On heritage

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“The ground on which we stand is sacred ground. It is the dust and blood of our ancestors.” – Chief Plenty Coups, Crow

Whenever I visit a new city, the first thing I like to do is pay my respects to her oldest monument.

Like the towering 12th century St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna. The ancient, sprawling Palatine Hill in Rome. A ruined Moorish lookout tower in the village of Zahara de la Sierra in Andalusia. The 1000-year old dragon tree on the island of Tenerife.

Or, when I’m back in my hometown Lahore, the 10th century shrine of Ali Hajveri, the city’s patron saint and one of South Asia’s most celebrated sufis.

It’s kind of like how you make it a point to greet elders first at a family gathering, or how you always pop in to say salaam to Aunty Uncle or Daadi Daada when calling at a friend’s.

Why is it considered proper to do this?

Because age, when tempered by experience and good sense, is wisdom. And wisdom commands respect.

Our parents, grandparents and great-grandparents are the pillars of our community, our connection with the past. And much of who we are – our tastes, our temperament, the intonation of our voice, that dimple on the chin – we owe directly to them.

So it is with cultural heritage.

It’s an intangible thing, our relationship with heritage; a deep, spiritual connection that can’t be quantified, only experienced.

Like the feeling of awe you get when entering a breathtaking mosque or cathedral, in all its glazed tiled, stained glass, soaring glory. The wonder of walking through a mind-blowingly modern city like 1st century Pompeii. The peace of contemplating the Fasting Buddha at the Lahore Museum.

Or the tingling horror of seeing before you the torture instruments used during the Spanish Inquisition.

Heritage speaks to us. It moves us, because it’s an intrinsic part of ourselves. It tells us who we are, where we come from and what we’ve done – for better or for worse. Heritage gives us identity.

So when human beings destroy cultural heritage – whether purposefully, as invaders and extremists have done throughout the ages, or out of sheer stupidity and greed, as often happens in Pakistan – they aren’t just blowing up bricks and stones, or splashing white paint on a delicately frescoed tomb.

They’re erasing the identity of a society. By blotting out pieces of the past, they leave us a fragmented, rootless future. They leave us without a story.

Years and years ago, there used to exist a temple here. A sculpture. A library. A place of beauty, intelligence and culture.

But you will never know it. You will never wander its ruined pathways, finger its mossy stones, or feel that inexplicable sense of belonging, the warm pride of knowing, “My ancestors built this. And I am a part of this mysterious, timeless story.”

What will you build on now?  Where will you find inspiration? How will you write the next chapter of the story?

I often feel a strong sense of déjà vu when visiting old places. There is power there, the coming together of a thousand wills, of history being constructed, brick by brick and thought by thought. Being in these places, you begin to see things differently; you begin to understand why people look the way they do, why they speak in a certain way, why they create certain things – why they are who they are, for better and for worse.

It’s like seeing old photographs of your grandparents and great-grandparents and starting at the resemblance: “That looks just like me!”

You may not like what you see, but you can’t ignore it’s there.

Cultural heritage is part of our DNA. We have a right to claim it, to cherish it, and interpret it the way we choose.

And we have a duty to preserve it, so our children and their children may also have a sacred place to call their own.

So they may also draw on that ancient repository of stones and memories, be reminded of where their ancestors went wrong – and where they went beautifully right.

So they may continue writing the story.

 

Saif-ul-Malook – The Complete Tale

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Lake Saif-ul-Malook, situated at a height 10, 600 ft at the northern tip of the Kaghan Valley in Pakistan’s Himalayas, is  one of the most beautiful places on earth. I have been there twice, the first time as a 12-year old and then in 2009, when I determined to capture some of its magic on camera and on paper, in the words of two local storytellers who relate the legend of the Lake to visitors.

It is the story of a prince and a fairy, Saif-ul-Malook and Badr-ul-Jamal – a story of love, adventure, faith, magic, suffering and betrayal – a story of the multitude of human passions.  Many different versions exist, but below is a reproduction of what the storytellers told us, as faithful to their words and mood as possible, with some writer’s liberties. I hope you enjoy it!


The storyteller
The storyteller

“Now listen to me,” he said, and he began. 

 

“I have not seen the Fairy, but I have seen the glory of God.

“Every chowdveen, the  14th night of the lunar month, the Lake is like a mirror, cradling the mountains, the sky, the innumerable twinkling stars, the glowing orb of the moon – so still, so clear, you can scarcely tell between reality and reflection. It is a sight to behold.

“Many a night I have seen lights, floating lights, a thousand floating lights, here on the slope where we sit, and watched them disappear under the rocks.

“I have not seen the Fairy Badr-ul-Jamal, but I have witnessed the glory of God.”

Once upon a time, there lived in Egypt a prince called Saif-ul-Malook. They say that Saif was the handsomest man to walk the earth since Joseph himself – tall and lean, with skin the color of gleaming copper, a clear, noble brow, deep-set dark eyes and black hair that fell in waves to his shoulders. He was brave,  a skilled hunter, rider and swordsman, true to his Arabic name – “Sword of the Kings”. Born to riches, Prince Saif had never wanted for anything in his life; there was not a stone, river, man or woman in the kingdom that he could not claim.

Until one night, he had a dream.

A dream that robbed him of his peace of mind and changed the course of his life.

He dreamt of a lake, a lake he had never seen before, surrounded by mountains that seemed to touch the sky and water that shimmered emerald-green in the moonlight.  In the lake seven fairies were bathing –  ethereal creatures,  slim as gazelles, with creamy skins, wide, golden eyes, and hair like rippling ebony – but the seventh among them eclipsed them all in beauty. Her face  was as radiant as the full moon, badr, but it was when she laughed, skipping on the water without a care in the world – it was when she laughed that Saif was seized by a joy and a sadness so intense, so inexpressible,  that he awoke from his sleep with tears in his eyes.  Badr-ul-Jamal…he had never seen anything more beautiful.

The next morning, Saif was visibly troubled.

“Why so crestfallen, son?” asked the king, his father, at breakfast.

“Father,” the young man confided. “I think I am in love.”

The king was overjoyed. “What happy news, son! This calls for a wedding! Who is the favored princess?”

“No princess, father,” Saif replied grimly; then, with a sudden burst of elation: “She is a Queen…A Queen among fairies!”

The king’s face furrowed into a frown as he considered his son’s words. “Saif, you do realize what you are saying?  A fairy! She is a bird, a creature cast of fire, naari. So how can a human being, an earthbound mortal like you, ever hope to possess her?” He shook his head vehemently. “It is impossible. Abandon the idea at once. It will bring you nothing but misery,” he foresaw.

But it was no use. It was too late for discussion, for persuasion and advice. Saif’s  heart was already on fire. He begged his father’s permission to set out and look for that magical lake where the fairies bathed, in the hopes of finding their Queen. With a heavy heart, the king consented, blessed him on his quest, and watched his only son ride away into the desert.

For six long years Prince Saif searched, roaming every corner of Egypt, from Alexandria to Sinai. Begging on the streets, his hair in his eyes, his shoes in tatters, consumed by love, people no longer recognized him.”There he goes, the madman!” they cried. “There goes the madman, the majnun, who looks for a lake the color of emeralds and mountains of pure white! Who ever heard of such a place?” And they laughed and pushed him out of town.

Prince Saif roamed the streets and towns of Egypt
Prince Saif roamed the streets and towns of Egypt

One day, as he wandered about the outskirts of Cairo, Saif saw a holy man, a buzurg, sitting under the shade of a lone olive  tree. “Perhaps this holy man can help me,” Saif thought. As he approached him, the old man looked up expectantly.

“Ah, there you are,” the old man said,  a smile playing on his lips. “I’ve been waiting for you, Prince Saif.”

Prince! No one had addressed him thus in years. But before Saif had the chance to express his surprise or explain his predicament, the buzurg dug a hand into the bountiful folds of his cloak and produced an old, battered round sheepskin cap, frayed and thinned with what seemed like centuries of use.  Placing it in Saif’s hands, the holy man said, looking at him with keen eyes, “You have been through a lot, my son. But the important thing is that you don’t give up – nothing  valuable is won without a struggle.”

Saif toyed with the cap in his hands. “Thank you,” he said hesitatingly. “But what am I supposed to do with this?”

The old man chuckled. “Why, what do you think? Put it on!”

Puzzled, Prince Saif gingerly placed the old cap on his head. What happened next cannot be described, only experienced by the wearer of a Suleimani topi, Solomon’s fabled magic cap, which has the power to transport its wearer to any place he or she desires in a matter of seconds.

There was a gust of wind, and Saif felt the earth give away under his feet. Suddenly, he was shooting through the sky in a fantastic flurry of faces, places, colors and memories, a deafening rumble in his ears; and then, just as suddenly, his feet were firmly planted again on the earth. When he opened his eyes, this is what he saw.

Lake Saif-ul-Malook
Lake Saif-ul-Malook, Kaghan Valley

It was the Lake – emerald-green, calm as a mirror, ringed by rugged snow-capped peaks – the very one from his dream. Saif’s joy was uncontrollable. “I shall find her, I shall find her here!” he cried, jumping up and down like a child.  “My suffering is finally over!”

In his excitement, he had forgotten about how he had been transported to the Lake in the first place – courtesy the jinn of Solomon’s cap, who was at this moment standing behind him in human form. The jinn cleared his throat. “Ahem, Prince Saif…there is one thing.”

Saif turned around with a start. “What…?” he said slowly, peering at the jinn.

“You will not be able to see the Fairy Queen Badr Jamal. She is, like us, naari, borne of fire, hence invisible to the human eye in her true form.”

“So, what must I do to see her?”  Saif asked impatiently.

“You may pray,” the jinn replied. “Pray for forty consecutive days – the chilla – without food, drink or sleep, without moving from the circle wherein you sit. Then, and only then, will you be able to see the Fairy Badr Jamal.” With these somber words, the jinn vanished.

It sounded impossible. Only saints and prophets like Jesus, Moses and Muhammad, and later on Baba Farid Ganj Shakkar and Hafiz of Shiraz, had been known to perform a chilla to completion – others either died or lost their senses in the attempt.

The renowned South Asian Sufi saint, Baba Farid Ganj Shakkar. He is buried in Pakpattan, Pakistan
The renowned 12th century South Asian Sufi saint, Baba Farid Ganj Shakkar. He is buried in Pakpattan, Pakistan.

But Saif was not about to be thwarted from his objective so close to the end. “I’ve looked for her for six years, wandering the streets of Egypt with nothing but a kashkol, a begging bowl. Surely I can endure another forty days?”

So, drawing a circle of pebbles on the southern shore of the Lake, he seated himself inside,  closed his eyes, and began to pray. He prayed, and prayed, and prayed, and as the suns went down and the moons came up, Saif grew a little weaker, his face thinner, his pain stronger, his yearning deeper. He lost count of the days, and awaited each night with the hope – “Perhaps I will see her tonight?”

But Badr Jamal did not appear. One night, as the sun cast its dying amber rays on the Himalayan slopes and twilight crept into the sky, Prince Saif sat in his circle wondering if he would live to see another day. Physically exhausted, his body was about to give up the struggle, but his mind had never felt sharper, calmer.

It was also a chowdveen ki raat – the 14th of the lunar month, or night of a full moon. The sight of that perfect silver orb glowing in the dark velvety sky, enveloping the Lake, the mountains and the Prince himself in its ethereal light, filled Saif’s heart with peace. “If I were to die here tonight, if my soul were to leave my body tonight, I would be happy man.”

Suddenly, a sound reached his ears – like the fluttering of a great flock of birds, far away at first, then  closer – intermingled with a delicate tinkling, like the chime of a thousand tiny bells. Saif looked up;  a great white cloud was moving from the west towards the Lake.

The Seven Fairies arrive at the Lake
The Seven Fairies arrive at the Lake

“Perhaps it’s the Angels of Death, come to take me home!” Saif thought.

But they were not angels, because Prince Saif-ul-Malook was not destined to die that night. That chowdveen ki raat, Saif became one of the handful of human beings to ever complete a chilla, and one of the rarer still to set eyes on the mythical Fairies of Koh Kaaf, the Caucasus Mountains, that magical land that lay at the border of Asia and the savage West. The Fairies flew to the Lake every full moon to bathe, and their Queen was Badr-ul-Jamal.

The white cloud slowly descended at the shore of the Lake, and seven forms emerged – seven beatific creatures, fair-limbed, dark-haired, golden-eyed, with large gossamer wings on their backs that glittered in the moonlight. Saif was dumbstruck. An invisible force propelled him to his feet and he ran behind some large boulders, from where he could observe without being seen. His mouth agape with wonder, he watched as the seven Fairies laughingly doffed their wings, folded them neatly on ground,  and dived into the deep, shimmering waters of the Lake.

And then he saw her – Badr Jamal. She was the last to enter the Lake, gliding through the water with her long black hair spread out behind her, her face radiant as the full moon, her eyes twinkling like a child’s. She was the most beautiful creature he had ever set eyes on. Prince Saif felt like he would faint from rapture. The object of his quest, of six years and forty days of tortuous struggle, was right there in plain sight; a living, breathing, palpable creature!

Badr Jamal
The Fairy Badr Jamal

We don’t know long Saif stayed behind that boulder, guiltily spying on the fairies; for him, it was only a few minutes before the fairies began to emerge from the water and don their wings. They were getting ready to leave! Panicking, he summoned the jinn of the Suleimani cap.

