Celebrating freedom with a flare

Meet Saba Khalid, a Pakistani who found herself in the midst of America’s own independence day celebrations.

Saba Khalid August 14, 2011

As the the US’ Independence Day looms closer, the sales in New York City get bigger and better, there is an onslaught of tourists and true New Yorkers, forced to share their city in all this summer madness, get snarkier and snider. But come July Fourth, all the madness melts down over the Hudson River in a brilliant fireworks celebration that leaves both tourists and locals awestruck.

We’re not talking about just any fireworks — these are the most extravagant and expensive pyrotechnics to take place in all of the United States. The bill for this is footed by the world’s biggest departmental store, Macy’s.

This year, having been told at least five hundred times by NBC, six hundred times by tour guides and a thousand times by various New Yorkers, that I just had to visit the West side of Hudson River to see the 35th Annual Macy’s fireworks display, I decided to do just that.

With cabs and cars cordoned off from 20th street to 55th street for the entire day by the city administration, I had no choice but to walk what seemed like a million avenues and a thousand streets towards the river. I started off three hours early to avoid the rush, but even before I got in view of the river, I knew it was much too late to get the best place. People of all nationalities — Indians, Chinese, Italians, French, Mexicans, Pakistanis, Puerto Ricans — crowded the streets with their picnic baskets and blankets; it was as much my Fourth of July as theirs. The place was crawling with security personnel but they didn’t so much as stop a tourist to check his bags or give a passerby a suspicious look.

Standing among thousands of spectators, no one so much as stepped on another’s toes to get a better view, or pushed a person or two to get ahead. Having attended quite a few events in Pakistan, I couldn’t imagine anything taking place back home without having to pass through a million metal detectors, witness at least one fight and see a few gatecrashers make their way in.

As I surveyed the footpaths and street corners for the perfect spot, a family of four smiled at me and made their little one squeeze in so I could sit there and view the sunset over the river. We all watched the sky turn from bright yellow to ruby red, primrose pink to dirty purple and finally settle on midnight blue.

At exactly 9:20 pm, the show started with a bang. Imagine more than 40,000 shells of every colour exploding at a rate exceeding 1,500 per minute and shooting higher than a thousand feet in the air. Colours reflected off every building in Manhattan and shone over the clear blue river. The explosion of fireworks was deafening, but they marked a celebration like no other. At one point, the sky was so brightly lit that it seemed that night had become day.

Kids sitting on their fathers’ shoulders screamed in delight as the sky was turned into a giant smiley face; I laughed as a fiery outline of a cowboy appeared. There were cries of “Bravo” and “Long Live America”, little snippets of “Amazing Grace” sung here and there, and sighs of pleasure from the French lady next to me.

The show must have lasted for less than thirty minutes, but all the walking, waiting in the heat, and the three hour commute back to Jersey was worth it. Despite having the best time, I couldn’t help but feel guilty and a little resentful. Will there be a time when I can go back home and enjoy my own independence day this way? Will there be a time when there won’t be terrorists killing people in our cities? Will I ever feel safe walking home at this hour in Pakistan?

Sadly, to all these questions, the answer is a pitiful yet resounding “No!” or, at least, a “Not yet.”

But here’s to hoping that one day I won’t be celebrating someone else’s freedom but my own country’s. Here’s to hoping that people from different nations will come to see us celebrate our day in style. Here’s to hoping Pakistan will some day be truly free.

Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, August 14th, 2011.


Umair Saeed | 12 years ago | Reply

Very nicely crafted... your story weaving skills are only getting better :)

Good to have you back...

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