Fourth of July in Kashmir

I’ll never forget the first time I experienced the 4th of July in Kashmir. We accidentally caused the Indian military to think a militant attack was happening in our neighborhood.

It was the summer of 2005 and Kashmir still had some lingering effects from the more intense period of militancy of the 1990s. One of them was that many Kashmiris in Srinagar didn’t stay out late once it got dark at night. There were several police and military checkpoints on the road and people didn’t feel safe at night. Our landlords at that time were always concerned about us if we came back home after dark.

There were a few other American expats living in Srinagar. Something I have come to observe about us Americans is that we like to celebrate our national holidays regardless of what country we are living in.

That summer a small gathering was planned by the American expats to celebrate America’s Independence Day, the 4th of July. There would be a cookout to grill hamburgers and enjoy some other familiar American foods. And of course there would be fireworks.

One of the American guys had gone to the local police station earlier that week to let them know about these plans and find out if it was okay to set off fireworks at it. Fireworks were easily available in the local market, and were often used at weddings and some religious holidays. From what I was told the police officials said it was okay and they had no issues with it.

Our landlords knew we would be out that night, but I don’t think we said anything about fireworks or the 4th of July being an American holiday. The event was also in the same neighborhood and it didn’t seem like anything too out of the ordinary to mention.

Once evening approached we got ready to light the fireworks. The guys who had bought the fireworks in the market didn’t really know what kind they had gotten. They just bought a bunch of different ones to try out. Some looked familiar, kind of like black cats, but with others it was hard to tell what they might be like. We just had to light them and find out.

After lighting some of the smaller ones that gave off the usual bang we started lighting the bigger ones. These were much louder. Way louder than we expected. They were also a bit out of control. Stuff started shooting out of them randomly, like bottle rockets, with some going up super high but others flying out sideways and almost hitting people or the house we had gathered at. A few of us looked at each other, wondering if all this racket was okay. The booms were echoing out over all the whole neighborhood. Some of the fireworks were more like ones you might see at a fireworks show in the US, not ones you could buy over the counter at a fireworks stand.

We pressed on, lighting off every single one and thankfully no one got injured and nothing burned down. We had a good laugh about how crazy that was and how unexpected the size of the fireworks were. Eventually we all got ready to head back to our homes.

We lived in the neighborhood so we began walking down the street to go through the neighborhood bazaar and then on to our house. As we got near the bazaar we noticed several Indian soldiers standing around along with a few military jeeps. Given that this was Kashmir it wasn’t too unusual, but it wasn’t something we had seen before in this neighborhood.

One of the soldiers called out to us to stop. It was dark and at first I don’t know if they knew we were foreigners or not. One of the officers spoke English and asked us what we were doing and where we were going. Apparently the news was that a huge militant attack might be happening in the area and lots of officials were alarmed and on high alert. This officer wasn’t too happy when he found out it was a group of Americans setting off fireworks for an American holiday. He didn’t care who had given permission for it. His superior officer had gotten tons of phone calls about all the blasts and no one knew what in the world was going on.

They let us continue walking home and when we got there we found our landlords greatly worried about us. They didn’t know what was happening either and weren’t sure if we were safe. They told us the whole bazaar had quickly closed their shops when the loud blasts began and everyone hurried home thinking maybe there was a militant attack.

We felt horrible.

That incident has stuck with me for all these years. I never felt like celebrating the 4th of July again in Kashmir. To do so seemed weird and rather ethnocentric. I felt like the stereotypical ugly American who imposes my culture on everyone else, while remaining ignorant of the different culture that is around me. Fireworks may have been common in Srinagar, but for events where the whole community knew what was happening.

There were so many things we were clueless and careless about when we celebrated that day in Kashmir. Maybe it wasn’t a big deal and I should have laughed it off as a fun story to tell. It is funny in a certain way. But it also revealed certain weaknesses of my own culture that I found and continue to find uncomfortable. Namely our pride, ignorance and arrogance.

On the 4th of July I have mixed feelings. I am thankful to be an American. I recognize that I enjoy many privileges and opportunities in life that have come simply because I was born in the USA. The freedom we have in America didn’t come cheaply. However, the COVID-19 pandemic, George Floyd’s death, and Black Lives Matter have shown us that life and freedom in America can be far messier and tragic than we might imagine. When we celebrate let’s not make an idol out of freedom when it comes at the expense of others.

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