We have all experienced them at one point or another; nights that are just a stream of magic from start to finish. They can not be planned nor replicated, only lived now.
Lahore seemed to swim in abundance of the indefinable elements that make such nights possible and they converged on numerous occasions in my short few weeks there, but two nights in particular were so charged with magic that they will never be forgotten.
I had unwittingly and oh so fortunately arrived in the city just prior to the festival celebrating the 966th death anniversary of Sufi saint; Data Sahib, the tomb of whom lies in an enormous shrine in the Old City. For three days and nights, it and the surrounding streets would be swarming with hoards of exultant devotees in joyous chaos. For a lone white man, such chaos would be intimidating to say the least, so I found solidarity in numbers at the legendary backpackers haunt; Regal Internet Inn and guidance in an enthusiastic and loveable escort; Sajat.
When we piled out of our auto-rickshaws at 10pm, the crowded streets of the Old City were absolutely buzzing with a strong, vibrant energy, the likes of which I have only ever experienced before at all-night raves. Our melting pot of ten travellers from all corners of the globe made a very conspicuous sight in the ocean of dark faces and shalwar kameezes – the traditional Pakistani dress. Fortunately for me and the eight other men in our group however, most of the intensive waves of attention directed our way passed straight through us and were borne by the only female in our group. A slender Danish girl, the strands of blonde hair that crept out from beneath her head scarf acted as the lone beacon of femininity in a sea of masculinity.
I had become so accustomed to sailing such seas in rural India that I no longer stopped in the street and looked through the crowds of thousands, absolutely bewildered that I could not see a single woman. As it was in India, so it is in Pakistan – the women are invisible, lacking voice and presence and as long as half a nation’s population is bound as such, true progress will remain impossible.
With Sajat frantically running from the front of our conspicuously white-faced conga line to the rear, diligently ensuring that we did not stray, I was free to place all of my faith in his guidance, surrender control and simply float through the crowd with great lightness, musing at the happenings around me and objectively allowing the magical journey to unfold.
Reciting the name of the obviously influential “Malik” and the guesthouse he owns; “Regal,” Sajat was able to provide us with the all-access VIP treatment. The men providing said access were only too happy to oblige, for the Pakistanis are fully aware of the way in which their homeland and its people are portrayed in the Western media and have great respect for visitors who are able to see through the ‘hype’ and experience the nation and its wonderful display of Muslim hospitality for themselves.
We were led into an odd, caged area where two rows of men seated behind steel bars on elevated platforms passed us all down tall glasses of warm milk. We gulped them down – some more wearily than others – were briefly introduced to the first of many ‘important’ men and were scurried out again by the ever-energetic Sajat, “Come on, come on. Where’s France? Oh there he is. England? England? Come on, let’s go. Korea?…………..”
Blindly following the figure in front of me, I soon ended up amongst a crush of people in which moving of my own volition was no longer possible. I was pushed and pulled by the current of bodies that swayed in all directions, but moved predominantly forwards, towards a set of gates that acted as a bottleneck. Sajat once again rounded us all up like the most conscientious sheepdog and ordered me to give him my shoes. I unquestioningly obliged.
Somewhere between waiting for Sajat to unload the mountain of shoes he was now carrying and rounding us up again, we made the mistake of standing idle. As though each of us were a small planet and the Pakistanis were comets and space rocks, they gravitated towards us, surrounding us, eventually becoming idle themselves and increasing our gravitational pull exponentially. The stares and usual barrage of questions began, but with one extra that I had found to be exclusive to Pakistan and had faced many times daily during my time here; “Which religion?”
In this Islamic Republic, where people base their identity on their religious beliefs, this is not a question easily answered by a person who does not subscribe to an organised religion, but has such a strong sense of religious belief and spirituality that they do not wish to brand themselves as a member of ‘another’ religion in the name of acceptance. Nonetheless, following advice, I would meekly and without any conviction at all reply, “Christian.” In their eyes, there is no greater shame than being Godless and their narrow, dogmatic views do not accommodate the belief that God is not an all-powerful being who has a hand in earthly matters, but one who lives here on earth in each of us and indeed, in everything. That we will not be answerable to Him at the end of our time on this earth, at which point He will launch us to heaven or hell, but that we are answerable to Him at every moment of our lives and that heaven and hell exist here on earth as liberation and suffering, to be experienced right now. That He is not concerned with how our women dress, how many times a day we praise Him and in which direction we face when we do so nor with what ‘religion’ we claim to believe in or which man-made texts we claim are His words, but only with whether or not we live through Him and as an expression of Him – through the God in each of us.
