The Decree

He was the devil, plain and simple.

This was true for our community, for our generation. As I sat in my aunt’s good living room in the suburbs of Toronto, my attention focused on Ammar Rizvi, it was the farthest thing from my mind. Us ‘kidz’ were just lounging. The musicians had not yet arrived, and when they did it would take them some time to tune their instruments and begin the qawwali.

Our parents were already in the large finished basement; men on one side, women on the other. They would sit on plush carpet and pillows; laughter and traces of Urdu conversation making its way upstairs. Guests trickled into the lobby, their ornate outfits sparkling beneath the large chandelier. My cousin answered the doorbell and took their coats into the den, where already there was a mountain of jackets lying across the day bed. People came with their families, and guests let their children go free. Chubby toddlers ran unhindered from the kitchen to the family room, often getting passed from the arms of one child to another. The house buzzed with people and activity, thus ensuring the propriety of teenagers with the proverbial ranging hormones, giddy to be in the same room as each other; or at least that’s how I felt. Occasionally, an aunt would pop her head inside make a polite gesture, or send one of us on an errand.

Our gatherings were rare, but after a month of fasting we were hungry for music and color and merriment. Qawwali was the concert of choice for our parents and our parent’s parents and generations before. There was no other music like it, played with traditional instruments like the tabla or the harmonium. The artist, or qawwal, would recite a ghazal… a love song infused with mystical poetry and sung in Farsi, Hindi and Urdu; its purpose to inspire mystical love and divine ecstasy. A ghazal’s deeper meaning was not always apparent, but ghazals often had two common themes, intoxication and unrequited love.

Outwardly a ghazal may be about the joy of drinking, yet inwardly, the “wine” represented “knowledge of the Divine”, the “cupbearer” was God or a spiritual guide, the “tavern” the metaphorical place where the soul may be fortunate enough to attain spiritual enlightenment. Likewise, a ghazal may recount the pain of unrequited love and the agony of being separated from the beloved. Yet in essence, human love was merely a reflection of divine love.

The subtleties of the ghazals escaped my teenage sensibilities, and I could not get past the abrasiveness of the instruments to decipher the verse beneath. In another couple years this music would take its place in the international arena, but this was before artists such as Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan had received global recognition. I, finding my parent’s music dusty and old fashioned, opted to stay upstairs for as long as possible, vying for Ammar’s attention; my shyness preventing me from making inroads into the vision of this handsome boy.

Nighat auntie had once been quite a beauty, with skin the color of cream, and hair and eyes like rich maple syrup. She made the raging Indian actress of her time pale in comparison. It was my father who told me this, for he remembered her from his hometown in Hyderabad, India. Ammar had inherited much of his mother’s good looks, and although he possessed his mother’s eye color, his hair was a shimmery blonde. As a teenager he bore an uncanny resemblance to the lead singer of The Monkees, with hair down to his shoulders and an old pair of ripped jeans…hippie chic. How could he not stand out, in a sea of brown faces that ranged from as milky as café-au-lait, to as deep as chocolate? I laughed when I heard the others had christened him with names like “Goldilocks” and “Snow White” (my favorite).

I, on the other hand, had been born with more traditional features; skin the color of toasted almonds and dark uncontrollable hair. I felt a little unnerved in the presence of my prettier cousins, and so I sat and listened and hoped that Ammar would notice me. He spoke with all the authority of a precocious eighteen-year-old when he told us about the events of Juma (or Friday) prayers. I listened more in awe of the speaker than what was being said.

The Imam had directed his sermon towards a book that had been a point of contention in our community. It was the first time an author, a writer of fiction, had been described as the devil both literally and figuratively. Visually he had been likened to the various caricatures of Satan you might find in historical and mythological texts; or so Ammar told us.

The author had been accused of blasphemy, and the punishment for blasphemy, according to Islamic law, was death. It was the late eighties, and the Iranian clergy had entered the forefront of literary and political controversy when they issued a death sentence…a decree…a fatwa over a work of fiction.

Forever this author, this instigator of the fatwa would remain a controversial figure in our community, and in the political realm. Single-handedly he had initiated a divide between the Muslim and the Western world that would define my generation. At Juma (Friday) prayers, the Imam in Toronto had asked the congregation if anyone agreed with the fatwa. Every man had raised his hand. At the time we all agreed with the death sentence…believed the fatwa was necessary. Who were we to disagree with an Ayatollah?

It was the last time my life had seemed so clear. Yet it was the clarity that comes with lines drawn in the sand on a windy day. I came back to look for those lines once more, and found I had lost my way, their boundaries blurring before my eyes. Fifteen years later, no longer a child, I sat opposite Semena sipping a beverage that was more dessert than coffee, in one of those horribly cliché cafes that I know I shouldn’t like but do. Yet, I was still a blind person groping for solid ground. I found myself easily losing my footing…stumbling over my words.

I was talking to a foreigner. Anyone else would have understood my point of view intuitively. Yet, Semena, whom I had befriended quite by accident, was like no other Pakistani I knew. When she spoke, the lilt of her voice carried a hint of exoticism. Her accent was slightly Pakistani, slightly British, slightly American all rolled into one. It made whatever she said seem richer—like adding caramel to coffee.

