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How to Make Friends in a New City – Tip #2

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  • JOIN A RECREATIONAL CLASS

When you’re not a full-time student, nor do you have a “’real” job, nor any family in the city where you live, you end up with a lot of free time on your hands – which can be perfectly utilized by learning something you’ve always wanted, but never really got a chance to do. For instance, crocheting, or Thai kickboxing. Sushi-making, or calligraphy, ventriloquism, or, better yet, magic!

OK, maybe not the intense save-the-world type magic of Gandalf Source: Art & Cookies
OK, maybe not the intense save-the-world type magic of Gandalf

That something for me right now is Middle Eastern dancing. I carry my black coin-belt around with me wherever we go, and Google down a dance class whichever city we happen to be in. Apart from the fact that I love to do it, it’s also a good way of meeting people – perhaps even a potential friend, whom you are assured of having at least one thing in common with!

So, with all this in mind, I joined a classical Egyptian dance class in Madrid, taught by a half-Egyptian, half-Paraguayan, Spanish-born woman called Yasmina, who has been dancing professionally for 20 years.

On my first day, I arrived late. I had gotten confused when exiting the metro station, and walked in the wrong direction for a good ten minutes. “Darn it,” I thought, when I realized my (usual) mistake. “There’s no point of going to the class now. There won’t be space for me anyway!”

I was envisaging, of course, the type of dance classes I had attended in Berkeley and New York; a normally tiny square-shaped room packed to the seams with a variety of serious-faced girls in intimidating-looking leotards; the teacher (whom you could barely see) hollering instructions, bootcamp-style, over the pounding music; and me in the back row, whacking my hands into the wall every time we did snake arms, or getting trampled on by Rubber Girl next to me at every grapevine turn. 

But here, when I scrambled into class, huffing and puffing, with a “Lo siento-ooo!”, I’m sorry-yyy, on my lips, I was shocked to find myself in a 60 ft x 30 ft, hardwood-floored room, glistening mirrors on not one but three sides, nicely framed posters on the cool blue walls, and Yasmina the teacher with two students – dressed in comfy track pants and T-shirts – quietly doing some stretches.

Is the class already over?? Has everybody left??” I asked, bewildered.

No, they were just about to start! “Solo nosotras,” Yasmina smiled, flicking on the music. I couldn’t believe it! What joy! What pleasure! What a wonderful feeling to sway about freely my unusually long limbs without colliding into an animate or inanimate object at every move!

There were even times when the other two students didn’t show up, and it was just me and the teacher, whom I could pester with complaints and questions to my heart’s content (“But why can’t I do the sideways shimmy? Why? Why doesn’t it look as good as yours?”) On the downside, nobody in the class, including the teacher, spoke any English, so we had to suffice in our communication with gestures, intonation and a range of facial expressions. The other girl in the class, who was my age, seemed nice, but I could not glean much about her from my limited Spanish and her non-existent English save that she worked at a pharmacy, loved leopard print and Khaled.

Expressions
Homer Simpson’s diverse range of facial expressions

On the upside, one of the first things I mastered in the Spanish language were parts parts of the body – rodilla, tobillo, talón, cadera, codo, muñeca, cuello – much to my Spanish teacher’s amazement when we came to study that chapter in class. You bet, I knew them body parts like a doctor. And, generally, I became known amongst the nice ladies at the dance school as the funny “American” girl (because I spoke English) who laughed a lot, seemed genuinely excited to be in Spain (unlike the Spaniards themselves, who were desperate to leave), and who continually invented new ways to bungle their language – which they didn’t seem to mind at all!

Read Tip #1, Tip #3, Tip #4Tip #5, and the introductory post of this series!


How to Make Friends in a New City (where you don’t even speak the language!)

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Published in BootsnAll, May 19th 2014

When you’ve spent most of your life in one place, you tend to take many things for granted – your aging collection of books, for instance (don’t you love it when the pages start turning yellow?), or sharing wardrobes with your sister (mostly against her will), or that little bakery down the street that sells your favorite lemon rolls (you don’t want to know how they make them, they’re just really good).

Lemon Swiss Roll...mmmm
Gooey Lemon Swiss Roll…mmmm

Most of all, you take your friends for granted.

Imagine the last time you were out with a group of old friends. There you are, huddled together around a big table at your regular hangout, chattering nineteen to the dozen, laughing uproariously about something no one else would find funny, spooning mouthfuls of steaming pad thai or bread-and-butter pudding into your mouth; faces beaming, teeth flashing, shiny heads bobbing. There, at that moment, you and your friends are the center of the universe. Everything and everyone else is in orbit around you. You are beautiful; you are invincible.

