Kashmir is a veritable paradise on Earth, and my month in this rich and beautiful region truly changed me for the better.
By Abdul Hafiz Ali
Rabat – Kashmir is a veritable paradise on Earth, nestled between the Himalayan Mountains. Before my travels, I was warned of the many risks and dangers associated with traveling through the area. Thankfully, I ignored these warnings and ended up spending an incredible month in beautiful Kashmir.
As an avid traveler of Spanish and Filipino heritage, I often grapple with questions of identity and my own relation to different spaces when traveling around the world. I was excited to see how exploring Kashmir for a month would allow me to delve into this even more.
On January 10, 2019, I finally landed in the place I had spent seven years thinking about. The soundtrack for my journey was exclusively Kashmiri songs and I landed with classics like “Harmuk Bartal” and “Tamanna” playing in my ears.
Srinagar, a tenacious city of dreams. Dreams that the city’s streets would someday be filled with children playing cricket or football and adults sharing cups of “noon chai,” rather than seeing streets filled with camouflage uniforms instead.
As I pass through the streets of Lal Chowk, Srinagar’s famous center, I cannot help but notice that the guns do not seem at home in this beautiful winter landscape.
“Hafiz, come here!” my host Murtaza shouted enthusiastically, waving from the other side of the road as he saw me for the first time. He greeted me with a huge smile on his face, and I returned his salaam with excitement.
As I was warmly welcomed into the vibrant city, I wondered to myself if I would soon be leaving a piece of my heart here when it was time to leave a month later.
As I passed through the various checkpoints, I began to see winter in a new light. I saw people with perfect beards, standing tall. I found myself in a city where the Islamic way of life and family values were completely part of the social fabric even while young Kashmiris were grappling with globalization and modernization.
I wore my first “pheran,” a traditional Kashmiri cloth and cozy winter tunic, which resembles the “gandora” of Morocco. During the coldest moments of my trip, I would frequently wrap myself within the protective layers of my “pheran,” tugging down the hood to trap the heat.
While Murtaza was teaching me the basics of the Kashmiri language, I loved practicing how to say expressions like “Varai chu?”(How are you?) and found myself repeating them constantly.
My first week living with my host family was one of the most rewarding experiences in my life. Kashmir had been calling me since I first visited Al Aqsa in Palestine, Alhambra in the Andalucia region of Spain, and Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia. And the trip did not disappoint; my time in Kashmir was fast becoming one of the happiest experiences I had ever had.
The warmth and hospitality of my host family made my first experience of snow in Kashmir a magical experience. I had my first taste of “noon chai,” a traditional Kashmiri tea which is salty, an Iranian-influenced saffron tea dating back centuries, and “wazwan,” a delicious meat dish.
Overlooking the mountains surrounding the valley, I was overwhelmed with emotion as I took in the breathtaking views and pondered upon the rich cultures and history that these mountains had seen over the years.
I yearned to know more about the people who have inhabited and continue to inhabit this beautiful corner of the world, as well as learning more about the place itself. I wanted to immerse myself in the culture, food, and ideas and then capture and share my incredible experiences and learnings.
Unfortunately, the world has limited knowledge about Kashmir and it features commonly in sensationalist headlines when atrocities and political conflicts occur. But Kashmir was not created to have this narrative overshadow its warmth, positivity, and beauty.
Kashmiris deserve their own identity and to be appreciated for their rich culture and history, not just seen through the negative lens of conflict.
It was February 9, and I was performing my last fajr prayer in the colony. My wonderful month with Murtaza was about to end, and I was really going to miss all of our incredible conversations.
However sad I felt, I knew that it was not goodbye. After all, goodbyes are only for people you will never see again, for experiences you know you will never live again. Kashmir had stolen my heart and I knew it would not be long before I came again.
Kashmir truly changed me for the better.
Until next time. Hasta la proxima vez.