I’ll never forget the first time I experienced the 4th of July in Kashmir. We accidentally caused the Indian military to think a militant attack was happening in our neighborhood.

It was the summer of 2005 and Kashmir still had some lingering effects from the more intense period of militancy of the 1990s. One of them was that many Kashmiris in Srinagar didn’t stay out late once it got dark at night. There were several police and military checkpoints on the road and people didn’t feel safe at night. Our landlords at that time were always concerned about us if we came back home after dark.

There were a few other American expats living in Srinagar. Something I have come to observe about us Americans is that we like to celebrate our national holidays regardless of what country we are living in.

That summer a small gathering was planned by the American expats to celebrate America’s Independence Day, the 4th of July. There would be a cookout to grill hamburgers and enjoy some other familiar American foods. And of course there would be fireworks.

One of the American guys had gone to the local police station earlier that week to let them know about these plans and find out if it was okay to set off fireworks at it. Fireworks were easily available in the local market, and were often used at weddings and some religious holidays. From what I was told the police officials said it was okay and they had no issues with it.

Our landlords knew we would be out that night, but I don’t think we said anything about fireworks or the 4th of July being an American holiday. The event was also in the same neighborhood and it didn’t seem like anything too out of the ordinary to mention.

Once evening approached we got ready to light the fireworks. The guys who had bought the fireworks in the market didn’t really know what kind they had gotten. They just bought a bunch of different ones to try out. Some looked familiar, kind of like black cats, but with others it was hard to tell what they might be like. We just had to light them and find out.

After lighting some of the smaller ones that gave off the usual bang we started lighting the bigger ones. These were much louder. Way louder than we expected. They were also a bit out of control. Stuff started shooting out of them randomly, like bottle rockets, with some going up super high but others flying out sideways and almost hitting people or the house we had gathered at. A few of us looked at each other, wondering if all this racket was okay. The booms were echoing out over all the whole neighborhood. Some of the fireworks were more like ones you might see at a fireworks show in the US, not ones you could buy over the counter at a fireworks stand.

We pressed on, lighting off every single one and thankfully no one got injured and nothing burned down. We had a good laugh about how crazy that was and how unexpected the size of the fireworks were. Eventually we all got ready to head back to our homes.

We lived in the neighborhood so we began walking down the street to go through the neighborhood bazaar and then on to our house. As we got near the bazaar we noticed several Indian soldiers standing around along with a few military jeeps. Given that this was Kashmir it wasn’t too unusual, but it wasn’t something we had seen before in this neighborhood.

One of the soldiers called out to us to stop. It was dark and at first I don’t know if they knew we were foreigners or not. One of the officers spoke English and asked us what we were doing and where we were going. Apparently the news was that a huge militant attack might be happening in the area and lots of officials were alarmed and on high alert. This officer wasn’t too happy when he found out it was a group of Americans setting off fireworks for an American holiday. He didn’t care who had given permission for it. His superior officer had gotten tons of phone calls about all the blasts and no one knew what in the world was going on.

They let us continue walking home and when we got there we found our landlords greatly worried about us. They didn’t know what was happening either and weren’t sure if we were safe. They told us the whole bazaar had quickly closed their shops when the loud blasts began and everyone hurried home thinking maybe there was a militant attack.

We felt horrible.

That incident has stuck with me for all these years. I never felt like celebrating the 4th of July again in Kashmir. To do so seemed weird and rather ethnocentric. I felt like the stereotypical ugly American who imposes my culture on everyone else, while remaining ignorant of the different culture that is around me. Fireworks may have been common in Srinagar, but for events where the whole community knew what was happening.

There were so many things we were clueless and careless about when we celebrated that day in Kashmir. Maybe it wasn’t a big deal and I should have laughed it off as a fun story to tell. It is funny in a certain way. But it also revealed certain weaknesses of my own culture that I found and continue to find uncomfortable. Namely our pride, ignorance and arrogance.

On the 4th of July I have mixed feelings. I am thankful to be an American. I recognize that I enjoy many privileges and opportunities in life that have come simply because I was born in the USA. The freedom we have in America didn’t come cheaply. However, the COVID-19 pandemic, George Floyd’s death, and Black Lives Matter have shown us that life and freedom in America can be far messier and tragic than we might imagine. When we celebrate let’s not make an idol out of freedom when it comes at the expense of others.

