I’ve never had such fear before. I’ve had fear – the most primal and fundamental kind of fear.
But it was nothing like this.
It is the morning of May 28, 2010. I wake up to the savory smell of chole and freshly-baked kulche wafting through our room. My wife is a skilled cook. With her chole, she brings chickpeas together with a mix of spices and a touch of tomato and something fantastic emerges. Her kulche is also fantastic. She bakes the flat-rolled flour dough in a clay oven – one she made – until it is golden brown and perfectly fluffy. The whole neighborhood claims she makes the best kulche in Pakistan. They may be right.
I know, if I try hard enough, that I can detect a more subtle odor, the odor of her chaas. To make it, she combines salted yogurt, cumin and freshly ground ginger in the right proportions. Chaas is normally refreshing, but she makes it something transformative. Its scents lightly floats over the others, barely detectable, but filling the whole picture in. When you drink her chaas, you can close your eyes and imagine yourself someplace perfect. The effect isn’t quite as remarkable when that perfect place is here, with her.
As I wake up, these are the smells that bathe my soul. Our walls are infused with the scents of ginger and cumin and cardamom and anise and nutmeg and cloves. Our home is tiny – a dilapidated shack in a small slum in north Lahore, Pakistan. But in this regard, its size is an advantage. Every surface exudes flavor. I’ve been to bigger homes, much bigger homes. But the flavors of those homes are restricted. They are locked in. Often they are barely detectable even in the kitchen itself. The rest of the house is dead. But not our shack. Our shack is thoroughly filled with life and with love. We’ve been trying for years to add more life and more love to it – but without success. Somehow, we’ve been able to hold on to the other joys in our lives.
The smells of chole, kulche and chaas are normal, but I don’t normally wake up to them. Normally I wake up very early in the morning – even before my wife – and head to the mosque for the first prayer. Of course, we can’t call it a mosque – to do so would bring prison time. So our ‘place of prayer’ stands tucked behind a Shell gas station. It is set back at an angle. In front of it is a a broad boulevard with trees that run down its center.
After prayers, I walk another 500 meters to my work in the famous Mayo Gardens. The Gardens form a complex of over 70 massive homes on beautiful, tree-filled, estates. They were originally built for high-ranking officers serving on the British-Indian railway. Now, colonels, generals and the like live there. The place is walled, gated and patrolled. You need special ID to enter. Because of my religion, I can’t get a passport or a national ID – but I can still get the special ID I need to work in the Mayo Gardens. It is part of the disorder of my homeland. My job is to maintain the houses. I can repair air conditioners, fix ancient electrical wiring and repair plumbing. I can repair walls, roofs and floors. I don’t install new things though. I just keep ancient things alive. There’s a lot of demand for that in Pakistan.
I love the Mayo Gardens; you enter and you are hidden from the din of traffic and the grime of the city. It is like you enter an entirely different universe. I’ve always loved this part of the city – where a few artificial lines separate my slum, which is so tightly packed there aren’t even streets, from some of the most stunning homes in the country.
But this morning isn’t a normal morning. I’m not rushing to early prayers and then work. This is a Friday morning. I don’t work on Fridays. On Fridays, I wake up to the smells of my wife’s cooking and I spend my day with her before going to the ‘place of prayer’.
Hina and I met when I was 7 and she was 6. People are fond of arranged marriages in my part of the world. But we met so young, and were so clearly matched, that our parents agreed that we’d marry one another. We had no choice, but we didn’t want one. We like to joke that we alone have a love-arranged marriage. We actually married when I was 18, moving into our little shack and filling it with the scents of our lives.
I get out of bed and look across the room. Hina is pulling the kulche from the clay oven. It looks beautiful, as does she. Behind her, on our small bench, are a few mangoes. But there is something else, on our small propane stove, something I somehow missed. There is kheer, a rice pudding flavored with cardamom, saffron and almonds. This is an unusual treat.
We eat breakfast. I tell her about the Gardens. I do it every week. She can’t go there, she doesn’t have my special ID, but she loves to hear about everything from which trees are flowering to the petty problems of the powerful. This week is no different – if anything she seems more engaged and I feel even happier to share. Hina works as well. She cooks. Half the neighborhood seems to be sustained by her food. She tells me about the lives of our neighbors. Despite living in a slum, we do well. We have the money to move someplace with streets – but we have no desire to do so.
