It soon became apparent that Iranian President; Ahmadinejad, was serious about his pledge to not make it easy for foreigners to visit his nation. The weeks drew on as I waited for my visa application to be processed and so I decided to leave Lahore and explore the few areas of Pakistan that were neither bitterly cold nor off-limits for reasons of security.
It was in the ancient city of Multan in the western Punjab that I actually found my personal security threatened for the first time on tour. Wandering the streets with my Canuk buddy, Kyle and our two Sunni escorts with whom we were staying, we became embroiled in a jam-packed Shiite festival celebrating the death of the one who the Shiites consider to be the prophet Muhammad’s successors, his grandson; Imam Hussein. The Sunnis disagree, believing that the mantle of caliph fell to Muhammad’s friend and advisor, Abu Bakr. It is this seemingly oh so minor disagreement, not in the spiritual sphere, but the political one, that has led to the senseless bloodshed between the two sects that has raged on and off since the Prophet’s death over 1,300 years ago.
Unfortunately at the moment, it seems to be on and the battleground is often a festival of one sect or the other. In an area of the sea of black burkhas and shalwar kameezes not far from where we were positioned, I could hear grunts of effort, groans of pain and a tinkle and slap of metal striking bare skin. The self-flagellation had begun.
Peeking over the crowd, I was both horrified and intrigued to see a group of bare-chested men, each furiously swinging an octopus of chains over their shoulders, forcing the two-inch blades fixed to the end of each tentacle into their backs, which were streaked with thin, deep wounds that dripped ruby red blood. One man was attacking himself so vigorously and mutilating his ‘God-given’ body to such an extent that he had to be restrained.
As the testosterone grew thick in the air and the blood and flesh quite literally began to fly, our precarious situation became apparent to our escorts who, unlike Kyle and I, were able to understand the aggressive words directed our way by the growing number of unhappy faces surrounding us. With a sudden urgency, they tightly gripped our arms and forcibly bustled us out to the safety of the open streets.
The incident, the potential seriousness of which I did not comprehend until after it was over, only acted to add to my disillusionment with ‘mass religion’ as I questioned its overall value when put against its divisive nature. How can one feel anything but disillusionment when people gathered under the eyes of God to celebrate the life of a man they consider to be one of His saints, are able to be driven to such anger, aggression and blindness? If we are to be judged by our time on this earth, as the Muslims believe, what will be the judgement of these devotees compared to a group of non-believers who lack the single-mindedness to summon such mass negativity?
I would be forced to explore this and similar lines of thought when challenged by my first couchsurfing host at my next stop in the nation’s capital; Islamabad.
Coushsurfing.com is a project that combines old fashioned hospitality with new technology. An ever increasing membership of over one million people worldwide either offer their couches or take advantage of such offers that provide travelers not only with free accommodation, but far more valuable; the opportunity to experience the local culture where it is at its most intimate; behind the closed doors and walls of the home.
My host, Nauman, was a couchsurfer in the purest sense, as I see the project. He realised that even as host, he had the potential to receive as much as he gave through cultural exchange. He intended to take full advantage of whatever I had to offer in this respect through several late-night philosophical discussions where he sought an answer to the question that puzzled him most; “What motivates the non-believer to act in a moral manner?”
Right off the bat, I struggled to come up with anything but a shrug of the shoulders and the reply, “It feels good – instant karma.”
During his life in Pakistan as well as time spent in many parts of the Western world, he had made the general observation that non-believers had a stronger moral integrity than his Muslim brothers and he was confounded by it. He believed that having had morality drilled into them from birth and due to their firm belief in the Hereafter – the day of reckoning whereby Allah the Almighty will weigh up the merits and demerits of one’s actions throughout their life and based on this, give them a ticket up or a boot in the ass down, where they will spend all eternity – that they should have a flawless moral conviction.
Following a day’s reflection and contemplation while strolling the wide, clean streets lined with large, luxurious houses and green parklands – each invariably tended to by the minority ethnic group, the Pashtuns from the northwest of the country – I returned to Nauman that evening with arguments that touched on thoughts that I had been rolling in for some time; that to hold such strong religious beliefs is a surrender of judgement and that this may inhibit the effective development of a moral consciousness.
To the first part of this, Nauman, like any pious Muslim should, strongly agreed. After all, the word ‘Islam’ means ‘to surrender’ and who are we to reserve judgement over the word of God. However, perhaps such surrender gives way to a blind acceptance of what is morally right or wrong, while the non-believer who does not surrender their judgement is, at some point, forced to evaluate for themselves why something is inherently right or wrong. Through this personal evaluation, perhaps their understanding is rooted to a greater depth and is based upon the motivation to simply be the best human that they can be as opposed to motivation borne out of fear and reward – the fear that if one acts immorally, they will spend an eternity in the burning flames and if one acts morally, they will be rewarded with seventy-odd supple, young virgins in paradise. It is like one being taught not to steal because they may get caught – they would be missing the point as to why it is inherently wrong to steal.
