interview
"This book will not change anybody's life"
By Arif Waqar
Born and raised in the "city of falcons" Sargodha, on a day as special as Sept 7 1965, Masud Alam had little choice but to become a fighter pilot.

Religion of the street
Juergen Wasim Frembgen's Journey to God is a well researched book on the history of Sufism
By Aamir Riaz
Journey to God: Sufis and Dervishes in Islam
By Jürgen Wasim
Frembgen
Publisher: Oxford
University Press, Pakistan
Pages: 350
Price: Rs495
From the beginning, people have been wandering in search of truth. During this quest, they have experimented with magic, religion, mantras, science and ideology as the source of real knowledge. They have explored the universe in different, more often opposite, ways. But the question of determining the absolute reality or truth remains as hazy as it was 5000 years ago.

 

 

interview

"This book will not change anybody's life"

 

By Arif Waqar

Born and raised in the "city of falcons" Sargodha, on a day as special as Sept 7 1965, Masud Alam had little choice but to become a fighter pilot.

When, however, he left Pakistan Air Force, he didn't take the predictable road -- a switchover to passenger airlines or getting a mid-management job on the strength of an MBA done at PAF expense -- but chose the challenging path of journalism and worked in the UK, Canada and Middle East, first as a reporter and later as an editor. At present he's desk editor of BBC Urdu Service in Islamabad where, in addition to his editorial duties, he also runs a weekly travel segment called Safr Kahani which is relayed on partner FM stations throughout the country.

Masud has been travelling all his life, and telling the stories of far off places and exotic people to his family and friends. Now that some of those stories have been compiled in book form, many more can enjoy the candid, irreverent, and often funny narrative.

"Not since Mustansar Tarrar has a traveller written so well and a writer travelled with such abandon" says Mohammad Hanif, "Masud has a pervert's eye for beauty, a prophet's ear for the profound and a gypsy's wanderlust."

Excerpts of the interview as follows:

The News on Sunday: In the 1950s and 60s, when passports were issued to only a chosen few, and air travel was an expensive and prestigious affair, travel books were the only solace for general masses. Today do you think travelogues have the same importance, and people read them with the same degree of interest?

Masud Alam: The distinction to be made here is between 'travel' and 'tourism.' Yes more Pakistanis travel more frequently today, as compared with three, four decades ago, but they are not tourists. They travel for work, education, holidays, or family reunions. Their itinerary is pre-decided and shopping lists are constantly updated. There is no margin for spontaneity, cutting loose, and above all, wanderlust.

Some of these travellers return from their all-expenses-paid trips, and pen down their observations, which almost always start with: "So-and-so bhai, who is now posted at Pakistani embassy here, sent a car to pick me from the airport, and then insisted that I stay with him at his official residence…". I read them all -- have a very high boredom threshold for bad literature, and films too -- though not many others put themselves through the torture. But the same people still read Mustansar Hussain Tarar, even when he writes only about places and people inside Pakistan.

I do believe that stories from far away lands, characters speaking alien languages, and an individual's perceptions of local customs, do and will continue to hold the imagination of readers everywhere. You do got to have some imagination to enjoy travel writing, and I have to believe there is a sizeable readership with imagination, in this country of 170 million.

TNS: Most Pakistani writers of your age group and socio-cultural background are writing fiction in English language, but you chose travel stories, and that too in Urdu. Any particular reason?

MA: My mother tongue is Punjabi, learnt Urdu at school, and found a vocation writing news copy in English. But as is usually the case in Pakistan, the multi-lingual environment is born of contempt for the native tongue, rather than love and respect for other languages and cultures, and so instead of enriching, it limits the expression. I can't claim authority in any of the three languages I speak -- usually in the same sentence. When I joined BBC Urdu Service in 2001, I rediscovered the joy of reading/writing Urdu and am still not over it. That is one reason I chose Urdu when I sat down to compose Chalo.

As for choosing the genre, it was not a conscious decision on my part. I've been travelling for years, and writing about my experiences, for the sole purpose of sharing with friends. This book is just a collection of those stories.

I have derived pure, unadulterated pleasure reading Urdu travelogues in my growing up years. To an extent Tarar's romanticism, Atta Ul Haq Qasmi's humour, Mukhtar Masood's realism and ecstatic prose, and Shafiq Ur Rehman's era of innocence, all must have influenced me to write travel, in Urdu.

TNS: Which of your stories did you personally like most?

MA: That's an unfair question and only merits an unfair answer. Generally I like the parts with human interaction. So passages in Roshni ke Ta'aqub Mein on Melissa, Hussain, and Olaf ; police interrogation in Maan Na Maan and Abdool's anecdotes in Dum Maro Dum are some of my favourite parts.

