot and the glaciers melted too much that summer. But just how much, we realised later when the floods came without any warning, as they generally do in these parts.
Munir, my cook, and his wife were walking around a bend in the river some distance away, when they heard a swift coursing sound. His story will give you some idea of what happened.
‘A wall of water was rushing towards us, as big as a mountain, frothing and boiling like soup with claws. It was coming so fast we couldn’t move out of the way! We both lunged for a tree as our only chance, like a babe recognises the breast, and wrapped our arms and legs around its trunk; almost immediately the sailab reached us.’
‘It plucked our tree off the ground as easily as this,’ he brushed a twig from the ground, ‘but even though we tossed and turned over and over in the water, we clung to that tree. At the time we had no thought of anyone else, just ourselves.’
Had Munir been able to look around, he would have seen that the river had taken a huge bite out of the mountain. Of the houses on the mountain top, some hung over the side as though peering down, and of the rest nothing remained but bits of wall and metal that cascaded all the way down the slope to the water.
‘I saw all sorts of things inside the water, trees, pipes, a cycle turning over and over, and...’ he shuddered, and looked at me with tortured eyes, ‘and human bodies...’
‘It was full of grit which scraped away the skin,’ he held out his hands. His arms, knees and feet were covered with deep cuts and gouges. ‘Rocks and trees were tossing around like playthings. We could not protect ourselves from being hit, because that would mean loosening our grip. Once my wife did lose hers, and the terror in her eyes as she swept past me...’ Munir’s shook his head, as though to shut out the memory. ‘I could not hear her screams. I could hear nothing but the water, but I managed to reach her hand and hold on to it, thank God. And then we were flung onto the bank.’
Seeing my questioning look he added, ‘Her arm is in a sling and her shoulder bandaged. It’s very painful for her to move her neck, otherwise...praise God. For others it was worse.’
‘It feels wrong to complain of our injuries, because our neighbours, our entire village except for those who were away at the time...’ his voice broke, ‘almost everyone is dead. The village was close to the water, you see, and the land does not slope away as much as it does here. The river rushed down and spread out on both sides. The current was very strong. Some people were carried away and drowned, others hit by walls or logs, or terribly wounded by metal sheets from the roofs of houses. Whatever hit my wife’s shoulder...it too was large and sharp, although we never knew exactly what it was. The water was so dirty, and everything happened so fast!
Munir wiped his eyes with the heel of his hand, and smiled wanly. ‘We did not recognise each other when we were thrown onto the bank, we were so covered in mud and blood, but praise God, we are alive.’
Following the earthquake in Kashmir in 2005 I’d seen plans for houses using ‘green material,’ designed by the Heritage Foundation. They used bamboo frames instead of metal, and lime and mud instead of cement as mortar.
Why do people not use these materials for their houses, especially when they are so easily available here? Why does the government not make a push to popularise such things? Not only are these houses prettier, they cost much less; and being lighter, are far less lethal as debris during earthquakes and floods, as compared to those metal sheets Munir mentioned. Contrary to what people think, these houses also last a long time, and insulate better against the weather than cement and stone.
So that’s one for you, Fatima, seeing that you’re planning to study architecture. I hope one day you’ll be able to get around all obstacles, bureaucratic and mental, and use such things in your designs where they matter.
On the evening Munir spoke of, I too heard a thundering sound, and couldn’t understand what it was. I went on to the veranda to check.
The house is built on a slope not far from a little stream. But when I looked, a great roiling mass of water, carrying ‘bridges and horses, hedges and ditches,’ was thundering down the mountain along the stream bed. The house was off its path, but only just. I was showered with water, as I stood there with my mouth wide open, I’m sure.
Even though the flood passed in a flash, the roaring continued, approaching rather than receding. Puzzled, I looked up the mountain, and froze.
Not more water, but huge logs were slipping and sliding down the slope, like so many gigantic legs, and I was on the side of the house that faced them.
I vaulted over the veranda rails, and tore around the house, reaching the back just as I heard the first crash, followed by what sounded like a hundred battering rams. The house shook and I heard windows shatter. A door on my side of the house listed free and fell. It must have made a crashing sound when it fell but the thunderous noise in front drowned out every other. Logs rolled past me on either side of the house. I had backed into the garden, but jumped back onto the plinth and flattened myself against the wall when some logs came over the house and down the sloping lawn towards me.
The logs stopped attacking after a while, although I could still hear dull roars far below. I unglued myself from the wall, and picked my way shakily over what seemed to be an entire forest to the veranda I had left moments ago. It was stove in at the base where logs had crashed against the foundations. Logs had been thrown up at impact and shattered the rails I had vaulted; they, the rails, were now just so much twisted metal on the veranda floor, amidst broken bricks, tiles and plaster. The doors leading into the house lay in splinters, the window frames crushed. Glass was strewn everywhere. I could see damage on the roof, and huge cracks in the walls, and some logs had broken right through. Had I remained there a moment longer, I would have been ground into the walls myself. Ali paste; fun.
