(Moved to

The Mideast’s One-State Solution

by Muammar Qaddafi

The International Herald Tribune

A Palestinian girl and her mother walk near anti-riot Israeli police in Arab East Jerusalem on January 16, 2009. The Israeli army locked down the occupied West Bank today as Hamas called for a day of "wrath" against the deadly offensive on Gaza. The West Bank will be closed off for 48 hours from midnight yesterday (2200 GMT), the army said in a statement. The announcement came after the Islamist movement Hamas called on Palestinians to observe a "day of wrath" on Friday by staging anti-Israeli protests after the weekly Muslim prayers. PATRICK BAZ/AFP/Getty Images)

A Palestinian girl and her mother walk near anti-riot Israeli police in Arab East Jerusalem on January 16, 2009. The Israeli army locked down the occupied West Bank today as Hamas called for a day of "wrath" against the deadly offensive on Gaza. The West Bank will be closed off for 48 hours from midnight yesterday (2200 GMT), the army said in a statement. The announcement came after the Islamist movement Hamas called on Palestinians to observe a "day of wrath" on Friday by staging anti-Israeli protests after the weekly Muslim prayers. © PATRICK BAZ/AFP/Getty Images)

Palestinian mother and daughter walk past Israeli troops. Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi is calling for a one-state solution. (Photo: Patrick Baz / AFP / Getty Images) Tripoli, Libya – The shocking level of the last wave of Israeli-Palestinian violence, which ended with this weekend’s cease-fire, reminds us why a final resolution to the so-called Middle East crisis is so important. It is vital not just to break this cycle of destruction and injustice, but also to deny the religious extremists in the region who feed on the conflict an excuse to advance their own causes. But everywhere one looks, among the speeches and the desperate diplomacy, there is no real way forward. A just and lasting peace between Israel and the Palestinians is possible, but it lies in the history of the people of this conflicted land, and not in the tired rhetoric of partition and two-state solutions. Although it’s hard to realize after the horrors we’ve just witnessed, the state of war between the Jews and Palestinians has not always existed. In fact, many of the divisions between Jews and Palestinians are recent ones. The very name “Palestine” was commonly used to describe the whole area, even by the Jews who lived there, until 1948, when the name “Israel” came into use. Jews and Muslims are cousins descended from Abraham. Throughout the centuries both faced cruel persecution and often found refuge with one another. Arabs sheltered Jews and protected them after maltreatment at the hands of the Romans and their expulsion from Spain in the Middle Ages.

The history of Israel/Palestine is not remarkable by regional standards – a country inhabited by different peoples, with rule passing among many tribes, nations and ethnic groups; a country that has withstood many wars and waves of peoples from all directions. This is why it gets so complicated when members of either party claims the right to assert that it is their land. The basis for the modern State of Israel is the persecution of the Jewish people, which is undeniable. The Jews have been held captive, massacred, disadvantaged in every possible fashion by the Egyptians, the Romans, the English, the Russians, the Babylonians, the Canaanites and, most recently, the Germans under Hitler. The Jewish people want and deserve their homeland. But the Palestinians too have a history of persecution, and they view the coastal towns of Haifa, Acre, Jaffa and others as the land of their forefathers, passed from generation to generation, until only a short time ago.

Thus the Palestinians believe that what is now called Israel forms part of their nation, even were they to secure the West Bank and Gaza. And the Jews believe that the West Bank is Samaria and Judea, part of their homeland, even if a Palestinian state were established there. Now, as Gaza still smolders, calls for a two-state solution or partition persist. But neither will work. A two-state solution will create an unacceptable security threat to Israel. An armed Arab state, presumably in the West Bank, would give Israel less than 10 miles of strategic depth at its narrowest point. Further, a Palestinian state in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip would do little to resolve the problem of refugees. Any situation that keeps the majority of Palestinians in refugee camps and does not offer a solution within the historical borders of Israel/Palestine is not a solution at all.

