Saturday, October 28, 2006

Photo Essay: Street Walking and Jinnah Watching in Karachi

Karachi is Pakistan's New York City - its biggest and most important commercial metropolis. After Pakistan came into existence in 1947, Karachi was the new country's capital until it was replaced by Rawalpindi in 1959.

These snapshots of Karachi were taken by Mr. Usman who describes himself as an amateur photographer. Mr. Usman, through his blog, is bent upon debunking the myths, often derogative and insulting, that foreigners tend to carelessly associate with his country Pakistan.

Karachi Express in Making?

This child works as a servant in the residential complex of Karachi’s Mohammad Ali Society. He was stilled in these frames while playing cricket with the privileged children of this neighborhood.

Preaching Love, Sketching Heart and Playing Cricket in Karachi

Mr. Usman, the photographer, found this child "to be the most interesting subject of all the kids".

And Here Sleeps the Man Who Created Pakistan

Mr. Muhammad Ali Jinnah (1876-1948), one of the greatest statesmen of contemporary history, is buried in this mausoleum in Karachi. Founder of Pakistan, he gave a voice to the aspirations of millions of Muslims in the Indian subcontinent.

In his address to the future legislators of Pakistan on August 11, 1947, Mr. Jinnah had laid out the governing philosophy of his new nation in the following words:
"You are free; you are free to go to your temples, you are free to go to your mosques or to any other place of worship in this State of Pakistan. You may belong to any religion, or caste or creed — that has nothing to do with the business of the State ......We are starting with the fundamental principle that we are all citizens and equal citizens of one State.......".


Thursday, October 26, 2006

Who Says Pakistanis Are Intolerant And India-Haters?

[Text by Mayank Austen Soofi; Picture courtsey: Mumbai Mirror]

Pakistan captain Younis Khan (left) and wicketkeeper Kamran Akmal in Chandigarh. They are presently touring India for the ICC Champions Trophy.

They are Pakistanis; they are Muslims; and they are firing crackers to celebrate Diwali - a great Hindu festival of India.

An eye-witness evidence of the graciousness and open-mindedness of the general people of Pakistan.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Daring to Dream – What To Do When You Want Indians And Pakistanis To Come Close To Each Other?

Indians say Pakistan is a terrorist nation; Pakistanis say India has hegemonic tendencies; both say peaceniks are fools.

[By Mayank Austen Soofi]

"My only dream is to take my old mother to Lucknow before she dies", Zulfikar said. I was talking to him as he tried to trim my prematurely graying hair one evening in Karachi.

Zulfikar had a small hair cutting saloon in Saddar, a commercial district in Pakistan's biggest city. He was the only child of his widowed mother. Suffering from tuberculosis, she wanted to visit the city of her birth. She was born, before the Indian partition, in 1945 at Lucknow, an aristocratic Muslim metropolis in North India.

I shrugged my shoulders. It was unlikely that the son would be able to realize his mother's wishes.

An Impossible Fantasy

It was not that Zulfikar was poor. His salon was crowded with waiting customers and the shelves were equipped with all types of facial creams and foreign deodorants. Even if he were financially disadvantaged, it wouldn't have been an issue.

Traveling from Karachi to Lucknow doesn't require much money or resources - an overnight train to Lahore; a short drive across the Indian border to Amritsar; again an overnight train and finally waking up in Lucknow.

Yet, it was foolhardy for the dying lady to torment her young son by fantasizing about visiting a city in India.

The governments of India and Pakistan do not encourage giving visas to their neighborhood citizens in large numbers. Excluding the cricket fans when matches are held here or there, the only people fortunate to end up with travel documents are always diplomats, politicians, journalists, film stars, CEOs and resourceful peace activists.

This is sad.

The Other Side of the Mirror

There are many people from both sides of the border who do not hold pleasant opinions of their counterparts on the other side. In India, Pakistanis are considered scheming plotters bent on breaking the country by aiding terrorists and sheltering dangerous gangsters. Pakistanis are perceived as Muslim fundamentalists following the severest strictures of Islam who like to keep their women enslaved and make their children constantly recite the particularly violent verses of Koran.

