It’s evening in a foreign land. I’m sitting cross-legged amongst hundreds of men, tightly packed together in the courtyard of the white marble shrine. The pungent perfume of earthy charras hangs like a morning mist and the constant chirrup-buzz of a million hidden insects fills the hot sticky air. Around me the men are passing cheap cigarettes which they tear open and reconstruct as make-shift joints. Holy men and devotees – wiry fakirs and dirty dervishes – smoke with white-shirted IT executives and pot-bellied shop-keepers. Tight fitting peakless Sindh caps twinkle with sequins and towering Punjabi turbans sit snake-like on grizzled bearded heads. Garish fairy-lights illuminate the scene hanging from the gnarled branches of a prehistoric tree adorned with shimmering tinsel. The Urdu murmur of the crowd is barely audible over the piercing falsetto of the Qawwali music pumped from undisclosed speakers. I reach into my pocket take out my notebook and scrawl the words ‘religious discotechque’.
Suddenly – darkness. World has become void illuminated only by the glowing constellations of a hundred smouldering joints. “Allah Hoo!” cries a lone voice and is immediately echoed in unison by invisible people everywhere. “Hoo! Hoo!” bellow voices from oblivion. With the dull chug-splutter-whirl of a reluctant generator, pink red and green bulbs flare up scorching my eyes. The laughing face of my neighbour is a fierce sun-spot. The music slurs and warbles before continuing its high pitched harmonium drone. Green dervishes are draping gold scarves over the Saints tomb. I rub my eyes and try to make sense of the collage, the air scorches my skin. I have had fevers like this.
A stoned fakir, elderly and spectacled pulls at his lop-sided turban, touches his hands to the cool marble of the shrine in devotion and blows wheeze-breath into a huge rams horn bugle, his eyes shining fixed and glazed. More joints are passed and two young IT students lean into me, keen to practice their English. The thin one fires rapid questions at me without waiting for answers whilst his plump serene friend slides a tiger’s eye ring onto my finger, calling me ‘brother’.
There is a sudden commotion at the entrance. Heads are raised and turned, chins – many hidden by a fists worth of white beard – are jutted star-wards. Two men are being led through the squalid press of hot bodies; they each shoulder a huge barrel-like dhol, a double-sided drum with worn yellow-brown skins. Faces in the crowd light up with recognition of the famed drummers they have come to see. I look up, an old man in green robes is muttering toothless-mouthed, ushering us back and clearing a circle in the centre of the courtyard which revels a thick black geometry. We shuffle back and back, clashing and entwining against the precinct wall, forming an impenetrable seated phalanx.
The drummers step in, taking position beneath the dark fractal limbs of the python tree. Both men are young and I suggest to myself that they are brothers not because of any obvious resemblances but because they are complete opposites. The taller one is handsome with bright white teeth a thin manicured moustache and coconut oil in his short curly hair. He wears a twinkling red earring. His companion (or brother), on the other hand is small and scruffy, long faced and thick-lipped. His long greasy hair bleeds over his shoulders towards the ribs of his skeletal frame. Yet his eyes are deep pools; humble yet mysterious, like those of an idiot-savant.
The Qawwali music falls silent and the crowd break off conversations and smother laughter. The drummers are about to play. Standing opposite each other they let loose a volley of beats, slow then fast. They stop. Silence. A bead of perspiration falls from my cheek and is silently absorbed into the white folds of my salwar. They begin again, slow then fast. Again they stop. The sporadic, broken beats have already hypnotised the religious revellers. Again they begin, this time in earnest, slow then fast. The rhythm is daunting and unsettling and has a power which seems to be more than merely musical. There is something animal about it: a part of me wishes to hide in my mothers lap. Drumbeats fill the air, syrupy and thick. Something deep within me suddenly finds the palpitations familiar, a stir of remembrance in my ancient galaxy brain. It’s then I realise that I am not just listening to these insane rhythms but feeling them deep deep inside, closer than my own heartbeat.