For the same reasons, the older idea of partition of the West Bank into Jewish and Arab areas, with buffer zones between them, won’t work. The Palestinian-held areas could not accommodate all of the refugees, and buffer zones symbolize exclusion and breed tension. Israelis and Palestinians have also become increasingly intertwined, economically and politically. In absolute terms, the two movements must remain in perpetual war or a compromise must be reached. The compromise is one state for all, an “Isratine” that would allow the people in each party to feel that they live in all of the disputed land and they are not deprived of any one part of it.

A key prerequisite for peace is the right of return for Palestinian refugees to the homes their families left behind in 1948. It is an injustice that Jews who were not originally inhabitants of Palestine, nor were their ancestors, can move in from abroad while Palestinians who were displaced only a relatively short time ago should not be so permitted. It is a fact that Palestinians inhabited the land and owned farms and homes there until recently, fleeing in fear of violence at the hands of Jews after 1948 – violence that did not occur, but rumors of which led to a mass exodus. It is important to note that the Jews did not forcibly expel Palestinians. They were never “un-welcomed.” Yet only the full territories of Isratine can accommodate all the refugees and bring about the justice that is key to’peace. Assimilation is already a fact of life in Israel. There are more than 1 million Muslim Arabs in Israel; they possess Israeli nationality and take part in political life with the Jews, forming political parties. On the other side, there are Israeli settlements in the West Bank. Israeli factories depend on Palestinian labor, and goods and services are exchanged. This successful assimilation can be a model for Isratine.

If the present interdependence and the historical fact of Jewish-Palestinian co-existence guide their leaders, and if they can see beyond the horizon of the recent violence and thirst for revenge toward a long-term solution, then these two peoples will come to realize, I hope sooner rather than later, that living under one roof is the only option for a lasting peace. ——–

Muammar Qaddafi is the leader of Libya. Thursday 22 January 2009

related links:

Complicity in slaughter

Today in Gaza

Home and the architecture of occupation

How Beautiful is Panama

The Face of a Terrorist?


I hear the screams

Iran Palestine and the Hypocrisies of Power – an interview with Noam Chomsky

January 27, 2009 Posted by | Global Issues, World | , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Today in Gaza

You who are silent
You who leave it to others
You who do not hear the screams

Every bomb that falls
Every ‘call for restraint’
Every blood clot etched in the sand

Calls out in vain
Calls out in pain
Calls out your name

Remember you let it happen
Remember you turned away
Remember you were silent


This letter arrived this morning:

Dear Shahidul

This is from my friend Selim, about yesterday’s aggression. As you know I worked on year in Gaza (as the head of the UNRWA health services that provides primary health care to 20,000 refugees daily. So far more than 200 dead and more than 700 wounded, many civilians as there is no “clean” war in urban settings and surgical strikes; The horror is there. And foreign governments recommend restraints on both sides as if it was a solution. Hamas respected the truce for many months and saw no improvement.

Thanks for doing what you can.

Pierre Claquin


Today in Gaza

It was just before noon when I heard the first explosion. I rushed to my window, barely had I looked out when I was pushed back by the force and air pressure of another explosion. For a few moments I didn’t understand, then I realized that Israeli promises of a wide-scale offensive against the Gaza Strip had materialized. Israeli Foreign Minister, Tzpi Livni’s statements following a meeting with Egyptian President Hussni Mubarak the day before yesterday had not been empty threats after all.

What followed seems pretty much surreal at this point. Never had we imagined anything like this. It all happened so fast but the amount of death and destruction is inconceivable, even to me and I’m in the middle of it and a few hours have passed already passed.
6 locations were hit during the air raid on Gaza city. The images are probably not broadcasted in US news channels. There were piles and piles of bodies in the locations that were hit. As you looked at them you could see that a few of the young men are still alive, someone lifts a hand here, and another raise his head there. They probably died within moments because their bodies are burned, most have lost limbs, some have their guts hanging out and they’re all lying in pools of blood. Outside my home, (which is close to the 2 largest universities in Gaza) a missile fell on a large group of young men, university students, they’d been warned not to stand in groups, it makes them an easy target, but they were waiting for buses to take them home. 7 were killed, 4 students and 3 of our neighbors kids, young men who were from the same family (Rayes) and were best friends. As I’m writing this I can hear a funeral procession go by outside, I looked out the window a moment ago and it was the 3 Rayes boys, They spent all their time together when they were alive, they died together and now their sharing the same funeral together. Nothing could stop my 14 year old brother from rushing out to see the bodies of his friends laying in the street after they were killed. He hasn’t spoken a word since.