Inside, the furniture in the front two rooms was smashed and covered with glass. Thankfully, the rooms behind were almost intact, although liberally covered with plaster and dust.
Returning outside I spotted what looked like an arm jutting out between logs near the front steps. Bending down to get a better look, I saw a sight I will remember as long as I live: it was a body, a human male, without a head.
A wave of nausea rushed up within me as swift and furious as the river, and I vomited where I stood. Even when I had nothing left to bring up, I retched and gasped, whimpering like a child. By the time I could bring myself to drag the body out from under the stairs, and cover the poor wretch, dusk had settled.
Here if anything was a symbol of what the people of Swat had been through these past years. Beheading was something of a speciality of the militants, and this specimen was clearly a victim of some ‘religious’ zealot. His body had either been abandoned somewhere or buried and then washed down with the flood waters. They say lightening never strikes twice in the same place. Well, stuff them.
I left the house at first light to survey the damage in the immediate vicinity. The destruction was mind boggling. Where the ground was more level, the water had spread and covered entire villages and fields. Where it sloped steeply the flood had battered its way through, cutting the earth out from under mountain dwellings, bringing them crashing down. What might have stood firmly rooted along its path offering some resistance, appeared to have rained all over my house last night, the trees.
I pushed my way through to some places in my jeep, but I could only do this where I knew the terrain well. In mountainous areas with roads as damaged as these, there is always the danger of going over a cliff. I spent the whole day shifting people and supplies from water to drier land. By the end of that day I felt like I too would be saturated to the end of my days, with water and tears.
Phone lines were down. You could see them, the poles leant drunkenly, wires snapped and dipping into the water. So thank God for cell phones which were up and running once again. I spoke to Hashim that night. I needed him.
My brother is a crusty old so and so much of the time, but when you need him, he’s there, such as now. Here he is, taking this cursed writing out of my hands.
We had little to say when we saw the damage for ourselves. Ali’s appeal for help had mobilised us. Leaving my sister in the house with the children, we left for Swat, Ammijan, Mina, Batool and I. As the roads were mostly impassable, we rented a helicopter from Islamabad, which cost some, but we got there. We landed in a sodden field, lifted Ammijan, Mina and Batool into Ali’s jeep, made several more trips to retrieve our supplies, and left for the rest house.
Ali looked tired, but clearly relieved to see us. He even cracked some corny jokes about this being operation ‘Fly Swat.’ I wish the problem was as trivial as even a million flies.
We reached home late. The next day we worked out a plan of action. Ammijan, Mina, Sher (a young Afghan Ali had met), and Munir made as much space as possible in the rooms. Ali and I, with Batool, who, as a doctor was crucial in case someone needed medical aid, we drove around and brought in the homeless until the house was full.
The area was in a terrible state. A chocolate river ran alongside us carrying its destruction upon its back: cars, bloated human and animal carcases, doors, chunks of concrete, and trees. On the other side trudged another line, the river’s victims, making the long trek to camps set up by various agencies that provided survivors with food and other essentials.
I read these words somewhere, and they come back to me now: ‘Eat one of my new starvation pills, they taste like silence.’ It took hours for people to get to these camps, and hours for them to return, but they had no alternative. They did this every day in silence because they were hungry. In places where a bridge came between the persons and the camp, they lined up again and waited to cross the bridge, because as often as not proper bridges had been destroyed by the flood. These new rope and log bridges were built in a hurry and were too fragile to take heavy loads. So people crossed a few at a time, swaying precariously over the swollen river which laughed mockingly at them, displaying its grisly load.
‘I spit in its face every time I cross,’ a man told me, his young face prematurely lined and bitter. ‘It took away my home, and my little son. He was only two.’ His face twisted and he turned away to hide his tears.
I asked him what he did for a living, and he said he cut trees. What could I say? That it was his work that was partly responsible for his son’s death and the loss of his home? That if he had planted trees instead of cutting them down, maybe the flood would not have been as severe, that maybe his son would have been alive today? What a dreadful indictment. And yet how else could he have fed his family?
It was this man who told us where the logs that damaged our house had come from.
‘There is a big timber godown up that way,’ he pointed vaguely up the mountain. ‘We stacked the logs there and they were taken away later, when their boats were free. The flood must have broken it open.’
We packed over two hundred people in the house, and three hundred outside. They cooked food themselves, and with so many fires, until we could get other fuel they used firewood, which meant more trees were cut down. Just like when they needed the money and the wood was there for the taking.
