My first application for a Pakistani visa was scoffed at the embassy in Phnom Penh, where I had been working. I had prepared the documents to the exact specifications requested by the embassy, and I was assured over the phone that the process would be straightforward.
After a long wait, the consulate official finally arrived. I greeted him with the traditional As-salam Alaikum I’d used since I was a child, hoping our shared Islamic heritage might smooth over the process. He replied warmly enough and began reviewing my paperwork for a minute or two before he paused.
“Where are you from? What is your origin?”
I explained that I was American, most recently living in New York. He seemed dissatisfied. I heard that follow-up question, dreaded by every American immigrant; but by this time I was half expecting it.
“But where are your parents from?”
So close are the two nations, and the inherited culture I manifested, that at this point in the conversation I was passably Pakistani, but plausibly Indian. Before I could answer, he had flipped back to my passport where the Place of Birth field belied my Indian ancestry. It seemed as if a switch dictating politeness and intimacy flipped instantly inside his brain.
Where moments earlier he had been helpful, even warm, he now refused to make eye contact — the political reality driving a firm wedge between us. Earlier I had been told the application would be quick, no more than a few days. It would now take “weeks, or probably more” to get the proper clearances from the necessary ministries responsible for Indian visitors. It didn’t matter that I had an American passport; that I had lived in the States my entire life. The two months I spent in India before I could even crawl were apparently deemed a sufficient security risk.
Almost suddenly, errors popped up throughout my application. My invitation letter wasn’t typed on the right type of paper. The letter, though notarized, was not completed by the appropriate court system. More sinister, the official insinuated that my Pakistani friend intentionally submitted incomplete paperwork. He could not have genuinely wanted to invite an Indian American.
That was my first attempt.
I couldn’t remember the last time I was so excited to go somewhere new. I had already visited some 40 odd countries, attempting naively with each to broaden my understanding of the world. But there was something especially evocative about the Islamic Republic of Pakistan.
Perhaps it was Pakistan’s monolithic representation in American media, always mentioned alongside drone strikes or terror attacks.
Perhaps it was the forbidden nature of the voyage, doubly reinforced for me as an Indian-American; the two nations Pakistan has the most fraught relationships with.
Perhaps as a South Asian Muslim, it was the indignation of a birthright interminably delayed due to political complications. After all, Pakistan was created in 1947 in the spirit of inviting and protecting the rights of Muslims.
My family, then nestled in the relative security of Muslim-majority Hyderabad in Southern India, decided to stay. But many others didn’t. Amidst a slightly different situation, I just as easily could have been born in Pakistan. I was, of course, as proud an Indian as any, but that never hampered my curiosity for my fraternal state.
My initial failure only made me strive harder to acquire the necessary visa. By this time, I was already in India, which felt like applying for a South Korean visa from Pyongyang. Almost everyone I knew had only ever visited either India or Pakistan, never both. I knew countless Pakistani Americans who were denied Indian visas, or vice versa. Most, expecting the difficulty, simply never tried.
So I asked around; everyone I could think of that might know someone who could help. Success came through a college roommate who knew an Embassy official in the US, who miraculously approved my visa request.
I had to undergo a logistical nightmare involving sending my passport with my dad from Hyderabad to Phoenix for him to mail domestically to a friend in Chicago. He would apply for my visa on my behalf and then FedEx it to another friend in Rishikesh in India (while I was in transit, without a fixed address). She would have to fill out extensive paperwork to legally “import” my passport into India, while I waited patiently and undocumented.
But somehow it all worked out. I almost couldn’t believe my eyes when I finally had the visa in hand. It was an almost spiritual experience. Awash with emotion, I realized that I soon may actually be able to make that forbidden journey to a yet unknown, but strangely familiar land.
Passport and visa finally in hand, I boarded a train from Rishikesh to Amritsar, the closest Indian city to Lahore, Pakistan, only 50km east. My journey elicited stories from others also personally impacted by the Partition of India and Pakistan. I had an overnight layover at a train station in Ambala, India where a Pakistani friend told me his grandparents lived before Partition. An Indian friend asked me to find the home his father had left in Lahore. Partition felt like recent history, despite having taken place 70 years ago.
It was on the eve of August 15, 1947; a day etched into the minds of over a billion South Asians — of Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis — and their diaspora the world over. The British were finally going to pack up and leave the subcontinent after over a century of rule, having exhausted themselves in the bloody tumult of the Second World War.
