I was in Philadelphia this weekend, visiting with my friends Sinan and Amy. Sinan was my ‘handler’ at Al Quds University this past summer and the time before; he handles the logistics there that I can’t. Amy is a nice Midwestern gal from Texas (go figure). They met a few years ago in Bethlehem, Sinan’s home town, recently emigrated to Philadelphia, got an apartment, got married, and settled in. They cooked me (well, really Sinan cooked us) a sumptuous dinner of maqluba followed by Palestinian coffee and pastries. We had dessert on a couch in front of a window that looks west and frames West Philadelphia. The window lets out onto a big ledge with just enough room for the two of them to sip wine and watch the sunset.
I was there on Saturday night, the day before Easter, so they asked me about my Easter plans. Boringly enough, I didn’t really have any. Meanwhile, they were going to go Easter services at the Baptist Church across the street. Sinan is Muslim, and Amy is Lutheran, but the point of going was less religious than neighborly: the point, as Amy put it, was that their neighborhood was one big family, and the Baptist Church was its “home.”
I don’t really know why I thought of that as I surveyed this morning’s news of the attack on Gulshan e Iqbal Park in Lahore. The only common thread is Easter—and in this case, it’s hard to think of flimsier fabric by which to forge a connection between the two places.
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — A suicide bomber set off a powerful blast close to a children’s swing set in a public park on Sunday evening in the eastern city of Lahore, killing at least 69 people and wounding around 300, rescue workers and officials said.
The blast occurred in a parking lot at Gulshan-e-Iqbal Park, one of the largest parks in Lahore, said Haider Ashraf, a senior police official in the city. The bomb was detonated within several feet of the swings in a park crowded with families on Easter.
Jamaat-e-Ahrar, a splinter faction of the Pakistani Taliban, claimed responsibility for the blast. Its spokesman, Ehsanullah Ehsan, said in a statement that Christians were the target. …
The bombing came as large protests were held in other parts of the country to protest the execution in February of the man who murdered a secular politician five years ago. While public opinion has largely been galvanized by attacks on civilians by jihadists, particularly the killing of 150 people at a school in Peshawar in 2014, the protests are a sign that widespread sympathy remains for extremist groups in Pakistan.
The Jamaat-e-Ahrar spokesman, Mr. Ehsan, said the bombing “was also to give a message to government that it cannot deter us even in their stronghold, Lahore.” Lahore, the capital of Punjab Province, is the hometown of Pakistan’s prime minister, Nawaz Sharif; his younger brother, Shahbaz Sharif, is the chief minister of the province.
Elsewhere Ehsanullah Ehsan is quoted as saying “we have entered Lahore.” (Yes, I’m name dropping, but the government health adviser quoted in the preceding article, Salman Rafique, is another cousin of mine. My last post here expressed a whining complaint about my job, but right now, I’m glad I don’t have his.)
Obviously, I don’t live in Lahore, but if there is any one neighborhood I can claim as my own in that city, it’s Iqbal Town, and if there is any one place in Iqbal Town I can claim as my own, if only in the most attenuated way, it’s Gulshan e Iqbal. When I go to Pakistan ( I mean, on the few occasions when I have), I stay at my cousins’ place a block away from the park, and as often as I can, spend moments of repose in the park itself. My late uncle Kibriya, their father, used to take a daily constitutional there every morning after the morning prayer, and in his retirement spent the later part of the morning on a bench conversing with friends who had the same routine.
I hate to put it this way, but frankly, I’m glad he’s not around to see this. Of course, he was around the last time terrorists struck the neighborhood, that is, during the Moon Market attack of 2009, which doesn’t seem as long ago as it once did. I never asked him about it. Moon Market is where the family shopped each day for groceries. By chance, none of “us” were there when the bomb struck, and in some ways, that was all that needed to be said about it. I know it’s an exaggeration, but I can’t help thinking of all this, mordantly, in the terms of a GEICO commercial. If you live in Pakistan, you either get blown up or you narrowly escape doing so. It’s what you do.
