Shaukat and Yasmeen Ali

The Tent of Shaukat and Yasmeen Ali

Muzaffarabad, Azad Kashmir
December 10, 2005

There are two kinds of tent families: Those that are in the tent camps and those that are not. Here in Muzaffarabad, Azad Kashmir, there is a big difference between the two.

In the tent camps there is plenty of clean water somewhere nearby, dispensed out of the faucet nozzles of huge blue plastic barrels. Some of the camps offer meals that are sometimes even delivered to the individual tents at mealtime. There is always some kind of halfway-organized latrine facility. They are not pretty sites but at least the waste is concentrated in one place. For most camps, there are ad-hoc schools for the children that are operated by volunteers. And, there is relative safety. The villages are committee-organized and there is someone in charge to keep things in order, usually a government official. The tent villages are truly villages, each with a mechanical infrastructure, a set way of doing things; rules and regulations, social mores and certain expectations for each other’s behavior.

Then there are the single tents, the ones that are just “out there,” plopped down in the yard of an abandoned home or on the shore of the river or wherever there is a flat space that will hold a tent and where no one will object. Here, in this neighborhood where I stay west of the river Nellum, there are a lot of them. The yards around these abandoned or damaged-but-still-occupied homes often have single tents staked there, and many times, clusters of them that house extended family groupings.

The people in these tents have no delivered food; no “official” water. And the sanitation…well, use your imagination and you’ll probably get it right although some still use a damaged home’s facility if the water to the house is still running. And safety is an issue of course. One hears stories.

I have spent some time in the tent villages, guided by camp supervisors anxious to show what they have accomplished and the ones to whom I have spoken really do deserve kudos. Today is exactly two months since the quake and the supervisors’ guided tours are down pat; even a bit rehearsed and performed. It is clear that things have settled down and everyone knows what to expect

Shaukat and Yasmeen Ali and their three children don’t live in a tent camp. They are on their own and have a tent one hundred feet from the front door of the relatively undamaged house in which I stay with my Kashmiri journalist friends. I met Yasmeen today while taking a new route back to my house. She said hello with a nice smile and immediately invited me into her tent for tea. It’s always that, the invitation for tea. I surprise her and say “Yes, that sounds very good. Thank you.”

The Ali’s tent is a “rouge” tent, away from the other tent clusters scattered around our neighborhood. Yasmeen’s husband, Shaukat, 45, says some of their neighbors have ‘bad habits’ and, “bad behavior.’ Yasmeen, 35 agrees that life can be difficult if the neighbors are not reasonable people. I am not sure what this means. They say the neighbors are too noisy sometimes but I can sense there is more to it than this but for whatever reason they are reluctant discuss the details.

Hissing, the tiny gas stove does its job, sitting on a plank on the floor up against one of the tent walls. Yasmeen crouches in front of it, tending to my tea. There is no food that I can see; just sugar, salt and spices and some cold soup in a pot, over to the side. However, an egg appears from somewhere and Yasmeen fires up the other stove burner and against my gentle protest, begins to boil it for me. There is an electric cable coming in from outside and it powers a make-shift switch box hanging crookedly on one of the entrance door tent poles. There is a bare light bulb hanging off the center pole.

There are raised beds all squeezed together into one big platform that takes up half of the approximately 10×10 tent, enough sleeping space for Shaukat and Yasmeen and their two daughters, Hareem, 13 and Ariba 12, and their son, Ahmed, 6. Yasmeen is quietly tending to my tea as one by one, the kids wander in. The girls, clinging to each other, are all giggles at having a westerner in their tent; They blush, beside themselves with coy grins and those embarrassed, face-hiding-with-the-hands maneuvers. Their clothes are worn but stylish; Muslim-modest and cute and they wear them in that lanky pre-pubescent female way. Like most of the people in the tents that I have met, it is clear that I am the first westerner they have ever encountered. The kids are charming and sweet, their mother quiet and attentive and the gruff Shaukat is the proud, in-charge father. They are comfortable with each other as I sit there in their midst and it is my guess that when I depart they will continue that way.

Oddly, there is a telephone in this tent. It doesn’t seem logical but there it is, on a tiny table. It rings while I am there beside it. Hareem answers it just like any teenager anywhere would answer a phone. It is Shaukat’s father and Shaukat insists I talk to him. I say hello and the old guy does all the talking, telling me how much he loves Americans and would I please leave some money for his son and his family.

The floor is covered with a rug, the tent cluttered with the essentials of living. But, this is a small place and really, the family hasn’t many physical items and anyway hasn’t enough room for much. I feel sad when I think of the girls in the cold early mornings and how they must prepare themselves for school in this tiny place; their school uniforms, their girl things.

The Ali family formerly rented an apartment on the other side of the river and are, as Shaukat proudly says, “citizens of Muzaffarabad proper,” which distinguishes them from the majority of the other neighboring tent residents, these foreigners who have come into the city from the outside villages. Shaukat worked construction for a government contractor but of course is unemployed now.

