The beginning of the day this morning was not one of the lightest. The gray sky above Berlin was met with news about the fire at Dastgeer Sahib, a Sufi shrine in the centre of Srinagar, the summer capital of Kashmir.
The shrine is one of the symbolic landmarks of the city: a massive structure made of carved wood, with tall spires, Papier-mâché decoration, large chandeliers hanging over the prayer room.
In the complicated tale of Kashmiri syncretism, Dastgeer Sahib is a symbol of tolerance and coexistence: an emblematic trait of Sufism in general and a point of pride in the specific Kashmiri declination.
In a country plagued by inter-religious conflict, the coincidence of the fire with the beginning of a large and highly contested Hindu pilgrimage has a sinister taste. No conspiracy theory, the two events are totally unrelated: it is just a cynical serendipity.
The fire of Dastgeer Sahib is one of those events that doesn’t quite make it to the global news. Still I thought, that Dastgeer Sahib would deserve a little epitaph, a little thought – even just in passing.
Below is a short diary entry I wrote on my visit to Kashmir earlier this year, which captures the mixed emotions I felt in leaving this complex part of the world.
The Pain of Others
Bangalore, March 28th 2012
I came back from Srinagar a week ago and the voices and details of the city are still vividly present in my memory. The Dal lake, the snow-capped mountains, the windstorm that shook my last night in the city and got mingled with the lamenting voices of women praying to fight their fear.
Srinagar is not leaving me, I would like perhaps some distance, but it has decided to stay with me. The Kashmir of the almost forgotten conflict has crept under my skin.
Agha Shahid Ali, the poet who more than anyone else gave voice to the unique mixture of beauty and brutality that seems to be the essence of the Valley, has been my guide. I have looked at his Valley through the lens of his words. And Srinagar inevitably became also for me the city of daughters: where almost every man has a police record – if not as a suspect, as a spy: it seems, in fact, that there are some 170 thousand spies for a population of 10 million people – and where women make life go on, in silence, away from indiscreet gazes and the clamours of public domain.
And so it is that also the apparent quiet that surrounds Srinagar, the renewed presence of tourists, the rhetorics of the regained stability acquire a new meaning through the verses of
Agha Shahid Ali, who quotes Tacitus: solitudinem faciunt, pacem appellant – they make a desolation and call it peace.
It is not the first time that I experience this kind of desolation. It hit me in Palestine, in refugee camps in Iraq and Tunisia, in the slums of Pakistan.
But it seems that this desolation has now come back to claim a long overdue credit.
Of years of stories that I listened to, collected and preserved in my memory. Of tales of lives and places that I visited, felt and shared through my writings.
How can I do justice to so much richness and pain?
How to give proper credit to those who tell you they feel guilty to be happy when their country is under an oppression that seems to have no end?
How to sail in this big sea? Where is the compass that leads the path so as to preserve a sensitive eye and yet avoid pitiful sympathy? How can one tell about the power of human dignity without risking the objectifying gaze of the anthropologist who looks for truths?
Questions multiply and answers seem to slip away.
Hitting the road is the only solution I know: the source of more questions that animate the quest for more answers.
The road and a desire for care, dedication and attention – in my words and politics – towards the people and places that have told and continue telling me these stories.
*Currently based in Berlin, Francesca Recchia is a staff writer with Muftah.