My first memory of sectarian violence is from February 1995. At the Mehfil-e-Murtaza Imambargah in Karachi, 16 people had been lined up and shot dead as they were preparing for a funeral. Sipah-e-Sahaba gunmen had stormed in and killed them point blank. The imambargah was one that I had a particularly close association with. It was our place to go every Ashura. There was a fixed pattern on the 10th of Muharram for us. We would attend a majlis early morning at Nishtar Park, watch the juloos start its course and then go to Mehfil-e-Murtaza in the afternoon. There were times when we didn’t make it to the majlis in the morning, but the afternoon plan was never missed — Mehfil-e-Murtaza had the best haleem that would only be served on the 10th.
I have a faint recollection of when the news of the attack came in. One of the dead was a family friend. There was a lot of crying, a lot of shock and a lot more panic. I don’t remember exactly all that followed. I was eight then. The details are murky, the feelings, however, are not. We went to the imambargah the day after for the soyem. I remember most vividly the leftover spots of blood on the white walls next to the azakhana, where the alams and taziyas would be placed. The stench of blood was still there. Maybe I was too young for memory to be trusted. But for me, that smell of blood and spots on the wall are most real.
At that age there was no understanding of sectarian differences. All I knew about sects was how much I dreaded the question ‘Are you Sunni or Shia?’ some kid in class would inevitably ask at the beginning of the school year. I hated the look of shock that followed and desperately wished I was more like the rest. Over the years, sectarianism has meant different things. It has meant more attacks, four in the first two months of this year now, of relatives dying in the Ashura blast in December 2008, of family and friends shot dead over their last name. It has meant going to the Muharram juloos not for religious or cultural ties but only so if something happens, I am with my mother, so in case it’s the last time, we are in it together. It has meant reducing hope to outliving my parents, reducing hope to not ever having to identify the body of someone I love; to never have to be identified by the birthmarks on my body.
I have now become part of the people many feel morally obligated to sympathise with. It was easier empathising with the Baloch, the Ahmadis, the Hazaras and the Shias of Parachinar and Gilgit-Baltistan. But now I am on the side, where friends, some directly, others between the lines, try to tell you it’s time to go. They tell you that you are now added to the number of people Pakistan does not have space for. Every time a sectarian attack happens, whether it kills three or 60, it takes my home away from me. “There is going to be a time when they will come into our homes and kill us,” my father says. He believes it will happen. He insists we should leave the country before it’s too late. Each time such an attack happens, some friend texts to suggest immigration to Australia, another suggests going to the US. My brother messages me to say I should leave the country, I tell him it’s time he should leave. Strange kind of love this is when you want people you love most to be far away from you. Our love is now hinged on separation.
This impending parting, this partition, is a consistently piercing part of everyday existence. I do not yet have the courage to accept that my city, my land, may only become a place of memories. But every attack, from Shikarpur to Hayatabad and Rawalpindi, is a reminder that it may just be memories that we are forced to live with. It’s a harsh realisation that keeps reasserting itself that one must go before it is our blood that stains the walls. But to leave your country for better opportunities is bearable; to leave because the doors to your home are closing in on you is wretched. Some kinds of love are irreplaceable — love for the land is one of them. With every attack, I fearfully imagine that soon I may be mourning a lost love, and searching for the sights and smells of the beloved in alien places.
Published in The Express Tribune, February 27th, 2015.