The driver had no sooner parked the van than hands reached through the windows and doors, brandishing paintbrushes aiming for our faces. The twins obliged–a pair of blonde Israeli sisters who had recruited my cousin, Willie, and I to join their van of ex-soldiers traveling to the Pakistani border that day. For a number of rupees, the Indian flag smeared across their faces as we joined the streams of people moving from the parking lot down toward the border crossing ceremony.
What is the border crossing ceremony? I still do not understand. But you can see an comically tame, British representation of it in this BBC video here.
“Climate change, the internet, the swift and unrelenting migration of disease–none of the major issues of our generation respects or recognizes the value of borders.
Except the three of us–so old fashioned, insisting that we are a people desperately deserving of barriers.
We patrol our peripheries proudly, truncheon in hand–keep away! Don’t step over the line! We are so different and unique!”
-Fatima Bhutto’s feature article on India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, in Vogue India, June 2017.
As we got closer to the entrance, the crowd grew more dense and more orange and more green, with hats and flags and paint and handheld fans being sold to the rapidly growing mob of tourists–Indian tourists. Our group of eight stood out starkly from the crowd, and our white skin is ultimately what got us hastily pulled through the clogged main gateway, holding hands tightly with no control of our feet as the masses swelled forward behind us. After a few security checkpoints, during which a sullen woman got to second base with me, we were free to proceed to the arena.
The following (verbatim), I scribbled on a Thai immigration card and in my notebook while seated up in the stands, massively over-stimulated:
BSF “The first line of defence”
A half-constructed arena packed w/ lawn chairs & yellow plastic hand fans and robust colored saris & lush flows of sweat down copper skin.
Music blaring into the arbitrary cement arena & ricocheting off crumbling bricks and steel frames.
While people in blue & white & gray stroll up the aisle to their seats on the trim, striped seating on the Pakistani side, a dense sea of handfans & vendors chant on the other side.
People holding large Indian flags are lined up & periodically run a lap both proudly & begrudgingly
run around to some applause.
Now & then someone starts yelling or chanting something & often the surrounding crowd responds & joins in, seeming to know the drill.
It takes me a while to realize that the concert-level music is pulsing, not only because of the echoes within the cement circus & over across the flat land beyond it, but the Pakistani side is also blasting music–different music. For a while it’s something chanting “Pakistan” but the energy from the Indian music and the Indian people feels far overpowering–at least from within it. Despite the 47°C heat, the energy is consistent & electric. We gaze over the fences at the guards standing quietly on the other side, the faces of dark men in all light blue or beige or navy where they sit reserved, unassaulted by the sun setting behind them, worlds away from the throbbing dance party in the center
of our arena. Hands above heads move together in time to the music, & middle-aged women in sparkling saris wear bright orange, green, & white “I LOVE MY INDIA” baseball caps, slightly askew on their sweaty perch.
A soldier barks at me for moving slightly
[The kind of energy that makes the hair on the back of your neck stand on end, & you sense something much, much greater than you, & much, much more powerful.]
in the direction of the border, but a few minutes later, a well-dressed husband wife & children pose with a camo & arms-clad soldier, the Indian gate directly behind them & the Pakistan gate right behind that while the mob continued to dance & sweat.
Jai-ho starts playing & the base becomes the only thing you can feel other than the goosebumps on your arm, suddenly chilly & exposed in the sweltering 5:38 pm heat.
My Arabic is fading, but I can read “Allah” as the first word of the inscription on the Pakistani gateposts.
It’s a straight-up party.
I don’t even belong here, this isn’t even my country, but the mere presence of the barbed wire & theatrical gates separating us makes me view the other faces on the other side as so deeply different, even though we’re breathing the same air & are mere yards away.
The only thing separating us is the construct that we humans have erected. Sure, the physical border of 10 empty feet with some metal & concrete fencing on either side, but it’s nothing extreme. It’s pedestrian. And yet this massive divide soars up into the empty sky above us as the competing music persists unabashedly and yelling erupts periodically, usually accompanied by a wave of movement.
In an emergency, you would have no idea where to turn for instruction.
Walking through the arch and into a blistering stadium of noise & color is how I imagine Roman gladiators must have felt.
Pakistani side’s green, short lawn. That “side’s” lawn, I reference, immediately imbuing ever face on that side with “that side” & granting every individual ownership & agency to ever blade of grass that isn’t on “our side.”
Putting a wall between us makes it difficult to refer to ourselves as a shared human race.
I see people (men) dancing on the steps on the P side.
Soldiers on both sides openly carry guns & stand watching the crowds. They could casually chat through the gate if the music wasn’t so loud–but they could certainly still speak into each other’s ears.
And I just can’t help but wonder–
what do they think they’re going to do?
If something went array, & there was danger, who are they going to shoot?
Who are they going to keep safe, & how, & how are they going to know?
It’s turned into a competition of archaic chanting with fists in air & thousands of voices melting into the same, primal tone. They literally have an emcee, wearing all white w/ an Indian flag on his back, wielding a microphone & pumping up the crowd, evoking archaic prehistoric roars from the crowd when the other side is trying to speak, or sing, or do something.
I don’t know the chants, or the cheers, but 3 year old children w/ their mothers do, together, smiling & yelling without hesitation.
The border remained open for about 20 minutes. “Real” security
literally like 3 ft. apart
just looking @ each other
Later, I wrote:
The kind of colossal mob energy that makes the hair stand up on the back of your neck and makes your fight-or-flight response kick in, your peripheral vision widening, and your heartbeat feel a little more powerful. Not in frightened way—but frightening in the way that my rational, independent self is so intimately affected by the chemistry of a group mentality.
Making fun of their own conflict. Trivializing their own competition. Transforming burdensome, lecherous hate into a sports match, an openly ridiculous and frivolous contest of leg-kicking dancers. It’s an absolute circus to get to, arrive to, to enter. It’s worth it.
I looked over at one of the Israeli guys I’d come with. He knew I was Lebanese. We had our own concepts of borders.
“Have you ever seen anything like this?” I asked him. “At dangerous borders?”
“Never. Never anything like this,” he said. “A border like this? Where you can see? The other side? Never anything like this.”