I’ve lived in Qatar for nearly 3 years so I’m pretty used to random people speaking to me in Arabic or asking if I’m a revert. When I tell them my family belong to Kashmir, this is the typical reaction:
I find these moments hella amusing; having grown up in an area with 99.9% of people like me I’ve never had to explain my origins to anyone. And that’s possibly the reason many people don’t know about Kashmir – there’s hardly a need to explain everything about your homeland if you’re surrounded by people just like you!
But I’ve decided that’s unacceptable. Hence, I’ve compiled a somewhat brief overview that might save you from asking questions like…
1. ‘Oh, Kashmir. That’s in Africa right?’
First thing’s first: a quick history/geography lesson.
Kashmir has a religiously-rich history dating back to 3000 BCE. There were two noteworthy golden ages: the first under the Hindu ruler Lalita Ditya (724- 760 CE), and the second under the Muslim king Shabab-ud-Din (1355 – 1373). Kashmir stopped being an independent state during the rule of the Mughals.
The departure of the British Empire in 1947 left the region in shambles and funnily enough, agreeing on a ‘proper’ border wasn’t on the agenda. How else to ensure never-ending political strife between three countries than to leave them a piece of coveted land to squabble over? Kashmir is sandwiched between India, Pakistan, and China and all lay claim to some part of it. Over the years, Pakistan and India have engaged in several wars over Kashmir with the most recent altercation occurring last month.
A line of control (LOC) runs between Pakistan and India; shelling, death, and war crimes are a part of everyday life for Kashmiris living nearby. My family, like the majority of Brit-Kashmiris, hail from Azad Kashmir which translates as ‘free Kashmir.’ Across the LOC and said to be one of the most dangerous places in the world is India-held Jammu & Kashmir.
2. If there is a heaven on earth, it is here. It is here.
You know old school Bollywood movies where loved up couples dance around trees? Where the actress looks like she’s freezing her butt off in a saree on some snowy mountain? Those movies were usually filmed in Kashmir and many current movies still are. Kashmir is known as paradise on earth and this is one of the reasons none of the aforementioned countries want to give up their section. Not convinced what all the fuss is about? See for yourself:
With the beauty of the place comes the widely perpetuated stereotype that all Kashmiri people are beautiful as they all live in snowy mountainous regions away from the heat of open terrain, so they must all have fair skin, light hair and blue or green eyes. The truth is Kashmiri physical features vary: red hair is common due to early Russian tribes migrating downwards; Persian influence during the growth of Islam makes Kashmiris and Iranians hard to tell apart; in Aksai Chin the Kashmiris are more likely to resemble East Asians. Due to the mixing of genetics over the years, you are likely to find an array of features – not just pale hair, pale skin, pale eyes. Sadly, some of us are very average looking (she says, kicking herself for not inheriting grandma’s green eyes!) To read more on this topic check out this article.
3. “Whoa…how tf do you know Hindi? Say something in Hindi.”
I feel like quoting Goodness Gracious Me in response to this question (and if you’re too young for that reference here’s a YouTube playlist to keep you entertained.)
Urdu is said to be Kashmir’s national language but if you were to travel from one end of Kashmir to the other you would come across Kashmiri, Koshur, Pahari, Ladakh, Pashto and lots more dialects of which many do not have a Standard written form.
The only reason I can speak Urdu is because my mother practically forced me to study it every single day after school (I HATED IT!) until I could read, write, and speak fluently. As an adult, I love being able to speak Urdu as well as Pahari because…well, lots of reasons. Urdu is more appropriate in formal situations and enables you to converse with people from the South Asian region (if they speak Hindi) as well as Urdu-speaking Afghans. Pahari would hinder communication and make you sound like a complete junglee. But, I find Pahari the easier, more natural tongue when speaking to my family and the older generation. It’s always nice to visit Azad Kashmir and see the surprise on people’s faces when they learn their spoken language has been retained.