“Friend, what shall I do?” he beseeched the jinn. “If I confront Badr Jamal now, she and her cohorts will be sure to take off in fright, ruining my chances forever. How do I stop her from leaving?”

The jinn nodded his head sympathetically, and said in reassuring tones,  “Worry not, master. Leave it to me.” With that, he vanished into the air whence he had come.

Unseen to Prince Saif and the fairies, the jinn stealthily crept up to the spot where the fairies had placed their folded wings and whisked away the largest, most iridescent pair of them all  – Badr Jamal’s. Soon, Badr Jamal arose from the depths, the last of the group, to prepare herself for the return journey.

“Has anyone seen my wings?” she asked after a few moments, looking around anxiously.

“You put them right here, next to mine,” said one of her friends, pointing to a large rock by the shore.

“They’re gone! My wings are gone!” Badr Jamal was in utter distress. “Oh, what will I do? How will I fly back to Koh Kaaf? What will he say?”

Her friends were dressed and ready to leave. What would he say indeed! It was past midnight, and they were already late. He would be in a foul mood, heavily pacing the corridors of the castle, a scowl on his gigantic face, thundering like a black cloud – their master Deo Safed, the White Ogre. They had to go back, now.

Glancing at each other nervously, the fairies whispered, “There’s some mischief afoot here, surely. Some magic, some trap. We best be on our way, lest we are all ensnared.” And while Badr was still frantically searching for her wings, her back towards them, the fairies abruptly took flight, and in one unanimous flutter, they were gone.

The last of Badr's friends flew away
The last of Badr’s friends flew away

“My friends, don’t leave me here alone!” Badr Jamal cried, her hands imploring the sky.  But there was nothing there. All was silent, except for the gentle lapping of the water against the shore. She was alone.

The Fairy Queen sunk down to the ground, face buried in her hands. How cold she felt, suddenly! How enormous the sky seemed, and her favorite lake so menacing, so suspicious.

All at once, she heard a sound – a shuffling of feet. She looked up, alert. It was Prince Saif. Standing right before her.

“You…” she said slowly, staring at him with her wide golden eyes. “You...”

“Please, don’t be afraid,” he spoke hurriedly, gently advancing towards her. “I’m not going to hurt you. It was I who stole your wings, but please, let me explain…”

And the whole story came tumbling out – the dream, the old buzurg, his father the king, the Suleimani topi, the six year-long quest that had brought him from Egypt to the Himalayas… he didn’t dare look at Badr Jamal in the face, for he was weak from his penance, the chilla, and would not be able to stand the splendor of her beauty.

She was still staring at him, a look of disbelief on her lovely face. Finally, she spoke:

“Prince Saif, you were not the only one who dreamt a dream.”

Saif glanced up in astonishment, and their eyes met for the first time. Badr Jamal smiled. “I never thought I’d see you. I didn’t think you were real…”

A moment later Badr was in his arms. Words cannot describe the joy and the peace that flooded over them as they embraced each other.

“My sweet love, after all these years…” Saif whispered as he stroked Badr’s hair, holding her tightly. “We can finally be together!”

Badr Jamal suddenly drew back, as if she had just remembered something. “What’s the matter, my love?” Saif asked with concern.

She looked at him with a certain decisiveness, a certain resignation.  “No. I can’t stay here. I must go. I love you, Prince Saif, but I must go. Please return me my wings. I will try to come back. But right now, I must return to Koh Kaaf.”

“Let you go?” Prince Saif  repeated, his voice hollow. He grabbed her wrist. “You think I would do that? After begging, searching, praying, struggling for so long? That I would give you up?” With a strange, violent laugh, he shouted to the sky, “Never!”

“But you don’t understand!” Badr Jamal fell to her knees, distraught. “He’ll kill us, he’ll kill us both! My master, Deo Safed. When my friends return and he finds me missing, he will come looking for me. He’s very powerful! And when he sees us together, he will kill us both. Instantly.”

She looked up at him, her eyes brimming with tears. “So you see, you have to let me go…”

Prince Saif  took Badr by the shoulders. “Let him come,” he announced. “I am not afraid of him. Let him do what he dare. I am never parting with you.” He held her close, his face resolute, his heart beating with terror at what was to follow. Covering Badr Jamal in his cloak, Prince Saif fled with her down the Valley. There, in a graveyard at the edge of the town of Naran, among shadows and secrets and silent tombstones, the couple hid for the night.

The remains of Deo Safed's fortress in the Caucasus Mountains
The ruins of Deo Safed’s fortress in the Caucasus Mountains

Meanwhile, 1, 600 miles away, in his castle in the Caucasus Mountains of present-day Turkey, Deo Safed was in a rage. “Where is Badr Jamal?” he bellowed. “Where is she?”

The walls shook, the glass windows rattled, and the six fairies huddled together in fear. “We don’t know, master,” one of them ventured, her voice trembling. “When we came out of the water from our bath, she wasn’t there.”

“Perhaps she drowned…” another suggested tremulously. They could not tell him they had left her there, unprotected, vulnerable. He would kill them.

Deo Safed was a frightful creature
Deo Safed was a frightful creature

He was a frightful creature, Deo Safed – tall as a mountain, white all over like snow, and the earth shuddered when he walked.

“Well, we’ll soon find out!” He stormed out of the palace, club in hand, heading east to the Himalayas.

Deo Safed adored Badr Jamal. He didn’t care about the others, the sniveling lot of them – she was special. He couldn’t forget, how he’d fallen madly in love with her ten years ago, when she was just a child, playing happily in the woods of Paristan, the Land of the Fairies; how he had kidnapped her and brought her to his lair, this vast stone fortress in Koh Kaaf, which was protected by such powerful magic, such fearsome beasts, that even her father, the King of Paristan, had been unable to penetrate it. He would never have let her out of his sight if he had had his way; but how could he refuse her the simple pleasure of bathing with her friends at her favorite lake twice a month?  How could he deny her this one innocent request? Oh Badr, my moon, my joy, how could you abandon me so? How could you? How dare you…he gnashed his teeth, seething with anger, and with enormous bounding steps hurtled over the mountains towards Kaghan Valley.

When Deo Safed reached the Lake, there was no one in sight. “Badr, Badr!” he roared.

“Badr, Badr, Badr…” the mountains mocked his terrible cries. Malika Parbat, the loftiest peak in the Kaghan Valley, towered silently above, her white slopes gleaming in the cold moonlight. “She’s gone, Deo Safed, she’s gone”, the Queen of the Mountains seemed to say to him. “Tonight you receive your just deserts.”

Malika Parbat, Queen of the Mountains, Kaghan Valley
Malika Parbat, 17,360 ft, Kaghan Valley

Deo Safed became desperate. Could it be? Was Badr Jamal truly lost? Did the Lake consume her, then, sucking her into its bottomless belly like a jealous monster,  like he himself had done so many years ago?

There was only one way to find out.

Deo Safed struck one gigantic foot on the southwestern shore of the Lake. There was a dull moan, deep in the bowels of the earth; like a beast awakening, the ground heaved, shuddered, and ripped open where the ogre had stamped his foot. The serene waters of the Lake began to churn and froth, tumbling out from the crevice in torrents of emerald and blue.  Deo Safed had released the Spirit of the Lake.

As the waves went crashing down to the Valley below, Deo Safed stood, in the eye of the storm, rocks and trees and water hurtling over him. “I’ll find her! Even if she is dead, a corpse at the bottom of this accursed bottomless lake, I will find her!” The water did not stop. It was the first great Flood of Kaghan.

Meanwhile, in the little cemetery on the outskirts of Naran town, Prince Saif and Badr Jamal had just fallen asleep under the shelter of a beautiful old deodar tree.

The Deodar Cedar, considered sacred in the Indian subcontinent and the national tree of Pakistan.
The Deodar Cedar, the national tree of Pakistan, is considered sacred in the Indian subcontinent.

Suddenly, a tremendous thundering reached their ears, mingled with a hideous, inhuman wailing.

“He’s here!” Badr gasped, jolting out of her slumber. Her face was blanched.

For ten long years, Badr Jamal had been a slave, a prisoner of this monster, Deo Safed. For ten long years, she had not known family, or friendship, or love – only fear, and whispers, and unspoken dreams, the charade of loving a creature whom she reviled from the depths of her heart. He had tried to win her love, the ogre, using all manner of stratagems – fine clothes and jewelry, delicious, exotic foods, marvelous animals of all colors and shapes and sizes, a host of young fairies to attend upon her every wish.

But Badr Jamal was not free. And there was no pleasure in anything, not priceless jewels or the choicest morsel of food, if she was not free. Now, this moment, was the closest chance she had ever had of escape, a true escape. And yet, anything could happen. She held close to Saif.

Then they saw, in the distance, coming from the direction of Malika Parbat above, the Flood. It was rushing towards them with lightening speed, tearing out trees, submerging sleeping villages, annihilating every thing and creature that lay in its wake. In a matter of seconds, it would reach the cemetery. And that would be the end.

Saif looked at Badr Jamal, and said, shouting over the deafening roar, “This is it, my love. Tonight, we die, or we live. All we can do is pray. So pray with me!” Badr nodded, her face resolute, surrendering finally to whatever Fate had in store. And standing there beneath the sacred cedar, in the shadowy graveyard, on that clear, starlit night, they clasped hands, shut their eyes, and prayed. Saif prayed to God, and Badr to her gods, each with equal fervor. The roar of the flood was getting closer, and closer, until it seemed like it was over their heads, then below them, then all around.

“So this is what death feels like,” thought Saif. “Not as painful as I’d imagined.”

But he wasn’t dead. He could still feel Badr’s warm hand clasped tightly around his. He opened his eyes.

Saif and Badr were standing in a cave, dry as leaves. At Saif’s feet lay the Suleimani cap, which he thought he had forgotten at the Lake and despaired of ever finding. “How?….” Saif’s voice trailed off as he stared at Badr, then at the cap, then around him at the cave.

“Where are we?” Badr looked around in amazement. “How did we get here?” The cave was wide and airy, with a deceptively low mouth, so that they had to crawl to get out. Once outside, they saw that they were perched on a mountain high above the cemetery, which was by now completely inundated. Tombstones, rocks and fallen trees floated around in grim silence. The Flood had passed. They were alive. They were safe. God, and the gods, had listened.

But what about Deo Safed? Where was he, the great White Ogre whose fury had precipitated a Flood? He wasn’t at the Lake anymore. He wasn’t even in Kaghan Valley. No, he was well on his way to his final resting place – Deosai, Land of the Giants, in Baltistan, where all giants were born, and where each one of them went to die.

Deosai Plains in Baltistan, Pakistan, one of the highest plateaus in the world.
Deosai Plains in Baltistan, Pakistan, one of the highest plateaus in the world

For Deo Safed had lost the will to live. Badr Jamal hadn’t drowned in the Lake. She had run away. Run away, from him. All these years, he had believed, he had convinced himself that she loved him. That she returned, to some degree, his ardent adoration for her.

The truth was, he couldn’t live without her; nor could he live with the knowledge that she had betrayed him. He had lost.  He was defeated, broken.

In Deosai there was peace. There, at the confluence of two of the greatest mountain ranges in the world, the Himalayas and the Karakoram, in the vast, unending plains of his birth, he went, and lay down, and died. His  massive body crumbled, killed by unhappiness, till there was nothing left but a mound of earth, and slowly, nothing at all. He wept the whole way there, and his large, heavy teardrops trickled down the slopes in sad streams, accumulating at a meadow in Kaghan Valley to form Ansoo Lake – “Teardrop Lake” – a lasting memorial to his undying love for Badr Jamal.

Ansoo Lake, Kaghan Valley
Ansoo Lake, Kaghan Valley

Back in Naran, Prince Saif and Badr Jamal were in ecstasies. They couldn’t believe that the struggle was over, that they had survived, that Saif’s quest was complete, that Badr was free, that they were together. Taking the beautiful fairy’s hand, Saif looked into her luminous, moonlike face, and smiled, “Let’s go home, my Queen”. He summoned his trusty friend, the jinn of the Suleimani cap, and in the twinkling of an eye, the couple was 2, 500 miles away, at the gates of Prince Saif’s palace in Egypt.

The news of the Prince’s return after almost seven years, and that too, with a bride, was the cause of much celebration throughout the kingdom. The King and Queen, Prince Saif’s parents, were beside themselves with joy, and wedding preparations were underway immediately. Soon, the couple were married, in a spectacular, sumptuous ceremony, with feasting and festivities lasting for many days.

One could end the story here, with “And then they lived happily ever after”… but that didn’t happen. Not just yet!

Prince Saif returned to his homeland, Egypt, after almost seven years
Prince Saif returned to his homeland, Egypt, after almost seven years

Now, once the marriage and initial hullaballoo about Prince Saif’s return to Egypt – with a Fairy Queen on his arm – were over, Saif was eager to settle down to a ‘normal’ life, the kind he had known before embarking upon the mad quest for Badr Jamal some six-odd years ago.

His responsibilities as Crown Prince were many – attending public audiences with his father the King, listening to people’s grievances and advising just solutions, traveling to all corners of the kingdom, sometimes in disguise, to ensure that governors, ministers and other official functionaries were doing their job, negotiating with ambassadors and entertaining visiting dignitaries from the great kingdoms of China or India. Prince Saif’s father was growing old, and soon the mantle of rulership would pass on to Saif; much valuable grooming time had already been lost, so the King was in a hurry to teach his son everything he possibly could before Death came knocking on his chamber door.

