Dionysian splendour


At the Shrine of the Red Sufi: Five Days and Nights on
Pilgrimage in

By Jurgen Wasim

Publisher: Oxford
University Press

Pages: 181

Price: Rs 695

 By Qudsia Sajjad

At the Shrine of the Red Sufi: Five Days and Nights on Pilgrimage in Pakistan is an account by Jurgen Wasim Frembgen of exactly what it says in the title. The author, a German lecturer on Anthropology and Islamic Studies, spent five days in the religious festival at Sehwan—the shrine of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar. Frembgen fleetingly touches upon the controversial currents surging in the religious life of masses in Pakistan. A lot can be said about a book which seems to be written with the express reason to bring to audiences a sense of what it means to be part of the Sufi tradition in today’s Pakistan.

According to Frembgen, the Sufi experience is an assimilation of all that had gone on before the great Islamic traditions.  Frembgen has chronicled the time he spent at the religious festival in Sehwan Sharif in Sindh at the urs of Lal Shahbaz Qalander. Along with the description of the festival, the throng of people and religious ascetics the book is full of accounts of myths retold with slight differences by different characters. This repetition gives the book a certain recurring structure. On one hand this repetition shows the malleability of myths but on the other, it can be a deterrent for the reader because of its sameness. To a western audience, the book will certainly be more welcome for it may preserve its novelty. It might just soften the proverbial bearded image of Pakistan and substitute in its place a country where there is room for Dionysian splendour; however minimal.

In his depiction of the festival at Sehwan, Frembgen brings in many references which show a link between the past and present. He suggests that pagan rituals or Hindu rituals in the case of the subcontinent have always been assimilated into the new religion to make it more appealing to the masses. This assertion has the potential to feed itself to the puritan who will set out with all the more zeal to purge Islam from foreign influence, without realising the tawaaf of the Kaaba itself was in place even before the advent of Islam. Maybe the truth is that human beings are always in need of myths and rituals which help them regulate their apparently irrational earthly existence. Frembgen has mentioned certain rituals and practices which apparently are pagan in nature, such as the shrine of Bibi Nani which bears a close resemblance to Nini; once worshipped as the goddess of fertility in this region along the Indus river.

Frembgen mentions the occasional drug that shows up in the Sufi culture. Unlike the orthodox versions of Islam, popular Sufi culture at the shrines of Sufi saints has access to mild drugs. This indicates a certain 1960ish search for out of body experiences which many tried to find in the realm of drugs. Strangely enough, the generation that defied society in the 1960s sounds to have a lot in common with the nomadic Sufis. Since the Sufis seem to be a wandering cult, going around like gypsies, they seem to be miles away from western materialism in their disdain for worldly possessions.  In fact, the ascetics showing up in the book own hardly anything besides the clothes on their back although they make much of their gemstones; some of which have spiritual meaning for the wearers.

One area which leaves the reader with unanswered questions seems to be when Frembgen starts explaining the movements of dhamaal, the trance-like state of religious intoxication which is experienced by the pilgrims to the shrine. Interestingly, he gives almost no account of men performing dhamaal. While, at least four instances in the book mention dhamaal performed by women at the shrine. Frembgen treats such women with a curious eye. To him, they seem to be testing the boundaries of an exclusively male tradition. He provides the complete descriptions of their movements in the trance-like state with an obvious comment upon the group of men which — perhaps inevitably — surrounds these women. The description seems wanting because it appears as if the author is trying to make a point — that women in Pakistan are not allowed to express themselves freely in public—  and at the same time trying not to make it.

The book is full of descriptions about the festival, from sleep at night to public lavatories; nothing misses the writer’s eye. He describes the lives of Sufis that he meets on his way, the beggars he sees in the streets of Sehwan, the rituals at the shrine which include a ceremony of henna; all this is woven into an interesting narrative. He also mentions some debates that take place between some of the characters he meets such as the tension between orthodox Islam and its freer version. The culture of the Sufis represents a counter culture, an opposition not only to orthodox Islam but to authority in all its forms. Short of suggesting free love, this counter culture stops at nothing in order to achieve a complete alliance with god.

In the current tide of attacks at shrines all over Pakistan, one wonders how long will this counter culture survive. Also the question arises if enough documentation of the Sufi tradition in the country after 1947 is available to researchers and students of history, anthropology or cultural studies. Accounts such as the one presented in this book—which is a short one, hardly one hundred and sixty pages—need to be expanded with the goal of making them available for serious research. The book leaves one yearning for more information about a great tradition in Islam: the culture of the Sufis.



