Irreverent Reveries
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Faith has won!

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“Congratulations, brother, faith has won again,” I hear someone hail from behind. It is Abdul Qader. I have known him since our student days. I remember the last time he had greeted me thus was when Sadiq Khan was sworn into his position. “A Muslim becoming a mayor of London! Can you believe, brother? Faith has won!”

This time he seems more elated, his eyes brightened up with excitement.

“Why? What’s the matter?”

“Oh you don’t know? That Ahmadi has been kicked out?”

Atif Mian? Was he not elected as a member of Pakistan’s Economic Advisory Council just a few weeks ago? Why, what happened?”

“What do you think? He is not Muslim. Ahmadis don’t believe the Prophet as the last messenger of God. They are infidels.”

“But was he not qualified for his role? I heard he taught economics in Princeton. He is the first Pakistani to rank among the 25 brightest young economists of the world. He wrote a very important book…”

“Do you think that qualifies someone to be given such a high position in the government?”

“Erm, yes?”

“No, the Land of Pure does not need economists. We only need Muslims. Real Muslims.”

“But don’t you have plenty of them already?”

“What do you mean?”

“Do you know that Zafarullah Khan, a member of Ahmadi community, served as the first Foreign Minister in the cabinet established by Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan.”

“I refuse to believe that Qaid-e Azam (the Great Leader) had a Qadiani in his cabinet.”

“But don’t you think if they are citizens of Pakistan, they should be given equal opportunities as other citizens?”

“They are infidels and anyone who supports them is also an infidel,” his tone becomes harsh before he abandons me with my thoughts.

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Two Men and a Horse on a Truck

Papamusa is located at the semi-sacred confluence of the river Jehlum, named after the favourite horse of Alexander of Macedon, and Jerneli (General’s) road, rebuilt and rechristened by the British as Grand Trunk Road. Local legend-bearers claim that it is at Papamusa that Jehlum, having loyally carried his young and indefatigable master on his back through most of the known world of that day, gave up the ghost. Papamusa, gul samosa, as a folk dictum goes, Papamusa is the samosa of roses.

If you have ever had the opportunity to sit down in one of the greasy spoons by the GT Road to have a rejuvenating cup of a week-old tea or a bite of stale-crust naan, baked on the premises, you must have been witness to the colourful and continuous cavalcade of trucks and lorries, garishly painted like the cheeks of an old tart. Trucks honk here day and night like frogs with a mild case of flu.

A truck-driver, a modern day Alexander, pulls the reins on his four-hundred horsepower Jehlum to claim a well-deserved respite. He takes off his intricately woven leather shoes to let his tired feet breathe and sits cross-legged like a Swabian tailor (im Schneidersitz) on one of the dozen cots lying around like stray dogs on a hot day. Let’s have a sly look at his truck while he takes a nap waiting for a warm dish of helim.

The crude calligraphic hand at the front bumper of the vehicle reveals our driver’s identity as Gulfam Beg (Rose-tinted Squire) the Right Hand Left Leg Spin Bowler. The rear bumper has encouraging statements and wise aphorisms scribed above clinking chains for the benefit of Gulfam’s fellow road-users, “Horn OK please” or “Don’t mock the beggar”. The main body of the truck is adorned with three mythological figures, painted in a fusion of Pop Art and Persian miniature. Let’s have a look at these figures:

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Khizr the Green: he is the the green-robed wise man, who likes to dwell near the river banks and as a patron saint of rowers and coxswains, turns up to rescue anyone who invokes his help in a moment of crisis around a river. The legend goes that he accompanied Iskender – a figure variously equated with the aforementioned Alexander or Cyrus the Elder of Persia in oriental mythology – on Iskender’s quest of the fountain of eternal life. After having a sip of the aqua vitae himself, Khizr is said to have successfully dissuaded Iskender from drinking it, warning him of the ennui and hidden perils of the everlasting life.

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Buraq: a creature with a woman’s head and a winged horse, this figure has been inherited from the Persian miniature manuscripts. Although some claim it as the flying steed of the Prophet’s Night Journey to the heaven, the figure may have had more ancient origins rooted in the local mythology.

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Trudeau le Bel: as a leader of a New World nation, his appearance on a Papamusa truck is an unusual occurrence. He is the chief of the First and Second Nations, Quebecois and the people of Saskatchewan. According to some, Trudeau has earned this enviable place by offering refuge to Malala, a girl shot for writing a blog, after she was refused shelter by Trumpet the Yellow-haired Buffoon, the leader of the neighbouring land of Amiragia.