Sadly, the current and upcoming generation of British-Kashmiris prefer to converse in English. In many households, this effectively cuts off grandparents (and sometimes parents!) from being able to communicate with their offspring. To avoid this scenario, there is a 100% chance I will force my future children to learn Urdu!
4. More random, awesome facts…
You’ve probably guessed by now that nothing in Kashmir is homogeneous and I could write 101 things about food, attire, customs, traditions, art, literature, music *takes deep breath* but I won’t. Yes, I also know I wrote ‘5 things’ in the title but I’m on a roll and you’re still reading so just humour me…
Kashmir is famous for pashmina clothing – especially shawls – made from wool derived from the changthani goat. In regards to clothing, it really depends on the region: women’s dress can vary in terms of material and pattern but modest wear and covering the head is the common factor in all styles. In Azad Kashmir the traditional dress is the Pahari style shown below, also known as the shalwar kameez. This is pretty much the standard and is worn across most of South Asia, with some variations (e.g. Punjabi suit = a baggier, ‘Patiala’ shalwar and shorter kameez).
Men’s shalwar kameez tend to be of one block colour, usually plain or with a little embroidery around the collars, and more masculine in its tailoring. In Jammu & Kashmir, the pheran is worn by both men and women – it is a gown that extends to the ankles or feet and traditionally does not have slits on the side:
As for the cuisine, Kashmiri dishes are usually meat orientated and not too different from Indian and Pakistani dishes (and in the Ladakh region there is a definite Tibetan influence). Kashmir has a long-standing baking tradition and if you haven’t tried bakarkhanis and cake rusks then you are seriously missing out! I know this is going to sound weird but us Kashmiris love our tea, especially if it’s salted and even better if it’s pink!
Home to the Himalayans, many rivers run through Kashmir into Pakistan, India, Afghanistan and Tibet. According to the 1960 Indus Waters Treaty, there are fixed obligations and usage rights for both Pakistan and India, but as India has a strategic advantage over water in this region, withholding water from Pakistan could very well turn into the new weapon of choice.
5: British-Kashmiri Muslims: A hybrid diaspora
This is where I fit in I guess.
The bulk of Pakistanis in the UK tend to be Kashmiris or Mirpuris. After WW2, Britain faced a shortage of workers and many Mirpuris worked on ships for the British Navy. Later still, in the 1960’s, Britain gave work permits to young Kashmiri men allowing them to migrate, work in Northern-town textile factories, and eventually sponsor their spouses or families. (Current British-Kashmiris are the third/fourth generation).
What makes me really sad is that I grew up calling myself ‘Pakistani’ because that’s what I’d always been taught and that’s the category that popped up on application forms. To be fair, ‘Kashmiri’ wasn’t a recognised ethnicity in Britain until the 1990’s. Don’t get me wrong, I am not nationalistic (I am of the belief that flags and borders have destroyed the notion of one diverse, united ummah). Yet, I do feel the need – now more than ever – to identify as a Kashmiri. Why?
Because in all my years, I have never seen people of my age, in my hometown, in my community, speak passionately about the Kashmir issue. We have forgotten our roots as if it’s a topic strictly reserved for our elders or our ‘back-home’ relatives.
Because in researching about Kashmir I discovered hidden gems that allowed pieces of my identity to fall into place: everyone deserves to experience that.
Because in introducing myself as Kashmiri, for every five who have never heard of it, at least one person will go away and research the current plight of occupied Kashmiris and how they suffer horrendous, unaccounted war crimes and human right abuses.
Because in my own little way and through my own little space on the web, I might be able to raise an awareness which frankly, on a global level and for 72 years, has been lacking.
Many of us British-Kashmiris take for granted our hybridity, our citizenship, our heritage, the fact that our families belong to Azad Kashmir and should we choose to, we have the freedom to identify as ‘Pakistani’. In the freedoms we have acquired by chance or fate or God , we have forgotten about those who weren’t as lucky. For too long now, we have failed to empathize, think about, pray for those who yearn to and deserve to be azaad.