Saturday, January 19, 2008

This time, all knives out

Indeed we haven't left for the Sufi festival at Pak Patan.
Actually because some of the foreigners who went there returned back from it, giving reports of it being a mud pit (due to the bad weather) and not a festival as such. They also told that the music was mostly Qawwali and nearly no Sufi dancing, while most of the music was limited to the community only and not to any visitor nor foreigner.

Today was the day we belated had planned to go, just to catch one day and see what would happen trying to get into places. Mr. Malik, the part-time hotel owner (and a documentary maker at the same time) told us this morning that the music had ended at Pak Patan. So much for our effort. ah well, 1 extra night then. It being 2 holy days (today and tomorrow) for the end of Muharram.

Mr Malik had arranged a trip to a village 35 km's away with some old history for everyone who wanted to come along, so we hopped along with this instead. Out of the bus into the village, we attracted the usual attention of the locals. We had expected to walk around in the town and see some nature or farm fields, but it soon became clear that there was a procession about to happen, again for the end of Muharram. Which could only mean one thing: all knives and sickles out by the chain. At the place of procession, we were led through all the security lines. Men armed with any type of rifle or shotgun were posted along every alley and searching people. (more about this precaution later). They didn't really search us, through the guidance of Mr Malik and his cousin, who are figures of high regard within the local community. All of us could wander around, shooting photographs and looking at the evocative storytelling by a young imam. He was telling the story of Muharram Hussain, how he was slaughtered in Iraq 500 years ago that inspired the celebration of Muharram and its chastising practicion.

Before it all would start, we all were called back by Mr Malik and his companions who took us into a nearby building where we got a delicious meal of peppered rice, roti and chickpea's. There we got talking about Pakistani politics, especially because one of our pack was a French journalist who writes for Le Point up to the elections and residing in our hotel. It was said that the village we were in, was a Shi'ite community. In Pakistan, Sunni's and Shi'ites live together, though in a ration of 80% Sunni and 12% Shi'ite. I asked Mr Malik about predictions for the upcoming elections. Bhutto's party already had 35% of the votes in the first election, since her death the polls indicate a 45% share. Definitely a landslide win in a multiple party election.

During dinner, Mr Malik's younger cousin showed us the scars on his back from his previous 6 chastising Muharrams. And he again would do it in 30 minutes or so. After the food we went out to the procession place again. The young imam was still preaching, more evocative and shouting than before and many men and women were weeping. Suddenly the crowd split from the middle and in came men running in black kurta. The ceremonial kurta. And with them the sickle knives on chains. They started chastising themselves right away and we all grabbed out camera's or in my case, my mobile recorder, to register all this self inflicted bloodshed. The sound of rustling chains and sickles cutting into their flesh was direct in your face. Looking at this scene, it looked like a bewildered feast of punishment. As the cuts on their back became bigger, the gaze of the men became more hazy, as if in trance. Which they were. There are nearly no words to describe this scene as you are witnessing it.
One of our 2 Polish photographer friends even got some blood spats on him.
It went on with singing from the Imam and by the chastisers themselves. Impressive sound. Chest beatings, sickles, chains and strong vocals. Photo's to come very soon whenever we can, by courtesy of our Polish friends Majik and Andre.

On the Peshawar explosion.
Another bomb blast last thursday. Did that even make the news back in the West?
*Only 12 people dead*, someone in our hotel said on a slightly ironic note. Every Thursday there seems to be a bomb attack somewhere in a big city.
When I heard about it, I was eating my aloo palak (potato spinach curry) in a cornershop canteen where the TV was showing images of an explosion. Rubble, people lying around, crying people walking throughout the scene. The Pakistani locals were sitting around, eating their dish or sipping their chai without a hint of desparation. Rather a glare of silent acceptance and confident concentration. It's no a special-of-the-day here for them anymore, so why frown? It actually happened during the Muharram procession. Explosions during holy ceremonies apparently are part of the extremist game. Or perhaps an internal attack. Sunni's versus Sji'ites?
Next morning the Lahore newspaper said that Lahore police would increase their roadblocks and forces on the street. That was noticed straight away and there still is a lot of police on the street. Besides that, all is quiet and peaceful here.
Lahore already had his blast 2 weeks ago. Safe, you reckon?

On Bhutto.
So the CIA says that Al Qaeda/Taliban is behind it. Such smart folks, oh.
That the extremists have it difficult under the Musharraf rule is a given fact, but what if Bhutto would have ruled? Would Bhutto have gotten all the backing of the army and especially all the generals during her reign with Musharraf bitter of losing control? That leaves a lot of food for thought and reckoning that extremists might cut into themselves. The word on the Lahore street is that either Musharraf is behind it and some even dare say that Bhutto's husband was in the conspiracy, to get control of the party. Absurd? well.... Or what about the other opponent parties? So many factors to calculate into this. Perhaps all of the above have had a part in it. Who knows. Conspiracy theories are what they are for no reason. Forever blurred by opinions that divide people.

That's it for now. Tomorrow we do leave Lahore to the south. We'd like to stop at Harappa, an ancient Indus valley civilization site dating 3000 BC. And also Multan and Uch Sharif are on our itinerary.

Soon pics of Muharram today. They speak their image out loud.

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