And then, in the midst of that irresistible merriment, your gaze falls upon a forlorn corner of the restaurant, where, at a table for two, somebody is sitting all alone; quietly sipping a coffee, or wrestling with a bit of leftover pasta on the plate; sometimes pretend-texting on her cell phone, sometimes looking up and smiling expectantly at the restaurant. And you think, pityingly, a little smugly, “Oh, that poor lonely human being. She has no friends!”

Well, meet the newest member of One’s Company, or “My cell phone is my best friend” club – me!

Crumbs and scribblings
Crumbs and scribblings in a coffee shop

I could never imagine being in a situation like this in my hometown, Lahore. Even in that sprawling metropolis of 12 million people, you invariably bumped into a friend, or at least an acquaintance, wherever you went. It made sense: you had friends from school, friends from college, friends from work. You had cousins, cousins’ friends, cousins’ cousins. You had neighbors, family friends, brothers’ and sisters’ friends. You just knew a lot of people, and you all frequented the same handful of restaurants and retail stores. So in a place like Lahore, it was impossible to be ‘friendless’, to sit by yourself in a cafe writing pensively in your diary – because somebody would find you out, and cheerfully plop down on the seat beside you for a catch-up.

But, navigating a new city, adjusting to a new country, fathoming a new language – you were nobody. You knew nobody. You had to start from scratch. Desde cero

In Madrid, there were no cozy International House socials to dive into, like at Berkeley, or late-night bonding sessions in the corridors with your floormates; there was no common kitchen like at Democracy Now!, where your like-minded, socially-conscious colleagues from around the world congregated to dissect America’s latest foreign policy misadventure over cups of fair-trade coffee; there was no lively Pakistani expat community that materialized, without fail, at every Eid, Independence Day and birthday party, to enjoy haleem and chicken tikkas at a New York dhaba.

The buzzing Democracy Now! Kitchen in New York
The buzzing Democracy Now! kitchen in New York

No. Madrid wasn’t like Berkeley, or New York, and of course it wasn’t like Lahore. Everything was different, from the streets to the sunlight to the food, people, shops, signs. Everything was new.

When we landed, we didn’t know a thing about the city. Sure, it was exciting, but we weren’t just there as tourists, for a few days or a week, staying at a plush downtown hotel, taking the double-decker tour bus to all the monuments and museums, posing for pictures with the matador in Plaza Mayor, eating out at TripAdvisor-recommended restaurants, buying flamenco figurines at the souvenir shops, and then happily heading back home.

Plaza Mayor, Madrid
Plaza Mayor, the largest public square in Madrid, and the first pitstop for most tourists

No, we were there to stay. To make a home.  And roaming around the streets of Madrid in search of an apartment during our first week, more than once I got that funny feeing in my stomach – like the feeling you get as a kid, standing outside the principal’s office for some primary school misdemeanor you may have committed. I suppose you could call it panic. “How am I going to do this! Where are we going to live? Where will I buy my groceries? Where will I find my turmeric and green chilies and Shaan masalas? Where on earth can I buy bathroom slippers, a 7-Watt light bulb, square-shaped tupperware, 16″x16″ cushion fillings, hummus and baking powder, apart from the ludicrously-priced El Corte Ingles?”

Which cell phone package has the cheapest local rates? Which internet service provider has the least hidden costs? How do I apply for a monthly metro pass? What do I do if I lose my monthly metro pass? What do I do if I get robbed! (Incidentally, these are not hypothetical questions)

Most important of all, how was I supposed to make friends? I could not enroll in a university (95% of the Arts & Humanities courses I was interested in were taught in Spanish), nor did I have a work visa. My level of Spanish was too low to even apply for a volunteer gig. How was I ever going to meet people, and engage in a longer-than-five-minute conversation with anybody, apart from my husband and the Carrefour checkout lady?

Faced with these sundry, seemingly insurmountable challenges, I could let myself sink into despair. That was always easy, and poetic. I could happily wallow in nostalgia – double, triple, quadruple layers. I could become a hermit, pottering about the house in a white robe, watering my herbs, sipping ginger tea and people-watching from the balcony. I could also live quite a gregarious virtual life, through Facebook, Skype, What’s App, Viber. There were just so many options.

Socially Awkward Penguin
Socially Awkward Penguin, displaying hermit-like behavior

But I had a plan. The location was Madrid, and the objective, “Friends”, those slippery creatures that every new immigrant or expat craves….

Read the complete post on BootsnAll, the ultimate online resource for the indie traveler! Or, read Tip #1Tip #2, Tip #3Tip #4 and Tip #5 right here on Windswept Words. 

Thoughts on Leaving Pakistan

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Published in the The Friday Times Blog, October 10th 2013

The last time I put thoughts to paper was a year and a half ago, when Z and I moved back to Pakistan from the U.S. It happened very suddenly, under very sad circumstances, and there we were – thrust into a disorienting new life, filling roles we had never anticipated, never wanted, inhabiting, once again, the cloistered, uninspiring world of Lahore’s privileged class.