Spring was my favorite time of year in Kashmir. After a long cold winter the first signs of new growth among the trees, plants, and flowers were always a welcome sign. Kashmir is beautiful in the spring with its many gardens filled with flowers and the almond and cherry trees coming into bloom.

When you travel around the outskirts of Srinagar from the end of March through April you also will notice the bright yellow mustard fields. They are like yellow carpets spread throughout the valley announcing the arrival of spring. My family liked taking drives on the weekend to enjoy the scenic beauty of these fields.

Once I traveled from Delhi to Srinagar by road at the start of spring time in late March. After passing through the Banihal tunnel and beginning the descent into the Kashmir Valley this was the view that greeted travelers on the national highway:

First view into the Kashmir Valley in spring after passing through the Banihal tunnel on the national highway

Those yellow mustard fields are just beginning to dot the landscape and will brighten as the season moves along.

Below are some additional photos I took of the mustard fields in a few different places outside of Srinagar.

Bright yellow mustard fields in bloom during spring time in the Kashmir Valley, India
Bright yellow mustard fields in bloom during spring time in the Kashmir Valley, India
Bright yellow mustard fields in bloom during spring time in the Kashmir Valley, India
Bright yellow mustard fields in bloom during spring time in the Kashmir Valley, India
Bright yellow mustard fields in bloom during spring time in the Kashmir Valley, India
Bright yellow mustard fields in bloom during spring time in the Kashmir Valley, India
Bright yellow mustard fields in bloom during spring time in the Kashmir Valley, India

Every year on the 1st of April I will always be reminded of that day in 2005 when my wife and I landed at the airport in Srinagar, Kashmir. Barely 48 hours earlier we had wrapped up one season of our life in America and set out on this new adventure, not fully knowing what might be in store. The irony of arriving on April Fool’s day was never lost on me. We were young, idealistic, and probably a bit foolish to make this move. In the years to come we frequently would feel like fools as we made our best efforts learning how to do life in an entirely different language and culture than our home.

I probably have at least one thought about Kashmir that pops into my head every day. Something that triggers a memory or something about America that strikes me as different from Kashmir. Lately I think about how the COVID-19 virus is impacting life in Kashmir and how my Kashmiri friends are affected. But April 1st is different. That anniversary day usually makes me more reflective. A day where I pause and consider the full impact of Kashmir on my life. Where I remember what it felt like in the beginning to arrive and get settled.

early morning view in April 2006 across Dal Lake, Srinagar, Kashmir to the snow covered Pir Panjal Himalayan mountains
An early morning April view across Dal Lake, Srinagar toward the Pir Panjal mountains. I took this photo one year after our arrival to Kashmir.

I smile when I recall the beginning phases of learning the Kashmiri language so I could better participate in the community around me. There is one memory I don’t think I’ll ever forget. My wife and I were walking through our neighborhood bazaar on our way to meet with a tutor for language classes. The classes had only been going for a week or two. As we passed by a vegetable shop an elderly woman who had a large basket of spinach by her feet spoke to me in Kashmiri. I recognized three words she said – spinach, head, & put. I looked at my wife and said, “I think she wants me to put the basket of spinach on her head!” Without waiting any longer I decided I to take a leap of faith and put the basket on her head. Once the basket was on her head, the woman casually walked away as if nothing unusual had just occurred. I couldn’t believe it. I also couldn’t wait to tell our language tutor. We might actually have a chance to learn this difficult language!

There are many moments like that from my years in Kashmir, ones that I want to capture in time and never forget. They are precious to me because they represent a unique place in this world that profoundly impacted my life. I am still processing, unpacking, and sorting out that impact well over a year after returning to America. April 1st reminds me of this.

“This feels a little like déjà vu.” It was Sunday afternoon, March 15th and a text had just arrived from our kids’ school district saying school would be closed next week. That kind of message was all too familiar during our years in Kashmir.

The next day someone at work asked me how our kids felt about the school closure. I answered,”Well, they’re kind of used to school being suddenly closed for unknown periods of time.”

During the time our kids went to school in Kashmir they had school closures mostly for anti-government/anti-India protests that could either be spontaneous one day closures, or possibly a few days in a week if it turned violent, or even almost 5 months long when the protests were really intense like the summer and fall of 2016. We also experienced school closings from a massive flood disaster that shut things down a couple months, and even a swine flu H1N1 outbreak that kept things closed for a week or two. One of the most common questions our kids would ask us at night was, “Is there school tomorrow?”

