Eid celebrations in Lahore

Trip Start Apr 01, 2008
1
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Trip End Jul 15, 2012


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Tuesday, September 30, 2008

We arrived in Lahore during Eid, the three day holiday at the end of Ramadan.  It is one of the biggest events in the Islamic calender and the streets are awash with people celebrating and stuffing themselves after a month of fasting.  Malik, the owner of our guest house used to be media advisor to Benezir Bhutto and a journalist, but now spends his time smoking, chatting with guests and organising free trips to local events.  He told us that when he first started introducing foreigners to sufi singing or drumming nights, women were not permitted to attend and tourists were so uncommon that they would attract all the attention away from the acts.  Apparently it had taken over ten years of education, persistence and patience to acclimatise people to the sight of foreign guests and to persuade the organisers to open their doors to women (both foreign and local - generally the educated ones).  He also invited sufi groups to play small gigs on the rooftop of his guest house once a week and as it happened, one of the more famous sufi singing groups were due to perform the night we arrived.  The group consisted of two floor-standing accordian players, two singers and a tabla player.  The sound they produced was bettered only by the performance and by the end - with the encouragement of Malik and some long-awaited cold beer, everyone was on their feet. 

Now try to imagine this...the next day, a group of fifteen of us were taken to an annual festival on the outskirts of Lahore.  Despite Malik's hard work over the years, our variety of nationalities, a head-scarf and numerous beards, we never stood a chance of blending in and were immediately surrounded by people staring with astonished curiosity.  As we walked through the main area, we were encircled by a vast crowd, unashamedly eyeballing us.  We were a walking funfare at a funfare!  I'm sure most of us had got used to being looked at, but this was another level altogether.  I can only imagine how intimidating it must have been for Anna as we waded through the hordes of staring, laughing men.  Don't get me wrong, everyone was friendly and would always return a smile or a greeting, but it was a truly heavy experience. 

We passed by three enormous boats full of screaming people, being swung by applying a spinning car tyre to a track on the underside of the hull.  Brilliant!  At one stage a man pulled himself up the rigging and hung on, as if in the crows nest, while it was in full flight.  Likewise on the big wheel, men climbed up onto the top of the pods as they span at full speed - which was quick!  Further on, there were tents with bored looking girls or ladyboys (who are curiously accepted here), dancing to attract the type of attention we were achieving effortlessly.  In one such tent the dancing girls shared the limelight with a man on a motorbike riding loop the loops in a circular metal cage which was visibly falling apart before our eyes.  In the circus tent we endured a succession of fascinatingly bad juggling acts and some horses that refused to perform.  All very entertaining. 

Two of the days main events were in a large field to the rear, so we made our way over in the style of the Pied Piper, just in time for the dancing horses.  Again we were given front row seats as we witnessed several magnificent, muscular animals dance an impassioned flamenco to the beat of two raging drums.  There was posturing, poise, precision and power.  Their front hooves slammed out a rhythm as their back legs took the weight.  Anna, being the only girl was treated like royalty and given the equine equivalent of a lap dance; with a horse strutting and frothing within inches of her face, before she took the reins and the beast drummed out a final beat, much to the approval of the baying crowd. 

This was followed by Kabadi and wrestling, on a muddy pitch next to the horses.  Once more we were given an all area pass and after a formal introduction to the players - who were apparently some of Pakistan's finest - we took up our seats next to the organiser.  As the teams warmed up, two middle-aged wrestlers in pants entertained the crowd by rolling around on the dusty ground.  Two other wrestlers, one skinny with red hair the other sporting an impressive gut walked around in their respective pants, but seemed to be avoiding any actual physical contact.  After a brief interlude during which Anna was asked to present a garland and trophy to the winner of the horse dancing, the kabadi kicked off.  It's basically rugby bulldog with some sumo-style slapping thrown in, which makes for a great spectator sport.  Supposedly the player trying to get to the other side, repeats the word 'Kabadi' over and over, all in one breath, but I'm not convinced this rule is strictly observed. 

After the kabadi and a rooftop dinner with the organisers and players, we were led to the main stage for the day's big event - a concert with some of Pakistan's biggest stars.  By this point I was finding the VIP treatment a bit exhausting and restrictive, so when we were ushered up onto the stage, I chose to stay on the grass and chat with the locals.  The questions were all pretty standard - which country, what name, what qualifications, what job, have wife etc.  It was all very friendly, but I soon realised why our guides felt it necessary to steer us towards more secure areas.  The sheer number of people that gathered around in order to stare or question me was staggering.  It was an incredible insight into how it must feel to be extremely famous and I was soon forced to take refuge with the others on stage, being gawped at by the gathering crowds.   