A public audience at the Royal Palace
A public audience at the Royal Palace

As it happened, Prince Saif was away from the Royal Palace most of the day. Badr, meanwhile, stayed at home; for it was not customary in those times for princesses to gallivan about the kingdom with their husbands, hunting leopard or swigging wine with Italian dignitaries.

Domestic confinement was just one of the ‘rules’ that Badr had to adhere to in her new life as wife of the Crown Prince.  On the very night of their wedding, Saif had said to her, “Badr, my dear, now that we are here, in my country, and you are soon to be Queen, surely you have no more need of your Fairy wings?”

“Why? Why do you say that?” Badr had responded defensively. “I’m a Fairy, of course I need my wings!”

“I know, my love, I know. I just feel that it will be easier for you to fit in here if you don’t go around with those monstrous appendages on your back,” Saif had reasoned. “I mean, it unnerves people. Especially my mother! You know how jittery she gets in your presence.”

Seeing that Badr was recalcitrant,  Saif had tried again, in his most conciliatory tones. “Look, all I’m asking is that you keep the wings away. Can you do that for me? Besides, you might get it into your head to fly back to Koh Kaaf, or even Paristan one day! I can’t risk that now, can I?”

He had meant it as a joke, but Badr Jamal did not find the Prince’s comment remotely funny. It was as if to say that Saif did not trust her; that he considered her fickle, an unruly child who had to be disciplined and placated. However, she said nothing of this to him, and merely nodded. “Yes, of course, my Prince. Anything you say.”

And so, some months passed. While Saif was busy dispensing his princely duties, Badr would be attending balls and garden parties arranged by her mother-in-law the Queen, dressed in voluminous, human-style gowns, with her hair elaborately braided and coiffed in the human fashion, and her feet bound in jeweled sandals. She found these ladies’ functions excruciatingly boring – all they talked about was their children, their servants, the latest import of silks from China, the best way to prepare stuffed pigeon. Badr had no knowledge of these subjects, nor was she interested – she would have preferred to sing rather than talk, dance rather than walk, wear the least amount of layers the weather permitted, and let her hair fly loose in the wind. As for fancy foods, the meal she liked best was a hearty chunk of game venison (preferably raw), with a side of wild herbs, downed with good, strong grape liqueur.

Badr found life in the Palace restrictive and boring
Badr found life with the women of the Palace restrictive and boring

This predilection for bloody meat was another one of the Fairy Queen’s seemingly uncivilized idiosyncrasies that Saif was nervously learning about since their marriage. Yet another was bathing under the full moon in the nude, in the closest available water body – which meant the fountain in the central Palace courtyard. At this Saif had to put his foot down – his people were not ready, he said, to accept that kind of free-spirited behavior from their future Queen.

But the venison was an essential part of Badr’s natural diet. She could not do without it. Supplies were running low, and Saif was pressed to make an urgent trip to the southern woodlands to procure the next batch, under the guise of a sport hunting expedition.  Venison was not commonly eaten in Egypt, and the Prince’s unplanned excursion would arouse suspicion if its true purpose were known.

While Saif was away, his uncle and aunt came to visit the Palace, along with their three daughters, Saif’s cousins. The family had been traveling in Asia for several months and thus had missed the royal wedding. They came now to offer their presents and felicitations to the happy couple; and to see for themselves this mysterious Fairy that Saif had brought back with him from the Himalayas.

The eldest of the three cousins, Safiyya, was particularly curious about Badr – you see, she had hoped to marry Saif herself one day. This young princess was exceptionally beautiful, not to mention exceedingly clever and proud to match. Deep in her heart, she could never forgive Saif for choosing another woman over her; or the other woman for taking what was rightfully hers.

Safiyya was beautiful, vivacious and deeply resentful of Badar
Safiyya was beautiful, vivacious and deeply resentful of Badr

“My dear aunt,” Safiyya said to the Queen, Prince Saif’s mother, as she reclined on a divan in the zenana, the women’s quarters of the Palace. “Where are you hiding this Fairy daughter-in-law of yours? My heart is burning to see this piece of moonlight!”

Just at that moment, Badr entered the hall from a side door.

“I am Badr,” the Fairy announced.

Safiyya, her sisters and mother turned their heads towards the commanding voice, and saw standing before them a tall, plain-looking girl. Her black hair was tied back in a severe bun, her skin was sallow, her eyes colorless and cold, and the rich robes she wore hung awkwardly over her thin frame.

The contrast with Safiyya – petite and amply figured, with a rosy complexion, glossy brown curls, dark, mischievous eyes set in a heart-shaped face and a vivacious laugh – could not have been greater.

You?” Safiyya stared at Badr in disbelief. “You are the Fairy Queen Badr Jamal? Pardon my impertinence, Aunt,” she smirked, “but a peasant in princess’s garb is a peasant nonetheless!” Everybody laughed, including the courtly ladies and servant girls present.

Badr’s cheeks flushed crimson, and the Queen looked visibly uncomfortable. “Princess Safiyya,” Badr spoke in a restrained tone, “you speak in this ignorant fashion because you have not yet seen my true beauty.”

“Oh, is that so? Then where is your true beauty?” Safiyya taunted. “Locked away in a trunk?” Again, everybody laughed, except Badr and the Queen.

“As a matter of fact, yes. It is locked away in  a trunk,” Badr replied. “Queen Mother, if you please, bring me my wings.”

The Queen stuttered nervously. “Oh no, Badr, no, you know I can’t…You know Saif has forbidden you to…”

“It doesn’t matter what Saif has forbidden her to do or not,” Safiyya interjected. “He isn’t here right now. Aunt, please bring the wings, her ‘true beauty’ or whatever she calls them. Let us see what the fuss is about once and for all!”

The Queen had no choice but to comply. While she went to fetch the wings, word spread through the Palace that the Fairy Badr Jamal was about to demonstrate her flying ability. Nobody had ever seen a Fairy in flight before, and the excitement produced by this news was so great that by the time the Queen returned with the wings, folded and wrapped in layers of muslin, the women’s hall was packed. Everybody wanted to witness the spectacle of a flying Fairy.

“I don’t think this is a good idea, Safiyya,” the Queen whispered to her niece. “What if she flies away? What if she escapes?”

“How will she escape, aunt? We’ve bolted all the doors, barred all the windows. Besides, we don’t even know if she can fly at all!” Safiyya smirked again, confident in her triumphant beauty and full of ill will for Badr.

Badr stood on a raised platform at the end of the hall. The Queen handed her the parcel. She held it for a few moments, and then said: “Now listen to me, one an all!”

The clamor in the hall dropped to a hushed murmur.

“What you are about to see you have never seen before, and most likely will never see again. I don’t know how many of you can even withstand it. So let me say that I do not do this of my own will, but out of compulsion” – Badr shot an icy look at Safiyya – “to defend my own honor, as none here will do it for me.”

With that, Badr unwrapped the muslin parcel. The moment her fingers touched the misty, gauze-like material that lay folded inside, the dormant wings sprung to life; like a firecracker, they whizzed and whooshed through the air in circles before swiftly fastening themselves to Badr’s back.

What happened next is difficult to describe. The women and children who witnessed it could not stop raving about it till the end of their days, and the memory of what they saw passed onto legend. For, as soon as Badr’s wings attached themselves to her back, a blinding light burst forth from her person. The bulky dress she was wearing fell to the ground in a heap, the innumerable pins in her hair sprang out, her tight sandals came flying off.

And there she was, the Fairy Queen Badr-ul-Jamal, free, hovering above their dumbfounded faces in a dazzling halo of light. Her face glowed white like the moon, framed by clouds of black hair that shone like the midnight sky. Her golden eyes flashed like the rays of a rising sun, and every movement of her long, slender limbs bespoke grace, as though she were swimming through the air, through the flowing, translucent garment that draped her body.

And her wings? They were like living creatures in their own right, two iridescent chimeras filigreed with the brightest of silver, radiating all the colors of the universe.

The transformation of Badar Jamal
The transformation of Badr Jamal

She was mesmerizing. She was unreal. She was the most beautiful sight that they had ever seen, and would ever see.

“Now, you all have seen me, in my true form, my true beauty.” Even Badr’s voice had changed. It was more powerful, more melodic. “But I know that you do not deserve me. Neither you, nor Prince Saif. You judged me for my beauty, my uniqueness, and bade me hide it; then you judged me for my lack of it.”

Badr Jamal took the shape of a white dove
Badr Jamal took the shape of a white dove

General commotion followed. There were shouts and gasps, and people jostling each other to get closer to the Fairy Queen. But before anybody realized what was going on, Badr transformed herself into a white dove and flew straight out of the hall through a tiny crack in the roshandan, a small skylight in the corner of the ceiling that had somehow escaped attention.

And just like that, she was gone.

Now, you may wonder, what was Prince Saif up to at the moment Badr Jamal made her escape from the Palace in the shape of a white dove?

In fact, he was resting beneath the shade of an ebony tree deep in the woodlands of Nubia, after a fruitful but exhausting deer hunt. Eyes half-closed, stretched out on the soft green grass, he was thinking sweet thoughts about his beloved Fairy Queen, when a white dove came and alighted on a branch above him. It seemed to Saif that she was the prettiest dove he had ever seen – even though he didn’t consider himself a “bird person” – and he was suddenly possessed by a desire to capture her.

“She’d make a nice little pet for my beautiful Badr,” he mused. So, he quietly got to his feet, picked up a net that lay amongst his hunting paraphernalia, and flung it over the bird.

But the net, as if repelled by an invisible force, bounced straight back at him, while the dove sat merrily on her perch unperturbed. Saif tried a second time to ensnare the bird, then a third, with the same perplexing result.

Then – and Saif could hardly believe his eyes or his ears, though he had witnessed his fair share of fantastic events – the dove turned her soft white head towards the Prince and spoke to him, in a voice he could recognize among millions: “Your attempts to capture me are in vain, Prince Saif. You can never own me. You can never possess me.”

It was Badr Jamal, of course.

“The only way to convince me of your love,” the bird continued, “the only way you will truly earn my love, is if you follow me to Paristan, my homeland. If you succeed in this, if you are able to brave the journey and seek me out in my father’s castle, among my own kind, I promise I will come back with you, as your wife and partner in life. And I will never leave your side till as long as you live.”

With these words, Badr Jamal fluttered her snowy white wings and was off, leaving Saif in a state of utter discombobulation. On his return to Egypt, one look at his mother’s swollen red eyes and the funereal aspect of the Palace confirmed Saif’s worst suspicions – Badr Jamal, the love of his life, the light of his eyes, the object of seven years of struggle and devotion, was gone.

What had happened in his absence? Why? How? All  that was irrelevant. He knew what he had to do. “Mother, please tell one of the servants to saddle up a good, strong horse and prepare me a travel bag, with enough provisions to last about a month. I’m leaving right away.”

“But, Saif!” his mother pleaded. “Don’t you see? Badr Jamal doesn’t want to be here! Let her go, Saif. She is happier with her own kind. Please, just forget about her! There is no dearth of beautiful ladies here in Egypt. Think, Saif, destiny has afforded you a second chance at a happy, normal life. Don’t gamble it away for an illusion, for a fantasy, my son! Don’t you let this madness get the better of you!”

However, as before, the Queen Mother’s weeping, wailing and emotional threats had no effect on Prince Saif’s resolve. He was an obstinate fellow, and he truly did love Badr. Just as he had found his way to the magical lake in Kaghan Valley, just as he had completed the 40-day penitence, the chilla, and escaped from the Ogre and the Flood with Badr in his arms, so he would bring her back from the deepest, darkest dungeons of Paristan if he had to.

“I’m sorry, Mother,” he embraced the Queen one final time before mounting his ride. “But I can’t give up yet – nothing  valuable is won without a struggle.” Kicking the horse into a gallop, Prince Saif rode away from the Palace a second time, without looking back.

Prince Saif set out for Paristan, immediately, without looking back
Prince Saif set out for Paristan immediately

Now, Prince Saif didn’t really know where Paristan was, or whether it even existed. Legends placed the kingdom of the fairies “east of Egypt”, somewhere on the mountainous border of Persia and India – and the directions stopped there.

So, he traveled east for several months, crossing Sinai, the fabled rivers Tigris and Euphrates, the Great Salt Desert of Persia, the Suleiman Mountains, stopping time to time at some shepherd’s hut or sarai, a highway inn, to rest and refresh his supplies. Many times he cursed himself for forgetting to carry his Sulemani topi, the magic cap bequeathed to him by the old buzurg during his first quest, which had the power to transport its wearer to any place on earth in the twinkling of an eye. “I suppose I’m not allowed any shortcuts this time,” he grumbled.

At length, Saif reached Peshawar, a bustling frontier town and the historic gateway to the Indian subcontinent. Merchants from all corners of the Silk Route thronged its narrow streets, hawking their varied wares in loud voices – silk, cashmere, cotton, spices, dry fruit, wine, carpets, woodwork, decorative objects of marble, ivory and jade, gemstones, weapons, secrets and stories – there was nothing you could not find in the legendary markets of Peshawar.

