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A Week in Prison for a Walk in the Clouds

Posted in 2010 Summer Public Service Program, Aya by kashmircorps on July 12, 2010

I’ve spent the past week in prison. True that it’s more of a Martha Stewart-type prison, but it’s a prison nonetheless.

I’m surrounded by four walls and a labyrinth of insects appearing on my room’s beige walls, which I’ve bruised and stained with their remains. For someone who’s petrified of all things bugs, including but not exclusive to ladybugs, baby bugs and buggie bugs, I’ve become pretty good at ridding my room of the smallest ones. The rest I call in my brother for. Chivalry is alive and squishing.

In this prism of prisons, I’ve eaten the same food day after day, wishing unsuccessfully for a good night’s sleep to swallow for some respite.

But even during daylight, I am allowed no visitation rights, except with my fellow inmates, trapped in the two rooms adjacent to mine. We bond in our anguish and anger, seething at the injustice.

We weren’t even read our Miranda Rights.There was simply no warning.

The unspoken rules were told to me after I was locked in for the curfew.

The rules were simple: First, regardless of why this city was on lock down, so long as I’m here, I’m locked down. Second, I am not to allowed a text message, a pharmacy, a grocery store, a bank, a restaurant, a movie theater, a laundry service, but can have all the chai I want, provided I have enough milk, tea and sugar to hold me over.

Whereas the day before I was attempting to understand how, for days on end, an entire city could go on strike (or hartal as it’s called here), on this day I was trying to understand how I was suddenly under house arrest.

I wasn’t trying to be greedy and plan for weeks ahead. I just wanted to plan for tomorrow. Surely that’s not a crime.

Is there hartal or isn’t there hartal?  Is there an army curfew or isn’t there an army curfew? Is there a civil curfew or isn’t here a civil curfew?

I asked professors, businessmen, NGO leaders and journalists for answers. I used my lifeline to call the award-winning Muzamil Jaleel, the “big brother” of journalists here and the Srinagar bureau chief of the Indian Express. He would know the news before it breaks. But even he was trapped without a curfew pass.

Before we proceed, here’s a quick SVU: Srinagar Vocabulary Update

1. Hartal: Entire cities throughout the Kashmir Valley are shut down due to strikes called for by local separatist leaders. There are no schools nor stores open and services are not offered. Often these strikes can go on for weeks, with a brief 12 hour break every 6-8 days.

2. Army Curfew: A “black flag march”, whereby the Indian Army requires that everyone stay in their homes. If you venture out, you may be shot.

3. Civil Curfew: A self-imposed curfew, whereby separatist leaders call on the people to stay at home. If you venture out, you may be stone pelted.

4. Curfew pass: A government-issued pass that allows certain people to move around during curfewed days and nights.

This week, even curfew passes were revoked. Journalists instead reported- online or on TV- about their inability to report. For two days, local newspapers couldn’t go to print and even if they had, wouldn’t have been distributed.

Aya and Belal from 13,000 feet in Gulmarg

My brother and I spent our evenings with our third inmate Tabir, finding sweet, blissful refuge in 90 minutes of the World Cup’s matches.

We had to get out. Far away. A walk in the clouds, would do. Just as it was safe enough to venture out, we hopped in the Sumo and drove out of Srinagar. As any good fugitives would do, we left the city just before it wakes up, never looking back.

Getting to the top of the mountain in Gulmarg was the glorious finale that we had waited for, dreamt about, planned. Just like the Spaniards winning the World Cup, it was our first.

We were in the clouds, literally.

Even though Belal was just 50 feet to my right, I could barely see him because this was the world of clouds, not humans. Standing on the side of the green mountain, a river ran far below us. The clouds hung in suspension with us. This was our azadi, the Kashmiri word for freedom.

Aya graduated from the University of South Florida with with a double-major in history and broadcast journalism in 2004 and earned her MA in Middle East Politics/Media Studies from SOAS, University of London, in 2007. She currently freelances for radio programs from Cairo, Egypt. Currently, Aya also teaches journalism at the American University in Cairo (AUC) and is working as a Senior Program Specialist for Goldman Sachs 10,000 Women’s Entrepreneurship and Leadership scholarship in Egypt. While in Kashmir, she will be developing and implementing media workshops for youth.
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Panun Kasheer

Posted in 2010 Summer Public Service Program, Farheen by kashmircorps on July 12, 2010

I have visited Kashmir almost every summer since I was born and some things never change. No, I am not talking about the

