The invader’s fear of memories

Published April 12, 2015
A photo frame and a purse hang on a room wall of a house destroyed by an air strike near Sanaa airport, March 31, 2015.—Reuters
A photo frame and a purse hang on a room wall of a house destroyed by an air strike near Sanaa airport, March 31, 2015.—Reuters

It was a season of storms this time; young blooms of the simbul tree dropping onto the terrace with innocuous thuds, fiery missiles landing on red brick. The garden is resplendent with color and fragrance; there is birdsong in the air. Still, a certain sadness permeates the skin of my home as I prepare for another April, another month of longing and loss.

So much happens in this month, so much that reminds us of the follies we commit as mere humans, glorified life forms intent on destroying everything that has brought us sustenance and beauty. When T.S. Eliot wrote The Wasteland, he spoke of April being the cruelest month, “breeding/lilacs out the dead land, mixing/memory and desire, stirring/dull roots with spring rain.”

When Mahmud Darwish wrote his poem Palestine, he reminded us of all the things that make life worth living, despite the death and the destruction, the denial and the deception. For only when we have lost what we have cherished do we begin to fathom how deep the absence runs, how still the heart is even when all around is chaos and the cacophony of useless things.


This land gives us all that makes life worth living: April’s blushing advances, the aroma of bread at dawn, a woman’s haranguing of men, the poetry of Aeschylus, love’s trembling beginning, moss on a stone mothers dancing on a flute’s thread and the invaders’ fear of memories — from Palestine, by Mahmud Darwish


The circus that performed in the National Assembly just a few days ago was one of those useless things; a theatre of the absurd enacted in the hallowed halls of parliament.

The debate on whether our country actively engages its forces in the imbroglio of Yemen had to be a non-starter, a game whose rules did not apply to the self-professed servants of citizenry. The decision to send or not to send troops is not one up for discussion; it is not the purview of the members of an elected assembly to consider the consequences of our military’s engagement on the ground, in the air, or at sea.

These are matters too delicate to be left to the ham-fisted handling of political representatives of a nation of nearly 200 million hapless souls. These are decisions which do not take into consideration the personal obligations of the indebted, or the vested interests of the armaments industry, or even the lifeline of millions of Pakistanis seeking to make a living in alien lands where they shall always be treated as the unwanted.

These decisions are made elsewhere, and the dynamics of that process often remain a mystery for most of us, too complex for the consumption of ordinary minds.

Why else were we not consulted in September 1970 when General Zia-ul-Haq, posted in Amman as a trainer for the Jordanian military, launched his attack on the Palestinians who had found refuge in Jordan after being forced out of their homes by the Israeli army in 1967?

Commanding the 2nd Division, the general led a fearsome offensive against the Palestinian population in September 1970, an infamous month which has come to be known as Black September; the eleven-month period of war referred to as the “era of regrettable events”.

The toll of Palestinian lives is said to range between 10,000-25,000 dead, leading the Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Dayan to say “Hussein (King) killed more Palestinians in 11 days than we were able to in 12 years”. Those who survived returned to the ghettos that their camps had become; those who were armed were expelled to Lebanon.

I have seen those ghettos outside the sparkling white city of Amman. I have seen the children, bare footed and poorly clothed, playing in winding alleys while mothers sit with cauldrons of food steaming over makeshift stoves, the fragrance of simple meals floating through the sadness of dispossession and loss.

I have talked to the fathers, elderly men who missed their olive groves and the sheep they pastured in ancient towns like Jericho. I have watched the young men as they drew the shape of a besieged land in the dust, swearing to return, swearing by the soil that gave them birth, and which shall cover them in death.

I have celebrated the Day of the Land, Yom al Ard, to mark the resistance of Palestinians to the occupation of ancestral lands by colonial forces who have dehumanised and brutalised those who stayed behind to tend to their orchards, their orange groves, their land.

Commemorated every year on March 30th, this day reminds us of the sanctity of belonging, of being a part of a continuum of history, of honouring the roots which have set themselves deep into the earth; nurtured by our sense of identity, a sense of being a part of the earth itself.

This year, as March 30th recedes into memory, we find ourselves debating whether our country must engage in a war in another land, while other wars ravage our cities, forcing people into ghettos, scarring the landscape with the camps of the internally displaced, blistering the earth with the graves of the young.

Perhaps it is relevant then, to remember that we have been here before, poised at the edge of a precipice, deceived and duped by forces which play us like lambs before the slaughter, colouring us with the rust of henna and garlanding us with the gold of gullibility.

Perhaps it is relevant that it is in April when the snow begins to melt in the high mountains, causing glaciers to move with fierce momentum, burying everything in their measured journey. It is in April that we lost 140 men at Gyari Sector, fighting a futile war; it is in April that we consider yet another war, joining forces with those who have silenced all opposition in their own country with brutal tactics of repression.

Indeed, April is the cruelest month, following closely on the Ides of March, when the undefeatable dictator-for-life, Julius Caesar, was stabbed to death by his trusted friend, Marcus Junius Brutus. In 1976, General Zia was elevated to the senior-most post in the military by Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto who, it is said, based his decision of supercession on Zia’s infamous record of brutality against the Palestinians in Jordan.

This sordid story has come back to haunt us, not just with the execution of Pakistan’s first democratically elected head of state on April 4, 1979, but with the fact that in the same year, General Zia agreed to supply arms to the Mujahideen, purchased by the CIA from Israel who had captured them from the Palestinian fighters in Beirut.

Indeed, we have come full circle, as surely as April shall always follow March, as certain as the fragrance of freshly baked bread lures the exile home.

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, April 12th, 2015

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