Inside-Midnight-knocks

“What shall I tell my children when they ask, ‘Dad, how was home?’ I want them to learn to love before they learn to hate. So I will share my story with you, not them. Not until they are old enough to understand.”

This was Dawar, a political refugee, and a member of Virginia’s Alif Laila Tavern of storytellers. And this is his story.

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A midnight knock wakes fear in the heart, chills blood and numbs the mind. May God save you from midnight knocks! But you can’t escape them if you visit our city.

Our city has no name or maybe it has many. Take any name from dozens of cities spread across the globe and it will fit the description.

In our city, demons stalk people in sleepy winter nights and take out their hearts. And a blind, faceless hatred rules the streets. This hatred is unfathomable and alive. It spits fire and smoke, sucks blood and lives on human flesh.

The hatemongers rule over the city with such viciousness that blood thins to water as they look into your eyes. Once trapped, you also learn to hate. You fear all, so you hate all.

Love and understanding do not come easy to a land laden with poverty and sucked barren by centuries of misuse. Misunderstanding sprouts like weeds in this soil and slowly  grows into hatred — pure, blind hatred.

And that’s why most of the killings in our city are done by our own, not outsiders. It is always a brother against a brother. A friend against a friend. A neighbor against a neighbor. They hunt each other, lust each other’s blood. Sometimes the killers wear uniforms. Sometimes they don’t. They can kill you for many reasons: being in the wrong ethnic neighborhood, praying in someone else’s place of worship or simply because you were the nearest target.

Dozens of ethnic and religious groups live in our city but the main division is between “them” and “us.” The definition of them and us varies from place to place. In one neighborhood, you could be one of us and in another one of them. In one mosque, you are among us, in another among them. It is so confusing that no matter how hard you try, you can always make a mistake.

There are some who don’t accept this divide. I still remember a man from the other ethnic group who lived in our neighborhood instead of somewhere where his group was a majority. When the riots began – and riots are common in our part of the world – he refused to move out and go to his people. He continued to live among “them,” trusting those he had lived with for decades. But when the midnight-knockers went to his door, none of his neighbors came to his rescue. A few gunshots and it were all over. In the morning, everybody said he was good but foolish. He should have moved to his people before the riots started.

This hatred is compounded by extreme poverty, overpopulation and lack of civic facilities. Millions live here, but our city does not even have a proper transport system. The buses are few and uncomfortable. Trains do not run, at least not on time. The roads are bad, in some places so bad they are beyond any repair. The streets are narrow and often dark. Most people can’t afford private transport.

The city has no drainage system, so when rain comes it floods the whole city. Except a few posh areas, most neighborhoods have open drains. They remain clogged with mud and filth, constantly heaving forth an unbearable stench. The municipality bins overflow with rubbish and are hardly ever emptied.

The city’s economy cannot provide jobs to all who live here and to those who come from other areas looking for jobs that do not exist. Most neighborhoods have large numbers of unemployed, both educated and half-educated. Bored and frustrated, they are always ready to fight with anyone willing to oblige them.

The young and the old, the male and the female, the noble and the wicked, the devils and the angels, all live together in half-lit, congested, and poor neighborhoods which offer little more than worries and diseases. The most common diseases are those of the stomach, caused by unclean water, adulterated food and malnutrition.

But even more common are intolerance and anger stemming from uncertainty and bad living conditions.

Children born here grow into frustrated adults. As they grow, their desires grow with them, but absence of a healthy outlet to fulfill these desires plays havoc with their bodies and minds. Most of them look to be born old. Even the teenagers wear a deadly serious look, far beyond their age.

Growing up in a city like this is not easy. When I was young, I often walked in the streets after midnight to calm my nerves. But this was before the present madness caught the city and turned some people into beasts.

In those days, we could walk in the streets at night and return home unharmed. We could hear our footsteps rather than the gunfire that echoes the streets now. The midnight knocks had not yet started and the bloodthirsty beasts had not yet begun to prowl our streets.

The echo of one’s own feet in a dark deserted street after midnight invokes fear in a peaceful city too. But I liked that echo. I liked listening to it. I enjoyed walking through densely populated neighborhood after most people had gone to bed, leaving the streets to mangy dogs and me.

