Photo by Luke Martin.
In October 2005, days after a devastating earthquake struck swaths of Northern Pakistan, I hitched a ride to Abbottabad in a Bedford truck, bringing from Islamabad supplies of antibiotics, ointments, bottled water and bails of white kaffan fabric to the headquarters of the NGO, Sungi. On arrival, we unloaded the truck, worked into the early hours of the morning, sorting and piling until the lush green lawn of the office quickly turned into an eerie landscape of syringes, biscuit boxes and pyramids of burial cloth. I remember marveling at how something ordinary can become macabre, in a matter of minutes. And how even a majestic, spiritual landscape possesses, in its depths, a treacherous heart, the will to decimate.
All around me, Abbottabad, before the quake, bristled with the prickly energy of a town that is pushing the boundaries of its identity. Boasting a new internet cafe and a cement and glass three-story mall on the main drag, it seemed to want to become something more than what it actually was: a beautiful hill station, a garrison town. And it struck me as particularly ironic that I, a long time expatriate, had inadvertently landed in a place that in the early fifties had not only been my father’s home but is intricately woven into his memories of a gloriously happy youth playing polo and cricket and tent-pegging, all the while being groomed to follow in his father’s and grandfather’s footsteps into the army.
As we drove past Abbottabad’s ploughed fields and large family homes with iron gates, I felt an intuitive affinity to this historical town that was muddling into modernity, felt nervous about leaving it for the great unknown. I rolled the window down, stuck my head out into the cool air and noted how clean the sky looked. We passed mules bent over feeding troughs, their sloping necks invoking a perfect pastoral scene. But in Pakistan nothing is what it seems. Nothing is exempt from the urgency that lurks beneath the breath of daily life. The mules, too, would soon be bundled with relief goods, accompany army jawans up the jagged, winding slopes to high, hard-to-access altitudes.
Very soon after my arrival in Abbottabad, I traveled on to Pakistan-administered Kashmir which was severely affected and contending with the largest loss of life. When I climbed into the white double-cabin pickup that would take us to Muzzaffarabad, my stomach was a knot of anxiety.
Until now, I had never experienced a disaster, or witnessed mass suffering and death close up. I had never slept in a tent in the naked outdoors, let alone shared it with strangers.
In his mid-career years, when my grandfather served as Brigade Commander in Abbottabad – named after the British officer, James Abbott – my father studied at Burn Hall, the venerable school founded by Catholic missionaries. My family lived in Flagstaff House, a rambling stone structure that sat on a hilltop in the Cantonment neighborhood, boasted its own pear and apricot orchards and commanded views of the polo ground and the Abbottabad Club, a social hub for the civil and military youth. Later, my father would return to Abbottabad for his army training at the Pakistan Military Academy before going on to Sandhurst.
After completing a month of volunteer work in Muzaffarabad, I wasn’t ready to leave the wounded world – there was so much to be done still – so I stayed on for another six months, delaying my return home to New York, continuing to work on earthquake relief and rehabilitation with Sungi and spending considerable periods of time in Abbottabad.
With the news that to this day astounds me – that Osama bin Laden was found and killed in my father’s old hometown, along the road to Kakul, where the Military Academy is located – my mind strains to recall every significant detail of my own time spent in that pastoral town. I telephone my father in Toronto so that we can reminisce fondly over Abbottabad. He, instead, fulminates: It’s a question of clear incompetence! This is the utter professional humiliation! A laughing stock, that’s what… In the old army, the Commander in Chief would have tendered his resignation along with several of his generals…
I listen to my father churn out tales of the old days, conjure a gilded past. As he speaks, something becomes illumined: my father’s most cherished memories, indeed his very sense of identity seems to be intricately tied with the army, despite the fact that he didn’t, in the end, pursue a military career. Subconsciously, I must have always understood this. But it strikes me while speaking to him on the phone from New York, that one of the great mysteries of my love for Pakistan has to do with not being able to fully grasp its elusive, paradoxical nature. In the Pakistan that I know, wherever there’s beauty or charm, bullets and disaster aren’t far away.
Long happy days running wild in the orchards of Babri Banda, my beloved ancestral village – in the North West Frontier Province, as it was then called – would end with the sound of a blaring horn outside our high mud-walled compound, signalling my father’s return from a hunting trip. We’d race behind the car as it pulled up the drive. My father would hurl himself out of the Jeep, sweaty and distracted, showing off the partridges he and my uncles had shot in the Kohat hills, the quails from the wheat fields that would be cooked over charcoal for dinner that night. I would refuse to eat, quivering with fury over his easy dismissal of what amounted to me as murder, balking at his nonchalant cruelty.
I remember my sister and I prancing in the bedroom in Babri Banda one evening. My father was cleaning his rifle and by mistake knocked down a cardboard box. Slim copper-coloured nuggets scattered over the marble floor. A frisson of danger rippled through me as I bent to pick up the bouncing bullets. But my mother shrieked and commanded us to immediately climb on the bed, my father guffawing all the while at her panic-stricken face.
I think of Abbottabad and Kohat, army towns rendered more charming, perhaps, because of the lingering aura of honour and daring. And my own wedding twenty years ago where, sequestered inside a palanquin that was hoisted on the shoulders of male relatives, I circumambulated the ancestral land – the entire village thronging behind – clamping my hands to my ears and jumping with fright with each celebratory volley fired in joyous abandon by the village men who wielded Kalashnikovs.
Sitting in New York, contemplating Abbottabad, I understand now why, in the Frontier, we love and celebrate with such gusto: every tender moment is laced with a possible violence: a gun-toting cousin seeking revenge, a possible cataclysm – an earthquake, a flood. My father’s life in Toronto is as far a cry from the glory days of his youth, as the Pakistan army today is a twisted shadow of its former self. Nothing is as it seems. Perhaps it is only befitting then that the fugitive Osama bin Laden should seek refuge and die in quietly glimmering Abbottabad, in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the province of warriors who pride themselves on their code of hospitality – Pakhtunwali – and who, despite their warmongering, hail from a centuries’ old poetic tradition that glorifies natural beauty.
I moved to New York City mere weeks before the attack of September 11. As I look back, I realize that the emotional tenors of mourning and healing became bound up with my sense of home. With the capture of Osama bin Laden in Abbottababad, tribal justice – badal – seems to have inadvertently occurred, for he has been killed in the province of my vengeful ancestors and the place where I learned how to love and mourn and heal in the face of an awesome tragedy.