Fall 2016, Volume 21

Nonfiction by Holly H. Jones

Spinning in Lahore

Lahore, 2008

By the time I realize just how crowded the enclosed courtyard of Babu Shah Jamal shrine is, it’s too late to leave. It was too late long before I reached Lahore and this night. Ever since I first read Rumi’s poetry, penned a thriller set in Pakistan, and booked my ticket for a five-city trip around this country some call the most dangerous place on earth, turning back ceased to be an option. I have come alone but, for the evening, I’m with two Pakistani women, their military father, and his four guards. I have a Thursday night date with Pakistan’s celebrated dhol player Pappu Saeen and, as it turns out, several hundred male fans. Seven chaperones seem about seven hundred too few.

Pappu Saeen has been beating the dhol, a double-sided barrel drum, and helping Sufis sink into a trance-like state for years. Once in this ecstatic state, these mystical followers of Islam can achieve a closer connection to Allah. Letting go of earthly concerns and self-consciousness, they may even begin to spin. I can’t turn a single circle without stumbling but I love the Sufi tales I’ve been reading, so I asked my hosts if we could see Pappu Saeen. But, as we enter the courtyard, I’m no longer sure he, or anything, is worth the risk I believe I’m taking.

Bodies clog the steps climbing to a cemetery where even more men gather. I see no light-haired people or, aside from my friends, women. I also find no exits save the doorway now behind me. I stumble under the weight of the crowd’s gaze and touch my bare head. I left my headscarf in my hotel room, assured by my friend I wouldn’t need it. Many in Pakistan will tell me the same. Hyper-aware of the stereotypes set forth about Pakistan and Islam, they want me to see how modern they are. Even as she reassures me head coverings are no longer relevant, the dupatta that shields my friend’s head flutters in the late night breeze.

She presses me forward. We are heading toward a square of elevated and exposed dirt on the other side of the staring faces. A VIP area, next to the legendary performer, has been reserved for us.

Two men flank Pappu Saeen. As we approach, they step aside. Absent their lateral support, he teeters. I’m reminded of spinning tops, steadiest when in motion or held in place by others.

“When will you begin?” my friend’s father asks.

“When the spirit moves me,” Pappu Saeen tells him. It is already 12:30.

My friend’s father insists on a picture of us. He won’t take no for an answer. Because of his top-ranking military status, Pappu Saeen won’t either.

The flash goes off. For one merciful moment, I can’t see the expressions of the men watching. I can’t read what I imagine they’re thinking: that I’m the American who gets to stand beside their idol simply because of my nationality. That I’m the American delaying his drumming and their ascent to ecstasy. The day before, the US led a strike in the northwestern province and gunned down twenty-one Pakistani innocents instead of the Taliban they were seeking. I’m the American who’s invaded yet another cherished space within their country.

                                                  

My trip began in Karachi. I told people I was staying at the Marriott. They said I was staying in the triangle of diplomatic ties gone bad.

The Marriott is housed in one tip of the triangle. At another tip is Frere Park. Across from it stands a modern concrete, clean-lined structure, undisturbed by cars or people. This is the American Consulate. Once upon a time, these three points cradled a book fair that drew crowds every weekend.

In the aftermath of 9/11, American consulate officials deemed the book fair a potential gathering spot for anti-American interests and insisted it be moved and the surrounding roadways secured for their further protection. Karachi officials complied and redirected the book fair and the traffic away from the triangle its citizens’ tax dollars had funded. Not a day of my trip would pass when someone wouldn’t speak of the Americans having demanded a beloved institution be moved and gotten their way, despite a complete lack of violence, unrest, or even reckless drivers in the area. Just because they were Americans.

                                                  

Pappu Saeen and the two men begin striking their dhols. The beat and its counter rhythm start slowly. Cheers rise up as the tempo quickens. It is almost 1:00 a.m. and the fifth day of Ramadan is upon us.