These impressions are true.

But this blogger was fortunate to visit the 'enemies' and saw them with his own eyes and heard them with his own ears, only to learn - if the worst opinions of an average Indian about Pakistan are true, the opposite is also a widely-spread reality and is a part of the bigger truth.

Both in Lahore and Karachi, and all the tiny towns in between (this blogger traveled on the road), there were warm hearted people whose kind opinions of the blogger did not change after learning that he happened to be an Indian Hindu; there were intelligent ladies, inside or outside the burqas, who conversed articulately, drove their own cars and were commanding and independent in their personality; there were young people, like young people everywhere - fluent in English with definite ideas about films, theaters, and music. Most interestingly, they all were curious about India. They wanted to visit cities like Delhi and Bombay.

But most of them would not be able to do so.

This is sad.

The Myth of Vegetarians

Pakistanis too have certain unflattering opinions about Indians - they torture Kashmiris, they are self-obsessed, Muslim-haters, arrogant, and that they are vegetarians. While all of this is true, the opposite is also a wide-spread reality.

There are many Indians who do not despise Muslims, do not look down upon their neighbors, do not shy from objecting to the human right abuses against the Kashmiris, do not desire the present grimness of relations with Pakistan to continue. Besides, most Indians are actually non-vegetarians! But since the people of these two countries hardly get to meet each other on a personal level, they are doomed to know only one aspect of each other's character.

This is sad.

The Saddest Dream in the World

There are many Pakistanis who 'dream' of visiting India. There are many Indians who 'dream' of visiting Pakistan. Actually, there could be nothing easier or less expensive than crossing into each other's country. India and Pakistan are not separated by a vast ocean; the traveling would not involve even air travel. The preparations do not need the complexities that occur while planning a dream trip to Europe or America. Ideally, there is no need for a Pakistani or an Indian to 'dream' about crossing the border. Yet, it remains a dream.

This is sad.

If They Can Gate-Crash into Each Other's Country

Indeed, traveling is the surest way to understand a country, its culture and its people.

Earlier this year, this blogger had barely managed to pass his way through Lahore while on his way to Karachi. In that short stay, Lahore appeared to be an unattractive, filthy, backward city full of auto fumes and tonga-clogged streets. But this judgment was reached after passing through certain districts of the town, which though real, did not make the whole city; and definitely were not the entire reality.

This blogger made a sudden trip to Pakistan, again, later this year and spent three days in Lahore. This time he drove by the wide avenues, noticed the clean bazaars, felt the absence of pathetic poverty so prevalent in Indian cities, dined in the glittering midnight restaurants, cruised in the first-world malls, browsed in the impressive bookshops, and walked in the chic art galleries. All of this was also reality. Not the entirety, but a significant part of it.

Unfortunately, most Indians and Pakistanis will never be able to view the complete picture. They will never get visas. There are serious problems of terrorism and distrust between the two nations and it is difficult for the governments to take bold measures for a peace in our lifetime.

This is sad.

Never Say No

But this blogger does not believe in karmic acceptance of the depressing present. Through his writings, though conversations with Desis - both Indians and Pakistanis, he is determined to bridge the chasm between the two people in whatever way he can, whether his articles receive many hits or not at all.

Make no mistake. Do not mock the blogger for being an unrealistic, foolish peacenik. He's not romantic but conscious of the vast divide between the two nations; he's familiar with the disturbing nuances of contemporary history, and aware of the terrorist camps and bomb blast conspiracies; he's not deaf to the hate agendas of both the sides.

He accepts it all as a reality. But he also knows that it is only a part of the reality. The opposite is also true. This blogger is committed to brining that 'opposing reality' - the one which is beautiful - to to the forefront.