The Wise Old Cat-Headed Bird of Doom

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Perhaps it is its ability to look both forward and backward that has given the owl the status of a wise bird. It was a favourite companion of the goddess of wisdom, Athena the Clear-Eyed, on whose hand it is often depicted to be perching. The story goes that the deity was besotted by the bird’s limpid eyes with their ability to see through the murky waters of chaos. The grey-eyed Roman successor of Athena, Minerva, also favoured the owl over other fowl, as complains Cornix the crow jealously in Ovid’s Metamosphosis. The owl has managed to retain the sage’s lofty seat in the Western literary canon from antiquity to our favourite literary owl, the eloquent Wol from Winnie the Pooh.

In the East, however, things are a tad trickier for the wretched bird. In pre-modern Iran, for example, it was a sign of ill omen, death and foreboding. The classical Persian poetry explains this with the fact that the owl likes to inhabit ruins and prefers the sombre darkness. Sa’adi, for instance, contrasts the owl as the harbinger of ill news with the nightingale as the herald of spring. This imagery reaches its climax with the surrealist masterpiece of Sadegh Hedayat, Boof-e Koor or The Blind Owl, a macabre nightmare of dark, feverish symbols.

While Urdu poetry inherited this ominous image from Persian, the vernacular and prose, on the other hand, depict the owl as the ultimate symbol of stupidity. Ullu remains the favourite insult for teachers to address their slowest students. Sometimes, in order to give more weight to the insult, a teacher would employ a heavier version such as Ullu ka pattha (an owl’s pupil), without realising the boomerang effect of the insult.

Turkic languages have their own opinion on the owl. Turkish, for example, refers to it as baykuş meaning ‘gentlemanly bird’ whereas in Uzbek, it is known as boyo’g’li or ‘gentleman’s son’ and amongst different terms for the owl in Uyghur, there is mushuqyapiqaq, meaning ‘cat raptor’, which is reminiscent of the Chinese characters for the owl 猫头鹰 or ‘cat-headed hawk’.

The Carpet Merchant of Istanbul

 

1The stroll through Hagia Sophia had left us hungry. We, Mir ada and I, were standing outside a restaurant named ‘Kanaat’ on a street near the Basilica Cistern. Although the word kanaat can also mean ‘opinion’ in Turkish, in Urdu the word is used to mean ‘contentment’ and it is precisely this name, an inviting signal for our thin student pockets, which had attracted us to the eatery. We were reading the menu placed considerately outside the humble establishment, when someone said to us in Urdu, “What would you like to eat?” We turned back to find a young man of short stature smiling at us.

“You speak Urdu! Are you from Pakistan?”

“No, but I learnt it in Pakistan.”

“And what took you there?”

“NGO work,” he explained. Turkish NGOs had been some of the first to provide aid to the earthquake-affected villages in Kashmir in 2005.

“That’s admirable. Was it the earthquake of 2005?”

“Earthquakes. Floods. I’ve been there many times.” He spoke with a perfect accent, maybe a bit too perfect to my taste, especially when he addressed us with the Punjabified slang ‘Sir-ji‘.

Introductions were reciprocated. He owned a shop with a Spanish name.

A serendipity made us cross our paths a second time and then, a third time. Mir ada had flown to Pakistan earlier that day. This time I accepted the invitation to his tienda. Over cups of fragrant apple tea, he reminisced of his sojourn in Pakistan.

“When I was staying in Lahore, I visited the same place for breakfast – paratha and omelette with milk tea. The boy who served me was called ‘Chhotte‘ (Little One, a customary title for innumerable victims of child labour). He thought I was from the North and called me Khan saheb. Man, how shocked he was when I told him I was going back home to Turkey. I sent him a pair of traditional slippers from here.”

“Did you visit any other parts of Punjab?”

“Oh yes. I had some friends from a village near Qasur. Once when I was visiting them, they made me some special pakoras.

“Extra spicy?”

“With bhang.”

“Oh no. Cannabis leaves?”

“We kept laughing for the entire afternoon. I had some strange visions.”

“I’m sorry. Did they tell you about it before they made you eat it?”

“It was an odd experience.” Then seeing me feeling uncomfortable, he changed the subject.

“Oh, I’ve also met X,” he named a renowned film actor from what was once known as Lollywood. “In fact, I met him a few times. The first time when he was shooting for a film in Istanbul. Then, at an airport in Islamabad, when I ventured to approach him and talk to him.”

“Great!”

