Four Nights with Sufis

Trip Start Mar 21, 2005
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of Pakistan  ,
Sunday, September 9, 2007

The wine of the divine grace is limitless
All limits come only from the faults of the cup.
Moonlight floods the whole sky from horizon to horizon
How much it can fill your room depends on its windows
Grant a great dignity, my friend, to the cup of your life,
Love has designed it to hold his eternal wine.
The Wine and the Cup ~ Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi, a Sufi mystic and poet from Afghanistan, 13th century, whose followers began the whirling darvish tradition.

Neither my Heaven nor my Earth contains me,
but the heart of my faithful believer contains me.
~ Ibn al-Arabi, a Sufi mystic from Spain, 12th century.

"Everyone is a Sufi, both Sunni and Shi'a," broadly stroaked Malik, proprietor of the Regale Internet Inn of Lahore.  Indeed, I asked a Chitrali Sunni man in the Hindu Kush mountains one month later if he was a Sufi.  He smiled and said an emphatic "yes." Some Muslims would disagree with Malik, however; another man, a Sunni said "Sufis are not Muslims."

Entering into Pakistan is entering into the world of Islam with all its intricacies, its grace, its misunderstandings, its turmoil, its transformation, and its mystique.  The Sufis play a large role in all these aspects.  Many Muslims, defined as someone who submits to God, to Allah, will say that Sufis were responsible for spreading Islam in the Indian subcontinent.  Others will say that Sufis are the liberal, mystical side of Islam.  These two go hand-in-hand, as the Buddhist, Hindu, and Animist subcontinent was more likely to embrace the mystical.

Throughout India, I had seen posters and stickers of Shirdi Baba, a Sufi saint whose portrait showed an "om" symbol emanating from his hand, whose mosque he named after a Hindu pilgrimage site, who tore down caste distinctions and orthodoxy.  Today, thousands of Hindus and Muslims flock to his shrine.

Shirdi Baba once said: "if you look to me I look to you."

The Koran reads: "Remember me and I will remember you" (2:152).

Sufis are not the Muslims you hear about in the evening news.  They are, in fact, the opposite of what you hear about from the talking heads.  And if Malik is correct, then the western media has many of us brainwashed.

Sufis aspire to achieve oneness with the divine unity by overcoming the ego and a sense of duality; Emerson would smile upon hearing this.  They aim to practice what they believe, stressing the essential nature of their faith, the positive aspects of God's love, and cleansing their inner selves.  At the same time, they continually work to free Islam from rigid fundamentalism and secularism as well as the negativities of power, wealth, and corruption.

Lahore in the heart of the Punjab, my first stop in Pakistan, is a strongholds of Sufi mysticism, so I dove into the thick of things in the middle of a September heat wave in the tan-colored eastern Punjab.

Malik was an amazing host, who took his guests, such as myself, all around Lahore and beyond to experience Sufi music, dancing, and mysticism first hand: first stop: the shrine of Data Ganj Bakhsh Hajveri, an immense structure of devotion.  We entered into the world of Qawwali music.

Inside, many groups of tabla drummers, singers, harmonium players, and clappers played one-by-one.  In Qawwali music, devotional songs are sung, some with lyrics from poets such as Rumi or praising Allah, known in the West simply as God.  The musicians become enraptured, the singers voices beaming love. 

Attendents sprayed rosewater above the crowd. 

The audience, sitting cross-legged with some standing, listened attentively, feeling the music in their hearts. 

This is key: feeling the spiritual aspects of the music with the heart, as an elder told me. 

People lavished ten rupee notes upon groups that inspired their Muslim hearts the most, and the best groups went last.  Some listeners approached the group and drizzled ten ruppee notes (about fifteen cents) towards the musicians, like confetti.  Others went with friends, showering each other with bills, as a sign of their brotherhood.  Underneath an attendent swept the bills towards the musicians.

The second Sufi experience for me, as I took a break from writing entries from the Padder Valley for the Kashmir government, was the Sain Muhammad Ali and Group, who came to the Regale Inn to perform for us at night.  They played and sang their Qawwali music, and in the end, Muhammad Ali grabbed me and others, beckoning us to dance.

Dancing for the Sufis is a spiritual way of appreciating music, letting oneself go, ones ego and everything.  All that is then left is unity and love.  At this point, I remembered the many concerts I attended in America and the power of music.  Muhammad Ali reminded me of P-Funk All-Stars at the Hot Tin Roof, getting people to dance with their soul.

The third Sufi experience for me was at the Shrine of Baba Shah, where young and old sufis come at night.  The shrine is surrounded by marble gravestones of deceased devotees.  Groups of people sat throughout the graveyard and shrine, smoking charas, enjoying companionship, and waiting for the dhol drummers.

The dhol drummers arrived, setting the mood.  Once again, we focused on feeling the spiritual nature of the beats.  A few men began to swing their heads back and forth, rapidly.  Soon they were dancing dhaman style, spinning around just like their more famous whirling darvishes in Turkey.

Yet only a few were dancing; most were watching.  I talked with an elder, who had whirled and danced for years.  Sitting in the midst of gravestones, he told me that most people don't dance because they are afraid to dance.  "Let yourself go," he said.  Through the dancing, complete freedom of the mind and heart is achieved and past tensions dissipate.  They can come back, though, he cautioned.

