Pakistan has no embassy of Senegal. The visa processing takes months, if at all one gets it, that is. It’s an 11-hour flight from Dubai, that’s how far it is. And I must, must go there for a really important conference. Only, till the last day, I don’t know whether I will get the visa or not. Net search has told me that Senegal is sunny, beachy and hardcore Africa.

On the day I have to fly out, November 25, 2011, I reach Karachi airport with a fuzzy mind owing to the lack of sleep and simply too much going on in life. After a 3-hour layover at Dubai airport, a delightful surprise is in store —I have been upgraded to business class. I see that as a sign that the upcoming trip will be joyous. My seat is sandwiched between two nice gentlemen, one a Senegalese who is the same age as me but respectfully calls me “mama” just like our shopkeepers say baji or aunty. This is my first taste of friendly, amiable Senegalese people.

Senegal is 94 per cent Muslim. This is apparent when I see the tiny Dakar airport, antiquated, over-crowded with people returning home after Haj on packed flights. I hardly spot any computers. Everything is done manually. The visa-on-arrival and the long-awaited arrival of baggage takes hours! Finally out, I have my first chit-chat with the shuttle driver as we drive towards the hotel.

Pretty quaint little buildings, French architectural influences, a winding drive along an upscale road alongside the beach, and I reach the hotel. Ngor is the area, pretty, clean, with very little traffic. The same whiff of moisture-laden air that is typical of beach towns, but thankfully lacking the pollution of Karachi. I am in Dakar, the capital city of Senegal.

I get a room with a view, literally. Most of the hotels in Dakar are situated along the sea. Beautiful, clean beaches with abundant sea shells strewn along, not just in white but in dark ebony colour too.

Dakar is relaxed, as are the people. I can feel my inner pace slow down, a pleasant change after Karachi. The crashing waves, the birds swimming in the air, the breeze ruffling the leaves, humans scurrying around on their daily routines, everybody in their orbits. Tranquil. That’s Senegal.

One of the things you notice instantaneously in Senegal is the size of living beings (yes, I choose my words carefully here). The people are really tall. The birds are really big. Even the insects are bigger than the ones I see at home. And the birds are a treat for bird-watchers. Particularly the Senegal parrot is a sight to behold.

If anyone plans to go to Senegal, it is time they brush up their French, because English is rarely understood or spoken in this purely Francophone part of West Africa. By the end of my 11 days in Senegal, basic French started to make sense to me again, especially when spoken in an African accent. Influences of French remain on every aspect of culture, and continental cuisine is readily available, though local Senegalese food is known for its aromatic delicious flavour. Availability of halaal meat made life easier for me. Baobab is Africa’s popular fruit, and its milky juice is a refreshing welcome drink often served in Senegal. A popular main course specialty is Yassa chicken, which is grilled chicken served with sour spicy onion curry, and either steamed rice or plantains on the side. Seafood was always fresh, simply prepared and often served with assortments of cheese. Thiof fish was a personal favourite, fresh from the ocean, melting in the mouth.

Shopping in Senegal is a joy, simply because it is affordable for Pakistanis. In addition, this is a talented nation when it comes to arts and crafts which reflect their rich culture and many struggles. Street art in Senegal is breathtaking. Vendors on foot with amazing pieces of painting will come knock on your cab’s window. And you will be blown away by the vibrant colours, the finesse and the symbolism in the masterpieces these untrained artists churn out day after day. Craft pieces not to be missed include leather-bound boxes, bead and shell accessories, silver jewellery and baskets made of palm. If in Dakar, do visit the local Sandaga market. The sights, sounds and smells in this place gave me a true taste of Africa. But watch out for con artists and be ready to get followed around by persistent and annoying wannabe “guides”. Bargaining is a must. And make sure you remember the words “non, merci” as the eager sellers can literally harass you and follow you around.

A visit to Senegal is incomplete if you do not visit Goree Island. Reaching the ferry station by cab and then taking a ferry to it is easy. But me and my friend from India, both widely-travelled media persons, got conned into paying a non-existent tourism company for a trip to Goree Island, waited for hours for a bus that never arrived, laughed on our own stupidity, and ended up going to Goree on our own and having an awesome time. So when in the developing world, be a little smart smart!

Situated near Dakar, Goree Island is a quaint little tourism spot now, where old buildings including a slave house have been preserved in original form. It is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Only seeing it can do justice to its beauty. The Portuguese and Dutch architecture and the vibrantly painted small houses with bougainvillea in abundance makes Goree an eerily beautiful place to visit. It seems I was catapulted into the past.

It was a Sunday. The Muslim community of Goree had gathered that day for a congregation of sermons and they recited verses of the Quran and praises of Allah so beautifully in unison that I had a beautiful, spiritual experience, sitting under the trees at sunset. I will never forget that moment.