We are Ahmadi – Muslims who believe that the Madhi, or Messiah, has come. You could call us the Mosque of the Latter Day Prophets. We believe it is our job to repair the relationship between man and Allah by bringing out the divine in mankind. We believe it is our role to end religious conflict – by holding ourselves out as an example of peaceful dedication. Our method is not the most popular one. Because we believe there was a prophet after Mohammed, there are laws against us. We aren’t allowed to call ourselves Muslim, publically quote from the Koran or pray with other Muslims. Just quoting from the Koran can land us in prison – and occasionally much worse. Our Kalif fled, decades ago, to London.
The government calls us Qadiani – from the town we came from in India. It is intended as an epithet.
Our religious rituals are the same as theirs, and we accept the Five Pillars as they do. Nonetheless, our practice is dramatically different. We have returned to the true meaning of Islam. Islam means ‘peace’ and we are pacifists. We do not protest or scream in the streets. We do not attack those who disagree with us – even if they insult us and our religion. Instead, we fight evil by offering praise to Allah and Mohammed his prophet. In light of the threats against us, our Kalif has recommended only that we pray.
And so, after sharing our weekly experiences, Hina and I discuss the news. We start with the blasphemy cases against our people, we move on to the threats. And then we talk about politics of Pakistan – the broader currents through which we swim. The conversation will continue at the mosque – Friday services are an opportunity to work through community issues. But Hina won’t be there.
One thing we never talk about is children. There is never anything new to share.
After we talk, I use a rag to bathe myself. I put on my best clothes and I leave the house for the mosque.
But today something is different. Hina also gets changed. And we leave the house together.
We walk between the warren of tightly packed shacks until we get to the edge of the slum. And then we walk down the street to the mosque itself. The men are streaming into it. Very few women are there, just passerby. A few volunteer guards stand outside. We walk to the edge of the gas station and we stop. A collection of motorbikes and delivery trucks charge down the boulevard.
Just as I am about to leave her, she touches my arm – gently. “Hassan,” she says, “One more thing.”
“Yes?” I ask. There is a ding as a car enters the gas station.
“I’m pregnant.” She says. Just like that.
I’m stunned. I stand there, stunned.
And then she smiles a deep and complete smile. “Go in,” she says, “You’re late.”
I walk towards the mosque. I look back just as I come to the door. She is standing there, watching.
She smiles and waves.
And then there is a clink, a few shouts and an explosion.
And she is no longer there.
The attack lasted two and a half hours. The police came, but they just watched. We are Ahmadi, they would not risk their lives for us. And we did not fight. Instead, the killers went through the main prayer hall and killed everyone. They had time to double-check their murders. One of them ascended our orange-tinted minaret, its view enabled him to shoot any who tried to escape. Between our two main mosques, 89 people were killed that day. Over two and half hours of fear.
In the end, the attackers blew themselves up – spreading yet more death.
They are the antithesis of us.
I remember hiding in an office, under a desk, and praying. But other than that, I remember almost nothing from that day. Just the first clink, the initial shouts and the explosion that killed my wife.
She was the only woman killed that day. 88 men and one woman – my wife. My wife who had come to the mosque to share the best news of our lives.
I returned to our shack that that night. The scents were still there, but already they had begun to fade.
My life became daily travels from home to mosque to work and back to home. I bought my food from a cart. There was no one to share my stories with. There was just a fading scent.
Others tried to get me to marry again. But I refused. Hina had always been the only one for me. And we’d shared so much together. Nobody could be permitted to erase her memory.
But four years later, the last lingering scents are almost gone.
It is a typical summer day when I walk to mosque. The rain is pouring down as the monsoon pummels the city. The mud in the slum is loosening up. Gutters in the streets are running over. It is punishingly hot. I walk to mosque – not in my finest clothes, but in my other clothes. A thin shirt and light pants – totally soaked through. Normally, there are more guards than before. But they are mostly volunteers and the rain is coming down heavy today, so most of the guards haven’t shown up. A man with a rifle is set up in the minaret. It is a position that can’t be ceded again.
