Thursday, January 22, 2009

Maryland Suburbs for Change: Our Inaugural Adventure

January 20, 2009
Inauguration Day

6:00: Gloves, hats, six layers of clothing: check. Route maps: Check. Books to read in line: Check.

Shayan(sister-in-law), Taimoor(husband) and I set out to the capitol via Glenmont Metro, which is a tiny walk from our home.

6:20: I can't believe we're already in the train and on our way! This mob is totally manageable.

7:10: We're here! As we try to make our way through the crowds, the sea of heads on the escalators is daunting. But save a few over-enthusiastic souls, there is no pushing, no impatience.

As we slowly, gradually make our way out and begin our walk toward the grounds of the Mall, we all look like something out of the Thriller video. A huge mob of zombies sauntering in one direction...only that these are very, very happy zombies. Every now and then one of them lets out a random cheer and shrieks 'OBAMA' which, today, is totally normal.

8:10: Still walking to the Mall. After being turned away from the street reserved for ticket holders, we now walk further from the capitol, wistfully.

8:30: We get hot dogs for breakfast and realize we have no more cash. The well-prepared Qureshis. There is no ATM in far, far sight. What do employees in federal buildings do for cash, and lunch?

We find a spot near a screen. Yay. But as we stand craning our necks to get a view, the nagging sensation of frost that we had successfully ignored up until now hits us fully: it is very, very, very cold.

09:30: Taimoor's gone to find an ATM and Shayan and I just can't take the cold anymore. We can't feel our toes anymore, and there is a searing sensation in our legs...a sign of fast-approaching hypothermia we suspect. We untangle ourselves and our coats from the thorny bushes we climbed to sit on a wall, and rush toward the Smithsonian, which, though open, is sporting the longest line you will ever see outside a museum door.

Discouraged by the line, we find Taimoor and spot a makeshift shopping mall and food court of some sort. We get in line, and amazingly, they let us in in only half an hour!

10:30: The inauguration is starting, and we -- after gulping down some warm food, letting our thighs and feet thaw, and looking in vain through the souvenir shops in this strange faux-mall for an extra pair of socks and sweatpants -- rush out to our spot on the Mall. But the nearest screen we can find this time, alas, has a giant tree blocking its view (nice positioning, screen guys) and squeezing into the crowds doesn't make it go away.

Near us, people are furiously pulling on cigarettes to stay warm, and many people huddle under blankets with pictures of Disney characters --and ALF-- on them. A father kneels down on the ground vigorously massaging his young, weeping son's numb toes. Bringing children here may not have been the best idea...

11:30: Taimoor leaves us again to go find some cash to buy some smokes, and Shayan and I make the biggest mistake of the morning. We leave our spot to find a better view that isn't blocked by the giant tree, thinking we won't go too far.

But as we get stuck in an increasingly loud mob of people trying to get a better view, I try to call Taimoor to tell him where we are. AT&T, however, has decided to take this day off. I try repeatedly in vain, squeeze out of our spot and try to find him, and can't. Meanwhile, Obama makes his entrance on the screen and the cheers of the crowd are deafening. I'm too distracted to notice. I do however manage to get a glimpse of Chaney in a wheelchair looking like he's had a stroke (he didn't) and quickly give myself a mental high-five.

Twenty minutes later, as Obama takes oath, I finally connect with my husband on the phone. As we accuse each other of disappearing at the wrong time, the new president takes office in the background, and we both realize that thanks to AT&T, we have missed the moment we came here to witness and cheer for together.

12:30: The inauguration is over, and we are ready to make our way back. Our moods have lightened as we witness Bush's helicopter leaving the capitol airspace, and smile in heavy relief. He's really gone. Another big green helicopter makes its way, carrying the Obamas. It's a happy moment.

As we look at the human ocean before us, we brace ourselves for a long, long journey back home.

2:30 pm: For the last two hours, we have been standing in a bar for about two hours, waiting for a stool to rest our frozen butts on. Every time one gets empty a more enterprising woman grabs it (Shayan and I are quite useless when it comes to being enterprising).

The bar is in some unknown Mexican restaurant in southwest D.C. that is right now the hottest place this side of town (solely because it's on the way of thousands of very, very hungry, thirsty and tired people walking to the Metro or their homes) -- like us. On the list of tables, as Taimoor finds out later, we are on the third page. We give up and decide to leave.

All the metros we pass on our way are either closed or bogged down with ridiculously long lines starting at the street corner. And a highly discouraging, disorganized mob in the case of Union Station. As we plop down on the dirty steps of one of the buildings by the Union Station, cold, exhausted and staring hopelessly into the lines outside the nearby Irish restaurant, we debate on what's worse: the cab fare to Glenmont at this hour, or Taimoor's brother's told-you-so's when we call and beg him to pick us up. We decide against both, and start to walk up to New York Avenue, the next Metro Station...about a dozen blocks away.

4:00 pm:
McDonalds, thou art a lifesaver. Fast food, restroom, and no lines. We can't believe our bleary eyes. Half-dead and frozen, we cling on to McDonald's crispy fries for life. We don't want to leave. We don't want to leave McDonalds...

5:00 pm: We have left McDonalds and are now walking toward New York Ave station, in dread of the line that will await us.

Wait a minute, there is no one here. Save a few souls, there is nobody. Where did the mobs go? It's only five thirty...but we don't care! We're FINALLY GOING HOME!!!

Twelve hours later, the walk home:

M: So, how was it?
T: I think it was pretty good.
M: Yep, totally worth it.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Who Killed Swat?

Tazeen posted a picture of a banner prohibiting women from entry into a cloth market in Swat, the breathtaking valley that once used to be a bustling tourist spot with an economy that thrived on nature lovers, honeymooners and export of its vast mineral resources.

I went to Swat when I was ten, with family, and have pictures to prove what a happy little piece of heaven it used to be. I remember seeing a huge, elegant boarding school building in the city of Maingora, and imagining myself to be very happily enrolled there as one of Enid Blyton's St.Clare's School series characters. We stayed in a beautiful, surprisingly economical hotel made entirely of white marble, called the 'White Palace', which famously served as a state guesthouse in the fifties. White Palace had huge bathrooms that were the size of someone's living room, where everything was pristine sang-e-marmar. It was better than staying at the Ritz (I have no point of reference, but I think it was). I wonder what has become of the White Palace now.

There were a lot of the usual angry/perplexed/self-righteous/frustrated/mildly bemused comments posted at Tazeen's blog about Swat's sad state of affairs, and a heated discussion on who is responsible for its plight. The Pakistan army, the godawful ISI, the Taliban, the Mullah who ran the illegal radio channel to propagate Taliban, perhaps the Swatis themselves with their suicidal acceptance of Taliban into their homes and lives?

The truth is, as we sit comfortably in our bedrooms and living rooms in urban Pakistan and elsewhere in the world and learn our facts through mostly opinion-journalism, we can only do so much. Perhaps assign the blame to the party that has done the least to impress us of late, and move on to more urgent matters at hand.

Here are my two cents of speculation. (Cue: #62 by It's Not Easy Being Green)

May be, just may be, someday I can go to Swat again, and get a drink from the ice-cold Darya-e-Swat, steal some of those exotic, sparkling stones from its springs, and walk again into the pristine white rooms of the White Palace, where a view from the window is just pure, unadulterated beauty -- beauty that has no religion, and that is perhaps still unmarred by the blood of an inexplicable war.

Photographs courtesy: 1,2