Traditional Kashmiri embroidery, known as "ari" at the Inderhama Centre

undending hartals of this season. More like the spectacular view when you drive by the Dal, traffic bottlenecks at Rambagh and Dal gate, constant honking, and bumpy roads. The murkiness of the Dal Lake might have worsened but the crowd every evening does not thin. Hartaal or not you will always find boys on their bikes enjoying corn at ‘Bhutta point’ and ‘sikh-tuj’ aka freshly grilled kebabs. It’s weird when I hear of a mall opening in the city with possible a KFC or Mc Donald’s! Suddenly, CCD is the new spot to chill and not Shakti sweets. It is it a good or bad thing? I don’t know. I guess commercialization will bring more jobs, more money etc. Just that, the Kashmir I have known since childhood is different from any other city, it has its own identity, Panun Kasheer.

Women making "var," traditional Kashmiri chili

INTACH the organization that invited us to dinner a few days back mentioned the uniqueness of Kashmir especially in its architecture. For example Kashmir is one of the few places in the world with no high rise buildings. I also learnt about a beautiful Pathar Masjid in the downtown area which I really want to visit.

Nigeen Club, where the dinner was held is breathtaking with a lake of its own and the ‘Mughdam Saab’ fort in the backdrop. I spent most of the time clicking amateur pictures and would definitely like to visit again given the situation gets better. The dinner was cut short due to the ongoing protests and worried parents urging me to get home as soon as possible. It was still a lot of fun and I am really grateful to Sarah and her INTACH team for being so hospitable.

Last Sunday was my birthday, the best so far. There was no cake. I spent most the day with the ‘special’ children in Inderhama. I got there around 11 am and found the boys performing a skit. One of the boys was a teacher and he was scolding the students, calling them ‘buddhu’ (stupid) just like you would find in many schools across Kashmir. Later I found out the boys were divided into groups of three, each with a different theme and about 2 minutes to decide on a story, direct it, come up with dialogues and act. Another group had come up with a skit based on the recent kidnapping and murder of a girl in Anantnag, the theme being sadness. Overall the performances were very entertaining and we all had a good laugh. Some of the children have great potential and HELP is doing a wonderful job by training them in theatre and arts. Very few schools in Kashmir have such facilities and it is a great way to not only build skills but rehabilitate these children.

I also met with Dr. Kishwar, a clinical psychologist who has been working with the boys and women of Kashmir for the past 10 years. I asked her what changes she had seen in the boys and she immediately replied that they are a family now. She said the biggest problem people here face is the fallout of trust in the community and it is homes like Inderhama that help the children of the conflict to build trust within each other and get away from the recreation of the trauma at home. Later we met with Mr. Tareq Abdullah a journalist who is making a documentary on HELP foundation. It was a really good chance for highlighting the work that HELP is doing and I hope that this documentary, once it gets out there will further their cause.

If the curfew is lifted I am hoping to go back and meet with Dr. Kishwar again since she has good insight on the psychological state of Kashmiri women affected by the conflict. She already gave me some good tips which will help with the project I am working on. For now I am praying that the ‘weekend’ goes by smoothly and this uncertainty of whether or not things will work out tomorrow is lifted.

P.s- If you haven’t already, please read a piece by Zahir-ud-Din in Greater Kashmir (1st July) titled Reconciliation or justice. It’s a great read and raises some important questions.

Although born in Kashmir, Farheen has spent most of her life abroad. She recently graduated with a BSc in Human Biology from the University of Toronto. Farheen has a deep interest in public health which she will explore further working with the HELP foundation on a project focusing on women’s mental health.

Restless Nights of Inner and Outer Noise

Posted in 2010 Summer Public Service Program, Sarah by kashmircorps on July 8, 2010

I haven’t found the motivation to write a blog post in the past few days because I fell ill.  Also, the situation in Kashmir is getting progressively worse so it’s been hard to describe the multitude of emotions I have felt. But as it’s always been, writing is a release for me, so here goes…

Last week, I got really sick. I am not sure what the culprit was but I had to make a quick visit to the hospital. It was a horrible experience. I was really out of it so Aya, Tabir and Sajid (from the hotel) were advocating for me. They were my angels. They made sure everything was clean and yelled if necessary, when it wasn’t. I was in a place I didn’t know, with people I didn’t know, forced to be in the most vulnerable of positions. I was entirely relying on God to protect me. And He did, alhumduillah. After leaving the hospital, Hafsa’s family took me in so I could recuperate.  Because of all the strikes and curfews, it was becoming increasingly difficult for me to find viable food options. It was such a blessing to have home-cooked meals at Hafsa’s house. I feel so blessed. After spending a few days dehydrated and exhausted, I started to gain strength. Everyone was pretty much under house arrest because of the conflict cycles. Although there is some varying positions on what Kashmiris want, the general sentiment is for demilitarization and self-determination. From what I have understood, the cycles go like this: the army and the protestors will go back and forth. Oftentimes, the protests get violent with stone pelting from the separatists retaliated with bullets from the army. In the past month, some 15 deaths, mostly young boys, made the valley increasingly tense. Furthermore, the army institutes curfew and flag marches to quell uprisings. However, the people continue to protest because they need and want international attention and this is their only means of getting it.