“Yes, and the third time he came to my shop. He wanted to buy a very expensive carpet. I said to him it was too expensive for him. He didn’t like that. He didn’t haggle… told me he was a famous Indian film director… bought it at the price I gave him. Sometimes you need to tickle people’s egos.” He divulged a trade secret.

“He said he was an Indian film director?”

“Yes, and after he had bought the carpet, I spoke to him in Urdu… told him I knew who he was. You should have seen his face. He left in a hurry without uttering a word.”

I thought that despite his great tradesmen skills, our friend had probably lost a valuable customer.

After the Rain

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It’s an afternoon in late July. The sky has resumed its blue clarity after taking a thunderous shower in the fickle monsoon rain. Crows on the electric wires are cawing with contentment. My grandfather, known to me as Abbu-jan, and I are standing at the corner of our street, waiting for a tanga (horse-carriage) to take us to the town to buy mangoes. My heart is jumping with excitement as I have an inkling Abbu-jan would buy me a story-book at the end of this journey.

Even though we are at the thin end of the summer holiday, the prospects of ever going back to school seem remote. Sounds of traffic and children playing street cricket hang in the humid air. “Eh thanda thaar é falsa, eh garmi maaré falsa,” the mulberry-seller in a well-worn shalvar qemise drags his cart to the other side of the street, singing his off-key yet rhymed marketing ditty. “Khan saheb,” he waves his hand in a salutary greeting at my grandfather. A tanga stops to let us get on. It’s a simple contraption of large wooden wheels, a taut canvas roof stretched with bamboo canes and two long seats of green fiberglass with a bronze partition between them. It has the capacity to seat six passengers – three at the front, three at the back – while the driver or coachvan perches precariously at the front between the dusky mare and the carriage.

Wasps are buzzing languidly at the sugarcane juice-cart. Saif, the owner of the cart, has wrapped his head with a grey turban, which may have been white at one point in its life. His sunken eyes smile whilst he thrusts a sugarcane between the sticky moving wheels of the machine. My eyes are fixed on a lazy wasp who seems to be stuck with the sugarcane, which is about to turn into dry pulp and juice. I feel slightly relieved when the wasp chooses to live instead of pushing its resonant head between the murderous wheels and adding its stripy flavour to my refreshment. Despite its sickly appearance, slightly reminiscent of green, foddery, horse-urine, the juice is fresh and sweet.

Mango-sellers have brightened the sides of the street with their yellow, green jewels. Various types of mangoes evoke exotic images. Alphonso, named after a Portuguese sailor of bygone days; Sindhri from the southern plains irrigated by the ancient Indus; Multani from the heat-devoured City of Graveyards and strangely-named Langra or lame. “Aam phalon ka shah. Mango is the king of fruit,” says Abbu-jan. “It helps the production of blood.” I insist on carrying his cloth-bag pregnant with heavy Alphonsos. Everyday when he comes home after his solo shopping trips, I run to him brimming with anticipation and ask to open this bag of treasures, which is always full of curiosities – stickers of bird pictures, coins from the Raj era, jars of strawberry jam, story-magazines. I have a strong affinity with this bag. “It’s not you, Khan saheb, that he runs to greet,” his sister-in-law teases mockingly. “It is your bag.”

The stall of old books is located under the shadow of a sweetshop, whose window display is lit day and night showcasing various forms of brightly-coloured sugar. Amritsari hutti – the shop is named after a city in the other part of Punjab, the part which is not ours any more. Perhaps it is a sign that the owner is afflicted with the nostalgia of his origins. Only I cannot analyse it yet. I go through the plethora of old children magazines: Naunehal, Talim-o-Terbiyet, Ankhmicholi, Phool. The sky is darkening in preparation for another downpour.

Imran vs. the Donkey

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As some of you may know, Imran Khan is only a few days away from being sworn as the nineteenth prime minister of Pakistan as the result of a sweeping victory in the general elections held a few days ago. His success is not very surprising to many, even if we ignore the theories of the crucial support he is said to have obtained from the military establishment, allegedly running the real show in Pakistan. In a land where elected leaders have again and again disappointed their voters, anyone promising a change would be hailed a saviour and what’s better is that this Messiah is an actual hero. Did he not win the only cricket world cup for a nation, which loves to squander its valuable time on a game originally invented for idle English aristos with too much time on their hands? Did he not study in Vilayet (the blighty) and play the playboy with the likes of Mick Jagger? Pardon me if I am a tad obsessed with the language, but I even believe that for a young nation, which is still attempting to define its linguistic identity in the midst of the official English (understood only by a handful) and the national Urdu (the mother tongue of a mere 8%), a man with such fluency in English was bound to win the hearts, if not the votes, of many.