A saxaphone player joined the drummers, playing sensuous notes above the rhythm.  One drummer whirled around at high speeds, his drum flying through the air in a circle around him.  The audience yelled "Shahbaz Qalandar! Mast Qalandar! Mast Qalandar!"

The people were chanting about the late Laal Shahbaz Qalandar.  Three Qalandars, or Sufi leaders, currently live: one in India, one in Pakistan, and one in Iraq.  He preached peace between Hindus and Muslims and often quoted the poet Rumi.

The beating drums continued...

"Sakhi Laal Qalandar Must Must!
Jhoole Laal Qalandar Must Must!
Dum Must Qalandar Must Must!"

The last Sufi experience for me was the Sufi festival of  Baba Shah Abbas in Piatoki, a town about two hours south of Lahore.  Once again, Malik organized the trip, with a little help from his Piatoki friends.  Malik had many friends, likely from his long tenure as a journalist and working for Bhutto's government.  The Urs festival, in Sufi tradition, celebrated the death of the saint.

As the sun was setting, we arrived at the shrine in Piatoki, where hundreds of festival goers greeted us, along with an old lady boy dancer, men with horns and drums, and dread-locked saints.  Each performed along the way.  Finally, we sat with a group of red velvet dressed Sufi sants and attendants, lit with bright yellow sodium lights.  We waited while they prepared, getting themselves in the feeling for the dance. 

The drumming began and soon the saints were whirling, spinning, tearing out their metaphorical hearts, and moving to a spiritual rhythm.  Malik urged us to join them dancing, grabbing my arm: an unforgettable experience.

At the end of the dancing, devotees came to hug the saints, to kiss their hand, to give them money, not for the saints, as in the end all the rupees go to the musicians.

We walked through brightly-lit corridors of vendors selling food, toys, and more, leading to the festival grounds.  Immediately, we were thrust into a world of Mad Max, Beyond Thunderdome.  From the top of an immense wooden cylinder, we watched as cars and motorcycles defied gravity as veil-less women taunted and flirted with us.  The motorcycle drove higher and higher, spinning with centrifugal force around the cylinder. Some in the audience took rupee notes and held them out.  The driver snatched the bills one by one, circling thirty feet above the ladies below.
A small zoo housed caged once-wildlife, taunted by the ringmaster to roar or an attraction because of an extra leg.  Other attractions had veil-less dancing women.  Mostly the women stood there, for the men to watch. Sometimes they would go to dance, if someone paid, but still they just moved a little bit and there was no music: "It's enough for the countryside men," Malik explained, as the men probably hadn't seen any other unveiled women outside their family. 

Walking around the busy fairgrounds, lit with flashing lights, full of rides, we saw all kinds of people and more attractions, but most everyone were men.  One man carried a machine gun.  Young men laughed and played.  Attendants beckoned people to enter a haunted house or to play a game of chance to win a prize.

The scene was sometimes similar along the bazaars of Lahore: amongst dentists and car stereo installers were people selling compact disks with Punjabi music or movies, their covers adorned with scantily-clad Lahori women and men with guns. 

"The Lahore movie scene is controlled by a mafia and the actresses are prostitutes," said one long-term flamboyant Regale Inn resident studying film and art.  A recent movie pushed the limits of decency and showed two milimeters of nipple on three brief occasions.  The police closed the cinema showing the film, but Pakistani law allows films to be showed legally; people can choose whether or not they go. 

"Here the mosques are almost empty, but the cinemas are full," added Malik.

In the steaming stifling polluted streets full of rickshaws trucks people animals stale urine bazaars mosques shrines motorcycles shopkeepers, Lahoris approached me, wanting to talk about Islam or America.  I wasn't about to say I was from Canada, as my point was to be direct and open with everyone, so they knew they could tell me what was on their mind, even if they didn't like America.

"Salamun Alaikum," "Alaikum Salam" was the verbal greeting, meaning "Peace be with you" and "Also peace be with you."  At the same time, Pakistani people from all over extended their hand, not to shake so much as to touch gently, lingering so as to establish a bond, then, with the right hand, they touch their hearts.  Sometimes, from a distance, they would just touch their hearts and smile.

The Regale Internet Inn was also a great place to relax and meet meet other travelers from Europe Australia, North America, Japan, most of whom were coming from India, Central Asia, China, Afghanistan, or Iran, with many stories and adventures to tell.  We'd go for ice cream on Ice Cream Street or kababs and sheep's brain on Food Street or Tourist Street, which at night would close to traffic and resembled pedestrian streets in Europe, with outdoor seating and freshly swept streets and chefs preparing food over charcoal.  And we would of course go to the Sufi events.  Oliver, from Australia, and I tried a beautifully-presented paan, as an after-dinner treat, so we could spit tasty red juice on the sidewalks, just like the locals.

I left Lahore and the Sufis behind, but they are still there, somewhere, in my heart.

My heart has become capable of every form; it is a pasture for gazelles and a convent for Christian monks, and a temple for idols and the pilgrim's Ka'ba, and the tablets of the Torah and the book of the Koran. I follow the religion of Love: whatever way Love's camels take, that is my religion and my faith.
~ Ibn al-Arabi
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the-rambler on

nice read. here's my own read of the same piece of road. .... also stayed at malik's, who took us to same mosque for music....aaaaaaah!!!

the-rambler on

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