Much elapsed during the past 18 months in Lahore – much to rejoice and remember. Engagements, bridal showers, weddings. Baby showers, and babies! Farewell parties and welcome-back parties, birthday parties and Pictionary parties.

PTI fever, elections, and Pakistan’s first peaceful political transition. Cliff-diving in Khanpur under a shower of shooting stars, dancing arm-and-arm with Kalash women as spring blossomed in the Hindukush,  tracking brown bears and chasing golden marmots in the unearthly plains of Deosai.

IMG_6944
Exploring Deosai Plains with Adventure Travel Pakistan (ATP)

I rediscovered my love of history, of abandoned old places that teemed with a thousand stories and ghosts and memories, thanks to a research job at LUMS. I spent many days wandering the cool corridors of  Lahore Museum, many hours contemplating the uncanny beauty of the Fasting Siddhartha, whom I had the privilege of photographing up-close. I stood beneath the most prodigious tree in the world in Harappa. I got down on my knees with a shovel and brush during a student archaeological excavation in Taxila, personally recovering the 2, 000-year old terracotta bowl of a Gandhara Buddhist monk.

IMG_6039
The prodigious banyan tree of Harappa, over 500 years old

But, there was also dissatisfaction. Frustration. Restlessness. When we were not travelling, we were in Lahore. And Lahore was, well, warm. Convenient. Static. Living there again was like a replay of our childhood; like watching a favourite old movie on repeat. After a while it got monotonous,  somewhat annoying, and a little disappointing.

In Lahore, I could see what the trajectory of my life would be, the next 10 years down. It was all planned out, neatly copied from upper-class society’s handbook, with but minor divergences here and there.

It wasn’t a bad plan. In fact, it was a perfectly good, even cushy plan, one that would have made a lot of people quite happy.

Not me.

There were other things, too, about Lahore, and about Pakistan, things that had bothered me growing up but now seemed magnified to alarming proportions – the incomprehensible extremes of wealth and want, the insurmountable divisiveness of class, and, most worrying of all, the overwhelming  self-righteousness and religiosity.

You could not escape it. Everywhere, from TV talk shows to political rallies, drawing rooms to doctors’ clinics, there was a national fixation with religion. Everybody, it seemed, was desperate to convince others – and themselves – of their absolute piety, their A+ scorecard-of-duties-towards-God, their superficial Muslim-ness. Instead of the genuine, unselfconscious goodness that shines through truly spiritual people, in Pakistanis I just saw fear. Religion for them wasn’t about peace, and love, and knowledge. Religion was base.  Religion was social security. Religion was a tool of power.

I wanted to say to these superficial Muslims, to all Pakistanis: Just look at the state of our country. Do you really believe that religion has helped us? Has it at any level, be it individual, societal or state, improved the country? Has it alleviated poverty,  reduced rape and murder, mitigated corruption?

Have we as a nation achieved anything positive, anything progressive, in the suffocating garb of “religion”?

No. On the contrary, we, as a nation, have become more intolerant, more oppressive, more barbaric, as our outward religious zeal reaches new heights.

And we still do not realize it. The Matric-fail maulvi at the local mosque still preaches that a woman wearing jeans in public is jahannumi, Hell-bound , the TV reporter interviewing an old peasant who has lost his home in a flood wants to know if he kept his Ramzaan fasts, and that educated, apparently “modern” aunty you met at a family dinner launches into a sermon that the reason Pakistan is beset with crises is because we don’t pray enough.

That was the most terrifying thing I found about Lahore, and about Pakistan. It had become a place where no other framework for discussion about the future of the country, about anything at all, was possible. We were mired in religion. We were stuck. We were deeply and hopelessly stuck.

As for the people who thought differently, the elite and “enlightened” class that I belonged to, they responded to the onslaught by retreating further and further into their elite Matrix – a sequestered, protected world where they met up with friends over Mocha Cappuccinos at trendy New York-style cafes, where they shopped for designer Italian handbags in centrally air-conditioned shopping malls, where their children spoke English with American accents and dressed up for Halloween, where alcohol flowed at raucous dance parties behind the gates of a sprawling farmhouse.

It was a parallel universe, where we all lived free, modern lives, like citizens of a free, modern country, utterly disconnected from the “other” Pakistan, the bigger Pakistan, and for all intents and purposes, the “real” Pakistan. Yet perhaps it was our only survival, the only way to keep sane and creative and happy for those of us who chose to live in our native country.

But I could not reconcile myself with it. I found it schizophrenic. Perhaps living abroad had changed me too much. I could not find balance, I could not find peace in Lahore.

So when Z applied to and got selected for a European Union PhD scholarship based in Madrid, Spain, I was thrilled – and a little relieved. Was I looking for an escape? Maybe. Was that the only solution? I don’t know.