The last time I was there, I had a semi-apocalyptic conversation with one of my cousins, on a park bench in Gulshan e Iqbal (no less)–about terrorism (no less). What I now find eerie about the conversation is that what he said not only prefigured the attack, but prefigured the Jamaat-e-Ahrar spokesman’s description of the attack. “They’re here,” he said. “They’re in this city. They’re in every city. They’re everywhere.” There wasn’t much need to clarify the referent of the pronoun. “And they could blow anyone up anywhere, anytime. Look at these people,” he said, pointing to the throngs in the park itself. It was a mild day. I somehow remember that the grass was dead and the gardens pathetically unkempt, but the park was full of people. “Any of them, all of them could be targets, right here in this park. One guy with a vest is all it would take. They’re everywhere.”
I nodded sagely in agreement, but didn’t really believe him. Why would the Taliban attack some random park in the middle of Lahore? Then again, why not? I guess terrorists go where the people are. (It’s what they do.) But the fact is, my cousin sounded a little unhinged. Maybe the pressure was getting to him? Nothing that a little chai, halva puri, and channa couldn’t cure….
And then, almost to himself, he whispered, “We’re all terrorists. Inside, we’re terrorists. We invited them in, into our city, into our souls. We thought we could reach an accommodation with them. We thought our religion would give us immunity from their hatred. But it didn’t. Now they’re here and they mean to kill us all.” At this point, I wanted to interrupt, if only to tell him to please calm down and stop saying completely crazy-ass shit. But I didn’t. Eventually, he just fell silent on his own. It was time for dinner and time for the evening prayer, so we went home.
The truth is, prescient as he was, my cousin’s comments don’t make any literal sense. But they did make a kind of metaphorical sense. We’re accustomed to seeing those around us, in some sense, as fellow citizens or civic friends, or if that’s too pious or theoretical, at least with the sense of trust or benefit of a doubt we ordinarily accord to strangers, if only to get through the day. But what happens when the basis for that trust frays to the breaking point? In that case, every benefit of a doubt one accords one’s fellow citizens feels like a game of Russian roulette.
I know that my cousin meant more than that, but he meant at least that: Once upon a time, he seemed to be saying, it seemed that war with the Taliban could be avoided by means of a negotiated settlement with them. They had to be reasonable people–like all people–with reasonable grievances that were somehow reasonably satisfiable, at least in principle. The hopes for such a settlement were the expression of a kind of pious civic idealism for which we typically praise rather than blame one another. But then those hopes failed. And failed again. And again. And again. As they did, hope itself seemed to become a kind of suicidal impulse, a gun pointed at one’s head. To avoid war against “fellow Muslims,” my cousin had imagined that these “fellow Muslims” were not as dangerous as they turned out to be. Eventually, it became clear that they were more dangerous than anyone could have imagined that they’d be. But by then, they were “here.” And notwithstanding the tough talk about “special operations” and so on, it was too late to do much of anything about it.
In saying all this, I don’t mean to be articulating an approach to policy, or making an ideological claim of any sort. I mean only to be expressing a kind of amazement and awe at the diversity of human experience, even within the narrow ambit of my own social circle. A Palestinian-American couple escapes the Israeli occupation to make a home for themselves in West Philadelphia. Their immediate impulse is to declare their surroundings a “neighborhood,” to declare their neighbors “family,” and to embrace that family in an ecumenical (or least intendedly ecumenical) Easter celebration. On the other side of the world, the same impulse marks one out for a violent death, so that the survivors, like my cousin, gradually come to believe that civic friendship is a luxury they can ill-afford. What is one to say or think when civic friendship becomes a vice that marks its practitioners out for the Darwin Competition?
There is something odd about being the clinically detached observer of these two ways of looking at the world, and of the two contexts in which they’re expressed—between open-hearted idealism and fortress-like fear, between a new life in the New World, and the unremitting carnage of the post-colonial predicament in the “Islamic World.” I want to say that there is a virtue that governs this domain and bridges both contexts—a virtue of hope consistent with the imperatives of vigilance, an attitude toward the human prospect that remains what it is whether one is watching the sunset in West Philadelphia or surveying the wreckage in Iqbal Town. I’m sure there is one, but if there is, it’s one of those “nameless virtues” that goes unnoticed for its lack of a name. It could use both–a name, and some notice.