The bustling bazaar of Purushapura, present-day Peshawar
The legendary bazaars of Peshawar, in present-day Pakistan

Meandering through the bazaar while his horse rested in the city’s stables, Prince Saif stopped at a chai khana, a tea shop, for a cup of the traditional Peshawari kahwa, hot green tea sweetened with honey or sugar and spiced with cardamom. Looking around the crowded little shop for a place to sit, he spotted an empty stool next to an old man with a flowing white beard, who sat sipping his tea and fingering a rosary.

Prince Saif walked up to the old man, saluted him with a respectful bow, and said, “Venerable sir, would you be so kind as to allow this weary traveller to seat himself beside you?”

Peshawari kahwa
Peshawari kahwa

The old man looked up at Saif. Their eyes met, and Saif had the sensation that he knew him from somewhere before; that this was not a chance encounter.

“My son!” the old man smiled, eyes crinkling at the corners. “Please, it would be my honor.”

“And now, tell me,” he continued, once Saif had made himself comfortable and placed his order, “what brings a gentleman like yourself to this wily merchant’s city?”

Quickly, Prince Saif related to his new friend the objective of his journey: to reach the mythical land of Paristan (which, according to legend, lay somewhere in these parts), and recover his beloved Fairy Queen and true wife, Badr Jamal.

“Paristan? My dear lad!”, the old man let out a bemused chortle. “You know the reason why they call it a ‘mythical’ land? Because Paristan has no physical existence! You will not find it on any map, you will not see any signboards pointing the way, no gates or city walls to saunter through. On the whole, it is entirely impossible for you to reach there in your present state.”

Seeing Prince Saif’s face fall in despair at this rude reality check, the old man hurried to add: “Oh, but don’t look so glum! The good news is that I can help you. Or, at least I have some things that could help you…” He started rummaging through the coarse jute sack he carried, and duly produced a tattered woolen cloak and a short wooden staff.

Saif was overcome by déjà vu. “I’m sorry, sir,” he interrupted. “But I feel like we’ve met before. Were you ever in Egypt some years back?”

“Nonsense, son! I’ve never set foot outside the city of Peshawar,” the old man hastily brushed aside the question. “Now, listen to me carefully – for although I have not traveled much, I have learnt a great deal in the long journey of my life, observing and talking to the people that pass through this city. And what I tell you now may well be the only hope you have of reaching Paristan and seeing your wife again…”

It was true. Once more, a nameless old buzurg was to be Prince Saif’s savior.

Saif joined a caravan of merchants who agreed to drop him off at Tattoo
Saif joined a caravan headed towards China

A few hours later, Prince Saif found himself riding with a caravan of merchants towards Tattoo, a small village in the kingdom of Gilgit, perched on the craggy slopes of the magnificent Karakoram mountains. The merchants, heading for China via the Khunjerab Pass, had agreed to drop Saif off at the village in exchange for his horse, a handsome Arabian steed that would fetch a weighty price in the horse fairs of the Mongolian steppe.

Saif parted with the animal with a heavy heart, but he actually had no further use for it. His real destination was 23 miles further off Tattoo, where no horse or mule tracks led; a place called Joot, today famous by its English appellation, Fairy Meadows.

“I have never been to Joot, but I hear tell that it is a most breathtaking place,” the old man at the tea shop had recounted. “They say that a Fairy King of great power established his kingdom there, some 1,000 years ago, in the shadow of that fearsome peak Nanga Parbat, the Naked Mountain.

“Nobody lives in Joot. The locals are wary of venturing there at all because of all the stories; shepherds who went to graze their flocks and never returned; explorers, bandits, naturalists and mystics, attracted to the place by its beauty and its solitude, and never seen again. It is enchanted, they say, the abode of witches and jinns, as perilous as it is beautiful.

“This is where you must go.”

Joot, or Fairy Meadows in present-day Pakistan, from where once can see the north face of Nanga Parbat, the 9th highest mountain in the world
Joot or Fairy Meadows in Pakistan, and the north face of Nanga Parbat, 9th highest mountain in the world

After a grueling uphill hike from Tattoo, Prince Saif arrived at Joot, following the old man’s directions to the letter. He stood in the middle of a vast green meadow, facing the awesome, ice-covered Nanga Parbat. Dusk was approaching, and there was not a soul in sight. All was silent, except for the gentle hum of the evening breeze amongst the pines.

Saif pulled out from his satchel the tattered woolen cloak. “Once you don this cloak,” the old man had explained, “everything around you that is made from the hands of men will dissolve from view. Buildings, roads, entire cities, will simply vanish.

“And everything that was hitherto unseen – the realm of jinns and fairies, and all other manner of supernatural creatures – will suddenly come to light. Meanwhile, you yourself will be rendered invisible to all.”

The old buzurg in the tea shop may have looked like this
The old buzurg in the tea shop may have looked like this

As for the wooden staff, the old man had said he had bought it from a wandering Jewish mendicant, who claimed that the staff contained a tiny fragment of the miraculous staff of Moses. Placed in the right hands, it had the power to unlock or open any kind of barrier – gates, doors, chains – both magical and mundane.

Standing before that gigantic mountain in the grassy fields of Joot, the very location of Paristan, all that was left for Saif to do was throw on the cloak, brandish the staff, and smash his way into the Fairy King’s castle to recover his bride.

But Saif hesitated. What if all of this was a lie? What if the old man had tricked him? And now, there he was, alone in that desolate spot with no food, no shelter, no money, not even his horse to help him retrace his steps and make the long journey home…

By this time it was almost completely dark. A silver slipper of a moon had begun to glimmer above the jagged peaks of the Karakoram. “Well, I don’t really have another plan, so I might as well give this a shot,” Saif thought. Taking a deep breath, he grasped the wooden staff and wrapped the woolen cloak around him…

What did he see? Sometimes, there are sights so wondrous, events so singular, that they are better left imagined. Let’s just say that the old man in the tea shop had known what he was talking about!

 

The Fairy King's castle in Paristan
The Fairy King’s castle in Paristan

Meanwhile, in Paristan – where Prince Saif had snuck into at that very moment, aided by his invisibility cloak and the magic staff – Badr Jamal felt a deep shiver run through her body. “He’s here…” she murmured. “He’s here! I can feel it! My Prince has come to get me!”

But nobody heard her hysterical cries. For the Fairy Queen was locked away in a tiny cell, with chains around her hands and feet, deep in the dungeons of her father’s castle.

What had happened was this: living away from home for so long, Badr Jamal had forgotten what her father, the king of Paristan, was really like – cruel, cold, and sinfully proud of his race. As she fled from Egypt, Badr’s heart had brimmed with excitement at the thought of returning to Paristan, of being with her family, whom she had not set eyes on for over 10 years.

But the reception she received was far from what she had expected. Her mother had passed away only a few years earlier – at the ripe age of 180 – and without her softening influence, the Fairy King’s behavior had only deteriorated. So that when Badr Jamal showed up at the castle gates – not the innocent child who had disappeared years ago as she played with her friends in the woods, but a tall, beautiful, fully-grown woman – the king her father did not shout, or weep for joy. He did not run to embrace her, or send up a prayer of thanks to the gods.

“Father, it’s me, Badr!” she exclaimed.“I’ve come back, Father!” In reply, the king slanted his eyes and scrunched up his nose in disdain.“You?” he scoffed. “You are not my daughter – for on you I smell the scent of a human. No daughter of mine would dare dishonor her race by lying with a khaki. Be gone!” With that, he ordered the guards to seize her.

“But, father!” Badr Jamal cried as they dragged her away. “You don’t understand! You don’t know what happened!” She tried explaining in a few hurried words the twists her life had taken since the last time they had seen each other – but the king turned his back on her with a swish of his robes and strode off, followed by a retinue of sniggering ministers.

Badr Jamal was thrown into the dungeon
Badr Jamal was thrown into the dungeon

Now, as Badr sat despondently in the dark, damp cell, pondering over her past, she realized she had probably taken Prince Saif’s love for granted; and that it was a pretty rotten thing to do to have abandoned him like that, without explanation. She had inherited some of her father’s accursed pride after all!

And what if Saif never came? What if he didn’t consider it worth his while to risk his life for her a second time? What if she were to languish in this dungeon for the rest of her days?

That’s why Badr Jamal burst into a frenzy when she sensed that Prince Saif had entered the fairy realm. As he navigated the precipitous paths  of Paristan on his way to the castle, Badr writhed in torment, screaming as if she had lost her mind. She was making such a racket that the prison guards grew alarmed and ran to notify the king.

The king descended to the dungeon to investigate, followed by his minions. “What is the meaning of this, Badr!” he demanded sternly. “Throwing a tantrum is not the way to plead forgiveness for the shame you have brought upon your family.” Deep in his heart, the King felt a prick of anguish, seeing his lovely daughter reduced to such a tortured state.

But he couldn’t give in. The whole kingdom knew of what Badr had done. The fairy folk were an open-minded lot, but this was one transgression they could absolutely not tolerate. If all their females – or males for that matter – were to make off with human folk, that would mean the end of the fairy race; for it was a known fact that fairy-human unions only produced human children. So if the king did not act firmly in the case of his own daughter, his people would take him for a pushover, a weakling, and lose respect for him.

Now, unbeknownst to the king, the ministers and prison guards, Prince Saif had already infiltrated the castle, unseen under his magic cloak, throwing open all the gates, locks and bolts that lay in his way with a single tap of the Moses staff.

“He’s here, father! He’s here!” Badr suddenly shrieked. “He’s here in this cell as we speak!”

“What are you talking about, girl?” the king replied, annoyed. “That is simply impossible. There is no way that a magic-less man, a mere khaki, can find the portal to Paristan, let alone penetrate the magically protected gates of the city and make his way here to the dungeons undetected.”

“That’s what I tried telling you before, father,” Badr’s anguish was replaced by wide-eyed elation. “Saif is no ordinary man! He possesses a magic far greater than you, or I, or Deo Safed. That is how he freed me from the Deo’s clutches, and that is how he will free me again, here, under your very nose.” As she said these words, the heavy chains that bound Badr’s wrists and ankles sprang open and fell to the ground. Prince Saif, with a good sense of the dramatic, had tapped the chains with his magic staff at just the right moment.

Pandemonium went up in the dungeon.“Look! Look! Badr Jamal is free! But how can it be?”

The king could not believe his eyes. This was unprecedented. This was serious magic, not one that any ordinary man could wield. “Daughter, if what you say is true,” the king’s tone suddenly changed, “and if Prince Saif is in this room and responsible for the feat we have just witnessed, I beg you, ask him to appear before us. I give you my word, I will not bring him any harm.”

“I take your word for it, Fairy King, father of my beloved,” Prince Saif pulled off his cloak with one swift stroke and appeared in the tiny cell standing next to Badr Jamal. He cut a striking figure, handsome as ever, with a grit and wisdom about him that impressed all who were present. Badr was beside herself with joy and leapt into Saif’s arms, murmuring a string of I’m sorry’s and Forgive me’s.

Prince Saif cut a striking figure
Prince Saif cut a striking figure

“Sir,” Prince Saif addressed the king. “I made the long, not easy journey to your fair land to ask for the hand of your beauteous daughter in marriage, whom I had wedded according to the customs of my land not a year ago. Imagine my shock, then, when I found her a prisoner here, treated worse than an animal would be in my own kingdom. I am enraged. And, whether you give us your blessings or not, I am taking her away.”

Badr’s father was left dumbfounded. How could a man be so bold, so fearless to speak thus to the King of Paristan? He, who had hundreds of thousands of jinn, ogres, sprites and fairies under his command, whose magic could strike down the Prince in an instant, and blight the fortune of his family for generations to come?

Now, Prince Saif did not know all of this, and it was just as well. The Fairy King, taken in by Saif’s impossible confidence, thought to himself, “I had better not do anything foolish now. This man may not be a man at all; he may be a powerful wizard, or at any rate, under the protection of some great mage, who will certainly wreak vengeance on me if any harm were to befall him.”

The fairy folk knew how to throw a party!
The fairy folk knew how to throw a party!

So the King gave the couple his blessings – which Saif and Badr were loath to receive – and married them in a typically rambunctious fairy ceremony, held after twilight in the gardens of the castle. In spite of himself, Prince Saif had to admit that the fairy folk knew how to throw a party.

Throughout Paristan, all people could talk about was Badr Jamal’s dashing groom, the valiant man-prince who possessed an unusual magic, who had rescued Badr from the fearsome ogre Deo Safed where all the sorcery of the Fairy King had failed.

When the time came for their departure, the Fairy King, now all smiles and flattery, presented Prince Saif with numerous gifts, including a buraq, a magnificent winged horse that could travel at the speed of a falcon.

Saif named the horse Aajil, the agile one, and on him the couple returned to Egypt, to the utter and absolute joy of Saif’s parents, who had despaired of ever seeing their son again.

Henceforth, Saif never asked Badr to put away her wings. He never told her off for bathing in the moonlight, never demanded that she attend the boring court luncheons his mother loved to organize. Badr was free to fly where she willed, but she always returned to pass the night with Saif.

When Saif’s father, the king, passed away, Saif ascended the throne. His 30-year reign was said to be one of the most prosperous and peaceful the kingdom had seen. Some people attributed it to his wife’s magic, and the other enchanted objects he possessed, whose fame had reached far beyond the borders of Egypt.