To those who picked up on my distinct lack of enthusiasm when professing my Christianity and questioned me further, I would attempt to explain this, only to receive looks of sympathy that I do not Know God. I would return the same look.
Above the mass of space debris, I glanced over and saw my Canadian mate, Kyle, handling his increasingly puzzled interrogators with a cheeky grin as he expertly employed Malik’s advice; “No matter what the question is, just answer ‘student’.”
Barefoot, we joined the throng in the enormous open air shrine, dazzled by the lights that adorned the mosque and two enormous, rocket-shaped minarets, between which draped a curtain of yellow lights with the Arabic symbol for Allah as its centrepiece. We wandered past long lines waiting the free food on offer, roamed through warmly lit gardens of candles, made a futile attempt to get through the impenetrable crush surrounding the tomb of Data Sahib, were re-shoed by a buzzing Sajat who, in his state of thinking seven steps ahead, simply handed whatever pair of shoes he was holding to the first white person he saw, and returned to the madness of the streets.
With no discernible order, bodies mixed with auto-rickshaws mixed with taxis mixed with street vendors mixed with trucks overflowing with ever more bodies. We all breathed a collective sigh of relief when Sajat led us into the sanctuary of a tent, the occupants of which scattered to make room for us. Very warm greetings and smiles preceded a filling meal preceded hot chai preceded a sizeable ball of hashish – such is Pakistani hospitality. In a circle, we sat cross-legged, smoking, chatting and laughing while Sajat entertained us with various impressive sleight of hand magic tricks. He could only be distracted and restrained for so long though before his restless energy got the better of him and we were whisked away once more. Following a brief stop in a second tent where our full bellies were offered food that it would have been rude to refuse and our hazy minds were offered an enormous chillum that I simply had to refuse, we proceeded to tent number three to experience the trance-inducing magic of the dhol.
Just as a jester performs for his king, two burly dhol players performed only facing their audience of one; the elaborately jewelled Pappu Saeen, who is the uncle and guru of Gonga and Mithu and an extremely well respected dhol master himself. Those of us who sat and stood, crammed in shoulder to shoulder, off to the sides were inconsequential – mere spectators to a private show. The *thuds*, *booms* and *rat-a-tat-tats* flew through the air, violently colliding with one another, creating a dense depth of sound that filled the small space. Each one, both gone as soon as it was produced and remaining suspended long after, adding to layer upon layer upon layer. I allowed each to cover me like a blanket that became thicker and thicker, more and more enveloping, sending me deeper and deeper.
How long the beat immersed me, I know not, but when I was finally offered a breath of air, it was to be short-lived. Floating after Sajat, the beat faded behind us as another came into being before us. We approached a heavy crowd, over which I stood tall to peek and peer at yet another pair of dhols’ reverberating power, this time directed at a fat Japanese-sumo wrestler, Jabba the Hut-looking man who sat above all others on a pedestal. It was not long before Sajat pulled the ‘white man VIP card’ though and we were squeezed through the crowd to front and centre. This gave us prime viewing spots for the very surprising sight of two dancing lady boys, including one with a bushy, black moustache! I mused at the fact that two men dressed as women could very publicly strut their stuff, while if two actual women tried to do the same, they would be significantly less welcome.
Sometime several hours later, just before the sun was about to break in a new day, I was tucking into bed, unsure how exactly I had got there. As with all of my movements that night, it was as though I had floated there effortlessly – able to do so through a distinct lightness of body and mind. A serene inner peace brought about by a liberating letting go of what was, would could have been, what should have been; what will be, what could be, what should be; and living what is. Now.
Several weeks later, I would fall asleep with the same sense of energising peace – that allows one to feel the happiness of being alive through their entire being – after a mind-blowing night in which I did not even leave the guesthouse and yet travelled to places unreachable by any conventional means, be it car, plane, boat or space shuttle.
