For more of my photos, or to buy my book, please visit www.nickkembel.com
For this blog entry, my pictures will tell the story of my ‘see-and-do’s, but the story I will tell you will be non-illustrated for reasons that you will understand if you read below. (I should note, for the Red Light District pics, I did not 'see-and-do'. It just happened to be right in the middle of the Old City).
The setting is Punjab, a fertile, prosperous and densely populated region that was divided politically with the partition of Pakistan from India in 1947. Up to a million people were slaughtered in the aftermath of the division. My story takes place in Pakistani Punjab.
Islamabad and Lahore, the political and cultural capitals of Pakistan respectively, are located in this region. Few travelers pass through these days, with weekly bombings scaring off most. But those few travelers tend to stay in the same budget hotels, so you quickly become close friends and see the same people over and over again while on the road.
One such ultra-budget hotel is the Regale Internet Inn, Lahore. With some of the only reliable internet in the city, 2$
dorm beds, and friendly staff, most backpackers are clearly ignoring the blatant warnings all over the internet that several bombs have gone off in the immediate vicinity of this hotel, recently.
Malik, the hotel owner, is one of those rare but valuable heroes of the backpacking world. For 10 years, every single Thursday night, he has been taking travelers to ‘Sufi Night’, free of charge.
Sufism is a curious sect that sits on the absolute fringes of Islam, and is found throughout the Muslim world. Sufism is mystical by definition; adherents have traditionally used dancing, music, singing, spinning and even drugs to go into trances and unite with the ‘One God’. Many hard-line Muslims reject Sufi practices, but in this region of Pakistan, a country that in many ways was the most conservative I have ever traveled to, people claimed to me that as much as 80% of the regional population is supportive of Sufi doctrine. Though I cannot back up this figure.
I met a few Sufi ascetics of sorts on the streets of Lahore. In appearance they reminded me of the sadhus
of Hinduism; colorfully adorned, dreadlocked, bearded, faces painted, shoeless, stoned men of the
street. One such man, a Sufi dancer, invited me to smoke hashish with him, but like the sadhus
, you always have to be careful of potential financial or otherwise false motives of people who approach you on the streets.
Sufi Night included a daytime trip to observe Qawali
performers, rotating groups of Sufi musicians who have traveled from throughout Pakistan just to bust out their tunes for 3 minutes each in Lahore’s most important Sufi temple. Like most public affairs in Pakistan, it is men only, but Malik, the hotel owner, has struggled and managed to acquire permission to escort female travels to the event as well, under the pretense that they are all foreign reporters.
During the performance the audience sat in rows on the floor and attendees walked between them spraying rose scented mist into the air, with canisters normally used for pesticides. The atmosphere was welcoming and the music intense. People did not clap, but some danced, and others closed their eyes.
The nighttime portion of Sufi Night is where things got really interesting. Again we were chauffeured by auto rickshaw to some outdoor Sufi temple, and given special VIP seats right in the
front for the performance. The music begins, wild drumming, a sole dancer gets up, followed eventually by the others. Some spin their heads around in circles slowly, eyes closed, and hopping from foot to foot. Others shake their arms and bodies furiously. And yet others spin in circles rapidly, arms outstretched, their colorful dresses fanning out (all men, I must mention). A member of our group, a Slovakian traveler, gets up to join them, is welcomed by the other dancers, but within a few minutes he has to stop because the cement is wearing the skin off from his bare feet.
Around midnight my helpful driver takes me to another part of the temple. We turn a corner and suddenly there are hundreds of men before us, all huddled down in the dark, some around campfires, others sitting inside small open-air makeshift huts, every singe one of them smoking hashish. So much so that a thick cloud of smoke hangs in the air. I sit amongst them, nervously at first. I see a handicapped man smoking. Young men, elderly men, dreadlocked men, all smoking. A guard moves amongst them asking them to sit on the carpets, and face inwards
towards a sort of shrine when they smoke. People sit beside me, and some point to the sky, conveying that when they smoke, they join with God.
I go and sit around a campfire, surrounded tightly by Pakistani men. The atmosphere is reminiscent of a massive hippy bush party or festival from Canada, but in a country where drinking is banned and Muslim tradition prevails. Men play the drums and everybody is singing a mellow tune. There is a connection that defies cultural, linguistic and religious boundaries.
But suddenly the atmosphere shifts. People are moving in one direction. Faster. And then it is like a stampede. I struggle to my feet and jump into some bushes to the side to avoid getting trampled. Some policemen come through holding big sticks and people are running away in all directions. The party is over. My heart is beating fast and I leave. This was my last night in Pakistan.
And so modern law takes another shot at ancient practice. Governments sponsor wars and terrorism, and at the same time try to eliminate their own people from participation in peaceful and unity-oriented traditions. Our countries are not so different you
know, the people just find different ways to break the cultural and political laws that they disagree with, within the context of different cultural and political backdrops. For more of my photos, or to buy my book, please visit www.nickkembel.com
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