road to Immit
Amid a sea of sounds, stands the silent courtyard and the majestic, gleaming minarets of the red-brick Mosque -- a stranger in a land that has engulfed its past in cement and smoke, among people who have lost a sense of their past
By Salma Omar
You do not really notice the minaret until you nearly reach the Mosque. Once you take the bend in the crowded Rang Mahal Road in Old Lahore, the minarets of the 16th century mosque rise unexpectedly over the crowded, colourful, cramped bazaar. The shops line the Mosque's outer wall in an uneven row -- small stalls displaying their low-priced wares stacked on the sides of the teeming street. And then, just by chance, as I raised my head, the minaret stood still, stretching silently up to the sky from behind the row of shops looking majestically down at the bustle that consumes the eye and mind. Its multi-coloured floral motifs, painted brilliantly by the dexterous hands of a long forgotten Mughal artist, shone in the late afternoon sun.
The imposing facade of the mosque cast an impressive welcome. Two balconies, intricately painted and lattice worked, hung on either side of the stately entrance. My neck ached as I gazed at the colours, still vivid despite patches of peeling plaster. Other visitors had deposited their shoes with the kiosk at the entrance. I lingered. The colours would not let me go. Their vibrancy defied the years of dust with quiet sophistication that the cheap, glitzy wares of the surrounding shops could never outdo.
The courtyard was occupied by a large square pond brimming with green water. A green electric motor pump cast a solitary stump next to the pond, wires trailing from it to a courtyard lamp post with broken electric bulbs. I sat down on the pond's edge and slowly felt the silence seep into me like the marble's coolness through my socks. Then, almost in a flash, a flutter of grey and white wings flapped softly above me as pigeons circled the courtyard's sky in a mass race. They flew the aerial lap in one whirl and ended the race where they began -- on top of the three domes perched above the main hall standing at the far end of the courtyard.
An old woman clad in a worn-out brown shalwar kameez ambled past the water pond to a small shrine to the left of the courtyard. She lit a small oil lamp and placed it beside others in a crooked iron shelf outside the shrine. Some burnt, some smoldered and spluttered, smoking away somebody's silent hopes. What did the old woman wish for while she lit the wick? Can the shrine in this sanctuary grant anything more precious than peace? She hobbled past the green plastic hats hanging from the knobs of the iron railing that encircled the shrine, her hand resting on the shoulder of a young girl. A small oil lamp peeped from the little girl's clenched fist. She smiled shyly at me hiding her secret wishing well in her hand. Then as she looked up at the pigeons swirling above, the courtyard's air was set aflutter again with the soft flails of another airborne race.
They sat en masse on one of the turrets.
"Can I go up one of these?" I asked the man who collects shoes at the entrance. I was tired and wanted to linger.
"The attendant has gone away for a while. He has the keys." Then, hesitantly, "You can give him money for tea, you know."
"I know. I'll wait."
The attendant came ambling back -- a bunch of keys in his bony hands. He unlocked the door on the side of the Main Hall to a spiral staircase with high steps. My thighs ached as I negotiated the ascent in near darkness. Halfway up, the staircase opened on to another courtyard -- the roof of the main hall with the domes perched above.
"You can go higher", he said. "It is even more beautiful from up there." The square pond looked far smaller from here but the minarets were still majestic. The attendant looked away from me as I finally tore my eyes away from the magnificent, detached view of the courtyard from the top. Had he been studying me? Why? I felt awkward and a little unsafe. As I gazed around at the brick houses crowding the air around the mosque, some even glued to the mosque's outer wall. I, too, peeped secretly at the attendant. Had he walked past me in the crowded street, I would barely have found him distinguishable in his crumpled, loose shalwar kurta and straggly beard. He had a quiet manner, though, and spoke mutedly. He wouldn't hurt me, I decided. The view from the top beckoned. Conversation, I guessed, could ease any awkwardness.
"Do many people come up here?"
"Has anyone been hurt climbing up here?"
"How long have you been taking care of the Mosque?"
He answered in monosyllables as we climbed further up the spiral staircase, this time from inside the minaret that rose from the main hall's roof. In the dark, secret staircase, his muddled 'z' and 'j' sounds struck me. The sounds and the silence seeped in with the realisation that he did not belong here, not to this city, maybe not even to this land. I suspected that he spoke Bengali. Something in me jumped as I reflected that perhaps he had sensed my link with the language as he had scrutinised me secretly.
"Aapni ki Bengali"? I asked him as we finally reached the lattice worked balcony that encircled the minaret from where the muezzins have been calling the faithful to prayers for centuries. He shuffled his feet and looked away in the distance as though he had not heard me. Stung, I turned away slowly and pretended to touch the vivid blue and peacock green tiled motifs that had gleamed in the sunlight. He had missed this chance, I thought. Maybe so had I. Some things are silently understood.
