Alistair Caldicott

Batting for Pakistan

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9 - Smoking, Spinning and Drumming

Seeking out somewhere to find a beer in Lahore was nothing compared to seeking out a place where religious fervour produced a dramatic spectacle, the Sufi night experience. A large group of us were shepherded out to a waiting convoy, not quite knowing what to expect.

It was the craziest of white-knuckle rickshaw rides. Rickshaw drivers were never less than deviously resourceful when it came to navigating a passage through grid locked traffic. Lanes were irrelevant when it came to Lahore's traffic. The drivers were equally resourceful at squeezing as many bodies as they could into the back of these tiny things. Our driver preferred to give liberal use to his horn, as an alternative to actually stopping his vehicle, to avoid oncoming hazards.

Around one in five Pakistanis are Shia Muslims. Violence between the two main sects of Islam (Sunni and Shia) has claimed over 4,000 lives in Pakistan during the last decade.

Sufism distinguished itself from other brands of Islam, like Sunni and Shia, in an unusual manner. The term Sufi derives from the Arabic word "saaf", which means pure. The emphasis is on the heart and the soul, by trying to seek some quality of human existence more substantial than normal life can offer and reach a state of absolute oneness with their creator. All people supposedly have within them a spark of divine essence.

Sufism is about seeking out an inner way, which can only be reached as part of a collective frenzy from spinning round until they reach a near hypnotic state. This state supposedly pulls them closer to God in a transcendent world. Music helps achieve this.

As does consumption of industrial sized quantities of hashish. Two men next to me were cramming cigarettes with as much of the stuff as they could, before smoking them by the fistful. Unsurprisingly they made little coherent sense, as they implored me to do the same with them. But whatever planet they might have been on they were having a good time there.

On the door was a strange man, who looked like he should have been on Iraq's most wanted list. He was a strange combination of half-bouncer, half-dancer, frequently and bizarrely torn between the two. We kept seeing his image everywhere.

His curiously split persona reminded me of the strutting soldiers from the Indian border and how they sometimes strayed into the realms of over-the-top camp displays. Intentional or not, there was the same element of theatrical performance art.

A man with a giant drum appeared to be the epicentre of proceedings. As the heavy drum beats became more thunderously mesmerising, he began to spin himself around faster and faster.

He built up towards a crescendo. Both him and his giant drum were swirling with uncomfortable velocity to the point where people in the crowd genuinely expected it to be unleashed at any moment into their midst.

"Woh! Steady on there!" I thought. At any given moment of his choosing I could have sworn he was about to wipe out half the crowd. That would have been entertaining.

It didn't happen of course. He was supremely in control of his frenzied momentum. Or at least, someone else higher up was in control. Neither did the expected the crescendo occur, which the mighty drum beats and the collective noise threatened and maybe deserved.

The thrill was not in the climax, it was in the ride up to the climax. But every now and again, for no apparent reason at all, there was wild applause. I did start to wonder if this was in appreciation of the dual skills being demonstrated by the dancing bouncer.

What was truly remarkable, I later discovered, was that one of the drummers was deaf. He was only able to play because he has learned to hear through his stomach, sensing the vibrations and relying on eye movements from his brother for when to change beats.

In many ways, a cynical observer might say that the whole Sufi night experience was just an excuse for one big hashish smoking fest. There were quite a few other tourists. But most local men - it was all men - were completely off their faces, stoned in a state of ecstatic contentment as they nursed their Frankfurter sized joints. The air was saturated with it and the eyes were watery. Several times I was offered smokes. Several times I politely refused because just the fumes on their own were enough to catalyse a moderate sense of drowsiness and detachment. Until the prospect of a large drum flying towards me brought me around again.

Some people felt the urge to rise up and nod their bodies to the rhythms of the drums. Frequently, other people would shout at anyone who dared to stand up and disrupt their own view. Fights nearly broke out many times. And across came the bouncer, who had stopped his own ballet-like pirouetting around, to very forcibly remove someone or other. Then he would resume his dancing, head shaking and spinning.

There was not much rhythm in my bones as my back was stubbornly jammed into the edge of a concrete wall as I sat cross legged on an ever decreasing, minute patch of floor. Because the courtyard was technically a mosque, everyone had to take their shoes off. This was not done in an orderly way. Several pairs of shoes were just passed backwards into an abyss of congested bodies and I half-convinced myself I would be making my way home barefoot. We were all prisoners of our own device.

The head-banging would not have looked out of place at a high profile heavy metal concert. Neither would the quantities of drugs being used. People continued to surge in. Then they would be surged out again. It was all a bit surreal. The dancing bouncer kept doing his bit to push people out, sometimes using a technique which was more akin to rugby scrimmaging - head down, legs pumping and driving.

I never realised just sitting down on a hard floor for several hours could be so exhausting, but it was.

"When you reach contentment, poverty is wealth". These were the wise words of one Sufi poet.

Or maybe contentment was just sitting with a crowd of your mates getting stoned while some bloke bashed away with a swinging drum in the background.

It kind of summed up Lahore, a place of energetic spark and confused excesses. To call it Lahorribble as some had derided it was a little unfair. It had its flashes of colour and glimpses of grandeur. But Paris it was not. Its fumes had choked my lungs, its noise had deadened my ear drums, and I had had enough. I had to drag my battered mind and body away after sampling another aspect of Lahore's reckless charm.

Perhaps my favourite example of Pakistani logic surely had to be going out of your way to phone someone else to tell them that you were currently very busy and could not speak to them. A whole new meaning to being put on hold.

But another terrific example of Pakistani common sense, or lack of, revealed itself once more at the bus station. It was a fruitless, long-winded attempt to buy a bus ticket.

"No Sir, not possible to buy ticket for bus now. Only over phone."

So I walked to a payphone around the corner and dialled the number. "Hello I would like to buy a ticket for the bus to Peshawar."

"Yes Sir, we are not able to sell you bus ticket over phone. Reservation only."

"Can I make reservation then."


Five minutes later, I reached the familiar territory of the front of the queue for bus tickets.

"Yes Sir."

"I have reservation for the bus to Peshawar. Can I buy a ticket?"

"No sale of tickets here Sir."

"But I have reservation."

"No need for reservation Sir. You can buy ticket."

"Great. One single to Peshawar please."

"But not possible to buy ticket now. Better to make reservation."

"OK I'll make a reservation then."

"Reservations can only be made over the phone."

He must have realised what I did, but he barely flinched. To him there was nothing abnormal about such a process.

Then, on the overnight bus to Peshawar from Lahore, in the middle of the night, to help everyone go to sleep, all the lights were bizarrely turned up, instead of off.

I was learning that in Pakistan, you just never quite know what will occur next. Purchase 'Batting for Pakistan'
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