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  • seemichoudry

"Natural Disaster"

Updated: Jan 30, 2023

Back then, there was no way to know what was happening abroad without television. We did our best to get a hold of our family in Pakistan to confirm that they were safe but, otherwise, all we knew was what was broadcasted on CNN. I was in my junior year of high school at the time. We were all sitting in the family room after dinner watching the devastation caused by the earthquake in Azad Kashmir, otherwise known as “free” Kashmir. No one was spared, no one was free.

The magnitude of the earthquake swept across towns and villages that were already hanging on by a thread. 7.6 on the Richter scale. As the camera panned across mothers and children, I thought to myself, “that could have been us.” Even though my parents did not live in Azad Kashmir before leaving Pakistan and we no longer had any living family in Kashmir, those kids looked just like me. “How did I make it here, in this cozy family room, and they were left behind to suffer?” My self-questioning persisted. Watching the coverage was unbearable.

I imagine the little girl getting dressed for school that morning, in the same way I got dressed. She brushed her hair, cleaned her teeth, put on her dupatta, and ate her breakfast. I brushed my hair, cleaned my teeth, put on my hijab and ate breakfast. She probably walked to school as the remote areas of Pakistan have few paved roads and most children walked to their destinations. I, on the other hand, got in the car with my father and we rode together to the local train station. “Khudafiz,” the word we say when we part ways–directly translating to “May God be your Guardian.” He would head east, toward downtown Chicago and I would head west toward the suburban outskirts. Once I arrived at the final train stop, a school bus awaited us. Eventually, we would arrive at school with some time to spare before our first class started.

Nothing was unusual about my day. I would make it home before dinner time. The little girl, however, was in class when the unfinished floors beneath her feet erupted and swallowed her along with all her classmates with no time to spare or call for help. She would not come home that day. Now, I sat with my parents watching b-roll of a post-apocalyptic Pakistan.

“Rising death tolls sweep across the northern region of Pakistan, leaving towns unrecognizable,” the newscaster reported while struggling to pronounce Muzaffarabad–the capital of Azad Kashmir and the city that was most affected by this natural disaster. But, nothing about this was natural. In fact, it was disastrous. Nature and disaster do not go hand in hand. Villages built on fault lines, swaths of people disappearing overnight, that simply does not seem like the way nature was designed. Such inhumanity is the opposite of natural.

The questions continued to stream through my head: “how will they find all the children under the ruble?” I wonder. “How long can someone survive under dilapidated buildings and debris? Will they honor the lives that were swept away from us in the blink of an eye? When they brush the streets, will they brush away cadavers and bones along with the daily garbage?” It is unfair. An occupied land that fought so hard for their freedom and, now, that same freedom sat at the head of invisible tombstones.

Seven years later, my father took me to Muzaffarabad. With his fluency in Urdu and Punjabi, and, most of all, his passion to serve his country, he was heading up the Neelum-Jhelum Hydropower Plant. The Hydropower Plant was designed to divert water from Neelum River to a power station on Jhelum River–providing electricity to Muzaffarabad and its surrounding area.

Driving north reminded me of my childhood trips to Murree. For hours, we would drive in the company 4X4 up hilly peaks and “kacha sarkau”–raw streets. That’s exactly what they were, raw. Roads became gravel by traffic flow breaking apart the rocks and making a path to continue on to the “Switzerland of the Subcontinent” as it was dubbed. That European countries are the north star of beauty and development is simply absurd–why can’t the majesty of one region exist independently of colonial powers? Even now, their beauty continues to be colonized.

Colorful trucks pass by along the drive. With elaborate art, a big eye to ward off evil spirits and Arabic painted all over them sparing no inch. This is a distinct art, it holds its own category in Pakistan: truck art. As the temperature decreases, I drape a shawl over my shoulders and drift. I dream of our family reunions at the vacation home in Murree. With two bathrooms and three bedrooms, there was hardly enough room for all twenty-four of us, but the space never felt tight. My mother would teach me how to conserve water when washing the dishes. The water man would only fill our tank once a week so we had to be resourceful. With a thin trickle of water, we would soap the dishes and rinse them off one by one. We had so little but our bellies and hearts were full.

On the route, various street vendors would sell seasonal fruits. We pulled over and bought two bags full of plums. Before getting home, our clothes would be stained and fingers sticky as impatience got the best of us. Plum juice drips too quickly to clean up, aloo bkharh that are so sweet and soft it is nearly impossible to only eat one. Usually, burnt corn on the cob is not something most people find appetizing. However, in Pakistan, especially when it’s cold, that’s what I crave. When I find the man with the two-wheeled cart, he digs through the sand to find the perfect challi which he then garnishes with salt and red pepper.

Those summers, there was no technology. All we had were cassettes, UNO cards and monopoly. Sometimes, when we would go into town and ride horses along the mountainside. When Khala Ji, my great aunt, visited, she took us to Murree Road where we would order halva puri with chana. Fine semolina is cooked with ghee and topped off with shaved almonds to add an extra crunch making the halva. Chickpeas are prepared in a saute of onions, ginger, garlic, turmeric and tomatoes making a chana curry. The sweet and savory breakfast is packed with flavor using puri, a special fried bread, to wipe off our plates.

Long ago, Khali Ji lost one of her hands. No one knows the story or how it really happened and, since it took place long ago, she never talked about it. In spite of having only one hand, Khala Ji was far more efficient than any of us–even the youngest in our family. Khala Ji preferred life in the village to life in the big city. She never had a family of her own, defying all societal norms of her time. In fact, the legend was that she was such a rebel that she threatened to cut off her own hand when she was married off to a man she did not want to be with. We still don’t know if that, indeed, is the real story.

