x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Culturally content at the Lahore Literature Festival

Lahore is a pleasant onslaught of sights and sounds. There is something of historic or cultural significance at every corner.

Arriving in a new city at night is kind of like going on a blind date in the dark.

My memories of the city of Lahore are quite foggy. Literally - I was there about 15 years ago for a short PR assignment that entailed me being ferried to the office in a company-driven car before the scant rays of sunlight pierced the morning fog, spending the day indoors and not being shuttled back home before the fog once more took over everything in sight. To me, it was a city of mist and the rear headlights of the car in front of mine.

When my brother moved there from Karachi several years ago, he invited me to come over several times, but things never worked out. A few weeks ago though, my childhood friend Madiha told me about her plans for a pilgrimage of sorts: visiting some Sufi saints' shrines in Punjab, including the small city of Pak Pattan and, obviously, the city of Multan (which is known as 'The City of Saints'). The trip would start from Lahore, where her sister was getting married, by the way. So I invited myself.

Stepping out of the Allama Iqbal Airport in Lahore at 4am was like déjà vu. This was the same city I had been to all those years ago - all mist and headlights. Maybe I had been right in the first place?

Or maybe not. The next couple of days were a pleasant onslaught of sights and sounds. There is a reason why Lahore is dubbed the cultural capital of Pakistan. There is something of historic or cultural significance at every corner. On the way to the Lahore Literary Festival, we saw miles and miles of walls covered with art; students from across the city had taken ownership of panels and transformed into art swathes of space that would otherwise have been covered with political slogans.

I remarked to Madiha how lucky it was that my visit coincided with the literary festival. She said that no matter when I would have visited Lahore, there would have been something equally interesting to do.

At the festival, I attended talks on everything from the role of politics in shaping culture to the depiction of religion in films. My fondest memory will be a performance by Naheed Siddiqui, one of Pakistan's most eminent kathak artists. Kathak is a storytelling dance form, often accompanied by live music. A performance one can see any day. That day however, Siddiqui explained katahak to her audience. She discussed the nuances of her movements, and the significance of various gestures. Seated next to me were long-time residents of Lahore, who revealed that this was one of the most gratifying kathak performances they had ever been to.

Needless to say, Lahore delivered on every level. Soon however, we moved on to Pak Pattan. We made our way down GT Road, crossing lush green fields of mustard swaying in the wind, while the chimneys of brick kilns bellowed smoke in the background. Villagers tended to their crops even as the sun set.

About five hours later we arrived in Pak Pattan, home of the Sufi saint Data Ganj Shakar and a wormhole to a different century. We have little hot water here, and no internet. I'm sitting on a wicker chair next to a pigeon coop, writing this article on a borrowed laptop. I will save the article on a USB and drive 30 minutes to the nearest internet cafe to email it to my editors. Then I will return to the shrine to pay my respects. Maybe even spend an hour or so listening to the nightly qawwali performances. Life moves at a different pace here. I can see why, and I can say safely that I do not mind it one bit.

My hot water previliges in exchange for the cooing of pigeons at my feet? Any day!

The writer is an honest-to-goodness desi girl living in Dubai


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