“Even A Smile Is Considered Charity”

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Laal, a young Afghan girl l met at the primary school for Afghan refugee girls, suffers from epilepsy. In Pashto, there are no equivalent words for medical jargon and terms like epilepsy, so her mother described it in terms of shaking, or the “illness of the brain” as she called it.
 
“She collapses on the street, into the gutter sometimes. She has no control over herself, it’s so humiliating. Isn’t there something you can do?”
 
I asked about whether she had seen a doctor. One of the health workers accompanying me told me how some private medical practitioners in Pakistan are like modern day equivalents of the Sheriff of Nottingham. They suck the poor dry of what little money they have because they know they can. Even 20 rupees (about 18p in British currency) is a large sum of money. There was nothing I could do. Hell, if I were armed with a medical degree, I would try.
 
I told her mother how bubbly and energetic she was despite her illness, and she only beamed as mothers do when you compliment their child, asking me if I wanted to take Laal’s photo. Laal of course was only too happy to pose for me.
 
There I was, frantically trying to think of some way I could give to them. But true to the prophetic narration, when the prophet Muhammad (pbuh) stated that even a smile is considered charity, it was Laal that gave me something with her smile.
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Houses in the Rubble

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The remnants of these buildings were once homes which belonged to Afghan refugees. As part of the Pakistani governments efforts to repatriate Afghan refugees back to Afghanistan, they’re now abandoned for the most part, although some families actually still live here.
 
The adults are nowhere to be seen, but beautiful children with golden hair, golden eyes, and sunburned skin came out from these buildings and swarmed me, curious about the stranger trying to blend in with her western shalwaar kameez. As soon as I took out my camera to take a photo of them, they scuttled back into these buildings like startled mice.
 
One man tells me that the wooden roofs of these buildings were taken down by the families who used to live in them. “Why on earth would they do that?”, I asked him.
 
“It’s because they have nothing in Afghanistan, wood is all they have.”

On Afghan Women and Their Tradition of Tattoos

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In the Khyber Pakhtun Khwa (KPK) region of Pakistan, I traveled to a primary school for Afghan refugee girls to meet with Afghan mothers whose children had received polio vaccinations, and to speak with the women (or Lady Health Workers as they’re known) leading community sessions which sought to raise awareness about immunisation, nutrition, and other things besides. These communities are entirely destitute, so education of any kind as you can imagine, is gold dust.
 
As I walked into the school gates, fashionably late, I saw more than eighty women sat waiting in the school courtyard listening to a female health worker talking about the importance of nutrition. She entreated them warmly, speaking in Pashto: “Sisters, if you don’t look after yourselves, how can you expect to take care of your babies? It’s your fard (obligation) to yourselves to eat well.”
 
One of the ladies working at the school greeted me and told us how these women had been waiting five hours just to meet me and the photographer I was travelling with. I had to swallow a lump in my throat as I became slightly overwhelmed, watching these women from the back although they braved to look at the curious idiot every now and again, crumpling her face in an effort to hide any emotion. I wouldn’t wait an hour for someone I had never met, let alone five hours.
 
The health worker finished her session, and introduced me. I suddenly felt incredibly small as eighty pairs of eyes bore intensely into my bumbling face. My facial muscle has a mind of it’s on when I’m nervous, so it started to involuntarily contract. What an idiotic Brit I must have looked, coming in with my anglicised, Pakistani dialect of Pashto and my jerky body language. I apologised for keeping them waiting and asked them to bear with my poor language skills as I tried to speak in their mother-tongue. All eighty of these women laughed affectionately with me, telling me I was their sister and that I was welcome. I felt like a stand-up comedian for a split-second, with a not-so-common audience of Afghan women who wore the burqa.
 
As I went around to speak to these women, I noticed many of them had dots tattooed onto their faces and their hands. I asked them what they were and they explained how it was tradition for young Afghan women to have these “khaal” or dots tattooed before they hit puberty.
 
In Afghanistan there are no tattoo artists with professional tattoo guns at the ready that look like hairy bikers, just an elderly woman with her pale blue burqa flung behind her head like a cape, poised to prick the skin with three needles dipped into dye sourced from a plant.
 
“Did it hurt?” I asked.
 
One of the elderly ladies laughed jovially, and said “Well of course it did!”
 
I urged her to allow me to take a photo of the tattoos on her face. “Your face is so khashta (lovely), how can I not?!” I said to her.
 
