Wagah Wagah tango, and music of the gods

Trip Start Dec 14, 2007
Trip End Jun 01, 2010

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Flag of Pakistan  ,
Sunday, July 27, 2008

It's all very well when two countries take the mickey out of each
other, but it gets spooky when you load two nuclear arsenals into the
At least 40 dead in bomb attacks in the Indian cities of Ahmedabad and
Bangalore at the weekend, purportedly at the hand of one Islamic group
or the other (read Pakistani), only adds a grim twist to the farce
that is played out at Wagah, the only functioning border gate between
India and Pakistan each evening.
After years of war, hostility and squabbly skirmishing, particularly
in the Kashmir region, the two newest members of the great nuclear
brotherhood have reverted to a daily Monty Pythonesque sketch for
nationalist throngs to engage in a dose of good, old-fashioned
jingoist tub-thumping.
Situated equally 30km away from Amritsar (India) and Lahore
(Pakistan), the heart of the old Punjab, the border gates are closed
simultaneously at 6.30pm (Indian time) and 7pm (Pakistani time) each
evening at the end of a ceremony of peacock-strutting deluxe.
Grandstands have been built on each side of the border, into which
pour, each afternoon, thousands of residents from each city.
Grand patriotic tunes are played at rock concert volumes multiplied
enough to block any sound from the 'enemy camp'.
Flags are waved with ferocious fervour, cheerleaders strut up and down
the road leading to the gate, egging on the crowds. Between songs,
thunderous roars of "Pakistan Zindabad" (Viva/long live Pakistan) ring
out from one side, answered or triggered by "Hindustan Zindabad" from
the other.
The buses throng in for the evening entertainment. It is a free party.
Stalls just outside the border sector proper do a roaring trade.
Around 5,000 pack each stand, naturally under the watchful eyes of a
quiet phalanx of uniformed ordinance.
Hoopla hoopla.
A prolonged cry rings out, and the show begins in earnest.
A dozen giants among men, who had spent a public half hour preening
themselves in front of body-length mirrors, snap to attention in front
of their ecstatic mobs. Foot-long cock fans stand to attention on
their heads; gleaming belts, buckles, sashes, knives, boots, puttees,
knees, elbows and puffed cheeks then combine to swagger, march,
goose-step and stomp in a pantomine-like parade with the opposing
troop (troupe?).
Each soldier attempts to kick higher, stomp harder, and compete with
Maoris in the ferocious face-pulling corner - much to the crowd's
delight, who roar and squeal in appreciation.
An absolutely bizarre spectacle. Totally one-off. Check it out on
youtube, there's piles of it.
Eventually at the stroke of the hour, as the flags are properly
lowered, the commanding officers march up to each other, shake hands
for a millisecond, swivel, and some underling slams the gates shut.
Slams! Clank.
Magnificently weird and wonderful.
And so into Pakistan, and Lahore. From the totally, publicly Hindu
dominated culture of India, and Buddhist/Hindu mix of Nepal, to a
serious Moslem nation.
The press has been giving Pakistan hell. Bush has been prancing around
on his sullied horse, railing against all things Pakistan. American
troops have been massing at the Afghanistan border with Pakistan for a
push into tricky 'tribal' areas. "Pakistan exports terrorism" screams
at me from each news vehicle that I read.
"The great surge", as the White House put it, has not kept its push to
the military sector alone.
"Don't get kidnapped", I get warned, alarmingly from knowledgeable
sources too boot.
An unnerving scenario unfolds.
The people I meet are consistently the nicest, friendliest and most
generous that I have met in the past five months.
This is not to say those before have been less than fine. Far from it.
I have not had more than a few bad seconds in all that time.
It's just that one is taken aback by the calmness, the lack of the
'billion frenzy'.
People seem to honestly, genuinely go out of their way, and take time
out of their lives to help, explain, be nice.