What did Olmert mean when he stated that WE the people of Gaza weren’t the enemy, that it was Hamas and the Islamic Jihad who were being targeted? Was that statement made to infuriate us out of out state of shock, to pacify any feelings of rage and revenge? To mock us?? Were the scores of children on their way home from school and who are now among the dead and the injured Hamas militants? A little further down my street about half an hour after the first strike 3 schoolgirls happened to be passing by one of the locations when a missile struck the Preventative Security Headquarters building. The girls bodies were torn into pieces and covered the street from one side to the other.

In all the locations people are going through the dead terrified of recognizing a family member among them. The streets are strewn with their bodies, their arms, legs, feet, some with shoes and some without. The city is in a state of alarm, panic and confusion, cell phones aren’t working, hospitals and morgues are backed up and some of the dead are still lying in the streets with their families gathered around them, kissing their faces, holding on to them. Outside the destroyed buildings old men are kneeling on the floor weeping. Their slim hopes of finding their sons still alive vanished after taking one look at what had become of their office buildings.

And even after the dead are identified, doctors are having a hard time gathering the right body parts in order to hand them over to their families. The hospital hallways look like a slaughterhouse. It’s truly worse than any horror movie you could ever imagine. The floor is filled with blood, the injured are propped up against the walls or laid down on the floor side by side with the dead. Doctors are working frantically and people with injuries that aren’t life threatening are sent home. A relative of mine was injured by a flying piece of glass from her living room window, she had deep cut right down the middle of her face. She was sent home, too many people needed medical attention more urgently. Her husband, a dentist, took her to his clinic and sewed up her face using local anesthesia
200 people dead in today’s air raid. That means 200 funeral processions, a few today, most of them tomorrow probably. To think that yesterday these families were worried about food and heat and electricity. At this point I think they -actually all of us- would gladly have Hamas sign off every last basic right we’ve been calling for the last few months forever if it could have stopped this from ever having happened.

The bombing was very close to my home. Most of my extended family live in the area. My family is ok, but 2 of my uncles’ homes were damaged. We can rest easy, Gazans can mourn tonight. Israel is said to have promised not to wage any more air raids for now. People suspect that the next step will be targeted killings, which will inevitably means scores more of innocent bystanders whose fate has already been sealed.

This doesn’t even begin to tell the story on any level. Just flashes of thing that happened today that are going through my head.




Identity Card, a poem by Mahmoud Darwish



December 28, 2008 Posted by | Global Issues, World | , , , , , , , , | 9 Comments

Home and the architecture of occupation

Rahnuma Ahmed

Homes, sweet homes

WHAT does home mean for Palestinians driven away from their land in recurring waves of Israeli onslaught — 1948, 1949 to 1956, and again in 1967, due to the six-day war? What does home mean for first generation Palestinian refugees, and for their descendants, for people who ‘yearn for Palestine’?

It is a yearning that permeates, in the words of David McDowall, the ‘whole refugee community’, one that stretches from 986,034 in the Gaza Strip, 699,817 in the West Bank, 1,827,877 in Jordan, 404,170 in Lebanon and 432,048 in Syria (2005 figures). What does home — something that ‘exists only in the imagination’ — mean for Palestinians who are subject to Israel’s ongoing colonisation of Palestine?

‘What, for you, is home?’ ‘How would you represent it?’ ‘How would you represent it if you were to take one single photograph?’ Florence Aigner, a Belgian photographer, put these three questions to Palestinian refugees living in the West Bank, Gaza, Lebanon, Syria and Jordan. She gave them time to think and returned with her camera and notebook the next day to take two photographs: a portrait of the person, and a representation of what home meant for that person, both visually, and through words. Personal narratives are often lost in collective narratives, and Aigner says she wanted to explore both diversity and particularity through the experiences of daily living. Her approach, she says, allows her to create a dialogue between the person and her or his idea of a home, between the photograph and the photographer, and also, between photography and writing. And thus we find images of home in exile interspersed with images of home in Palestine, images where one home is often projected on the other. These images form her exhibition, Homes, sweet homes.