The dogs were so wracked with fatigue and hunger that the feeble sound they made attempting to bark did not intimidate anyone. Not even someone as cowardly as I was.

I liked walking late because the night adds a mysterious romance even to ordinary sounds. I loved listening to the sound of a distant train or a bus brought to me in the silence of the night, sounds that drown in the commotion of the day.

I also liked listening to the tired, worn-out engines of distant trucks groaning under their heavy loads. It seemed as if they were protesting against being put to work so late at night. They sound very different from the well-oiled engines of newer vehicles. To me old trucks are like horse carts. And like the animals that drive these carts, they seem to have a soul of their own.

In fact, their drivers will be offended if I describe these trucks as mere machines. For them, they are living beings, each having a body and a soul. They dress them up with colorful lights, plastic flowers, colorful flags and religious signs and symbols.

When their vehicles are ill, the drivers tie amulets around their necks and also pray for their fast recovery. They do go to motor mechanics but only after saying their prayers.

Hearing these trucks at night also reminded me of journeys I had taken and places I had seen. Also of places I had not seen but hoped to see one day.

When I heard the constant noise a train makes while struggling against loose, rusty tracks, I would visualise the faces of tired passengers in a dirty old compartment, trying to sleep on rough wooden planks designed to break their ribs.

Even now, my imagination works faster when the streets are deserted and everybody within sight is sleeping. If I listen hard, I can hear their dreams tiptoeing around them in a hushed silence.

In those days, I had a sharper imagination. So when I went out at night I watched my steps and suppressed the desire to sing loudly to fight my fear of darkness. I also tried not to hit uprooted bricks lest I disturbed the silence.

As I turned into a narrow street, the silence spoke to me. The wind picked up the whisper of a newly married couple. The words were inaudible. The female voice was weaker than that of the male. The wind also mixed the rustling of curtains with the whisper.

Those were very poor neighborhoods where some houses did not have proper doors. Instead, people would hang a piece of cloth on the entrance to protect their privacy. But it seldom worked. When the wind blew, it exposed much.

I was in my late teens and so were most of my friends. No, our teenage time was not full of dreams – we could not afford to live in dreams. Realities of our lives were too crude to afford us this luxury.

It does not mean that we did not dream. We did. But our dreams grew out of our surroundings: narrow streets, open sewers, hellishly hot small houses and a sense of helplessness that was like a hand, holding us down, preventing us from coming out of our holes.

But sometimes we allowed our imagination to run wild, especially when dreaming about women. Our fantasies knew no limits. We fantasized about every woman we saw, whether in the bazaar or on the television screen.

Our local market was more like a traditional oriental bazaar, but we preferred to call it a market – perhaps to feel equal with the city’s posh areas which had Western-style supermarkets rather than bazaars.

Our bazaar also was a recreation center for the entire community. It started with two rows of stalls selling newspapers and flowers, which led to a chaotic market where butchers sold meat next to a garbage dump. The people who arranged burials sat next to those who decorated bridal rooms. The donkeys and camels stood shoulder to shoulder with trucks and van.

And it was here that one of my friends was shot dead by the police.

Even now when I go past that spot, I see him lying there, half dead, half alive. He looked like a big bird, looking at everybody but unable to speak. Blood was oozing out of his mouth mixed with water that people tried to make him drink.

In our culture it is considered bad to let someone die thirsty. So when people see someone dying, they try to make his transition from life to death as smooth as possible by offering him water.

Only minutes ago he was a young man, full of life and energy, but now limp and lifeless. He was shot by the police while participating in a demonstration against the government, another common practice in cities like ours.

When I lifted him, his eyes were still alive and still conveyed his desire to live. It seemed as if he was saying: “Please help me, please don’t let me die.” But we had already given up. We waited till he died, and then we started running around.

Someone went and fetched a doctor, who confirmed what we already knew: “The patient” had died. Patient he was, for he waited patiently for his death.

A group went to inform his parents. Another started throwing stones at the policemen who had withdrawn into another alley after shooting him. Some went to call the elders of the area to decide what to do next.

It was our first encounter with death.

80x80-Anwar-Iqbal


The author is a correspondent for Dawn, based in Washington, DC.

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