While the coronavirus and its risk to the community where we live in America is different from the risks that were around us in Kashmir, there are some things about it that remind us of life in Kashmir.

  • Checking the news much more frequently than usual for updates on what may be happening and what else might be getting closed
  • Sifting through the various news, rumors and stories on the street to determine how bad things really are and how bad they might get
  • Having to think ahead about shopping for essential supplies like groceries and household items and being uncertain if certain things will run out of supply
  • Wondering if it’s safe to go out to visit people or get some shopping done (virus spores on surfaces at Walmart or someone coughing on you now being in the category of a stone throwing mob or militant gun fight with the police)
  • Finding activities, chores, and hopefully school work for the kids to do at home when they get restless and want to be able to see their friends or complain of being terribly bored
  • Going to work and wondering how your business may be affected by all of this, what might be some worst case scenarios, and how can you keep operating in spite of all the challenges
  • Praying for wisdom for those in various levels of leadership as major, difficult decisions need to be made that can help or hurt many people

I feel like my experiences in Kashmir helped me enter this new uncertain situation without getting too stressed out. In some ways it feels familiar and our family knows how to adapt and adjust. However, I don’t think I expected to experience this type of societal uncertainty in America.

There are also differences with the coronavirus situation compared to what we experienced in Kashmir. I think two main differences are 1) normal, high speed internet access and 2) the whole world is going through the same thing.

Restrictions to school and life in Kashmir almost always meant restrictions with the internet as the government would either shut it down completely or slow it down greatly to prevent locals from using it spread information. That made things a little more difficult. There wasn’t always easy access to news and info online, or even streaming movies/TV/music/games to escape for a moment from the situation. Kids didn’t have the option to continue school online like so many are able to do here in America. Employees couldn’t so easily work from home and still be connected to their office.

While Kashmir was often locked down, the rest of world wasn’t affected or probably didn’t even know about it. You felt more isolated, more like no one knows or cares about the tough things going on. When Kashmir made international news it didn’t last for long even though the protests or crisis continued inside Kashmir.

A Kashmiri friend in Srinagar sent me a WhatsApp message saying things were getting bad there as they also are getting locked down due to coronavirus. I feel for him and many of my other friends and hope things don’t spiral out of control. Kashmiris have already had so much uncertainty and change since last August.

I pray for God’s provision and protection for my Kashmiri friends, for their jobs and businesses to not be completely lost, for their children to again enjoy learning at school, for wisdom for their community and government leaders to make good decisions, and for hope and peace to find its way into their hearts. This time my prayer is also the same for my American friends.

Thanks to a Google Photos memory today I was reminded of one of my favorite things from Kashmir – fresh morning bread from the bakery.

That’s what my family called it in English. The Kashmiri word for it was hard enough to pronounce so spelling it is even trickier. It would be something like tzot, czhot, or tchot.

Most neighborhoods had at least one nearby bakery where people would gather early in the morning to get their fresh, hot pieces of bread. The baker would be hard at work kneading out each new piece and then slapping it down on the side walls of a tandoor oven. Another helper would be sitting cross-legged near the opening of the oven holding a long rod with a small hooked end. He would use the rod to pull out the pieces once they were ready and then hand them off to whichever customer was next.

A Kashmiri baker kneading morning bread (tsot, tchot) next to the tandoor oven early in the morning

Some customers would only get 3-4 pieces while others would be buying for a large joint family with many members and would be getting 10 or more so the wait would take longer. I typically got 10 pieces on the days we would have it for breakfast. Our kids really liked it. Any leftover pieces my wife would have with chai later in the morning for her and our house helper.

After getting my piping hot 10 pieces I would bundle them up in a cloth bag, walk the 7 or so minutes back to our house and the bread would still be nice and warm when we served it for breakfast. We usually enjoyed it with an omelette that would we would place on top of the round bread or you could tear off pieces of bread and use that to pinch up some omelette. It was also tasty with a very American style topping of peanut butter and jam or honey.