To this, Nauman also evasively agreed and though he may have moved slightly closer to an answer, he remained unsatisfied. Such dissatisfaction was to be felt by both of us to a degree, when each evening, our discussions would reach a seemingly insurmountable wall, beyond which we could push no further and delve no deeper – a wall of Truth.
I see a world of six and a half billion realities, each capable of carving out one of the infinite paths leading to Truth. Nauman believed in one Truth – one path, from which anyone who strayed or failed to find was doomed. Moreover, this path is clearly outlined in the Holy Quran, which he believed is not the work of man, but of God Himself and therefore, not a word within it is open to question, judgement or challenge.
I was unable to think so rigidly and Nauman had no desire to stray from his rigidity. Nonetheless, we both enjoyed our discussions, finding them to be enlightening, stimulating and very rewarding.
Farewelling and thanking Nauman, his wife and three young kids for their hospitality with the standard subcontinent gift of a great, big box of sugary, milky sweets, I left the order and cleanliness – which many travelers equate to dullness – of Islamabad and returned to the chaos and filth – that definitely equates to magic – of Lahore.
Fortunately, my Iranian visa was ready and waiting. Unfortunately, the entire country had shut down due to nation-wide protests over the sacking of two judges. Sitting on the rooftop terrace of Regal Inn, my fellow travelers and I could feel the ends of our noses tingle as the tear gas wafted through the city.
In the afternoon, a Dutchman, Frenchman and myself ventured outside in the hope of immersing ourselves in the experience of basant; the ‘annual’ Pakistani kite-flying festival. Banned for the two years prior due to the horrific injuries caused by the glass-coated string, the powers that be had just that morning announced that basant would indeed be taking place and encouraged all residents to participate – undoubtedly in an attempt to distract them from and prevent their involvement in the rock-hurling madness taking place on the streets.
The city of Lahore carried an extremely eerie feel that afternoon and strolling its environs was a surreal experience. The wide, usually bustling, jam-packed streets were hauntingly quiet and deserted, save for the occasional exasperated protestor rushing past with tears streaming down his face; lines of riot police who watched us curiously, perhaps questioning the wisdom in three white guys taking a stroll today, but saying nothing; and mangy dogs given free reign to nose through the garbage. Using the itch of our noses, the tears in our eyes and the sounds of angry shouts and sirens in our ears as gauges of where not to go, we safely made it to the narrow lanes of the Old City. These were relatively abuzz as kids stocked up on cheap paper kites and reels of the black, sparkling string that they would use to bring down their competitors in the upcoming battle.
Pakistani hospitality being what it is, it was not long before we were invited to stop craning our necks from street level and go to where the heart of basant really lies; skywards. The view from our host’s drab, grey, concrete building was magical. Paper diamonds littered the spectacular dome of blue as far as the eye could see. Flittering, fluttering, darting and weaving gracefully, some kites attained such awesome altitude that they floated alongside the clouds as mere specks in the sky. One might think that they danced all of their own volition were it not for the sight of the multitudes of puppeteers who, gathered in groups on seemingly every rooftop in the Old City, laughed and wailed with festive excitement and cheer.
Once we had had our fill of coke and nibbles, we descended to street level once again where kids, teens and adults alike were racing to stock up on reels of string and kites to replace those that had been sliced and slashed.
Not long after, we received a second invitation to join a group of 20-somethings at a party that would truly show me the beauty of basant and community life in this vibrant city. As he poured a few glasses of black-market whiskey, our host identified the occupants of the surrounding rooftops as various members of his obviously enormous extended family. The party of twenty dancing to Lollywood tunes blaring from their stereo just over the road were the cousins. Beside them, expertly bringing down kite after kite while sharing finger food on a picnic rug, were the aunts and uncles. Even granny was getting into it. And embracing me as ‘his brother’ while declaring at the top of his voice in broken English, “There are no terrorists in Pakistan!” was his best cousin. When, in reply, I hollered one of the very few but most valuable Urdu phrases I knew, “Pakistan Zindabad!” (“Long live Pakistan!”), he looked as though he had fallen in love and embraced me with more vigor than ever before carrying on with his berating of Fox News, BBC, CNN and Bush.
The true magic of that afternoon was captured in a moment of stillness at that most magical of times, which occurs every day, but all too often passes us by; sunset. From looking out over the Mekong in Laos after a day’s ride to watching the silhouettes dance in dusty villages in Nepal to having my entire being lit up by the dazzling, desert skies in India, sunset has provided so many moments of magic throughout the tour and standing on that rooftop in Lahore, gazing out at the infinite skies, littered with paper laughter, was yet another.
My Dutch friend and I mused over the difference between the feel of dusk here and where we are from. Here, the dropping of the sun and slow burning of the horizon marks a dropping of pace – a burning of tension. It marks the end of another working day in which we have provided for ourselves and our families and it is the time to reap the benefits of our toil by enjoying the company and love of those whom we provide for.
Back home, for all too many of us, day passes to night unnoticed; working late in the office; crammed in an overcrowded train full of disgruntled, sweaty suits; cursing at the bumper of the car in front of us.
The magic is missed and then it is dark.