There is so much corruption by leaders on both sides that I am left hurting for the common folk who are being pushed around like ragdolls. On Tuesday, July 6th, four people died in 24 hours in protesting, one of which was a woman. On this day, Aya, Tabir, Hafsa and I met with Nighat Shafi, the founder of the HELP foundation and Nobel Peace Prize nominee of 2005 (with 1000 women for peace around the globe). Aya interviewed her on the mental well-being of the youth in this conflict zone. After car accidents, suicide is the next leading cause of death in Kashmir. Mrs. Shafi has done amazing work for the valley by starting schools and homes for women and children affected by the conflict, among other things. I did an interview with her for altmuslimah.com so look out for that in the coming days.

Ms. Shafi lives near her sister, Asmat Ashai, who started Funkar International. It is an organization that is trying to preserve the Kashmiri language by music. Aya also did an interview with her, featuring traditional Kashmiri music. She was generous enough to give us CDs. I loved the music, which centers on the rubab, a traditional string instrument.

Street demonstrations taking place in Srinagar

After our visit with Ms. Shafi, we were driving back home. Aya was telling us about a story she is working on to document women protestors in Kashmir. Just then, we happened upon a crowd of women shouting slogans of freedom, with the army sitting side by side across the street. We got out of the car so Aya could record the voices of the women. I stood with Tabir who was taking pictures in the background. It was such a surreal experience. These women were so brave. I wondered if I could ever be that brave if life required it of me. The women were saying in Kashmiri and Urdu that they want freedom, how they want India to go, and sharing stories of how people they know were killed in conflict.  We saw men starting to gather and knew that was our cue to leave. There was a potential of a peaceful protest turning ugly quite quickly so we got out of there. From the distance, we could hear the crowd growing larger with chants becoming stronger.

Back at Hafsa’s house, the four of us talked about our experience but pretty quickly, my mind started to wander, in search of lighter thoughts. I was struggling to process the intensity of what we had just experienced without internally imploding. Perhaps, I am a coward. Or maybe it is how I have understood to cope with things that are beyond me, emotions unexplainable and counter to my cushy life in the States. These women would not stand down. They stood together, young and old, fueled by grief and craving to be heard. The army sat across the street, staring them down. “Azaade, Azaade,” (Freedom, Freedom) they kept shouting.  I stood there, quietly observing, feeling like I was in some parallel universe where everything was upside down. I felt unstable just like everything around me was unstable. I wanted to run away but I couldn’t. I wanted to ease the pain of these women but I didn’t know how. I wanted to cry but I stopped myself. I needed to be vigilant, run if the situation escalated and get to our car safely.

Since then, two days have passed. I have been in doors with nowhere to go. My project with INTACH is coming slowly because I still haven’t done my site visit. I spoke with some coworkers back home and decided to pursue case studies of riverfronts that Downtown Srinagar can learn from in Singapore and China. This way, I have research I can do from home.

I know this blog post seems grime. But I refuse to let a grime reality dictate my mood. My process of digesting the daily life of Kashmiris is a welcome challenge. I don’t want to live a bubbled life, completely unaware of how my fellow man struggles. I abhor that type of existence. My life slowing down because of curfewed days and nights is a simple reminder of how grateful I am to freely move in my own country.

This land is so beautiful but is it a beautiful prison? The valley is a living, breathing entity and it is hurting. The trees are being cut down. The water is being stolen. Children are loosing their childhoods.  Youth are fighting battles they may not even understand. Army and paramilitary forces are having their strings pulled by puppet masters. And black hearts are dictating the life of ordinary people who just want to live their lives. Damn the day that black hearts win.

Sarah currently works at the Urban Land Institute in Washington, a think-tank doing research on water infrastructure, transportation and land use issues. She graduated in 2006 with a BS from the University of Southern California in public policy and in 2008 from UC Irvine with a masters in urban planning. While in Kashmir, she will be interning with INTACH, a historic preservation non-profit on a project focusing on the revitalization of the Jhelum riverfront.

Gulmarg!