He desperately wants the wishes of the dying mother of a Karachi barber to come true.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Photo Essay: Ramadan Rozas in Lahore – Fasting-Feasting in Pakistan’s Food-Loving City

[Text and photographs by Mr. Usman Ahmed. A resident of Lahore, Mr. Ahmed is a software entrepreneur with a passion for photography. He can be reached in his blog Random Picture Blog From Pakistan.]

Gawalmandi, in an old district of Lahore, is the most celebrated culinary street of Pakistan. These pictures were taken minutes before Iftari, meal to break the Muslim fast - Roza - during the holy month of Ramadan.

Tables Ready for the Hungry Fasters

I reached Gawalmandi, popularly known as Food Street, around half an hour before the Iftari. The street was vacant and yet its silence was expectant with an imminent bustle. The evening air was highly agitated, bristling with the aroma of snacks which would be indulged throughout the evening.

In fact, this pleasure of eating was to be enjoyed all night long, lasting till the dawn when nothing, not even water, could be swallowed after Sehar.

Few More Minutes and the Feast is Yours

The last minute preparations were being orchestrated by the careful cooks to satiate the hunger of pious diners, who had bravely sacrificed their most basic instinct and had remained without food during the day. As to pay obeisance to the sacred seriousness of the occasion, the busy cooks frowned their brow and stiffened their lips while giving final touches to their Ramadan delicacies.

For Your Eyes Only

And what delicacies - samosas, kebabs, pakoris and mithais piled high like the great mountain peaks of Chitral and Gilgit! The enormous amount made me wonder what would become of all this food. Could it all be consumed? I silently wondered.

Leaving Nothing to Chance

I did not have to wait long to have my query satisfied. When only ten minutes were left to break the fast, fasting people started swarming into the street like a tsunami. It was as if it suddenly occurred to everyone that the mosques were about to signal the time for Iftari.

The Photographer Distracts the Artist

While clicking pictures – of people, their families, their establishments, and their houses – I usually do not encounter objections, hostilities, or reluctance. Often taken as a journalist for a newspaper or a television channel, my subjects, like this man above, are glad to be the center of focus of my lens. This is always a convenient cover for this photographer.

On Sale Now

However the Gawalmandi stall owners could not be content with me taking pictures of them and their food items alone. I constantly found myself being insisted upon to feast on Iftari, free at cost. It was a pleasant feeling and I felt welcomed but this gracious and sincere invitation was not astonishing or out-of-place. We Lahoris, after all, are renowned for being big-hearted and excellent hosts.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

You Are Invited To Gowalmandi - Watching, Listening, Thinking, and Eating in Lahore’s Legendary Food Street

By Mr. S A J Shirazi. He lives in Lahore, Pakistan.

Gowalmandi Food and Heritage Street has become an enriching experience in Lahore. It is a wonder what a few million rupees spent on the renovation of a built heritage, with balconies and angular projections lining the street, some years ago have done to the ambience of the place.

Lahorites have already (and justifiably) stated comparing it with lanes in Rome, Paris and Athens. Sizzling spicy foods on display in Gowalmandi reminds one of Vasco de Gama’s memorable exclaim as he first set foot on the South Asian soil in the morning of May 21, 1498 - For Christ and spices!

No data regarding the consumption of spices in Gowalmandi Food Street is available but a proprietor of one of the biggest shops in the street said, "On the average I sell about 120 Kilograms Mutton and over 40 kilograms of Chicken every day. People prefer to eat Mutton Karahi and Chicken Barbecued. A milk shop proprietor said, "My daily milk consumption - in the form of chilled milk, yogurt, Kheer, khoya, Lassi -- is over 2000 kilograms."

In the street, everyone is lead by aroma of the food laid out in front or cooking on the fire. Variety of languages greets your ear. Unfazed by noisy crowd and the bustle, the waiters will get the orders and you will get the whole picture while sitting in an open street elegantly lined with thin upright tiles, though sometime orders may change. I was served Makhan Mutton Karahi when I had ordered chicken leg piece - an incredible achievement in food in this part of the world. I did not mind this deal at all but the large family that had originally ordered the sumptuous dish had to wait longer.

