Are you from Pakistan?
I am not sure how he knew for we had not met nor spoken to each other.
I was just about the get up to leave Al-Awda mosque in Rafah, Gaza when a man sitting behind me introduced himself and asked if I was from Pakistan.
How did he know? Why did he think so? Nothing about my appearance that day – I in my conventional trekking pants and checkered shirt, suggested my background.
How did he know?
The way you said your namaaz, specifically the way I said the final salaams (face turned right, and then left) was different from the way they did it here in Gaza and he had only seen that method when he had lived in Pakistan some years earlier.
Here, the told me, you wait for the Imam to say both salaams (left and right) before the congregations follows.
In Pakistan, we do so at the same time as the Imam.
Yes, indeed, I am from Pakistan – a Kashmiri born in Pakistan in fact. He smiled, and vigorously shook my hand and said in near perfect Urdu ‘Ap say mill karr bahoot khushi hoey!’ – ‘It is a pleasure to meet you!’
I was taken aback! It was the last thing I had expected to hear – Urdu, Pakistan’s national language – spoken here in the heart of a Gaza refugee camp.
This was back in 2004. Since then I have met a number of people in Rafah who speak a little Urdu and love to practice it whenever they meet me.
Many Palestinians had been allowed to travel to Pakistan after the Olso accords. Policemen, doctors, physical therapists, accountants, engineers and others spend a few years in the country and learned a little of the language there. They had been welcomed there, appreciated the support that they saw in the country for their struggle, and obviously felt at home there.
At a local physical rehabilitation center there was even a small club of Urdu speakers to which I of course was immediately made a member.
And again, on this recent trip, I continue to receive warm welcomes from people when I tell them that I am originally a Kashmiri from Pakistan. There is a relaxing of attitude, a clear and obvious sense of camaraderie, a dissolving of some of the distance that exists between a foreign photographer and a Palestinian from Gaza. There is a look of recognition and gestures that suggest that they believe that I recognize something of me in them too. And their struggle and their predicaments here in Gaza.
That since I am a Kashmiri, another region struggling for its identity and liberty, and a Pakistani, a country that has argued for the rights of the Palestinians, and of a Muslim background, that I to some degree understand who they are and what they are.
I can’t say that I actually offer all this to the Palestinians. But I know that I love to speak Urdu in Gaza for the simple reason that it is the only place in the world where I can call myself just Pakistani – not Kashmiri/Pakistani/American/Swede etc. and not have it become a fact that taints you in the eyes of the other.
Perhaps the Palestinians like to speak it because it reminds them of a time of hope when the new possibilities offered by the Oslo Accords were to be prepared for in Pakistan. Today none of those possibilities exist as the accords have been betrayed.
But the language they heard as they dreamed their dreams in a far away land is perhaps the only reminder of that special time so long past and the excitement and joys that had accompanied it.
I love to speak Urdu in Gaza.