Every few years when I have to acquire a new passport I dread the exercise and keep putting it off. But finally the deed has to be done and I gear myself up for the ordeal.
This time around as I drive to the passport office through the thick morning fog, my dread increases with each mile. It is not just the daunting prospect of standing for hours in long queues, amongst impatient women shoving and pushing to enter the building. It is something else, something more palpable that I fear. I stand for what seems like hours behind the narrow claustrophobic confines of the steel bars. Inside surprisingly it is all quite orderly and organized. As instructed I take a seat awaiting my turn. An abaya clad woman comes and sits beside me. She has recognized me from my PTV drama days of the past and after an exchange of pleasantries proceeds to enlighten me on various topics including extended family history, the inevitable troublesome in laws and of course husband dear who works in faraway Botswana in the heart of darkness. She tells me that as a young girl she was an avid filmgoer, loved music and had even taken lessons in classical singing. The animated eyes peer through her niqaab as she smiles in recollection of youthful extravagances, “But now of course I do not listen to music” she says emphatically, wrapping the abaaya tightly around her, continuing her saga of family travails. Her brother married a German woman who converted to Islam, they live in Germany. Their twenty year old only son was killed in a car accident recently. She then informs me that her nephew was not really a practicing Muslim and God took him away so young to prevent him from sinning further. She affirms her faith in the infallibility of the Almighty and the unfathomable ways in which he works with an air of sanctimonious righteousness. I stare at her aghast.
Mercifully my token number is flashed on the screen and I walk toward the counter. A form is thrust into my hand which I am required to sign and handover at the last counter. I look down at the form, the words blurred and diffused and my discomfort grows. These few lines which further demonize an already persecuted and tormented community declare:
1. “I do not recognize any person who claims to be a prophet in any sense of the word or of any description whatsoever or claims to be a prophet or a religious reformer as a Muslim.
2. I consider Mirza Ghulam Ahmad Qadiani to be an imposter Nabi and also consider his followers whether belonging to the Lahore or Qadiani group to be non-Muslim”
I hand over the unsigned form back to the man at the counter and ask him what would happen if I do not sign it. He looks at me suspiciously, checks my data on the computer before him and tells me since I am a Muslim I would not get the passport unless I sign the declaration.
[quote]I stand there and in that moment I face up to the bitter reality that my conscience is of no consequence[/quote]
I stand there and in that moment I face up to the bitter reality that my conscience is of no consequence, my secular convictions, progressive ideals, a lifetime of activism, of standing up for justice and the truth are all going to be compromised. I am being held hostage once again, as I am every time I apply for a new passport. I am being coerced to validate an ideology so dehumanizing, so demeaning and so intolerant that my whole being revolts against it. With trembling hands and a sense of impotent rage I sign and walk out of the building feeling utterly humiliated and defeated.
The fog outside has lifted as I drive back home, the weak sunlight reflects on the large glass windows of the shops on the Boulevard. I notice something strange. I slow down. The mannequins behind the glass around whose slender torsos are draped gaudy brocades and shiny banarsi silks are all headless!
I look again at the decapitated dummies, so menacing in all their splendour. When did this beheading happen, I wonder, as I drive on. An eerie silence echoes my despondent mood.
Next week when I return to collect my passport and drive along the Boulevard, the headless mannequins will emerge from behind the fog to haunt me forever.