Literature

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. 

 

The Legend of Saif-ul-Malook Part VI

Posted on Updated on

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

The Legend of Saif-ul-Malook Part VI

Posted on Updated on

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 swiftly 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 possess for six long, arduous years, was gone.

Saif didn’t want to hear anything. What had happened in his absence? Why? When? 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 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 without even trying.” 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 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 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.

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 20 kilometers 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 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 concluding part of the story 

The Freedom To Be

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Published in the Express Tribune Blog, October 4th 2011

A friend from Lahore recently asked me, “What would you miss most about New York if you were to move back to Pakistan right now?”

I thought about it for a few minutes. Unlike many Pakistanis living in the U.S. I knew, I wasn’t particularly attached to this country, or to New York.

To me,  it was just another city – a hard city, a cacophonous city, where bright lights and gleaming skyscrapers belied the darkness, the sadness, the grime and the poverty in the corners; where glamour, spectacle, a veneer of ethnic diversity thinly concealed the underlying greed and racism.

I had no great love for New York; my heart still belonged to Lahore, and it was Lahore that I forever looked for, in every street sign, in every face, in every smell and neighbourhood.

But there was one thing.

“Freedom”, I replied to my friend. “That’s what I would miss.”

It wasn’t the freedom to wear a tank top or mini-skirt in public, to dance at a nightclub or get a tattoo; it wasn’t the freedom to hop on a train or bus at any hour of the day and go where you wanted, come home when you pleased; the freedom to attend any kind of rally, concert or film screening that suited your fancy, to make friends with any colour or class of people you chose,  to walk out on the street at 2.a.m. for some ice-cream from the 24-hour deli, to nap under a tree in Washington Square Park.

No, these were superficial freedoms. It was something deeper than that.

It was the freedom to be. 

Growing up in Lahore, I didn’t ever ask myself – Why are all the women I know teachers and doctors, the other half housewives? Why don’t I know any women engineers, scientists, actresses, novelists, athletes, dancers, photographers, lawyers?

I never asked myself – Why do I have to wait for the driver or one of my parents to drop me to school or to a friend’s house? Why can’t I take the bus, a taxi or rickshaw?

Why must I send the cook to fetch that tub of ice-cream from the shop across the street for my slumber party? Why can’t I go myself?

Why can’t I say my prayers at the beautiful neighborhood mosque? Why must I pray in the musty, uninspiring ante-chamber, or in the confines of my house?

Why can’t I play cricket in the park? Why can’t I wear jeans to Liberty Market? Why do I need a male friend to accompany me on my field visits to the shehr?

Why must I get married by the age of 24 and have at least one child by 26?

Why? Because that’s how things were.

I never questioned it, or if I did have questions, they were momentary. The main explanation, of course, was that I was a girl.

That was good enough. It was reasonable, it was appropriate. You never asked why your brother could do things you couldn’t, why there was one set of rules for the boys and another for the girls. To question that would seem presumptuous, daftly unrealistic, “Amreekan” – this is was Pakistan, this was how society functioned, and women were completely A-OK with it.

There were exceptions to the rule, of course, a handful of courageous women who dared to break into non-traditional roles and spaces – but these women, although publicly lauded, were implicitly looked down upon by middle- and upper-class morality. They were arrogant, promiscuous, “unfeminine”, or, they were supremely-gifted rarities that happened once in a generation, and while you admired them, you couldn’t possibly aspire to be like them.

And while life did go on, and the women of my class “progressed” day by day, from classrooms to TV screens to charity fundraisers – the socially acceptable, the superficially liberal – the greatest inhibitions remained.

What if I wanted to be a political activist, campaigning door-to-door and chanting slogans at rallies shoulder-to-shoulder with men? What if I wanted to be a social worker, visiting slums and prisons and acid-burn victims in teeming public hospitals? What if I wanted to be a professional musician, performing at cafés, parks, theaters, outside the protective walls of my school or college? What if I wanted to go for a stroll at midnight, sit at a roadside khokha chewing paan, live in a 3rd story flat in Anarkali, ride my bike to work?

What if I wanted to marry for love to a man “below” my class, to a foreigner, to a gora?

What if I wanted to do all of this, not to make any statements, not to be provocative, not be seen or talked about, but just because that’s who I was, who I wanted to be, and doing something contrary would be oppressive, inhibiting.

In New York, all the inhibitions inculcuated in you since childhood slowly chipped away. You could see yourself for who you were, and you could actually be that person. Nobody judged, nobody cared. People treated you as a human being, without the gender labels and cultural baggage. No one stared at you, no one harassed you. No one noticed you for being a woman, for being different. You were anonymous – and while that could sometimes feel lonely, it was also very liberating.

What it comes down to is choice. You coud choose to pursue your passion, and, married, divorced or single, childbearing or childless, rich or poor, be the happiest woman in the world for having done so – or you could be be like the neighbouring mother-of-4, whom society praises for raising such well-behaved children, for keeping such a tidy, efficient household, for having such an amicable relationship with her in-laws, for being so equable with the servants, and yet be lifeless inside, burdened with regret.

