Lahore Sufi Festival- Running in a Lightening Storm

 

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Darkness falls over Lahore. Potholes line the sidewalks so I creep along with every step. “No sprained ankles!” I keep repeating to myself. Electricity cuts are the norm until ten in the evening in Lahore so my next task was to find my way home as the streets became pitch black. I stumbled upon a dark alley that looked vaguely familiar. Voices in the distance made me realize there is someone around from my adopted home country. “너무 춥네!” one of the women complained. “날씨가 춥지않고 지금 한국에서 매섭게 춥잖아요,” I replied as we were going up stairs together now. We entered the room of a different guesthouse but now I was sitting in a candlelit room with three Korean women in their 50’s who looked very shaken up and panic stricken. “You speak Korean!” they exclaimed with mesmerized looks on their faces. They explained to me that they were on a city bus earlier in Lahore when some political demonstrations turned violent, rocks were thrown and a stray struck the bus they were riding, shattering a window and cutting one of the woman’s hands. The women were trying to explain what happened earlier to the guesthouse owner but they were having a hard time with English so I took on the role of translator for a few minutes. “Tell him we need a cheap bed for tonight. Very, very cheap,” they said. I gave them an apple that was in a bag with the name of the corner store I shop at in Seoul. “Have an apple smuggled in from your home country,” I said as their expressions became more and more dumbfounded upon hearing a white guy speak their mother tongue proficiently. They finally calmed down after a few minutes and the guesthouse owner helped them get settled in.

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Weapons for Sale

After returning to my guesthouse, I met Mohamed, a Palestinian college student who has been studying pharmacy in Lahore for three years. We started talking for a long time over tea and he shared so many stories about his life in Lahore. No rules! He was robbed at gunpoint and got into numerous fights, one time with a man armed with a sword in a thirty man brawl.  As we walked around together he pointed out a building where there was a suicide bombing several years back. “That pile of rubble over there?” I attempted to confirm by pointing my finger in the direction of the building. “Don’t point! They might be suspicious of you,” he said referring to the hoards of military and police personnel on alert behind sand bags and barbed wire at every intersection. Anyway, I was really lucky to meet such a great guy my first night in Pakistan. He took me around to many places I probably would have never found on my own and helped me buy a Shalwar Kameez (Pakistani traditional clothes- always better to blend in as much as possible).

 

Overall, Lahore provided endless culture and history for anyone with a thirst or curiosity for travel and excitement. Our guesthouse owner Malik once advised many of Pakistan’s famous musical talents to take on some more innovative marketing strategies that helped put them on the map. As a result, many of these now world renowned musicians help fill Malik in on any performances happening in the area and go out of their way to see to it that Malik’s guests get a unique, full on, in your face Pakistani musical experience.

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Sufi Festival Turned Deadly

One of my most unforgettable experiences in Pakistan was going to Lahore’s Sufi Festival. By far the craziest, most energetic festival I have ever seen- music, lights, street dancing, food- it was all there. Upon entering Istanbul Chowk where the streets were blocked off, there were crowds of people waiting to bypass numerous security checks and lines to enter the Tha Tha Thar Bhar mosque to watch Qaawali music. It was pretty chaotic as people were pushing and holding each other in line to enter the mosque. I tried talking to one of the guards for a bit and practice the very minute amount of Urdu I learned over several days. He was smiling because I was wearing a Shalwar Kameez and liked that I was trying to learn a bit of the local language. “How can we get into the mosque?” I asked. “Go to the end of the line,” he pointed to the back of the line that extended beyond my field of vision. We made our way to the back and waited for several minutes with all the locals pushing and holding on to each other in order to secure their position in the queue. After a few minutes of trying not to fall and lose my balance, the guard came to find us. “Come with me, I will have someone escort you into the mosque so you don’t have to wait in line,” he said. He called another large, AK-47 armed guard who led us past the endless queues of people and took us into the mosque. The guard took us into the main area where we were given beautiful flower necklaces-mine must have been made of at least three hundred flowers all stringed together.

We spent the night dancing in the streets and listening to pounding Sufi music. It was all good fun until some kids started messing with one of the police officers, which resulted in wild night stick swinging and crowds scattering to avoid being caned.

As we hit the streets all night long crowds of Punjabi’s circled around us and took us around different places to dance and take pictures with their friends and family. Although I had an amazing time at the festival, now I understand what it feels like to be a movie star and I have to admit I was pretty exhausted by the end of the night.

Overall, I had a great time the first night at the festival but felt like it was time to move on and go to Peshawar. The festival would carry on for a few days thereafter but I thought a street party put on by one of the more controversial Muslim groups in Pakistan combined with the huge crowds of people could be a potentially dangerous scenario. “This is a perfect opportunity for a suicide bomber to appear on the scene,” I thought to myself. My intuition proved correct as I returned to Lahore a few weeks later on my way back to India and heard the news of a thirty fatalities as a result of a suicide bombing at the festival. Life is so fragile but I was high on adrenaline from living the extreme experience of being on Pakistani soil. Always follow your intuition! At that moment mine was telling me to venture to a more extreme territory- the Afghanistan border. I was quickly becoming an adrenaline addict!

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