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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.

“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.

She is an American Lady – So Che Amrekee Khotoon

Posted in 2010 Summer Public Service Program, Aya by kashmircorps on June 24, 2010

Watching the sun set on the Dal Lake

After a much anticipated exodus from hot… scratch that. From boiling New Dehli where temperatures reached sweltering levels, my brother and I arrived to Sringar airport.

Along with my arrival in Kashmir came my two bags, three young boys killed and four days of strikes.

But Kashmir greeted me with more than just conflict. I was embraced by a 360 degree-view of the most breathtaking mountain range hugging this beautiful city.

A sunset boat ride on a shikara had us drifting along Dal Lake. As the sky changed the mountains from green to orange to purple, the evening turned black. Unlike Cairo, where the city never sleeps, Srinagar seems to be on a self-imposed curfew. Possibly a remnant of the 1980’s and 1990’s militancy when the city was on constant curfew.

These days, at around 11pm, Boulevard Road, a Dal Lake popular spot for tourists and locals, goes from a vibrant place to stroll along to a quiet, soulless street.

The three major local English papers, Greater Kashmir, Rising Kashmir and Kashmir Times, are the only viable conduits of information in times like these. They inform residents about city-wide strikes. Strikes that cost this city an estimated $6 million a day. Who loses? Kashmiris.

But if store owners want to defy the strike,they will surely feel the brunt of local pressure. Many here believe strikes are the only viable form of resistance and protest when Indian soldiers shoot at processions, which is how Javed died.

According to the local papers Javed Ahmed Mallah was in Srinagar to pay his respect and pray at the janaza, or burial, of his cousin who died of wounds sustained to his head the day before. His cousin was apparently walking in Old Downtown, Srinagar or what is often referred to as the “Gaza Strip” of the city, and at the same time some youth were clashing with the Army when he was inadvertently struck in the head.

The national Indian paper “The Times” mentioned the killings and strikes on page 4, in three graphs. Here is what they had to say about what happened:

Angry youth stoned security forces at Parimpora in Srinagar to protest the arrest of two youth. Residents alleged that cops thrashed them and ransacked their houses. The separatists had called the shut down to protest Srinagar youth Javaid Ahmed Malla’s killing. He was killed and five others were injured when CRPF troopers fired at angry protesters who attacked an armoured vehicle on Sunday

It’s pretty clear that the national media and local media are reporting from two very different lenses. It was also clear to me when I visited Kashmir University and met with the journalism students that becoming a journalist is actually cool among youth and respected among elders.

In fact, Kashmir University has found that the Journalism and Mass Communication majors are the most sought after now, above engineering and medicine. The journalism community here is vibrant with young, educated, elite men.  Men who are dressed in jeans and polo shirts.

The women, regardless of class or creed, adhere proudly to the shilvar kameesis of their mothers and grandmothers. Until I get my hands on one, I have been called French, Israeli and even Shakira!

I think it’s the curly hair. The tightly coiled, blond highlighted ringlets I confidently toss around.

“Me, Arab,” I tell the Shias of Old Downtown, assuming my curls are evidence enough of my identity.

As I’m driven away in a private car, jeans on, and digital camera in tow, I wonder at what point will people mutter under their breaths the obvious.

“So Che Amrekee Khotoon.” Kashmiri for, “She’s an American lady.”

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 university students.

Cricket, Curry, and Chai

Posted in 2010 Summer Public Service Program, Aya by kashmircorps on June 17, 2010

Cricket, Curry, and Chai

Aya at an ancient ruin in Delhi before the 2010 Summer Public Service Program

Cliche? Naturally, but this is India and anything goes. From the idols to the One God, this is a country full of beauty and integrity. I remember driving by a Hindu temple and taking a walk inside. Aside from the Kama Sutra and inter-sex acts engraved on the side of entry columns, my brother and I were quite respectful of the worship.

It seems this attitude of tolerance permeates from Delhi to Corbett National Park, north on the way to Kashmir. Along the entire drive there, minarets a block away from gold elephants appeared. In the midst were Hindu women in colorful saris holding on gracefully and sideways, in the most upright pilates pose I could ever master, on the backs of motorcyles and women in niqab traveling by foot.

After spending an afternoon in Corbett on a hunt for Bengal tigers, and actually spotting one, I spent part of the evening talking to a lovely couple.

The husband spent many years in the United States working for NASA and his wife was a botanist. While they were visiting St.Catherine in South Sinai, Egypt, she took a piece of the burning bush and found that it did not match the DNA of another plant.

She also explained to me that women here do not wear wedding bands. Rather, two rings. One for each second toe. The Hindu couple were reluctant to visit Kashmir when I mentioned to them they ought to visit because I will be there and they have never been.

They said there is some instability. That coming from her husband too, who was raised in Hyderbad surrounded by Muslims and a father who was a linguist mastering Farsi.

It seems there is still misconception about the peace and tranquility of North India. Or so that is the cliche I hope some good research, reporting and writing may show.

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 university students.

Welcoming KashmirCorps’ 2010 Volunteers

KashmirCorps would like to welcome this year’s fantastic Volunteers. The 2010 Summer Public Service Program is shaping up to be one of our most impactful and rewarding years and much of it is the result of the rich and diverse experiences our Volunteers bring forward. The summer is guaranteed to be challenging, but fulfilling and we would like to reiterate our commitment to helping this cohort of individuals achieve all their project goals, while they absorbing the beautiful landscape and rich history around them.

Friends, family members, and KashmirCorps supporters can follow the Volunteers and their work by accessing their individual names under Categories.

Stay tuned!