Over the years, the Food Street has become a major tourist attraction in Lahore for natives as well as foreigners. One can always see the foreigners eating, roaming around or standing near a huge black vat, where Peshawri Chappal Kababs are made, and taking photographs.

"In west there is hardly any place where one can see food being cooked. It is so mouth-watering just to watch", said Davis, a 'Khalis Angrez' whom I met in the Food Street. He was in Lahore in connection with a book exhibition. Sikhs from across the Indian border are also seen with that inevitable "what is it in the Food Street" look. Davis opined that Food Street (and Pakistan in general) is one of the most inexpensive places in the world as far as food is concerned.

On my last visit to the food street, I had enough on my own plate, literally, to deal with but I could not help observing what was happening on an open-air dinning table being shared by another family - mother, father and five children. Each one of the children had thought of something different to order but they ultimately settled for Tez Masala Makkhan, Mutton Karahi and Chicken Tikkas, followed by chilled Kheer served in thoothees.

Once the food was laid, the disciplinarian mother served the helpings, of course the husband being doled out the best and the biggest share (a good old-tradition, regrettably, withering rapidly). The mother did not fail to remind the children to first invoke the name of Allah Almighty, the most merciful and the most beneficent.

However, after counting the pieces in his share, the younger boy, instead of eating, innocently complained, "Mama! Just like home, you are giving me less even in the Food Street”. The mother sternly looked at her food-obsessed son and pointed out, "And just like home, you are looking what others have got instead of concentrating at what is in front of you even in the Food Street." The dialogue reminded me of my own mother. What has the place got to do with parenting? Both remains the same, I thought.

Indeed, Gowalmandi Food Street is an experience packed with plentiful dining options and peppered with garnishes of past memories.

Who says that you have to wait for Basant or Food Festival to go there? It has become a destination impossible to ignore, a permanent cultural feature of Lahore.

Read more by Mr. S A J Shirazi at his blog Light Within

Sunday, October 08, 2006

A Sudden Visit to Pakistan: Heera Mandi - The Dream House of the Whores

Taking a midnight stroll in the sinful red light district of Lahore, Pakistan.
By Mayank Austen Soofi

[The author traveled to Lahore, the most celebrated city of Pakistan, in September, 2006.]

I felt like a bridegroom who had come to pick out one of the three beautiful sisters. Sitting next to each other on a blue sofa, they blushed and coquettishly glanced at us.

An old woman with a straight back and shining-white hair sat down on the floor and talked of the heat and humidity. She had a firm, commanding voice that sliced and rebuked the air with the sharp tanginess of a most refined form of spoken Urdu.

Unlike the brightly-colored and intricately designed shalwaar kameeze (Shalwar are loose trousers and the kameeze is a long shirt) of the girls, the stern woman stood apart in an off-white dress and a white netted dupatta (a scarf or covering for the head and upper body worn by women), carefully adjusted on her head.

It seemed like a cultured Muslim family, but the girls were not sisters. They were prostitutes. The old lady was not a mother looking for suitable boys for her daughters, but a pleasure-house Madam.

We were in Heera Mandi — 'a bazaar of diamonds' — Pakistan's oldest red light district.

Crossing into the Red Light

Mian Naeem, a soft-spoken Lahore-based sculptor and art-critic, had agreed to take me for an excursion to Heera Mandi, a place I particularly wished to visit especially after reading an excellent book by the British author Louise Brown, The Dancing Girls of Lahore: Selling Love and Saving Dreams in Pakistan's Ancient Pleasure District.

I was in Pakistan to take part in a conference for a visa-free South Asia and was tied up with a series of seminars and speeches during the day. Night was the time to explore the city and Heera Mandi had to be a necessary pilgrimage.

A Road Leading to Sin

Mian Naeem parked his vintage car outside the periphery of Heera Mandi. It was past midnight, perhaps the right time to take a dip into the secrets of the flesh.