Posted in 2010 Summer Public Service Program, Tabir by kashmircorps on July 8, 2010

Gulmarg is a mountain resort resting at 11,000 feet above sea level.

This week so far has been amazing! On Sunday, the only day of the week that there was no strike, Aya, Belal, and I went to Gulmarg. Gulmarg is about an hour drive outside of Srinagar and is known for its snow capped mountain tops and incredible views. We took a dangerous SUMO ride up the mountain, where our tour guide, Mir, took us to a incredibly dangerous yet incredibly beautiful path on the side of the mountain. It was raining so the clouds were literally sitting on the top our heads. It was just amazing. We then took a gondola up 13,500 m to the Apharwat mountain peak. It was very cold but worth it. I think its safe to say that Gulmarg is now officially one of my favorite places in the world!

The following day, I experienced my very first Wazwan courtesy of Farheen and her family. A wazwan is a traditional Kashmiri feast that consists of several courses and varieties of primarily mutton and rice. The wazwan is eaten in groups of four with your hands. The wazwan was a rich experience and definitely gave me insight into the emphasis of community in Kashmiri culture.

Today, on our way back from Ms. Nighat Shafi’s house (founder of HELP foundation and always a pleasure to be around), we happened to drive by a women’s protest. Aya, who is in the process of doing a story on the women’s movement in Kashmir, wanted to interview some of the ladies protesting. On our way back from the protest, there was firing in the distance so our driver had to take an alternate route to the hotel. Though I think there have been amazing new experiences for all of us this week, certain images and sounds of conflict keep things in perspective. Though my project is at a halt since there are no school days, I hope to do whatever I can in the days that I have here and try to make every minute count. There is a curfew in place tonight and Boulevard Road which over looks the Dal Lake is a ghost town. However, what I’ve learned since being in Kashmir, is that things here can change very quickly.

Tabir received her bachelors degree in Philosophy and Religion from Brooklyn College in 2009 and has since been doing research at the United Nations on topics concerning women’s reproductive and sexual rights. She will be working with the Kashmir Education Initiative to aid in developing evaluation measures for the organization’s scholarship program.

Mutton Heaven or Hell?

Posted in 2010 Summer Public Service Program, Belal by kashmircorps on July 6, 2010

Wazwan cooks prepare a local feast

Pretty much heaven if you’re a carnivore, like me. That was my take on the Wazwan we attended, which seems to be more of a waste of food than a blessing. It’s the first real feast I’ve had, and I’m talking about feast as in the ways kings used to eat during the times of royal courts. If you didn’t know, a Wazwan is a traditional Kashmiri gathering and feast done in a large tent. The guests sit in groups of four around a large serving dish stacked with rice. A proper Wazwan has you eating with your hands, with anywhere from 10 to 30 courses of mutton dishes in all sorts of varieties and flavors being served.

I certainly made a splash with my galabeya and Omani kufiy wrap. The pure Arab look lead immediately to talk of politics, religion, culture, and of course food. My three companions in the feasting were delightful and represented unique lives in Kashmir. One was a professor of geology and geography at Kashmir University, the second a successful business man of Kashmiri origins who has travelled the world, the third an engineer working on water management and recycling for the city of Srinagar. All three are of importance to the community. Their company definitely made the Wazwan a highlight of the trip.

KashmirCorps Volunteers enjoy a traditional Kashmiri feast, known as "wazwan"

Belal is a senior at the University of South Florida and will be graduating this coming fall semester with a degree in Economics. He previously worked with the Alliance for Arab Women, an NGO in Cairo, Egypt that promotes microbusiness ventures for women in rural areas in Egypt amongst other projects. This summer Belal will be working with MercyCorps on an agribusiness project with low-income farmers.

Trying to maintain momentum

Posted in 2008 Summer Public Service Program, Tabir by kashmircorps on June 30, 2010

A houseboat named Miss America, sits on the Dal Lake

I wanted to catch up on the events of the week. As far as tourist-y things I have done, I finally took that Shikara ride and we visited the Mughal Gardens. The view from Parimahal was breathtaking!

I also bought some jewelry and unfortunately got ripped off about 200 rupees. But I guess that is all part of the learning experience. We also visited a heritage museum in a nearby park. It has definitely been an eventful week for the group, but as far my project is concerned, the ongoing strikes have been taking a toll on the progression of my project.

There have only been two school days since my arrival and every other day there has been a strike. I am trying to keep busy and maneuver the course of the project in a way that will allow me to get something done everyday regardless if there is a school day or not. Though my project is off to a slow start, I was able to visit the HELP foundation with the other volunteers, an organization which Farheen is working with this summer.