But the truth is, Saif never used the Solomon cap, the invisibility cloak and the staff of Moses again. He even tried looking for the old buzurg he had met on the outskirts of Cairo, and the other from the teashop in Peshawar, to thank them and return the precious objects that had saved his life on so many occasions – but he couldn’t find a trace of them anywhere. It was as if the old men – or man, because Saif was convinced they were one and the same person – had never existed.

The couple had three beautiful children, two daughters and a son. There was nothing fairy-like about them, though they inherited their mother’s grace and their father’s chiselled looks. Unfortunately, Saif met with an untimely death, in a battle with the Mongols in Syria. Badr was devastated, and could not bear to pass another day in the palace without him. But, for the sake of her children, she continued to live there.

And so the years passed, her children grew up, were married and had children of their own, adorable little tots whom Badr cherished and loved with all of her heart.

Prince Saif was killed in a battle with the Mongols
Prince Saif was killed in a battle with the Mongols

But even they could not fill the empty space inside, the constant yearning she carried for Saif, her one true love, and for Paristan, her homeland.

One night, without telling a soul, Badr rose from bed, gathered her fairy wings and a few mementos of her children and grandchildren – a toy, a piece of clothing, a pocket portrait – and left the palace. It was the night of the full moon, chowdveen ka chaand. Flying through the still, eerie night, she first headed towards the Royal Cemetery, were Saif was buried some 30 years ago.  Alighting on his white marble sepulcher, Badr uttered the following words.

“O greedy earth, long have you enjoyed

The man who in life, was my heart’s delight

But now I have come, to reclaim what is mine

From this jealous grave, I raise Saif tonight.”

Prince Saif's tomb in the Royal Cemetery
Prince Saif’s tomb in the Royal Cemetery

As she spoke, the marble tomb began to crack open, as if an invisible hand were pounding it with a giant pickaxe. Thud, crack, split – until finally, through the gaping rent on the marble surface, deep from the damp earth below, enveloped in a silvery-purple mist, arose a skeleton – Prince Saif’s remains.

The skeleton hovered over to where Badr Jamal stood, and collapsed in a heap at her feet. Badr carefully collected the bones and wrapped them in a piece of cloth, which she fastened to her back along with the other odds and ends she carried. Then she took off, without looking back, leaving the vandalized grave to magically repair itself as if nothing had happened.

Flying towards Paristan, Badr Jamal had tears in her eyes; she knew she would never return to Egypt again. She would never see her children or grandchildren again. But at least she had recovered some part of her beloved, something she could touch and feel and remember him by. And that gave her consolation.

Badr passed the rest of her days in Paristan, among her own people – among her brothers and sisters and childhood friends, in that strange and fantastical land where the beasts spoke and the trees walked and the sun changed color everyday.

She never aged, never displayed so much as a wrinkle on her luminous, moon-like face; for in Paristan, nobody ages from the outside, remaining in the prime of their youth till the day they die. As for Prince Saif’s skeleton, she strung some of the smaller bones into a necklace, which she wore at all times. The rest of the bones she stored in a gilded chest in her bedroom.

Thus Badr Jamal lived for another 100 years, until finally, her time also came. On that day she was swimming in her favorite lake, high up in the snow-clad Himalayas in the shadow of Malika Parbat, as she used to do as a child and as a prisoner of Deo Safed’s, so many years ago.

Lake Saif-ul-Malook at night
Lake Saif-ul-Malook at night

There she was, floating on her back in the dark, velvety waters, looking up at the spectacular, star-studded night and a radiant moon that bathed the mountains below in a soothing silver light. In that moment, Badr was perfectly happy. She was at peace.

All of a sudden, there was a flash of light –  a blue fire that burst forth from her person – and she was gone. Nothing but ashes remained, floating on the blue, murmuring water.


We don’t know where fairies go after they die. We don’t know if purgatory and paradise exists for fairies the same as it does for humans. But we hope that it does, so Badr -ul-Jamal could be reunited with her beloved Saif, and they could look down together at this strange, fantastical drama we call life.

The storyteller
The storyteller

The Legend of Saif-ul-Malook Part VII

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Lake Saif-ul-Malook, situated at a height 10, 600 feet at the northern tip of the Kaghan Valley in Pakistan’s Himalayas, is  one of the  most beautiful places on earth. I have been there twice, the first time as a 12-year old and then in 2009, when I determined to capture some of its magic on camera and on paper, in the words of two local storytellers who relate the legend of the Lake to visitors.

It is the story of a prince and a fairy, Saif-ul-Malook and Badr-ul-Jamal  a story of love, adventure, faith, magic, suffering and betrayal – a story of the multitude of human passions.

Many different versions exist, but below is a reproduction of what the storytellers told us, with ample writer’s liberties. I hope you enjoy it!

Read Part IPart IIPart IIIPart IVPart V and Part VI of the story. This is the last instalment. 


Meanwhile, in Paristan – where Prince Saif had snuck into at that very moment, aided by his invisibility cloak and the magic staff – Badr Jamal felt a deep shiver run through her body. “He’s here…” she murmured. “He’s here! I can feel it! My Prince has come to get me!”

But nobody heard her hysterical cries. For the Fairy Queen was locked away in a tiny cell, with chains around her hands and feet, deep in the dungeons of her father’s castle.

The Fairy King's castle in Paristan
The Fairy King’s castle in Paristan

What had happened was this: living away from home for so long, Badr Jamal had forgotten what her father, the king of Paristan, was really like – cruel, cold, and sinfully proud of his race.  

As she fled from Egypt, Badr’s heart had brimmed with excitement at the thought of returning to Paristan, of being with her family, whom she had not set eyes on for over 10 years.

But the reception she received was far from what she expected. Her mother had passed away only a few years earlier – at the ripe age of 180 – and without her softening influence, the Fairy King’s behavior had only deteriorated.

So that when Badr Jamal showed up at the castle gates – not the innocent child who had disappeared years ago as she played with her friends in the castle gardens, but a tall, beautiful, fully-grown woman – the king her father did not shout, or weep for joy. He did not run to embrace her, or send up a prayer of thanks to the gods.

“Father, it’s me, Badr!” she exclaimed.“I’ve come back, Father!”

In reply, the king slanted his eyes and scrunched up his nose in disdain.“You?” he scoffed. “You are not my daughter – for on you I smell the scent of a human. No daughter of mine would dare dishonor her race by lying with a khaki. Be gone!”

With that, he ordered the guards to seize her.“But, father!” Badr Jamal cried as they dragged her away. “You don’t understand! You don’t know what happened!” She tried explaining in a few hurried words the twists her life had taken since the last time they had seen each other – but the king turned his back on her with a swish of his robes and strode off, followed by a retinue of sniggering ministers.

Badr Jamal was thrown into the dungeon
Badr Jamal was thrown into the dungeon

Now, as Badr sat despondently in the dark, damp cell, pondering over her past, she realized she had probably taken Prince Saif’s love for granted; and that it was a pretty rotten thing to do to have abandoned him like that, without explanation. She had inherited some of her father’s accursed pride after all!

And what if Saif never came? What if he didn’t consider it worth his while to risk his life for her a second time? What if she were to languish in this dungeon for the rest of her days?

That’s why Badr Jamal burst into a frenzy when she sensed that Prince Saif had entered the fairy realm. As he navigated the precipitous paths  of Paristan on his way to the castle, Badr writhed in torment, screaming as if she had lost her mind. She was making such a racket that the prison guards grew alarmed and ran to notify the king.

The king descended to the dungeon to investigate, followed by his minions. “What is the meaning of this, Badr!” he demanded sternly. “Throwing a tantrum is not the way to plead forgiveness for the shame you have brought upon your family.”

Deep in his heart, the King felt a prick of anguish, seeing his lovely daughter reduced to such a tortured state. But he couldn’t give in. The whole kingdom knew of what Badr had done. The fairy folk were an open-minded lot, but this was one transgression they could absolutely not tolerate. If all their females – or males for that matter – were to make off with human folk, that would mean the end of the fairy race; for it was a known fact that fairy-human unions only produced human children.

So if the king did not act firmly in the case of his own daughter, his people would take him for a pushover, a weakling, and lose respect for him.

Now, unbeknownst to the king, the ministers and prison guards, Prince Saif had already infiltrated the castle, unseen under his magic cloak, throwing open all the gates, locks and bolts that lay in his way with a single tap of the Moses staff.

“He’s here, father! He’s here!” Badr suddenly shrieked. “He’s here in this cell as we speak!”

“What are you talking about, girl?” the king replied, annoyed. “That is simply impossible. There is no way that a magic-less man, a mere khaki, can find the portal to Paristan, let alone penetrate the magically protected gates of the city and make his way here to the dungeons undetected.”

“That’s what I tried telling you before, father,” Badr’s anguish was replaced by wide-eyed elation. “Saif is no ordinary man! He possesses a magic far greater than you, or I, or Deo Safed. That is how he freed me from the Deo’s clutches, and that is how he will free me again, here, under your very nose.” As she said these words, the heavy chains that bound Badr’s wrists and ankles sprang open and fell to the ground. Prince Saif, with a good sense of the dramatic, had tapped the chains with his magic staff at just the right moment.

Pandemonium went up in the dungeon.“Look! Look! Badr Jamal is free! But how can it be?”

The king could not believe his eyes. This was unprecedented. This was serious magic, not one that any ordinary man could wield.  

“Daughter, if what you say is true,” the king’s tone suddenly changed, “and if Prince Saif is in this room and responsible for the feat we have just witnessed, I beg you, ask him to appear before us. I give you my word, I will not bring him any harm.”

“I take your word for it, Fairy King, father of my beloved,” Prince Saif pulled off his cloak with one swift stroke and appeared in the tiny cell standing next to Badr Jamal. He cut a striking figure, handsome as ever, with a grit and wisdom about him that impressed all who were present. Badr was beside herself with joy and leapt into Saif’s arms, murmuring a string of I’m sorry’s and Forgive me’s. She knew when an apology was in order.

Prince Saif cut a striking figure
Prince Saif cut a striking figure

“Sir,” Prince Saif addressed the king. “I made the long, not easy journey to your fair land to ask for the hand of your beauteous daughter in marriage, whom I had wedded according to the customs of my land not a year ago. Imagine my shock, then, when I found her a prisoner here, treated worse than an animal would be in my own kingdom. I am enraged. And, whether you give us your blessings or not, I am taking her away.”

Badr’s father was left dumbfounded. How could a man be so bold, so fearless to speak thus to the King of Paristan? He, who had hundreds of thousands of jinn, ogres, sprites and fairies under his command, whose magic could strike down the Prince in an instant, and blight the fortune of his family for generations to come?

Now, Prince Saif did not know all of this, and it was just as well. The Fairy King, taken in by Saif’s impossible confidence, thought to himself, “I had better not do anything foolish now. This man may not be a man at all; he may be a powerful wizard, or at any rate, under the protection of some great mage, who will certainly wreak vengeance on me if any harm were to befall the Prince, or Badr.”

The fairy folk knew how to throw a party!
The fairy folk knew how to throw a party!

So the King gave the couple his blessings – which Saif and Badr were loath to receive – and married them in a typically rambunctious fairy ceremony, held after twilight in the gardens of the castle. In spite of himself, Prince Saif had to admit that the fairy folk knew how to throw a party.

Throughout Paristan, all people could talk about was Badr Jamal’s dashing groom, the valiant man-prince who possessed an unusual magic, who had rescued Badr from the fearsome ogre Deo Safed where all the sorcery of the Fairy King had failed. When the time came for their departure, the Fairy King, now all smiles and flattery,  presented Prince Saif with numerous gifts, including a buraq, a magnificent winged horse that could travel at the speed of a falcon.

Saif named the horse Aajil, the agile one, and on him the couple returned to Egypt, to the utter and absolute joy of Saif’s parents, who had despaired of ever seeing their son again.

Henceforth, Saif never asked Badr to put away her wings. He never told her off for bathing in the moonlight, never demanded that she attend the boring court luncheons his mother loved to organize. Badr was free to fly where she willed, but she always returned to pass the night with Saif.

When Saif’s father, the king, passed away, Saif ascended the throne. His 30-year reign was said to be one of the most prosperous and peaceful the kingdom had seen. Some people attributed it to his wife’s magic, and the other enchanted objects he possessed, whose fame had reached far beyond the borders of Egypt. But the truth is, Saif never used the Solomon cap, the invisibility cloak and the staff of Moses again. He even tried looking for the old buzurg he had met on the outskirts of Cairo, and the other from the teashop in Peshawar, to thank them and return the precious objects that had saved his life on so many occasions – but he couldn’t find a trace of them anywhere. It was as if the old men – or man, because Saif was convinced they were one and the same person – had never existed.

The couple had three beautiful children, two daughters and a son. There was nothing fairy-like about them, though they inherited their mother’s grace and their father’s chiselled looks. Unfortunately, Saif met with an untimely death, in a battle with the Mongols in Syria. Badr was devastated, and could not bear to pass another day in the palace without him. But, for the sake of her children, she continued to live there. And so the years passed, her children grew up, were married and had children of their own, adorable little tots whom Badr cherished and loved with all of her heart.

Prince Saif was killed in a battle with the Mongols
Prince Saif was killed in a battle with the Mongols

But even they could not fill the empty space inside, the constant yearning she carried for Saif, her one true love, and for Paristan, her homeland.