Of course, none of the guards are Ahmadi – we don’t fight. We depend on Allah to be vengeful on our behalf. We must be an example of another path.
I nod at the guards and slip into the mosque. The men from the area have all collected. There is a vigorous conversation. I don’t talk much, not anymore. But I listen. So I approach the edges of the group – wondering whether yet another Ahmadi person has been assaulted or killed.
But instead, they are talking about a city. A city of refuge in the Israeli Golan where all religions and people are welcome. A city whose governing ethos is productivity and connection to G-d. A city we would be at home in. The men are wondering whether anybody will go there. Whether any Ahmadi, sick of the persecution in Pakistan, would venture to this new place.
As they talk, a vision fills my head. I smell Hina’s spices again. But not in my shack. I smell them in that place. I smell them filling it with joy and life and flavor.
And I raise my hand to speak.
“Yes?” asks the Imam. Faces turn to me, surprised.
“I’ll go.” I announce.
“Excuse me?” asks the Imam.
“I’ll go to this place,” I repeat, “I’ll move there.”
“Were you listening?” asks the Imam, “We were just talking about expensive it would be to get there.”
“I’ll open a stall there, in the market. I’ll sell our spices. Punjabi spices. And you will all own a part of my stall. And when it makes money, I’ll send it back here – so more of you can come.”
“Punjabi spices?” asks another man, incredulously, “Why would a bunch of Arabs want Punjabi spices?”
“For the joy,” I say, with complete conviction, “For the joy that they bring. They don’t have to love them much though – I’ll have one stall. There will be hundreds of thousands of people there. Nobody else will be selling Punjabi spices.”
The crowd murmurs its analysis.
“Where will you get the spices?” asks another man.
“From you,” I answer, “You will source them here and get them to me there.”
“You are a very competent man,” says yet another man, “And we know you are trustworthy.”
It is a statement of fact, not of action.
“Where will you get the money?” interjects somebody else.
“I don’t know.” I answer.
There is a pause. And then the Imam speaks.
“I know,” he says, “He’ll get the money from us. We can start another Community there. Many there will be running from violent perverters of Islam. But he will be there to establish a purer voice. It will be a deed to be honored by Allah and he will bring praise to Mohammed. Allah will smile on those who give. Who here is ready to receive the blessings of Allah?”
One by one, the men raise their hands. Every one of them contributes something. The porters, the mini-cab drivers, the street cleaners, the men without jobs. Everyone contributes something. They dedicate sums I know they can barely afford. It comes, in all, to 693,954 Pakistani Ruppees. It is about $7,000 dollars. But it will take time to make their dedications real. Some have money. But for many, they must sell prized possessions to fulfill their pledges.
As I wait, I work with the Imam to figure out how I will get to the City. I have no passport and I am a member of a sect hated in my homeland and in every country that lays along my route.
Finally, after three weeks, the money is collected. Some of it is cash, but most is gold – the universal currency. 18 grams of gold – in all a an amount of gold about the size of a large olive. We pound it into 10th of a gram pieces. Gold is remarkably malleable. One olive can be cut into 180 pieces. The gold is sewn into my clothes. Finally, I am set on my way.
My mission is to preserve these pieces of gold so that I can pave a path for the others to follow me.
I travel to Karachi, board a fishing boat owned by an Ahmadi. The boat makes an unscheduled stop near Dubai. Another Ahmadi, from Saudi Arabia, meets me there. He takes me across the border and connects me to friends who take me to a town near Jordan called Turaif.
Every step costs money. Every step cuts into my olive of gold.
From there, Bedouin smugglers take me across the border to Jordan and then across the desert to the edge of Syria. Coming from the lushness of Pakistan, the Jordanian desert seems like a moonscape. There are no people and there is nothing I can see which is alive. There are a few desert tracks – but there are no roads and no towns. I promise the Bedouin future business if they treat me well – and somehow they believe me. I think they can tell how little I’d be worth in ransom.
I walk across the border into Syria. Few people are travelling in that direction. I’m in the south – areas controlled by the government and by non-ISIS opposition. The risk is not extreme. So I walk and hitch rides through the ruins of that country until I finally come to the abandoned city of Qunietra.
