In this month of December…

Jan 2015


Islamabad, 19/12/2014

For A.R.

In this month of December, Christmas cards (season’s greetings as we call them) have been laying on my table for days at end. I am unable to pick them up, unable to write few words reflecting on the year and unable to send my wishes to the near and dear ones who accompany me from close by and afar. Unwritten not because my mind and heart were empty. But the numbness marked by nights of tears, grief, and despair sealed my lips and froze my hand. These cold December days when the sun no longer warms my body, but her hazy rays extend their long reach to burn my face a bit reddening it at the cheeks under my swollen burning eyes after the nightly outpours of tears. Eyes felt dried up and itchy during the day but it only took one look, one phone call from someone dear, caring, and inquiring, to bring back the waves of tears that seem to swallow me up. Waves of tears that whirl me around with no dry land in sight to plant my feet upon, so that I could find my bearings and walk, even shakily, slowly but hopefully more steadfastly.

In this month of December, the New Year just days away and we all prayed silently and loudly for it to bring an end to the cycle of violence, to these incomprehensible acts and to loss and despair. To bring a new dawn with promises and give us back our belief that another world is possible and will be.

 *                         *                         *

This year we had traveled together back to one of the other countries that I call home and then to another one new and far away–with colleagues, students, some already friends. Where we had cherished the walks in the city, the warm nights in the parks or by the seaside, sitting and talking, thinking and reading out Pessoa to each other, who spoke of promises of love and the beauty of the other, who makes us see and feel so much more, elevates us, makes us belief in the beauty of the world – although no one knows ‘if the stars rule the world’

We marveled at the cities of Marrakesh and Rabat, their smells and colours, the encounters across passports and religions in our little group. Where we become silent over the beauty of the sun beams in that cafe in the old house, painting stripes of lights and shadows across the walls and floor, melting into the water pond in the middle with floating rose petals that softly scented the air. And it was there and then that Amir went silent meditating over the spiritual encounter that we all shared at that ancient madrassa, when looking into each other’s eyes meant so much more than words or conversations. It was summer then and the sun wrapped us gently, the days long and the nights short and warm lit with shining stars.

Already in my old country (one among many that I call home) there were cracks in the summer sun and shadows painted in the sky, haunting us through the city occasionally. It was before getting on the plane after we all held the visa-stamped passports in our hands that Mo said to me: “Why wouldn’t I want to go and live for a week as a free man in a place where there is peace, where there is no conflict, where there is freedom?”

It was there and then that Amir had to lay down on the floor outside that museum of the political police, where the display of political repression brings to the present my haunting past that I barely encounter after all these years. He laid down on the floor with a big sigh, again not speaking for some time. It was there and then that I read out bits of Jürgen Fuchs’s prose, the interrogation protocols that talk about resistance in the face of inhumanity and repression. But the words were difficult to muster and traces of the winter cold encroached on our hearts. Few hours later, outside the other museum Mo told me: “These photos, you know, it is just like home. This is what we see at home. How come you moved on from this utter violence and have this now? How come we don’t? Why can’t we leave our topographies of terror behind, why do they keep growing, leaving little space for us to breathe? How can I go back and not break?”

The cracks sounded louder and the shadows grew longer. But none of us paid much attention to it all, joking with Mo, teasing him, making him think of other things. It was summer then, the nights were short and warm, lit by shining stars and in the evening we could sit in parks talking lightly or discussing poems, meditating about the mystery of life and love, politics and the world. It was warm then even during the evenings when we were at the lake, where some of us swam or pretended to know how to. Where the water cooled our sun-lit souls and splashes of cold water tickled our toes. But the military operation had started already, with tracks of hundreds of thousands running for their life, being treated like cattle, branded, registered, herded into camps and makeshift homes in cities and at road sides far away, largely invisible from the country we all travelled back to and invisible to the world at large.

And it was many months before this month of December, after streams of news of violence, inhumanity, tragic loss, of hope taken had left a mark on us. It was two months after we had eaten that cake called ‘death by chocolate’, celebrating Malala’s price, expressing pride. Little did we know how this cake so rich in taste that it made Sara and me queasy, that some of us barely managed to finish, that this cake with its name would later haunt us. Little attention did we pay to the disturbing, chattering, maligning voices being raised against the spirit of that which we celebrated.

I don't know- Pessoa

Fernando Pessoa, I don’t know if the stars rule the world (1935)


I had started my interviews, puzzled over the silenced emergencies and invisibilities, a full blackout of those having to flee the military operation, in an attempt to understand, to document, to break the darkness with academic cracks so to make things visible. How futile was this, in terms of resistance, in terms of being able to make any difference. It only made the cold creep slowly into my soul, paralysing my thoughts.