In celebration of the birthday of one of the guests, a feast for the mouth and ears was organised on the rooftop terrace of our modest guesthouse. Seven chickens, their heads lopped off and bodies plucked of feathers only at the point of sale, were cubed and roasted on long skewers over hot coals to be sandwiched between soft, warm naan – meat and bread; the foundation of the Pakistani diet. After ten months in Nepal and India with scarcely a morsel of flesh entering my gullet, I had questioned whether other animals, our eating of which accounts for an exorbitant 20% of greenhouse gas emissions, need be a part of my diet at all, since such delicious and nutritious vegetarian options are available. It took but a few hours in Pakistan however, in which I saw and smelt the smoking, succulent, dripping flesh that lined the streets, as well as realised that it was just about a matter of either this or of going hungry, to find that I was still a carnivore. I had learnt the valuable lesson though that meat is a luxury and by no means a necessity for a healthy body, which is a popular misconception in the West. Even the energy expended cycling hundreds of kilometres each week was able to be sufficiently replenished through an exclusively vegetarian diet, foregoing neither nutrition nor quality.
Eating meat is no longer only an ethical issue based on the rightness or wrongness of killing an animal for food. It concerns the welfare of our environment and our fellow man, millions of whom are going hungry while millions of acres of farmland are being used to produce grain to fatten up our livestock and in turn, fatten up ourselves. Is it not absurd that one half of the world is suffering from an ‘obesity epidemic’ while the other is facing a food shortage crisis?
With the issues facing the globe today, it is crucial that we in the West seriously alter our mindset in regards to many aspects of our eating habits – this is but one of them. Meat is a luxury, not a necessity and like any luxury, should be consumed in moderation.
Seated on the rooftop, we gorged, chatted and laughed among ourselves. The spark of warm energy that was to develop into a raging inferno as the night progressed, was lit by the earthy speech of the tabla and the melodic singing of the flute of two local Christian musicians kindly playing for us.
The influence of guesthouse boss, Malik, became apparent in a none too subtle manner when the bearded giant that is Gonga Saeen lumbered up the stairs and on to the rooftop, his overbearing frame drawing gasps from the crowd of guests. He was trailed by his handsome brother, Mithu, and their dhol-carrying young servant – responsible for wiping the sweat from their brow mid-set, collecting their tips and of course, lugging their cumbersome drums around.
They began slowly – feeling each other out, finding the rhythm, feeling the groove – as they undoubtedly have done together hundreds of times before. Within the hour however, the sweat was beginning to pour down their foreheads as the eyes of the crowd began to glaze over, their bodies kicking and swaying with involuntary movements. Gonga performed one of his unbelievable ‘Sufi spins,’ rotating at such a rate that his enormous drum swung horizontally from his neck, all while he and his brother continued to pound away in perfect synchronicity. I had seen him perform this in the jam-packed Darbar Shah Jamal with his dhol zooming just inches from the fearless Pakistanis’ faces, who merely continued toking their spliffs, nodding in consent, seemingly oblivious to the fact that one wrong step by Gonga would surely mean the loss of their heads.
Eventually the dance floor was opened up. So entranced were we all that inhibitions were dropped and on display was the kind of bodily release that I have only witnessed in the rave generation. It is not just dancing; it is the physical manifestation of the beat – an input of beat energy that bypasses the cloud of mind, preferring to travel instead via the soul, producing a pure output of physical energy – the movement of God.
At one point, Gonga and Mithu were pounding their skins to an all-encompassing crescendo, the beats bouncing off the walls and colliding with eachother, the air becoming thick with them. They obliterated our bodies of physical form, breaking them down to the mass of vibrating particles that they are, allowing them to merge with all others. Our minds were released of their heavy burdens and afforded the lightness required to go astral travelling. The wave of energy grew to tidal proportions and when it broke, it flowed through us, soaking us to the core. After some time, I dared open my eyes and look at the faces around me. I could see that it was not just me; they had all experienced it too – mass enlightenment. For just a moment, we Knew God with such purity that He could not be distinguished from I.
I mused at why, in Pakistan the Sufi dancer is looked upon with reverence, as a man of God, while in the West the raver is viewed as a pill-popper who will ‘grow out of it.’
Well damned be the day that they do! For just like the Sufi, or the priest or the imam, the shaman, the sadhu or the monk, the raver too has the ability to make that connection between the divine and the earthly. Just like the Sufi, when they dance, they do so for God, with God and through the God in themselves and the only difference I can see is that they do not know it. Someone needs to tell them. Someone needs to tell them and all of the spiritually-starved youth of today, and tomorrow, not that they are faithless and lacking, but that there are a myriad of ways to Know God and that they are far more broad than sitting cross-legged with eyes closed, kneeling before a crucifix with palms pressed together or bowing down in the direction of Mecca. Someone needs to tell them that this is their way – to realise and embrace it.