We bathed cuts, and boiled water, and I discovered that women were strong in odd ways. When we were treating a terrible wound on a man’s arm under Batool’s guidance, Mina and Batool who turned any room in which there was a lizard into Jurassic Park, tut-tutted happily over the patient while I, the intrepid mountain climber, felt light headed at the sight. When Ammijan presided over a difficult birth, Ali and I left the house as one. We’d rather face the swollen river than an unborn baby that might not make it.
Aid agencies, both local and foreign soon discovered us and relief goods poured in. We no longer needed wood as fuel, because kerosene, and stoves, cartons of food and useful gadgets arrived. Ali looked longingly at a nifty camp stove, and Batool at a cot that folded to fit her pocket (or near enough), and Ali and I had a mock duel with a pair of Swiss army knives till Ammijan fixed us with one of her glares, ‘Do we need any more injuries?’ she snapped holding out her hand.
‘Dear mother, thou art a basilisk,’ murmured Ali, handing back our knives. But things had improved. The International Red Cross sent a carton full of medicines for which we were extremely grateful. The Red Cross worker, a British lady, also gave us a small bottle, which, she said, was her personal gift, a cure for boils and heartworm.
Ali turned the bottle around. ‘What is it?’ he asked curiously. ‘It’s very light.’
‘Of course it’s light. That’s moonbeams collected at the full moon, while chanting the Hail Mary ten times. Just rub the bottle over an infected person’s chest. It works wonders. ’ She waved and left Ali standing there with his mouth open. This time it was Ammijan, who snorted and muttered something about white mullahs, while Mina chortled, ‘But she meant well, she meant well!’
Local NGOs gave our captive audience invaluable information on health measures such as hand washing, and boiling drinking water. Other groups such as the WWF gave talks on bio-gas and lectures on deforestation and global warming, although with all that hot air coming out of Islamabad, I fear there’s little one can do to stop the latter.
There’s little effort from above to back up all this information by means of an infrastructure that helps turn awareness into reality, so before very long the uneducated public, in beyond its depth to start with, gives up. After all, once again, we, in our little camp, used firewood until alternatives were delivered to our doorstep just a few days ago.
Yesterday morning, a week after our arrival at Swat, Fatima appeared suddenly at the house. Aghast, we could only stare at her. Before Batool or I could say anything though, Ammijan pushed a sheet into Fatima’s arms and asked her to tear it into strips for bandages, as though she’d been there all along. ‘This is her job, as much as yours,’ she said shortly. ‘Let her do it, and ask questions later.’
It appears our daughter begged a ride on an NGO jeep. By this time roads were a bit clearer, if not by much. She said if she’d been stranded, she’d have come with them whichever way they managed to go.
As it turns out, Fatima was invaluable, not least because she can now take over from me.
Over to you, kiddo.
FATIMA’S DIARY (AGAIN):
Yeah Aba and I’m not a kiddo. I taught these women to preserve fish, remember?
I read about it long ago in one of those Laura Ingalls Wilder books. Ali chacha said they used to have the Little House on the Prairie series on TV, based on her books, when he was a kid, and it made him puke. Be that as it may, the books are definitely better. I thought about them when I saw dead fish lying around here (the smell wasn’t good), because Laura’s family smoked meat and stored it. It was done like this:
I suppose when the waters came through and then receded here, the fish was left high and dry, the poor things. So Safia and I (she’s one of the women at the camp, the zippiest old lady I’ve ever met. I mean to keep in touch with her) went on a hunt for a hollow tree. With so many logs lying around, we found one before long, and had it hauled back to camp.
We covered one end of the tree trunk, and stood it that end up on a small brick fireplace. Then we caught some fresh fish. There was not much point using the dead fish lying around and finishing what the floods tried to do, kill the (rest of the) people of Swat. We cleaned, drained and salted it, and hung it inside the trunk by means of cotton string that we dangled inside the cover. Then we lit a fire using damp wood in the brick fireplace. That was the easiest part, because most of the wood in Swat those days was damp. The fire of course smoked, and the smoke went right up into the log and hung around, drying the fish and smoking it. And lo and behold, fish that you can keep for days on end.
I got some awed looks from my students and one of Dadima’s rare smiles and even Abba and Amma looked as though they might keep me after all. There is something to be said for the ability to read after all, even if it’s just children’s fiction.
What do our countrymen do without this ability?
I’m adding this journal’s very last words...from Dadima, as requested by all her children:
I am glad Fatima joined us. You cannot always protect children from disaster. There is too much of it around. They need to know, they need to help. The divide between our rich and poor is too wide for imagination. Seeing something on television is not the same as being there. Would Fatima have seen those dead fish had she not been with us?
Dadima over and out. [Ali chacha dies laughing]