(Notes for the Abu Dhabi Bar Mitzvah)

A Day in Lahore — يوم في لاهور

Lahore was blisteringly hot.

In a white shalwar kameez, I adopted the look of the bluer collar, while two men escorted me across the city. The driver wore traditional clothes too, but the man in the back joking loudly in Punjabi had on slacks and a neat collared shirt. He worked for the father of a friend of a friend of a friend, the president of the oldest and largest university in Pakistan. In Pakistan, with the right start, hospitality is easier found than Kevin Bacon. (Bacon, however, isn’t served anywhere.)

You can’t get far without hearing Lahore nahin dekha tou kuch nahin dekha, “If you haven’t seen Lahore, you haven’t yet seen the world.” The city is peppered with gardens and architecture left by the Mughal Empire and parallel kingdoms. The Shalimar gardens are green even in June, and families picnic and sit by the fountains. A couple of couples nap in piles. Through the Masti Gate in the north of Lahore’s Walled City, the Begum Shah Mosque is mostly hidden behind market walls and a rind of scaffolding. Like most of Lahore’s antique facade, the seventeenth century walls are baked red with delicate patterns painted in yellow and green and bright colors. The Begum Shah (which I translate poorly as “Mrs. King”) was Mariam uz-Zamani, mother of Emperor Jangehir, (“conqueror of the world”).

Shalimar Gardens

At night, this Shahi Mohalla (“Royal Neighborhood”) is better known as Heera Mandi, “the Diamond Market”. You might say it’s why Lahore is called that — it’s the city’s longtime red-light district, thinly guised with music and dance. But recent crackdowns have imposed stricter laws on the dancing, and lady’s of the night have become lady’s of the early evening. What once began only after midnight now ends at eleven p.m., and at dinner at a rooftop cafe down the street, we heard only the sounds of sitar wafting up from below. Some things had modernized in the name of convenience. “It’s all delivery now,” my host said.

Not far away are the Badshahi Mosque and the neighboring Lahore Fort. The mosque has the same recognizable amrud (“guava) domes of the Taj Majahal, and, as the fifth largest mosque in the world, the same ability to impress: the walled courtyard can hold one-hundred thousand people. But red and empty and catching the flat noontime sunlight, the place felt stark and mysterious. We left our sandals outside the archway and ran 500 feet across the scalding stones: there is no “indoors” — the mihrab niche is at the center of eleven archways, decorated with marble inlay in lotus-shaped patterns, and facing out into the open plaza.

In rooms near the entrance, the guide pointed out a very special relic: The Underwear of the Prophet Muhammad. “No pictures,” he said. Too late.

We escaped into the Corolla, but even the air conditioning blasting into our faces wasn’t enough. But the summer season in Pakistan is famous for more than the heat: June brings mangos, too. Outside a little shop, my business casual contact called for a round of mango milkshakes. A tall, lanky boy brought them to the car in tall glass mugs. Thick and sweet and cold: this was the orange ambrosia of kings and yes, okay, we’ll take three more.

It took time — I tried to think about what went into making one mug for fifty rupees (about fifty-five cents). Several small mangos, of the rich type meant for milkshakes, went into each glass. They came from somewhere in the interior of Sindh province, an area inaccessible without a local guide. The blender could only be powered by generator — a small shop like this wouldn’t even have access to the city’s blackout-prone electricity. Later, I saw six huge blocks of ice on the back of a truck heading somewhere, dripping steadily onto the pavement. The boy knocked on the window carrying three more glasses. “More?”

With such treatment, lounging in the passenger seat of an imported car, sipping the sweetened juice of the sweetest fruit, I noticed the cocktail many tourists must certainly perceive in the Asian subcontinent: utterly deferent service mingled with unblinking hospitality. There was no clear line; for some, it was certainly hospitality, from positions of power toward the common tourist. From their assistants it was complete attentiveness. But it seemed that behind even the most professional service, there was a good-willing welcome, a genuine desire for the traveler’s wellbeing. And behind hospitality most grand in the home of the Vice Chancellor, there endured a sense of duty: only a guest can command the king.

My companions for the day were both delightful, pointing everything out to me, and speaking to each other in Punjabi. A member of the Indo-Arian family, to which Hindi and Urdu belong, Punjabi seemed distinguished not by accent, but by volume. This is a language that, at least before dark, is always spoken very, very loudly in someone’s ear.

Soon, we planned to drive thirty minutes from the city to the Wagah Border with India. The two local Lahoris and I talked politics, noshing on boxes of fried chicken and fries in the car. “I like India,” the assistant answered my question. But he didn’t let me live in my dream world of Indian-Pakistani harmony for long: “Just Hindus, no, no.”

Even here in Punjab, a territory with a language that disregards twentieth-century borders, religion and nationality came first. As with the formation of any belief, rationale develops in the aftermath. “Suicide bombings — money, planning: India background,” the man said. “All India.”

The driver pitched in: “India and Israel.” There were murmurs from the back in Punjabi, but I could guess from the tone: Shh! You know how these Westerners feel about Israel! The man in slacks leaned forward to pat me on the shoulder. “Israel, no, no.”

From there, we left for the Wagah Border, where Indian and Pakistani border guards goose-step and high-kick and make exceedingly silly faces at each other as the sun goes down. Their countries’ flags are lowered, they bid each other farewell, and they come back to do it again the next day, just as they have done every evening since 1959.

In twenty or thirty years, this part of the world is going to be very influential, the assistant told me. “It already is,” I said. “This is nothing.”

We watched the guards do their dance in peacock hats on the one open border between the two rival nations. A man on either side sounded a bugle, rather out of tune with one another. The Indian tricolor crossed Pakistan’s green and white crescent, the symbol of a state that less than seventy years earlier was but a twinkle in the eyes of visionaries. I remember this and I recall something my friend’s father would say a few days later in Karachi: “Pakistan changes all the shit.”

More pictures from Pakistan if you click here!

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