The second in a series of ‘round-the-world photo essays (here’s the first one) that will also spotlight Iran, Iraq, Syria, North Africa, West Africa, Europe, and other destinations.
Muhammad Iqbal, the great 20th-century poet-intellectual whose ideas on Muslim identity and philosophy helped lay the groundwork for the state of Pakistan, is celebrated every November in the country with a national holiday. In the mid-to-late 1900s, Iqbal was an advocate for a Muslim state that would be created from India’s western territory, but Iqbal – like Muhammad Ali Jinnah, Pakistan’s first formal leader – envisioned Pakistan as a multi-ethnic country united by more than religion. In his poem, “The Nation’s Eye,” Iqbal likened a nation to a body, where every appendage (no matter how small) is important. A country’s sight, Iqbal said, was symbolized by its “poet of tuneful melodies.” Iqbal was that poet, but so too was Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, whose photos are the first ones here:
Pakistan’s Musical Mystic: If you combined the soul signing of James Brown with the gospel epiphanies of Mahalia Jackson and the musical intensity of Luciano Pavarotti, you’d come close to encapsulating Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. Close but not quite, since Khan is incomparable – a giant of a man who brought a unique religious fervor to his art of Qawwali. The Sufi-oriented singing is designed to transport its listeners to mystical heights – to take in the lives of God and His central adherents. Like gospel, Qawwali often moves people to move their bodies and even dance. Khan lived in Lahore, Pakistan, when I was there in 1993/1994. I was lucky enough to attend a private performance at a residence. The first photo shows Khan (on the left) at his intensive best. The next two show concertgoers dancing as if they’re taking flight. In a way, they were. Khan, whose voice can be heard with Eddie Vedder’s on the Dead Man Walking soundtrack, passed away in 1997, leaving behind a legacy of music that continues to inspire people – not just in Pakistan but around the world.
The Kites of Lahore: For many people, Khaled Hosseini’s novel, “The Kite Runner,” painted an emotionally powerful picture of kite-fighting and kite-running in Afghanistan, but the same culture exists in Pakistan – including the city of Lahore, where these two photos were taken. With friends, I was invited to a series of parties in the old section of Lahore. In the first photo, you can see the kites scattered like birds in Lahore’s gray skies, above the minarets and rooftops. Lahore’s most prominent religious building, the 17th-century Badshahi Mosque, is visible in the background. From the rooftops, kite-flyers try to bring down their friends’ (and enemies’) kites, but it’s not all competition. In fact, there are more observers on the rooftops than kite-flyers, as evident by the two women in the second photo. Like them, I enjoyed the aerial spectacle, then partook of the spicy Lahore food that was served everywhere you looked.
Lahore’s Famous Cannon: I didn’t ask him to pose. I was just standing there with my camera – like tourists have done for a century – in front of Zam-Zammah, a.k.a. the cannon that Rudyard Kipling made famous in his novel, “Kim.” That’s when the student asked if I’d take his photo. His smile is as significant as the cannon. The old artillery dates from the mid-1700s, when the Indian subcontinent was being colonized by Britain, and the world’s superpowers saw the land that’s now Pakistan as a gateway to conquest and riches. Britain didn’t leave the subcontinent until 1947, and even today, many of Pakistan’s students (like this one) study in colleges that take their educational (and sartorial) cues from the old British system.
Arnold in Pakistan: Back in 1994, Arnold Schwarzenegger wasn’t the governor of California – just a muscle-bound actor who (in Pakistan) was still remembered for his body-building days. Young men in college – even in Pakistan – admired Schwarzenegger’s swagger, which is why his poster was in the dorm room of a student I visited. When I walked into that space, I shook my head at the sight of Schwarzenegger – then sat under his feet in a pose with my student (center, front) and his friends.
Recycling in the Street: Bottle caps. Hundreds and hundreds of bottle caps. The man I photographed made a daily round of Lahore’s neighborhoods to collect the objects, which he used to make money. I saw this bottle-cap collector nearly every day I went to downtown Lahore. He’s the kind of person you see when you take the same route all the time – a “character” whose avocation becomes clearer on closer inspection.
The Rural Camel Herder: Riding in a car on the outskirts of Lahore, I saw him from my passenger-side window – a camel herder on his way east, alongside the freeway. All he had to shepherd his flock was a long stick, which he carried in his right hand. The camel herder came into view for all of three seconds – long enough for him to look right at me, in a way that suggested he was as curious about me as I about him. Camel herders are common in rural Pakistan, where their animals are raised for their milk, meat and hides. Camel markets can be found throughout Pakistan. So, too, can former camel jockeys – young Pakistanis who were often taken by force to race in the Middle East. On the day,I took this photo, the animals and their overseer seemed content with their lives.
Kids from Afghanistan, kids from Pakistan: Over the years, millions of Afghans have fled into Pakistan for a better life, with many of them going to the country’s east. In Lahore, I lived in a well-to-do neighborhood that had a campground-like settlement, which hundreds of Afghans called home. One day, I walked near the enclave and encountered these young boys. We talked in a kind of sign language, which led me (for some reason) to make quotation marks with my fingers. The Afghan kids mimicked me. We all laughed. Later in my Pakistan tenure, I traveled around the country’s southeast with a U.S. consular official, who covered her head in deference to Pakistani custom. In the afternoon, a group of Pakistani kids (especially a girl in green) delighted in her presence.
Students in my class: They were the reason I came to Pakistan – these students at Punjab University who were assigned to learn basic journalism from an American reporter. The class became our incubator – a chance to learn from each other about our respective cultures. They changed my life. And I (in some cases) changed theirs.