The family was lucky when the quake came. It was a school day on October 8th and nearly all of the schools were full of children. Hareem and Ariba had a special school day off on October 8th and that is an especially good thing as the quake collapsed their school completely, the ten inch thick concrete roof coming straight down, crushing everything. Ahmed was at a different school but everyone got out in time, just before that school flattened. Yasmeen is a teacher in yet another school and her students and the other teachers got out of there OK too. In Azad Kashmir, according to official government reports, 1566 schools were totally destroyed and 644 were partially damaged.

It is interesting that most schools were totally destroyed; that the partially damaged schools were in the minority. In considering the population as a whole, there was disproportionately more deaths in the 5-19 age range, a horrible loss; a generation devastated.

Yasmeen gives the boiled egg to Shaukat who carefully peels off half the shell. I am sitting on the side of one of bed platform and he hands me the perfectly soft-boiled egg along with a spoon. Actually, the egg is delicious as I scoop it out of the shell with Shaukat hovering over me and my egg, carefully pouring salt on it after each bite that I take.

The family speaks haltingly of finding each other after the quake; of the horror of those first nights, the blackness and the rain:
“Yes, the children still don’t sleep well because of the memories.”
Do you feel safe here, I ask.
“No,” Shaukat answers…
Have you had any government aid?
“No, not at all,” Yasmeen offers, clearly annoyed with the government.
Do you have money, I inquire?
Where do you get your water?
“From the river…”
Have you been sick from it?
“No, we boil it.”
I hope that is true as I finish my tea.

They tell of leaving Muzaffarabad three days after the quake; taking a bus to Rawalpindi. They complain of the exorbitant 1,000 Rupee bus fair necessary for the five of them to be transported those 100+ miles. 1,000 Rupees is seventeen U.S. dollars and weeks later, they are still annoyed at the unfairness of it, of the driver’s insensitivity. After a few weeks in Rawalpindi, feeling like a burden on their relatives, they came back to Muzaffarabad. This spot they occupy and the wrecked house a few feet away are owned by Shaukat’s cousin who moved out of town immediately after the quake.

As I ask questions and they reply in their broken English I can’t help but marvel at the happy grins and bright eyes of the two girls. Despite all the trauma, they are still childish, innocent and ready to be embarrassed, to be coy; to laugh and be silly. And, Ahmed is pure little boy with his good natured garishness. It is that indomitable spirit thing, that untouchable and not-yet corrupted child-happiness that bubbles up over the rim in any age before 14. Shaukat and Yasmeen have three beautiful children and they are lucky people.

Do you think the quake could come again? I ask. They say yes, they do worry about that.

Things grow silent as I run out of questions. I assume the body language of one ready to depart but before I go I ask Shaukat if he has something he wants me to say to Americans. “Tell America I am thankful to your people and that I want to go to America with my family.” I tell him, and his family listens attentively, that that has always been the way it is with America. Americans are generous and the first immigrants, the people who traveled there from Europe, really, really wanted to get there. I say that America is great because when it started, it was filled by people who were poor and who wanted a better life and the people who live there now still love and appreciate their country because it is a country of opportunity. America began with people just like you, I explain.

I wish you could all come with me I tell him, but that is a lie as I mentally scan the political impossibility of it not to mention the personal ramifications and responsibilities it would entail.

I ask Shaukat if I can take a photo of Yasmeen and he says no (it’s a cultural thing) but then he relents if I promise not to print it in the paper. So I take the family shot and then, for the paper, I take another shot with just the three kids and him. Yasmeen sits to the side, quietly disappointed but resolved about it. I’ll bring hard-copies of the photos when I come back in January.

In the obligatory man-way, Shaukat absolutely refuses the 2,000 Rupees I offer. Per protocol, I offer the money to Yasmeen and she sensibly accepts it and tucks it away with a delighted grin. Neither one inspected the money. It could have been 20 Rupees and of course that would have been received with just as much gratitude. Good people, these, the kind you can’t help but like. I will stay in touch with this family, hereby “officially” adopted by our non-profit organization. I tell them that I return to the United States in a few days but will be back in January and will check in on them. Shaukat is amazed that I am going to America and asks me three times if this is really true. The wonder of it. I assure him it is true and at the same time, question how I could walk away from this family, to re-enter my cushioned life as if all this was a stage play, as if I would simply exit stage left and this family would just remove their stage paint, relax and be fine.

I start to feel sorry for myself, about how I will feel even worse when I leave as I abandon them here in this tent and then I remember that that thought, in itself, is a stroke of western arrogance and selfishness. Despite any sensitivity or generosity I may display while here, I am going back to America and I won’t give them all my money and I won’t take them with me. I have a way out of this and they don’t.

Before my departure, I will check in on the Ali’s and there will be more Rupees; more Rupees than they expect, and I will come back in January to check on them. And if for some reason I don’t, they have my phone number in America and we’ll talk.