Lahore, Sufi saints and the militant mindset

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Data darbar, over 40 dead and over a hundred injured and I could have been one of them.

Lahore Challo

This was my family’s first trip to Lahore together, and we were determined to go despite admonishments all around.

“What about the Punjabi Taliban?! Its not safe!”

“You’ll get blown up. That’s for sure.”

“It’s ridiculously hot. You’ll pass out halfway through sight-seeing.”

“No” I replied to all of the above. “We are from Karachi, we can take it.”

A night on the town

My mother, my two sisters and I have just finished consuming an enormous meal at a roadside café in old Anarkali, and it is some of the best food we have ever had. It is 10:30pm, we’re on a Lahore high, and there is enough time for us to do one more night time activity before calling it a day.

“How about visiting one of the Sufi shrines?” I ask them. “It’s on our list of things to do; we may as well experience it at night and it’s a Thursday!” (Thursday nights see heightened festivities at all shrines.)

My elder sis, just recently returned from the US is cautious about the suggestion.

“Isn’t there a security risk? Aren’t such locations a target area for attacks? I don’t want to go.”

“Relax,” I say. “No one is going to attack a shrine – we haven’t seen that kind of terrorist activity in Punjab. Not to mention, what’s the likelihood a suicide bomber would happen to choose this night, this hour and the shrine we choose to visit to carry out an attack? Practically nil.”

At the back of my mind, I think of the attacks on the CD shops in Lahore which we reported just days ago. That had never happened in Lahore either. But really I reason with myself, what is the likelihood of such an attack?

So we all agree to the plan, but we cannot seem to agree on the specifics.

“Data Darbar” say my mother and sisters. Their reasoning is sound. Data Darbar is the largest shrine of its kind. It will be teeming full of people, the atmosphere will be electric, and it’s just a kilometer away from our current location – we must visit they say.

I’m against the idea.

“I want to see Pappu Saeein,” I insist. My sisters seem unsure. Pappu Saeein performs late at night at a far smaller shrine of Shah Jamal. It sounds shadier and not as appealing, but I am adamant; I have wanted to see Pappu Saeein in Lahore ever since we left Karachi. I refuse to be swayed, so we head to Shah Jamal.

Drums and fear

It is 10:45pm and we have entered the shrine of Shah Jamal. It is much smaller than I imagined and we are early. We climb the steps to the saint’s tomb feeling incredibly out of place and again I have to convince my family that coming here is a good idea.

We say a small dua near the tomb before making our way to the main clearing. There is a small crowd present, many of them smoking marijuana, some praying, and some idling. There is no security, and no one seems too concerned with our entrance as the drummers step forward. They begin their hypnotic beats, and people begin to sway. Some rise in early trance and start to move to the rhythm. I feel something myself. It is my mobile phone buzzing in my pocket. It is 11pm. I ignore the first message. I ignore the second. My younger sister is circling the shrine trying to take photos on the sly. My phone keeps vibrating, the drummers keep playing. Another message, still another. A call. I’m on vacation I keep telling myself; I will NOT answer the phone. Another SMS, another call. Out of sheer frustration I pull out my mobile to see what the fuss is all about.

Friend: Are you okay bro? Is the family with you?

Co-worker: At last your suspicions came true. Blast in Lahore.

Co-worker: Bomb explosion in Data Darbar.

Friend: Please tell me you are safe.

I am fixed to the spot, terrified. Here in Shah Jamal, there is nothing but peace. The drummers are beating their rhythm. No one has noticed that the world has gone mad just a few kilometers away.

“We’re leaving,” I tell the family. I do not explain anything to them but start descending the steps which lead out of the shrine. They follow me. There is no time to explain. My phone keeps ringing.

Half an hour later

We’re home safe in Faisal Town, watching the news. Others living in the house have joined us. No one can believe how close we were to the horrific scenes we are watching on the TV screen. I keep thinking about how we might have driven to Data Darbar. Would we have arrived before or after the suicide bombers? How did we think we would be safe visiting a Sufi shrine? What was I thinking? My family could have been killed. I would never have forgiven myself.

One of our elder family friends seated on the sofa interrupts my contemplation with a casual, off-hand statement.

“…well sometimes such attacks should take place you know. I don’t mean often, but how else will these ignorant people ever learn that what they are practicing is shirk?”

I am too shocked to be ashamed. My family is silent. We know there is little point in speaking – this place is so infested with hate, we often do not even recognize how we are fueling violence even as we claim to deplore it. We have grown used to it, so we do not react. We could have died in that attack, but our family friend does not seem to register that; he is now talking about how these Taliban terrorist types need to be bombed out of Pakistan.

I am reminded of the comments I spent hours cleaning up on the Tribune’s website on the release of a story titled, ‘The saints will protect Karachi from Cyclone Phet’.

I remember how the majority of comments were of this same mindset against those who spoke warmly of the Sufi saints. Kill the blasphemers, they said, in so many different words. These very same people, who wanted an end to violence, terrorism and militancy, wanted their fellow human beings dead for not falling in step with their own beliefs.

With a mindset such as this, we don’t need intelligence agencies; sometimes we need only look in a mirror to find the terrorists.

Published in Tribune Blogs.

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