Most of the audience had scurried to the cafe upstairs before the lights had been flicked on, the credits had begun rolling and the half-hour break between the films being played at the film festival had properly begun. By the time we had climbed the flight of stairs leading to the small cafe, there was no space left for us there. We tried awkwardly loitering by a small table laden with board games and little odds and ends for a little while.

Aware of how odd we were looking just standing around like that, we decided to look for somewhere else to sit. He picked up the guitar with a broken string, available for anyone to just grab and play, and headed for the small balcony that functions as the smoking area of the cafe.

I steeled myself. Allergic to cigarette smoke, I usually start coughing rather violently if someone smokes a few yards away. However, this time the choice was between exposure to carcinogens and being left to stand awkwardly by myself with nothing to do other than poking at the dice that lay next to a game of Snakes and Ladders. Obviously, I chose the former, taking a deep breath and letting peer pressure force me into the smoking area.

It wasn't so bad, initially, probably because the balcony was open and fresh air kept wafting in. He began strumming on the guitar. My feet began tapping in time with the rhythm while my hands busied themselves in sending a few dozen texts. It took me a while to realize we had company.

I cannot recall if they'd been sitting there when we walked in, or if they had arrived when I wasn't paying attention, but there were two others with us, a man and a woman.

He was tall and broad and bearded, and wore a very creased pale green kurta. He was standing, leaning on the wall. She was dark and deathly thin and sat with her elbows on the table. A bright red phone lay near her right hand, which was currently occupied.

She was smoking.

I forcibly turned my head away from her and began staring into the depths of a pedestal fan beside me, partly to save the glowing end of her cigarette from one of my death-glares, and partly in an attempt to minimize the smoke that reached my lungs.

The whirring of the fan, the twangs from my companion's guitar, and my own deliberately minimal breathing left my mind in a sort of trance, one where it becomes easy to pay attention to conversations - so easy, in fact, that they become embedded into your memory.

He had missed the film about the Afghani girls who had formed a football team after the Taliban has been forced out of Kabul. She had seen it more than once. She had even worked with the organization that had made the film; she was a freelancer. He was interested and pressed her for information. She gladly gave it. He ran out of questions and the conversation became trivial.

"That's Arabic? What does it say?" he asked. I turned to face the two in time to see him point at a shiny metallic bracelet she wore on her left wrist.

She gave the slightest of shrugs. "Oh, it's just the four Quls."

"So you're religious?"

"I'm an atheist," she replied almost callously, shrugging again.

For a split second, something horribly like seething rage washed over me. Then, as suddenly as it had come, it evaporated, only to be replaced by shame and bewilderment. I was confused about what had just happened to me. Quickly, I reassessed everything that had taken place in the past minute or so to figure out what had enraged me so before asking myself a few questions. Did I have a problem with atheism? No, I replied to myself, I did not. People have the right to believe in or not believe in whatever they like. And yet, something about the woman's callousness had upset me.

It was in that split second that I understood the foundation of all the religious intolerance around us, from the strict, scarily ridiculous Blasphemy laws, to minority discrimination. With something as personal as religion, differences in beliefs can feel a lot like a personal attack.

In the same split second, I also realized the true meaning of religious tolerance. It is not 'religious indifference' which is what, I now understand, most of my non-religious 'secular' friends practice. No, tolerance means accepting that people may do, say, or believe in things that might upset you and also accept that they have the right to do so - unless of course, it's a personal attack, but we're not getting into that - and that while you also have the right to be upset about it, talk about it, or even write a blog post about it, you do not have the right to harm them for their views or force your views on them.


Rahima said...

T2f? =)

I really liked this :)

Asad said...

Yeah. Where else? :P

Thank you.

Jaza said...

I like your style. You spoke about an important issue and your tone wasn't condescending or offensive at all. Loved the last para. Most people don't know the difference. Even I didn't, till recently.

Fatin said...

I remember how intrigued I was when you mentioned this. :)
Thank God for those of us who do know the difference.

Aisha said...

This was really good. I have to thank jaza for making me read this. I'm still gonna try jaza. Like i said there will be no forcing. I promise.

Awais Aftab said...

A good blog post. Here I might mention that tolerance has to be earned, and only the tolerant can expect to be tolerated. If a Muslim believes that a blasphemer ought to be killed and that an apostate ought to be killed, then he is not worthy of any respect and tolerance, because by being intolerant himself, he has lost that privilege. At least then he should not expect any tolerance from those apostates n atheists. Otherwise, I am all in favor of religious tolerance.

dreamcatcher said...

I like this post.

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