This woman in her 70s suddenly became so bashful like a newly-wed bride who had just been complimented on her radiant beauty, it made me laugh. She smiled and covered her face with her saadar (scarf), and said I could take a photograph but only if she covered her face.
 
At the risk of producing another Orientalist image which would add to an already overflowing pile of stock images of seductive, oppressed Afghan women with beautiful eyes and a burqa veiling them from the camera lens, I decided to take a photo of her hands instead.

Rabab: The Oldest Instrument in the World

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The rabab, a sort of Pashtun guitar, is one of the oldest instruments in the world.

Afghanistan is known for little else other than the Taliban and the war which has destroyed and traumatised generations of Afghans. When it was known as Khorasan, few people know Afghanistan not only gave birth to Rumi, perhaps the greatest poet to ever have lived. It also gave birth to an instrument that resurrects its stunning heritage of poetry and music every time its strings are plucked by skilled musicians. Rumi even penned (or inked) a poem about it:

“Do you know what the voice of the rabab is saying?
Come follow in my steps and find the way;
Since through error you’ll discover what’s right,
Since through questions you’ll end up with answers.”

 

Twenty-three year old Shauqat is a rabab player from Peshawar.
 
I was sat outside a cafe in Islamabad when he appeared out of nowhere and started strumming away on his rabab.
 
A security guard approached him after ten minutes or so of his playing, sighed in awe and said to him in Pashto “Yarra, tu za ma sarr khre dee sarra”, which roughly translates to “you’re eating my head with your music”. From waiters, security guards, to restaurant goers, everyone was silent, watching him intensely as he jumped from one song to another, making us forget for a moment we were sat in a cafe named (hilariously enough) after Tuscany, a region in Italy. I couldn’t resist asking him where he learned to play so beautifully.
 
“When I went to school, I was never really into books. But there was an elderly person who used to come in and play the rabab. I went in one day and asked him how to play.
 
There was alot of affection between me and my teacher, so I picked it up quite quickly. He told me I had talent, and that I should go further and learn how to play properly. So I did. I learned how to play and then sat down with masters to learn from them. Now when I go back to Peshawar and I see him, I call him “ustadh” (teacher), because he was the first one who taught me. He just laughs at the title. He’s a really good man, I owe him a lot.
 
Before I knew it, people started to get wind of my rabab playing in my area. they would knock on my door and say: “Ho Shauqat! So-and-so is getting married, come and play for us!” I used to climb out of my window, and that was it. I was off playing inside someone’s home, or at someone’s wedding.
 
My parents know I’m a professional rabab player, but to this day, my father hasn’t ever seen me play. He hears it from people sure enough, but he’s never watched me perform.
 
I moved to Islamabad eventually after I signed up with a company. I teach guitar sometimes to kids. But you know, people don’t listen as much to the guitar here. The thing is about the rabab, if you play with love, the people can hear it. That’s why they love it so much.”
 
After I took his photograph, he asked: “Did you get my ring in?”
 
I got all sentimental and asked if it belonged to his father or a relative who passed away.
 
“No, no, it just looks good.” 😂

 

From Peshawar to Islamabad, you can hear the soulful sound of the rabbab on the streets, as Pashtuns who migrated to Pakistan brought the love of their music with them.

I’m sat here trying to satiate my sweet tooth with a molten chocolate brownie. As much as I crave sugar, even sugar addicts like me can eventually tire of it. The threat of an acid attack on my teeth compels me to stop eating. But could I ever get sick of the sound of the rabab? Never. The Pashtun in me compels me to keep my mouth shut, and my ears open.

The Artist from Lahore

Bilal is an artist from Lahore. I spotted his art hanging on a fence outside a local park on a last minute shopping spree.
He was never formally trained, but he inherited the business from his father who started it all up in 1991 when the family moved to Islamabad. 
He used to own the cafe across the road which he used as a shop, but he eventually sold up and starting selling on the streets. 
People in Pakistan struggle to get by with regular jobs, let alone unconventional and unstable professions such as that of an artist, so I asked him how he manages to make a living. 
“When you sell on the road compared to a shop, people don’t value your work as much. Four or five years ago, business was good, but these days, people aren’t buying, not even foreigners.” 
“Why do you do it then?”
“Dil Se”, he said in Urdu. Because he does it from the heart.