Built in 1776 by the Dutch, the Slave House at Goree Island is one of several sites on the island where Africans were brought to be loaded onto ships bound for the New World. The owner’s residential quarters were on the upper floor. The lower floor was reserved for the slaves who were weighed, fed and held before departing on the transatlantic journey. The Slave House with its famous “Door of No Return” has been preserved in its original state. Thousands of tourists visit the house each year, and celebrate the freedom of the human species from the clutches of slavery by re-visiting the past.

As part of my work, I had a wonderful chance to visit Thies which is the third largest city in Senegal, and two adjoining villages, as guests of “Tostan”. Tostan means “breakthrough” in the West African language of Wolof, which it certainly is. Tostan is an international non-governmental organisation with operations in over 500 communities across Africa, with a mission to empower African communities to bring about sustainable development and positive social transformation. Molly Melching, Founder of Tostan, made the visit to Senegal all the more meaningful. Her work as a human rights activist has helped almost eradicate the centuries-old custom of Female Genital Cutting (FGC) from Senegal. One of the villages we visited was Keur Siambara. Here we met Village Chief and Imam Demba Diawara, who according to Molly Melching is “a PhD in wisdom”! The one mantra Demba kept repeating that had much to be learnt, especially for activists, was: “Beautify Your Words.” Demba’s wisdom and that of other community members helped Tostan in achieving its aim. This has now led to over 6,200 communities choosing not to cut their daughters. It is entirely possible that Senegal could have ended this practice completely by 2015.

Apart from the learning experience, the hospitality and warmth of rural Senegalese people was a joy. We were welcomed among drum beats, merry dancing, and pretty girls twirling bowls made of gourd, as we were seated under a huge Neem tree. It was so unlike, yet so similar to Pakistan.

Senegal was amazing. I remember most the Belle soirées par la mer à Dakar (the beautiful evenings by the sea in Dakar), and the serenity I witnessed in that country. Eleven splendid suns, beautiful ebony complexions, serene azure waters and a wonderful slice of Africa — Senegal, you will be missed.

Actress and activist Feryal  Ali Gohar made an unusual request to celebrate the onset of the new year in Cholistan — land of the lost river Sarasvati.

The request was not unusual for us at Indus Guides because we had organised the 2003–2004 New Year Gala for the foreign diplomats in ‘The street of silence” next to the imposing Derawar Fort. Gohar’s request, however, had a different twist — she wanted to visit the forgotten forts along the banks of dried-up river Hakra (Sarasvati).

On the morning of December 29, we headed towards Kheatranwala, a tiny village at the edge of the Cholistan desert, for an overnight stop with Khurrum Khan, our local organiser. It was only due to the warm hospitality of our host and the bon fire that we were able to stand the chill of the desert night. My writer friend Salman Rashid thoroughly enjoyed the local delicacies like gandal ka saag, bajray ki rooti, baingan ka bhurta, daily ka achaar and suji ka halwa.

On the morning of December 30 we followed a bumpy road, along the abandoned railway track to Phulara Fort at the eastern edge of Cholistan. There we were met by Anwar Mahar, a renowned desert guide, whose family has lived around the forts of Cholistan for generations. Phulara Fort was named after a Rajput Princess Phulan, (flower). In the early 1960s, this palace fort was in excellent condition particularly Phulan Shezadi Da Burj, the residence tower of the princess. The Burj also served as a watch tower for the princess to enjoy the desert sunset and the fishermen who sailed by in the river Hakra. Anwar led us through a cluster of ugly, unplanned structures, built with the bricks plundered from the Phulara Fort.

The glorious Phulara Fort that I had seen in the 1960s was but a mound of mud. Anwar explained the speedy destruction of the fort was due to the discovery of an ancient gold coin from its compound, during monsoon rains. The greed for gold turned the entire population around the fort into treasure hunters. The excessive digging of the foundations made the massive walls so weak that the slightest rain brought them crumbling down. It is believed that the curse of Phulan Shezadi buried alive the entire family that was digging at the foundation of her burj, tower. It was sad to see a part of our national heritage left to stray dogs to watch over.

Khurrum Khan along with his crew had moved in advance to Mirgarh Fort, where we were to camp for the night. Mirgarh, a small defensive fort, was built by Nur Muhammad Khan, a Gilani Makhdoom from Uchch, in 1799. It is a square fort measuring 92 feet on each side with seven bastions. The arch on top of the entry gate represents the Sultanate period of construction. Although the general outlook of Mirgarh is better than Phulra yet the weather-beaten walls were crumbling. But the fort was perfect for our camp. We thought even the permanent inhabitants like Chirbil (a smaller bird of owl family) and bats must be surprised to see activity in the fort after centuries of silence.

Our cook, Raja Imran, was in full control — the yellow light of dozens of candles lit the dark walls of the fort, bonfire burnt bright to kill the chill of the desert night and the sajji (roasted lamb leg) rolled over the burning charcoal.