For no matter how noble the mission of wifehood and motherhood, no matter how sacred our notions of femininity, I do not believe that any woman can enjoy seeing her ambitions crushed. I do not believe that every aunty I know did not nurture a secret wish in her heart that she was not able to fulfill. And that was a loss not just for herself, but for everybody around her, for society, for the country – because one woman who lives life to her potential, who is brave and follows her heart, is far more inspiring than any number of daughters, wives and mothers imprisoned to their homes and kitchens and children and a job or husband they do not love.

So, yes, what would I miss about New York if I were to move back? The freedom to be. The choice to be. No double-standards. The same rules for men and for women. The same benchmarks for your daughters and your sons.  And though I miss Lahore with all my heart, I do not miss its self-righteous upper-class morality.

Obviously, there will never be a day when you wake up in the morning and the men of Lahore cease to ogle, the aunties cease to matchmake, the uncles cease to lecture, and society ceases to preach one thing or other. It’s up to us to make that happen. It’ll  take courage, but that’s the only way to live, the only way to free yourself  from the invisible cages your mothers were trapped in, the only way to ensure that your children aren’t trapped the same way.

I’ll leave you with a request to read Ismat Chughtai, the brilliant grande dame of 20th-century Urdu literature, whose work inspired me to write this post. She wasn’t just a gifted writer  – she was a keen social commentator, whose stories revealed the deepest of deep-rooted hypocrisies in middle-class Indo-Muslim society. She saw things for what they were, she saw herself for who she was, and she was not afraid to be that person, no matter how much people gasped and censured. Though times have changed and women are “freer” than they were in the 1960s, when Chughtai wrote “The Heart Breaks Free”, one of my all-time favourite stories, her observations are just as pertinent today, and we can learn much from them. I couldn’t find the story online, so I’d encourage you to go to a store, buy it and read it, in Urdu or in English. Enjoy!

In Other Rooms, Other Wonders, and other Pakistans

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One of the perks of being a “Cornell spouse” is uninhibited access to the university library. So, once every month, I descend into the stacks at Olin with an empty Jansport backpack, the bars on my cell phone dwindling with every step into that delicious musty labyrinth, to emerge a few hours later with books piled up to my chin, like the fat little mouse Gus in Disney’s Cinderalla and his teetering armload of cheese. Setting down my own bits of cheese on the circulation desk, I proudly flourish the shiny blue-and-white Cornell ID Card, and walk out with an immensely satisfied look on my face , 20 pounds worth of books pulling happily on my shoulders and many weeks of apple-pie reading ahead.

The book I just finished is Daniyal Mueenuddin’s “In Other Rooms, Other Wonders”, a collection of short stories about Pakistan. I had heard about Mueenuddin – praise for the most part, from friends, and a cousin who knew him personally – but for some reason I hadn’t been particularly motivated to read his book, until prompted by a certain Bangladeshi friend from Berkeley. I had been in the middle of a book of short stories by Rabindranath Tagore when I messaged him: “Have you read these? They’re incredible! So witty, wise, sad, ironic..” I raved, and to my surprise he replied: “No, actually I haven’t read any of his stories. But have you read Daniyal Mueenuddin?”

One cannot compare the two at any rate – Tagore is a giant, a saint, a genius – but it suddenly struck me that all this time I had unconsciously been avoiding Pakistan writers. I think the last Pakistani novel I’d read was Kartography, or Moth Smoke – years and years ago. I don’t know why I’d been ignoring them, especially considering that there were just a handful. Perhaps it was my conception of books as windows to other worlds – other times, histories, cultures, people, different and fascinating – and Pakistan was all  too familiar.

But Mueenuddin’s stories left me puzzled, stunned – I knew as little about the world he described as I knew about Naguib Mahfouz’s Cairo or Tagore’s rural Bengal. Nawabdin electrician, Saleema,  Zainab, Rezak – all these people were alien to me, foreigners, their private lives detached from mine by an invisible wall. Of course I knew people like them – we kept servants at home, like any well-off Pakistani family, and most of them came from the villages surrounding Lahore. But I really knew nothing about them, the cook, the maid, the chowkidaar, the sweepress, the driver, all the people who worked in my house; I knew nothing beyond the rudiments, the apparent facts. I liked to  think that I was friends with the maidservants, those pretty, smiling young girls who washed and pressed my clothes and dusted my room everyday; at least I had every intention to be friendy. But would I ever know what they really thought about me, or any of us, what they said to each other in the confidence of the kitchen, the one space in the entire two-storey house that belonged to them?  Could one of them be a Saleema, could my cook be a Hassan, could the driver be having an affair with the sweepress half his age? In our house?