When we left Lahore, on that eerie twilight flight in August, our lives packed into just one suitcase and backpack each, it was bittersweet. I was sad to say goodbye to loved ones, to friends and family whom I had spent such wonderful moments with in the past year and a half. I would miss being a part of their lives. And I would miss the incomparable natural beauty of Pakistan – beauty and heritage that is disappearing day by day due to neglect and ignorance.

Yet, I knew that I had to go. I knew that staying in Lahore – “settling for” Lahore – buying joras from Khaadi, attending tea parties, managing servants, the odd freelancing or part-time job at LUMS, was not going to make me happy. And we could not depend on the love of family and friends to sustain us forever. At the end of the day, everybody had their own lives to lead, their own paths to carve,  their own hearts to follow.

And that is how we ended up in Madrid.

Sitting here in our apartment, a cozy, parquet-floored 1-bedroom affair, I can hear the babble of excited young voices below the window, a medley of idioms and accents; the clink of glasses and clatter of dishes from neighbouring restaurants; the smoky strumming of a flamenco guitar, the wheezy chorus of an accordion; the cries of Nigerian hawkers and Bengali street-peddlers, and the low hum of the occasional taxi cab, rolling along the cobbled streets of this lively old pedestrian barrio of the Spanish capital.

A new city, new adventures, new memories. 

Street of Old Madrid
Street of Old Madrid

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 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 Legend of Saif-ul-Malook Part IV

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The storytellers of Saif-ul-Malook

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 some writer’s liberties. I hope you enjoy it!

Read Part IPart II and Part III of the story 


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, Queen of the Mountains, 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, somewhere deep in the bowels of the earth, and, 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.

The flood of Kaghan
The 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, when a tremendous thundering reached their ears, mingled with a hideous, inhuman wailing.

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

For ten long years, the full bloom of her youth and beauty, 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 had of escape, a real escape. And yet, anything could happen. She held close to Saif. They then 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 now 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.

Cedrus deodara, or the Deodar Cedar. Native to the Western Himalayas, the tree is considered sacred in the Indian subcontinent, and is the national tree of Pakistan.
Cedrus deodara, or the Deodar Cedar. Native to the Western Himalayas, the tree is considered sacred in the Indian subcontinent, and is the national tree of Pakistan.

“So this is what death feels like,” thought Saif. “Not as painful as I’d imagined, at least.”Saif prayed to God, and Badr to her gods, each with equal soul and passion. The roar of the flood was getting closer, and closer, until suddenly it seemed like it was over their heads, then below them, then all around.

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 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 – to Deosai, Land of the Giants, in Baltistan, where all giants were born, and where each one of them went to die.

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 – “Tear Drop 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 was married, in a spectacular, sumptuous ceremony, and the feasting and festivities lasted 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!

Read Part V of the story here

Kalash Valley, Pakistan

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Sitting with our Kalash friends during a break in the dancing
Sitting with our Kalash friends during a break in the dancing

In May 2012, I was lucky enough to take what was truly a once-in-a-lifetime trip, to a remote corner of the Hindukush mountains in northwest Pakistan. Near the town of Chitral (at an elevation of 3, 700 ft), and a 26-hour drive from my hometown in the plains, Lahore, the Kalash Valley is home to a small but unique tribe of people, the Kalash, “the wearers of the black robe”, Indo-Aryans who settled among these rugged peaks thousands of years ago, and have held on to their ancient beliefs, language and customs since then, while the rest of Central Asia assimilated to Muslim culture.

We visited the Kalash village of Bumburait at the time of their annual Spring Festival, “Chilum Josh“, and got the chance to see the iconic Kalash in all their pomp and glory. Their population, which was once fast declining due to forced conversions, is now on the rise; protection by the Pakistani government and growing local tourism has helped them maintain cultural independence.

Let this album take you on a photographic journey, from the windswept highways of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province to the bustling streets of Chitral town, to the vibrant, beautiful faces of Kalash women and the windy, shadowy alleys of their hamlets on the hill.

Many thanks to the brilliant folks at Adventure Travel Pakistan for organizing the trip!

The Hindukush Mountains, en route to Chitral
The Hindukush Mountains, en route to Chitral

The Legend of Saif-ul-Malook Part II

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The storyteller

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 I of the story here

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Lake Saif-ul-Malook
Lake Saif-ul-Malook

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 forgot 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 and Moses, 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, is one of the few known people to have successfully performed a chilla
The renowned South Asian Sufi saint, Baba Farid Ganj Shakkar. His shrine is located 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 with the daub of a divine paintbrush, 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 – and the sight of that perfect silver orb, glowing in the star-studded indigo sky, enveloping the Lake, the mountains and himself in its ethereal light, filled Prince 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 see 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, effortlessly gliding through the water with her long black hair spread out behind her, her face radiant as the full moon, 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

Read Part III of the story here