Between bribes and extra fees I show up at the doors of the City with only 9 of my tiny pieces of gold remaining. They are worth about $320.
Thankfully, I don’t have to wait long for my interview. The City intake officers bring me in almost immediately – I’m the first man who has come from Pakistan. In my broken English, I tell my story. They accept me.
I am glad to be here – to be in the City. But I have problem. My 9 pieces of gold have to build something – something my community is depending on. But I don’t have enough money for my stall.
I convert my 9 pieces of gold to the local currency, the Zuz. My gold is worth 1274 Zuz. The Zuz are not physical cash – they are in an account I can access using my phone. There are benefits to this set up. When I spend my initial money each month – it is supplemented automatically, with each transaction. If I am willing to be extremely thrifty, my Zuz can go further. But no matter how thrifty I am, I don’t have enough money to order spices.
I expect to need a loan. The great western charities emphasize loans in places like Pakistan – microloans. But I don’t want a loan. As a Muslim, they are forbidden – but reality sometimes makes them necessary. Gladly, I learn that loans are not available in the City. The government will not enforce their terms. It believes that loans focus on the downside of the world. They depend on and create great risks. I agree.
But there is another road. There are investors. I book an appointment. And then I come to the trailer that serves as City Hall. They sit me in front of a computer and ask me to present my business to a group of unseen people on the other end of the line. They are from Europe and the United States. It is incredibly nerve wracking. I am not a speaker. But I must convince these people to buy a part of my business.
I do what I can. I tell them my story. I tell them Hina’s story. I tell them what I want to share and what I want to achieve. And, remarkably, they invest. They invest 40,000 Zuz for 20% of my stall. 28,000 actually arrive in my business account. There is a cash flow tax of 12,000. I am worried at first, very worried. But it is explained to me that the tax will be reimbursed for whatever I spend on business expenses. The City wants to tax funds that aren’t used to support basic life or productive business activity. They don’t want to tax productive activity – as the taxing of anything tends to reduce its quantity.
So I call the Imam and I order spices. They have to be shipped to Cyprus and then Israel – nobody can ship from Pakistan to the Zionist state itself. I spend 30,000 Zuz. Because of the refund, only 21,000 leaves my business account. I have the 1274 Zuz in my personal account, but it isn’t mine – it belongs to my community. So I work, as a handyman repairing brand-new things, and pay my wages into the business account until I’ve made it whole. In the meantime, I spend as little as I can – I need to preserve my funds. I live in the tent I received at the city gates. I stay in my allocated camp site. I buy a camp stove and a fry pan to cook my meals. One woman is renting out the use of her kiln. In the evenings, I make myself a small clay oven. Just like Hina’s. I make myself a plate and a bowl. But I don’t stop there, I make bowls to sell my spices from; bowls filled with deep streaks of color. They remain empty, in my tent, for now. And, I buy food. I go to the nearly empty shuk and I buy flour and chickpeas and other basics. I buy only what I need to live on. My food is unbelievably bland.
43 days later, after I pay another 5,000 Zuz in handling expenses to the port of Haifa and the shipper (thankfully, only 3,500 are deducted from my shrinking balance) the spices arrive. I buy a carpet.
And then, early in the morning, right after the first prayer, I carry all my belongings to the shuk. I set up my tent as a windbreak and I layout my carpet as a floor. I put down the bowls and I fill them with my spices.
And then sit behind them and wait.
As I sit in my stall. I watch the people go by. They go where I went. To buy the necessities of life.
And then an overwhelming fear overcomes me. I fear, suddenly, that Arabs will not buy Punjabi spices. I fear that all the money spent by my community will disappear with nothing to show for it. I fear the investors will lose what they contributed.
But most of all, I fear that Hina’s voice will be lost forever.
I watch person after person cross before me – in route to something more important. Something more critical.
I set up my camp stove and I cook a few chickpeas, the way my wife would. They are rich with spice and the smell brings me to another place – a lush place far from the dry beginnings of a city on the Golan Heights.
It is then that I see her. A customer. A woman with a beautiful camera and two children in tow. One of the children has a huge gash on his head. She doesn’t walk by. She stops. I step out from my tent to greet her.
