Bilal was from the town of Sopore in North Kashmir, but in 2010 he had been living and working in Saudi Arabia. He described a kind of gap he felt at this time. He knew what was happening back home in Kashmir and he knew what the international media was not saying. But in his immediate surroundings, in Saudi Arabia, in the world he existed in daily and the people he met, all of this world knew nothing of Kashmir. It was as though he existed in two disparate realities simultaneously. Bilal said, at that time, he wanted people in Saudi to feel for Kashmir, and from that feeling, he thought perhaps things would change. But the state was tight in Saudi and there was little room to talk of Kashmir, even socially. The gap that Bilal spoke of was similar to what I experienced upon returning from Kashmir to Australia in 2010. Cups of nun chai emerged as a small attempt to fill that gap.
At that same time, while Bilal was in Saudi and while people were being killed on a daily basis at his home in Kashmir, the Arab Spring unfolded and a number of revolutionary social movements took off in the Arab world. Bilal was careful with language, and he spoke of the way that ideas and actions have the potential to move from ‘solitude into a multitude’ – from a whisper into an echo, that goes on and on and on.
The Arab Spring began in Tunisia with the actions of just one man and Bilal relayed to me the story of that man, who started it all. He was a university graduate but made his living selling fruit from a roadside cart. One day, some government bureaucrats hassled him about a licensing procedure. A short time after, fed up with the hopeless injustice that surrounded him, this man set himself on fire. And that fire, spreading from ‘solitude into a multitude’, as Bilal said, moved across many of the old dictatorships of the Arab world.
I asked Bilal why he felt that same fire didn’t catch on to make permanent change in Kashmir. He spoke of the centuries of struggle the people of Kashmir had undergone. He described a bug, captured in a small container. At first the bug will fight hard to get out of the box, but as his struggle weakens him so too does his determination to escape. Kashmir had it’s own fire that had been burning for centuries, but today it was not so much characterised by burning flames, but by persistent slow burning coals. Kashmir was full of embers waiting to catch alight, but Kashmir was also getting tired.
Bilal spoke of the Kashmiri diaspora who travelled to Saudi and other parts of the world for employment. He said they lived in a ‘created’ exile, and was very specific about the use of the term ‘created’. Bilal explained that people moved because they could not make a sufficient living at home, but the reason they could not make a sufficient living at home was part of the occupation’s strategy to destabilise life in Kashmir. Bilal reasoned that when people had to put all their energy into dealing with the struggles of day to day life they had no time or energy left to bring the dream of Azadi (freedom) into a reality.
But he said something else that was interesting. Like the man from Tunisia, Bilal also had a postgraduate education and after teaching at university in Saudi Arabia he was now making a living through private business in Sopore as he found it impossible to get a government position in education. Though Bilal said universities had a tendency to place one’s thinking in a box. Now, outside of the university, he said his mind was free in a different way and he was open to where that freedom might lead him tomorrow.
It was Ramadan, the month of fasting for Muslims, so my nun chai with Bilal had been symbolic. When it came time to take the photograph he positioned his hands, holding an empty cup, above two books: Sanjay Kak’s edited volume on Kashmir Until My Freedom Comes and the Complete Works of Kahlil Gibran. Bilal explained that these books were important because they offered two alternate paths. One was about emotion and feeling and the other was about struggle. He wondered how they could be brought together.
I said Cups of nun chai was an attempt to bring those two together in that it was as much about personal feelings as it was about politics. He thought for a moment and paused. Then I asked Bilal how he thought the ideas contained in these books could be brought together. Some people entered the room where we were sitting and Bilal said he would tell me later, at some other time, over a cup of nun chai.