HELP foundation is an amazing organization which has made great strides in community rehabilitation for communities debilitated by the conflict. Their initiatives range from establishing “special schools” for children who have lost their fathers from conflict related causes to providing sustenance allowance to women. Meeting Mrs. Nighat Shafi, chairperson of HELP, was an important opportunity for me to understand the obstacles present in non profit work in Kashmir and how much still needs to be accomplished. Also, yesterday afternoon, we were able to support Aya at a workshop she was heading at “Sunday Circle”, an intellectual society of young Kashmiri journalists who meet every Sunday to discuss and debate discourse in the field of journalism.

Also, INTACH, the organization Sarah will be working with this summer, focusing on the preservation of historic sites in Kashmir, was kind enough to host the KashmirCorps volunteers for dinner and a presentation on Kashmiri culture. The view from the Nageen club, where the presentation and dinner was held was probably one of the most beautiful sights I have seen thus far in Kashmir.

Despite the informative week, conditions in Kashmir seem to be worsening. It is hard to cope with the devastating headlines day after day, like “Kashmir Boils” and “Two more fall”. The number of children and young men being killed just seems to be increasing. The minute to minute change in conditions has resulted in a curfew for today and most probably tomorrow.

Aya and I are trying to keep busy by blogging and entertaining each other. I have never experienced “hotel/house arrest”. Every day I realize another luxury I take advantage of back home, and today its simply being able to leave my home whenever I please.

Before I post my blog entry on Asma Firdous, I will hopefully be meeting her once again, if all goes well and there are no strikes.

I’m trying to maintain momentum and not let the conditions outside influence my hope for this project.

Take Care!

Tabir received her bachelors degree in Philosophy and Religion from Brooklyn College in 2009 and has since been doing research at the United Nations on topics concerning women’s reproductive and sexual rights. She will be working with the Kashmir Education Initiative to aid in developing evaluation measures for the organization’s scholarship program.

“Tinka Tinka, Zara Zara”

Posted in 2010 Summer Public Service Program, Aya by kashmircorps on June 29, 2010

“Bloodbath.” As I opened my eyes, trying to avoid the fact that today was another day lost in this magnificent city, I read those words on the front page of the newspaper.

“2010: YEAR OF TEENAGE KILLINGS,” said the headline in the June 29, 2010 newspaper “Greater Kashmir.”

Out of some 15 people who have been killed this year, apparently 11 have been teenage boys. And nearly 10 of those deaths have taken place in the past two weeks.

Just yesterday it was 9 year-old Tauqeer Ahmed Rather. His picture, along with that of first-year college student  Tajamul Bashir Bhat, was posted on the front-page.

Without needing to look outside, I could feel this was an unusually gloomy day. The sky was indeed grey and the streets seemed like a vacant filmset where the actors and directors are off shooting somewhere else.

In fact, that is more realistic than figurative. The actors in this case are stone pelters. Young boys idly watching their youth fly by as schools are shut-down and roads are too dangerous to pass. Old men are directing the strikes, calling on people to follow a program published in the papers.

A schedule of events for the community appears in the papers on an almost daily basis. But this isn’t the kind of schedule that announces graduation dates, or dates for a play, or dates for a festival. These are dates for the male protest, dates for the female protest, dates for strikes, dates for processions. There was even a day for painting slogans on walls and store fronts.

Kashmir Valley from above. Taken as we arrive by plane.

In random parts of Srinagar, protests today sprouted with no intention and no direction. These protests were a site for young boys to act out their frustration. Frustration at what seems to be the most used and abused word of the Kashmiri language, hartal. A hartal means a strike. Since I have been here, I have worked three and a half days.

The rest have been strike days. On these hartal days, the entire city shuts down. Restaurants, banks, grocery stores, doctors’ offices, shopping districts are closed. To drive along the roads on a hartal day is to see iron garage doors, the kind you might expect to see in New York City’s Harlem District at night when the stores have closed and the garage doors have come rolling down.

No coffee shops to meet with friends, no bookstores to kill the time, no pharmacies to provide for the ill, no milk to buy for the tea, no bakeries to provide for the sweet tooth. At best, you might be able to buy phone credit from a small stand. But even that seemed inconsequential because all text messaging systems were blocked.

So when I needed to change my dollars to rupees in order to buy food from next door’s hotel, I wandered the main Boulevard Road with Sara and Tabir in hopes that this touristic area may have just one money exchange open.

Instead what we stumbled upon was a man with a cellphone standing next to a closed Western Union. He asked my friend Sara and I if we needed to change money.

