Shades of night - Chris Cork - Monday, March 28, 2011

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Sitting waiting for our food at a café in Khosar market, Islamabad, last Friday night, it was difficult not to hear history tapping on the pavement. Mere feet from where we sat Salmaan Taseer was murdered. Even closer was the table that Sherry Rehman used as she sipped her coffee and pecked at her Blackberry, a customer like all the rest of us. Taseer is dead and Rehman very much alive and hopefully so for many years to come, but we fell to talking of security and our fears and the ways in which the city had changed since my last visit.

It has become quieter. Khosar was one of those places you could go that was always lively in the evening, but this time it was somber, shops shut early, some shops looked like they had not been open for a while. There was usually a coterie of younger people comparing shoes, handbags and mobile phones - absent. Tourists might drift by looking at the rugs and artefacts or buying shoes from the very expensive - but very good - cobbler. No cobbler and definitely no tourists. There was a man who had set up a little metal cabin from which he rented sheesha pipes, a new addition, let’s hope he prospers but it was thin pickings on Friday.

Moving around the city earlier in the day, there seemed to be a remarkable diminution in the numbers of check posts, and a laxity at those which did exist that seemed not to chime with the tension that all and sundry claimed to feel. A friend said that they had started to disappear after the Taseer killing and were almost non-existent apart from the ‘Red Zone’ by the time Bhatti was murdered. Conspiracy theories were thick on the ground as might be imagined, and I will not add to their currency by repeating them. Suffice to say that for the ordinary folks of Islamabad that I met, they seemed to feel abandoned, as if ‘the government’ had given up on them and was leaving them to whatever their fate may be.

They may be collectively delusional, but the city did have a deserted feel to it even if it was not actually deserted. The Taseer and Bhatti killings have cast a shade of deadly night over the place that is a background murmur wherever you go and whoever you meet. It is not a feeling confined to minorities or the liberal elites, it goes across all strata of society and is, perhaps, a collective acceptance that a Rubicon has been crossed. That something fundamental has shifted.

Watching life as I normally do from the backwater of Bahawalpur and only occasionally venturing out to the fleshpots (I speak with irony, please note) of the metropolis; I think I miss some of the more subtle changes to the world around me. I rarely get to meet other writers or commentators, and have no anvil to beat out my ideas beyond what my household offers me and that is very little indeed. I may meet other foreigners two or three times a year, half a dozen at most. So no long reflective sessions with like-minded men and women by which I might set my compass.

But a few minutes in the darkness at Khosar market told me things that I might have suspected but never was sure of, with one of those things being that we have taken a turn down a path with our guide a fell wraith. His grip on our hand is cold, his breath reeks of decay. And he walks through checkposts like they never existed.

The writer is a British social worker settled in Pakistan. Email:

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