My friend Jason continues his Murree Memories in today’s post. For those of you who missed last week’s post on Murree take a look here.
I’ve been back to Murree several times in the past few years, and each of these visits has given rise to mixed emotions. Sadly, the old feel of the place is gone. It’s no longer an out-of-the-way resort town moving at a leisurely pace. The town has been grossly overdeveloped. Innumerable hotels, all uniformly ugly, are built over the hillsides to accommodate the influx of domestic tourists who now come in great numbers from the populous and bustling cities down country. Traffic jams choke the roads. Many of the old buildings remain, but are now either derelict or crowded about on all sides by the new grotesque tourist hives. A garish Post Office has replaced the old building, and an enormous new hotel towers behind it. The old colonial air is much fainter now. Public waste bins, painted hopefully with the words “Use Me,” stand overflowing and unattended.
And yet I found some features of the place had the power to cheer and still charm me. “Tikka Alley,” the short and narrow street famous for its barbecued fare, remains much as it did decades ago. Skinned chickens and cuts of beef and mutton are hung outside the eatery doors, then skewered and grilled above open coals. Aromatic curried smoke fills the alleyway, burning the eyes and arousing the appetite.
In Murree, as elsewhere in Pakistan, the warmth of many common people is endearing. Nearly every “Asalaam aleikum” I’ve said is matched with a cheerful “Waleikum asalaam.” Striking up friendly conversations with shopkeepers remains easy, and it seems natural that in a few minutes they often freely share details about their families and sometimes invite the stranger-become-friend home for a meal.
On one visit to Murree I took high tea at Sam’s Restaurant, an old Mall landmark, which I suspect may be dated to British days. The confectionery came on fancy tiered serving trays. The elderly waiter backed away from the table deferentially. I hoped it was merely an act of simple respect and hospitality, and not something learned from an uncle who’d served the Raj and been forced to bow and scrape in the presence of the foreign overlords. In any case, the gesture was touching.
(In the late 1950s and ‘60s Sam’s hosted dance competitions held to swing music. My older brother tells me that the pleasing strains of the horns wafted across the Mall and could be heard during Evening Prayer held at Holy Trinity. The “worldly” music was of concern to the congregation’s more mature members; to the youth it was like the whiff of some forbidden intoxicant—of which they dared not partake.)
In 2007 I spent a few days in Murree. I was working elsewhere in the country and needed a getaway weekend. The changes I witnessed since my previous visit several years before were shocking. The town was almost unrecognizable in places. Unhappy with the haphazard overdevelopment and throngs of noisy tourists, I left feeling dispirited.
Still, over the next couple of years I found myself back in Murree a few more times. In my walks down the Mall I was barely irked by the cacophonous vacationers. How could I begrudge them a few days of fun in their own country? I made an unplanned visit to the dorm room I occupied when I started boarding school in first grade. One walk took me past one of my family’s old rented homes, now in a state of terrible disrepair. I met and spoke to my old childhood playmate, still living next door, and reflected on the many disparities between his life and mine.
Murree figures prominently in my memory, integral to innumerable experiences. Murree as a place gave character to those experiences, and in so doing helped form my character.
In Murree I learned how to speak and read and write. I learned of the world outside and the neighbor next door. Life in Murree, more than anywhere else, taught me the value of family and community, of loneliness and camaraderie, and of the deep spiritual needs and capacities we all have. Murree taught me of the dissonance and wonders of cross-cultural interactions, and something of what it means to have a good earthly home and yet see that home as transient.
I left Murree the last time thinking, with a little melancholy, that the dear old place has been overtaken by events. The innocent halcyon days—if they ever existed—are gone. Murree too is caught in the eddying currents of troublous modern times—unchecked population growth, political instability, rising prices, a poor economy, power shortages, and an uncertain, unpromising future.
I thought too, on that occasion, of how St Paul was keen to impress upon the readers of his epistles that the new life brought us in Jesus Christ supersedes past experiences and old sources of identity—ethnicity, tribe, culture, religion, nationality, and place. These truths first came to me in a significant way while in Murree in my youth. As I departed the last time I felt ambivalent. I was glad I’d been able to visit again,sorry I couldn’t stay longer.
As I left I remembered Paul’s words to the Philippians: “Our citizenship is in heaven.” Murree helped teach me that, too.
Thanks, Murree. I’ll always be in your debt. And you’ll always be one of my home towns.