Pakistan

How to Make Friends in a New City – Tip #4

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  • LANGUAGE EXCHANGE

Language exchange, or intercambio, is a popular (and free) method of learning languages in Spain. There was a plethora, a veritable sea of Spaniards out there, my Spanish teacher told me, who were desperate to find a sympathetic English-speaker to practice their hesitant conversational skills with. English is taught in Spanish schools as an optional second language, but in the most pedantic way possible, so that somebody who has “studied” English for over 10 years can barely formulate a coherent reply to a “Hi, what’s up?”

pedantic

Kind of like how we were taught Pakistan History in secondary school. Once, in a surprise test, the teacher asked us to write an essay comparing the achievements and successes of two of Pakistan’s Prime Ministers. I started with the conventional introduction (memorized from the textbook, of course), ended with the conventional conclusion (we knew it like we knew our multiplication tables), and filled in the middle with a fictitious story, sprinkled with song lyrics. The result? 9/10, if you please, and a “Well Done!”

But, coming back to Spain – intercambio sounded like the perfect arrangement for me. Not only would it help my Spanish, I would also have somebody to chat with over a cup of coffee – that nameless, shadowy, friend-like figure I wanted so badly in Madrid! All I had to do was find somebody…

I immediately set to work. I went to tusclasesparticulares.com, created a profile, and posted an anuncio, an ad, stating my particulars in a cheerful, casual tone, and offering my stupendous English-speaking ability in exchange for un poco ayuda with my abysmal Spanish. We could meet in a cafe, or a park, como tu prefieres. I enjoyed photography, and writing, and meeting new people. Hoped to hear from you soon!

It almost felt like online dating, or shaadi.com. I went to bed that night with a flutter of excitement in my heart. Who would read my ad? Who would reply? Would I like them?

onlinedating

But nothing could have prepared me for the deluge of emails I found in my inbox the next morning; messages from men and women of all ages, all walks of life, from the city of Madrid and beyond, asking for my hand as their intercambio partner.

I was terribly flattered – and a bit overwhelmed. There were just too many fish in the sea. I needed to focus, start being selective, separate the wheat from the chaff, as they say. So began Step 2 of the intercambio-partner-hunt: carefully reading every ‘applicant’s’ email to divine something about their personality (Does she sound too serious? Does he sound sleazy?), stalking them on Facebook and Twitter, examining any photos that turned up. Some applications were discarded immediately; for example, the 38 year-old pianist who sent me a tea-stained studio portrait of himself in a brown fedora and brown tweed suit, or the 18-year old Economics student whose entire album of Facebook profile pictures consisted of duck-faced selfies.

duckface

After I had completed the first shortlist, I sent an email to each selected ‘applicant’, requesting, somewhat discreetly, a 200-word personal statement: “So, what do you do? What have you studied? What are your hobbies? I think it’s important, for a successful intercambio, that we share some interests, don’t you agree?” 

When the replies started coming in, I made a second shortlist. Emails that included the words “books”, “languages”, “cinema”, “outdoors”, “museums” and “dogs”, for instance, were directed to the “Yes” Folder, while emails with the words “motorbikes”, “shopping”, “clubbing” and “pop music” were immediately relegated to the “Rejects” Folder (no offense meant to motorbike aficionados, shopaholics and Katy Perry fans, it’s just that, I wouldn’t know what to say to you!).

Now came the hard part: the actual, face-to-face meeting! I made appointments with the final 10 candidates, to meet them at a public square or coffee shop – blind dates, really. We barely had any idea of what the other person even looked like. And anyone who has been on a blind date will know that the first meeting was absolutely crucial. It could make or break the budding relationship. Either you liked the person, or you didn’t. Either you wanted to see that person again, or you didn’t.

blind date

Sure, I had my share of disappointing dates. Some people, intimidatingly interesting on paper, were plain boring in real life. Some people lacked energy or enthusiasm (for which I always tended to overcompensate, resulting in the peculiar condition know as the “laughing headache”), and some people just didn’t speak. In these cases, I found silence to be the best way to politely “end” things. In other cases, I was forced to lie: “I’m sorry, I’ve found a job as a dogwalker and don’t have time to do intercambio anymore!”

But, with some people, it just clicked. Conversation flowed naturally, there was laughter on both sides, and you were perfectly at ease after the first five minutes. I met a medley of memorable characters – a lawyer, a psychologist, a biochemist, an astrophysicist – all more or less my age, warm, openminded, hardworking people from different parts of Spain, who somehow found time to meet me for intercambio in their 10-hour work days. Finally, I could stop! Stop the endless virtual interviews, the awkward blind dates, the cruel but inevitable rejections!

