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Visiting cemeteries: The living dead

By Farahnaz Zahidi / Photo: Farahnaz Zahidi / Creative: Sanobar Ahmed
Published: May 11, 2014
http://tribune.com.pk/story/705384/visiting-cemeteries-the-living-dead/

montparnasse
The Jewish section of the Montparnasse Cemetery, Paris. PHOTO: FARAHNAZ ZAHIDI

Let’s talk of graves, of worms, and epitaphs;
Make dust our paper and with rainy eyes
Write sorrow on the bosom of the earth,
Let’s choose executors and talk of wills
—William Shakespeare, Richard II

Why do some of us want to go through a whole lot of trouble to visit the remains of people who died long ago? There is this thing about cemeteries. Visiting them is an understated joy, and a neglected part of most touristic and sight-seeing escapades. But once you acquire a taste for listening to the sounds of silence, few wanderings are as rewarding.

Most people who visit cemeteries have one of two common-most responses: they either feel what they call “a sense of peace” or a feeling of morbidity, darkness, depression and melancholy.

grave
The gravestones in the Jewish part of Montparnasse Cemetery emphasise the family name. PHOTO: FARAHNAZ ZAHIDI

But for serious cemetery enthusiasts, it is not much of either. Cemeteries are places resplendent with art, history, symbolism, culture and most importantly spirituality. You can know more about a people by visiting a cemetery then you ever will by going shopping in the same area.

As I became a tombstone tourist as they call it, I learnt terms I never knew earlier. I found out that tomb is a commonly used word, but mausoleum is a building specifically constructed for people considered important. The empty tombs are cenotaphs. A coffin is the (usually) wooden case for keeping a dead body and sarcophagus is a similar case made of stone. A chest or case box or well with remains of the human skeleton is an ossuary. Catacombs are interesting underground cemeteries, interconnected by tunnels. And then there is the necropolis, a place where large numbers have been buried and traces from olden burials still remain.

chowkhandi
The Chowkandi Tombs are a hidden necropolis located 30 kilometres outside of Karachi. PHOTO: FARAHNAZ ZAHIDI

Technology has made life easier for gravers as well as geneaology enthusiasts. Websites like ‘Find A Grave’ and other mapping sites tell us exactly what we are looking for. Yet, you don’t always get personalised experiences on the internet. For that, one must chat with people who share similar interests.

Whenever you visit such a site, observe how visitors quietly exchange glances, trying to assess how the others are reacting. We feel pressured to react in expected ways. But if we let go of that strain and breathe in the experience, cemeteries have a lot to offer.

Sites like the underrated Chowkandi Tombs near Karachi and Makli near Thatta are often neglected. I have been lucky enough to discover the wonders of Pakistan’s culture by delving into them. It is almost like going through an album of photographs of a people or reading biographies. Just look out for the nuances.

The people buried there are inarguably dead, yet their lives are being celebrated. In that sense, cemeteries are very futuristic places. They are an extension of life as it slides into another realm, no matter what belief system you belong to. But few, apart from connoisseurs with a taste for the macabre, have an appreciation of how humans honour their dead. There is an unsaid paranoia when it comes to homes of the deceased. It’s almost as if talking about it will kill us before time. Like a bad omen. We miss out, thus, on so much beauty and a deep study of culture.
And so when you visit a cemetery, tread a little lightly, move a little cautiously. You may be stepping on an entire lifetime if memories, wrapped up and resting underneath your feet.

Each cemetery has its own story to tell and is uniquely beautiful. Out of the ones I visited other than within Pakistan, these three impacted me the most.

Montparnasse cemetery, Paris
The temperature is below freezing. It is my last day in Paris. I am taking a city walk. In my broken French I ask passersby about any nearby cimetière, trying to roll the “r” correctly, making it as guttural as I could.
I’m led to the Montparnasse Cemetery.

For months, I had been planning to visit cemeteries in Paris.
“Hey Florent. I will be traveling to Paris soon. Can you tell me about cemeteries I must visit? I am willing to travel anywhere for that,” I wrote a few months back to a French friend who was guiding me about how to make the most of a visit to Paris.
Paris — of the Eiffel and the Moulin Rouge and the River Seine and the Louvre. I was travelling to a dream destination. Yet, what I wanted to visit most were the repositories of the best of France, now dead, yet alive.

Florent Condé told me about clandestine tours of the Catacombs through hidden entrances into tunnels that through the city. “That’s technically forbidden. I haven’t had the chance yet to do that,” he wrote back, adding tempting names and details of Parisian cemeteries. The fellow taphophile had given me just the info I needed.
Standing in front of the Montparnasse Cemetery, a dream had come true. Shaded by around 1,200 trees such as lime trees, conifers, maple and ash, it is one of the most peaceful parts of Paris. Home to 35,000 plus tombs, some 300,000 people have visited it since it opened its gates in 1824.

