Crossing the border into the mountainous, Islamic heartland of Pakistan, I decide to settle down in Lahore for a while, catching up on my writing, wandering into mosques, ripping up Government Travel Warnings, and gleefully throwing them over my head like confetti.
“Chalo Pakistan!” (Hindi for “Go to Pakistan!”) is a common insult in India–a bit like telling someone to f@%& off.
After Pakistan’s secession from India in 1947 (and the three wars that followed), neighborly tensions have run high. This animosity is most visible (and whimsical) (and entertaining) at the Wagah Border closing ceremony, where both armies dress up in costumes and silly hats and scream at each other with microphones. Then afterwards there’s an informal dance party.
For a trippy flashback of Monty Pythons ‘Ministry of Silly Walks,’ Youtube ‘Wagah Border Closing Ceremony,’ and watch any of the videos.
I was informed by many concerned family members and friends that Pakistanis hate Americans. And while none of them had ever been to Pakistan before, they seemed very certain of this.
I mean, many Pakistanis support the Taliban, and Osama Bin Laden was hiding in their capital…
Upon crossing the border, however, I met a very different reception.
The gruff-looking, turbaned custom officers called me ‘dear.’
Then, at the border closing ceremony, a total stranger bought me a Pakistani flag souvenir as a gift.
During the abrupt dance party, a crowd of locals cheered for me to join in their hip shaking, and when I embarrassingly did, I received screams of applause and a line of people requesting to take photos with me.
On the cab ride to Lahore, another total stranger paid for my fare without any explanation at all.
“You are welcome in Pakistan,” he smiled, before walking off with a nod.
Instead of being hostile, everyone I met was embarrassingly hospitable. All the Travel Warnings were starting to look ridiculous. Maybe they were hiding something…
… and then I saw this…
One of the first things you notice when walking the streets of Pakistan is that there are almost no women. The Islamic purda system, which stresses modesty and the upholding of the woman’s honor, strongly discourages women ever leaving the house.
And while most Western women find this concept horrifying, many of the (elusive) Pakastani women I’ve met say they don’t mind. When I asked why, one older woman exasperatedly shook her head. “Where would I even go?”
Lahore is the cultural capital of Pakistan, and the once glorious seat of the Mughal Empire, which ruled from Kabul to Kolkata. While the empire has long since deteriorated, its legacy remains in massive, grandiose monuments scattered throughout the city, and serene Mughal palaces sit conspicuously amidst the crumpling concrete and the congested traffic of rickshaws and donkey-carts.
Children dwarfed under the enormous fort, Badshahi Quila.
Pakistan sits at the crossroads of Central Asia, the Middle East, and the Indian subcontinent, and accordingly, has been invaded and conquered from every angle. Aside from the Mughals, Pakistan has been ruled by the Persians, the Afghans, the Arabs, the Hindus, the Sikhs, as well as Alexander the Great from Greece, Genghis Khan from Mongolia, and Tamerlane from Central Asia. And while this doesn’t speak well for the Pakistanis’ defensive abilities, it certainly makes Lahore a nice place to wander through the pages of history, seeing a millennium’s worth of Imperial conquest squeezed into a city block.
Persian and Mughal influences collide, the Wazir Khan mosque, Lahore.
(A footnote on the stellar wardrobe: Seeing as a lot of Pakistanis mistaken me as a Pashtun (or sometimes as an Afghani), I’ve decided to adopt the local dress and try my best to blend in. This spring’s fashion is a black salwar kameez, with a fancy kadhai embroidery on the chest, and an itchy, palm-woven Muslim scull cap.)
The influence of Islam affects all aspects of life in Pakistan. And while the Western Atheist might find this upsetting, it’s actually quite nice for visitors, and the Islamic priority on hospitality helps make the Pakistanis the most affable hosts I’ve encountered thus far.
Young children studying the Quran at six in the morning, Wazir Khan mosque.
Islamic art avoids depicting the human form, and instead focuses on abstract, geometric design. The effects can be stunning.
Patterns and detail, Wazir Khan mosque, Lahore.
Perhaps the most evocative element of Islamic art is the architecture, and the use of tile inlay, pietra dura, and the ubiquitous, Alladdin-esque bulbous domes. And while such architecture can be found across the Middle East, it’s reached its most epic scale under the Mughals of Pakistan.
The massive Badshahi Mosque, Lahore.
For Muslims, cleanliness is next to Godliness. Before entering a mosque, one must perform ablutions, and according to Sunnis, this involves: washing both hands, rinsing your mouth out (I doubt that’s filtered water), sniffing the water and then blowing it back out through your nose, washing in between your fingers and toes, washing your beard, washing each limb three times, and then (ideally) brushing your teeth with a miswak stick.
The elusive girls of Pakistan make a cameo at the Bashahi Mosque, Lahore.
In the more conservative areas, taking photographs of women is a grievous offense, and even if the woman is just passing in the background, it can possibly result in physical violence.
When I first asked these girls if I could take a photo, they brusquely said ‘No’ and stalked off. A few minutes later, however, they seemed to have a change of heart, and came back to ask if I’d please take their photo…
Then suddenly everyone in the mosque started asking for photos, and a small crowd formed.
One Pashtun man made his veiled wife and children pose, and when I showed him the result on my LCD, he delightedly tried to give me money.
Lahore doesn’t come alive until after sunset, when the heat subsides, the people take to the streets, and plumes of smoke waft from street stalls on every corner…
If you’re lucky enough to find yourself in Lahore on a Thursday, you’ll probably hear the distant wailing of qawwali singers…
Qawwali is Urdu devotional singing, and is absolutely spectacular to witness. The songs are improvised around a loose raja (framework melody), with a few lines of a set refrain that background singers will repeat after each verse from the lead singer.
Qawwali is Islamic Pakistan’s response to free style gangster rapping. And it’s just as amazing as it sounds.
The qawwali is broken into three parts. First is the Jalap, where a harmonium plays and the singers perform freestyle verses and perform vocal acrobatics. Then the refrain kicks in and the tablas start to pound, leading to the Johr. During the Johr, the song picks up momentum, until the singing breaks out into the fast, emotive shouting of the Jahal. The Jahal is the climax of the song, where the refrain is screamed at full volume and the tablas are pounded within an inch of their lives.
Then the song ends abruptly.
This is an example of the Jalap. The guy with the red cap made my ears bleed, and it was awesome.
This is a good example of the Johr.
During each song, people shower the singers in donation money. But they don’t just hand it to them. No, no. They throw it in the air, throw it in the singers faces, or in the case of this video, creepily rain it over their balding friends.
The Jahal, the finale of the qawwali. I love the man’s smile as he flings his cash into the air. And also the massive mound of bills they have to pick up at the end…
After two restful weeks in the city, I’m recharged and ready for more misadventures. Joining my local friend, Zakir, and a French backpacker, Barbara, we pack our bags and head north into the jagged Karakoram mountains, to the volatile border of Afghanistan, to catch a psychedelic tribal festival in the fringes of Taliban country…