There was a bomb scare at Charles de Gaulle the day I arrived in Paris in early October 4. Although we had driven into the city from Belgium, we had to return the rented car at the airport and then take a taxi into the city. The queue was long. Thousands of passengers had to have their bags thoroughly checked by security before they were allowed to leave.
Later that afternoon, over my first French meal in a Paris café, our hostess – a Frenchwoman named Francoise – spoke of Sarkozy and Carla. They ranted, rather. The French, she said, couldn’t care less about them; they just wanted good governance. “He is ruining this country!” said Francoise in distaste, between sips of her sparkling water. I couldn’t help but feel quite at home here among the danger and disenchantment. Paris had bomb scares; Pakistan had suicide bombings. The French had Sarkozy; we had Zardari.
The next day, once again, I felt curiously at home amidst all the security at the Sacre Couer in Montmartre. Military Police in their khaki fatigues patrolled the site, guns at the ready. While I admired their black berets, it did strike me as faintly odd, their presence. But this wasn’t the only familiar novelty I had encountered in Paris.
After dinner in the Latin Quarter the night before, as we walked across one of the many bridges across the Seine connecting the Ile de la Cite to the Left Bank, I noticed the locks on the bridge. Hundreds of padlocks of all shapes and colours and sizes were fastened to the iron grille. I wondered what they were for… were they Paris’ version of the coins visitors toss into the Trevi Fountain with a prayer to return to Italy? I took a few pictures.
Back home in Karachi, sharing my photos with friends and family on facebook, my friend Farooq, a photographer, told me that he had seen the same at Abdullah Shah Ghazi’s shrine in Clifton. [The conversation with Farooq was taking place a few hours before the suicide bombing at the shrine on October 7.] But he didn’t know what they represented, and along with my cousin-aunt, Ishi, he and I marveled at the universality of human nature and behaviour. A few days later, while reading about Rome on the BBC News website, I found this:
The Ponte Milvio in the north of the city is one of the oldest bridges in Rome and recently became the scene for an unusual but typically Roman story. Taking their cue from the book I Want You by Federico Moccia, young couples came to the bridge to swear eternal love by fastening a padlock to a lamppost and throwing the key into the Tiber. When the lamppost collapsed under the accumulated weight of the padlocks, there were attempts to ban the practice. This brought on a political row in which Rome’s mayor was accused of “violating lovers’ rights”. As a compromise, steel posts were erected on the bridge and strung with chains which lovers can now use to attach their padlocks and declare their love without causing damage.
“Do these practices have anything to do with reality? Can love be secured like this?” asked Ishi Khala. Probably not, I told her. But it’s a comforting thought, no? And who wanted reality anyway when it entailed setting off bombs at the shrines of saints like Abdullah Shah Ghazi who represented peace and love. I would gladly take optimism and locks in the name of eternal love any day over barbarism and severed limbs in the name of religion.
Paris too was burning; I was told a week later by my friend Mitu, with protestors expressing anger over pension reforms by a recession-hit Sarkozy. I had no idea. More than 60 people had died in Karachi in the past week in a spate of ongoing violence described as “target killings” — involving two major ethnic groups in the city, the Pashto-speaking Pathans and the Urdu-speaking Mohajirs both migrants to the Karachi — but I would not have known this had it not been for TV channels and newspapers. Life can get pretty removed in a city of almost 20 million.
Paris was already a distant memory… until it was revived when I watched the first episode of the new season of Gossip Girl. Based on the bestselling book of the same name by Cecily von Ziegesar, the series follows the scandalous lives of Manhattan’s modern-day Richie Riches — and Ritas. Except that (most of) these designer-clad teens have hearts that are not gold but cold and calculating. Blair is one such, and Serena sometimes so. The two BFFs (best friends forever, for those not attuned to the acronyms of American teens) had just finished their glorious summer of luxuriating in Paris and I willingly immersed myself in some nostalgia — and escapism…
I have just discovered the wonderful world of American TV shows. Rediscovered, I should say, because there was a summer in London in the ‘90s when I closely followed Dynasty and Dallas. It’s I who has been out of touch. And, ironically enough, my newfound appetite for these shows is my attempt at staying out of touch with what’s going on around me. I don’t watch the news. I’ve stopped reading the papers. Except for the celebrity gossip, of course! So you can ask me anything about Saifeena or Brangelina. (As I write this, I catch some snatches of the 9 o’clock news which my father is watching on TV – eight people have been killed in Karachi today. And this is when things have quietened down.)
Back to escapism! I visited my BFF Muna’s parents on Sunday. Muna moved to Vietnam a month ago, and Baba and Akhtar Aunty complained that her friends too had disappeared.
As we sat on the deck in their garden, enjoying the gentle, cool sea breeze, the mint flavoured green tea (in the little yellow pot with the steel lid), eating thick slices of Muna’s favourite pound cake from Pie in the Sky and exchanging our visa woes — how difficult it was to get visas to visit the US or the UK or Schengen states — I couldn’t help but remark how guilty I felt that while Pakistan was falling to pieces we sat there… eating pound cake!
Is this like the last great party before it all comes crumbling down, I wondered? Would we go down eating pound cake and watching trashy American television? I could picture the Pakistani Taliban jeering at us: “Let them eat cake!”
Akhtar Aunty proffered that it helped us retain some sanity in our lives.
But even sanity feels like a luxury we aren’t entitled to.
Sahar Ali is a writer based in Karachi and manages the Pakistan operations of Panos South Asia, a regional NGO.