The evening had grown slightly middle-aged. The madams and their agents were likely to be more tolerant towards pleas for cheaper bargaining. The available girls were unlucky to be picked yet and hopefully more resigned in their choice for customers. Further, the shield of the deep-night darkness made it easy to imagine that Allah would be too sleepy to notice his faithful venturing out to make sinful transactions.

The streets were crowded with the revelers of the night. Restaurants, and only restaurants, lined both the sides. The blazing fire in the tandoors, the complicated smell of chicken curry and gutter stink, the cries of the cooks, and the laughter of the diners combined to create a blurred sensation in the mind.

The path was narrow, but not straight. We climbed up and down as if walking in the old quarters of a hill resort. The people who inhabited the ancient houses in these streets looked suitably decent, making it difficult to believe we were approaching a red light district.

The Ground Beneath Their Feet

Some more steps, then a right turn, and we walked under an open sky. "This is Heera Mandi," Mian Naeem declared.

A crowd of boys cheered in a dimly lit tin-shed where a snooker table glowed under a bare light bulb. There were carts selling bananas, biryanis, and flowers. Brightly lit eateries with used chicken bones strewn on the floors were filled to the brim.

There was no lady standing under the lampposts soliciting clients. There was no man acting like a lady's agent. The shaky, frail-looking structures rising up on both sides of the street ahead were gloomily submerged in darkness. Their doors and windows were closed and the balconies were sullen and quiet.

We walked ahead and noticed an alley to the right. Two women stood a short distance away, whispering to each other. Their faces were cloaked with shadows. A thin man with a garland of chameli flowers wrapped around his wrists appeared from behind and overtook us with drunken steps.

Gradually the darkness began to lose its sheen. The street became livelier. As we penetrated deeper more doors were found open and more windows gave view to the lighted spaces inside. Mian Naeem pointed across to a room jutting out into the pathway. It had a large window and a most beautiful creation was peeking out from there.

She looked divine and more beautiful than the Indian actress Aishwarya Rai. With a pimple-free fair complexion and fine shaped lips, her eyes expressed eagerness and her hands signaled invitation. Her steps were as light as a bird as she hurried from the window towards the door.

Dressed in a white lehenga (a long embroidered skirt) and her anklet bells jingling music every time she moved, she looked all set to burst into a mujra (traditional dance of the courtesans). There were no creams, rouge, eyeliners, and powders disfiguring her face. A mild shade of maroon suggested the promise of a kiss from her slightly pouted lips.

Tempted by a Dancing Girl

Our eyes met and her face simmered of sentiments that suggested my walking away would break her heart. She looked pure, gracious, and yet highly amorous. It seemed as if I was the wine she was thirsting for all her life.

Mian Naeem said her name was Saira, that she used to be quite coveted in her time. Now, Saira was in her 30s and her business had gone down. Unlike in the past when she picked out only the handsome and the very wealthy, she presently took in any person who walked by her quarters. The revelation was disappointing. That she had singled me out was unremarkable in light of this information.

More Sight Seeing

Three unshaven boys, looking hip in their long hair, sat in a shop that had its walls adorned with posters of Gone with the Wind and Casablanca. Guitars, electronic keyboards, and drums were placed haphazardly on a wooden counter. It was a rock music band that accompanied the ladies in the private dance parties, a popular trend in upper class Lahore.

Until a few years back, Heera Mandi was acclaimed for its musical heritage. It boasted a rich tradition of Indian classical music and indeed many famous singers of the subcontinent were born, groomed, and trained in its chambers.

Adjacent to this rock band was the sitting room where Mian Naeem had taken me to have a look at the 'three sisters.' The ragged-faced agent who stood outside suggested a girl of our choice could perform a Bollywood dance for five hundred rupees. After we took leave of the 'three sisters,' Mian Naeem mentioned there were higher prices for other kind of performances.

Indeed, the highest possible price was always demanded for the betrothal of a virgin. Deflowering involved rituals that were not different from the ceremonies demanded by a proper marriage. Large sums were paid by the 'groom.' Feasts were thrown by the madam-mother and blessings were offered to the girl as she prepared for her initiation into the world's most ancient profession.