Some Sufis have complained that these gatherings encourage drugs, not spiritual connections. Spinning should occur when people feel connected enough to Allah to shed their ego and the trappings of an externally focused life. I consider the men sitting on the courtyard walls, lining the stairs from upper quadrangle to lower. How many have come to shed those trappings? How many have come for the far more mundane, earthly pleasure of a show and hashish? Pappu Saeen has reportedly stopped mid-performance when he felt the men had come for the wrong reasons. Tonight, though, he continues to play.

The music moves in waves, daring anyone alive to resist swaying to the beat. A man steps from behind Pappu Saeen and lifts a horn to his mouth. The sound, high and sharp, pierces the dhol rhythm to drive it faster. The men around us stand.

Our guards show no concern that they’re laughably outnumbered in the event we truly need guarding. I tell myself to trust in their knowledge of the place and people. I have no choice, really.

The horn wails and the dhols are sounded ever faster. The audience steps back from Pappu Saeen. Long-haired men in hoppi coats step forward.

Each finds his way into the rhythm. Some warm to it with hand twitches. Others bob their heads in time. Soon a dozen men are shuffling and spinning. Never in my life have I seen men such as them.

I begin to nod to the beat and my hair clip pops. It’s held my long blonde hair in a tight knot. My hair spills around my face like the rhythm spilling in wave after wave over this crowd. I long for the headscarf I should have brought, even though my friend said I didn’t need to cover my head.

I landed in Karachi on a Sunday when most everything was closed. Guidebooks had recommended Clifton Beach and it never closes, so I asked a Stanford classmate’s driver, on loan during my visit, to take me there. He told me to cover my head.

We parked at the water’s edge, near fishermen. My white headscarf flapped in the wind, and I stumbled as I climbed onto the seawall. The driver offered me a hand and didn’t let go until I was steady on my feet, by his side and looking down at the waves crashing into the rocks.

In June 2003, a tanker sank off the coast of Clifton Beach. Fifty thousand tons of crude oil spilled from its hold before the Pakistani authorities could contain the problem. The boat was never retrieved from the sea. In 2008, oil still leaked through its seams into the city’s water.

A wave slammed into the seawall with enough force to shake it beneath our feet. Water splashed black specks onto my arms. My driver began trying to wipe away the black with his hand. I almost drew back in shock, but then remembered he worked for my classmate. Sense of duty trumped the reserve Pakistani men would typically show a woman outside their family.

“Don’t worry,” I told him.

He swiped at another glob on my wrist, making sure only the edge of his hand touched my skin.

With my white headscarf, I wiped away what I could of the streaks. “It’s fine. See?” It wasn’t, but I felt bad. For him, for all of us.

Further down the beach, seven rows of empty chairs—the metal kind with a vinyl cover—lost their legs to the oil-streaked surf again and again. A man stood nearby, waiting to sell seats to those wishing to view the sunset. Boys darted between the rows, never thinking to sit down, never pausing to watch the sun set.

                                                  

Pappu Saeen and the men in hoppi coats shuffle around each other. They spin, he plays, the crowd sways, and the hashish smoke grows thick. Round and round they go. Tap tap tap goes my foot.

The electricity dies.

The fans emit a last gasp, and faces remain illuminated in the memory of light just extinguished. When they fade into darkness, my heart stops.

Our guards spring forward.

I freeze.

Everyone else continues swaying.

After an eternity, noise returns in the form of the crowd’s roar. They are cheering as the next beat sounds.

One guard places a call and learns this was a planned outage. Load shedding, the cutting off of power by city officials, takes place at various hours throughout Lahore. Most homes and offices have backup generators. This shrine does not.

The crowd doesn’t care. They’ve brought torches, candles, and cigarette lighters. Within minutes, dots of light fill the courtyard. In the flames’ light, the hashish smoke cloud can be seen atop the dust cloud the dancers kick up. I can’t tell where one ends and the other begins.

There’s a Sufi fable, the Tale of the Sands, I’ve come to love. A stream making its way from the mountains successfully overcomes every barrier until it reaches the desert. Each time it tries to broach this expanse, the water dries up. A voice inside the stream’s depths suggests it can’t cross the desert unless it becomes one with the wind. Convinced that crossing the desert in the same way it’s crossed every other obstacle is its destiny, the stream ignores the voice.