So, has language exchange made me fluent in Spanish? No. Has my Spanish improved? I’d like to think so, yes. But more importantly, I’ve found Spanish friends, and through them, an insight into Spain. They tell me their views on love, marriage, family, religion, politics, and I share with them my experiences growing up in Pakistan and living in the United States, two completely different worlds about which they are equally curious. It’s strange how two people, complete strangers in one moment, can go to speaking about their personal lives with the air of old friends in the next. It is something that happens always with expats – maybe out of the boldness that comes with being a foreigner, or maybe out of our intrinsic need to trust, to talk, to confide in a palpable human being, in a place where there are no givens, where we must build our life up from the ground.

Read Tip #1,Tip #2, Tip #3, Tip #5, and the introductory post of this series!

How to Make Friends in a New City – Tip #3

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  • ATTEND MEETUP EVENTS AND ACTIVITIES

Meetup.com is a New York-based social networking site – the predecessor of Facebook – for people who don’t know each other. You create a profile, put up a photo, answer a few questions about yourself, and then join local groups centered around various activities. For example, Yoga in the Park. Salsa Lovers. American Expats. Friday at the Movies. Knitting Addicts.

After that, you are invited to the group’s regularly organized events, where you are meant to go, meet new people, talk, dance, knit or watch a movie together, and generally have a good time.

Now I had never used Meetup before, and was initially skeptical. I imagined a virtual community of balding, lonely, middle-aged men, typing up philosophical treatises in the “About Me” section, posting a ’90s-era denim jacket-clad portrait as their display picture, leaving chirpy “Welcome” messages to new female members of the “Sightseeing in Madrid” group, all on the innocent pretext of making friends…

Not that I had anything against middle-aged men (and I actually loved denim jackets). But I suppose that TV series like The X files, and countless other murder-mystery spinoffs had inculcated in me a certain amount of prejudice against the online mid-lifer (remember 2Shy???).

The X Files - best American crime/thriller series yet...
The X Files – best American crime/thriller TV series yet…

However, my husband Z was a firm believer in the “Meetup” way (which was certainly vindicating, coming from self-confessed social media-phobe). So I decided to give it a go. It’s not like I was going to meet anyone alone, so how bad could it possibly be?

The first Meetup I went to was benignly titled “Coffee & Croissants”, and took place on a Saturday afternoon at an upmarket cafe in Salamanca, one of the poshest barrios of Madrid.

I wasn’t crazy about the location, personally preferring the narrow, cobbled streets of Centro and its cozy, tile-floored cafes – but as I stepped out of the metro station and made my way towards the venue, I was excited. I had a good feeling about this! I bet I would meet some really fun, interesting people – maybe even someone who, like me, was new in the city, spoke English, and enjoyed a good game of Pictionary? Maybe I was finally going to meet that elusive best friend? 

But when I arrived at the cafe, and located the Meetup group – thirty individuals whom I did not know from Adam, seated along a table that had no visible end – and when thirty pairs of strange eyes simultaneously turned to fix their gaze on me, the “late” newcomer – I admit, my first impulse was to take flight. 

Socially Awkward Penguin
I could totally empathize with Socially Awkward Penguin

No, that’s the wrong attitude, M,” I told myself, as I met the group organizer with a slightly forced smile and a peck on each cheek, Spanish-style, taking an empty seat somewhere in the middle of that interminable, Alice-in-Wonderland table. “You mustn’t flee.You mustn’t be a coward. You must stay on and fight!”

So I stayed, ordered a cafe con leche, and looked around to start a conversation with the person sitting next to me. As luck would have it, that person was a Spanish man – a middle-aged Spanish man. Not balding, probably a bit lonely, and with an almost imperceptible whiff of sleaze about him (my Sleaze Radar is exceptionally strong).

After the initial perfunctory exchanges – “Hello, What’s your name? Where are you from? What do you do? Do you like Madrid? Who are you?” – there was an awkward pause.  I grabbed my coffee cup and sipped it politely. I tried to spot another, more wholesome person to talk to, but everybody around me was already engaged in loud and animated conversation, much to my annoyance.

“Soooo,” Somewhat Sleazy Spanish Uncle smiled, revealing yellow, cigarette-stained teeth. He drummed his long, thin fingers on the table, rummaging through his brain for a subject to expound upon – and then he hit the gold mine.  

“You are Muslim, yes?”

