Outside the Window | Heal

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FLIGHT NUMBER BISMILLAH!

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In late March, I traveled from Istanbul to Islamabad. As the flight began, it occurred to me how certain experiences were peculiar to flights bound for Pakistan. I penned the following at various stages of the journey.

Credit: M. Y. for coining the term ‘Flight Number Bismillah,’ and for introducing me to it.

…………………………

You know you’re on a flight to Pakistan when….

The overhead bins fill up faster than you can say “carry-on.”

You hear several aunties gasp “Bismillah!” as the plane begins to taxi.

There is at least one contingent of Haji’s on board, flashing smiles as they enjoy their newfound celebrity status.

There is at least one contingent of British Pakistanis on board, speaking a hybrid of cockney and Punjabi.

You are given a complimentary in-flight performance by the Pakistani Children’s Wailing Orchestra each time.

You start to see women wearing ‘joggers’ with shalwar kameez.

Instead of air-freshener, the plane smells of desi khana.

The carry-on of choice is a large black shopping bag.

You overhear the following words at least once during the flight “Who kia zamana tha jee Pakistan k liay. Bas ab halaat aisay ho gaye hain…

At least once, you also hear a mother saying to her kids: “Agar tum logon ne ab aur shor michaya tau!!!” The threat is delivered with that menacing hand gesture also known as a chapair.

This happens once during the flight: A well-to-do girl comes to sit in the economy area, and after taking a look at the masses, makes a face that says “why didn’t daddy send me first class?!”

When every glance exchange with guys your own age seems to say “Oai, kaun se visa par bahir gaye thay?”

The person in front of you decides to use their seat like their drawing room sofa.

You can go to the toilets to see a replica of Karachi’s open air sewer concept, even before you reach the actual city.

The announcement “Ladies and gentlemen, our aircraft has not reached its final destination, please remain seated and do not open the overhead bins,” has to be played multiple times.

The stampede that ensues at the end of the flight as people rush to the gate reminds you of the scene when Mufasa dies in Lion King 1.

By the time the plane reaches the gate, you have a new-found appreciation for life’s miracles.

If the Dubai, Riyadh, and Bahrain flights land around the same time as yours, you know the baggage claim area will look like a commodities packaging warehouse.

After watching Pakistani women wrestle suitcase after suitcase off the conveyor belt, while their children tantrums, you begin to wonder whether the mothers brought them along just for the extra baggage allowance.

No matter what the flight is like though, it is always great to be back in the Fatherland!

The Badshahi Mosque

Fridays have always been my favourite day of the week. This is due to Friday, or Juma prayers, which are said in communal form at mosques across the Islamic world and constitute an important part of the experiences of my formative years. I enjoy the stillness which descends upon Pakistani cities right before the start of prayer. I like the dignity and equalizing effect of simple white shalwar-kameez. I also enjoy watching the namazis organize themselves in neat rows for prayer (perhaps the only time when one can see Pakistanis form a straight line voluntarily!).

Friday’s are a time for reflection, and rejuvenation of one’s spirit.

Fridays also have a calming effect, for they have always instilled within me a sense of there being a purpose great than one’s individual existence. I am also reminded, on Fridays, of walking to the mosque with my older brother, and my father. Growing up in the leafy confines of Islamabad (or Isloo, as it is often called – lovingly by residents, in mocking by outsiders), a mosque would never be more than a short walk away. I would enjoy these walks, because they would be an opportunity to talk about social and economic life with my father. Topics under discussion often included the future of the Islamic world, where Pakistan was headed, and what the general appearance of the faithful, their behaviours, and their mode of transport told us about the country we lived in. On the way back, we would often discuss the Khutba (a short sermon or lesson at the beginning of the prayer, usually addressing a subject deemed to be of importance to the faithful), which I would almost never be satisfied with. For many years I wondered what was missing from these khutbas until I realized that it was a lack of positivity. The khutbas were usually stern, and I noticed that they mostly imparted negative energy and fear, leaving people with less hope for life ahead than they had when they stepped into the mosque’s courtyard. I could never accept, and still do not, that this is the best way to communicate with the faithful. I would much rather hear sermons impart strength and a sense of agency to individuals, and to remind them that through concerted effort and sincerity of purpose, they can improve the conditions around them. This message is particularly important for countries such as Pakistan, where much needs to change.

