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Theatre on the border
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 18 - 04 - 2019

Ever since 1959, a couple of hours before the sun sets border guards from Pakistan and India line up in a large stadium. Each group stands on its side of the famous Wagah border between the two countries where they perform a stunning and theatrical ceremony. They lower their flags in a military exercise of quick and intricate manoeuvres, with some acrobatic dancing by injured soldiers to demonstrate that injury does not hinder combat capabilities.
Soldiers on both sides move quickly, kicking their knees and legs as high as they can in the air as a way of symbolising the rivalry between the two neighbours. While I saw the ceremony as a symbol of kinship and cooperation, many might disagree.
I arrived in Wagah near Lahore in the Punjab province of Pakistan two hours before the ceremony began. I parked my car some distance away and walked through a sea of people until I had reached the stadium. I found a spot in the front row and was quite surprised by the cheerful spirit of both the audience and the soldiers. Everyone was very welcoming.
I was further stunned because I thought this would be a place of strict military regimen, but it turned out that anyone could walk onto the field at leisure and take pictures with and of the soldiers. I noticed that the stadium was divided into two halves separated by iron gates, something that to me meant the two sides had cooperated in building it.
The Wagah border was the main crossing point for migrants from both countries when India and Pakistan were partitioned some 70 years ago. Many people died at this border crossing, which was essentially the only gateway between the two countries.
The ceremony began with a spectacular parade by the Pakistani side, and I believe the same was happening on the Indian side although I could not see it from my vantage point. During the two-hour ceremony the crowd sang anthems and patriotic songs, with each side trying to drown out the other. On the Pakistani side, I could barely hear the Indians singing over the loud cacophony.
The ceremony ended with both sides lowering their flags and infantry soldiers standing on both sides of the gate. As the sun set, the iron gates separating the two sides opened and the flags were folded simultaneously. The ceremony ended with a stern handshake between one soldier from each side, and the gates were quickly closed again.
I left and walked back to my car. On my way back to Lahore, I thought that these soldiers would now be sitting down to drink tea grown in both countries as they daydreamed of the day when peace would prevail. A day would come when they would drink tea together instead of across from each other divided by an iron gate, I thought.


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