It was unimaginable. These ideas had never occured to me, till very recently, when my mother – obviously privy to all the servants’ politics – started to discuss them with me and my sister, suddenly deciding that we were “old” enough. I think it happened when that new maid was hired, the 21- year old widow (so she told us) whom my sister and I nicknamed “Pocahontas” at first sight, so tall, golden and raven-haired she was. After the first few days of feverish excitement among the male servants – all married – the burly cook huffingly announced to my mother that the girl had to be dismissed, she “wasn’t right”. Sahi nahin hai baji. That was all he said. My mother, with her calm, instinctive wisdom, understood everything. She later told us that the young widow apparently had a habit of parading topless on the terrace of the servants’ quarters, causing quite a commotion, and not one  slip-up – including the grumpy cook and even one of the neighbor’s kitchen boys. I will never forget my initial shock and disbelief. “These things happen, Minu,” my mother had said in her soothing way, half-amused at my incredulity.

Of course these things happen. Mueenuddin’s stories revealed that secret world for me. And when he wrote of K.K. Harouni in his attitude towards his servants’ personal lives, “He didn’t particularly care one way or the other, except that it touched on his comfort”, I realized that it was, more or less, painfully true.

But I understand even less about the “other” world – K.K. Harouni’s,  Sohail’s or Lily’s, or any of the wealthy people in Mueenuddin’s book. I’m not like them. We’re not like them. My family doesn’t own apartments in London or Paris, my father has never touched alcohol, my mother doesn’t wear saris or grape-sized emeralds in her ears everyday, we don’t socialize with people called “Mino” or “Bumpy”, neither have we ever hosted Tsunami-themed parties with artificial beaches in the lawn, or been invited to one – thank God for that. We know who these people are – in our family we call them the “filthy rich”. Perhaps my father is acquainted with some of them through work, we see them at weddings and other big events, and in the social pages of the Sunday magazines. But there’s is a separate universe. Reading about them in Mueenuddin’s book, I found myself shocked once more. Ecstacy? Getting drunk on bootlegged alcohol, sleeping around? In Pakistan?? How little I knew! How naive I was! Were there only three kinds of Pakistanis then, the struggling, servile poor, the opportunisitic middle-class like Husna and Jaglani, and the hedonistic elites? Where did my family fit in?

I grew up in inviolable purity. In retrospect, I think it almost hilarious, how little I knew of anything – I can just hear my best friend Zohra laughing delightedly at my scandalized face at some story or other –  but I treasure that. I value that, I wouldn’t call it ignorance, but security, that preservation of my inner child. Little things, tiny things, inconsequential for some people maybe; not knowing the smell of alcohol, for instance, till I was a 23-year old graduate student at Berkeley, passing through the dorm to my room on a Saturday night; never having been on a “date” with anyone but my fiance (now husband); still shy of wearing a sleeveless kameez infront of the family elders. The possibility of premarital sex did not exist – the idea of sex itself was, for the longest time, something mysterious, slightly embarrasing, and not particularly fascinating. Outside of marriage, it was an impossibility. It was not only because of our Muslim upbringing, but my personal beliefs, as they evolved with age; grounded in Islam, nourished by the various volumes of Sufi poetry scattered about the house, shaped into an intimate, spiritual, almost mystical view of life that I carry with me everywhere.

I remember how upset I was when some of my friends started smoking in high school  – a habit I still dislike but have grown to tolerate, with a roll of my eyes and half- laughing censure. I’ve accepted many other things since then –  have “grown up”, though somewhat unwillingly. I am not one to judge anybody, not people from other societies and cultures nor fellow Pakistanis. And yet, my heart is still floating in that  prism – sepia-tinted, “old-fashioned”, you might call it – where there is nothing sordid, no taint or speck to marr its clear beauty. Loyalty, fidelity and honesty are things you take for absolute granted; there is no other way to speak to a servant but with the utmost respect, even more than you give your parents; and there is was no other way to look upon your parents but with love, understanding and forbearance, even if you feel angry or wronged. You can go bury your face in the pillow or brood for an hour in your bedroom, but to raise your voice, to actually “fight” or quarrel with them? It never crossed our minds. I tremble at the thought.

As I finished reading “In Other Rooms, Other Wonders”, with a strangely sad feeling in my stomach, and tears for the “Spoiled Man” Rezak welling up in my eyes – my favourite story in the book – I thought,  “This is a depressing country, this country of ours.”  These were tragic stories, with no real faith, comfort or redemption for any of the characters, the peasant woman or the feudal lord. Their lives seemed empty, hollow, unfulfilled.

But that is not the Pakistan I know. It is not my Pakistan.

One day I’ll write a story about the Pakistani life I knew – a beautiful life, with its share of ordinary family problems, but beautiful, and wholesome, spirited, and simple. One day I’ll write a story about my family, the poets, lawyers, doctors, artists and engineers, never poor, never too rich, and in my memory never anything but upright, dignified in everything they did.  That is the only way I saw them, and that is all I knew.

With my parents and sister at Khanpur Lake, Winter 2008