I had always felt homeless, says Eman, and had refused to cook, `to practise home’. But now, even though our house in Ramallah is temporary, I have started to cook, cooking for me is ‘an act of love’. For Oum Mahmoud, home is her husband who was killed in a Mossad air attack. Her house in Ramallah was destroyed in a recent Israeli missile attack, the new flat has ‘no memories’, ‘no furniture’, it is like living in a hotel. For Wisam Suleiman, home is orange trees and lemon trees, and the faces of martyrs who have given their lives to assert their right to return. The way home, says Suleiman, is ‘sweeter than home itself’. For Abu Majdi, forced to flee in 1948, home is the ‘key of our house in Jerusalem.’


Photographs and interviews by Florence Aigner

Iman Florence Aigner

Eman from Jerusalem. She lives in Ramallah, West Bank. © Florence Aigner

Being on the margin, following my own footsteps, I always felt homeless. It made me develop a sense of rejection mainly for the kitchen, the heart of practising home. So I refused psychologically and practically to cook.

Last year, I had to move with my husband and our two children to Ramallah when passing back and forth between Ramallah and Jerusalem became an Odyssey trip due to the Calandia checkpoint and the harsh siege imposed on the city. Our house in Ramallah is temporary, I started to cook and feel good about it, cooking became an act of love I dedicate to my family. Is this home?

Oum Mahmoud from Hebron. She lives in Ramallah, West Bank.

Oum Mahmoud from Hebron. She lives in Ramallah, West Bank. © Florence Aigner

My home is my husband. I have only a few photos of him left. He was killed during an air attack by Mossad on the office of the PLO in Tunis in 1986. In the 90’s I could return to Palestine with the Palestinian Authority. Since then I live in Ramallah.

I have recently lost everything, my house burned when an Israeli missile hit it. I could only rescue some books and photos from the flames. Now I live in a new flat, but I have no memories or furniture left. I buy little by little some stuff to furnish it. I have the feeling to live in a hotel.

Wisam Suleiman, from Haifa. He lives in the refugee camp.

Wisam Suleiman, from Haifa. He lives in the refugee camp. © Florence Aigner

When I hear the word ‘home’ orange trees and lemon trees come to my mind as well as faces of hundreds of martyrs who have given their life for the right of return. For me, the way of return has to go through education, education, education…and books.

As Palestinian refugees we have to prepare the new generation to return to Palestine in a human way. We have to carry our culture and science with us, and work hard. The way home is more beautiful than home itself.

Abu Majid

Abu Majdi, from Malha. He lives in Beit Jala in the West Bank. © Florence Aigner

My home is my house in Malha near Jerusalem that we had to flee in 1948. I hope to return there one day, but I am not very optimistic, because Israel wants a land without its inhabitants. Sometimes I don’t understand anything. Before 1948 we had Jewish friends, we were living together. In 1948 we had to leave everything behind and we became refugees in Aida camp, Bethlehem.

An Iraqi Jewish family, the Rajwan moved then into our house in Jerusalem. We were friends and were giving gifts to each other. We saw them until 1967. I remember the grandfather used to say that he wanted to return to Iraq and to give us back our house. He said that they were keeping it for the day we could return. Eventually the old man died without having been able to return to Iraq. Me, I have kept the keys of our house in Jerusalem all my life.


The architecture of occupation

Migron in occupied West Bank is a fully-fledged illegal settlement of Israelis, comprising 60 trailers on a hilltop that overlooks Palestinian lands below. In 1999, several Israeli settlers complained to the mobile phone company Orange about a bend in the road from Jerusalem to their settlements that caused disruption to their phone service. The company agreed to put up an antenna on a hill situated above the bend. The hill was owned by Palestinian farmers, but their permission was not required since mobile phone reception is a ‘security’ issue. Mast construction began, while other companies agreed to supply electricity and water to the construction site on the hill. In May 2001, an Israeli security guard, soon followed by his wife and children, moved to the site and connected his cabin to the main water and electricity supply. Less than a year later, five other families joined him. This is how the settler outpost of Migron was created. Soon, the Israeli ministry for construction and housing helped build a nursery, while a synagogue was built from donations from abroad.

