Saquib was from the town of Sopore, but in 2010 he had been living and working in Saudi Arabia. “There was this gap, I couldn’t get away from. I knew what was happening at home in Kashmir, but no one in Saudi did, or seemed to care. I would follow the news back home, but on a day to day basis no one in Saudi knew anything about it. The international media was silent.” Saquib described two different realities he simultaneously occupied. “I wanted people in Saudi to feel for Kashmir, and from that feeling, I thought perhaps things would change.” But the state was tight and there was little room to talk of Kashmir, even between friends. The gap that Saquib spoke of was similar to what I experienced upon returning from Kashmir to Australia in 2010. Cups of nun chai is a small attempt to fill that gap.
At that same time, while Saquib 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. Saquib 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 Saquib told me the story of the man who started it all. “He was actually a university graduate but he made a living selling fruit from a roadside cart. One day, some government bureaucrats hassled him about his licensing. He just became so fed up with the hopeless injustice that surrounded him, the corruption of the government on a little man like him, and he set himself on fire. That fire grew from ‘solitude into a multitude’ and spread across many of the old dictatorships of the Arab world.”
I asked Saquib 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. Saquib described a bug captured in a small container. “At first the bug is going to fight hard to get out of the box, but as the struggle tires him, his determination to escape also weakens. Kashmir’s fire has been burning for centuries. Today we don’t have flames but slow burning coals.” Kashmir was full of embers waiting to catch alight, but Kashmir was also near exhaustion.
Saquib 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’. “People move from Kashmir to Saudi because they can’t make a living at home. But the reason we can’t make a sufficient living at home is part of the occupation’s strategy to destabilise our lives. They have ‘created’ our exile.” Saquib reasoned, “You see, when people have to put all their energy into just dealing with the struggles of day to day life, we’ve got no time left to make the dream of azadi (freedom) real.”
But Saquib said something else that was interesting. Like the man from Tunisia, Saquib also had a postgraduate education and after teaching at university in Saudi Arabia he was now making a living through private business in Sopore. He found it near to impossible to secure a government position in education in Kashmir. “Universities have a tendency to place one’s thinking in a box. But now, outside of the university system,” he explained, “my mind is free in a different way. I’m more open to whatever tomorrow brings.”
It was Ramadan, the month of fasting for Muslims, so my nun chai with Saquib 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. “These books offer two important paths: one is about emotion and the other is about political struggle. But how to bring the two together?” Saquib asked. Cups of nun chai is an attempt to bring those two worlds together; it is as much about personal feelings as it is about politics. Saquib thought carefully and said we would keep talking, at some other time, over a real cup of nun chai.