And then, as I turned and looked down from the minaret, the sense of an awkward loss was replaced by the stark contrast of the teeming city that engulfed the hushed, haven of this mosque. Noisy, smoke trailing rickshaws chugged in the distance. Cars overtook tongas rushing to stop at the next traffic light. The narrow, crowded street ended somewhere at an unknown point amid a haze of brick and cemented, four-storied, terraced houses stacked against each other. The sense of a whirling, hurricane of insane activity and incessant noise was staggering. Amid this sea of sounds, stood the silent courtyard and the majestic, gleaming minarets of the red-brick Mosque -- a stranger in a land that has engulfed its past in cement and smoke, among people who have lost a sense of their past as they run long laps in life's raucous race. Its silence lulls the heart in a city that has lost the heart of its own history.
I descended the dark staircase without a word -- the only tribute I could pay to a mosque that quietly teaches the worth of peaceful stillness that we can only have from owning our past.
A visit to a village in the Northern areas
By Zulfiqar Ali Kalhoro
While going to Ishkoman, a high mountain valley in the northwest region of Gilgit, one must stop at Gakhuch to enjoy a cup of tea and serene environment of the valley. Gakhuch is a headquarter of Ghizar district and is a main sojourn for Karambar, Shandur, Yasin, Gupis and Ishkoman valleys. There are four tehsils in Ghizar district namely Punial, Yasin, Gupis and Ishkoman. Like other tehsils of Ghizer district, Ishkoman is endowed with lurking glaciers, calm and serene lakes and sprawling and awesome river Karambar on whose left bank is situated the impressive Immit. One has to cross the town of Gakhuch to enter into the valley of Ishkoman. From Chatorkhand, which is the headquarter of Ishkoman valley, a road leads to Immit. It is hardly two hours drive from Chatorkhand. Before getting to Immit, one passes by the scenic and picturesque villages of Dain, Pakora, Ishkoman, etc
The Ishkoman is an important tehsil of Ghizar district and noted in the area for the production of fine quality apricots. Apricots grow in abundance in various villages notably in Pakora, Dain, Chatorkand (a headquarter of Iskhoman) and Immit. Of these, however, the apricots of Immit is greatly valued and consumed. People of Immit village sell their apricots in the nearby market of Chatorkhand.
Amanullah, a polite young primary school teacher in the village, sells his apricots in the Gilgit market. He says that Gilgit market pays good value for the apricots of Ishkoman in general and Immit in particular. "Chatorkhand is a local market where only people of Ishkoman tehsil bring their fruits while Gilgit is a national market where people from all over the Northern Areas bring their fruits and earn considerable amount of money." Apart from apricots, maize is also cultivated.
There are many peculiarities of Immit; one is the hot spring and the other is the identity of the village as melting pot. People of Immit and nearby villages come to take a dip in the spring in the hope of receiving healing from its waters or just sit by its side and gossip. Shabir Khan who came from Pakora village told that he frequently comes to the spring along with his family and sometimes stays a night there. Like Shabir Khan many others visit the spring of Immit and bathe in the hot waters of spring to "cure their physical ailments". Separate rooms have been built for men and women.
There are a number of Yaks in Immit village which are used for threshing the crop. Young children give a helping hand to the adults during the threshing process. The children also help their parents in various activities. Children are not encouraged to attend school by their parents. As compared to Immit, people of other villages or town like their children to go to schools.
Immit, also known as melting pot of Northern Areas, has retained its cultural diversity. Nowhere else in the Northern Areas are so many ethnic groups concentrated in one village as in Immit. Kyrgies, Uzbeks, Tajiks, Wakhis and many other ethnic groups reside in the village with each of these maintaining its distinctive way of life and upholding centuries' old customs. Interestingly, every tribe has preserved their oral history in the narratives that they fondly narrate to the visitors. They feel proud while narrating stories of their ancestors or cultural heroes. Story-telling is one of the favourite pastimes in the village. When the harvesting season comes to end and there is no work to be done, the only activity for amusement in the village is story-telling.
People here are generally very hard-working. During my stay in the village, I found them engaged in one activity or the other. At the time of sowing, both men and women work together. Women of Immit enjoy a sense of freedom in many ways and have their voice in decision-making. They engage themselves in a number of activities. Their role in household economy is highly appreciated by the male members of the family or tribe. They do irrigation, weeding and guarding of crops in the fields from predatory birds and hungry livestock, cutting and carrying grain, gathering kindling, fetching water, herding goats etc. They also accompany their male members when men take their livestock to high pastures. Women reside in high pasture camps and do most of the work, including all the dairy work. Men mainly go to collect wood or to check on the flocks.
Apart from participating in agricultural tasks, women do a host of others things. In their leisure time, women do embroidery. Embroidered caps of Ishkoman in general and Immit in particular are very famous in Ghizer. It has no match in terms of refinement and elegance in the whole of Northern Areas save Hunza. These caps are also made in other villages of Ishkoman notably Pakora. Fine needlework of a woman constructs her identity and her superb work is easily recognised by other celebrated embroiderers. Embroidery of these women is always in great demand.