The Migron settlement in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

The Migron settlement in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. © Milutin Labudovic/Peace Now

Eyal Weizman, dissident Israeli architect and architectural theorist of the relationships and exchanges between architectural and military planning, documents the processes of illegal Israeli settlement — in his words, ‘a civilian occupation’. His book Hollow Land: Israel’s Architecture of Occupation provides a detailed and exact account of ‘how occupation works in practice’. Weizman had, at the invitation of the Palestinian authority, also been involved in planning houses for Palestinians, in re-using settlements after the Israeli evacuation of August 2005. What is to be done with settlements after evacuation? Are they to be abandoned, reused, converted, or recycled? The Palestinians, he says, had rejected these single family homes as suburbs. After intense discussions, it was finally agreed that the evacuated shells of settlement would be spatialised into a set of public institutions: an agricultural university, a cultural centre, a clinic for the Red Cross, etc. But the project of re-using the illegal settlements collapsed after the Israelis destroyed them.

Settlement planning and building of the Israelis, says Weizman, emerges out of ‘organisational chaos’. The very nature of Israeli occupation is one of ‘uncoordinated coordination’ where the government allows ‘degrees of freedom’ to rough elements, to a whole host of actors — Israeli settlers, mobile phone companies, utility firms, state institutions, the army, etc — and then denies its involvement. Micro-processes, such as that of an Israeli civilian moving a cabin to an illegal site, settling down, home-building, foreign donations pouring in to build a synagogue become wheels in larger processes of occupation of Palestinian lands. In the Israeli government’s colonial policies.

And as these occur, home-building for Palestinians — even in the sixtieth year of their mass exodus — remains something that exists ‘only in the imagination’.

November 29, 2008 Posted by | Global Issues, Rahnuma Ahmed | , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Paradise Found

It had been a hectic month. An assignment in Sri Lanka, followed by the World Press Photo award ceremony in Amsterdam and Martin Parr’s Sam Presser lecture. It had been many years since Martin had slept in our flat in Lalmatia, with his feet sticking out of the Bangla sized cane bed. Abir Abdullah a student from the first batch at Pathshala, was there for the launch of the book, “New Stories“. Other WPP students featured in the book, whom I had interacted with over the years Kemal Jufri (Indonesia), Mwanzo Millinga (Tanzania), and Sudharak Olwe (India), had also become established photojournalists. Many of them teachers in their own right.

A trip to Cornwall, for the ‘Majority World Summit‘, with my colleagues Colin Hastings and Rowan Watts followed. Then on to the Nordic Light festival, organised by my old friend Morten Krogvold. Though I had always admired Michael Kenna‘s atmospheric images, this was the first time we met. The Lanky Irishman and I decided we’d bring some mirth into this serious gathering, and swapped our ID tags, confusing everyone. His cousin Gilian Varley, gamely played along. We invented an Aunt Christine, who commented on how dark I’d become. Getting shorter would probably have been more difficult to explain.

Woman with cholera. West Dinajpur. Bangladesh 1971. © Don McCullin/Contact Press Images

Don McCullin was one of my heroes. We still had his hand-made prints of 1971 in our archives. The long evening chats with Don was a delight. He talked of his experiences in West Dinajpur, and the famous picture of the woman dying of Cholera.

It was comforting to know she had survived. I remember him talking of the exposure reading he had talken before the picture of the grenade being hurled. “Why die for the wrong exposure” he had simply said. William Klein‘s dry wit was as fresh as his photographs.

William Klien at Nordic Light Festival. Kristiandund. 2008. © Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

I was envious of the energy of this octogenarian.