TNS: There's no time-frame in your stories, (when did it happen?). Is it zan attempt to make them 'timeless'?

MA: (laughs) Thanks for leading me to the right answer. As it happened, the stories in Chalo were written over a very long period of time. The oldest travel would be about 15-20 years ago and the latest a couple of years. And since I hadn't dated my notes, there was no way of determining the exact date, even year.

Anyway, the subjects I've touched on wouldn't be affected for better or worse, if there was a time-line with every story.

TNS: Those who personally know you can imagine you as the protagonist of these travel stories, but for general readers you have given no clues to the age, appearance or any other identity of the narrator. Is it intentional?

MA: Yes it is. Do you really expect a book with my picture on the back cover to sell? Which is not to say, not using my picture is a sure way to sell books.

You see, some of these stories are written by a twenty something old, and some by a thirty something. And all are edited by a forty plus years old Masud. There was difference of tone, of humour, of vocabulary and the only way to make the book easy on the reader was to give it a single voice. It essentially meant toning down some of the more racy passages of older writings, and adding zing to the newer ones. I hope the book does speak with a single voice now, even though the narrator comes across as elusive.

TNS: Who do you think is a typical reader of these travel stories? Moreover, any interesting reader-response?

MA: A typical reader is someone like me. Someone who may have advanced in years, but is still nurturing the child inside and is given to daydreaming and rainbow chasing. This book will not change anybody's life. It will not make anyone more intelligent or more knowledgeable. I reckon it will be picked up by those who enjoy reading for the sake of reading, and to stir their imagination.

If there is a surprise in the early profile of Chalo readers, it is the angraizi medium youth and middle-aged crowd. One response repeated by readers in this group repeatedly is, "This is the first Urdu book I've read after high school." It doesn't sound like one, but I take it as a compliment.

TNS: You have spent most of your working life in UK, Canada and Dubai, but you've hardly touched these places in your travel account. Have you saved these places for your next book?

MA : This is the point I was making earlier. I have 'lived' in London, Toronto and Dubai; I have 'holidayed' in the rest of UK, Canada and UAE; and I have 'travelled for work' to a dozen other countries that aren't mentioned in this book. It is because I haven't visited these places as a tourist. I haven't been alone and available to bond with the lands and its peoples. I haven't heard the sounds and seen the attractions with the lust that only comes with the knowledge that visiting this place again is possible but highly unlikely.

Excerpt from the book

Freetown of Christiania is a sort of tribal area of Copenhagen. It is part of the city in that it has homes with families living in them; restaurants and shops busy with customers, and at least one auto workshop. And it also has the air of a city block from another world, planted here as an experiment in cross-civilisation interaction. The buildings are dilapidated, all the lanes are dark, the majority of people roaming the area are young, and many are smoking marijuana.

The centre of activity in Christiania is a double storey building standing in a corner by itself. It's a pub called 'Fishing From the Moon'. Clouds of cannabis drift out every time the door opens. On a black board next to the entrance is a record of how many times have the police raided this place: Three on this day alone, and 322 times in the last 75 days. But this information doesn't seem to deter the steady stream of customers.

 

Religion of the street

Juergen Wasim Frembgen's Journey to God is a well researched book on the history of Sufism

By Aamir Riaz

Journey to God: Sufis and Dervishes in Islam

By Jürgen Wasim

Frembgen

Publisher: Oxford

University Press, Pakistan

Pages: 350

Price: Rs495

From the beginning, people have been wandering in search of truth. During this quest, they have experimented with magic, religion, mantras, science and ideology as the source of real knowledge. They have explored the universe in different, more often opposite, ways. But the question of determining the absolute reality or truth remains as hazy as it was 5000 years ago.

Eternal love is also a form of such a journey for truth. Sufis, Saints and believers of Wahdat-al-Wajood (oneness) explained such suffering in terms of duality between man and God. According to their version, Sakoon-e-Qalab (peace of mind) is impossible without addressing the core issue of duality.

Similar questions brought Juergen Wasim Frembgen, a German Ethnologist, -- who is also the Chief Curator of the Oriental Department at the Museum of Ethnology in Munich and a lecturer in Islamic Studies at the University of Munich -- to visit Punjab and other areas in Pakistan every year since 1981 in order to do his field work for his Phd. In Harban, a remote valley close to Nanga Parbat, Frembgen was enticed by the folk version of Islam practised by Sufis and Dervishes.

Frembgen is also well-versed in various Muslim schools of thought not only of Hind-Punjab but also of Central Asia, Iran and Afghanistan.