One night, without telling a soul, Badr rose from bed, gathered her fairy wings and a few mementos of her children and grandchildren – a toy, a piece of clothing, a pocket portrait – and left the palace. It was the night of the full moon, chowdveen ka chaand. Flying through the still, eerie night, she first headed towards the Royal Cemetery, were Saif was buried some 30 years ago.  Alighting on his white marble sepulcher, Badr uttered the following words.

“O greedy earth, long have you enjoyed

The man who in life, was my heart’s delight

But now I have come, to reclaim what is mine

From this jealous grave, I raise Saif tonight”

Prince Saif's tomb in the Royal Cemetery
Prince Saif’s tomb in the Royal Cemetery

As she spoke, the marble tomb began to crack open, as if an invisible hand were pounding it with a giant pickaxe. Thud, crack, split – until finally, through the gaping rent on the marble surface, deep from the damp earth below, enveloped in a silvery-purple mist, arose a skeleton – Prince Saif’s remains.

The skeleton hovered over to where Badr Jamal stood, and collapsed in a heap at her feet. Badr carefully collected the bones and wrapped them in a piece of cloth, which she fastened to her back along with the other odds and ends she carried. Then she took off, without looking back, leaving the vandalized grave to magically repair itself as if nothing had happened.

Flying towards Paristan, Badr Jamal had tears in her eyes; she knew she would never return to Egypt again. She would never see her children or grandchildren again. But at least she had recovered some part of her beloved, something she could touch and feel and remember him by. And that gave her consolation.

Badr passed the rest of her days in Paristan, among her own people – among her brothers and sisters and childhood friends, in that strange and fantastical land where the beasts spoke and the trees walked and the sun changed color everyday.

She never aged, never displayed so much as a wrinkle on her luminous, moon-like face; for in Paristan, nobody ages from the outside, remaining in the prime of their youth till the day they die.

As for Prince Saif’s skeleton, she strung some of the smaller bones into a necklace, which she wore at all times. The rest of the bones she stored in a gilded chest in her bedroom.

Thus Badr Jamal lived for another 100 years, until finally, her time also came.

On that day she was swimming in her favorite lake, high up in the snow-clad Himalayas in the shadow of Malika Parbat, as she used to do as a child and as a prisoner of Deo Safed’s, so many years ago.

Lake Saif-ul-Malook at night
Lake Saif-ul-Malook at night

There she was, floating on her back in the dark, velvety waters, looking up at the spectacular, star-studded night and a radiant moon that bathed the mountains below in a soothing silver light. In that moment, Badr was perfectly happy. She was at peace.

All of a sudden, there was a flash of light –  a blue fire that burst forth from her person – and she was gone.

Nothing but ashes remained, floating on the blue, murmuring water.


We don’t know where fairies go after they die. We don’t know if purgatory and paradise for fairies is the same as for humans. But we hope that it is, so Badr -ul-Jamal could be reunited with her beloved Saif, and they could look down together at this strange, fantastical drama we call life. 

 

Farewell, fond 20s! I’m ready to move on

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Why do we expect so much of life, and of ourselves? Why do we choose to be unhappy? Some questions pondered, some lessons learnt, some wisdom received

Published in Dawn Blogs, May 26th 2015

Once, when I was an undergraduate at LUMS in Pakistan, we were asked to create “future” CVs for ourselves, imagining where we would be 10 years down the road. According to my calculations, by age 30 I would be an acclaimed international affairs correspondent with Al Jazeera TV. I would also be a certified yoga instructor, the author of an award-winning collection of short stories, and the co-director of a charity school in Pakistan. I would have trekked to the base camp of an 8,000-meter peak (if not summited the peak itself), and I’d be speaking 5 languages like a native, or as we say in Urdu, farr farr.

“Daku” (South Asian Thug) Day during graduation week at LUMS, May 2007. Great start to our careers…

A few weeks ago, I celebrated my 30th birthday. And looking back at that smug, overambitious piece of paper (I still have a copy), what do you suppose I felt? Disappointment, at falling short on pretty much all of my grandiose goals? Guilt, for being lazy, for not doing “enough”, for not “living up to my potential”? Anger, at myself, at people around me, at the circumstances that thwarted my legendary ascent to that 8,000-meter peak and to age 30?

No. I only laughed! Frankly, I couldn’t give a baboon’s butt about goals, objectives, achievements that you could enumerate on a CV, that you could neatly check off from a “bucket list” and be done with. I didn’t care about what I may have expected from life 10 years ago, 5 years ago, even 1 year ago.

I used to care, I used to care a lot. During my 20s, I was beleaguered by that pervasive pressure to “achieve”, all too familiar to us Millennials. Often times, we weren’t even sure of what we wanted to achieve; it could be an important position at a multinational corporation or a big bank, it could be starting our own business, running an NGO, getting a PhD, “making a difference”. Yes, what we wanted most of all was to make a difference, to “change the world”.

I am not a superhero!

I stopped thinking like that some time ago, and it was a conscious decision. I stopped thinking that I could change the world.

Captain Planet was a terrific cartoon, though it did give us slightly unrealistic ambitions
Captain Planet was a terrific cartoon, though it did give us slightly unrealistic ambitions

That’s not to say that I became cynical. I just realized that I, as one individual, did not have the power to change or “save” the world. I couldn’t eradicate poverty. I couldn’t stop wars. I couldn’t ensure that every child on the street went to school, that no woman was raped by any man. I couldn’t put an end to meaningless violence, I couldn’t reverse global warming.

gyspyI couldn’t carry through any of this in my own hometown Lahore, let alone the entire world. The world was chockfull of problems, had always been, and would always be. It was the sorry fate of humankind. And to think that you were somehow “special”, that you could clean up a mess that was centuries, millenia in the making just like you’d solve a nifty Math problem, was downright arrogant.

Once in a while, perhaps once in every generation, somebody exceptional came along. Extraordinary people who, by dint of birth, effort, circumstance, and some serendipitous conjunction of the stars, did extraordinary things. The world’s heroes and heroines, revolutionaries and prophets, thinkers and humanitarians, inventors and scientists, artists and writers, whose names we all read in history books. I don’t suppose that any of these great people ever planned on changing the world, or becoming famous. I don’t suppose they wrote about it in their college applications, or scribbled it on their “bucket lists”.

I think they were just going about their lives, one day at a time, doing whatever it was they loved and believed in – not expecting any accolades or honors, not preoccupying themselves too much with “results”, just following their intuition, being themselves.

That’s one thing we all have the power to do; be ourselves. Improve ourselves, and consequently, have a positive effect on everything around us.

It could be something as simple as, say, recycling your trash. Giving a sandwich to the homeless man on your street. Holding open the door for an old lady at the metro station. Lending an ear to a friend who’s had a bad day. Giving somebody an unexpected gift. Teaching somebody a skill, or learning something new yourself. Making friends with somebody from a different religion, ethnicity, culture and country. Making the world a more tolerant, a more peaceful, kinder and happier place by embodying those qualities in your own person.

That was, realistically, the best I could do, and it was enough for me. There was no point in beating yourself up over “failed” ambitions or irrational expectations, neither your own nor those of others.

Can't disagree with that!
Can’t disagree with that!

I am not a martyr or a saint!

The expectations of others, or “What will people think!”. We’ve all been oppressed by them – from something as trivial as buying the “right” gift for a birthday party, “having” to attend a cousin’s friend’s brother’s wedding or wearing the “right” outfit to a family lunch, to being emotionally coerced into a marriage by your parents, putting up with an abusive husband, sticking with a job that daily sucks the life out of you. Why? Because that’s what you’re expected to do. That’s what a good, responsible, respectable man or woman does. A good, responsible, respectable person makes everybody happy – everybody except himself. A good person is a martyr.

Now, there may be people out there who would gladly suffer all these societal tortures, and many more, out of a genuine sense of duty, or out of pure selflessness. But most of us are not like that. We are not selfless. We are not saints. We may like to think we are, but deep down inside, where nobody can hear our true thoughts, we ask ourselves: “Why am I doing this? Is it worth it? I’m fulfilling all my ‘duties’, but why am I still so miserable?”

There’s something perversely romantic about misery, the notion of sacrificing your life for the sake of others, for your children, parents, friends, your community and country, without a thought to your own wishes and desires. Whether or not you enjoy being cast in that role, society will definitely love you for it.

On the other hand, society will not take kindly to seeing you happy. That’s just shameless. And, if you insist on being so brazenly optimistic, then at least pretend to have something to gripe about!

Don't hate me for not broadcasting my problems to the world!
Don’t hate me for not broadcasting my problems to the world!

This kind of thinking is typical among desis (South Asians), and I was done with it. If your actions didn’t spring from love or genuine kindness, if your only motivation was to “live up to” some vague ideal or ill-conceived expectation, the fear of what people might say, then those actions were worth very little. It was better to spare yourself and the people around you the charade. The fact was, you couldn’t make anybody happy, truly happy – not your parents, not your partner, not your kids nor colleagues, nor posterity – unless you were happy and fulfilled yourself. It was not always the simpler choice; oftentimes, it was easier to be miserable, it was easier to be a doormat than to stand up for your inviolable right to happiness. But it was a choice you made.

pleasing-people-is-nice-and-all-getting-shit-done-and-accomplishing-your-goals-are-better-4b7e8
That’s right, lady. Though I think it should be “is” better, not “are” :P

I am not a victim

So far, I’ve led a pretty privileged life. I’ve never known hunger, or homelessness, or direct violence or abuse, none of the unimaginable hardships that form reality for millions of people around the world. All of us, sitting at our laptops or scrolling down our smart phones, are familiar with the ordinary struggles of human existence – death and sickness in the family, relationship troubles, financial crises – but nothing as shattering as the experience of a child in a war-torn country, a family who has lost everything in a natural disaster, the victim of racism or religious persecution, a refugee, an addict, a prisoner, a slave.

Given the enormous advantages that we already have, there is really no excuse for us to feel sorry for ourselves, or vainly blame others for our own unhappiness. We are not victims, and we are certainly not helpless. We are lucky enough to be able to choose what we want to do, how we want to live. We are lucky enough to be able to make our own decisions, chart our own priorities, control the course of our lives with some degree of certainty (putting aside a percentage for qismat, of course). It could be, for example, choosing to spend on a holiday rather than a new piece of jewelry, or exercising instead of watching TV. Or it could be something more far-reaching, like deciding to move to a new country, taking on a new job, having a baby.

The bottom line is, we all are blessed. We all have gifts, we all have dreams, and most importantly, we all have volition. We just need to muster up the courage to pull those tricks out from our magic bags and put them to use, in spite ourselves.

I am rather insignificant

So, what have I learnt about life after 30 years? It doesn’t seem like a whole lot, even by earthly accounts. In the universal scheme of things, it’s embarrassingly negligible…

insifnican
Just to give us some perspective!

But, keeping things relative, as of now I feel that life is really about living. It’s not about achieving lofty goals, building lofty monuments, racking up positions, bank accounts, cars and TVs and diamonds. It’s not about pleasing others, being a hero, a saint or a superstar, devoting your life to any one cause.

It’s about finding contentment, finding beauty, finding peace in the little things. The day-to-day achievements, the seemingly mundane. You learnt a new word today. You tried a new dish. You finished an assignment before deadline. You took your kids to the movies. You caught up with an old friend. You explored a new neighborhood. You danced under the trees.

Your expectations of yourself need not be grander. Yes, you may wish to write a book one day, or set up a charity school – I know I do! I haven’t forgotten those dreams. But I’m no longer in a rush to accomplish them, nor am I going to let them dictate or frustrate my present.

I look…different!

Ahh, squeaky-faced high school days! Lahore Grammar School, Janurary 2003
Ahh, squeaky-faced high school days! Lahore Grammar School, January 2003

There was a time when I’d walk out of the house with a squeaky clean face and just a dash of kajal in the eyes, ready to go to college, a dinner or a wedding; now, I use makeup on a regular basis. I even wear lipstick, something I found utterly loathsome at 20! The salon girl makes it a point to count out the growing number of white hairs on my head every time I go for a trim, shaking her head disapprovingly, “But why don’t you dye???” I find myself flipping magazines at various doctors’ clinics much more often, thanks to an array of itinerant physical pains. I’ve become more attentive to what I eat, trying my best to choose a salad or a piece of fruit over a cupcake or a toast slathered with butter and marmalade; before, I couldn’t be bothered about the lumps of sodium in ChinChin Chinaman’s hot and sour soup, or the pools of grease in the LUMS cafeteria chicken karhai.

Seriously, how can you EVER give up Chinese take-out
Seriously, how can you EVER give up Chinese take-out

Then there are the inner changes, the ones you can’t really see; I feel happy, but in a calmer way. I’m not in a hurry to go anywhere, do anything, be anyone. I don’t care as much of what people think of me, and I’m a lot less concerned about offending somebody over a nicety. The smudges of shyness and self-consciousness that I had retained from teenage into my 20s have all but dissipated – and life is so much easier without them! I avoid comparing myself with others, I try not to be overly self-critical (a family trait), and most of all, I remind myself to be grateful, and not take life too seriously.

