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Pak Your Bags

10 February 2005

With a population of 4.5 million people, Lahore is the second largest city in Pakistan.  Founded in the 8th Century A.D., it is the capital of the Punjab province.  Punjabi and Urdu are the two main languages spoken there.   

Lahore is also the birthplace of the title character in Rudyard Kipling’s novel, Kim.  The book opens with the young, orphaned Kimball O’Hara sitting astride the large “Zam-Zammah” green-bronze cannon across from the red brick and white marble Lahore Museum.  I made sure to get my picture taken in front of Kim’s gun when I visited this old city last weekend. 

I was in Pakistan to give a presentation at an event in Karachi.  A classmate of mine from Oxford—an OB/GYN doctor and direct descendent of the Prophet Mohammed--invited me to come to her family home in Lahore to catch up and to witness the annual Basant festival, which celebrates the beginning of spring.  Never one to turn down an adventure, and so tantalizingly close by, I hopped on a plane to Punjab.  (Though a bit spoiled by frequent travel, the idea that I was “hopping on a plane to Punjab” delighted me.)  In the limited time I had, I wanted to learn as much as I could about the cultural capital of the world’s second largest Muslim country. 

I landed at Allama Iqbal International Airport at eleven o’clock in the evening.  An hour later I was downtown in Old Lahore.  The Basant festival, which would last for the next 24 hours, had begun in earnest.  From the rooftops of nearly every building, revelers were flying kites in the misty moonlight.  Kite flying is the major component of this spring festival.  Fliers try in good fun to tangle with and capture each other’s paper and balsa wood creations.  Experienced operators had tape on their fingers to prevent getting cut by the sharp string.  Though illegal, many people use metallic string which helps them sever the tethers of their competitors.  It was all part of the fun, but it also had the frequent effect, when drifting into transmission lines, of causing a power outage.  

The simple beauty of box and flat kites dancing in the moonlight was jazzed up a bit by the almost continuous rat-tat-tat of Kalashnikov rifles being fired joyously in the air.  The gravity-ignoring notion that firing bullets vertically is a good way to celebrate seems unique to the developing world.  (Twelve people were killed by stray bullets during last year’s Basant festival.)  Thankfully, we in the more civilized West aim our guns directly at each other. 

New Lahore is very pleasant, complete with McDonald’s, wide, tree-lined streets, and modern shopping centers.  But the walled Old Lahore is another one of those crazy labyrinth cities, with narrow, twisting, dark alleys paved with stone, but covered with dirt, litter, human spit, and dried grease and blood from hundreds of years’ worth of discarded animal innards.  It is a city lived outside, with bakers of flat bread, sellers of nuts, vendors of fruit, and weary ladies in dimly lit doorways all peddling their wares on every block.  It is a city patrolled by mustachioed soldiers in black berets carrying AK-47s.  A city plastered with posters of famous film stars I’d never heard of.  A city of alley cats with matted fur drinking from dirty gray puddles traversed by cigarette butts.  It is a city of protruding verandas and limited sky.  A place where hordes of people all flow and fight against each other as they seek to carry on the routine duties of life.  It is a place where people standing still stand out.  It is a place where everything is so bizarre and hurried, that normalcy and tranquility meet the eye like treasured finds.  It is, as I have written before of other such places I’ve encountered here on the other side of the world, a screeching monkey in a basket city, where wallets are well hidden and purses tightly clutched. 

In places like this, one seeks an eddy in which to collect one’s thoughts, calm one’s nerves, and catch one’s breath.  Such refuge was provided by my friend in the form of Cooco’s restaurant in the heart of the red-light district.  There, she introduced me to Mr. Iqbal Hussein--the proprietor, artist-in-residence, and son of a tradeswoman.   

Cooco’s is three or four stories high with an open-air rooftop garden.  The whole place is filled with Persian rugs, oil paintings of women with their knees apart (mostly done by Mr. Hussein), brass lanterns, sheesha pipes, marble mantles, old clocks, dark wooden chairs with ruby-red upholstery, stained glass windows, and roving platters of dark brown tea served in bright white cups by dark brown men in bright white shirts and dark red vests.  From the rooftop of Cooco’s, we watched the vast armada of kites in motion, noted with amusement the continued rat-tat-tat of the deadly noisemakers, and viewed with great admiration the Shahi Qila fortress and Badshahi mosque, both built by the imperial Mughals.  These impressive buildings, over the wall and removed a bit from the rabbit warren of the old city, were constructed with red brick and white marble.  The mosque has a cluster of white onion domes and four red brick minarets with white marble caps on top. The grass surrounding these structures is deep green and well-manicured.  The Mughals are the same folks who built the Taj Mahal and these buildings in Lahore reminded me very much of that famous landmark.

After watching a short fireworks show, we returned to the street and headed for home.  By then it was four in the morning, but the narrow lanes were still jammed with people and cars, which made travel slow.  Our journey was further delayed by the long, heavily armored motorcade of Pakistan’s president, General Pervez Musharraf, which passed our position on its way to the airport.  The security posture of this convoy bore witness to the fact that President Musharraf is an ally of the Americans in the war on terror. 

It is widely believed by people tracking such matters that Osama bin Laden resides somewhere in Pakistan.  Some criticism has been leveled at these same people for their failure, to date, in capturing Mr. bin Laden.  On that point I would like to make the following observation in their defense.  I saw thousands of guys in Lahore that looked like Osama bin Laden.  The whole place was filled with men with floppy hats (pagris) on their heads and long beards and flowing robes (chaadars).  The real bin Laden could be living in the back room of some third-floor walk-up apartment in some nondescript tenement building in an alley three or four times removed from what might generously be called a main street.  He can blend in easily in a place like Old Lahore.  Most of the folks looking for him really can’t.  I didn’t see another white man that whole evening, which made me the object of much polite curiosity.  In fact, a group of local newspaper reporters clamored to take my picture and ask me my thoughts about Basant, as if the appearance of a pale face was as rare as the return of Haley’s Comet.   

The next morning, my friend and I attended a private party in a haveli (a big house with a large courtyard) also in the old city.  The place was decked out with yellow and orange and pink bunting.  There were streamers of the same colors draped over our heads and suspended by fasteners on opposite walls.  It was very festive, and so I quickly forgot all about Osama bin Laden.  There were great buffets of chicken and lamb and rice, spicy sauces and strange desserts.  I took pleasure in plunging my thumb through the peel of a soft ball sized, juicy orange.  I took greater pleasure devouring it, being careful not to drip on the long yellow scarf I was wearing out of local custom.

The people around me in the haveli party were all full of laughter and bright with smiles.  Across the street, towering above our roof, I could see the black flag of Shi’ia Islam snapping in the breeze from a minaret.  My friend and most of the folks at the party were Shi’ia.  But these were not your veil-and-sadness Muslims as seen on TV.  These folks, women included, were dressed in bright, happy colors.  Their hair was down, their talk light, and their jocularity abundant.  There was a palpable sense of affection for family, close friends, and even a blue-eyed stranger. 

My friend and I climbed to the roof and waved to the colorfully dressed happy revelers clustered on little islands atop other buildings all around us stretching to every horizon.  We listened to the rat-tat-tat of the rifles that rang out in the distance and viewed with sweet surrender the pretty yellow, purple, and red paper kites that swayed like daisies, violets, and roses in the clear sky above the soiled city.