I spent the day before Valentine’s Day in Karachi, Pakistan’s biggest city, as I always have: Pulling out my mother’s stack of heart-shaped cake tins from our kitchen cabinet and filling them with vanilla sponge batter. While the cakes rose, I squeezed red food coloring into a bowl of imported buttercream frosting that I bought from the foreign goods aisle of our local supermarket. Earlier in the day, the Islamabad High Court had ordered a ban on public celebrations of the holiday across the country — and demanded that all print and electronic media be monitored, lest outlets feature any love-obsessed coverage.
When a bomb went off in Lahore during a protest, killing at least 13 people, critics on social media were quick to mock the court: “Suicide blast in Lahore,” wrote one. “But don’t worry. The courts are busy crushing bigger terror: Valentine’s Day.” Not long after, two people were killed in another of the country’s big cities, Quetta, when a team gathered to defuse an improvised explosive device.
The explosions were not related to the controversy over Valentine’s Day, I can’t help but fuse them in my mind. One event caused infinitely more pain than the other, but both snatched something away: the right to life, and the freedom to lavishly display love.
Back in Karachi, I stood in line at a bakery, waiting to buy cupcakes heaped with red sprinkles. When I mentioned the court’s order to the cashier, he responded with a laugh. “Ma’am,” he said. “This is Pakistan. If something is banned, people only run after it faster.”
My next stop was a road junction outside a shopping center I used to visit as a child. The sidewalks were lined with vendors inflating metallic red and silver balloons. These men had been standing by their carts all day in the heat. I doubt they had had a chance to listen to the news — and even so, I doubt they would let it get in the way of their livelihoods. “The balloons are for Valentine’s Day,” one of them announced as I approach, encouraging me to buy a red heart-shaped one. I tied its white string around my wrist as I stepped back into the car.
When I returned home, the cakes were out of the oven and I labeled them as I swirled on frosting. These will go to my grandparents, my aunts, my mother’s friends, old teachers. I’ve come back to Pakistan after seven years abroad — I’m almost 25, but I feel 16. I remember getting dropped off at school with glittery cards hidden beneath my books, cards I’d stayed up late to make the night before. My mother, who went a step beyond encouraging Valentine’s Day and actually insisted on it, wished me luck as I made my way to the gates praying not to be discovered by the security guard busy checking everyone’s bags. Our school, thought to be one of the most liberal in the city, strictly prohibited even a flash of red every Feb. 14.
And it apparently still does. “Are you allowed to celebrate Valentine’s Day now?” I asked my little cousin recently.
“We celebrate,” she replied. “But obviously the teachers make faces.”
It seems little has changed. The voices pinning Valentine’s Day as an anti-Islamic holiday are still loud and unforgiving. Last year, Jamaat-e-Islami, an Islamist political party, organized protests with one of its leaders claiming that the holiday “encourages relationships that are beyond what is appropriate,” and the president himself said that the holiday has “no connection with our culture.”
It’s these voices, factions and authorities that make the headlines. It’s fear — and the narrow-minded judgment that produces it — that appears to prevail. Not love.
But love is, and has always been, all around. We’re teeming with it.
A shop selling chocolate cookies in my neighborhood offered Valentine’s Day discounts; florists will make a little extra money to help feed their children. And I, after all these years, will take a cake over to my grandfather’s house and cut him a slice to have with his tea. He is getting old and losing his hearing, and I don’t want to miss a chance to say Happy Valentine’s Day.