After little hesitation, we shook our heads “yes.” We were desperate. My 10 rupees surely wouldn’t get me even biscuits.

He said, “Follow me.” We did. We sat by Dal Lake, when a man appeared. I think he came off of a boat from the lake. He had a black bag strapped over his shoulder. He pulled out 1820 rupees for each of us at a competitive exchange rate. If I split that with my brother, that should hold us over for the next few days, I figured.

As I sat there counting the money, holding up a few bills to the sky to ensure that Gandhi’s head would appear with no hair, which is how you know if the bill’s real or not, I felt almost transfixed by his hologram.

We are all surviving in our own way. The constant backdgrop of mountains in the distance continue to breathe life into Kashmir Valley.

I have never before in my life seen Mother Nature more upclose than here. Yesterday, I visited the Islamic University of Awantipora. It is situated on a hill, just high enough that the clouds nearly kiss the top of its buildings on cloudy days.

The drive to and from the university felt like watching the earth unwrap its silk sari as it turns from the emerald green of saffron fields before bloom, to the yellowish-green of rice patty fields. Her scent, almost minty and dizzying, from the  cannibas that naturally lined the lakes for long stretches, growing unprovked in the most breathtaking of drives.

As we drove back, trying to find the safest route since new protests had sprotued somewhere along our path, I dozed off with the wind grazing my face and the radio carrying this song.

Tinka Tinka, Zara Zara,” refers to the tiniest of molcules and pecks, said Monisa, the hazel-eyed young professor who hosted me in her class that day.

Aya graduated from the University of South Florida with with a double-major in history and broadcast journalism in 2004 and earned her MA in Middle East Politics/Media Studies from SOAS, University of London, in 2007. She currently freelances for radio programs from Cairo, Egypt. Currently, Aya also teaches journalism at the American University in Cairo (AUC) and is working as a Senior Program Specialist for Goldman Sachs 10,000 Women’s Entrepreneurship and Leadership scholarship in Egypt. While in Kashmir, she will be developing and implementing media workshops for youth.

My Pen is my Mace

Posted in 2010 Summer Public Service Program, Sarah by kashmircorps on June 29, 2010

Kashmir's architecture incorporates many different cultural influences.

Yesterday, after a short stint at the beauty parlor for a 30 rupee eyebrow threading and a quick shopping trip, we joined Aya at the Sunday Circle. This weekly gathering is for young journalists, mostly men, with few women writing for Greater Kashmir, Rising Kashmir and a few other publications. Talk about being in the middle of it within 2 days. Aya, a journalist and my fellow KashmirCorps intern, was giving them a presentation on her experience reporting on the war on Gaza. It was interesting to hear the similarities the journalists drew from Palestine and the Kashmir. Many conversations centered on how journalists can be better agents of truth. Should they write to an American audience who has more power to change policy? Or should they write to a local, national or regional scale? They had questions about how to stay true to themselves and their cause, given editors who want to water-down or change their stories. The debate continued for hours and there was no conclusion. Perhaps there are no easy answers.

I spoke to some of the women and their enthusiasm for journalism was inspiring. They shared that it was difficult for them to break into it because it tends to be a boy’s club. But they continue writing because they are “passionate” about it.

The rest of the day consisted of the stressful act of bargaining. I am starting to really develop my backbone here. I bought a beautiful embroidered bag. The craft skills’ are incredible here and it’s no wonder that Kashmir’s goods get exported everywhere.

Today was the first day I was actually scared.  It was hartal day because another person died on Sunday in a protest in Sopore which is 30 miles from where I am. Most offices and stores have been closed since I got here, aside from a brief opening Sunday night. Sopore has been under indefinite curfew, meaning residents cannot leave their homes. Strikes are self-imposed to demonstrate against the force of paramilitary and curfews are imposed by the Indian authorities.

My coworkers at INTACH were going to the office so I decided to go as well. The driver picked me up at 9:45 AM and we went to the press enclave, where INTACH is located as well as, many newspapers. I got right to work, reading the cultural mapping reports

Jamia Mosque, the central mosque in Srinagar, bears architecture resembling more East Asian influences.

INTACH has done on categorizing almost all the historic buildings in Srinagar. This town is so rich with its own distinct culture, even in its architecture, with influences from the Chinese, Persian, Central Asian, and Indian civilizations. Srinagar’s building types and architecture mostly consists of brick, stone and wood. I’ll share pictures next time because I haven’t been able to do a site visit of Maharaj Gunj, the area between Ali Kadal and Zaina Kadal along the river Jhelum.

