What's happening in Afghanistan this week really hits home. Every time I see the headline "Deadliest Day in Quran Protests," all that dormant fear re-surfaces and I can barely swallow.
Perhaps it never goes away. That kind of terror stays with you for a while. Once you envision the worst thing that can happen to you, it's hard to get it out of your head.
I was working in Pakistan just over a year ago when that demented pastor in Florida was threatening to burn a pile of Qurans. Eid, the Muslim holiday marking the end of Ramadan, was fast approaching. The Quran controversy was escalating. Hundreds of thousands of Muslims were protesting around the world. I remember seeing the ubiquitous media coverage on the crackly TV in my Islamabad guesthouse and praying please don't do it. I'm not even religious, but I knew -- we all knew -- that if he did it, we were screwed.
One night, when we really didn't know what was going to happen, I sat on the bed poking at my daal and rice and Skyped with my parents in the U.S. through a very shaky Internet connection. They were panicking. I reassured them that where I was staying was safely secured (although I hardly felt that way). I watched a lizard slither across the bedroom wall. I smiled a meek smile. I tried to listen to them tell me something mundane about life in the suburbs, seeking anything to comfort me, but I couldn't shake off that uneasy feeling. Fear had grown around me like ivy. I kept thinking the tea boy who had brought me my dinner had looked at me weirdly. I was becoming paranoid. Of all the stupid medicines I brought in my first aid kit, where the hell was the Xanax? All I wanted to do was climb under the bed, cover my ears and wait for it -- whatever it was -- to be over.
Before shutting the light, I checked that my door was locked for the umpteenth time. I stared at the tatty velvet curtains with suspicion as they fluttered. Was someone standing behind them? No, I had already checked. It was just the AC. I then slithered under my sheets with a butter knife. Hardly a weapon but it made me feel like the warrior I knew I could be, if push came to shove. Though rather than a singular person attacking me I always knew it would be a bomb blast. I was relieved that our Regional Director wasn't staying in the same guesthouse. It would be less of a target. I was just a mid-career professional. Just a nobody. Phew.
Morning came as it always does. Daylight was easier for me to handle. At least I wasn't alone. On the way to work, the security measures were even more rigorous during this time, with protests erupting across the city. Though I knew there would always be holes. I tried not to think about them. Everything seemed starker. Everything moved in slow motion. All the security checkpoints, the circuitous routes to the office, the finger print sensors to get into any portion of the building, the throngs of lanky security guards avoiding my eye contact.
It was meant to be a special place for me, Pakistan. My mother was born in Karachi, but I had never been there before, and she had no recollection of it. Our Hindu family had fled to Bombay in 1947 when she was just a baby, when deadly riots between Muslims and Hindus had broken out across what was then only known as India.
I had always been curious about "my roots" so when severe flooding destroyed swaths of Pakistan in the summer of 2010 and I was called on to be a part of the relief effort, I willingly went. Everyone was anxious about my decision. What was this place that my family had feared so deeply? I knew there were complexities from a geo-political standpoint, but wasn't it also our homeland?
But I never received the welcome I had anticipated. I really don't know what I was expecting. On my first day in the office, the lady in Human Resources said to me: "You shouldn't even be here." Excuse me? "You have an American passport. And you're Indian. You really shouldn't be here." And although I would travel throughout the country and meet wonderful, hospitable people -- from beautiful Swat Valley down to lower Sindh -- my whole experience was somewhat tainted by that moment.
And, of course, by the Quran scandal.
At the height of the controversy, everyone looked increasingly suspicious. Our offices in Islamabad had been blown up the year before that. It was still raw -- we had lost beloved colleagues. These were people who had dedicated their lives to helping the people of Pakistan. There is always a risk of there being a hole in the security. I wasn't convinced the metal detector worked; it looked archaic. The male security officers never checked my bag, or patted me down, because I was a woman. They couldn't touch me. They let me saunter through the checkpoint unchecked. I tried not think about it. I thrust myself into work. But it got to the point where I couldn't stand to be in the building. I couldn't stand to be on the road. I couldn't stand to be in the guesthouse.
I basically couldn't wait to get the hell out of there.
Ironically, the only place I felt safe was at the bar in the basement of the Marriot hotel, which was a comforting refuge for expats. I needed to get drunk. Basically, I needed to numb my fear.
I was pissed at that pastor back then. Just like I'm pissed at those U.S. soldiers right now. Maybe it was a mistake, but still. None of this is a joke. As a society, we must demonstrate respect toward the views of others. We know the outcome of not doing that. Not doing that means risking lives.
Including those of the people out there trying to make the world a better place.
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