A Kashmiri baker getting ready to stick a piece of morning bread (tsot, tchot) to the inside wall of his tandoor oven

During the month of Ramadan when all our Muslim neighbors would be fasting, the bakers would make this bread in the late afternoon rather than morning and people would buy it before the time of breaking the fast so they could enjoy it later in the evening. This Ramadan version of the bread was made a little different with extra ghee or something so it was softer and didn’t get as crisp. We would use occasionally this bread during Ramadan to make pizzas for dinner by adding tomato sauce, cheese, onions and bell peppers on top.

While Google Photos had the memory of one of my morning trips to the bakery two years ago, I didn’t take any photos that day specifically of just the bread. I’m sure I have an image somewhere among all my photos from life in Kashmir but that could take a while to find. If you’re curious I’m sure searching Google for Kashmiri bread would bring up plenty of images.

I miss those walks to the bazaar in the early mornings while it was still cold out. I miss enjoying the interactions between all the waiting customers. I miss the fresh taste of the bread with my omelette or peanut butter. Whenever the day comes that our family is able to visit Kashmir again I look forward to finding a nearby bakery to purchase some morning bread for breakfast.

Normally when I think of fall in Kashmir I think of:

  • Chinar tree leaves turning deep red
  • the apple, walnut and rice harvests
  • wedding season and enjoying wazwan feasts
  • saffron fields near Pampore covered in purple flowers
  • the final months (and exams) of the school year
  • people burning cut tree limbs to make charcoal for their kangris
  • cool, crisp mornings and evenings hinting that winter will eventually be on its way
Fall autumn colors on the Chinar trees at a garden in Srinagar, Kashmir

This year nothing is normal for Kashmir. As I remember the parts of fall I used to enjoy in Kashmir I find myself thinking about many other things instead:

  • how much longer will this internet and mobile phone blockade last in Kashmir?
  • how will people survive economically with so much losses, especially with the stories I’ve read about the apple harvests going to rot and businesses choosing to or being forced to stay closed in protest of India’s revocation of Article 370?
  • how many private businesses will have to close and let go of their employees?
  • how many weddings have been cancelled, postponed, or held in a very simple manner with no celebration?
  • when will kids be able to go to school again and how will they be able to finish this year?
  • why is there such sparse coverage of the lockdown, arrests, and restrictions in Kashmir by most news media?
  • will violent protests spread in a massive way once India lifts the phone/internet blockade and other restrictions?
  • how long can India continue this approach in Kashmir before other world leaders and international organizations put enough real pressure on them to open things up?
  • or will no one really care what happens in Kashmir regardless of how long this goes on?

Okay, I’m probably getting a bit pessimistic about what may happen in Kashmir. But it is hard seeing place so close to my heart and full of memories for my family be completely changed and put into a greater state of uncertainty then ever before when we lived there. Whenever I see new updates on Kashmir or grow frustrated at the lack of news I am reminded of real people I know in Kashmir who are affected by this. I wonder how they are doing, what they are doing, and what this might mean for them and their future. How are they experiencing the start of fall this year?

The bright red Chinar tree leaf seen in the fall autumn season in Srinagar, Kashmir

It is hard to know what to write about Kashmir. The communications blackout for mobile phones, internet, and most local news media has continued since my post two weeks ago. Most of the international news media has moved on to other stories so Kashmir isn’t making it into the headlines much. But Kashmir remains on my mind as I wonder how things are there, how my friends might be doing, and what may happen for the future.

I’ve found myself going back through my earliest pictures from Kashmir, from my first summer when I got to experience the mountains, streams and lakes that offer such scenic beauty for trekking. Back then that beauty still had plenty of reminders that all was not completely normal in Kashmir. There were lots of military checkpoints just to get to the trekking routes, military scout groups came through our camp, and we even had militants come into the camp too.

Kashmiris are very proud of the natural beauty of Kashmir. Some people say it is like the Switzerland of Asia. I don’t think comparisons are always helpful or necessary. Kashmir is majestically beautiful in its own way and I enjoyed that sense of awe and wonder you get when taking in the beauty of creation. Yet it is unfortunate that much of Kashmir’s beauty hasn’t always been able to be experienced or explored due to the instability that has plagued the region. And I don’t mean only by outside tourists, but also by the Kashmiris who enjoy hiking in the mountains but don’t want to get caught up in conflict between military and militants.

As I’ve looked through my photos from that first summer, these are some that brought back a smile and remembrance of enjoying the beauty of Kashmir.