On Surviving Aeroplane Turbulence, Junaid Jamshed and Rumi

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The statistical probability of a plane crashing is one in a few million. But it’s funny how a little bit of aeroplane turbulence can quickly turn the feeling of elation you get when you’re flying, into one of panic. You might be sailing imagined gold-guilded ships into cloudy seas. You’re assured of your safety because you’re you, and bad things, unexpected things, don’t happen to you.
But these thoughts vanish like a puff of smoke when turbulence strikes. As the plane goes through several air pockets, like a toy plane in the hands of an infant that drank too much coke, it shudders from side to side. Before you know it, you’re prematurely reading the Shahadah, the declaration of faith Muslims recite before they die, and the initial sense of adventure you had is dampened by your fear of mortality. Irrational fears be damned. If it happened to Junaid Jamshed, the father of Pakistani pop music, it could happen to anyone.
So here I am, sat on a flight to Islamabad. Large ripples appear in my glass of mineral water not because of an approaching T-Rex, but because of the wind. Fumbling with my seat belt like a magician undoing the straps of a straight-jacket, I quickly reach for both ends as the seatbelt signs glow in response to the turbulence. The safety advert flickers onto the screens. It turns out Qatar airways has partnered with Barcelona FC, to direct passengers how to keep safe in the event of an emergency. I’m already struggling to click both ends of my belt. The last thing I need is to be distracted by hunky footballers when I should be focussing on the safety procedures.
Just as quickly as it comes, the rumble in the cloud jungle is over. The tannoid sounds, and the syrupy voice of the air hostess instructs passengers: “You may now remove your seat belts.” I almost praise God aloud by saying “Allahu Akbar”, God is great. But then I think about #flyingwhilstmuslim, swallow my religious zeal and say it inwardly instead.
The fear begins to simmer down, and the storm clears. Even the aeroplane exhales a sigh of relief as it breaks through a field of clouds and into rays of golden sunlight. If Hollywood is anything to go by, this must be what heaven looks like: a cloudy castle in the sky guarded by angels who wear white Armani suits and smile like Robert Redford, although I’ve yet to spot them. Snowflakes like dandelion heads begin to bloom on the oval-shaped plane windows. Down on earth, mankind is the king of the castle. But up here, the clouds, the sun, and God if you believe in him, reign supreme.
The man sat in front of me is lodged into his seat, man spreading his gangly legs. He kicks off his Nike trainers, and the stench of his odorous feet fills the cabin. To the horror of my nose, the aeroplane has now become a gas chamber. All of a sudden, Liam Neeson’s line from Taken comes to mind, and I have the urge to threaten this pungent stranger:
“I don’t know who you are, but I will find you, and I will smother you with my Qatar airways pillow if you don’t cover your feet.”
It seems like a good idea for a moment, but the air condition kicks in and the cabin becomes breathable once again. I want to say Takbir again, but, well, you know the drill.
The lady sat next to me removes a book from her backpack and places it in the wired pouch in front of her. Trevor Noah’s Cheshire Cat grin peeks out from behind. I make a remark about how he came to London recently, and how brilliant he was. She says she wasn’t able to go because of work, but heard his jokes on Donald Trump were particularly funny. After some small talk, I ask her what she does for a living. It turns out my neighbour is a young Sudanese doctor from Leicester. She talks candidly about the state of the NHS. She reduced her hours despite a big cut to her pay check because the work load became all too much. You can hear the resignation in her voice.
One seat down, a British expat living in Malaysia joins in the conversation. He tells us how he’s turned into an insomniac because of the fajr athaan coming from the mosque he lives next door to in Penang, waking him up at the crack of dawn everyday. He says the religious sermons he hears on Fridays from the speakerphone, sounds really “angry”. I tell him persuasive oratory often means you have to change your intonation to pull the congregation in, and that it’s not exclusive to just the Muslim community. “You should invest in some good earplugs” I add, half joking, half serious. He narrows his eyes at me slightly, turns away and buries his head back into the book he was reading: “Why Talent Isn’t Enough” it says in large red font.
The sun is beginning to set and the horizon is ablaze with orange, red, and yellow ombré nestled under blue skies. A single ball of fire which looks like Sauron’s eye, burns in the distance over the Turkish pass of Dilezi Gecidi. Grey mountains stretch out from east to west, as if a giant trailed its finger tips through grains of sand, creating a maze. If the Turkish Frodo is out there, I hope the clouds obscure any view of his curly locks as he makes his way across the plains, a red fez perched on his head and loyal Sam running at his side, rationing their dwindling supply of lembas bread and baklawa.
We’re passing over a city in Uzbekistan now. Lights lining the streets and pouring out of houses, creates an ordered chaos of orange and red. It’s as if a master tailor from the subcontinent sat down to map out these cities with intricate embellishments, meticulously hand stitching them one by one. Every brick is a bead, every road a gold thread, and every light a sequin.
As I sit in my ivory tower gazing from high above, it’s hard not to wonder how people down below live their day to day lives. What languages do they speak? What kind of food do they eat? I wonder what that ball of flame really was, whether it was a lighthouse guiding people lost in the dark, like a minaret close to home which can be seen from miles, draped in a veil of fairy lights like a new bride waiting in anticipation for her groom.
Thinking of lights and home reminds me of something Rumi wrote: “If light is in your heart, you will find your way home.”
If home is a place of belonging, where you feel at peace, then you can find it in so many things. The four walls of our physical homes, our family, friends, lovers, even entire cities.
But for a few hours at least, I can sever the kite strings anchoring me to the earth, and float thirty-six thousand feet in this cloudy no man’s land that is my new home, with only the lights of strange cities and the smaller, but stronger one radiating within myself to guide me to a new home, wherever it might be.

