KARACHI: Dogs lazed in the shade as children played in the grass while their parents looked on indulgently. Couples sat beneath trees, whispering to each other and enjoying the cool summer breeze. This is an everyday scene for the 61 acres encompassing Quaid-i-Azam’s Mausoleum but for the security officers, the site is ‘too dangerous’.
Undeterred by these security warnings, a small group of people gathered for an audio walk on Friday afternoon, eager to hear stories of times gone by. Shahana Rajani and Sonya Schönberger combined their work on displacement to create a project being held in Karachi and Berlin simultaneously.
The project, ‘I would always dream of my house’, is a series of stories of displacement. Four individuals — Eva, a Romanian Jewish girl, Christel, a German Christian girl, Muhammad, an Indian Muslim boy and Madhuri, a Pakistani Hindu girl — narrate their stories of leaving their homes and the horrific circumstances of their migration during World War II and the partition of the Subcontinent. “The stories from South Asia and Europe are from two different perspectives,” explained Rajani. “We’ve intentionally chosen and paired these stories so we get a [contrast],” she said.
A fitting setting for the audio walk, the land on which the mausoleum currently stands was once a refugee settlement, housing thousands of migrants before Ayub Khan forcibly evicted the residents in 1958. The event consisted of the organisers handing participants a map of the mausoleum, indicating where people lived in the refugee colony, and a set of headphones with an mp3 player. The stories, available in both Urdu and German, were told from four different perspectives, in four different voices at the same time. The stories intersected and diverged, weaving into each other and yet presented a stark contrast to the other stories. Loneliness, despair and fear were apparent in all four stories, all told from the perspective of children. Their voices blended together until it is difficult to differentiate between their tragic tales.
“I am haunted by memories of my Sukkur home,” narrated one girl. “We were herded into containers like animals,” recalled another. Listeners wander around the mausoleum grounds, first with purposeful steps and then slowly, deliberately as they listen to the harrowing tales told in dispassionate voices. “They took our clothes and shaved our heads; welcome to Auschwitz Birkenau,” said a girl, stoically speaking about the worst time of her life. A pre-teen, Eva was torn from her home and then separated from her father and brother at a concentration camp.
SOURCE: STORIES OF DISPLACEMENT HANDOUT
“The Hindus said ‘Hindu Muslim bhai bhai [brothers]’ but we Muslims said we wanted our own Pakistan,” said Muhammad. Little did we know, he murmured. The stories continue for an hour, each growing darker and darker, the voices growing heavy with despair. The participants of the walk, comprising both men and women, strolled both in groups and alone, some choosing to sit on benches and smoke a cigarette while listening, while others completed a circuit of the mausoleum.
“It was a very nice experience, especially knowing the mausoleum was once a refugee camp,” said Marion, a German participant of the audio walk.
Around 120 people registered for the three-day audio walk, according to Rajani. In Berlin, the audio walk is being held at a defunct train station that was used to transport people to concentration camps, she explained. The event will also be held today (Sunday) from 4pm to 5pm.
“We want people to realise that displacement is a long, ongoing process,” she said, explaining that resettlement is not simple, nor is it easy; it is an ongoing process for many, even today.
Despite law enforcers repeatedly approaching the organisers with concerns about “the scattered women” who were “wandering here and there” and vague warnings of mischief, the audio walk was a peaceful event, with other visitors to the mausoleum sparing the participants barely a cursory look before busying themselves in their own naps and picnics. Amid warnings to “control” the female participants of the walk, listeners strolled beneath the shady trees and paid no attention to the supposed “danger” that lurked behind the scraggly bushes.
Published in The Express Tribune, May 15th, 2016.