Things we lost in the fire-by Sahar Ali

As I watched flames lashing out of the black holes that were once Marriott’s Margalla-facing rooms, I thought of the many friends who loved to dine at Royal Elephant, the hotel’s Thai restaurant which served the best Oriental soup I have ever tasted: the velvety Laksa. While watching coverage of the blast, I frantically texted friends in Islamabad afraid that someone I knew might have been there. Every message alert tone brought relief that they were alive and well, though shocked and grieved.
It was two days later, in the company of a couple of friends – among them Sheherbano whose friendship is till today my most prized treasure from my nine months of living in Islamabad in 2003 – that I found myself reminiscing about the Marriott and things we lost in the fire.

Laksa became our ritual. Every time I visited Islamabad after returning to live in Karachi, Sheherbano and I would catch up over a bowl of steaming Laksa. We relished our essentially Singaporean soup in a Thai restaurant served by courteous Shimshali waiters (their Oriental eyes lent the venue authenticity) in the Pakistani capital. All around us members of Islamabad’s expatriate community reminded us of the reality of the global village. On any given night, there would be Pakistani women in hijab and in western wear. A Thai dancer would usually be giving a graceful performance.

This spirit of freedom to peacefully co-exist, the confluence of cultures and ideologies and beliefs, was lost in Saturday’s fire.

My first memories of the Marriott date back to 1993. It was the capital’s solitary five-star hotel and conference venue. IUCN Pakistan, where I worked at the time, had booked space for a national members’ meeting. I was feeling very self-important on my first business trip, more so because of my five-star accommodation. Pakistan was peaceful then. There was even an air of optimism despite being Benazir Bhutto’s second term as prime minister. IUCN had just completed a National Conservation Strategy and was forging ahead with its implementation, cementing partnerships with government, civil society, businesses, media, labour unions, lawyers, and other stakeholders in Pakistan’s environmental well-being. It was a time when the environment still mattered. People worried about clean air, deforestation, about the poisonous effects of tannery wastewater, about endangered houbara bustards. Even the government cared, and had appointed Asif Zardari as environment minister.

Though Zardari’s lot has soared, we have lost hope for a better quality of life and the means to realize it – of a sense of future – in Saturday’s fire.

The Marriott was my friend Kuldip Lal’s home in 2004 during India’s first cricket tour of Pakistan in 15 years. An Indian national, Kuldip is AFP’s long-serving sports correspondent in Delhi. It was a historic moment, drawing sports journalists like Kuldip in droves to Pakistan. The peace process was on track and the legendary South Asian cricket rivals were facing off after a long gap, on Pakistani turf. How many Pakistani youth – future Imran Khans or Shahid Afridis – have lost opportunities to hone their talent by playing cricket series in which they can rise and shine? How many such events will not take place as a result of Saturday’s blast?

We have lost our footing as a cricket-playing, cricket-hosting and perhaps even cricket-loving nation in the Marriott fire.

Marriott’s coffee shop held memories of an after-party when four friends found themselves at the Marriott in search of dinner after a night of dancing. Islamabad after midnight was a hungry diner’s nightmare. We trawled petrol pump snack shops for food. With nary a stale sandwich in sight, we arrived at the Marriott – that oasis of plenty in Islamabad’s nocturnal culinary barrenness There we found both food and the music of love, playing on. A ghazal singer and his instrumentalists entertained our requests late into the night. The only other diners that night – PML-N’s Makhdoom Javed Hashmi and his entourage – lauded the ghazal singer’s performance while giving our musical taste appreciative nods.

Saturday’s blast-makers are determined to snuff out poetry, music, and the spaces that exist for musicians and singers to perform, for people to be entertained. It is another such space that we lost in the fire.

The Marriott also held some personally life-altering memories. It was at the Marriott in 2003 that I learned of the resurgence of my mother’s cancer. I was living in Islamabad. My cousin Kamil who worked for a US chip-maker (computer not potato) was staying at the Marriott on a business trip and we met for dinner. We were, of course, at the Royal Elephant waiting for our Laksa. “Your mother is not at all well,” he said gravely. My world stopped, became silent as I struggled to digest what I had just heard.

In the time since that painful revelation, I have lost my mother to cancer. Bhai (Kamil, to you) is also gone, having moved to Singapore in 2005. The loss is a personal one, but perhaps more poignant is the loss to Pakistan of a patriotic, hard-working and qualified Pakistani who could no longer serve his country because it did not offer him the professional growth he deserved. Nor did it provide his family the security that was their right.

How many more Kamils might we have lost in Saturday’s fire?

The Marriott was a political hotspot, perhaps even more so than the Parliament House, Federal Secretariat or Diplomatic Enclave. It was a secular, democratic space where movers and shakers met for heated debate over cooling cups of chai and coffee. During the US invasion of Afghanistan, it was also the media’s mecca. Cameras transmitted news to dozens of satellites circumambulating the skies above the Marriott. Broadcasting equipment jostled for space on the hotel’s rented-out rooftop which rivalled Pakistan’s most sought-after real estate.

But for scores of others, it was much more than watering hole or workspace. As my heart sinks in despair, Sadruddin Hashwani’s words rekindle hope. His determination and courage stand out as a beacon, much as the Marriott was a house of light – a haven for democracy, secularism, free expression, tolerance, enterprise, hope and joie de vivre – in the descending darkness of our radicalization.

Hashwani spoke valiantly of rebuilding the property in a matter of months, assuring hundreds of his surviving staff – waiters and guards and telephone operators who keep the hotel ticking round-the-clock – that they still had jobs. There is comfort in the thought that the livelihoods of Marriott employees have not been lost in the fire. If only our nation’s leaders could give us the same optimism.

The writer is a development communicator and occasional journalist. Email:

Source: The News, 29/9/2008

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