Forgotten genius

Badbaan:  Iqbal Mateen Number
(Indian Edition)

Edited by Nasir Baghdadi

Publisher: Quarterly Badbaan

Pages: 540

Price: INR 500

Iqbal Mateen can be counted among the top ranking short story writers of India. His stories, poetry and pen sketches have always thrilled the serious aficionados of Urdu literature — both in India and Pakistan. Since none of his books have been published in Pakistan, he does not enjoy the reputation he deserves. Nasir Baghdadi, editor of Badbaan, has done a great job by publishing a special issue on Iqbal Mateen. Published from Delhi, this issue of Badbaan is a valuable document for all those who have or want to read the stories or poetry of Iqbal Mateen.

Born in Hyderabad Deccan in 1929, his first collection of stories Ujli Parchaeean got published in 1960. His other collections of stories are: Nucha Howa Album, Khali Patarion Ka Madari, Agahee Kay Weeranay, Mazbala, Mein Bhi Fasana Tum Bhi Kahani and Shehar Ashob. His only novella, Chiragh-e-Tahi Daman, is a rarity in Urdu literature as it tackles the delicate subject of prostitution with certain deftness. Ali Ahmad Fatimi, a known critic of India, dissects the above mentioned novella in his essay. He is of the view that Mateen dealt with the bawdy subject in a very artistic manner.

 Jilani Bano takes a looks at his stories and states that “Iqbal Mateen’s fiction is hardly discussed by critics. Actually, he does not resort to self projection and continues to write stories silently. It is sad to note that he has been ignored by the critics”. Deccan, the land of elite and feudal, is locale of most of his stories. Jilani Bano remarks that Mateen has shown us the other side of Deccan where we come face to face with characters like Gulbadan Bua, Qalandar Husain, and Chaggan Chacha.

Dr Qamar Raees notes that Iqbal Mateen should have written a detailed novel on the decadent culture of Hyderabad Deccan as he was the best suited person to do this. Mehdi Jafar, Fuzail Jafri, Atiqullah, Yousaf Sarmast, Ratan Singh, Suleman Areeb and few others analyse the fiction of Mateen in their essays. In his usual witty style, Mujtaba Hussain shares with the readers the days spent in the company of Mateen.

A few stories of Mateen have also been included in the issue so that the readers can evaluate his fiction. Graveyard is a famous story which was lauded by many. The mood of the whole story is quite sombre and it is a fast paced read. Shehar Ashob has been written in the backdrop of the Gujarat massacre. It is a harrowing read and one can not help but shiver at the end of the story. A section has been devoted to his poetry where Ghalib Irfan, Rauf Kher, Aqeel Hashmi, and others throw light on his verse collection, Sareer-e-Jan. Celebrated poet Sheharyar writes that “Iqbal Mateen’s poetry is about his personal experiences. There is recurrent theme of pain in his poetry and at times it becomes quite bitter. But despite all the bitterness, his poetry remains very civilised”.

Here one should not ignore Sondhi Mitti Kay Buut, pen sketches of Mateen. Since Hyderabad was the city where Makhdum Mohiuddin’s poetry held sway, Mateen wrote a very powerful sketch of the revolutionary poet. He painted the cultural life of his city with his pen. Here we are introduced with Makhdum Mohiuddin, Suleman Areeb, Shaz Tamkanat, Latif Sajid, Yousaf Sarmast and a few others. This way, he has saved the cultural vignettes of Hyderabad for posterity. Deccan’s cultural life is nothing without the revolutionary poetry of Makhdum, one can benefit immensely from this lovely piece to understand his larger than life persona. Samples of Mateen’s poetry have also been given due space in this issue. His nazms are of average quality but his ghazals are simply majestic. Sheharyar is spot on when he says though his verses are outwardly very simple, they are technically perfect.

India’s noted critics have evaluated the art of Iqbal Mateen in this issue; but their Pakistani counterparts are silent. Nasir Baghdadi’s effort is highly laudable for introducing Iqbal Mateen to Urdu lovers of Pakistan. Here one must add that the quality of production of this issue is not up to the mark. Similarly, proof reading is also a bit haphazard. Apart from these glitches, Badbaan’s special issue on Iqbal Mateen will definitely be welcomed by all serious students of Urdu literature.


Badbaan:  Iqbal Mateen Number is available at Badbaan Publications, Gulshan-e-Iqbal, Karachi. 02134947230



The world is divided between those who like words and those who think they are “only material for professors” as the man, who fixed my plumbing, put it.  For those of us who enjoy verbarian exotica there is no greater pleasure than discovering words that are real but have long lain unseen.

On a wet Wimbledon afternoon, last week, I was browsing in a small bookstore when I came across Peter Bowler’s Superior Person’s Third Book of Words. Cornucopia.

Bowler who must be a lexicographer himself tells us that he has listed the words for the readers to speak, as he puts it, “a more finely refined mechanical engine for the language that they speak so that they may the more readily assert a fitting ascendancy over their fellows.”