Some nights I would wake up and see my concepts hovering through the air, sliding down the curtains, along with the words I had tried to pick up for writing during the day about social movements and activism. In my dream, I tried to pick them up, lift the curtains so they wouldn’t fall on the floor, be washed away. But it didn’t work. A friend back in that country I also call home told me with tears in his eyes in that month of November: “You know, Sophie, something good will come out of that, I know, it is good you are moved, but you have to pick up the pieces…”

And then it became December and sad news started pouring in like a continuous stream with insistence, giving us little time to pause and breathe. The Friday before, Amir and I had been to the city, joking in the car, laughing and chatting away during the nights, watching movies and talking about things that mattered to us, that bothered us. We should have read the signs on the wall. I should have listened to the disquiet in my heart.

The first night my friend called and she was out of words. There had been an attack during a theatre performance in the capital where we had both worked –a play about suicide bombers when a 15 year old boy walked inside and blew himself up and where people for a second didn’t know if this was for real or part of the play. We cried together but had no words, just silence and this numbness inside. But Amir and I had gone back to watch that movie, a trilogy talking about dawns, midnights and sunrises of love.

On the second night when we came back from our interviews, we had talked about that youth activist and her battles despite and beyond threats, for a different society, a peaceful one, more prosperous and participatory. Amir said to me in the car: “You know, these interviews, they do something to me. I know what I want, although sometimes it’s difficult. I am confused which way to go, what I shall become. But she inspired me, I have to do that. But maybe after I go abroad, after I come back, after I had some space to breathe and think.”

I told him that he will be fine, and that it was a great idea and that it will work out, that everything will work out. That evening when we returned to the guesthouse, my heart was racing and I felt a disquiet like something terrible was going to happen. There were shadows hovering over me, haunting me. I looked over my shoulder many times, walking as if someone was following me, a dark force of sorts. I remember looking up at the night firmament, lit beautiful with stars, although a hazy night it was. And, eventually, I went inside, where Amir smiled at me and said: “Let’s watch this movie we didn’t finish last night, shall we?”

*                         *                         *

Yesterday, when Abdul walked towards us, the four of us sitting in the fading afternoon sun at the university huts, after Khalid had complained that the tea wasn’t hot enough and it needed to be warmed up again, avoiding my gaze over the pain he felt, we could all see that Abdul’s steps were slow, insecure, unbalanced as if the ground was still shaking with the aftershocks of an earthquake. I could see in his eyes, but somehow I couldn’t. I saw cracked gutters he had put up to shelter his soul from the outside world, to not let us look to deeply. Like Ayaz, he had rushed to the city in grief that same night, not to donate blood for the survivors but to bury a friend’s child and to comfort the parents and the other son who at first looked “injured” but was “only” terrified. Injured from within, the soul and not the body as such (if one can say that, is allowed to say that). It was the day after Sunny told me, “I didn’t come to see you and talk to you again, because your face was full of screams, I don’t know what to do, how to help.”

The day after we all had been standing at the vigil, the protest, a fragmented and disturbing one with the cracking, blaring loudspeakers of the proclaimed “good jihadis”, as if there is a good and a bad side in militancy one could choose from.

Where there should have been a movement in protest and resistance, demonstrating joint hands for humanity, for peace and children not being afraid to play outside, to pick up a book, there were once again scattered voices, myopic performances of activism which melted into incomprehensible calls for further violence. “Hang them,” they cried – hang those who are already dead? “What sense does that make?” Tuba asked. “Which protest group can we join, without being part of a partisan cause that has no relevance now, today?”

When the sun set over the scattered crowds of protest, Amir lit a candle in his hand, circled it with small dots of wax—a tiny light, nearly fading, nearly blown out every time the December wind would reach for it, if he wouldn’t have sheltered it with his other hand, but he did, so it radiated, a tiny candle light. More people came and lit candles on the pavement, on the street, rose petals scented again the air like on that afternoon in Marrakesh. “Since I think about what happened, the image of a garden comes into my mind, of children being like flowers blossoming, with fragrance that stays with you even when the flower is no more,” Amir read out to me afterwards, hasty first words dotted into his notebook.

The morning after the vigil was gone and nothing was visible of the small protest and memorial held the day before, and which had finished early, because it was getting dark, because it was getting cold. Except, yes, except for small dots and circles on the road – it was the remaining wax of the candles that were lit the day before, glued to the pavement. But the dots were less than the lives they were supposed to represent, in numbers, and the petals were gone…


At night a sentence clung to my soul, from a discussion I had with Mo and the others from around the city of grief and beyond. I had asked him to repeat the words three times and still remained in fear that I actually grasped their meaning, a meaning taking my breath, squeezing my soul: “In this country, there is no space for our violence. Where can we go to exercise it? To the mountains? They are already there – where else can we go?”

Mo had been disturbed by the blaring loudspeakers and the crowd the alleged “good militants” mustered as if there is no alternative, no other imagination than continuing with the same old, same old. Like the liberal activists, as if chants of “hang them, hang them” would bring any of the flowers we lost back. The scent will simply be overpowered by the smell of gunpowder – and by the way, Tuba inquired “who the hell was it who invented arms?”