Montparnasse is often called the Cemetery of the Intelligentsia and there is a certain energy and vibrance in the quiet there. Understandable, with residents like Jean-Paul Sartre, Samuel Beckett, Sosan Sontag, and a cenotaph of Charles Baudelaire. The Jewish side of the cemetery was a new and impactful experience, with families and clans making up an important part of the design. I brushed the cobwebs off medals of World War I veterans carved onto graves, and saw Brancusi’s statue called ‘El Beso’ or The Kiss, sitting on top of the tomb of Tania Rachevskaia, a Russian anarchist who had committed suicide for love.

Montjuïc Cemetery , Barcelona

It was honestly something I was not prepared for and had not researched in advance. On the drive from the airport to the far-end Poblenou district of Barcelona, there it was, sprawling on the hills, unlike any cemetery I have ever seen. Mediterranean graveyards are different as the dead can be buried in walls many storeys high. The cemetery is like a miniature city, lined by cypress trees and plants and full of architectural and artistic delights.

Opened in 1883, this cemetery has more than one million burials and cremation ashes in 150,000 mausolea, plots and niches.

There are fascinating stories going around about how the cemetery was originally divided into four sections — one each for Catholics, Protestants, non-Christians, and the fourth for aborted feotuses.
Also known as Cementiri del Sud-oest, it is picturesque, with a view of the sea from top of the rocky hills. Interesting residents include Joan Gamper, founder of FC Barcelona, and surrealist maestro Joan Miró, who is buried in a plain, small family vault. Along with renowned personalities, 4,000 victims of the Civil War are also buried here.
montjuic view

The Pyramids, Cairo

For the longest time, I did not know that the pyramids were a kind of graveyard. I visited them when young, but the images and even smell and feel have not left me. Inside, there are passages that are narrow, damp and almost claustrophobic, with warnings for people with lung and heart diseases.

But they lead to huge halls that have the feel of being a nexus between life and after-life which is what the ancient Egyptians believed in. They said goodbye to the deceased making sure he or she had enough provisions to lead them through. The mummies, decorated multi-layered coffins, representational art-like individual portraits of the deceased, canopic jars with the organs, aesthetic objects like jewellery and clothes and even incense was made available. The tombs were constructed as places that would be conducive to the re-birth.

pyramids
The head of the Sphinx with the pyramid of Menkaure in the background. PHOTO: WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

In a weird way, thus, the pyramids symbolise continuity and hope. They tell you that this is not it. From the outside, the grandeur is legend. Even the chipped off nose of the majestic Sphinx does not make it less royal.

all pyramids
There are three main Pyramids in Giza, which draw attention to the Giza necropolis, reserved for the royalty and elite, as long ago as the end of third millennium BCE. Three pharaohs rested here, turn by turn — Khufu, Khafre and Menkaure. In adjacent smaller pyramids and cemetery were the Queens and members of royalty. The pyramid of Khufu is the largest, and is one of the last remaining of the seven wonders of the ancient world.
But where are the men who built the pyramids buried? I may never have an answer to that.

Farahnaz Zahidi heads the Features desk at The Express Tribune.
She tweets @FarahnazZahidi
Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, May 11th, 2014.

Barcelona: Where Gaudi meets Gujranwala

Published: April 14, 2013

Farahnaz Zahidi discovers that you can order a cup of tea here in Punjabi and still have a very Spanish experience.

I have arrived in Barcelona: el corazón del Mediterráneo. Spain, the land with Andalusia in the south, of AlHambra where La Ghalib ilAllah (there is no conqueror but Allah) remains inscribed at every turn of the head, centuries after the worldly conquerors have left. The dark lure of Gaudi beckons, truck art pales in comparison. It will be 10 days of hearing nothing but the seductive lisp of the Catalan ‘c’ and its rolling honeyed vowels. I am soaking it all up, taking my first walk down the tree-lined Rambla del Poblenou…

“Baji jee, Pakistan toun aaye o tussi? Koi chaa shaa?”   

The all-too familiar invitation came from a 23-year-old Salman aka Sunny. He stood outside his dhaaba-sized restaurant whose signboard was in Spanish but also carried the telltale ‘halal’ stamp in Arabic. In a corner a man stood in front of a gambling slot machine. A couple by the window pored over the menu while sipping their glasses of house wine. People queued up for the €5 meals of falafel, samosa and doner kebab takeaways.

And so, I accepted Sunny’s offer for tea and with it an invitation to enter the world of Pakcelona as the Pakistanis of Barcelona fondly refer to it.

06

According to estimates, there are at least 35,000 Pakistanis in this city, one of the highest numbers in any European city, barring those in the UK. It is a proletarian existence. They own or work in butcher shops, convenience stores, the small pay phone locutorios, Internet cafes and restaurants. Some have taken up the latest business of selling beer from street stalls. Pakistani labourers sweat on Spanish construction sites. A majority of them hail from Punjab, mostly Gujranwala and Gujrat, Jhelum.

