Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Dream of Pakistan's Cap (Part 3)

Ahmedis in Pakistan

Even though over 60,000 Ahmadis live in Rabwah, there is no safety in numbers. The misery of being constantly hounded never fades. In Rabwah's main library, a case that used to hold translations of the Quran has been emptied for fear of the potential repercussions. Ahmadis can't be seen to be keeping copies of the Quran, and Ahmadi translations or interpretations of the text can also be problematic. Just months earlier an Ahmadi man was sentenced to prison for eight years for allegedly selling religious texts in his shop. The library entrance now bears a sign saying that the facility is only for Ahmadis.

Over the last six years Naveed has felt the mood in the cricketing milieu shift to outright hostility against Ahmadis. These long-held prejudices - cemented in schools, in the law, and in daily life - play out across Pakistan, and have managed to creep into the Ahmadis' home ground in Rabwah.

"There are many teams that come from Faisalabad and they'll play the match but won't eat," Naveed tells me, switching between dense Punjabi and Urdu. "They'll play the match. Won't eat," he repeats, as if still incredulous that people can go without food to maintain their prejudices. "I think we once had chicken [for the teams' lunch], and this kid from Saeed Ajmal's academy came to me and said: 'Naveed bhai, aap murghi halal karte ho?' (Do you slaughter the chicken according to Islamic dictates?) I said, thank God, I'm a better Muslim than you."

Another visiting cricketer insisted his team had to go for Friday prayers to a mosque, but then refused to pray with the Ahmadis at the time they were going to pray, or to pray at the ground, because the cricketer said they would have to listen to the Ahmadi prayer leader's sermon.

Because the prayer times were different, the match was in danger of being called off. They eventually packed off the visiting team to a nearby non-Ahmadi mosque, and the ensuing match was tinged with bitterness. This has happened more often in recent years, Naveed says, as the influence of religion in cricket has crept into the lowest levels of the game. Some teams don't care about the faith of Rabwah's cricketers. Others can't afford to care, because they want to curry favour with the club's coach or play at their ground.

On this Sunday morning, the players of the Zain Cricket Club have driven all the way from Faisalabad in a van, and don't know why their hosts are so late. When Abdul Haye, Fazl-e-Umar's coach, finally emerges, he has a good reason for not being there: he had delayed the match because of dew on the ground.

The reason why cricket thrives in this blighted town is this ground, a thing of beauty: an expanse of curated grass, a practice area, a smooth pitch and an 80-metre boundary. Trees frame the property and the red rock hills loom in the background.

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