As exciting and momentous of this day of self-governance was, there was a downside. British India would be partitioned into two sovereign states; India with a majority Hindu population, and Pakistan drawn out where there was a majority Muslim population. Even worse, many of the communities near the newly drawn borders of these two states were, naturally, religiously mixed. Owing to the fervent nationalism and sectarianism of the day, there was significant tension and downright violence, as migrants scrambled to move to the “right” side of the line.
It was, and still remains, the largest mass migration in human history. 14.5 million people left everything they had ever known, to move to a new country amidst violence where over a million people lost their lives. The scars of that brutal displacement are still with us today, in the political and military rivalry between India and Pakistan — the same rivalry that makes it all but impossible for Indians and Pakistanis to visit each other over that prohibited border.
I arrived at Amristar Junction around 9:15 AM, eager to head early to the Wagah Border to solve any issues I was almost certain would arise. I hailed a cab and explained my destination to the driver. He was a bit taken aback; he’d taken many tourists there to see the border ceremony, but I would be his first passenger to attempt to cross. The 40-minute drive was filled with anticipation. I finally reached the Attari Integrated Check Post where my passport and visas were verified, and the taxi driver’s license held before we were allowed to enter.
I’d approached the border many times before but never succeeded in crossing. Nearly 10 years ago, I came to Wagah to witness the daily military parade. Like every other visitor in attendance, without a visa, the border seemed unpassable, just a symbolic placeholder where the two nations engaged in a strange display of militaristic nationalism.
(An Indian soldier performs what I can only imagine is the military equivalent of flipping off, across the Wagah border to Pakistan — Mar 16, 2017)
I’d visited other parts of the 2,900 km border before: a heavily militarized Indian Kashmir that appeared to house more soldiers than residents. From Jaisalmer, Rajasthan, I ventured into Great Thar Desert towards Sindh, Pakistan. I was stopped just close enough to glimpse the faint glow of the gigantic floodlights that illuminate and secure the border (visible below from space). Any closer, I was told, would require an almost impossible-to-attain permit.
That day I was, unexpectedly, the only American crossing the border. I was joined by a few working class Indians: some Kashmiris and a few Sikh pilgrims visiting temples in Pakistani Punjab. I was able to chat with a few of the Kashmiris making the voyage who were visiting relatives separated by Partition. Hamed was attempting to cross the border to meet his relatives in Muzzafarabad, Azad Kashmir, Pakistan.
Unfortunately, 20 million Kashmiris have been embroiled in a conflict between the two powers, with some families split across the militarized border. Hamed now needs to spend over 24 hours to cross the open border at Wagah even though his home in Srinagar is only 170 km from Muzzafarabad. Interestingly, Hamed had the opposite problem that I did. Due to the intense security situation in Indian Administered Kashmir, he has a hard time getting an Indian passport, but Pakistan readily issued him the tourist visa.
The check post was reminiscent of the departure terminal of an international airport, only much simpler and with much tighter security. Security was ramped up with military presence seemingly around all sides.
I had never encountered such thorough examination. Simply entering the check post building necessitated a thorough frisking and the inspection of every nook and cranny of my bags, not excluding investigating my eyeglass cases for contraband, before the bags were even x-rayed. A border agent reviewed my passport and visas before ushering me towards customs clearance.
There were a number of seemingly arbitrary restrictions that worried me. No Indian or Pakistani currency was allowed to be brought, but American dollars were fine. Getting caught crossing the border with any older, pre-demonetization notes, even accidentally, would be considered illegal smuggling. I didn’t want to find out what that would entail.
I had meticulously prepared backup documents: duplicates of invitation letters, passport copies, photos, anything I could think of that’s absence might have my crossing rejected. I held my breath at each step, convinced that a wrong answer or a misstep would get me denied, detained, or worse. I kept my answers brief and to the point. I had almost made it.
It was hard to believe. I would be one of very few to have direct experience of both India and Pakistan, communities cleaved apart after Partition that had lived peaceably for centuries. I was about to see through my very own eyes, how Pakistan actually was; how it compared to its international perceptions, and maybe more interestingly, how it compared to its sibling rival, India.
I was about to cross the border deemed the world’s most dangerous by the Economist just a few years ago. After three and a half hours, and what seemed like a dozen reviews of my passport, I had made it. I received permission to cross over and take my first steps into Pakistan.
I couldn’t believe it. I would be the first in my family to ever visit Pakistan; a nation close to my heart as a South Asian Muslim, a nation separated from me as an Indian American. I couldn’t wait to see it all.
Next stop: Lahore.
* All photos and videos of the border were taken by me. Except for the one from the space. I did not, unfortunately, receive a visa to board the International Space Station.
This article originally appeared on Future Travel and is republished here with permission.
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