Understandably, Punjabi is the most common first language spoken among them. That is the language Sunny speaks, although Spanish is his first. “Kaisee gal karday o tusee?” he says as he dismisses my offer to pay for the many postprandial coffees at his establishment. Pakistan toun mehman aaye o, coffee de paisey chaddo!” And in the same breath he will turn to a customer who has walked through the door: “Hola. ¿Cómo estás? ¿Qué te gustaría?” Hey there, how are you? What do you fancy having to eat?

Sunny came to Barcelona when he was barely five years old. His first crush, his first day at school, his first scraped knee, all happened on its streets. “I visit Pakistan every couple of years to meet my daadi,” he explains. “But I crave coming back when I am [there]. Barcelona set hai jee.” A football match flickers across the huge TV in a corner. Sunny is, naturally, cheering for Barça.

03

Life is good and is getting better. Sunny’s father owns a chain of restaurants today. But when he arrived 18 years ago he was empty handed. The initial sleep-deprived years were an obstacle course of odd jobs, dodging immigration laws and the law enforcers. He couldn’t go back home to see the family till he got the work permit. “Abbaji has worked hard at making us comfortable,” admits Sunny.

Pakistanis began settling in Spain, mainly in Barcelona, in the 1970s, but a greater influx was seen after 2000. In a post 9/11 world, unskilled labour found it harder to immigrate to the US. Spain, however, had no such qualms. Relaxed immigration laws strengthened the gravitational pull.

04

“The laws are not so strict,” says Ikram, 27, who came here on a tourist visa two years ago, and never went back. “Usually within three years or so one can get a work permit.” And then he grins. “Even if they put us behind bars, it will be for a few days and then we are out.” He has found a job serving food in a more upscale restaurant right across the Sagrada Família church, Antoni Gaudí’s unfinished masterpiece.

On the surface, Barcelona may seem like an unusual choice for a Pakistani from Jhelum or say Gujrat. But 35-year-old Sajid has an explanation that is simple, elegant and evidence of Barcelona’s multicultural tolerance: “Moderate weather. Greater acceptability among the friendly locals… Barcelona is the best! Nowhere [else] have I been so comfortable.” He should know after having looked for jobs in Italy and other European countries. Today he works as a helper at Sunny’s restaurant and even sleeps there at night, a discomfort he gladly suffers as he dreams of a bigger future that is just within his reach. He earns about 600 euros a month. “Convert that into rupees,” he challenges with pride. It comes to about Rs90,000 which is roughly what an entry-level MBA is paid in a bank in Karachi.

05

Half of the money is sent back to Pakistan and now that Sajid has acquired a Cuenta Ajena or work permit there are plans to bring his wife and children over as soon as he can save up for a small home. “Ab Pakistan mein kya rakha hai jee?” What is left in Pakistan?

Thus, for many workers who would never earn as much back home, Pakistan may not seem as attractive in the long run now. But this does not always mean that moving to other countries comes without its challenges. While there may not be much anti-Muslim or anti-Pakistan bias in Barcelona, sometimes events can alter the landscape. For example, the immigrants went through a bit of a rough spot in 2008 with arrests of 12 Pakistanis on suspicion of planning terrorist attacks on the Barcelona subway station. It is perhaps testament to the immigrant’s resilience that while the Pakistani community was a bit frazzled temporarily, it sprung back to claim its space eventually.

While I saw many Pakistani men working in Barcelona, Pakistani women were not a visible part of Spain’s workforce. There were none in areas that make Barcelona what it is — its centres of art and history. I looked around for them as I stepped out of the spectacular Casa Llotja de Mar, a 14th century Gothic building which used to be the city’s stock exchange till the 20th century. I didn’t see any at the 16th century fort Castell de Montjuïc, a popular spot for families on weekends. The few I did catch were at the Maremagnum shopping mall, moving around only in close groups, doing exactly what I was doing there – searching for good deals.

Pakcelona may prosper as migrant communities can and do financially. Indeed some traditional values adjust to accommodate economics which Sunny sheepishly calls “compromise”. For example, he sells liquor and bacon along with the halal food. But his 18-year-old sister is not allowed to leave the house unchaperoned. “We may have moved to Barcelona,” he says, “But we have not forgotten our religious and traditional values.” It appears that the community has unspoken rules that limit complete assimilation. These rules apply much more strictly to the womenfolk. But when it comes to marriage, men have to adhere to certain rules too. While Sunny may date local senoritas, he is quite sure he will marry a Pakistani girl. “Shaadi mazaaq naheen hai jee,” he says. Marriage isn’t a joke. “It should be a girl who can adjust with my family. A goree couldn’t.”

Names have been changed on request of those interviewed.

Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, April 14th, 2013.

 http://tribune.com.pk/story/533649/travelogue-where-gaudi-meets-gujranwala/