“Um, yes.” 

“Do you pray five times a day?”

“Um, what? No, not five times…though I should…”

“Have you been to the Madrid Central Mosque?” 

“Um, no.”

“Do you keep all the Ramadan fasts?” he continued relentlessly.

“No, not all...though I should…”

“Are you vegetarian?”

“Um, no…I just don’t eat pork…”

“But why don’t you, you know,” he vigorously traced an invisible hijab around his face, “wear a veil?”

I’m sorry, was this supposed to a casual chat over coffee, or the Spanish Inquisition???  

“Nobody Expects the Spanish Inquisition” – Monty Python Sketch

However, I persevered, civilly, blaming the Spanish Uncle’s ‘non-PC’ questions partially on curiosity, partially on ignorance, while in my head I planned the nearest and quickest exit to this social torture. 

Just then, from the corner of my eye, I espied an unmistakably South Asian face, complete with shiny black mustache, get up determinedly from his chair at the other end of the table, and make a beeline  towards – me! 

More tiresome pigeonholing was to follow.

Now I don’t know how it is with people from other parts of the world, but when you put two South Asians in a group, one of them is bound to gravitate towards the other. It could be a group of 20, or 200, or 2,000. They will find each other. One will track the other down, and stick to them like glue. 

It’s not always undesirable – some of my best friends at Berkeley were Indians, for instance. But this particular desi at the Coffee & Croissants Meetup, with his jaunty mustache and overzealous, chipkoo grin, was clearly not someone I wished to Elfied to.

So, you are from Pakistan, no?” He  parked himself beside my chair, flashing a set of remarkably straight, white teeth.

Yes…” I knew exactly how this conversation would progress. 

So you speak Hindi?” 

Urdu. It’s almost the same thing…”

So you watch Bollywood?”

Sometimes, yes.” I looked at the time on my cell phone.

So you like Indian food?” 

Pakistani food. It’s quite similar…” 

“So you watch cricket?” 

That was it. The limits of my endurance had been reached. I could not, would not talk about cricket, the masochistic national obsession of Pakistan, and the most boring sport in the world next to golf!

It was time to employ my failsafe excuse to wriggle out of unwanted social situations: “I’m sorry, I really have to go. My (fearsome Pakistani) husband is waiting for me at home…”

So, with another twiddle on my cell phone, I said a few hurried goodbyes (no more cheek-to-cheek kisses), and, ignoring the event organizer’s accusatory tone – “You’re leaving already?” – I dashed out of “Coffee & Croissants” and Salamanca, never to return. From behind me, I heard my desi friend’s voice plaintively call out, “Wait, are you sure you don’t want to stay? I brought Pictionary!”

Pictionary: To play or not to play?
Pictionary: To play or not to play, and with whom?

Of course, not all my Meetup experiences were quite as agonizing as the above-mentioned 2 hours. Z and I found one terrific Madrid-based group called “Sporty People”, which organized outdoor activities in and around the city over holidays and weekends; akin to our beloved Adventure Travel Pakistan (ATP) in Lahore. We went hiking with Sporty People to Zarzalejo, a picturesque pueblo just outside Madrid in the Sierra Oueste. We picked mushrooms with them in the beautiful, fall-colored forests of El Tiemblo. Lunch would be a turkey or tortilla sandwich, with trail mix, fruit and a little carton of juice, partaken on a grassy field or under a tree with wonderful, diverse company – a veterinarian from Brazil, a yoga instructor from Scotland, a tour planner from South Africa, a professional chef from Spain, and a cheerful medley of ESL teachers from America and England, whom we shared some memorable laugh-and-talk with. 

The group organizer was a splendidly suntanned Madrileña, who, like me, had studied to be a journalist, and who had recently quit her job at a well-known international NGO to manage her own adventure travel company, which I also hoped to do one day.

Hiking Las Machotas in Zarzalejo!
Hiking Las Machotas in Zarzalejo
Mushroooomssss!!!
Wild mushroomsss!!! Most of them poisonous!!!!
Fall in El Tiemblo
Magical forest of El Tiemblo

So, I am now also a believer in Meetup – we’ve attended several events and met some lovely people, a few of whom we have kept in touch with. But I’ve learnt to steer clear of events that involve sitting around a table with absolute strangers – brunch, lunch, coffee, tea, poetry recitations, philosophical discussions, or even board games (sigh) – especially those that my chipkoo desi friend or the creepy Spanish Uncle happen to have RSVPd!

Read Tip #1,Tip #2Tip #4Tip #5and 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