Ana, the American journalist, who is planning to write a book on Cholistan, was busy talking to the locals and taking notes. Salman Rashid did an excellent job by capturing the mood of the camp with his camera. Feryal Gohar translated the Seraiki folk songs, the kalam of Khawaja Ghulam Farid, sung by the locals into English. It was past mid-night when every one retired to their respective tents leaving Mirgarh back to its centuries-old slumber. An occasional shriek of Chirbil or a distant cry of wolf would disturb the night for a moment and then the death-like silence would prevail.

Jamgarh, the next fort on our list, was barely three kos or eight kilometers away, which is unusual because rest of the desert forts are at least 20 kos or over 40 kilometers apart from each other. Jamgarh is also a small defensive fort built by Jam Khan Marufani in 1788. This fort became very famous after the partition when it was occupied by Thakur Jugmal Singh, a notorious dacoit from Bekanir. A large group of his companions, riding speedy camels, would cross the border, raid the villages and return back to Jamgarh with the booty. He would distribute the looted wealth among the poor. He was kind of a local Robin Hood.

That legendary hero is long gone and now the fort is occupied by a shepherd and his flock of sheep. The mangy watch dog barked at us from the safe distance of high walls of the fort.

Though the dog was no match to the ferocious wolves that abound the desert, it was watchful enough to wake the shepherd in case of danger. Ana did not miss the opportunity to interview the young shepherd who was too shy to talk to a Maim Sahib. Meanwhile Feryal Gohar set about to feed the under-fed dog. In fact during this trip she fed her breakfast to countless dogs.

Murot is decidedly the largest fort of Cholistan because it was on the trade route from Ghazni via Multan to Delhi, which passed through Sirsa and Hansi. The fort was founded by a Maharajah of Chittor in the pre-Islamic period. It is believed that Sultan Mahmood of Ghazni passed through Murot when he raided the Somnath temple. The 1000 camels carrying drinking water during the Somnath campaign were supplied water from the wells of Murot.

In the early period there were Jain, Buddhist and Hindu temples in Murot. Now there are two mosques in the fort, the one in ruins was build during the reign of Mughal emperor Akbar while the other one was built by the Abbasi Nawabs after the fort was captured by Nawab Mubarak Khan Abbasi from the Maharajah of Jaisalmir in 1749. There is a stone slab in the mosque that is believed by the locals to be the foot print of Hazrat Ali, the son–in–law of Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him.

When we arrived at the fort there was a colourful gathering of nomads who had come to pay homage to Hazrat Ali. We also came across the wandering folk singer who roams the desert shirtless and barefoot even in extreme climates.

The camp for the New Year Gala was set on the mound of an ancient fort, west of Derawar that once belonged to a Rajput maharaja, Jejo Bhota. According to a legend, the idea for the great fort of Derawar was conceived by the son-in-law of the maharaja, prince Dev Raj Rawal. It is said the prince saw a sheep family defend itself against the wolves. Taking that as a good omen, he decided to build a fort at the site where the wolves tried in vain to get the sheep. So he requested his father-in-law to give him a piece of land that could be covered by the hide of a camel.

The maharaja agreed to the request, a camel was slaughtered and the clever prince had the hide cut into the thinnest of strips and snaked it around a huge area, far beyond the expectation of the maharaja. However, the maharaja could not go back on his word and the prince built the fort that was named after him, ‘Dera Rawal’ or Derawar.

Rai Singh, the 25th ruler of the Rawal dynasty was defeated by Sadiq Muhammad Khan Abbasi, in 1759, who agreed to give the fort to Abbasis in return for a regular annual wazeefa. However, in 1873 when the last descendent of the Rawal dynasty Zalim Singh Rawal died, the annual wazeefa of Rs50 also ended and Derawar Fort finally became the sole property of the Abbasis.

We thoroughly enjoyed our New Year Gala, in our Mughal Camp, set on the mound of the ancient fort. The local singers sang haunting love songs of the desert while the youngsters performed the traditional Jhoomar dance around the camp fire. The American journalist Ana who was sober throughout the trip, surprised everyone by joining the Jhoomar dancers and performed to perfection till it was time to move to “the street of silence”; sandwiched between the imposing Derawar fort and the white marble shahi mosque. The street is believed to be a flourishing bazaar of the medieval era, which was frequented by merchants from Central Asia and Southern India. This was the time when great river Saravati flowed through this land of green fields and pastures. But Saravati was an erratic and unpredictable river, changing courses and playing with the fortune of its people. Centuries ago it mysteriously dried up turning a fertile land into a scorching desert and ruining its bustling bazaars.

Our group had agreed to welcome the New Year in a different style. Under the dark canopy of star-studded sky we moved in silence through the street, lighting candles in its ancient ruins. By the time we reached the end of the street it was mid-night and we prayed, in silence, for the prosperity of the land of the lost river and revival of “the street of silence”.

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