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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.

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.

Swirling Thoughts Abound

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

Swirling thoughts abound: My journey to paradise on Earth

I stare at this blank page hoping to articulate my emotions as I begin my journey to Kashmir. I am on the Amtrak train from Washington D.C. to Newark airport. My flight leaves at 8PM tonight iA. I am hoping there are some good movies on the plane because it’s going to be a long ride to Munich, where I have a 10 hour lay-over.  I might attempt to leave the airport; we’ll see.

Back to the emotion, I am nervous and excited of the stories that will surely unfold. It’s crucial for me to take a step back and analyze my intentions here. With this trip to Kashmir, my intention is to be of service to the people I will be working with. I am not entirely sure what this will entail and I cannot fully express the level of uncertainty that I feel but I am excited, nonetheless.

Mountain ranges in the resort town of Gulmarg, Kashmir

The train is now going through the countryside of Pennsylvania. Beautiful. Everything is so green. It is soothing to the eyes. I wonder how soothing the beauty of Kashmir will be to the eyes. I’ve only seen pictures so I can only imagine. It boggles my mind to be surrounded by nature that has inspired poets for generations.

The process of packing for this trip was such a cleansing experience. This is the first time I have traveled abroad alone. I had to think about what was worth carrying thousands of miles and what was dead weight. I started viewing the world in the most minimalist of ways. I realized how much stuff I had and how much of it was unnecessary.  This trip is an opportunity in starting fresh, to rid myself of any excess baggage, quite literally and in the mind.

I am looking forward to meeting the INTACH team where I will be interning. They work on historic preservation, design and urban planning issues all around India. My project will focus on revitalizing Jhelum River. I wonder what my teammates will be like. I wonder what inspires them. I wonder how I can be of service. Most likely, I’ll end up learning more than I end up giving. I am really looking forward to the development of this riverfront project. I am interested in preserving the environment and creating spaces that work with nature in collaboration with the adjacent communities. For what I can tell, this riverfront project is just that. Our spaces impact the psyche. Disjointed community spaces reflect the disarray within us. I am looking forward to expand these thoughts.

This will be a journey to myself. This will be a journey to God. I pray that I am safe and that I am able to seize every opportunity. I hope I impacted by the inspiration of others. I hope I can be of service to my Kashmiri counterparts. I hope I purify my heart and see this trip as a chance to replenish, leading me on a path to the life I want to be living.

To my loved ones, thoughts of you are with me. I have pictures in my journal, written prayers and love in my heart for you all. I anxiously await my return to share my stories with you. Now, I am gonna’ get to it. 🙂

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.

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!