“We were young and would run away and our mother wouldn’t know where we had gone. We would hear drums beating, qawwalis echoing in the air, children laughing and devotees chanting prayers. Now, we don’t hear anything,” said Hamida Jamil, reminiscing about the Urs that used to be held at the Bari Imam shrine in Islamabad every year. Sitting on a charpoy next to her siblings Farzana Amir and Mohammad Shaukat, Jamil described the energy that used to be in the air. The three siblings, who live a 10-minute walk from the shrine, have been residing in the colony since childhood.
A melange of spiritual and worldly activities, the death anniversary (Urs) of a saint is celebrated, not mourned.
In May 2005, the shrine was hit by a terrorist attack that left 20 people dead and several injured. This happened within the compound when the congregation for the festival was under way. This May, the police foiled a terror threat by recovering explosives from the shrine. The Urs celebrations have been discontinued since 2009, with security reasons as the main cause.
“I went to the shrine last month and the police said it would open on July 17 but it hasn’t yet,” said Jamil. “Word around our neighbourhood is that engineers are at the shrine trying to elevate the grave of the saint,” added her brother, Shaukat.
Earlier this month, when I went to the shrine, it was surrounded by barbed wire and several policemen were sitting under some shade. After questioning me for a few minutes, they let me inside the barricaded area but would not let me enter the shrine complex.
The policeman in charge, Assistant Sub-Inspector Saleem Raza, was elusive in his response but blunt to let me know that I was welcome — only at the exit. He was evasive, easy irritable and said that any plans to resume Urs festivities would depend on the security situation in the country and nothing could be confirmed now. This was in contradiction to my visit there a few weeks ago, when police said it had been closed for renovation and the shrine would be open for the public by Eid.
“We heard through word of mouth that a bomb had exploded,” said Jamil. “The shrine was closed and there were a lot of policemen who sealed the area. They were checking everyone’s identification,” she added, recalling the day of the blast all those years ago when her colony was splattered with debris and blood. Given its proximity to the presidency and the diplomatic enclave, the entire area is now a declared the red zone, i.e. it is vulnerable to extremism. There is less public transport there now and several policemen are deployed.
“Our relatives would come and stay with us for days and we’d take them to the Urs but now most of them are too afraid to come,” said Jamil. “Now devotees just offer their prayers outside the shrine.”
Roadside vendors at the shrine said that every day, visitors still come from cities across the country. During the Urs days, people would come from as far as India and England. “People would bring niaz to distribute and pray,” said Syed Ahmed, who has been running a small shop outside the shrine for over 15 years, selling cloth bedecked with gold and silver Arabic verses and traditional food items in jars. “People come to us all the time and inquire if the Urs will take place this year.” He said he was very keen for the Urs activities to resume, not just because it was good for his business and generated income for the shrine but because of the mystical ambience during the five days of the festival. Earthen lamps used to be lit all around, glittering lights would adorn the adjacent buildings, and the whole town used to throb with people and prayers.
However, despite the celebratory atmosphere that used to prevail in the neighbourhood during the festival days, Jamil and her siblings said they don’t want the Urs to be revived because of the dubious activities it engenders. “Our neighbourhood would be affected,” said Shaukat. “There is more danger during those days, more theft and often children are kidnapped.” He claimed that drug addicts infiltrate the area and he doesn’t feel comfortable taking the women of his family out, adding that there had been cases where children had even been killed and women could not be left unattended. “Things have changed since the last blast,” added his sister. “Routine has changed. We just want peace here, we’d rather be safe than celebrate.”
Published in Dawn, August 5th, 2014