Jane Ripken the translator of Journey to God into English from German writes, "This book, which understands Sufi Islam as being embedded in wider social and cultural contexts, surveys the whole of the Muslim world from Sub-Saharan Africa across the Middle East to Eastern Turkistan and South Asia, with particular emphasis on Pakistan and India as its demographic centre."

In 1835, Lord Willaim Bentinck replaced Persian as the official language with English in India, while in Punjab, Dalhousie replaced Persian with English on March 29, 1849. This replacement gradually delinked 500 years of tradition based on scholarship and folk wisdom and changed the sources of scholarship in favour of colonisers.

In Pakistan, Sufi orders such as Naqashbandies, Chishties, Malamties, Shattaris and Qalandries are well known. But in this book, the reader will find numerous other orders along with their splinter groups. Some of the prominent orders among them are Boktashiyye, Yassawiyya, Khalwatiyya, Kubrawiyya, Madaris, Brahai Fakirs, Shadhiliyya, Nurbakhshiyya, Sanmaniyya, Mulaviyye, Safawiyyeh, Chuha Fakirs, Dhadis, Tijaniyya, Diwana, and Sidi Fakirs.

Journey to God is written in thematic rather than chronological order, which makes it a bit difficult for the common reader to fully grasp so many Sufi groups.

Frembgen reveals a continuous period of persecution of Sufis in Iran during the Safvi period (1592-1736). Sufis were so threatened that they had to hide their akaids (beliefs). Due to this persecution, Sufis had to migrate towards Hind- Punjab areas. Interestingly in our history, the entry of Sufis is linked with the return of the Mughal king Humayun from Iran as part of an Iranian conspiracy.

He also writes about the Sufi, Mansoor Hallaj (858-922). His hanging enshrined the slogan of "Anal-Haq" in the hearts of ordinary people.

There is also mention of several incidents where one finds some Sufis indulging in politics, either in favour of the king or the rebellious prince. Frembgen writes that during the twelfth century in the Taimour period, Ulemas belonging to the Naqashbandi school held strong positions in the government. Sufis who took part in power politics were generally either from the Naqshbandi school or its splinters. In NWFP and FATA areas there was a strong mixture of Pukhtoons and the Naqshbandi school. One may trace roots of such influences from neighbouring Central Asia.

He also writes about a Chishti sufi, Sheikh Muhamad Rukanudin Junaidi, who did Rasm-e-Tajposhi of the first ruler of Bahmani kingdom during the year 1347 in Daulatabad, Deccan.

There are various incidents in which Sufis also supported rebels. The anti-Mughal Roshnya movement is not the only example in this connection. This movement was headed by Bayazid Ansari, commonly known as Peer Roshaan. He was a Jalandhri pathan by race.

Peer baba of Bunair and Saidu baba of Sawat had lot of influence on Gujars, Pathans, Hindo Hazara and FATA tribes.

The author also narrates incidents of armed struggle from Sudan to Russia in which Sufis participated. In this connection he gives special reference to Imam Shamil (1796-1871) and the Mahdavi movement (1843).

On the other hand there were numerous Sufi schools that were not involved in politics. Among them were the Qalandri, Maligi and Malamti orders and many of them had linkages with the Qadrya order.

Referring to fourteenth century Punjab, there was a Sufi order of Gorakh Nath Yogies. From Punjab to Bengal, this order did not only influence Hindus but also influenced numerous Muslims Sufi orders. Till the 19th century, it had developed its roots in marginalised communities like the musalies, mirasies and shudaras.

On the other hand, the Qalandrya order started in the ninth century. Its influence was in Turkey, Balqaan, Iran, North Africa and Hind- Punjab. So in our part of world, after the twelfth century, one saw the rise of Baba Fareed, Bhagat Kabeer and then Baba Nanak who were a mixture of new local Sufi traditions.

In order to explain the geneses of this new awakening, Frembgen gives reference of wars, terrible feuds, and mass killings. Due to such continuous human sufferings, an existentialist Sufi order emerged to safeguard mankind.

From Ibn-e-Arabi to Baba Bulleh Shah, Sufi scholars concluded that neither kings nor rebels could resolve issue of the individual's sufferings. So they developed a relationship with common people by establishing "darbars" which detached from all kinds of power politics.

They were scholars of Arabic and Persian yet they started using local languages to communicate more to the masses.

The author writes that today, the Qadrya and Chistya orders are growing and their teachings are spreading in Britain, USA, Norway, Canada and West Europe.

Like Francis Robinson's book The Ulama of Farangi Mahall and Islamic Culture in South Asia, Journey to God, urges one towards the Sufi tradition which is based on tolerance and peace.

Publishing French, German and Persian research in Pakistan is a rare thing and one must acknowledge publishers in this regard.

Aamir Riaz is a editor, researcher and consultant based in Lahore.

Email: [email protected]

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