This winter, just after Christmas, I found out that my friend Rashid Dongola had passed away. I met Rashid in Kashmir when I was working on my Enemies Project in that mythical seeming land that lies on the border of India and Pakistan.
Rashid was one of the many families that own houseboats on Dal Lake in Kashmir, and I met him because I ended up staying with his family while I was trying to bring together people from opposite sides of the brutal and long simmering border conflict that is Kashmir.
I hadn’t planned to stay on a houseboat, but the situation in Kashmir, was becoming unstable, and a Kashmiri friend encouraged us, saying that a houseboat would be the safest option. He introduced me to Rashid who lived with his extended family in a small boat and a handful of buildings built around a dock behind their floating hotel, the Kashmir Hilton.
I didn’t know much about the fabled history of the Dal Lake houseboats before going to Kashmir. These crazy, luxurious boats were originally created as a way for British and other foreigners to own houses in Kashmir after Britain took over the territory. Then they became an exotic escape for the rich and famous in the 50’s and 60’s. They really do have a crazy and fascinating history.
My assistant, Alex, and I spent a night in the expensive and very old school luxury of the family’s floating hotel, the Kashmir Hilton. After one night I politely told Rashid that we would have to find other accommodations that were more affordable, and he immediately invited us to stay with them behind the hotel.
Rashid and his family accepted us so easily and graciously into their world. We ate every meal with them, went swimming with their niece, hung out and played card games with them. It was a beautiful way to escape the sharp and bitter military and political tension that filled the city just beyond the shore.
Some days I would come back from a day of threading my way through security personnel and street barriers to meet with independence activists and former militants, and Rashid would invite me to share a smoke with him on the porch or on the roof of the houseboat. He eventually stopped asking me if I wanted a smoke, but I appreciated the gesture. Rashid sometimes invited friends such as an Indian lawyer who was in Kashmir to help Kashmiri women who had lost their husbands to Indian Security.
Rashid was a man out of another time. Sitting on the roof of the Kashmir Hilton and drinking Kashmiri tea or sipping whiskey while we watched the sunset, he told us how he traveled across Europe selling Kashmiri crafts when he was young. Today this is unimaginable. Kashmiris often cannot get passports and if they do, many if not most western nations require travelers from lesser developed countries to prove that they have significant financial resources just to get a visa.
Even beyond this, the houseboat people in Kashmir are in a strange position today. Many other Kashmiris who I talked to don’t consider them to be fully Kashmiri, which is odd because they are just as Kashmiri as any of the other groups who have lived in the valley for generations or centuries. When I asked about it, the people I spoke to seemed to think that most of the houseboat families were probably part foreign, because they have been hosting foreigners for so long now. I think that it is mostly envy – the houseboats have long been a way to make a living in a land that has become challenging to live in from any perspective.
Back in the day houseboat owners may have served rock stars, actors and the wealthy, but that was decades ago. Nowadays the on and off again violence in Kashmir has decimated the tourist industry, and owning a houseboat is no guarantee of income and expensive to repair. Now that Rashid has passed away his family is struggling to make ends meet.
I’ll leave this post with another handful of photos from Dal Lake and the Dongolas. I hope that you enjoy them, and message me if you would like to visit this beautiful place so I can connect you with Rashid’s wonderful family.
A little side note: I decided to write this after I saw a really good article about Kashmiri saffron and how it is becoming harder and harder to grow due to climate change and the continued violence of the region. Here’s the article…