By Bina Shah
I am sitting at my desk, checking my e-mail. It
is eight fifty-eight am. A normal day, the planning
of routine tasks and special events for the day.
I decide to go visit my old high school and call
the secretary there to set up a time when I can
go see the Administrative Secretary, who has been
asking me for months now to come visit the school
so I can talk to the kids about what it is like
to be a writer.
Suddenly, a huge explosion, and my windows rattle.
They vibrate in and out, as if they will shatter
inwards. In a few seconds, the windows stop moving,
but I've already jumped up from my chair. I know
what this is, because it is not the first time I
have heard it: a bomb, and a strong one, judging
from the way the windows shake.
I run downstairs and shout for my father, who is
on his prayer mat. As soon as he has performed his
salaam, I say, did you hear that? He nods solemnly.
A bomb, I say. He nods in agreement. Which direction?
Over there, I gesture with my hand, indicating the
downtown where the hotels are.
Again. The first time I heard this noise was in
the spring of 2001, when a suicide bomber drove
a car right into a wall of the US Consulate and
killed God knows how many people. The impact was
so loud that day that my entire house shook and
I fell off the chair I was sitting on. They found
the limbs of dead people hanging from the trees
in Frere Hall. The second time this happened was
hardly a few months later, in the summer. A suicide
bomber again drove a car into a bus full of French
engineers and blew them to bits.
It is just that sound that haunts me, much more
than the images that you see on television afterwards,
the burning cars, the screaming sirens, the people
running up and down in fright and fury. It is the
sound that replays itself again and again in my
dreams, the sudden rattle, the windows moving as
if they were made of cloth, not glass. The earthquake
in Gujrat was not even as terrifying as this sound,
because it is imprinted in my memory, and each time
I hear it again, I know it won't be the last time.
I reach for my cell phone and text all of my friends
with a simple message: I think I just heard a bomb.
Please be careful. I feel foolish sending this SMS,
when I don't exactly know what it is I am warning
them about. But on the other hand, I do know; in
the depths of my bones I know exactly what it is.
Not for nothing do I have the ear of a musician,
and this violent music is not the kind to be mistaken
for anything else.
Within moments, the news is on the television: two
bombs in the parking lot of the Marriott Hotel,
right next to the US Consulate. Five injured, two
dead. The numbers will climb. They always do. There
are no words to capture the sense of frustration
and fear that we all feel, a day away from George
Bush's visit to Islamabad. A message, we think,
being sent from those who would want him to turn
around and go back before he even sets foot here.
We watch the news, my mother, father, and brother,
eating a breakfast we can't taste and drinking hot
tea that we don't feel. The only senses that seem
to be working right now are our eyes and ears, as
we strain to take in more and more information.
The news is being endlessly cycled again and again,
but augmenting with each repetition: a strong explosion…two
strong explosions … it was in a bag …
it was in a car … five injured … two
dead, five injured … Each correction is more
annoying than the last.
The text messages are coming in now from friends
warning each other about the time, location, and
intensity of the bombs. It is a tenuous web but
it is the only way we know to express our concern
for one another. Two bombs at Marriott, reads one.
Another tells me that schools are being shut down
and children sent home because more bombs are expected.
A third, from a friend who is a diplomat, tells
me that a countryman is injured and he is at Jinnah
Hospital. A fourth says that there are 2500 security
personnel at the Marriott in Islamabad. But the
message they all carry is the same: Please be careful.
And yet, what ridiculous advice this is. Because
how are you supposed to be careful in a time and
place where anything could happen? How do you know
when you decide to visit the hotel because of that
clothes exhibition, or attend that Rotary lecture,
that this won't be the day that a group of desperate
people decide to send a message to a world leader
and you are going to end up being the messenger,
the message carved onto your bleeding, battered
body, while your loved ones call your cell phone
and go into hysteria when you don't pick up? How
do you know that the car parked next to you is not
the one with the explosives packed into it? How
do you stop yourself from feeling that every day
you go out is a game of Russian roulette?
I can see the smoke from my house. It blackens the
air, it blackens our faces, and it blackens our
souls. And I don't get a call back from the secretary
at my old school – the Karachi American School.
Somehow, I suspect they have got bigger things to
worry about right now. It is a feeling that affects
the rest of us all day, and in our moments of insecurity,
we reach for our cell phones, and text the people
we love with that single, inadequate message:
Please be careful.