Feet up in Lahore, and mingle with travellers who have crossed into
Pakistan from China, north, my next stop, and Iran - another of Bush's
little bugbears, one of evil's little corners.
Only news of friendliness comes out of Iran, much tea and much
hospitality. Dozens of travellers are bussing and training across Iran
each day. On the ground there is no fear to go into Iran. Visas are a dime a dozen.
I am heading to Turkey, via what seems a trillion miles, through China
and Russia, and I peek (almost with envy, but not), at how close
Turkey really is, just across Iran. Hmm.
Lahore has a reputation for heat, and humidity. The monsoon here
chases India's. It has not yet arrived and the heat builds. During the
week the temperature sits around 45C during the day, and 30C at night.
Only problem is that the city suffers extreme power load-shedding. One
hour off, three hours on. Six times a day.
Sleep at night without a cooling device is impossible. So everybody
sits on the roof, begging the slightest of breezes, oozing liquid.
"How many litres of water can one drink without urinating," goes the
common question, as everybody quaffs 6-7-8 litres a day and can still
barely manage a tinkle.
Then woven into the heat, the sweat, is the music, the all pervasive
qawwali and sufi beats.
Long-endeared to Nusrat Fateh Ali Kahn, I am finally in his back yard.
The revered master of Islamic devotional music, and acknowledged in the
West as the '4th, and largest tenor', he and this style of music fill
the souls of Pakistanis.
Now deceased, his huge eloquent voice emits from doorways and shops.
Yet it is in the formal gatherings that the visitor is surprised.
Thursday is music day, or entertainment day.
As Friday is 'mosque day', there is some debate as to whether Thursday
is akin to the West's Friday night out. Whatever, it is party day,
Pakistani style.
In four days I go to five music festivals/shows. All free! All welcome!
I might have have missed it, but there was nothing like this in India,
sans the odd festival in Varanasi.
This is a weekly, daily affair in Pakistan.
Day one: head off to a large mosque, leave one's shoes with the
shoe-keepers, wash one's feet and hands (how civilised), and head
downstairs into a huge, air-conditioned, subterranean hall. Marble.
Many, many men sit quietly, transfixed on the stage, where half a
dozen men sit cross-legged. Everybody sits cross-legged in Pakistan,
and 90% wear shalwar kameez(es) - knee-length, baggy cotton shirts
(kameez) and very baggy pyjama-like trousers (shalwar). Women need to
add a scarf to cover their heads.
The pair of tablas (double-sided drum) ooze, rap, and truckatuck out
delicate, intricate rhythms, a box accordian placed on the stage is
wind-driven with one hand, the ivories strummed with the other.
And the voices ring out, one playing against the other, exhorting each
other, exhorting the audience, who respond with appreciative grunts at
perfectly rhythmical intervals, praises are sung to Allah, and the
audience gasps and throws up their arms in supplication and sound.
It is beautiful. Earnest, honest, simple, nothing untoward. Simply
simple men, mostly, enjoying uplifting music.
Keep your cynicism to yourself until you see it, hear it. Listen to
NFAK and revisit your cynicism if you can.
Thrown into this mix of beauty is the mystery (or not) of the missing
women. The streets are devoid of the female race.
Tourists play the 'spot the women' game in India - who probably make
up 30% of the public population.
In Pakistan somewhere between 5%-10% of the people on the street are woman.
I can only tell you what I see. You work it out.
The women, heavily wrapped that are walking around, do not scurry, nor
slink away. Yet the majority are very conspicuous by their absence.
In the qawwali hall, 80% of the audience is men. The women sit in the
back corner.
I am told they traditionally should be brought with a man, though
"these days they are beginning to come alone".
Buses hark back to apartheid and USA segregation days. Inner city
buses at any rate, are cut in half. A box in the front for the women,
a box at the back for the men. A roof high wall separates the two.
Only the bus conductor may use the door between the two boxes.