I’ve been asked to come up with a revitalization plan of this area. I will be looking at many factors: population growth, migration trends, types of retail, preserving building character, adding more open space, pedestrian connections, road networks etc. I will begin with looking at the issues facing historic preservation, which is akin to many parts of the world. There needs to be increased awareness that preserving historical spaces is in the best interest of a community. It attracts tourism, which increases wealth in a community. But not just for the people coming from the outside, preserving the character of a space creates a ‘sense of place’ for its residents. And if they are educated in why it is important to maintain their structures in a proper manner, with incentives from authorities, the resulting environment can be that of shared communal space.

In between my reading, my coworkers were talking amongst themselves about how things are getting worse in Kashmir. There was a procession from Srinagar to Sopore, to show solidarity to the residents of Sopore, where 8 people have been killed by paramilitary force. We ended up leaving early from work because everyone was on the edge, although it seemed many of them were used to it because they shared their frustrations with humor.  I was just quietly listening to their anxieties as they talked amongst themselves of making sure to take the safer roads, to avoid going to certain parts of town and to try staying indoors.

After leaving work early, we went straight to the Nageen Club, a restaurant and sports club, taking the back roads as to avoid the city center where the protest, which often leads to violence, may ensue. Again, I was lost in Kashmir’s beauty. We drove along Dal Lake and the Shalimar gardens to Nageen Club with the mountains as the backdrop. It was a peaceful drive. Nageen Club sits on Nageen lake, and was recently reopened with a view to the military fort that overlooks the city and many houseboats and shikaras floating by. The rest of the KashmirCorps team met with my INTACH team for a presentation on INTACH’s work on historic preservation in the city. Mr. Saleem Beg, the former Director of Tourism and now director of INTACH, gave us a brief history about Srinagar and an analysis of its built environment, including its architecture. I am really glad that the interns in KashmirCorps have been able to meet each other’s coworkers to some extent.

I came home, laid down, with every intention to get up and change my clothes but I was knocked out.  I hope I can find somewhere to get essentials tomorrow. Thank God, I’ve been eating but since the stores are closed, I haven’t been able to get the essentials. I am not too worried. I’ll figure it out but for the people in Sopore, who are on indefinite curfew, and need milk for their children or bread, what are they to do?

Sarah currently works at the Urban Land Institute in Washington, a think-tank doing research on water infrastructure, transportation and land use issues. She graduated in 2006 with a BS from the University of Southern California in public policy and in 2008 from UC Irvine with a masters in urban planning. While in Kashmir, she will be interning with INTACH, a historic preservation non-profit on a project focusing on the revitalization of the Jhelum riverfront.

An Abode of Saints

Posted in 2010 Summer Public Service Program, Sarah by kashmircorps on June 27, 2010

I woke up to the layering of adaans across the land. The many masajids shared dua’s over the loud speaker before and after the call to prayer. I jumped out of bed, anxious to partake in my first full day in Srinagar.  After fajr, I couldn’t go back to sleep, perhaps due to my warped sleep schedule. I ended up cleaning my room, rearranging my clothes and writing; it was a productive morning. The rest of the fellows woke up around 10AM. Thankfully, they had food because I haven’t had a chance to buy groceries due to the strikes. Most businesses have been shutdown in response to the recent murders of young boys protesting occupation.

The fellows in KashmirCorps are amazing and their work is vastly diverse. Aya is working on media workshops for students and filing several radio and print stories. Tabir is creating evaluation measures for Kashmir Education Initiative’s scholarship program. Belal is working with MercyCorps on their agribusiness project with local farmers. Farheen will be working with HELP foundation on a project focusing on women’s mental health. I haven’t had the pleasure of meeting Jasim just yet but look forward to it. I will be working with INTACH, a historic preservation non-profit on a project focusing on revitalizing a section of Jhelum River and it’s surrounding area, much of which has high historical value.

High up on the Pari Mahal, "Fairy's Abode," you experience breathtaking sights of Srinagar's Dal Lake

Hafsa, our program coordinator, came over to the hotel around 10:30 AM with the driver. We jumped into the SUV to go see Pari Mahal, or Fairies Abode, a terraced garden atop a hill, overlooking Dal Lake. It was built by Dara-Shikoh, the eldest son of Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan in the mid-seventeenth century. Our hotel sits in front of Dal Lake so our drive up to the gardens was breathtaking. We saw the lake to our left, sprinkled with shikaras (row boats), the cascading mountains in front of us and the city to the right of us. After going through a security checkpoint where we had to get out of the car and have our bags searched, we got to the gardens. The view from Pari Mahal left me speechless. In the distance you could see the city with Dal Lake connecting civilization with the never-ending green mountains. I kept taking pictures, hoping to capture the beauty but these images didn’t do the experience justice.