She tries to speak to me in Arabic. And then in broken English. She doesn’t ask to buy spices. She asks about my story. And then she photographs my tent and my bowls. She smells my chickpeas. I give her one. She tastes it, and she smiles. A deeply satisfied smile. No words are needed.
And then she asks what she should buy. She doesn’t have a lot of money, the camera was from the life she had before. She just wants to try something. I recommend cardamom, and I tell her how to prepare it with rice. I sell her just enough for one meal. Just enough for her sons to appreciate the flavor.
She buys – the money is automatically transferred to my account, with the tax deducted – and she leaves.
Nobody else comes for the rest of the day. As the sun sets, I pack my spices back into their sealed containers. And then I cart them back out of the shuk and back to the flavorless campsite where I live.
I sold 15 Zuz in spice. My community invested about 25,000 Zuz in my endeavor. And I sold 15 Zuz, not counting expenses.
In the morning, I barely want to rise for prayers. My dream is a failure and I have destroyed others with it. But I have nothing else to do. So I get up from my mat, pray and then bring all of my belongings back to the shuk. On a whim, before I set up, I visit another stall and buy yogurt and almonds and tomatoes.
When I return to my place, I set out my spices and begin to prepare my breakfast. The same breakfast Hina made on May 28, 2010. Normally, I can’t cook like her – but today everything seems to come out right. The chickpeas in the chole are spiced perfectly, the warm kulche bread feels lovely in my hands, and the kheer pudding is fragrant with nuts and cardamom. A sip of the yogurt chaas returns me to my shack – with her.
I am still sitting, dwelling inside that food, when the first customer arrives.
He is not from the City. He came from Israel. He read about my story and about my spices on the woman’s blog. I share a morsel of my food and he buys a broad selection of my inventory.
And then, throughout the morning, more and more people come. Most are from the City. They too read about me. They too want to experience a bit of spice to add to their basic necessities.
And so I sell it to them. A bit of this and a bit of that. Just enough for a meal or two.
Over the day, dozens of customers come. I sell 1,954 Zuz in spices. I don’t know what the next day will bring – but there is a future.
As I travel back to my campsite, something remarkable happens. I smell the flavors of the Punjab. All around me, my customers are cooking. They are cooking Hina’s food.
The City is filled with the echoes of her scent.
She has become a part of it.
As I lay my head down to sleep, these are the smells that bathe my soul.
In the Torah portion of Ki-Tavo, the nation is brought to life with eyes to see, ears to hear and a heart to know. It is brought to life and given a national soul.
There were many steps necessary to get to this place, steps that fill the last of Five Books. But for me the most touching occurs in this same reading. We are commanded to plaster stones with the words of Torah. It is a critical step in bringing the nation to life. But the Jewish people do not represent the first unified society in Torah. That distinction belongs to Bavel.
If the text from the episode of Bavel is read literally, it describes bricks being used in place of stone and the white being whitened and the dark being darkened. Bavel replaced the natural with the uniformly manufactured and went through a process of eliminating the gray. The building blocks of that society had their humanity, and their human imperfections, removed. Theirs is a totalitarian model.
In this light, the plastering of the Torah shows us another way. The society described here is fashioned from stones – from the naturally imperfect. It is the words of Torah, which must be constantly renewed just as words on plaster are not permanent, that create our vision of perfection. This is a model that builds on our humanity, and relies on it. It is not one that eliminates our distinctions.
The attacks described in Lahore happened. Although no women were killed, the free-hand the attackers enjoyed was shocking even with Pakistan itself. And the ideology that drove the attacks has much in common with Bavel. It is an ideology that seeks to build a unified and perfect society by replacing human stones with inhuman bricks. The City serves as a contrast to this model. It brings together the unique and mismatched stones of many other societies, and uses them as the basis upon which a new plaster can be established.
Rather than eliminating the unique scents of Hina, the City integrates them in order to create something new and beautiful. I believe it can be a model for us all.
p.s. I originally wrote the Story of Hassan as I was fleshing out the ideas behind my book, the City on the Heights. Although many of the ideas behind this story are in the book, Hassan himself makes only a cameo appearance in one of the final chapters.
Image: By H. Grobe – Own work, CC BY 3.0, Wikimedia id: 12155568