The weekly qawwali afternoon is made up by a string of entertainers.
Each band plays one song, around 20 minutes long. Each subsequent band
is better, until the final bands before 6.30 are rousing entertainers,
that have the audience hallalluaing, or at least the local version
Finally everybody rises and quietly departs. A delightful bout of chamber music.
Evening brings a far different game.
It is sufi night. Sufi is Islamic mysticism, and sufi drumming is
two large tabla strung over the shoulders of two standing men.
The venue is very far downtown. Muddy streets. This is cowboy country.
No streetlights. A lot of strange hangers-abouters. Highlife and
lowlife mix. Stalls sell food and beverages.
Pakistan is a dry country. There is no alcohol for sale except at the
rear of a few 'international' hotels for foreigners.
Up the stairs, to the roof of a large old building, where a thousand
people are sitting on the floor, squeezed, squashed, squirmed into
less space than you thought your body actually held.
And everybody is smoking something. A very large cloud of hashish
hangs. Police patrol for problems outside. Hashish is not a problem.
It is a national past-time.
There are again no women, except for the two or three foreign women
who garner extremely lecherous stares.
The men roll joint after joint. This is kickback time. Eight joints,
two between each finger, make a fist, lean back and suck on all at the
same time. Put 10 joints in a carefully cored and bored apple, lean
back and suck. And wait ... for the man. The man.
The number one tabla player in Pakistan arrives. Deaf and dumb. He drums by pulse, he feels the beat, he has been known to 'say'.
Probably 6'8", 140kg of lean muscle, in a long, flowing purple robe,
and his partner.
And they begin, at midnight.
They beat, and beat, and trip, and double trip, and repeat triple trip
and run through the same rhythm that is not the same rhythm for hours
and hours as the crowd roars and grunts as each crescendo reaches its
dramatic pause, before the beat inexorably starts, slow, again, but
never stays slow.
The drummers weave their sounds through the smoke, the smoke weaves
its way through everything. It is trance at its most primal, and most
Then next to a crazy village fair to watch kabbadi, an ancient Punjab
wrestling form. My driver is astonished that national team players are
on the field. I am the only outsider. The field is ringed with maybe
1,000 Punjab, Pashtun types. White robes, white head dresses. I am
invited to sit on one of the 5 chairs available.
The strange game takes an hour. I am only there for the final. Only
men are allowed to watch. The wrestlers grab dust and sand from the
ground and rub it into the sweat of their opponents' bodies so that
they do not slip away. Huge roars go up when the rare local player
bests a national player.
Spectators walk up to the victor, still in the middle of the field,
and rain money on his head. Literally. Face here is bought in a very
public manner. Hold a one inch thick bundle of cash notes above his
head, and flick them on to the victor one at a time, until they cover
his body and ground around him.
The participants fight for free. This is the local way of
appreciation. The same practice takes place at the music shows. Men
walk up to the players and flick, and flick. A richer man barges in
and throws a hundred notes high into the sky, showering the target.
There is no rush from anybody, no greed is shown, there is no theft.
Everybody understands what the money is for. The 'target' or helper
picks it up.
A big music festival in an amphitheatre next to the Lahore cricket
stadium is attended by women. Thankfully. And the stars of the show
are two female vocalists who drive the crowd like good old Western
rock stars. The show begins at midnight .....
I can't take much more fun, and pack to head north, to Gilgit, at the
base of Nanga Parbat, the 8th highest mountain in the world, and also
known as the "killer mountain". Last week claimed its most recent
victim, an Italian.
Legendary mountaineer Reinhold Messner lost his brother here while climbing together.
Halfway up the Karakoram Highway ... halfway from Islamabad to China. A highway over the edge of the Himalayas, a 30km/h highway.
Tomorrow destination Chitral, where the 'other' axis spent a year
unsuccessfully searching for that old bearded geezer, OB Laden.
Ja. Funny place, the road.
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