Pappu Saeen spins faster and stirs the lowest wisps. A man in a hoppi coat the color of forest dances toward him. Hair in face, eyes closed, their collision seems fated. At the last second, they spin in opposite directions.

In the dervishes’ tale, the stream’s internal voice insists it must allow itself to be absorbed by the wind if it wishes to cross the desert. The stream, having never before been absorbed, wishes to remain as it has always been. To give up its individuality is incomprehensible and, once lost, how could it ever be reclaimed? How could the river ever be the same again? But, to its questions, a whisper replies that, otherwise, the earth would soak up its water at the desert’s edge. The stream cannot remain the same, unchanged, regardless.

To my left, men pass a smoking Coca-Cola bottle. Several holes in the glass hold cigarettes, and the glow reminds me of the 1970s Coca-Cola commercial. Thousands of Americans held candles, stood in a Christmas-tree formation, and sang about wanting to teach the world to sing. The lyrics loop over and over in my head. I draw in a breath of hashish. I crave a drag on that bottle to mute the American commercial in my mind.

                                                  

“Who is the terrorist—the Pakistani farmer minding his own business or the American soldier who flies five thousand miles, comes into our country, and shoots our women and children? The American. That’s who.”

My armed guide sat back and crossed his arms. We were in the Peshawar Pearl Continental with my escort, recruited to help the American friend of a boss’s nephew’s boss. It was my eighth day in Pakistan. The day before, a suicide bomber had detonated his explosives nearby. Days before that, a US drone had been dropped not much further away.

This farmer had shown me the utmost courtesy as he escorted me through Peshawar at his friend’s request. He had called ahead to every place we would pass, alerting locals he was bringing an American but she was okay. He had gotten me into a gun bazaar after hours and calmed the guards bearing AK-47s. Now he wanted to engage in a discussion about American-Pakistani relations. To engage in a calm, dispassionate discussion was the least I could do.

“Who is the terrorist?” he asked again, tapping his empty plate.

The other two men stared at the remains of their lunches. Though Muslim, they claimed a traveler’s exemption from Ramadan’s rules. I was trying to fast.

“Am I making sense?” he asked.

I’d told people back home that it’s the one “crazy” about whom I’d have to worry. Not petty crimes and not mugging. Now, in the hotel known as Spy Central, where every nook and cranny may be bugged and every move observed, I felt the presence of danger more surely than anywhere else in Pakistan. Perhaps I’d met my “crazy.” Perhaps he felt he’d met his, in me.

“The Americans—and, of course, by that I mean your leaders and not you personally.”

“Of course,” I retorted. That my mouth worked surprised me.

“The Americans are not just terrorists. But bullies, don’t you think?”

“Perhaps.”

“What do you mean by ‘perhaps’?”

“Just that—”

“What?”

The thing I didn’t want to say flew out of my mouth. “We may be the bully, but isn’t it better to be on good terms with the bully than not?”

It was the wrong thing to say. Wrong and as pointless as some back home called my curiosity to see up close this country in which I had set a book.

I tried to tell myself I was overly tired and this man argumentative. I assured myself that, of course, I couldn’t think straight for the hair clip that had pressed against my skull for the last eight days, folding my hair over and over itself until it was no more than a suggestion of blonde length. If I were, I would have kept my mouth shut. But, like the stream that couldn’t cross the desert in the Sufi tale, keeping quiet would have been as much an answer as the retort I’d delivered.

My guide chuckled in the way people do when nothing remotely funny has transpired. I reached for my wallet and asked for the check. The man who would not break his fast would not let me pay.

                                                  

In the hour Pappu Saeen performs without electricity, a boy fans the smoke and heat off us. My friend begs her father to give him some rupees.

“He must be tired,” she tells him. “He’s so young.”

The boy’s expression reveals no fatigue or expectation of money. My friend’s father’s hands remain tucked in his pocket. The boy continues to fan our faces.

At least twenty men spin and shuffle in the courtyard’s center. Hoppi coats billow around them, and an image of the Southern belles dancing like there’s no Civil War afoot in Gone With the Wind comes to mind.