Usually the most beautiful had their virginity sold to the rich sheikhs and princes of countries like Saudi Arabia and Bahrain where they were flown and their temporary living arrangements paid for by their 'husbands.'

As we walked past more such sitting rooms, Mian Naeem pointed out the agents and provided tips on how to identify them. In many places, the rooms were closed from the front but there were camouflaged entrances from the sides. On one of the balconies lounged a bare-chested man while below the lady of the house was eyeing the prospective clients. A little ahead, brightly dressed women were quickly settling themselves in a cab that, according to Mian Naeem, would take them to the apartments of rich Lahori men.

The Unreal Reality

It was strange walking in the by-lanes of Heera Mandi. Officially, Pakistan is an Islamic republic where prostitution is punishable by death and where most of the women do not show their naked face to any male except their closest relatives.

Yet we were in a neighborhood, in the heart of Lahore, which seemed to have been frozen in time. It was as if the outer rules of the much real world could not intrude here. No one seemed to be bothered by the laws that were applicable in the rest of the city.

Heera Mandi was like a paradise where one could freely indulge himself in the pleasures of the flesh, where one could get away from the oppressed world of Shariat laws and Koranic injunctions; a balm which one could apply to soothe his soul made claustrophobic by so many morals; a relief which one could momentarily cherish amidst a life made predictable and burdensome by nagging spouses and aged parents.

Heera Mandi was a world far away from the despairing headlines of Islamic fundamentalism, America's war on terrorism, and Bin laden videos. It was a world very different from all the known worlds. Heera Mandi was an easy place where life was unreal and where it was possible to experience unconditional love and fanciful sex — for a price.

The Tragic Face of the Pleasure District

But of course Heera Mandi is a pleasure house only in its false description. It is actually a mirage that has the power to destroy the lives of both its residents and its visitors.

Attractive prostitutes like Saira might be able to hide their true age and be familiar with all the seductive charms for trapping gullible boys, but they are done with once their bloom is lost. From there it is a downhill journey towards a life plagued by poverty, despair, and loneliness.

Most of the Heera Mandi prostitutes share the same miserable end. These women who had once sold their virginity for thousands of dinars to rich gulf state sheikhs finally slip down to a stage where ten rupees is their demand price (which could be further bargained) for hurried services with poor vegetable vendors. There could not be more poignant irony.

Some prostitutes, fortunate to give birth to beautiful daughters, do live a luxurious life of rich madams, but still the melancholy of their old age could not be wished away.

The Twilight Days of Heera Mandi

Happily, the morally righteous have reasons to smile. These are the final days of Heera Mandi. The place has started decaying like a rotten corpse. What had started off as a pampered district built next to a Mughal fort now lies uncared for in a filthy part of old Lahore.

Once upon a time, Mughal princes courted its virgins. The wealthy culture-loving families, from the feudal estates of North India, used to send their young sons to be trained under the guidance of the Heera Mandi ladies. They were expected to learn the style of fine Urdu conversation, to appreciate the nuances of Hindustani classical music and to get well versed in the art of lovemaking.

Once upon a time the ladies here were more sophisticated than the women of the most respected and rich families of the land. But now an eclipse has set in.

Times have changed. Heera Mandi is merely another red light district. Girls are patronized for quick sex sessions rather than for their poetry recitation. Courtesans have become call girls. Eminent people, with claims to middle-class respectability, no longer desire to be seen strolling in its streets. Even the ladies' chambers are shutting down.

The pleasure ladies are gradually leaving Heera Mandi quarters for the modern secretive flats of Defense and Gulberg. The thrill of midnight cruising is being replaced by deals made over mobile phones. A world is coming to an end, soon to be gone with the wind. Heera Mandi will become a fable, a fantasy, a dream house of the whores.


On our way back we stopped in a mud-built shack to have sweet, milky cardamom-flavored tea with oily fried goat testicles.

The night was growing old. The noise was quieting down. And the shadows were growing larger.