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.
Almost everyday, the voice of an old man reciting the call to prayer or adhan floats across the cobbled streets of Bradford in my neighbourhood, from a speakerphone perched on a mosque nearby.
I’ve never seen him, this mysterious muezzin, but I imagine he is a Muslim Dumbledore in my overactive imagination, wearing a crisp, beige coloured shalwar kameez scented with sweet oud perfume. A pleated fan shoots out from the delicately wrapped turban he wears around his head, making him look regal, almost like a peacock when its feathers erupt into shimmering colours of green, gold and blue. Any trace of white in his long, wiry beard will have been dyed a fiery ginger with henna, in honour of prophetic tradition. A large silver ring engraved with Allah, a name Muslims give to God, and his beloved, the prophet Muhammad, sits just above the knuckle on his small finger, brown, rough and lined with the years. He is a radiant man, spiritually and quite literally, especially when the thick lenses of his glasses glow white as they reflect light from the bulbs dangling above. He is a stoic man, dedicated to anchoring himself to God through his devoted prayer. His is a generation at dusk.
I can imagine him shuffling his way up a minaret to recite the adhan like the muezzins did of old. The reality is of course much less embellished and much more modern. Like the Muslim X-factor, he stands in front of a microphone placed on top of a Persian rug smelling of dust, feet and musk, a sea of worshippers gathered behind waiting for their conductor to begin. The speaker phone crackles to life, he silences the congregation gathered at the mosque with a single, authoritative cough. He clears his voice, pauses, and the following words in Arabic blossom from his mouth:
Ashhadu anla ilaha illa llah
Ashhadu anna Muħammadan Rasulullah
La illaha illallah!”
In English, it simply means:
“God is great!
There is no God but God
and Muhammad is his messenger.
Come to prayer!
Come to success!
God is great!
There is no God but God!”
Whilst my life revolves around the digital chime of my iPhone and the tick-tock of my watch, his life is bound by his dedication to God. The simple obedience of praying on time, somewhat of a massive feat if you know anything about Muslim Standard Timing, leaves me in awe at his dedication. Prayer is the foundation, the mighty pillars which prop up the skeleton of his faith. Whether it’s the inevitability of being young and idiotic or being too ambitious, my work life is the scaffolding which has taken over mine.
The only time you don’t hear his voice is during the morning prayer. It begins so early, the poor man would probably be arrested for disturbing the tranquility of the neighbourhood. But there’s no doubt his forehead touches the carpet of the mosque affectionately every morning as he prostrates, just as you can surely find me sleeping in the warm sanctuary of my bed as the birds outside my window tweet at me, urging me to do as he does. “Get out of bed you lazy sh*t, if he can do it, why can’t you?” Why can’t I indeed?
It’s the evening now, and the sun-blushed sky has cast a rosy glow on the concrete pavements. The sun is making her quick descent home, plunging into the sprawling mosaic of houses, church spires and mosque minarets which look like miniature Lego bricks in the distance. It’s rush hour. Headlights. Horns honking. Punjabi music blaring. The smell of smoke, exhaust pipes, and fried onions sits in the air. It’s all chaos outside. That’s when the old man brings order in the dwindling twilight hours by reciting the adhan.
To some it sounds like just another voice to add to the layers and layers of chaos enveloping passers by. But today, his words cut through the air, sharp and heavy. His husky voice shakes as he elongates each syllable, Arabic words married with the phonology of the sub-continent. Over fourteen centuries of Islamic tradition are bound and wrapped in each of those letters from when the first muezzin, Bilal, stood under the fierce blazing sun of Arabia to call Muslims to prayer. Compared to the velvety voices of the young muezzins who hail from other mosques across the city, his voice is like the scent of mothballs my grandmother used to pack in her suitcases she brought from Pakistan; old, familiar and strangely comforting.
His voice silences the internal cacophony in my mind about work, relationships, family matters, things which occupy the mind of many twenty-something adults. A fleeting moment of tranquility hovers over me like the dust that covers the spines of my books, and I’m left standing still for a second to soak it all in.
The whoosh of a car hurtling past brings me back, and I have to remind myself that I’m not standing in the holy city of Makkah or Jerusalem, but Bradford: a sacred, hustling, bustling city in the north of England, where divinity is found in seemingly unremarkable moments in the here and now.