A river of glistening perspiration (or are they tears?) cascades down their concentrated faces in the heat of the night, their arms flailing with thin-sticks at their burdensome dhols. An old man steps forward to wipe them dry with a huge keffiyah scarf. People begin shaking their heads from side to side like ‘60’s mop-tops or head-bang like thrash metallers, their neat conservative hairstyles exploding into dishevelment, eyes squeezed closed. I cannot understand whether it is pain or ecstasy which contorts their faces. People are loosing themselves to the music. Some break the ranks of the phalanx and rush forward to dance. It’s clownish and clumsy but the dancers are deadly serious and their eyes blaze with emotion. Clusters of Rupee notes bearing Jinnah’s erudite thin face flutter past the sweating drummers like worn autumn leaves and are soiled underfoot by shaking dervishes.
Bowls of chipped china are passed around overflowing with milk sweetened by strawberries and sugar and I drink a full draft, gasping with satisfaction, milk running down my chin. The bowls are pressed upon the guests first, devotees refusing to sip sweet milk until it has first passed the dry lips of a Scottish backpacker or a Brazilian student. A moon-faced Korean laughs deliriously as a group chubby shop-keepers force another bowl upon him.
Sweat flows and drips, heads shake thrash and wriggle, grown men stumble-dance like children. I suddenly realise that I too am rocking to the rhythm in forgetfulness of myself. A small dervish with long straggling hair rises and steps confidently into the circle with the drummers. People are already cheering him as he starts to stamp his tiny bare feet on the white marble floor. The slap-slap slap-slap they make is almost as loud as the drumming. He moves in his own small circle as if perambulating a mystical fire. He scurries towards the flames then scurries away. Scurries towards then scurries away. His gestures are wild yet controlled, frenzied yet disciplined. I realise that he is not merely dancing to music but approaching God.
The drumming accelerates, becoming faster and faster. Everything appears to be breaking apart but is in fact surrendering to a greater coherence. The small dervish thrusts his arms out wide and effortlessly beings to spin. He whirls in a precise circle his head and long hair flowing over his right shoulder. Spinning and spinning. No dizziness: perfect control. He spins and he does not spin, for he is no longer there.
As if caught up in the gravity of the spin, the drummers too begin to effortlessly turn, their barrel-like drums pulling away from their torsos and lifting horizontally into the air. The beats become a berserk rattle-clash as they spin-on-spot, countering the weight of their flying dhols. Everything is spinning. I think of the blood circling my veins, the turning of the earth and the orbit of planets around the sun. The atmosphere crackles with potential danger; it seems only natural that something or somebody will burst into flames. Anything could happen next, blood may be spilled: we might rip apart the marble tomb and tear at the bones of the resting Saint or cry tears of supernatural joy until we collapse beneath the dust-hot Lahore day. One thing is certain, whatever happens will be done out of love, a free and deadly love.
Somehow I feel at home, understanding everything being said to me. The sing-song of Urdu becomes the avant-garde soundtrack of myself. I shout with the devotees and shake my blonde head as if beaten by the drummer’s sticks. “Allah Hoo! Allah Hoo!” I cannot hear music anymore. “Allah Hoo! Allah Hoo!” My eyes have closed. “Allah Hoo! Allah Hoo!” Is this a dream? Drummers become devils, dervishes dance the impossible.
Through the stoned-dream-chaos of this shamanic Sufi scene I spy the Moon, full and white, through the twisting spear branches of the tree whose roots encase the Saints corpse like a fist. Far above in the midnight sky, stars shimmer, still, distant, serene.
Afterwards, I sit exhausted on the roadside opposite the Shrine under the dim drone of a flickering street lamp enveloped by a swirl of moths, watching the crowd depart with silent decorum. The market is still busy at this late hour and devotees stop in knots to buy popcorn and drink sweet chai. The smell of flatbreads and shawarma fills the air. The music has stopped, the drummers gone home, and yet somehow everything inside me is still turning, rotating, silently spinning. I yawn so hard that my face could split. In a few hours the sun will rise and the sluggish inky dream of night will recede into the colours of day; rose pinks fading into bright pale yellows and bleached whites in the grimy arid air of city diesel dust. Day will turn into night; night will roll into day, and all this as the muezzin lifts his face to the heavens and calls out to God.