Then it was a pit stop at Heathrow airport to meet up with my sister and pick up my camera equipment before heading off to Tehran for the judging of the First Biennial of Islamic Photography. I had been looking forward to meeting up with James Nachtwey again, but he had to cancel in the last minute and I became the only foreign jury member. My old friend Bahman Jalali was in the Iranian jury. I hadn’t met Shadi Ghadarian since she had visited Chobi Mela III. She and Peyman Hooshmandzadeh now had a beautiful daughter Leila. Staying overnight at their place required all sorts of permission. I was apparently a guest of the president, and the special attention I received, meant limited freedom. I had worked out a system and managed to spend most of my stay at Ruchira Gupta‘s. Ruchira and Sunil took me on the Tehran gallery crawl, plus some interesting diversions like the reception at the magnificent garden of the Italian Ambassador, and the studio of the rebel artist Parvaneh Etemadi. Omid Salehi, the other Iranian photographer who had come to Bangladesh for Chobi Mela III, made it back in time from Kurdistan to my lecture at Saba, so it was a reunion of sorts.

I briefly returning to Dhaka before going to Mumbai for the finals of the Development Marketplace contest. Shabana Azmi, who was giving away the prizes was a friend of Parveneh and Ruchira, so we stole a few minutes on stage to talk of old friends. I was also able to meet up with old friends David and Charmayne De Souza, Swapan Mukherjee, Fawzan Hossain and Suchit and Annu Nanda. Another pit stop in Dhaka and then the trip I’d been waiting for. Madanjeet Singh‘s invitation to Srinagar in Kashmir.

It wasn’t the celebrity group that Madanjeet had invited that attracted me. Srinagar was a place I had longed to see. It wasn’t so much the beauty of Kashmir, or the Shalimar Gardens that intrigued me. I had photographed the earthquake in the Pakistani section of Kashmir. Knowing the relevance of the region to peace in South Asia, I wanted to find out for myself, what the Kashmiris felt. With Indian visas becoming increasingly more difficult to get, this was a chance I was not going to waste.

The former foreign secretary Farooq Sobhan had been a bridge partner when we were both playing in the Dhaka Club Blue team. We were then national champions, representing Bangladesh. Jamilur Reza Chowdhury had been part of our small group of people who had been active in trying to get Internet to Bangladesh. We were the three Bangladeshis in this gathering of South Asians. Photographer Ram Rahman and activist Harsh Kapoor were old friends, but there were the quirky incidents with people I knew less well, that livened up my stay. Like the midnight meeting with Chandrika Kumaratunga in the business centre of the Grand Palace.

Former president of Sri Lanka Chandrika Kumaratunga at business centre of Grand Palace Hotel in Srinagar. Kashmir. India. 2008. © Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

While I helped her get connected to the Net, I remembered how elusive she had been when I had wanted to photographer her while she was president of Sri Lanka.

But the tension outside was difficult to ignore. Few Kashmiris would say anything out of place. At least at first encounter. But from the security checks before boarding the plane, the police registration upon arrival at Srinagar airport, the inability to use our mobile phones, the multiple layer check posts on the way to the hotel and the embargos on either leaving early or arriving late, one knew things were not Okay.

Military patrol in streets of Srinagar. Kashmir. India. 2008. 2008. © Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

On our trip to Uri, the one trip we made out of Srinagar, the visual signs of Indian military presence was overwhelming. The convoys of military vehicles moving in both directions.

Military convoy on the road to Uri. Srinagar. Kashmir. India. 2008. 2008. © Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

Soldiers in Paradise. Uri. Kashmir. India. 2008. 2008. © Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

The enormous security team that chaperoned us through the city. The nervours soldiers near the line of control. All had the visible signs of occupation.

Sheep claim the right of way. Road to Uri. Kashmir. India. 2008. 2008. © Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

There had been relative peace in Kashmir, and the economy had prospered during the lull in violence. The concert in Srinagar, by the Pakistani group Junoon, while enjoyed by the young crowd that attended, was criticised by others. Kashmir was far from unified, and opinions about the role of the Indian military and the role of the Kashmiri militants differed, but once you went below the surface, once there was a modicum of trust, they all spoke of one desire. Azadi (freedom).

Salma Ali was one of the new people I met. Quiet but determined, she tried to talk me into going with her to see the Pashmini weavers. I didn’t need much persuading.

