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Published: January 9th 2008
Over the past six days or so, I've been trying hard to make friends with Lahore, the 'heart and soul of Pakistan'. So far, I have failed miserably. Maybe I'm just not in the right space to enjoy the madness and chaos that is Lahore: yes, the city is a cultural hub and undoubtedly very interesting, but it's also loud, polluted, congested and dirty. The constant drab weather and the rain that has been transforming the roads into muddy rivers haven't exactly helped to endear the place to me. In addition, I caught another tummy bug, and right now, I'm wondering why I am still here and why I haven't crossed the border to India yet, in particular because my visa has just run out. Well, actually, I know why I am still here: I am waiting for tomorrow. Thursday, tomorrow, is Sufi night at the Shrine of Baba Shah Jamal: a mystical night of hypnotic drumbeats and Sufi dancing, and I thought that to witness this would be a nice way to leave Pakistan. For the past five nights, I've been staying at the 'Executive Club' guesthouse (believe me, there's nothing 'executive' about it) at the Punjab University campus, which
has been reasonably quiet, apart from the 5 am calls to prayer ('Come to prayer! Praying is better than sleeping!' the imam croons in repetition for about an hour. 'Bas! Bas!'
(Enough! Enough!) I groan in reply, just about ready to murder him after the nth night of interrupted sleep.) The campus is also very far away from the city centre, which necessitates endless cold and wet rickshaw rides, and so today I've moved to a nice posh hotel for my last two nights in Pakistan.
But ok, it's not all bad - I've had some interesting experiences also, and made some fascinating acquaintances. On Sunday afternoon, I met Nafiz, a lovely young Pakistani man, and together, we walked through the old city and to Cocoo's Den, the abode of the painter Iqbal Hussain. I've been fascinated by Hussain's art ever since I saw him on a documentary in the UK a while back: he lives and works in Heera Mandi, Lahore's Red Light district, the quarter of the 'dancing girls'. Iqbal, who was born into a family of dancing girls, has spent his life portraying these women in often dark and haunting paintings. It is possible to view
his work at Cocoo's Den, his home, which doubles as a restaurant with a rooftop terrace overlooking Lahore Fort and Badshahi Mosque. Nafiz and I had some lunch at Cocoo's Den's rooftop terrace with two German men we met there, Gaber and Martin. Afterwards, we were fortunate enough to meet with Iqbal Hussain, a very nice and interesting man, who showed us many of his evocative paintings, including his nude ones, which he has to keep hidden in a back room, because they are too controversial for Pakistan.
Lahore is a strange place: on one hand, there is the strict Islamic separation between men and women, concepts of 'honour' and 'shame'; on the other hand, the (illegal) prostitution trade thrives, there's Western porn for sale on market stalls, and the city has something very sleazy about it. Whereas men all over Pakistan will stare at Western women, even when we are veiled, up North it has felt more.... curious, maybe. Here, there have been the odd obscene remarks and gestures, something which I haven't experienced anywhere else. And it feels a bit... sticky. (There is an excellent book about prostitution in Lahore, which incidentally, I have picked up
in Islamabad, it's called 'The Dancing Girls of Lahore' by Louise Brown, an academic from Birmingham University. Louise spent a long time living on and off in Heera Mandi, and portrays the lives of the women beautifully and sensitively.)
On Sunday evening, I was invited to a dinner party by Shahid, the astrologer I met at the Indian Embassy in Islamabad. I called him on Sunday afternoon and he said that he was going to some kind of function with his wife Yasmin, would I like to join them? Sure, I said, knowing little of where I would be going that night. The two picked me up from my guesthouse, and together, we drove to a posh suburb of Lahore, where we entered a very exclusive house with a grand reception hall, uncomfortable sofas, and interesting artwork. Everybody present was dressed very smartly in evening wear (apart from yours truly, who wore a reasonably smart shalwar kameez, but the effect was somewhat ruined by hiking sandals and wooly socks!), and we sat or stood across the room, enjoying nibbles and aperitifs. I was introduced to politicians, TV presenters, and other important pillars of the Pakistani community. The gathering was primarily a farewell party for Simon, diplomat at the British High Commission in Islamabad, who was leaving the country to work in Lithuania. Yet, the secondary reason for this get-together was to honour the memory of the late Benazir Bhutto, who was a personal friend of the host, of Simon, and of many of the people present. After some welcome drinks, we were asked to come to the garden, where the host had erected a large altar to Benazir, featuring a large photograph of her, and numerous flickering candles. As we stood around the altar in a half-circle, our host and his friends spoke of their love and friendship for Benazir, reminisced about spending time with her at Oxford University, and expressed their grief about her untimely demise. One man said that Benazir was supposed to come to his house for dinner on 10th January, the first dinner after the elections which were to be held on the 7th, and Benazir had said excitedly to him, 'Great, it will be our elections celebration dinner.' A little later, she was dead. The people then lit more candles and blessed the soul of Benazir, before venturing back into the house to have dinner. It was an extra-ordinary and moving ceremony to witness.
I also spent a day at Naumana's house, who is a friend of Sarida's back in Leamington Spa. Naumana and all of her family have lived in Leamington Spa, and talking to them has made me more than a little home-sick! It was refreshing to meet Naumana's children, very trendy, artistic and educated Pakistani teenagers with a penchant for philosophy, who rejected a possible suitor for one of the sisters on the grounds that he was a 'fundo' (teenager speech for 'fundamentalist').
All going well, I'll be crossing over to India on Friday. Apart from the last few days in Lahore, I have enjoyed my time in Pakistan immensely and am grateful for all the great people I have met and the experiences I have had here. I'm looking forward to a more 'settled' lifestyle for a while and doing some yoga: I'm tired of being constantly on the move.
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