He is absolutely right. The moment you learn what the words imply you do not lose any time using them in your conversation. Let me illustrate: “impudicity” means lack of modesty, shamelessness. What a great opportunity to articulate your feeling about your unfavourite television presenter: “As for her potential as a talk-show hostess,… well, let me say she certainly has all the necessary impudicity.”

Allow me to titillate you with some of the words I have selected for you. Roll them off your tongue first; they are delectable.


TERRAQUEOUS: living both on land and water.

“Not all, but some alligators are terraqueous.”

PETALIFEROUS: having petals.

“I like your dress, so petaliferous”

CACOSMIA: a condition in which a person experiences awful tastes and smells without any external physical cause.

“Poor Ijaz, he is not only losing hair rapidly, he is also suffering from cacosmia. In his case it is burnt rubber.”

IMPUTRESCIBLE: not subject to corruption.

“Ladies and gentleman, it is my pleasant duty to introduce to you a bureaucrat about whom it can be said that imputresciblity is totally foreign to his nature.”

CONCINNITY: elegance and appropriateness of style.

“The Minister of interiors may have many qualities but concinnity is not one of them.”

DECARCERATION: the freeing of criminals from confinement and their resettlement in society.

“The British Prime Minister had to eat his words when he withdrew his plans for decarceration.” 

DEMOPHOBIA: the morbid dread of crowds.

“He has been suffering from demophobia ever since he saw a man crushed to death in a religious procession.”

DESULTOR: in ancient Rome the desultor was a performer who rode two horses at the same time alternately leaping form one to the other.

“It’s not just in a circus that you see a desultor. We have many a desultor in our parliament”.  

EQUIPOLLENT: equivalent in size, weight and strength.

“So what if your mother said you could go to the cinema this evening. You are not going anywhere. I would have you know that your mother and I are not equipollent in terms of household decisions.”

Why not say equivalent, you might well ask? The answer is simple. “superior” person’s word just as habiliments is a ‘superior’ person’s word  for items of clothing.

EXOGAMY: marriage outside of a certain group laid down by tradition or custom or law. As, for example, prohibition in various Shia families on marriage to Sunnis (and vice versa).

“In Noor Ali’s case the principle of exogamy would not rule out marriage to a tart — he is such a loathsome scoundrel.”

FIMBRIATED: having a fringe. “Rosemary Fortescue made her entrance as Joan of Arc, suitably fimbriated.

FUGACITY: the tendency towards transience — to changing or moving on quickly. “It is nice to know that my nephew has so many girl friends, but their fugacity is a bit worrying. It doesn’t seem to bother him in the least.”

GORGONISE: to petrify or paralyse as if by the gaze of Gorgon Medusa.

“My aunt Bilquis was a bullish lady. Whenever a party of eunuchs turned up at her door she would gorgonise them before they could get started.

HILARODY: a form of ancient Greek mime in which some Greek tragedy is made fun of.

“Oh most amusing” You say to your wife,

“I come home covered in mud, having tripped over a barrel, and all you can greet me with is hilarity.”

IGNIFY:          to burn or set something alight. “He left me with a book of poems which he has published himself. I have a good mind to write to him and say, Dear Sarfarosh, I have gone through your book and I’ll see that it is thoroughly ignified.”

IMPEDATIVE: causing obstruction. Getting in the way. “How often have we all felt like cursing the motor cyclist who, when the traffic lights changes from red to green, suddenly overtakes us from the left to go right, leaving us

breathless. Well, from now on we should not mutter under our breath but shout — ‘You impedative moron.’ ”

The word that has given me the most satisfaction is obdormition which (I learned) means the going to sleep of a limb when pressure on a nerve has caused a tingly numbness. I have experienced it often in my foot. In Urdu we say Paon so gaya hai (the foot has gone to sleep). Now I know how to describe my condition. What’s more I can toss it off - with devastating effect, (I hope,) when talking of a certain politician: “Mr. XYZ is the only person who gets obdormition of the brain.”

The Superior Person’s Book not only provides you with an arsenal of words, but also splendid anecdotes of eccentric scholars. My favourite one refers to the Greek letter iota. The English word, as we all know, means a tiny particle. Iota received its most charming use from John Barret, Professor of Oriental Languages at Trinity College Dublin, the famous Irish university.

One of Professor Barret’s finest achievements was the discovery hidden away in the folds of another manuscript, of an ancient Greek text of the Gospel of St. Mathews. Barret had been glancing at a pile of papers when he noticed (in his own words), “a dear little iota in the corner.”

Barret wrote and spoke ancient Greek and Latin with absolute fluency but his English was appalling. He lived within the walls of the college from the age of fourteen, and had virtually no knowledge of the outside world and from all accounts any common sense at all. He once had two holes, one big and one small, cut in his door to allow access to his two cats, one of which was big and one small; because it had not occurred to him that the small cat would be able to go through the big hole. 

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