And what of the idealistic goals of that fictional 10-year old CV? Well, I didn’t fall off the mark entirely when I made those predictions. So I’m not a correspondent with Al Jazeera TV, but I did work at Democracy Now, the most excellent independent TV news program in the U.S. (in my opinion!). I’m not a certified yoga instructor, but I am an uncertified Bollywood dance teacher! There’s no collection of short stories (let alone award-winning), but there is an in-progress research project and an intermittent blog. I’m not the director of any charity, but I basically do volunteer work for a living, from museums to bookstores to archaeology pits. I’d say I’ve got 2 languages down in the farr farr category, with a 3rd one in the works; and, instead of summiting the base camp of an 8,000 meter peak, I chose to throw myself out of a perfectly good airplane 1,000 meters in the sky (you do some ridiculous things in your 20s). So, all in all, I’m pretty satisfied with the 30-year report card!

As should you be with yours! There’s no need to feel despondent and have regrets about what you could have done and didn’t do; and there’s no need to panic that your “best years” are flying by so you better make “the most” of them. With good health and a little bit of qismat, every year, every day can be your best, if decide to make it so.

Zen
Zen

The Legend of Saif-ul-Malook Part VI

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Lake Saif-ul-Malook, situated at a height 10, 600 feet at the northern tip of the Kaghan Valley in Pakistan’s Himalayas, is  one of the  most beautiful places on earth. I have been there twice, the first time as a 12-year old and then in 2009, when I determined to capture some of its magic on camera and on paper, in the words of two local storytellers who relate the legend of the Lake to visitors.

It is the story of a prince and a fairy, Saif-ul-Malook and Badr-ul-Jamal  a story of love, adventure, faith, magic, suffering and betrayal – a story of the multitude of human passions.

Many different versions exist, but below is a reproduction of what the storytellers told us, with ample writer’s liberties. I hope you enjoy it!

Read Part IPart IIPart IIIPart IV & Part V of the story 


Now, you may wonder, what was Prince Saif up to at the moment Badr Jamal made her escape from the Palace in the shape of a white dove?

07-dove
Badr Jamal took the shape of a white dove

In fact, he was resting beneath the shade of an ebony tree deep in the woodlands of Nubia, after a fruitful but exhausting deer hunt. Eyes half-closed, stretched out on the soft green grass, he was thinking sweet thoughts about his beloved Fairy Queen, when a little white dove came and alighted on a branch above him.

It seemed to Saif that she was the prettiest dove he had ever seen – even though he didn’t consider himself a “bird person” – and he was suddenly possessed by a desire to capture her. “She’d make a nice little pet for my beautiful Badr,” he mused. So, he quietly got to his feet, picked up a net that lay amongst his hunting paraphernalia, and flung it over the bird.

But the net, as if repelled by an invisible force, bounced straight back at him, while the dove sat merrily on her perch untouched. Saif tried a second time to ensnare the bird, then a third, with the same perplexing result.

Then – and Saif could hardly believe his eyes or his ears, though he had witnessed his fair share of fantastic events – the dove turned her soft white head towards the Prince and spoke to him, in voice he could recognize among millions:

“Your attempts to capture me are in vain, Prince Saif. You can never own me. You can never possess me.”

It was Badr Jamal, of course.

“The only way to convince me of your love,” the bird continued, “the only way you will truly earn my love, is if you follow me to Paristan, my homeland. If you succeed in this, if you are able to brave the journey and seek me out in my father’s palace, among my own kind, I promise I will come back with you, as your wife and partner in life. And I will never leave your side till as long as you live.”

With these words, Badr Jamal fluttered her snowy white wings and was off, leaving Saif in a state of utter discombobulation.

On his return to Egypt, one look at his mother’s swollen red eyes and the funereal aspect of the Palace confirmed Saif’s worst suspicions – Badr Jamal, his beloved, the person he cherished more than anything else in the world, the person whom he had struggled to attain for six long, arduous years, was gone.

Saif didn’t want to hear anything. What had happened during his brief absence from the Palace? Why? How? All  that was irrelevant now. He knew what he had to do.

“Mother, please tell one of the servants to saddle up a good, strong horse and prepare me a travel bag, with enough provisions to last about a month. I’m leaving right away.”

“But, Saif!” his mother pleaded. “Don’t you see? Badr Jamal doesn’t want to be here! Let her go, Saif. She is happier with her own kind. Please, just forget about her! There is no dearth of beautiful ladies here in Egypt. Think, Saif, destiny has afforded you a second chance at a happy, normal life. Don’t gamble it away for an illusion, for a fantasy, my son! Don’t let this madness get the better of you!”

However, as before, the Queen Mother’s weeping, wailing and emotional threats had no effect on Prince Saif’s resolve. He was an obstinate fellow, and he truly did love Badr. Just as he had found his way to the magical lake in Kaghan Valley, just as he had completed the 40-day penance, the chilla, and escaped from the Ogre and the Flood with Badr in his arms, so he would bring her back from the deepest, darkest dungeons of Paristan if he had to.

“I’m sorry, Mother,” he embraced the Queen one final time before mounting his ride. “But I can’t give up without even trying.” Kicking the horse into a gallop, Saif rode away from the Palace a second time, without looking back.

Prince Saif set out for Paristan, immediately, without looking back
Prince Saif set out for Paristan immediately

Now, Prince Saif didn’t really know where Paristan was, or whether it even existed. Legends placed the kingdom of the fairies “east of Egypt”, somewhere on the mountainous border of Persia and India – and the directions stopped there.

So, he travelled east for several months, crossing Sinai, the fabled rivers Tigris and Euphrates of Mesopotamia, the Great Salt Desert of Persia, the Snowy Mountains of Afghanistan, stopping time to time at some shepherd’s hut or sarai, a highway inn, to rest and refresh his supplies.

Many times he cursed himself for forgetting to carry his Sulemani topi, the magic cap bequeathed to him by the old buzurg during his first quest, which had the power to transport its wearer to any place on earth in the twinkling of an eye.

“I suppose I’m not allowed any shortcuts this time,” he grumbled.

At length, Saif reached Peshawar, or Purushapura, as it was known then, the bustling western capital of the Kushan Empire, gateway to the Indian subcontinent. Merchants from all corners of the Silk Route thronged its narrow streets, hawking their varied wares in loud voices – silk, cashmere, cotton, spices, dry fruit, wine, carpets, woodwork, decorative objects of marble, ivory and jade, gemstones, weapons, secrets and stories – there was nothing you could not find in the legendary markets of Purushapura.

The bustling bazaar of Purushapura, present-day Peshawar
The legendary bazaar of Purushapura, present-day Peshawar in northwest Pakistan

Meandering through the bazaar while his horse rested in the city’s stables, Prince Saif stopped at a chai khana, a tea shop, for a cup of the traditional Peshawari kahwa, hot green tea sweetened with honey or sugar and spiced with cardamom. Looking around the crowded little shop for a place to sit, he spotted an empty stool next to an old man with a flowing white beard, who sat calmly sipping his tea and fingering a rosary.

Prince Saif walked up to the old man, saluted him with a respectful bow, and said, “Venerable sir, would you be so kind as to allow this weary traveller to seat himself beside you?”

The old man looked up at Saif. Their eyes met, and Saif had the sensation that he knew him from somewhere; that this was not a chance encounter. “My son!” the old man smiled, eyes crinkling at the corners. “Please, it would be my honor.

Peshawari kahwa
Peshawari kahwa

“And now, tell me,” he continued, once Saif had made himself comfortable and given his order. “What brings a gentleman like yourself to this wily merchant’s city?”

Quickly, Prince Saif related to his new friend the objective of his journey: to reach the mythical land of Paristan (which, according to legend, lay somewhere in these parts), and recover his beloved Fairy Queen and true wife, Badr Jamal.

“Paristan? My dear lad!”, the old man let out a bemused chortle. “You know the reason why they call it a ‘mythical’ land? Because Paristan has no physical existence! You will not find it on any map, you will not see any signboards pointing out the way, no gates or city walls to saunter through. On the whole, it is entirely impossible for you to reach there in your present state.”

Seeing Prince Saif’s face fall in despair at this rude reality check, the old man hurried to add. “Oh, but don’t look so glum! The good news is that I can help you. Or, at least I have some things that could help you…” He started rummaging through the coarse jute sack he carried, and duly produced a tattered woolen cloak, and a short wooden staff. Saif was overcome by déjà vu.

“I’m sorry, sir,” he interrupted. “But I feel like we’ve met before. Were you ever in Egypt some years back?”

“Nonsense, son! I’ve never set foot outside the city of Peshawar,” the old man hastily brushed aside the question. “Now, listen to me carefully – for although I have not travelled much, I have learnt a great deal in the long journey of my life, from observing and talking to all the people that pass through this city. And what I tell you now may well be the only hope you have of penetrating Paristan and seeing your wife again…”

It was true. Once more, a nameless old buzurg was to be Prince Saif’s savior.

Saif joined a caravan of merchants who agreed to drop him off at Tattoo
Saif joined a caravan headed towards China

A few hours later, Prince Saif found himself riding with a caravan of merchants towards Tattoo, a small village in the kingdom of Gilgit, perched on the craggy slopes of the magnificent Karakoram mountains. The merchants, heading for China via the Khunjerab Pass, had agreed to drop Saif off at the village in exchange for his horse, a handsome Arabian steed that would fetch a weighty price in the horse fairs of the Mongolian steppe.

Saif parted with the animal with a heavy heart, but he actually had no further use for it. His real destination was 13 miles further off Tattoo, where no horse or mule tracks led; a place called Joot, today famous by its English appellation, Fairy Meadows.

“I have never been to Joot, but I hear tell that it is a most breathtaking place,” the old man at the tea shop had recounted. “They say that a Fairy King of great power established his kingdom there, some 1,000 years ago, in the shadow of that fearsome peak Nanga Parbat, the Naked Mountain.

“Nobody lives in Joot. The locals are wary of venturing there at all because of all the stories; shepherds who went to graze their flocks and never returned; explorers, bandits, naturalists and mystics, attracted to the place by its beauty and its solitude, and never seen again. It is enchanted, they say, the abode of witches and jinns, as perilous as it is beautiful.

“This is where you must go.”

Joot, or Fairy Meadows in present-day Pakistan, from where once can see the north face of Nanga Parbat, the 9th highest mountain in the world
Joot or Fairy Meadows in Pakistan, and the north face of Nanga Parbat, 9th highest mountain in the world

And that is where Saif had arrived, after a grueling uphill hike from Tattoo, following the old man’s directions to the letter. He stood in the middle of a vast green meadow, facing the awesome, ice-covered Nanga Parbat. Dusk was approaching, and there was not a soul in sight. All was silent, except for the gentle hum of the evening breeze amongst the pines.

Saif pulled out from his satchel the tattered woolen cloak. “Once you don this cloak,” the old man had explained, “everything around you that is made from the hands of men, will dissolve from view. Buildings, roads, entire cities, will simply vanish.

“And everything that was hitherto unseen – the realm of jinns and fairies, and all other manner of supernatural creatures – will suddenly come to light, as real, as tangible, as indubitable as that tea cup you hold in your hands.”

As for the wooden staff, the old man had said he had bought it from a wandering Jewish mendicant, who claimed that the staff contained a tiny fragment of the miraculous staff of Moses. Placed in the right hands, it had the power to unlock or open any kind of barrier – gates, doors, chains – both magical and mundane.

Standing before that gigantic mountain in the grassy fields of Joot, the very location of Paristan, all that was left for Saif to do was throw on the cloak, brandish the staff, and smash his way into the Fairy King’s palace to recover his bride.

The old buzurg in the tea shop may  have looked like this
The old buzurg in the tea shop may have looked like this

But Saif hesitated. What if all of this was a lie? What if the old man had tricked him? And now, there he was, alone in that desolate spot with no food, no shelter, no money, not even his horse to help him retrace his steps and make the long journey home…

By this time it was almost completely dark, and a silver slipper of a moon had begun to glimmer above the jagged peaks of the Karakoram.

“Well, I don’t really have another plan, so I might as well give this a shot,” Saif thought. So, taking a deep breath, he grasped the wooden staff and wrapped the woolen cloak tightly around him….

The things that happened henceforth are better left imagined. For sometimes there are sights so wondrous, events so singular that they defy description.

Let’s just say that the old man in the tea shop had known what he was talking about!

Read Part VII, the final instalment of the story

Madrid Diaries: Unemployed but Happy

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“I’ve learned that making a ‘living’ is not the same thing as making a ‘life.’” ~ Maya Angelou

Whenever I meet somebody new and they find out, during the course of the conversation, that I’ve been jobless for over one year, living in a foreign country where I have no family or prior acquaintances, and where I just barely speak the language, they look at me incredulously, stupefied: “But what do you do all day? How do you survive? Aren’t you bored to death?”

Let me just mention here that my lack of gainful employment has little to do with laziness, unwillingness, or the “handsome fortune” I may possess, and mostly to do with my legal status in Spain (residencia sin trabajo – residency without work), coupled with the language barrier (dam, rather) that I’m still slowly chipping away at.

But I find it odd, the amount of importance people attach to what you “do” for a living. I myself used to be one of those people: ever since college, I had never been without a job of some sort, full-time, part-time, internship, fellowship, what have you. Even though I wasn’t particularly ambitious or “career-driven”, I took pride in the work I did, because I saw it as a “productive” use of my time, as a contribution towards my own financial wellbeing, and as a logical step forward in my profession, another glittering addition to my resume. And, even if none of that held true, at least I would have a response to that piquing, unrelenting question, the backbone of social banter – “So, what do you do?” I could define myself in one neat, clean, impressive title, and immediately win the other person’s respect. That felt good.

