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.”
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.
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.
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.