Saturday, October 12, 2013

Cemetery in Islamabad

When I arrived in Islamabad, I was a bit nervous about asking my host if we could go to a cemetery. Usually this suggestion is met with confusion and even judgment. Why would anyone want to visit a cemetery?

Besides the odd nature of the idea, in some cultures visiting cemeteries is a very sacred experience, and that fact that I want to go out of sheer curiosity (and to photograph  and write for this blog) is mildly offensive.

In Hong Kong, I tried to photograph very discreetly, remembering that I heard how Chinese people get very offended when they are photographed without permission. I assumed the same things applied to deceased people. 

In Japan I am very discreet because ancestor worship is still widely practiced in the countryside, and photographing the shrines of one’s ancestors is like walking straight into a person’s house and photographing their bedroom. It is a huge invasion of something private and personal.

But in Denmark and Sweden, I danced around the cemeteries and photographed freely, as cemeteries are treated like recreational parks in Scandinavia. People have picnics and exercise and nobody thinks it strange that a foreign girl would be walking around taking pictures.

In the U.S., I am never worried because thanks to superstitions, American cemeteries are often deserted and lonely places. I am almost always the only person in every cemetery I visit.

But in Pakistan, I had no idea how my cemetery excursion would pan out. After a rather tense experience in Lahore, I was very cautious of visiting another cemetery in Pakistan. However, my gracious host in Islamabad was so insistent on taking me wherever I wanted to go, so I finally got brave and asked about a cemetery.

Islamabad is a planned city. No building is over 50 years old. The city is divided evenly into rectangular sectors, each one with different landmarks. Sector 8 is devoted entirely to a cemetery.

In the Muslim faith, no body can be burned, so everyone must be buried. This cemetery in Sector H-8 of Islamabad, which is as well organized at the city itself,  is a stark contrast to the one in Lahore, which was old  and unplanned.

For an entire city block the cemetery sprawls out in all directions. Every tomb has an elaborate white headstone, in a raised platform, so that no one can accidently walk over the grave. The aisles are paved, like tiny roads, and all the tombs face the same direction.

The sun shines brightly overhead, the white tombstones glistening in the light. Occasionally, a black tombstone, or red tombstone appears in the distance. I am told that the colors have no significance they are just the preferences of the family. The inscription on all the headstones in written in Urdu, so I can’t read it, but my hosts tells me which tombstones belong to women, and which belong to men.

The wild colors that adorn Pakistani cities are see again in the cemeteries, through glittering streamers that are laid over the graves.

I am told that it is not haram to photograph tombstones in Muslim societies, because the tomb of the great prophet is visited  and photographed by millions of people. If the great prophet’s tomb can be photographed, why not that of the ordinary person?
However, in the cemetery, we must still dress and behave appropriately, so we cover our heads out of respect, and we are dressed modestly with shoulders and knees covered, though that is how we would be dressed anyway. 

When we enter the cemetery, we are the only visitors, but soon  a group of three men with a machete begin following us. They walk slowly, at a distance, but as we turn several corners at random, it becomes  obvious  that they are following us. I begin to get anxious, as one normally would when being followed by a group of men with a machete. Finally the encounter comes to a climax, when we stop in front of a random grave, and the men approach my friend asking if we want the grave trimmed.

Ah ha! So they work for the cemetery. They are the caretakers who trim the grass around the tombs, and get paid in tips form the visitors.

To my surprise, my friend does not lie to them, she explains that I am a visitor, and I am very interested in Pakistani cemeteries. The men continue to follow us, probably out of boredom, or that chance that we might need their services, until my friend politely dismisses them, saying that we prefer to walk alone. Still, they watch us from a distance. I never feel entirely relaxed, but now having been spotted and allowed to continue photographing in the cemetery, I have the sense of relief that accompanies permission.

To complete my Pakistani cemetery experience, my friend purchases a bag of rose petals for us to place on a grave. It is a symbolic gesture, she says.

In my hand, the fresh rose petals are soft and fragrant. We throw the over the graves and let them fall gracefully to the ground. The way a grave looks covered in petals is so natural. I like it much more than placing a bouquet over a grave. Soon the petals will lose their vibrant color and replenish the earth.  

At the end of our trip, we purchase some incense, and light it aflame. I then place it into the dirt of a grave, and watch as the sweet grey smoke rises into a thin funnel above the earth.

The cool breeze blew out of a brazen blue sky through the velvet green mountains surrounding Islamabad. When we leave the cemetery, I feel as though I have been brought back to my center. 

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