As one enters the village of Immit, the first thing that attracts is the sublime scenery. The spectacular view of the valley from the resthouse holds the visitor spellbound. The majestic mountains that surround Immit are stunning. In winter, these mountains remain snowcapped. In earlier times, people used to cross these mountains to reach their destinations. According to Mir Ali of Immit village, during the reign of Rajas (Khushwaqte princes of Chitral) people used to go to Chitral and Afghanistan from Karumbar valley. In order to go to Nomal, Naltar and Gilgit, people had to use the Pakora pass.
The ideal time for visiting the village are months of May and June. The adventurers and tourist can reside in the resthouse located in the village. Immit is also a heaven for hikers. Once in Immit, do not forget the morning stroll.
By Aziz Omar
There is no such thing as a utopia. Even a theoretical construct of a utopia has to have a flip side to it. It is not enough to merely describe an ideal place in accordance with one's own quirky whims and desires. In order to experience true happiness and bliss, we have to find a reference point of discomfort and struggle to look back on. For a wretched and emaciated soul, the inkling of plentiful sustenance will suffice for defining the ultimate state. For a frustrated teenager with strict parents, a perfect place would be one where there are no adults, constant partying, and plenty of must-have accessories that s/he is not allowed otherwise.
It is possible for my utopia of sorts to be materialised right here on Earth. In order to derive fulfillment and ecstasy, one has to have a cyclic interaction with harsh, caustic experiences, as well as uplifting and revitalising sensations and surroundings. Of course, the basic dilemmas of food, water, energy and housing shortages shall have to be completely overcome. It could very well seem that I am too conveniently assuming that all of these problems would be easily taken care of. Yet I believe that such concerns, are in fact neccesary for mere existence, they could hamper the achievement of higher ideals and possibilities such as more innovative technology, and the fusion of various forms of human perception and expression such as science, art and music.
However, still in order to add credence to my version of a utopia, to address nutritional requirements for instance, there would be high-yield seeds and plants that could be grown on tracts of land that are stacked on vertical platforms to minimise land use. There is plenty of water to go around on Earth but it is mostly in salt-form, and drinkable water is often simply wasted after domestic or industrial consumption. This utopia of mine would not waste a single drop of water, but would constantly recycle it, quite similar to the way our ecosystem naturally evaporates water. Our energy needs could be very well be served via zero-emission and minimal environmentally degrading technologies such as wind turbines. Housing and industrial complexes would mostly have reactive glass to both absorb the energy of the sun and later convert it into electricity, as well as pass a variable amount of light for internal illumination. Of course the ultimate form of free-flowing virtually unlimited energy would be that generated by nuclear fusion reactors that smash hydrogen atoms to form helium, a non-reactive gas, which is exactly what our sun is doing.
The afore-mentioned conditions shall prevail in the core level where residents would be free to lead a basic and comfortable existence that requires minimum physical or psychological stresses. However, there shall be a subsidiary region or the endurance level, accessible by all, which would allow citizens to access strenuous tasks such as swimming in various streams, climbing track, hills and mountains, albeit all in a very safe and controlled environment. This region would also house huge complexes where anyone who desired could make fantastic machines and work on ongoing projects for making new discoveries.
These various physical and mental challenges would not only let one subsequently experience a sense of bliss later in the core level, but also enable the participants to earn reward points. These can be redeemed in a vast array of cocoon-like structures, or bubble reality above the core level, containing theme-oriented settings relating to all imaginable fantasies. These could range from pure ethereal beauty such as that of blue lagoons and lush foliage to places where you could take on the role of any character you want such as an action movie star, a popular singer or play out your utmost carnal cravings. Of course many of these possibilities would also be a reality in the core level of my utopia, yet would only be attainable via an extended process involving sheer dedication and trial and error, not instantaneously as in the bubble reality. Anybody who has garnered sufficient reward points in the endurance level would be able to enter the bubble reality, though only for a fixed period of time.
We human beings, though sentient in nature, have nonetheless been restricted to the individualistic pursuit of knowledge and enhancing sense perception by the eventual degradation of bodies resulting in the so-called death of a person. Even though we are able to exercise the faculties of learning and expression in the last few decades of life, sensual gratification undergoes a much earlier demise. My utopian equivalent of scientists would have developed various alternate means for the intelligent essence of humans to subsist on long after their original bodies have given up.
The denizens of my utopia could choose from residing in a purely mechanical form, organic, bio-mechanical or as entities in a virtual world. Of course permanent remedies for diseases and handicaps would have been developed to ensure that even natural bodies are not subjected to unnecessary strain.
As my utopia has taken some shape, there might appear to be a number of similarities with the typical lifestyle that people usually lead in this world. The core level can be synonymous with one's comfy abode and the endurance level with the market and corporate world where one regularly exposes oneself to gruelling tasks to earn money or 'reward points'. Redeeming the 'reward points' for entrance into the 'bubble reality' level would be analogous to the culture of consumerism in which one procures items or takes a vacation to some exotic place. Instead of simply being a flight of fancy, any version of my utopia would strike a balance between struggle and adversity and a sense of elation and serenity.