She sat before me wearing a frilly black tank top, designer jeans and a piece of trendy jewelry roped around her throat. I, with my traditional upbringing, would have thought twice about exposing so much skin, bare arms and bare shoulders…a hint of cleavage, but she wore it as naturally as she had been bred on New York’s Upper East Side rather than the subcontinent.

And why wouldn’t she? Hadn’t she spent her summers in Europe? Breezed through an Ivy League education? My friend was a different species than the Pakistanis I had grown up with in high school.

High school had its own social strata and those of us who were born in the West considered ourselves in a different league than those that were fresh off the boat. I remembered these immigrants well, with their thick accents and mismatched clothes. Some of them even wore a traditional salwar kameez to class, their long hair greased with oil, and pulled back into a braid. We avoided them in the hallways, called them FOBs behind their backs. What we failed to realize was that we had been exposed to only one layer of the onion that is Pakistani society. Only recently had I stumbled upon a segment of the population that I barely knew existed—the elite.

“How can you condemn the book if you’ve never read it,” she said.

A good point…

“I’ve read parts of it…I’ve read excerpts,” I said feeling the weakness of my own argument. I looked around the café and wished for the umpteenth time we had chosen a more original spot. As my coffee cooled the sweetness made me cringe. In my teens I had attempted to read the entire book, but could not get past the third chapter. I found the writing dense, almost psychedelic. I knew what the controversial parts were about. I had seen them referenced in newspapers and magazines. Yet, I still maintained my resentment of the author. After all this time, I still did not have the words to adequately explain my betrayal. I resolved to read the book again.

I was sixteen when I first visited Karachi. It was a densely packed ghetto filled with traffic and noise, chaos and graffiti, especially the roads that were as crooked as a piece of cracked glass. Still, the population barreled onwards, in cars, taxis, rickshaws and scooters. Entire families rode on top of a single motorcycle zipping in and out of traffic. A blanket of dust, pollution and smog coated the city but the natives were as oblivious to it as fish are to water. Pakistan was a mountain, no a heap, or better yet a pile of dung… and at the very top of it were the elite.

I was too young to notice them. To me the elite where like ghosts whose existence I had not yet learned to recognize. The fact that my relatives belonged to the professional class blinded me to what existed beyond their plane. They were doctors and engineers and lawyers. They had cars and often drivers. They had help to clean their houses and wash their dishes and watch their children. When I visited Karachi I bought tailor-made clothes, went to the beauty parlor and attended wedding banquets at fancy American hotels like the Holiday Inn. I began to think we were the elite. That was how naïve I was. I realized now that we only worked for the elite in hospitals, companies and governments that were run by the upper class.

Religion was everywhere. It was so pervasive than no one noticed it anymore than the air that they breathed. It made our community slightly Victorian in flavor, as we worried about missing prayers and fasting in Ramadan. Nobody drank, nor could anyone tell you where to find a good bottle of wine. And men and women were rarely friends, often favoring arranged marriages with like-minded people from suitable families. These puritans however, loved their saints… ardently and passionately. In a country where poverty and illiteracy were constant companions, what appeal was there in the material world? It was all about the afterlife.

In contrast the elite were a different species altogether. Unlike the rest of the population, they had far-reaching wings…a jet-setting lifestyle. They were not shackled to the country of their birth like their brethren. Access to the rest of the world via not only travel, but Internet, satellite and elite schools, meant that the rich were neither constrained by geography nor ideology. In fact, while the rest of the country observed religion, the elite remained comfortably atheist or agnostic.

This was the community that our aforementioned author came from, with his elite schools and oxford education. Like many rulers he failed to see the servant class living around him; the driver, the maid, the street vendor on the corner… little worker ants whose existence was too petty to notice. Had he come from a more modest background I might have thought he was brave, but much of what was controversial came not from courage, but ignorance, for he had no idea that one of these ants could raise their voices in protests.

The larger population (commoners) never had much credence for literary technique. Their betrayal was that of a child that has a cherished toy snatched out of his hands, stomped on and thrown into the sewer…and they came at him with blows. I understood their outrage… I had yet to understand mine.

I read the book again… the whole thing, cover to cover. I left nothing to chance. I found the words I did not have when I was sipping coffee with a Pakistani friend one spring afternoon… my friend with the Ivy League education who thought teaching children about religion was child abuse.

In ghazals a tavern is a place where one receives spiritual enlightenment; can the same be said for a coffee house? Here are the pearls that came sweating out of me—like a much needed purge.

After all these years I realized that my grievances fell in three parts. First, I sympathized with Muslims, whose most sacred figures were contorted to depict the vilest of characters. My second grievance was with the clergy for creating a PR nightmare—and making us all look like we were crazy. My third grievance was with the West, for not only defending the writer but glorifying him. It was this glorification, even knighthood, that made it seem to our community that tactlessness and insensitivity towards another culture’s values was a noble trait, especially if that culture was Islamic.

I understand as I say this that this last statement opens up more doors than it closes, but these are your issues to ponder. As for me, I have done my penance. I am no longer Atlas, with the world upon my shoulders. With a straight back I can re-visit that day where my only ambition was to catch the attention of a handsome boy. I can tell you that eventually I joined the rest of the party, chatted with my aunts and cousins, and helped served the appetizers, all the while the ghazal artists lamented about the pain and bliss of love and intoxication.