Messages
By Bina Shah
Karachi, Pakistan

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.


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Editor: Akhtar M. Faruqui
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