As the show began, it became clear that our position at the back of the stage was far too low key, and the organisers insisted we move into the limelight. Our seats were brought forward, those in the way were roughly moved on and we soon found ourselves at the very front of the stage, just to the left of the performer, looking out at an infinite number of staring eyes.  Gulp!  Oh, and being Pakistan, our guides had taken it upon themselves to ply us with wacky baccy, so we were stoned!  Double gulp!!  Oh, and we were on live national TV!  Good! 

Thankfully, the performers soon did what they were paid to do and attracted some of the attention away from us.  Or at least most of us.  When Alby, our resident hippy was asked if he wanted to dance on stage next to the performer, he jumped at the chance with every ounce of his exhibitionist nature.  For a straight guy, he pulled off some exceptionally camp gyrations, much to the amusement of us and the delight of the audience.  They'd known there were going to be ladyboys, but here was something entirely new.  Just prior to going up, Alby had been given some beatle-nut to chew, staining his mouth a deep red and adding a certain Rocky Horror twist to the performance.  Encouraged by the crowd, he brought out his piece de resistance by reaching back, removing a hairband and with a practised flick, unleashing a mane of strawberry blond hair on the unsuspecting crowd.  Even the beautiful young singer next to him had to accept she'd been out-glamed.   

Despite Alby's best efforts, the performance of the night goes to the fat, middle aged lady that came next (I use the word fat because in Pakistan, there seems to be no need for subtly in this area.  Rotund people are regularly described to us as 'fat one', even to their faces).  Her name is Azrah Jahain and she absolutely rocked the place.  The sound was Massive Attackesque with tribal, trance-like beats, catchy hooks and an absolutely killer voice.   

In fact the only aspect of the performance that I didn't like, was the traditional custom where people would get up and flick money towards the singer, as a show of their appreciation.   Whilst this is a nice idea in theory, I found it far too invasive and distracting.  It was simply an opportunity for rich men to flaunt their wealth and generosity and in doing so, effectively steal the limelight from the performers.  On more than one occasion, Azrah was completely obscured from view, as men surrounded her and unleashed a torrent of 10 rupee notes directly into her face.  She looked irritated;  the men looked smug.  It was a perfect illustration of a society dominated by men, status and money.   

Despite this, there was something really cool about watching a round grandma figure take the stage, sit down in a chair and blow the roof off with some deep, drum and bass riddled anthems.  For a while I even forgot I was sat at the very front of a stage at a festival in Lahore, smoking a spliff in front of thousands of watchful eyes and live Pakistani TV. 

That is until we got up to leave... 

Thinking of the difficulties involved in getting us out, our guides chose to leave before the end of the concert - much to my dismay.  But as we were making our way off the stage, the organiser ran around in full view of the audience (who had seemingly all stopped watching Ms Jahain and were now staring at us intently) and spoke insistently to our guide.  It was clear that he wanted us to stay and whilst I'd like to say we had a choice, in this instance I'm not entirely sure we did.  We suggested we'd watch the last bit from the back of the stage, but this was deemed unacceptable and it wasn't long before we were filing back to take our seats at the front; an encore in front of thousands of people! 

I'd like to say that was it, but we still had to get out.  After another song, much handshaking and thanks, we slowly made our way back off the stage. This time, the stares were so intense, the music seemed to fade into insignificance; literally every eye was on us.  We stepped down into the darkness of the crowd, their faces, visible only by the whites of their eyes.  Despite the extreme courtesy and kindness that we have experienced every day in Pakistan, we chose to walk briskly, smiling, but for the most part avoiding eye contact, simply because there were too many and stopping for even the shortest amount of time drew the crowds closer still.  Even our local guide was visibly nervous, not because of any real fear I don't think, but because he too found it a truly heavy experience, being watched by that many people. 

After such a mind-blowing day, it didn't take much to persuade a group of us to go to some sufi drumming the following night.  As we entered the small club, it was already full to bursting, with men sat, tightly packed on every inch of floor.  There was one section that was semi-protected from the main area, but it was already full of people.  To my embarrassment our guide went straight over and after speaking to the men, they half grudgingly, half delightedly gave up their seats for us.  We all squeezed in and sat down, once more under the gaze of every head in the building.  Luckily, this didn't last, as the drummers took to the floor and deservedly stole all the attention.  

For the next four hours we sat and watched as two of Pakistan's finest sufi drummers delivered a set that would have graced the world's finest club nights.  Wave upon wave of fierce, powerful, explosive drumming - all the more amazing given that one of them was deaf.  Throughout the performance men in the crowd chain-smoked a fistful of spliffs or shook their heads violently and repetitively from side to side.  In front of the drummers, a select group of sufis span, vibrated or shook in a trance like state, for hour after hour, with no respite. At one point the larger of the two drummers took centre stage and played, whilst spinning, faster and faster and faster until he was a whirling blur, lost in a torrent of frenzied, unrelenting, apocalyptic beat.  It was blinding!
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