Sponsored traffic checkpoint in Islamabad. (David Nakamura – The Washington Post) – image taken from the last link cited below

I must confess that I’ve been suspicious of studies on emotion and affect when combined with geography. I’m still fairly new to the field, and having had the ‘hard sciences’ strongly ingrained from a lifetime of ‘anything you can’t measure in a lab or add numbers to, means nothing’.

On the other hand, living in Islamabad for the greater portion of my life, and then leaving to study in the US and now the UK, the idea of ‘geographies of fear’ has grown a great deal. And of course, carefully snooping through papers that discuss emotional geographies is good fun and very informative. Also, frightening.

So, why am I stepping out of my comfort zone today? Well, while I’ve been in Islamabad doing my fieldwork, I’ve had to cross ‘security zones’ to talk to different people, and even visit different markets. From what I gather, even we live in a RED security zone. Awful things can happen at anytime. And they tend to do.

This particular time, I had to go talk to a lovely participant in an area in the dreaded Diplomatic Enclave. This is one of those sections of the city one only goes to when either applying for a visa, or if you work there. In the last scenario, you are armed with certain passes to show the security guards. After speaking to my participant, I was advised to visit her at her place of work.

Deep in the forbidden recesses of the Diplomatic Enclave.

Planning my journey involved a great deal of stress, before it even began. It can be summarized as follows:

1. Rashly agreeing to meet her there, knowing precisely how difficult it would be,

2. Looking up access routes on google maps, knowing perfectly well that half the roads are blocked for ‘security reasons’ and I’d have to tell guards at least 5 check points where I’m going and why,

3. Calling her place of work again and asking them how to reach there,

4. Somehow managing to convince my host family that this is a good idea,

5. Planning at least 4 different contingency plans on what would happen if I suddenly took a wrong turn (scenarios involving bullets came to mind).

Anyway, I started off, armed with my notebook and my usual purse overflowing with papers and contact cards that I should really organize.

Traffic barriers are now fairly common in the entire city (60 plus. And they move around to surprise you). Popular opinion is that they serve only to annoy the population, since no terrorist has actually EVER been caught at such a block. However, if you happen to be a girl, you do get an uncomfortably lo o ong look in some cases. You learn to live with it. And curse every time you have to maneuver through one, wondering why the car you’re in does not have power steering.

A visit to the market two sectors away involves at least two such barriers. And then I make a point to avoid office rush hour, school rush hour and tuition-academy rush hour. I don’t do too well in crowded situations.

Back to the journey! Passing the first security block in the FORBIDDEN ZONE (This isn’t the official term, but it looks like this in my head. Surrounded by an ominous aura), I was now in a less crowded stretch of road, with the Hills on the left and large, fancy, barricaded and guarded houses on the right. I felt cramped, small, anxious and silent. I was hunched over the steering wheel and my hands were sweatier than usual. My eyes were wide, I wasn’t blinking as often, something I noticed only because of my contacts. There was no music.

I approached the first of the terrifying blocks, where I was stopped and asked the usual ‘where are you going, miss?’ I gave the name of the establishment and the lady I was visiting and discovered that they had no idea what it was. So I just told them I was going to the Enclave and no I didn’t have a pass. They let me go.

I was now in what I refer to as Zone 1 of the FORBIDDEN ZONE. Fairly abandoned. It’s a double carriageway that has half the section blocked to keep the common folk a road-breadth away from the Parliament and other overly-large buildings. I remember when you could just swoop down to this Avenue and enjoy a lovely drive. Not so any more!

So I passed the very beautiful Supreme court, looked at all the other blocked roads to this part of town and was nostalgic about the days we used to have the annual Parade. It’s also very sad that the National Library is located in this area. Because who doesn’t like to cross multiple barriers and say goodbye to family members to look at books?

I finally arrived in the area I had carefully stalked on google maps, passed through the gate that the lady on the phone had told me and waited patiently in line behind the other cars (who all had passes. Unfair) until I reached the guard. It turns out that the lady hadn’t in fact, told them who I was (even though she took all the required information).

There was a short meeting between all the other guards while I was idling to the side. I think they judged that I couldn’t be all the dangerous and was allowed to pass. Took the wrong turn and went in the complete opposite direction until I finally asked some lovely security people of some embassy.

This area is very interesting. On one side of the fence, you have an informal settlement, and on the other, you have the most secure and protected area in the entire city. The gas shortage of those days was highlighted by the gentleman on the bike carrying a selection of wood.

I finally reached and had my talk.

My way out was along the same route. But I was different. I was sitting up straighter, felt lighter and happier and had put on some music on my phone. This attitude had little to nothing to do with the talk. It was at the prospect of being away. Of not having to stop at every check point and be asked for a pass I could never get. It was because of returning to a part of the city I was comfortable in.

So why am I thinking about emotional geographies?

Emotions are part of every day life: they are part of the routine and of the unique. Being frustrated while writing a paper, bored while waiting in line, relaxed with afternoon tea, being ecstatic at a promotion or suffering crushing grief at the death of a loved one. As the field develops and strengthens it’s critical and empirical concerns, I’m very excited about the possibilities of mapping emotional geographies. I already know which areas are my personally classified red zones in this city, where I can go dressed in a Western attire, and where I’d be most comfortable draped under the longest and most nondescript cloak I can find.

Further readings for context and sadness:

1. Oldie, but a common scenario: http://morichesdaily.com/2013/08/terror-threat-city-islamabad-pakistan-high-security-alert/

2. What other people think of us: https://www.gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice/pakistan/terrorism

3. And of course: SPONSORED check points: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/11/07/AR2010110704523.html

Upcoming! My literature review on geographies of fear!

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