New Indian Aeroplane. The shikara which took me across Dal Lake. Srinagar. Kashmir. India. 2008. 2008. © Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

I had been told off for going on a Shikara (wooden boat) trip on my own. We decided to ignore the restrictions on early morning departures and went for a dawn Shikara ride. The boatmen never came, and apart from the pictures I took of the boats gliding through the mist,

Boatmen in Dal Lake clearing weeds early in the morning. Srinagar. Kashmir. India. 2008. 2008. © Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

or the friendly Kingfisher that perched nearby, I spent much of that morning talking to my new found friend. She had seen a different Kashmir. The following is Salma’s story.

Paradise Found

The Mughal Emperor Jahangir is said to have written about Kashmir, “Gar firdous bar rue zamin ast hamin ast, hamin ast, hamin ast” (If there is paradise on earth, it is here, it is here, it is here.)

My first morning in Kashmir, I was awoken by a gentle, sorrowful sound. Thinking I was in a dreamlike stage between jetlag from a 20-hour journey and the excitement of coming to a place I never thought I would see in my lifetime, I tried to go back to sleep.

I couldn’t. It was 4:15 am, and the sound beckoned — softly, longingly, mournfully. I sat up in bed and gazed out the window, letting my eyes wander to the direction of the sound — behind the mountains to the east, beyond the Lake, between the mist and the darkness. It continued its lament, its gentle pleading. I opened the door to the veranda to listen more intently, wrapping myself in my shawl for warmth and protection. The song continued. It was in Arabic, perhaps verses from the Quran, I thought. But what? And why? I closed my eyes and listened. It seemed like the mountains, the lake, they were praying. Perhaps remembering times past, when heaven needed no protection; perhaps asking for forgiveness from all the misery they had witnessed. Everything was still, attentive — the chinars, the roses, the birds, the wind. It seemed they were listening too, and agreeing. The lament continued until the darkness turned to day, and then, as mysteriously as it had started, it quieted. I never heard it again. It’s safer to cry in the dark, when no one can see your vulnerability; to pray in the still of the night, so the day can wash away the pain.

Lady Mohini Noon introduced me to Mehraj bhai as soon as I arrived in Srinagar. Mohini and I happened to share a car together from the airport to the Grand Palace hotel, and our first get-to-know-you conversation somehow turned to shawls. She said her shawl-wala, from whom she has been buying shawls for more than 20 years (and her mother from his father before that) lives in Srinagar, and usually travels to Delhi to visit her when she is there. I thought to myself how amazing it would be to meet Mehraj and see his shawl collection. As if reading my mind, Mohini called Mehraj as soon as we arrived at the hotel. A few hours later, having secured special permission for him to enter the hotel gates given the tight security in the city during our stay, there he was with bundles and bundles of shawls, in every variety and color and texture, all wrapped up in cotton sheets. I was in heaven, in every sense of the word. I have been collecting shawls for years, from all corners of the world, and now to be in the birthplace of shawls, with shawl after glorious shawl being unwrapped in front of me, was a dream come true. We spent hours modeling pashminas and jamawars and kanis. But there was one in particular I just couldn’t take my eyes away from.

Salma in her new shawl. Grand Palace Hotel. Srinagar. Kashmir. India. 2008. 2008. © Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

I had asked Mehraj if he would take me to the place where these shawls are made and teach me about the process, an age-old tradition which fewer and fewer practice. We planned to meet the next morning at 9:30 am. I was getting cold feet. Where would Mehraj take me, would I be able to get back to the hotel given the bund in the city that day, and in time for the afternoon events, and what about all the warnings from family not to wander off foolishly by myself. Determined to go, I decided to ask a fellow event participant to join me. He had a silver-gray tussle of a beard, and despite his gentle eyes, I thought he would suffice as a bodyguard — and he had a very fancy camera around his neck — perfect, he would take great pictures too, I thought. He graciously agreed and we were off to the Old City in Mehraj’s little white Toyota Innova. Little did I know then that I had just invited one of the world’s most renowned photojournalists to accompany me on my shawl jaunt.