So today, dear traveler, I will share one of my Fridays with you.

In July this year, I traveled to the Fatherland, Pakistan, to study the challenges faced by the provincial governments of Punjab and Khyber-Pukhtoonkhwa, in the planning and delivery of basic education and health services. So I actually got to drive the old corolla again, on Margallah Road. The work also took me to Lahore for a few days, and, despite the summer’s blistering heat, I was able to convince my father to accompany me. On Friday, the 20th of July, we set aside time from our schedule to attend the Juma prayers at Badshahi Masjid (or the King’s Mosque).

Commissioned by the sixth Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb in 1671, it is the fifth largest mosque in the world, and amongst Lahore’s iconic landmarks. It takes quite a while to get to the mosque, about an hour from Lahore Cantonment during rush-hour traffic, by traveling along Mall Road. A visit to this part of Lahore in fact simultaneously introduces one to a trio of magnificent buildings – Badshahi Masjid, the Lahore Fort, and the Gurudwara Dera Sahib.

Badshahi Masjid stands majestically across from the Lahore Fort’s Alamgiri Gate, and is separated from it by Hazuri Bagh – a beautiful square park which contains the mausoleum of Pakistan’s national poet and intellectual founder, Sir Allama Iqbal. Like many young Pakistanis, I have also found Iqbal to be a great source of inspiration, and the Islamic world would benefit tremendously from understanding and operationalizing his message. Standing next to Badshahi Masjid is Gurudwara Dera Sahib Panjvin Patshahi. The Gurudwara was built by Maharaja Ranjit Singh, once the ruler of Punjab, in memory of Guru Arjan Dev, the fifth Sikh Guru. It is a striking structure, with several golden domes and minarets.

We arrived at the Fort with a couple of hours to spare. Outside the boundary wall of the Fort, there is space to park one’s car, and a long pathway leads into the Fort, Hazuri Bagh, and the entrance to Badshahi Masjid. Along the way is also the entrance to the Gurudwara.We made our way first to Hazuri Bagh, and to Allama Iqbal’s tomb. Having recently started to learn more about his works, it was an extremely special moment to be able to visit the site. Iqbal’s tomb is not elaborate, yet it is appropriately done and is a symbol of his intellectual prowess, and his concept of khudi, or ‘self.’ Unlike many grave-sites which distance the deceased individual from ordinary people, at Iqbal’s tomb one feels at ease with people from all walks of life. Iqbal was a poet and philosopher of the people, and remains so. His appeal is universal. The mausoleum is guarded year-round by two neatly-dressed chowkidars appointed by the Pakistan Government. A tribute to Iqbal’s life-work to imbue Muslims from around the world with a sense of common purpose, the mausoleum, a combination of Afghan and Moorish architecture, is also a testament of the wide reach of his message. Its red sandstone was brought in from Jaipur, the marble from Rajputana, and lapus lazuli, from Afghanistan. It is also said that Mustafa Kamal Ataturk sprinkled earth from Maulana Rumi’s tomb (Iqbal considered Rumi to be a great inspiration), on his grave. Additionally, the gravestone itself is made from marble which was presented as a gift by the erstwhile King of Afghanistan, Muhammad Nadir Shah. Iqbal had strong ties to Afghanistan. We took our shoes off out of respect, and entered the mausoleum’s simple inner space to say the Fateha, a short prayer of forgiveness for departed souls. As we stepped out, I thought of how truly great a human being Iqbal was, I hope that the world will see a day, and a society, which will be able to realize his vision for human progress.