Khala Ji was a Renaissance Woman. Larger than life, as a single woman in her eighties, she ran the village she lived in. When she got sick, she didn’t tell anyone because her determination was bigger than the illness. Unfortunately, her health continued to deteriorate so family members had to call the local ambulance. Her breathing was shallow and she was connected to an oxygen tank but she still had enough consciousness to know the ambulance driver was not going the right way. With little energy, she directed the driver to the hospital.

In Muslim tradition, we believe the Angel of Death appears moments before you breathe your last breath. It is recommended to recite the testimony of faith, or the “shahada”, before passing away as it will lead you straight to heaven in the afterlife. As the Angel of Death arrived at Khala Ji’s bedside at the hospital she whispered, in Punjabi, “You’re here,” faintly. Then, she recited the shahada and took her last breath. A woman so strong, she wasn’t scared of death. In fact, she was prepared for it.

I’ve never been to Switzerland so I had no point of reference when we arrived in Muzaffarabad. The peaks and valleys did remind me of a scene from a movie, perhaps Lord of the Rings. The mountains looked emerald green against the backdrop of the bright blue sky. With no clouds, I could hardly imagine what the area looked like amidst a natural disaster. Where did my fellow countrymen retreat to while the ground beneath them was rumbling?

We put on our hardhats and followed my father underground. In great detail, he explained the structure and mechanics of the Hydropower Plant. Without an engineering background, I was having difficulty understanding the technical jargon even though I knew my father was oversimplifying things. My sister, on the other hand, a trained architect, wasn't having a hard time following along.

As we walked through the worksite, I noticed signs in Mandarin. I inquired about the signs. My father explained that China is one of the biggest investors so they’ve contracted their own labor to work on the project. As I paid closer attention, I noticed the foreign men. I observed their disregard for the project. This is what it looks like when the “mano de obra” is estranged from the “obra”. Ultimately, these Chinese men have no personal stake in the powerplant–this is just another project. Once they’ve completed their work, they’ll go back home, a place far from Muzaffarabad.

Now, seventeen years later, the “pure” country is struck again with another “natural disaster”. This time it is flooding. When a British man was commissioned to draw an arbitrary line through India, he had no background in the topography of the land. Pakistan, the land of the “pure”, created to give Muslims their own country, likely falls on a fault line, putting the land and its people at a severe disadvantage. “How is it that neighboring India isn’t as affected by this devastation?” I wonder. Just like Mexico, when the United States government wanted to criminalize immigration, how quickly they forgot that Mexicans didn’t cross the border, the border crossed them.

Now, Pakistan has to pay the price. With over thirty million affected by the floods, the ramifications are even more damaging than the 2005 earthquake. It seems that Jason Hickel, economic anthropologist and author, is the only one who gets that this is a climate crisis. With increased coverage of the flooding, he tweeted:

“The people of Pakistan need urgent international assistance, and it should come in the form not of aid, or charity, but reparations for climate damages, shouldered by the elites and corporations that control and profit from fossil capital.”

When looking at an emissions map, it is clear to any untrained eye that so-called “developed countries” are the ones responsible for excess emissions. Meanwhile, “underdeveloped countries,” like Pakistan, are most impacted by this overuse of emissions. Hickel astutely points out in a subsequent tweet, “Climate breakdown is playing out along colonial lines.”

Is this a coincidence? No way. The Native American Iroquois law states that “in our every deliberation, we must consider the impact of our decisions on the next seven generations.” When did we stop considering the next seven generations? In the generation of my grandparents, there was no excess. In the generation that followed, that tradition persisted. My mother was one of eleven siblings and they were conservationists instinctually. Everyone had exactly what they needed, just the right amount. Instant gratification killed this tradition–it ended with my generation.

When the items we bought started with the letter “i”, we entered into a time of extreme self-conservation based on capitalist definitions of what we needed to sustain ourselves. So, we over indulged. We were convinced that we needed an iPod to listen to music and an iPad to take our notes. Then, an iPhone to make our calls with a smartphone. In the process, we lost our intelligence but gained more material items. Consumption only increased and continues on that same trajectory.

So, I sit and ponder, “What is natural about a natural disaster?” As I watch footage of what looks like an endless sea of quicksand swallowing buildings, homes, supermarkets and schools, I question, “is mother nature turning on us?” Has a war been inadvertently waged on nature or has nature waged a war on us?

That little girl who was getting ready to sit in a classroom without chairs on the day of the earthquake was not thinking about war. Every morning, she would triumphantly prepare herself for an education which would pave the path for her to become a doctor one day. When she would become a doctor, her mother would no longer suffer from unexplainable stomach pains because she would know what the cure for such pain is. Her family would be free from harm because she could heal them. Eventually, she would save enough money for them to move to a house made of concrete instead of the fragile home they lived in. That day never came because of a disaster and no one knows who the real perpetrator is.

There is nothing natural about a disaster. Disaster is bred by tending to lower desires, the stuff that makes up the seven deadly sins. Pride, greed, lust, and gluttony start to direct our judgment. We no longer talk to plants, we stop taking long walks in the woods, and we certainly don’t stop to consider the next seven generations. It’s not about the future, it’s about the now. Humanity flocks, creating chaos, only seeking that which will relieve the current itch. What itches today may not itch us tomorrow. Tomorrow is a new day which comes with new desires. No, this disaster is not natural. Nature is harmonious. In fact, the more we leave it alone, the more it will take care of itself. The more we tamper with it, the more contaminated it becomes.

The little school girl had the same face as me, the same “aristocratic” nose, as my mother would call it, and she had the same gentle smile. The only difference between us is that I’m the witness and she’s the victim. All I have are the words to tell her-story.

My visit to Muzaffarabad in March 2019.

One third of Pakistan under water. (source: Al Jazeera)

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