March 5, 2011

This is an unfamiliar time to me, unfamiliar situation, and certainly not one I am comfortable with.

Up until my mid-teen years, I had absolutely no recognition of Sunni, Shia, Bohri, Aga Khani, Ahmedi — much less of Ahle-Hadith, Ahle-Sunnat, Barelvi, Deobandi, Wahhabi and the like. Of other faiths, I knew there was a difference, that awareness there because on December 25 for example, the day was spent making Christmas visits and, in the process, gobbling delicious Christmas candy, marvelling at the Christmas trees and decorations on mantles inside homes because all this didn’t happen in our home. Or on Easter every year, without fail, our Easter Eggs were delivered to us, which we would instantly break to devour the many sweets inside. So we grew up without knowing — and feeling the need to know — to which ‘sect’ or faith another belonged to. We moved around in those circles, went on picnics and trips together, and stayed at each other’s homes.

And this was here, in Pakistan.

In Hong Kong, my circle of friends was far more diverse than our circle of family friends back home. We were Muslims, Hindus, Christians, agnostics, atheists. But did our being from different religions/set of beliefs bar us from frequenting and eating in each other’s homes? No. In fact the best idli and dosas I had were the one’s my friend’s mother made; they had moved to Hong Kong from Bangalore. And we learnt about our lived religions by spending time at each other’s homes and interacting with each other’s families. That is where I learnt and was explained why the kitchen was never entered with one’s shoes on. And how one was both South Indian and Tamil — one due to the area one hailed from and the other because of ethnicity.

Faith did not interfere in our social interaction. They only time it did come up was when we went out for meals together — many of us were practicing Muslims, Hindus and Christians — so that everyone’s eating preference was regarded. Mine for halal food, my friend’s for vegetarian options. If a food item contained alcohol, or conversely egg, special mention would be made of it. Why I am dwelling on food so much is because surprisingly, it is the one thing that till today is not comfortably shared between people.

I attended a school that was part of the ESF (English Schools Foundation) chain, and so apart from celebrating Christmas and Easter, we also celebrated Chinese New Year, Mardi Gras, Diwali, and special regard was shown to us during Ramadan. Apart from a public announcement to show respect to fasting students, our Religious Education teacher (who was an Irish Catholic) gave us his room as a space for us to offer our prayers in, and to spend lunch breaks if we wanted to keep away from the sight of food.

Back again in Pakistan, at age 15, it was a time of awakening to the world around me. This is really when some sort of recognition started filtering through about the different ‘sects’ that existed and their different practices. A lot of it I suppose came also from mine and my now-husband-and-then-friend’s relationship as well. An acute awareness of the difference between social interaction and ‘inter-sect’ marriage in particular, in the end only to discover that things are only as complicated as you want to make them and they don’t really have to be. And that it is our endless hypothesising of situations, “how a thing ‘might’ be” that creates the barriers. Once something ‘is,’ it sorts itself out.

When the attacks at the Ahmedi mosques in Lahore took place, my first response was to call up and find out if our friends and their families were okay. Friends, whose second generations grew up together. Who are an extended family to each other. And whose existence of as part of the Ahmedi community had never crossed my mind before until this incident.

Was it a child’s naive vision, unable to see the ‘reality’ of this world? No, I don’t think so, because nothing has changed between then and now, about the way I look back or still feel about all the people who have been a part of my life — my family friends and friends, who are as dear and near to me now as they were before. The only difference is that now I’m more of aware of the ‘differences’ — or rather the social constructs — but more in an academic way than any other. But I am alarmed at how differently others perceive the same situation and people; this is something that had never occurred to me before and have only realised with the growing extremism and intolerance.

*This was originally published as a Facebook note by the author

Farieha Aziz is a Karachi-based journalist and teacher. She joined Newsline in 2007, rising to assistant editor. Farieha was awarded the APNS award for Best Investigative Report (Business/Economic) for the year 2007-2008. She is a co-founder and Director at Bolo Bhi, an advocacy forum of Digital Rights.