*                         *                         *

The one missing with us in the vigil was Sara. Like many others who had lost someone, she was not on the streets talking about hanging or shaheed(a)s. She was not glued to TV and its sensationalising violence of reporting feeding on the pain and the inconceivability before moving on to the next headline, sooner or later, missing out on what had actually happened that day in the city of grief. She is among those who have to come to terms, more than any of us, with how someone can wake up one morning and decide to kill, to kill children, women, men – humans, who had come together for learning, nothing more, nothing less. Where does it come from, how is this possible, what will stop it, what or who will transform those minds? They are those, who don’t garb themselves in the comforting mantle of conspiracy, pointing fingers here and there, not to have to throw a stone from their own little myopic glasshouse, so not to have to hear the scatters of denial, having to pick up the pieces… Like Abdul and Sara, they are those who struggle to, or yet have to begin to find a way to live on.

Sara calls or messages me these days mostly during the night, because ghosts haunt her and shadows seem to creep in through her door, after her beloved one left and after some people told her to watch her steps and to watch who walks behind her on the streets. Now that there is no man in the house. “I am in so much pain, it won’t go away. My head is aching so much, my body shivering, I can’t breathe. I miss him so, so much,” she would whisper in the phone, barely audible, not to wake her sisters sleeping next to her. “There is fog all around me and it feels like someone is coming in. I have to leave the light on. I can’t sleep. It is so painful. I miss him so, so much. Tell me, how can people say that to me? He would not have wanted that for us. He wanted us to be independent, to study, to be able to manage our lives. Why do they say that, now, that he is gone for barely few days?”

I tell her to breath slowly in and out, to count to three each step of the breathing like I had learned at that training before coming here. I tell her to embrace the grief, to mourn as a way to cherish and celebrate and remember him. I tell her that this is a phase we all have to go through, and that it is painful, and that it will come back in waves, sometimes, later on. I ask her to trust me and believe that at the end of this long, dark tunnel, there will be a light, a new dawn to come. I try to sound convincing, comforting, certain, but why can’t I see the light myself? Or did I maybe see it in Tuba’s eyes when she held her head up high, looking straight into my eyes and, with a sparkle in her voice, said: “We are going to Peshawar on Saturday, right? You are going to teach, right? I am coming, too – no doubt, no issue.”

*                         *                         *

When I woke up today with the first call for prayer, it was from my own tears which wouldn’t stop, which couldn’t stop. I was without words, still, again. The words were hanging in the curtains, sliding slowly down. But then the first rays of dawn were shining through. In the radio, a program was aired of a guy who had bought a ticket around the world which he wanted to give to his love, who then left him. He is going on the trip nevertheless and found someone else to come along, a friend to be he hopes although it is just a stranger; a woman with the same name like his ex-girlfriend, but he insists it is a ticket forward – a strange travel this will be…

Tonight, I hope I have words like my friend and colleague from that city in grief who messaged me “Yesterday, we lost many of our children, many Malalas and Aitezazs, but today many more Malalas are born, so see you next week and then we talk.” Tonight, I hope we embrace each other because sometimes holding each other or being next to each other, with and for each other, might be more than words and maybe then some words will come that make sense out of the senseless, that speak of hope in these dark hours, that address the grief we are in, that awake us from our numbness, moist with tears. Because even in December some days are warm and there is the Sun. And I remembered how Abdul had told me some time ago that of our travels together, he enjoyed the winter one more because of the snow. My friend, the one who had cried with me over the theatre attack, just messaged me today: “By the way, it snows here – wonderful, so white, everything covered by milky snow crystals and steps sound like mumbled, crunching, sometimes creaking moves.” She will be back for Christmas just in time for the New Year we will celebrate together, like my loved one who is also on his way, to hold me, to be with me.

“So,” Abdul said with a hint of a smile, I think, “are we going to watch that movie you talked about, that heart-warming one, the one which has sad but also happy endings?”

Yes we will, we will blend out the world for a little while longer, candles lit, knowing that today was another day when many Malalas were born, in this month of December with the new year just being a few days away.

What will happen? Whatever! The foggy and hazy winter days and nights, the hovering shadows will eventually crack to the first day of the new year, to a new horizon. All those Malalas born in these dark December nights, hundred years after the big war and shortly after what happened in that city in grief and beyond, will start taking their first steps next summer, one year after we shared those moments that warmed our souls and that we will remember for long—softly scented by Moroccan rose petals floating in that sun-lit pond and the summer breeze.

Sophie Abelha is a pseudonym for the author who has been teaching at universities in Islamabad and Peshawar for the past several years, traveling to and across the country for more than a decade. Having to share the grief and despair with friends, students and colleagues, this piece was initially written for one of her students and colleague, trying to recover words and spaces she attempts to create in her classes where critical thinking, theorising and discussing are as essential as non-hierarchical, participatory learning and research environments. This writing is not necessarily only dedicated and linked to the tragic events of 16th December 2014 in Peshawar, but could also be read as a reflection on previous attacks taking place in Quetta, Peshawar, Karachi and Lahore over the past years.

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