After our journey to the hills, Hafsa, Aya and I went to go meet with my team at INTACH. Mr. Beg, the director, was so kind and hospitable. Saima, an architect, gave me a brief overview of what she expects of me during my internship. INTACH would like to give the government a proposal on how to revitalize the riverfront along Jhelum River, with a focus on conservation. I will be doing a site visit tomorrow, as long as there is no strike. I was so inspired by Mr. Beg and Saima. There love of the land was apparent and for them, the art of design was a means to a greater end of helping Srinagar rise, both its people and environment.

After my INTACH meeting, we met up with the founder of the HELP foundation, the luminous, Nighat Auntie.  She gave us an overview of all of her work, creating a home for mentally disabled children, widows, and schools. Her team also talked about their work in villages, providing grants for job training and scholarship. Our fellow, Farheen, will be working with the HELP staff to come up with case studies of women affected by the conflict and how HELP provided assistance in their lives to get them back on their feet. I am looking forward to Farheen’s project. I may accompany her to one of her visits in the village to talk with the women.

Meeting the INTACH and HELP staff was truly inspiring. I am so excited to continue meeting the organizations KashmirCorps partners with and get plugged into their amazing work. There is so much love, soul and compassion behind the hearts of these individuals.

After our long day, I finally got a full meal! Chicken Makani. It was delish. It seemed like Srinagar was coming alive again at night. Aya, Tabir and I went shopping around our hotel. Kashmir is known for its paisley designs, woolen textiles, paper mache, shawl weaving embroidery, chain-stitching, crewel work, carpets and metal work. I am learning the art of bargaining. Luckily, I speak urdu so I have been able to have some creditability with the store merchants when I ask for a price reduction. Bargaining is really the only way things work around here. It is expected that the price is always negotiable on a given good. I brought down the price of a unique necklace from 350 rupees to 220 rupees. To me, this sounded good but who knows if I am actually getting charged a good price. I am still learning how much things should really cost and when someone is taking me for a ride. So far, so good.  =)

Sarah currently works at the Urban Land Institute in Washington, a think-tank doing research on water infrastructure, transportation and land use issues. She graduated in 2006 with a BS from the University of Southern California in public policy and in 2008 from UC Irvine with a masters in urban planning. While in Kashmir, she will be interning with INTACH, a historic preservation non-profit on a project focusing on the revitalization of the Jhelum riverfront.

Return to Paradise

Posted in 2010 Summer Public Service Program, Farheen by kashmircorps on June 27, 2010

Breathtaking sights while landing into Kashmir

I have been in Kashmir for over 3 weeks now but the unstable conditions here have allowed only 2 of those to be a work week. In a vicious cycle of violence, strikes, and stone pelting, four teenagers have been killed

in a span of only 10 days. A bleak reminder that the situation in Kashmir isn’t getting any better and the reason why projects like KashmirCorps exist.

The Sunday before last I was trying to help my cousin in grade 5 study for his English test. He refused to pay attention since he had already made up his mind that tomorrow would be a hartaal. Guess what? He was right. After a series of strikes he was finally able to take his English test yesterday! Just a small example of how daily life is affected by the ongoing conflict in Kashmir. It really humbles you to see what the children and people of Kashmir have to face day in and day out.

The weather in Kashmir also seems to have a mind of its own. Two days of sun and boiling heat followed by a day of thunderstorms and showers. This instability is however, much welcome.

On a brighter note, I have already met some inspirational people who are truly dedicated to improving the lives of the Kashmiri people. Nighat auntie, the founder and director of HELP foundation, the organization I will be working with this summer is one of them.

Building teamwork among Kashmiri youth through a problem-solving session

Our first field visit was to the orphanage in Inderhama where I joined the boys in a problem solving challenge organized by two women from Delhi. The challenge was to wrap an egg in such a way that it would survive a fall from the roof of a 3 story building! 4 out of 6 teams were successful but more importantly, all the boys were ‘quick on their feet’ and showed excellent team work and intelligence; all qualities much needed in the youth of Kashmir for the promise of a better future.

That’s all for now folks! Stay tuned for more details on my project and stories from the valley of Kashmir.

Although born in Kashmir, Farheen has spent most of her life abroad. She recently graduated with a BSc in Human Biology from the University of Toronto. Farheen has a deep interest in public health which she will explore further working with the HELP foundation on a project focusing on women’s mental health.