A France we must visit

Fathima Sheikh on the neglect and callousness which has left France Colony a derelict, hazardous settlement

A France we must visit
They’re not from France.
They don’t speak French.
But they call themselves the residents of a France Colony in the heart of Islamabad.

France Colony, whose only resemblance to modern-day France is that both are inhabited by people of Christian heritage, is located in F7/4. It is a major slum in Islamabad that has almost 8,000 residents.The residents took up the name ‘France Colony’ after the French Embassy, that had its headquarters in the same area,left. The closed colony is now occupied by the poorer Christian community in Islamabad and stretches for five streets, from street 47 to street 51 on Bhittai Road, right next to the infamous Jinnah Super Market.

In Islamabad, France Colony sits in muted isolation, only acknowledged when necessary. For the wealthy residents, the colony functions like a Quality Street box present: only when they’re out of all their other options do Islamabadis visit France Colony to pick up help. For them, entering the colony to look for workers is a lot like picking through the age-old chocolate box, trying to test your luck with the variety of strange choices. The purple, the green, the orange and the red translate to the variety of the underpaid help: the overworked construction worker, the Jinnah Market prostitute, the strange dizzy man, the slow street beggar and the little child labourer. The elite residents who want to test out these services go into the colony and cherry-pick according to their insular desires in a five-second drill. They enter and roam around the homes to find an able-bodied man or woman to clean their homes. If it works out, the lucky ‘French’ have a job and if it doesn’t, the elite go off in search of a new recruit.

Last week I visited the colony. As I walked with Shameem, a 43-year-old cleaning lady who was hunted down by a ‘madam sahib’ on her stroll through the colony with two bodyguards, Shameem told me her living conditions were getting worse. She claimed that although she worked three jobs, her home was a hazard.

We entered from Bhittai Road but as we went deeper into the colony, I suddenly stopped at a green waterway which Shameem casually leaped over. She hopped first and waited for me. I put one foot forward and looked at my shadow in the mucky green water full of filth and grime. The open drain beneath me carried a Coca Cola can, candy wrappers, broken plastic, shrubby tendrils and human waste. Hesitantly, I skipped over the thin green canal and made it next to Shameem, trying to hide my disgust. But Shameem smirked; she stated that this unhygienic water – naked to the residents of both the colony and parts of Islamabad – traveled from E/7, crawled through the colony and eventually slithered into Rawalpindi. I asked her if anything had been done about covering the open drain and she told me a story about her neighbour who complained about it to the local authorities.

Shameem told me about Manzoor, a construction worker and father of three children, who had complained to the CDA (Capital Developmental Authority) of his living conditions. He had filed a complaint against the open drain, the constant load-shedding, the unfair and extremely high WAPDA electricity bills, the naked telecom wires that hung over his thatched roof and the Jinnah Market restaurants that dumped their wasted food near the colony’s end. He had fought with the authorities for the sake of his children and tried to involve his neighbours. But Shameem insisted that the Christian community, which is already a minority in Islamabad, didn’t want to come under the limelight and feared that they would eventually just be harassed by the CDA and the Islamabad police. And thus, they didn’t support Manzoor. This happened in 2013.
In showing me how she lived, Shameem gave me a tour of my ignorance. For, having sat with her for a while, I realised how she and I lived a world apart in the same city

Manzoor still lives in the colony. He just doesn’t complain anymore.

Upon arrival, I observed that Shameem’s home was an old quarter.It was a one-story, two-bedroom, three-year-old thatched-up quarter. Although parts of it were made of cement, it didn’t have a door. A long black cloth hung at the opening, so she announced our arrival before we entered. Inside, the windows were also covered by cloth and two steel bowls sat at each corner and collected the water dripping from a pipe that ran above Shameem’s wall. Shameem placed her bag at the door, and we sat outside. I learnt that not only did Shameem live by an open sewage drain but occasionally suffered from its unhygienic water spill. In the past year, she had visited the local doctor four times, only to be told that she had a seasonal flu. The fifth time, she visited the city doctor and he told her she had salmonella in her system and gave her typhoid medication. Although Shameem is well, her neighbours, who used to pay regular visits to the doctor, have now stopped going after being prescribed the same medications throughout the year.

In showing me how she lived, Shameem gave me a tour of my ignorance. For, having sat with her for a while, I realised how she and I lived a world apart in the same city. To me, she was living in a drug- and disease-infested slum that was deprived of electricity, clean water, protection and basic doors. Her conditions were ignored by local authorities and she was barely surviving. But to her, she was living in the heart of Islamabad: near the biggest market, working for elite households and earning more money than her neighbours.I was both inspired and devastated at how she measured her worth – not according to elite Islamabadi terms, but as a local community worker who was lucky enough to live in the city.

It amazed me that she was thankful, and it hurt me at how this society had failed her. She lived five minutes away from me but her home was in the middle of an unending crisis that was never being treated as such. Without a word, she made me think about my own notions and actions.

Shameem’s condition is actually better than a majority of the thousands of people who live in France Colony. She had the luck to survive four fevers, the means to afford a city doctor and the immune system to still cross a filthy drain.

Protecting the minorities who are forced to live in a dirty environment and clean our houses, Islamabadis will have to take a much more socially conscious view of the world than they have at present. At the very least, at some point, they will have to hold the CDA to account. And although the Masihi Foundation has set up a school to educate the colony’s children, it is time Islamabadis educate themselves on the conditions of the France we don’t want to tour.

Image Credits - Saira Ali, https://sairaalikhan.wordpress.com

The white walls around this colony protect fragile Islamabadis from witnessing what occurs inside the settlement that has been infiltrated with drugs, narcotics and ignorance. This boxed community isn’t provided for, but rather, only provides. These are the people who build our institutions but never enter them, provide their bodies but are never respected, clean our houses but live in muck. Thus, it is high time that the elite of Islamabad realised the importance of the France at home. They must visit it, bring awareness and take an action against the terrible conditions of the people who have helped this city in numerous ways.