We arrived in a narrow dirt lane outside a multi-storied brown-brick building where Mehraj used to live (his sister and her family live there now) which serves as shawl-making central. We walked up the narrow winding staircase to a small windowed room painted in blue with three hand looms. Gilam Mohammad, in a checkered shirt, was working on the loom to the right as we entered. He has been weaving shawls for 20 years. Shaukat Ahmad, in the dark striped shirt, had been doing this work for over 13 years. When I asked Shaukat if he enjoyed what he does, he hesitated but said, “I like this work, that’s why I do it.” When I asked him if he would want his children to learn his craft and continue the family tradition, he was more unwavering: “My hope is that my children do something else, hopefully they will get a government job. Someone is going to learn this craft after me, but not my kids,” he added. Shaukat and Gilam work at the looms eight to nine hours each day, their poor eyesight testament to their many hours of meticulous work. Asked how they feel about the fact that this tradition is no longer as prized as it once was, Mehraj Bhai quickly added, “I feel sad that so many countries are now making shawls by machine; that people are being cheated of quality and workmanship.”

Pedals of the looms used for weaving Pashmina. Srinagar. Kashmir. India. 2008. 2008. © Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

We walked around the corner to another home where two women, mother and daughter, were chatting and working. Mehraj bhai handed me a plastic bag of wool.

Woman with spindle. Srinagar. Kashmir. India. 2008. 2008. © Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

The mother, Muglee, wearing a floral colored shalwar kameez and sitting against the wall with one leg outstretched, showed me how to clean the wool, to remove the soft hair from the coarse. Lovly, her daughter was spinning the wool into yarn on the charkha — painted blue to match the blue walls behind her. Wearing a black abaya, her head gently covered by a matching dupatta, she smiled as she worked, patiently showing me how to hold the wool, oh so gently, with one hand so it doesn’t break. It did, each time I tried. Lovly’s two children played around them, her daughter smiling constantly like her mom.

She kept holding out her hand so I would be sure to see the round circle of mehndi on her palm; her son was captivated with Shahidul’s camera. Shahidul took his picture and showed him his image on the screen.

In the next house, we met Muglee Bhat and her daughter Rushna. Muglee thought she was about 50. We couldn’t take our eyes off her. Her gentle smile, her graceful manner, her elegant features, and those eyes. Captivating. She didn’t quite understand why we kept taking her picture. And her daughter’s too. No one had ever taken a photo of them before. They saw themselves captured in pixels for the first time in Shahidul’s lens.

Mughlee Bhat being photographed for the first time. Srinagar. Kashmir. India. 2008. 2008. © Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

Then we met Zahoor, the man who had woven the shawl that had captured my eye the day before. He was working on another one that seemed similar — with 200 tillis wrapped in different colored yarn splayed in front of him, following a numbered pattern on a piece of paper that was perched on the loom like a sheet of music.

Tillis used for weaving Pashmina. Srinagar. Kashmir. India. 2008. 2008. © Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

He had completed 20 inches so far. In seven months. The shawl I had fallen in love had taken him thirty months to make.

It was my last day in Kashmir and I hadn’t yet been on a shikara ride on Dal Lake. Shahidul and I decided to go early, when the light would be just right. We walked outside our hotel and waited by the edge of the lake, where two shikaras were moored. Shahidul started stalking a kingfisher.

Kingfisher at Dal Lake. Srinagar. Kashmir. India. 2008. 2008. © Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

The kingfisher played hard to get. He persisted, tiptoeing closer and closer to capture the birds best side. Soon, it seemed the kingfisher was enjoying all the fuss. He started posing, turning this way and that. Even leaping into the lake to show off his fish-catching prowess. As we waited for the shikara drivers to arrive, we called out to the boatmen in the distance who started appearing, like ghosts, from behind the mist. “Bhai, hum ko be jana hai,” Shahidul yelled out, hoping they would take us along. “Thorey dher ke liya, aajao.” They didn’t oblige. We didn’t get to ride in a shikara that day, but it didn’t matter. With the mist gently rising from the lake and inching its way up the mountains, the graceful silhouette of boatmen tirelessly cleaning the lake, houseboats lazily lolling on the placid waters, majestic mountains protecting its dignity — we knew we had found what we had come for … it is here, it is here, it is here.

July 11, 2008 Posted by | World | , , , , , , , , , , | 15 Comments