By Danielle Cyr
As an American woman engaged to a Kashmiri, I like to consider myself a true lover of all things Kashmiri – whether that be the majestic beauty of Kashmir itself, the stunning pherans or mouth-watering cuisine. I always find myself vouching for the misunderstood, politically-strained Kashmir I know and love, no matter the circumstance.
Today, I was faced with a new challenge when I found myself sharing an UberPool with a Pakistani driver and an Indian co-rider. To many, this would be politically viewed as a lethal combination, one that would perhaps result in awkward silence, or uncomfortable side-glares. But presumptions (and seemingly politics these days) get people nowhere; so when the Indian woman noted how she was rushing to relieve the childcare for her baby, I seized the opportunity to express my admiration for her as a ‘do-it-all’ working mom. We, with the input of our driver, then discussed the challenges of raising a family and working full-time, especially with the poor parental/maternity leave policies in the U.S.
I finally found the confidence to ask where in India she was from. “New Delhi,” she said, which was the usual response. With that, I boldly mentioned my Kashmiri fiancé, and how I’ve visited both India and Indian-occupied Kashmir a few times. “Ooooh, controversial,” she said with wide eyes and a sly, albeit uncomfortable, grin. I nervously laughed and felt a bit of warmth in my heart when I noticed our driver in the dash mirror grinning, as if he knew where this was headed and we were all just along for the ride, literally. It was the kind of warm feeling you get when sipping kahwa, or taking your first bite of Shamiyana’s curries. I started to suspect he was Pakistani, but kept quiet.
In my neutral, diplomatic efforts toward peace-building, I declared how both greater India and Kashmir are beautiful. Before I could finish, she was already referring to Kashmir as ‘paradise on Earth’, for which I responded: “Indeed it is, and you MUST visit!” Fortunately she seemed quite receptive to the idea.
She then asked our driver where he was from, to which I held my breath in anticipation of his response. “Pakistan,” he replied confidently, confirming my suspicion. “Ok, now here comes the awkward silence,” I thought. Had we just hit rock-bottom? Would the car now be as silent as Kashmir’s streets following a stone-pelting? Suddenly I felt as if I were Kashmir, with India and Pakistan about to fight over me and my attention. I worried they would start ignoring each other like the two countries’ politicians who are simply unable to come together and have any sort of positive dialogue. Waiting for her response felt like an eternity, comparable to that of getting stuck in traffic during a hartal.
Much to my surprise, she engaged him eagerly and warmly, and began to ask where in Pakistan he was from in Hindi (which, as you probably know, is very similar to Urdu). “I’m learning Urdu myself,” I exclaimed, and proudly uttered “Salam Alaikum”. “Wa alaikum salam,” he said with a big smile. She smiled as well, and commended my efforts to learn Urdu. I immediately felt an overwhelming urge to pinch myself. They then discussed the former Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his revolutionary liberalization of the Indian economy. Was I really witnessing a Pakistani and Indian agreeing on the politics of a former Indian PM? It was a beautiful sight to behold, no doubt.
Soon, our conversation shifted to our mutual love for curry and how our current home of Washington, D.C. fails to offer truly decent curry restaurants. There was no question that we were all in agreement on this one. As the Uber was nearing my stop, I wished it was delayed in traffic as I didn’t want the conversation to end. As with anything, all good things must come to an end, and I focused my next joy on texting my Kashmiri fiancé about this wonderful encounter. He was as enamored as I was.
Politics and religion aside, we are all humans with similar values, respect for love and kindness, and admiration for good curry. We cannot judge one another based on our ethnic backgrounds, political or religious differences, nor should we hold hatred in our hearts for people or places that are unknown to us or shrouded in conflict. Fear of the unknown that transcends into hate is the greatest act of ignorance that belittles one’s sense of humanity.
During this UberPool, my own preconceived notions of others were proven wrong, and I was given the opportunity to see the beauty of humanity at its finest. I urge you to remember this during your interactions with others. Stop letting borders and politics cloud your judgment and respect for your global brothers and sisters. Start embracing one another and, who knows, you might just end up with your best UberPool ride yet!
Danielle Cyr is Program Associate, Gender Equality Initiative & Institute for African Studies, Elliott School of International Affairs, The George Washington University.
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