Light flares nearby. I see another empty Coca-Cola bottle, its soda long gone, aglow. A young man places his mouth over the bottle, and his cheekbones stand out, shadow against light, as he inhales. He lifts his head from the bottle. Our eyes meet. I look away first.

                                                  

After visiting Clifton Beach my first afternoon in Pakistan, I wound up in the living room of a friend’s friend’s friend. She and others drank beers and smoked while I nursed a coffee and tried to stay awake. They talked about Pakistan for my benefit. I considered the oil tanker’s residue on my skin and focused as best I could.

My hostess, a Pakistani writer of some renown, told me she’d published her recent book in English only.

“Why not Urdu as well?” I asked.

“Why bother?” She grinned at the others and lit another cigarette. “I ended my decade-long boycott of the United States last year.”

I opened my mouth to ask why, but thought better of it. I was missing too many pieces of this puzzle to risk offending with a bad question that first day.

“Be prepared to bear witness,” she told me. “You’ll have to. For your country.”

I wasn’t yet tired of bearing witness. The tales of Pakistanis who’d repatriated after one too many encounters with an overzealous American police officer hadn’t yet sickened me. And I’d not yet learned of the Pakistani who broke down and wept in the US embassy after they refused him the visa needed to complete his doctoral work at the American university where he’d already spent six years. I wanted to bear witness. “I don’t mind.”

They fell silent. Cigarettes were smoked down to stubs. New ones were lit.

“Expect questions from the people you meet,” she told me. “Lots of them.”

I hadn’t yet been questioned in the Peshawar Pearl Continental and begun to wrestle so acutely with the answers.

                                                  

We are moving back through the crowd we navigated hours before. The dancers continue spinning and Pappu Saeen continues drumming. No longer scared or perhaps too high on secondhand smoke to care, I want to stay. As the tide of the group carries me away from the swirling hoppi coats and drumbeats, my eyes search for something on which to focus in the blur the night has become.

A man standing still amidst the now frenzied dancing.

His beard is shot with gray, and his shalwar kameez glows white. His hands are clasped over his heart, and he stares up at the night sky. The dancers shuffle around him, but never draw his gaze.

Sufis believe that the elements—air, water, fire and earth—constitute four pillars holding the roof of heaven in place even as they destroy each other. The pillar of water can ruin that of fire. Air can banish earth. Creation is thus built on opposites. The man whose eyes reach for the night sky while his hands hold his heart seems encircled by these opposing elements. Can he, standing still and uniting opposites, create some truth that those of us spinning at 3:00 a.m. and those of us traveling halfway around the world in search of the story behind their story can’t?

Through breaks in the crowd, we move. My friends marvel at how wonderful this was. I reconsider my anxiety, flaring as often as the cigarette lighters did in the last three hours. While Pappu Saeen was letting the spirit move him, I’d been waiting for everything bad that could happen to happen.

These men who watched me so intently earlier don’t even notice me now. Their eyes follow Pappu Saeen. The still man’s eyes hold the moon. I am the one staring this time.

Some of them hate Americans. More believe Americans hate and misunderstand them. But no one wants me to bear witness to their stories this night. I am the one now truly ready to bear witness.

The still man’s hands remain clasped at his heart as if what he sees in the moon might otherwise burst it and him into a million glowing embers. Does he believe he holds up the roof of heaven by not spinning and let fly the elements, the body, and the consciousness? Would he, like too many of us, stand at the edge of the desert and refuse to believe his resistance to change was about to transform him as surely as allowing himself to be lifted and carried above it would?

The drums. They continue to draw in the crowd, even as my hosts believe we are leaving its call, the people, and the night behind us. Even as I understand all too clearly, with no head covering to shield my gaze and no fear left to cloud my mind, that none of us ever truly leaves a people or country behind.

 

 

 

BIO: Holly has studied with Claire Messud, Lan Samantha Chang, and Domenic Stansberry. She holds an MBA from Stanford, an MFA from Vermont College, and is the only Chicago-based member of the San Francisco Writers’ Grotto.