Since we still had some time before prayers began, we thought it would be a good idea to visit the Gurudwara next and learn about its history. Interestingly, the site was closed to Muslim Pakistanis by order of the Government. Only Sikhs and visiting foreigners could access it. It seemed though, that this was a temporary ban. We stayed for a while to try to negotiate a way to see at least part of the Gurudwara, and while negotiations were taking place at the front reception, we were pleasantly surprised when the site’s overseer, a government appointee, decided not only to let us in, but also to give us a guided tour. It was wonderful to see how knowledgeable he was about Sikh culture and religious history. Even in this day and age, one can find many dedicated civil service officers doing a good job around Pakistan, often for meagre compensation. We walked through the Gurudwara, learning about how it was built and the functions of its different parts. I particularly liked the langar room, where a traditional vegetarian meal is prepared by volunteers from the Sikh community, and may be enjoyed by anyone visiting the Gurudwara. The meal is consumed by sitting on the floor, which conveys a sense of equality amongst the attendees. Interestingly, we also learn’t of another gate to the Badshahi Masjid, which is not in use now, but connects the Masjid‘s eastern side to the Gurudwara. Before long though, it was time for prayers. The masjid’s loudspeakers were beginning to warm up. We exchanged thanks, took leave, and headed towards Badshahi Masjid.

As you walk up the steps and enter through its main gate, the Masjid is immediately awe-inspiring. Since it is raised from the ground and enclosed by a boundary wall, one feels as if one has entered a sanctuary. Inside, worshipers and tourists, which include men and women, mill about. A complementary shoe-storing service is offered, and the entrance contains information about the history of the Masjid. From the main entrance area, one steps into the mosque’s courtyard, where a true sense of Badshahi Majid’s grandeur is conveyed. If you stand in the centre, the main hall with its three large white-marble domes appears perfectly symmetric. There is also a marble fountain located in the centre of the courtyard. To reach the main hall, one has to walk across the courtyard. This would have been an easy enough task, except for the sandstone floor tiles which were like hot bricks under the scorching Lahori sun! The Masjid‘s management had come up with a creative solution to this. They had laid down a long series of thin carpets to build a path across the courtyard. These had been moistened with water, to keep them cool. The pathway was still quite warm though, so we strode quickly towards the main hall.

Inside the main hall, we found a place to sit down, a few rows behind-and-left of the Imam. The Khutba began, and the Imam discussed some of the challenges facing the country, his voice rose above the dim groan of electric pedestal fans around him. I looked around the inner hall, much of which is made of marble, and all of which is exquisitely adorned with floral paintings and engraving. A sense of tranquility is prevalent inside the Masjid. The attendees waited for the Azaan (call to prayer) to begin.

As it did, I felt the hair on the back of my neck rise up. I had never heard a more beautiful or impressive Azaan. My eyes searched for the Muezzin, who always stands immediately behind the Imam, and spotted him quickly. He was a middle-aged man, bearded and spectacled. I made a mental note to walk up to him and speak with him once prayers were complete. It is difficult to describe the feeling that was brought on by listening to the Azaan at Badshahi Masjid. Growing up, I had learnt that the first Muezzin of Islam, Hazrat Bilal, was chosen by the Prophet (s) for the beauty of his voice. However, in modern day Pakistan, where mosques are often commercial and political ventures, it is rare to see justice being done to the call for the faithful – the Azaan. On this occasion though, the Azaan was an art form – symmetric, inspiring, timeless. It reminded me of the kindness of our faith, the progressiveness of its principles, the nobility of its aspirations for society. I was reminded of the gains in knowledge and social justice, made during Islam’s early centuries. I was reminded of the importance of diversity of perspectives, and the significance of continuous learning. As I listened and I also looked around at the many worshippers around me. In their expressions, in the creases on their faces, and in the condition of their attire, I could see a reflection of the current state of Pakistani society. In contrast to the Masjid’s grandeur, and the apparent might of the Mughal Empire, our post-independence society remains lacking in so many respects. Much remains to be done to achieve improved social and economic life, for so much potential exists.

As the Azaan drew to a close, we stood up in unison to begin the Juma prayer; disciplined, and in peace.

After conclusion of the prayer, I told my father how much I had enjoyed the Azaan and he too suggested speaking with the Muezzin; perhaps he had a cassette? I made my way to the Mihraab, an arched indent in the front wall where the Imam sits, and found the Muezzin standing close by.