Nusrat Fateh Ali-Khan Meets Lagos on the Tubes of London

The woman sat in front of me on the train has the most silky, golden hair I’ve ever seen. I can’t see her face, only the back of her head. But already my mind is racing to piece together the jigsaw puzzle of her face. My brain is so saturated with popular images, it’s hard to think she must be anything but a combination of Giselle Bündchen and Charlize Theron. Imagine my shock as she turns to the side to reach inside her bag, revealing a bristly, gingery beard erupting from the side of her face. It turns out she, is in fact a HE. 
A knawing feeling of jealousy begins to bubble in the pit of my stomach. It’s one of the smaller trivialities in life which irk me: when men have better hair than I do. The slinky lusciousness of his golden locks would make Loréal models feel “unworth” it. Good thing for me, I wear a hijab.
The seats we’re sat on are terrible in both appearance and in how comfortable they are for the glutes. The covers, a dull grey to match the concrete of the city which hovers like a ghost on the horizon, are flecked with green, pink and yellow square patterns. It’s like Tetris on the train, minus the sound effects and pixelated blocks. It’s a laughable attempt to add some much needed colour. The luxury of complaining about poorly designed interiors makes me think about how these are first world problems at their very finest. 
I screw my eyes shut, hoping that despite the mechanical chugging of the train, I’ll get some sleep. That’s when the baby beside me, surrounded by Christmas gifts wrapped and ready to be placed under a pungent, emerald fir tree, decides to knock one of the bulkier gifts down. A seismic wave ripples across the train causing the mother to yell, “NO Levi don’t do that!” The cry of sleepy hell never sounded so motherly… 
After an hour, I’m off the train, and whizzing off to the tube station. I’m fully awake now. The harsh voice of Nusrat Fateh Ali-Khan is blaring in my ears, beckoning a feeling of light-headedness and an irrepressible urge to clap and sway like a genuine Muslim hippy, minus all the psychedelic drugs. 
“Yeh jo halka halka, suroor he!

Yeh teri nazar ka qasoor he.”
“This mild intoxication, 

It is the fault of your gaze”, he sings. 
That’s when an elderly lady waddles past me, two carrier bags stretched to burst weighing down her short arms. Just before she flings her shopping bags onto the escalator, I offer to carry one. My intentions are purely selfish; my gym membership lapsed two months ago, so my biceps and triceps are in need of some serious toning. 
She says her thanks, and beams at me as only jovial old ladies do. Her accent is heavy, Nigerian I’m guessing, so I ask her where she’s from. Lagos, she tells me. 
“Is Lagos as busy as London?” I ask her. “Oooooof! Busier!” The melo-dramatic tone in her voice is a welcome burst of life as we’re swarmed by a shoal of grim-faced commuters at the entrance to the tunnel. 
When I ask her if she misses Lagos, she nods her head and smiles nostalgically as you do when you remember an old friend. Lagos to London and still, Lagos is on her mind. 
I ask her whether she’s familiar with the Nigerian author Chimamanda Adichie, and cringe inwardly at how many others like me who know nothing about Nigeria, name-drop Chimamanda’s name in a bid to show they know something about the country. “No, I don’t think I know her!” Her shopping bag suddenly feels a lot heavier and before I know it, I’m waddling too. So much for toning those muscles. 
As she takes a seat on the tube and closes her eyes, I can see her whispering thanks to God. I find it so moving, yet funny how of all places, God found his way into the yellow-tiled tunnels of London.