I do not, however, intend to analyse the causes and effects of Khan’s triumph here. I will not even allude to the allegations of his party’s financial support of the notorious Madrassa Haqqania, the University of Jihad and a cradle of Taliban, or his opposition to the Women’s Protection Bill in 2006. I’ll merely attempt to highlight the unforeseen impacts of the fiery rhetoric Khan has employed during his election campaign. In a recent rally, Khan dubbed the supporters of his political opponent, Nawaz Sharif, as ‘gadhe‘ or donkeys. This resulted in two separate incidents of extreme violence against the said animal. In Karachi a group of his supporters wrote the name, Nawaz, on a donkey, tied it to a pole, broke its jaw and beat it to pulp before driving a vehicle into it. A day later, another group of supporters scalped a donkey leaving a mere gash between its eyes. I am not asking Khan to be held responsible for these heinous acts. However, I find it quite disconcerting to see a supposedly educated person throwing such insensitive and unoriginal metaphors in his speech during the emotionally-charged climate of elections without thinking of consequences (or perhaps thinking of the consequences but hoping to exploit them for his own gain).

I’ve also been trying to grasp the logic behind Imran’s insult, which resulted in these violent acts. I can only assume that he was using the age-old image of a supposedly idiotic and asinine beast to represent his opponents who he must have thought were unable to visualise the change he had promised to bring. Perhaps he was also alluding to the supposed stubbornness of a donkey, unwilling to adapt itself to the promised change. Imran is admittedly not the first man to evoke this image and the idea is not only limited to Urdu but prevalent in other cultures too. Khar in Persian, eşek in Turkish and himar in Arabic, all connote the same concept – asinine idiocy and stubbornness. To me, however, a donkey is not particularly more idiotic than, say, a sheep or a camel or a politician. Instead, I believe donkey is a meek and industrious animal, who unlike its pretentious and smug cousin, horse, keeps its head low and carries on with its daily life without bothering anyone with a perseverance which should only be praised as noble. But sadly the society has been telling us that nobility is not hard work and perseverance but gaudy ostentation. I’d like to conclude this piece with the hope that the hardworking and persevering amongst us get what they deserve and the ostentatious and flashy get theirs too.

And by the way, if anyone wants to help the donkeys along their way, here’s a link to donate: https://www.thedonkeysanctuary.org.uk

 

 

 

The Raid

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In my second year in the Isles of Eternal Rain, I decided to move from Essex to Middlesex. It was a continuation of my westward journey, which had resulted in my migration from the East a year before. As a student I was unable to afford a private mansion and was thus obliged to share my abode with a few scholars who happened to be in a similar situation as mine. After having sought a comfortable, convenient and above all cheap shelter, we came across an advert hidden amongst the marketing material of local masseuses and lonely hearts on the display windows of a convenient store. It promised of a vast house in a moderately respectable neighbourhood with incredibly cheap rent. A meeting was arranged instantly with the landlord, who turned out to be a nimble-tongued and excessively-enthusiastic man of burly stature. He offered to lend us his antediluvian cart to move our belongings.

The new house was located at a suitable distance from the nearest train station. The neighbourhood seemed peaceful, even idyllic, at the first glance. A canal with the traditional lock system ran quietly at the back. Nightingales chirped and twittered day and night on the leafy branches of mulberry trees, which lent the street its name. A rumour spread amongst my housemates soon after we moved that two sweet-natured, reasonably pretty girls with questionable morals were inhabiting the next-door property, although nobody had ever seen them (or would ever see them). What was not to love?

A few days after the move, I was having a midday lie-in with the enviable carelessness of a student, when the door of my room was forced open with a gesture that I believed was unneccessarily rude. Before I could let loose the flood of cursewords, which found their way to the tip of my tongue, someone shouted, “put something on and come downstairs.” It was a policeman. I had no choice but to follow him quietly to the hall downstairs where all the other members of the household were sitting with their heads hanging low whilst half a dozen police officers were standing around them attentively.

The investigation was carried out efficiently. Each of us were asked questions, to which we seemed to have answered satisfactorily as the guardians of peace relaxed their grip on the hilts of their swords. One of the coppers, who had walked out to the kitchen, shouted thence to enquire about the strange yellowish brown substance cooking in the pot. The responsible person sheepishly replied that it was split-pea lentils. Hearing this, the coppers prepared to leave. One of us ventured to ask the purpose of their slightly dramatic entry. “Oh yes, forgot to say. The previous tenants of this property were drug dealers.”

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