A: “Maulvi sahib, mujhay aap ki awaaz mein Azaan bohat khubsurat lagi.” (Maulvi sahib, I found your rendition of the Azaan to be beautiful) I said.

MS: “Bohat shukria janaab.” (Thank you, sir).

A: “Kia aap ki koi cassette ya recording kahin se mil sakti hay?” (Is there anywhere that one can obtain a cassette, or a recording?) I asked.

The Maulvi Sahib’s response made me smile.

Jee bilkul. Youtube par meri video hay. Agar aap internet par ja kar search karain, tau aap ko asani sey mil jaye gi. (Yes, absolutely. There is a video of me on Youtube. You can easily find it on the internet).”

Of course, I thought to myself. Youtube! I almost wanted to say, “Maulvi Sahib aap baray modern hain! (You’re a very modern Maulvi Sahib!)” after that, but thought it against my better judgement, and just laughed. I thanked him and we shook hands.

As we prepared to leave the main hall, we noticed that people were starting to collect around the Imam, who was looking all officious. Soon, more than 50 people had gathered in a semi-circle around him. We decided to wait and see what the activity was all about. I walked up to the circle and saw that the Imam was sitting on the floor in the centre, and there was a little girl, of between 12 and 15 years, sitting next to him. “A conversion is taking place,” my father stated. We exchanged looks. A girl that young, could it be that she was being converted against her will? Switching into authoritative-bureaucrat mode, my father thought it perfectly within his jurisdiction to begin asking the men around, to check if any of them were family members of the child or were accompanying her. We were pointed out the girl’s male family members soon enough, and it seemed everything was happening with their consent. We did not probe further, and sat down with the rest of the audience to say a prayer for Islam’s latest entrant. She was of the Christian faith. Judging by the expression on her face, and given her age, it seemed that the choice had been made for her by her family.

Baitay, aap ka naam kia hay?” (Daughter, what is your name?) The Imam asked. She responded. “Acha, aaj say ab aap ka naam Aisha hoga.” (From today, you will be called Aisha), he stated.

The audience raised their hands and said a collective prayer for Aisha. Her male family members congratulated each other modestly after the affair was completed.

Once the prayers were complete, we ran into a government official who introduced himself to my father. Chatting with him, we found out that the Masjid also had a small museum, housed inside the main entrance building. We decided to take a quick look. Inside the first room was a long series of glass cabinets. These housed a very large copy of the Quran, inscribed on several large books. The entire row of books was close to 20 feet long! As I reached one end of the glass cabinets, I looked up to see a plaque paying homage to none other than General Zia-ul-Haq, under whose time the museum had been established by the Pakistan Government. Rather not be reminded of what else he did, I thought. The rest of the museum is on the first floor, and contains artifacts belonging to the Prophet (s), his daughter, Hazrat Fatima Zahra, and his son-in-law and Caliph of Islam, Hazrat Ali (ra). It was a nice experience, barring the conman asking for donations for no good reason at the door just before the exit. The museum is also in a somewhat shabby condition. The system would work better if the Government simply charged a small fee and appointed a more professional staff for its upkeep.

With this, we concluded our trip to Badhshahi Masjid and stepped out of its tranquil confines into the bustling city beyond. It was a wonderful and memorable experience, befitting of the Friday spirit. I hope you too will have the chance of visiting it one day.

When I returned home that evening, I looked up the Badshahi Masjid Muezzin on Youtube. Sure enough, I found a video of the Azaan in his voice. I hope, dear traveler, that you will enjoy it as much as I did:

Translation:

God is most great. God is most great.
God is most great. God is most great.

I testify that there is no god except God.
I testify that there is no god except God.

I testify that Muhammad is the messenger of God.
I testify that Muhammad is the messenger of God.

Come to prayer! Come to prayer!

Come to success!
Come to success!

God is most great. God is most great.

There is no god except God.

Pictures of Badshahi Mosque, Hazuri Bagh, Lahore Fort, and Gurudwara Dera Sahib can be found here.