As we wrapped up the page Tuesday night, the crime reporter Fawad came running. I was going through a proof for Page 14. I looked up. He held up seven fingers. I nodded to him. He ran off.
The drive-by shootings have resurfaced in Karachi. Each day the pages fill with rape, gang-rape, incest, sodomy, honour killing, acid attacks. The three-page city section reads like an anthology of licentiousness that would have had the Marquis de Sade rushing off to get a visa to Pakistan. I’d love to know what Camille Paglia, the author of Sexual Personae, would have to say about the cop who threaded a cord through a young man’s nose to punish him. There seems to be no end to this bottomless pit.
Lest I dedicate another entry to the depressing state of affairs in my province, I have decided to draw some inspiration from my pint-sized nephew.
Three-year-old Master Ibrahim* has been bopping to the performances of Coke Studio (www.cokestudio.com.pk) these days and he introduced me to the stellar, sufic work of Arif Lohar, the chimta-thrashing headbanger who has young people in thrall all over Pakistan with his ‘Dum Ghutkoo’ or Alif Allah song with the crimson-lipped Meesha Shafi.
For three years now Coke Studio has brought together the best of this country’s musical talent – and not just the pop stars but the old folk singers and musicians as well. This series has breathed life into the music scene and its fantastic website and downloadable content means that it’s all free.
The idea is simple. The good people at Coke created a studio and lined up artists such as Abdia Parveen (whose voice has been described as the best in the world), the gravelly voiced Arieb Azhar, the younger pop crowd like Aunty Disco Project and the ground-breaking female Pashto duo Zeb and Haniya.
Zeb and Haniya created quite a stir when they hit the scene in 2000 with their Farsi, Darri and Pashto work not just because they are so good, but because the Taliban had been squeezing the life out of musicians from the North-West Frontier Province, now renamed Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. The musicians, who are not just Pakhtun but are from other ethnic and linguistic backgrounds, fled Peshawar for fear of their lives. Check out Bibi Sanam Janem at Coke Studio’s YouTube link to understand these lyrics. Master Ibrahim was thrilled with this song because my sister, his aunt’s name is Sanam.
Master Ibrahim also introduced me to Alif Allah by Arif Lohar. Alif in Arabic and Urdu is the first letter of the alphabet, as if I’m not wrong, is the same in Hebrew. This song, that my nephew prefers to call ‘Dum Ghutkoo’, is a terribly playful number that I guarantee will have you singing along too:
Master Ibrahim was singing along in the Punjabi with an alacrity that has stunned my family.
Pir mereya jugni ji
I have the spirit of my Guide
Ay way Allah walliyan di jugni ji
The spirit of all the messengers who brought His message
Dum ghutkoo, dum ghutkoo…
Every time I think of you God, my heart races
Now that is the message, I think to myself. All the messengers, Jesus, Abraham, Moses, Noah… we are not Muslims if we don’t believe in them. The message of love in sufi music always helps recalibrate, realign my faith when the Wahabi versions or literalists try to force down their rigid Islam in which we fear God. The fire and brimstone approach never appealed to me in the first place, especially when it came to justifying hatred or violence towards other people because they believe differently.
I assume that people outside Pakistan are fairly familiar with sufi music. For this, we can mostly thank Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Michael Brook for their 1995 collaboration ‘Night Song’ and Eddie Vedder (Dead Man Walking soundtrack). Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s voice can be heard in almost every corner of Pakistan. He is revered as one of the greatest Qawwali singers we have produced. For those unfamiliar with it, it can be helpful to think of Qawwali as a sort of sufi opera.
When Night Song was released it was all we listened to in our house for months. I was too young to really appreciate the lyrics but when I returned to Pakistan after my MA degree, I started to listen more and more to Abida Parveen and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. Much of this dovetailed neatly with developing friendships with Shia Muslims who revere Ali, the cousin and son-in-law of Prophet Muhammad (SAW). Ali (RA) figures prominently in this tradition and one of my favourite qawwalis by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan is Haq Ali Ali:
This one was a more recent discovery and I never tire of listening to it because of the pyrotechnics of his voice. The Khyber will still tremble at the name of Ali, sends shivers down my spine. And when he says Sher-e-Yazdan, I’m always reminded of an old friend whose son is named Yazdan.
Unfortunately, I’m a rather amateur listener. Some of my friends know saint Bulleh Shah’s poetry by heart (and show off by quoting it randomly and at the oddest of moments). If you ever want to be persuaded that not all Muslims and Pakistanis (in particular) are terrorists, you just have to show up at one of Abida Parveen’s performances and wait for her sing Bulleh Shah’s Arey Logo (Oh People). This line makes the crowd go wild:
Arey logo, tumhara kiya? Main janun mera khuda janay
Oh people, what is it to you? This is between me and my Maker.
My translation is perhaps awkward and fumbling, but when she sings these lines the response is phenomenal. It is about tolerance in religion and at one or two performances I’ve heard her change the word ‘people’ to ‘maulvi’ or cleric, in a scathing critique of hair-splitting fundamentalism and religious policing that is oppressive in the worst of Orwellian senses. This type of thinking is unlikely to ever go away, and I suppose the challenge is to tolerate it to uphold the principle. I suppose I’ll be able to do this as long as they are singing qawwali.
* When Ibrahim was hospitalized recently for gastroenteritis we discovered to our glee that boys were given the title of Master as patients.
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