Bravery or Idiocy?
Trip Start Oct 06, 2008
3Trip End Oct 27, 2008
Down a dark dirt road lined with carts alight with oil lamps selling everything from jewelry to fruits sits the famous Janal Shrine where Pakistani Sufis worship until the wee hours of the morning. A carnival atmosphere pervades the sticky night air that appears to be a rather salubrious event suited for the entire family -- at first that is.
Then all hell breaks loose. Suddenly you're wondering who's going to play you in the Lifetime movie --or at the very least what you'll wear on "Locked-Up Abroad" in ten years time once you've escaped prison. And you ask yourself, How in the name of Allah did I get here?
It's simple really. Every Thursday night in Lahore the mystical arm of Islam pummels drums, pumps the air and pinches joints in what seems not at all unlike a third-world rave. Lonely Planet even goes so far as to suggest that you should schedule your trip around it and so I did. My last night here would be spent watching the Pakistani Sufis, whom unlike their whirling Turkish cousins don't work themselves up in a spinning frenzy to transmeditate -- rather they smoke hash bongs fashioned from fruit and throw up a lot.
At 22:30 in a courtyard packed cheek-by-bearded-jowl with swaying Sufis I sat scrunched up with a few other travelers on the steps of a tomb undoubtedly reserved for honored guests. Two drummers pounded out thunderously chaotic beats as the seated mob whooped their approval and the occasional devotees shook their heads vigorously, while a few others men did a sort of mock belly dance. A heavy cloud of hashish fogs the crowd as blunts are passed around freely. One drummer steps forward and makes way through the front of the congregation, as it were, and a circle is formed. With the strap around his neck he begins to turn slowly counterclockwise as he beats on the top and bottom, then faster he spins as the beat matches his footsteps until he is spinning so fast, the banging faster, and faster -- the centrifugal force sways the drum horizontal in mid-air and he continues beating. At the climax he has literally worked his audience, who aren't too stoned to turn around, in a semi-hypnotic frenzy -- it stops abruptly --shoulders relax, lids lower and breathe.
Then a man steps forward and holds up a simple apple that is met with a curiously exhilarating response. He weaves himself into the crowd and kneels amongst the others who seem very excited. He carves out a coin-sized hole and then takes out out a pen and makes 20 holes all around. Now he inserts 20 hashish blend cigarettes and lights them. Everyone wants a hit of the apple bong, and as much as I thoroughly enjoy a bit of hash I cannot help but wonder if the casting director will choose Cher to play me or maybe they'd be really hateful and make it Shelly Duvall, which would clealry be uncalled for. Or perhaps a undarned sockpuppet with those red wax Halloween lips, which would actually hurt my feelings, if truth be told. Then the contact high washes over me further and I'm thinking that this would make a damn fine musical, along the lines of Bollywood Dreams only we'd call it Taliban Nightmare because I feel pretty damn sure at this point Mullah Omar's going to be busting up the place at any moment.
An hour and a half into this debauchery-cum-worship-service we're informed that in the lower and much larger courtyard after Midnight is "when the real show begins". Maybe it's because I've seen way too many episodes of "Locked-Up Abroad" on the National Geographic channel, which by the way I've subtitled, "When Stupid White People Go on Vacation" --or perhaps it's because I'm a wee bit baked. Either way, I can't leave by myself searching for a rickshaw on a dark street surrounded by hundreds of stoned Sufis in a country where Americans, on the whole, aren't exactly beloved --in case you haven't been paying attention. Now our guide is escorting our little group of 7 through the mass of people -- all along I'm groped more times than I can swat -- to the lower level and we're instructed to sit on the far side of the wall. In the melee that crushes me to this point I haven't the opportunity to ask to leave. Now I am heading to the tree near the wall with the others.
There is a carpet in the sectioned off area near the wall, which is all very well and good, only the half square foot of space where I've been shoved to sit is covered in vomit so I bend the rug back and squat. And wait. A band is now setting up in the pitch of night under a large tree: electric guitar, drum and electric keyboard. Flickers of light in the enormous tree ahead of us illuminates the stoners briefly as they torch up. We are technically in the women's section though there aren't any local women here and now the western men who are with us are being questioned and told to leave us alone. We cannot find out guide. One of thee performers sees what's happening while he's tuning up and comes over and explains something probably like, They're Infidels who gives a shit anyway, look at that thick-lipped one sitting in puke -- disgusting.
When you're in a bit of a hash haze around 1:00 in morning trapped against a wall surrounded by hundreds of men in Pakistan, several of whom just touched your ass, it's rather safe to say that you've been in better situations. Then the first song begins with almost the same strains of The Doors' "This is the End" -- a power generator turns on the floodlights and suddenly this is starting to feel a little less scary than John Wayne Gacy in clown makeup -- though not by much. The second song was better and more raucous then a man stood up with a trumpet and wailed on it so powerfully that the crowd could barely contain themselves and a few just let loose: head banging; the weird pseudo-belly dancing; an armless man in a rhinestoned skullcap teetered up front, and tottered back and forth with furry; and all the while a boy fanned away with all his might for tips. Then our guide returned and told us we had to leave in the middle of the performance. Allah be praised --no more devotees can molest me -- or so I thought. Past the last few steps to the street I felt a hand on my backside and without hesitation I spun around, hit him in the arm and yelled, "SHAME!" I continued forward and when I turned to look back several men were gallantly defending my so-called honor and berating him.
We cram 5 large westerners in a rickshaw that seats 2 and choke away. Turning onto the paved roads not more than a few blocks away we slow down to a crawl -- I look to my left --police barricade. This is it, I thought, even with the rose garland I was wearing around my neck I knew I reeked of hashish. I lowered my head and pulled the scarf over my face as the policeman shown his light on each of us. "Tour group --friends of Malik" our driver was saying to him and then several other things in heated Urdu until a plumper man came forward examining the business card our driver handed him. He turned back and showed it to the other policemen -- one shook his head and scowled then the fat one returned, threw the card in our driver's lap and jerked his head for us to leave. As we sped off in to quiet night of Lahore we exhaled in a collective nervous laugher.
I proposed guts or chance earlier -- perhaps it's both but what drives peole like me to seek the other, if you will, is little more than an insane amount of curiosity. The outcome is something we worry about once we're there.