So what happened when I followed my Erasmus Mundus PhD candidate-better half to Spain? What happened when the prospect of landing a job of any kind – let alone related to my career – was suddenly as bright as a Lahori home on a sticky summer’s night? (non-Lahoris/Pakistanis, look up “load shedding” on Wikipedia!)

Well, like any respectably assiduous person, I was frustrated; frustrated with my lack of “productiveness”, uncomfortable with my own free time, guilty of spending money when I wasn’t earning any, guilty of letting my Berkeley Master’s degree “go to waste”; apologetic of my “situation” in general, sighing deeply and resignedly whenever the topic came up…

But the truth is – I wasn’t unhappy. Six months down the line, I was pretty darn happy, and far, far from bored. Society tends to evaluate people based on degrees, paychecks, publications, trophies, on solid, tangible proofs of “success” and one-word descriptions of what they “do for a living”. “I’m a doctor – actor – teacher – writer – cleaner – waiter …” As if nothing exists beyond the ambit of those rectangular brackets.

But we are so, so much more than what we do. The tragic part is that most people never have the time, the opportunity or the motivation to explore themselves beyond the one-word labels, to spill out over the edges of their rectangular holes. I figured: I’m here in this fantastic European city, lucky enough to have time, opportunity and buckets of motivation – could I really complain about my “situation”?

Now, when someone asks me the invariable, the pedestrian, “So, what do you do?”, I cheerfully reply, “Well, I’m currently employed with living”, and present to them the following list:

1. Dance

Apart from taking regular classes at the Karnak School of Oriental Dance in Madrid, I started teaching Bollywood Dance earlier this year with Tara, my partner-in-crime from across the Wagah border. Our group, Mantara, recently performed at a Diwali Dance Fiesta, where our lovely alumnas did splendidly well. Throw in Indo-Pak feasts at the local (Bangladeshi) restaurants and mini-dholkis at my house, complete with mehndi (henna), chai, retro Bollywood  music videos and Coke Studio Pakistan, and home doesn’t feel so far away!

2. Song

I also recently joined  Voces de Ida y Vuelta, a multicultural, multlingual choir that performs at local fundraisers and charity events. Grouped with the sopranos, I’m currently working on reaching glass-shattering pitches and memorizing Cuban, Chilean, Brazilian and Gabonese songs, with many more canciones to come – including one from Pakistan!

Choir practice - that's me on the left side O-ing it with the sopranos!
Choir practice – that’s me on the left side O-ing it with the sopranos!

3. Art

I don’t “make” art (unless you count photography), but Madrid is such a fantastic place to see and appreciate all kinds of  art – for free! – that you can’t help soaking it up every day, as you casually stroll through an exhibition at the neighbourhood gallery or at a random cafe, at the former Post Office, the one-time slaughterhouse or tobacco factory, at Retiro Park, or in the graffitied alleys of Malasaña. Over the course of my artistic education in Madrid, I’ve decided that I don’t particularly like (or understand) Picasso, but Dali I find fascinating (though I don’t fully understand him either). I’ve also decided that if a painting looks too much like a photograph, then it isn’t a good painting. There, my two cents of artistic wisdom!

4. Archaeology

Following up on an old dream (not inspired by Indiana Jones!), I volunteered for an archaeological excavation (read: labour camp) this summer, in the small town of Pollena Trocchia in the south of Italy. Together with 20 bright-faced archaeology undergrads from the U.S., U.K., Canada and Europe (I had to represent the brown people of the world), I dug, scraped, shoveled, pick-axed, sifted, wheelbarrowed and rolled around in incalculable amounts of volcanic soil at the site of an ancient Roman Bathhouse and Villa, destroyed in 472 C.E. by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. Needless to say, working as a mazdoor under the hot Neapolitan sun and living like a mazdoor (10 perpetually filthy people sharing a perpetually filthy dorm and bathroom) gave me a whole new appreciation of the academic world, of airconditioned libraries and sparkly-floored museums, not to mention of my own sparkling bedroom and bathroom. But, inspite of it being one of the most physically challenging things I have done in my life, I’m not “cured” of my archaeology illusions quite yet!

5. Food

I’ve always been fond of tinkering around in the kitchen, and every new place inspires you to add new dishes to your repertoire. So, apart from the classic spaghetti bolognese (Pakistani style), the best Thai Green Curry you’ll ever have this side of the Pacific, and my special death-by-chocolate brownies, here are some other hearty goodies you’ll get to sample at Casa Manal. (Note: These photos are not my own, but I swear, the food looks just like this!)

6. Park

If there’s one place we’ve spent more time in Madrid than any other, it’s Retiro Park. Madrid’s main park used to be a retiro, a retreat for Spanish royals until the late 19th century, when it was opened to the public. It’s big, it’s beautiful, and you can do absolutely anything you want there, from running, biking, rollerblading, boating and gyming to yoga, tai chee, frisbee, slacklining, dancing (thanks to us!), to watching magic shows, puppets and live music, seeing art exhibitions, enjoying a coffee, lemonade or sangria (whichever you prefer), to dozing quietly in a shady corner – a little piece of paradise in the heart of Madrid.

 7. Language

Apart from continuing Spanish classes at C.E.E. Idiomas and regular intercambio coffee dates with my Spanish girl friends,  I’ve added a new  item to the daily study regimen – Spanish TV soaps.  I’ve never been much of a TV buff, but there’s a certain pleasure in ensconcing yourself on a sofa with a blanket and a box of cookies and watching a dramatic story of some other place and time unfold magically infront of your eyes on an HD TV screen. And here in Madrid, I have an excuse to watch all the TV I want! From the weighty life of Spanish “Reconquista” Queen Isabel to swashbuckling adventures in the Spanish American colonies to a feudal family drama set in a Franco-era Castillian village, I’ll be speaking the Queen’s (500 year-old diction of) Spanish in no time!

8. Volunteering

I joined the WWF (World Wildlife Fund) Madrid Volunteer Network shortly after arriving in the city, but was initally too scared to go to their weekly and monthly activities (tree plantings, bird censuses, plodding around marshes and other strange things that only me and my partner-in-crime from across the border would find enjoyable). We did make it to the Earth Hour event though, inspite of the pouring rain, proving our mettle as die-hard WWF supporters and being rewarded with Panda T-shirts. I plan to join the regular field activites as soon as the weather warms up, this time with reinforced Spanish!

9. Travel & Photography

Perhaps the best part about living in Europe is the travelling – within a few hours flight from Madrid I can be in any number of different European capitals, each with a different language, different architecture, food and feel. And if you plan in advance and are a savvy deal-hunter like I’ve become, the trip won’t cost you a euro more than it would have in your shoestring student-budget days.

But there’s so much to see in Spain itself that we haven’t yet been tempted by elaborate holidays abroad. I watch with satisfaction as the souvenir magnet collection on our fridge steadily grows, as do the number of photo archives on my computer. For me, travelling is pure thrill – every time I go to a bus terminal, a train station or an airport, I feel slightly giddy, as if I were 8 years old and about to step into Disneyland. Each time I’m wandering the streets of a new city, curiosity and a camera in hand, I feel that strange sense of belonging everywhere, yet of belonging nowhere.

And each time I travel, I’m reminded about how beautiful the world is, how diverse the world is, and how similar we all are – all of us humans, busily making lives and earning livings in whatever little patch of earth we call home. In the end, no matter what we do or don’t do, happiness doesn’t come to us. It flows from within.

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12 things this Pakistani girl loves about Spain

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Published in Sunday Magazine, September 29th 2014

beach_valenciaIt’s been a full year since our peregrination to Madrid (hard to believe!), and I think I’ve come a long way from those initial months of confusion, misplaced nostalgia, and sometimes plain despair (among other unproductive emotions that beleaguer you at every move!)

For one, I can (sort of) speak Spanish. I’ve made friends. I even have a (sort of) job! I can navigate the city fairly well – I’ve visited the doctor, the dentist, the real estate agent, the immigration bureau, even the police station (don’t ask), without any major communication disasters occurring. I’ve traveled around the country a fair bit. I’ve been taken for a local and given directions to lost tourists (score!). And, though there are obviously bothersome things about every country, I find myself quite enamored of Spain. Here are just a couple of (some idiosyncratic) reasons why, in no particular order!

1. Hot Chocolate

hotchocolate2

It’s traditional to begin AND end the long Spanish days with a cup of thick, intensely dark hot chocolate, often with a side of churros (long, deep-fried dough pastries for dipping). Some chocolaterías, like the 19th century San Ginés in historic Madrid, are open 24 hours – so you can amble down for an indulgent treat any moment it grabs your fancy. A chocoholic like me can’t complain!

2. Festivals

Spain does festivals like nobody’s business, second only to India when it comes to the sheer number of public celebrations and commemorations in the country. The most spectacular among these is Semana Santa or Holy Week (Easter), curiously similar to Ashura in Muslim countries, where participants in full costume re-enact Jesus Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection over the course of 7 days with elaborate floats, music, and in some places, self-flagellation. There are festivals dedicated to saints and to devils, to horses, flowers, geese, tomatoes, bulls, newborn babies, even paper-mache monsters!

3. “Harem Pants”

You can literally roll out of bed in a printed shalwar and T-shirt and step onto the streets of Madrid or Barcelona perfectly in sync with fashion. Harem pants, as they are known in the West, are a perennial component of the trendy Spaniard’s wardrobe – the baggier, the better! Could “dressing up” get any easier?

4. Beards & Piercings

Dark-bearded men and nose-studded women are as ubiquitous on the streets of Spain as in Pakistan. So you can comfortably sport your preferred style of facial hair (if you are a man), or a nice twinkly nose piercing (if you are a man or woman), without the least fear of being eyed suspiciously and stereotyped “terrorist”, “punk”, or, most annoyingly, “oh-so-exotic!”.

5. Moorish Spain

Stroll under the Damascene arches of the oldest surviving mosque in Europe, the Mezquita of Cordoba, dating to 785 A.D. Wander through the ethereal Nasrid Palaces of the Alhambra in Granada, the Muslims’ last stronghold in Spain. Treat yourself to a milky Té Pakistani in an evocative tetería. There is an undeniable romance about al-Andalus of yore, and for some romantic reason, you feel as if you share a part of its history.

6. Flamenco 

flamenco

Spain’s most iconic song & dance form has roots in North African and Gypsy (“Roma”) culture. Roma people were originally from the Indian subcontinent, and migrated to Europe about 500 years ago. The mix of cultures produced a unique dance that emphasizes not feminine delicacy and beauty, but feminine power and strength – stomping, sweating, shouting and all! You gotta love it.

7. Olives

olives

Aceitunas have been one of the healthier additions to my diet since moving to Spain. With the cultivation of olives dating to ancient Roman times and improved upon during the Moorish era, Spain today produces about 300 varieties of olives in all shapes, sizes, tastes and textures. Next to my mother’s hand-cured green olives from a family orchard in Pakistan, juicy Spanish olives stuffed with garlic are the yummiest savory snack I could ask for!

8. Spanish Idiom

Express yourself like a true Pakistani in the Spanish language! From Ojalá (Inshallah), Venga! (Chalo), Que? (Kya?), Hermano (Bhai / Yaar), Adiós! (Khuda Hafiz!) even Ala! (Hai Allah /Allah Tobah!), the flavor of spoken Spanish is remarkably similar to Urdu or Punjabi, with many words derived from Arabic.

9. “Laid back” – in a good way!

Spaniards have a bit of a reputation for laziness, but from what I see, they work as much as any of their counterparts in the Western world, without the uptight fastidiousness. So, yes, a waiter will probably take 15 minutes to come and take your order, but he or she will also not pester you to pay or vacate your table until you are ready to leave, whenever that may be! Yes, most banks, administrative offices and private businesses take a 3-hour lunch break, but when they serve you, they are always friendly, accommodating, and seem to genuinely enjoy their job, no matter how mundane it may be. I think the system works!

10. Rabo del Toro (Oxtail Stew)

rabodeltoro

The Spanish version of a Pakistani Aloo Gosht or Nihari – succulent bull or oxtail, slow-cooked in its own stock and a rich gravy of onions, tomatoes, potatoes and other vegetables and spices, till the meat literally falls off the bone. Scoop it up with crusty pieces of bread just like you would do with Naan or Roti back home – riquísimo!

 

 

 

 

11. Nightlife – Ronaq!

Go for a walk in any barrio or neighborhood in the city center at 1:00am on a weeknight, and find warmly-lit restaurants and cafes bubbling with customers, street performers juggling fire on the sidewalks, couples strolling along with little children in tow, boisterous touts trying to lure you into nightclubs. And the weekends? Soundproof windows recommended if you want to get any sleep! No matter the unemployment and fiscal crisis, the Spaniards know how to have a good time.

12. Compliments!

In most places in the world, being addressed as “pretty girl” (guapa), “little girl” (niña), or “queen” (reina) by a complete stranger would be slightly offensive, and probably discomfiting. Not in Spain! Shopkeepers, street vendors, waiters, passersby, men and women can call you all those things in Spanish without a trace of sleaziness. Now why wouldn’t that make you feel good? Add to that their beaming smiles and ready greetings, whether you know them or not, it’s impossible not to feel happy and welcome in this country.

beachwalk_valencia