The Passions of Khalifa Hakeem
I arrived in the lobby of Santa Fe Hotel one hour before the schedule. It was only my third day as a reporter with The Lahore Chronicler when I had been given a high profile assignment of touring the billion-dollar still-under-construction Lahore-to-Islamabad Motorway in the company of Pakistan’s top journalists. I believed that the tour was going to be an extraordinary landmark in my career because a newcomer like me would be in the company of Lahore’s most established journalists, all of whom were top opinion writers associated with the best newspapers. But the person who stood out was Khalifa Hakeem. He was the most influential journalist in Pakistan, and every newspaper solicited his columns at a very high price. Millions of people had been feeding on his ideas in order to know how great a soldier of Islam Osama bin Laden was and how valiantly he had taken on, in Khalifa Hakeem’s words, “the atheistic wicked Western world.”
But things had changed. Post 9/11, Hakeem had fallen foul of the Saudi ambassador, his permanent host in Islamabad, and a number of religious and political leaders who were opposed to Osama bin Laden. But he was undeterred, which had taken his standing among his admirers even higher: now from being the godfather of the religiously-minded Pakistanis, he had graduated to become a beacon of light to even the leftists who hated the United States and everything capitalist.
My excitement to be in the company of a man of Khalifa Hakeem’s caliber was natural.
In the hotel lobby I met Mr. Agha, the middle-aged public relations officer of the Rising Star, the Motorway construction company and the sponsor of the tour. He invited me to have breakfast with him in the hotel restaurant situated on the first floor. Soon the rest of the journalists began to arrive there. Their number added up to fifteen. After the breakfast, we moved off to our destination in a Rising Star coach.
Khalifa Hakeem was tall and bulky and wore sun glasses, which stayed on night and day, as I was to discover later. During the journey he stayed glued to the back seat of the coach engrossed in scribbling in his notebook. Meanwhile I tried to strike a conversation with the journalists sitting in my vicinity, but they ignored me completely.
Our first stop was Sheikhupura where we were given a briefing on the progress being made on the Motorway. After lunch, we started towards Sargodha on the under-construction Motorway. I found a seat next to Khalifa Hakeem. Putting down his notebook, he addressed me: “Young man, let me know who you are.” The affection in his tone was reassuring. I told him that I was new in journalism and had recently graduated in English literature from the prestigious Leitner College.
“Good!” he said, visibly delighted, “Keep it up. You must study more!”
I thanked him and said, “What you write has a very strong impact on the society.”
“Well,” he began as if he had been dragged into a topic he was not interested in, “someone has to do something. You cannot sit by idly….”
He became silent for a while. There was some unease about his person. He began tentatively, “Let’s forget about journalism for a while. These past few days I have been thinking about something else…. You being a young man… You should give me a good answer. Ok? Tell me: How do you describe a beautiful woman?”
It was an unexpected question. I replied that a beautiful woman was the one who had a beautiful face.
He smiled: “So this is the way today’s young men think about beauty! Do you think a beautiful face makes a beautiful woman? Don’t women have more than a face? Imagine just a face and nothing else! What will you do with a face only? You can draw a beautiful face even with a piece of coal on a wall or floor. But a woman is something else,” he smiled gracefully. “A beautiful woman,” he said as if confiding, “is one whose kameez does not touch her back and belly. Do you understand what I mean?”
I said I did not.
“I am talking about her body. Her breasts should be big and of course proportionate enough so that her kameez does not touch her belly; the same goes for her buttocks so that her kameez does not touch her back,” he said and looked at me through his dark glasses as if trying to measure my reaction.
In a flash of a moment I imagined all the pretty women I had known and seen, their tunics fluttering gently over their backs and bellies. His answer seemed very convincing.
“Wow!” came spontaneously to my lips, “You are right. Amazing!”
He smiled again. His was a very graceful smile. He nodded his head in gratitude.
“In your columns you seem anti-women,” I said.
“Do you still think I am anti-women?” he said smiling. I feared my question would put him off as we had started on a very different topic, but he smiled as he spoke, “I love women. Yes, I do! Allah has created woman for a certain purpose. She is soft by nature; she must be enjoyed and guarded. Today’s feminists and their male co-conspirators are only creating confusion and chaos.” He was obviously referring to some NGOs.
“But for you it is the body of a woman that matters,” I persisted. His affectionate posture had emboldened me.
“What else does, then? To men what is important is what they lack,” he laughed loudly, thoroughly amused. I did not get what he meant.
“In your columns you have been criticizing the women who demand their rights, especially their opposition to the proposed Shariat Bill. You know the bill if passed will reduce them to second-rate citizens? I hope the government will keep its promise by not letting it pass in the parliament.”
“All the God-fearing Pakistanis want Shariah, Allah’s rule, in their country,” he began, “It is only a tiny minority of corrupted Westernized NGO-employed women and their male lackeys and accomplices who are trying to lead the simple-minded women of Pakistan astray. Look at our mothers and grandmothers; they never left their homes, and consequently there was total peace in society. But now women are on the streets as professionals, trade unionists, protesters and hookers! There is an international conspiracy to destroy the morals of the Muslims of the world, especially Pakistan which is the citadel of Islam and has nuclear bombs! Why can’t Muslim women be highly educated and still stay at home? Must they become feminists and lose their minds and morals after getting degrees in bloody developmental studies? Development! What development? From Islam to atheism? From modesty to nudity?”
We had hit a dead end. We began to talk about the Motorway. But within minutes we returned to politics. Khalifa Hakeem proudly told me that the Hadood clause of the proposed Shariat Bill demanding public hangings and mutilative Islamic punishments was actually his idea. I asked him if it was sensible to punish people when equality and justice were nonexistent in the society.
He said yes.
“But there is so much oppression, pain, poverty, and injustice going on,” I protested.
“Pain, like happiness and sorrow, is a point of view. Oppression is an aesthetic issue. See how the Westernized men and women take up these tales of sorrow and suffering with so much gusto, passion and pleasure. Look at their punky, spoilt brats who speak Urdu in the American accent and cannot even speak a word of their own language Punjabi. The whole thing is so pornographic! Don’t you think?”
The next morning we traveled from Sargodha to Islamabad, the last part of the Motorway, Khalifa Hakeem talking confidentially to Mr. Agha during the long ride. We spent our last night together as a group in Islamabad’s posh Royal Hotel. In the evening, all the journalists were summoned to Mr. Agha’s room, where drinks awaited.
Khalifa Hakeem handed me a can of beer. He drank whiskey. “I only drink it neat,” he said, as he brought his glass to his forehead. “Only amateurs mix soda with whiskey.” His tone was factual. After taking a few drinks, we started gossiping about the night life of Islamabad until a couple of journalists began to tease Mr. Agha about the millions of rupees that he had allegedly given to the prime minister and close friends by way of bribe. Mr. Agha, after saying that the conversation was off the record, proceeded to give a complete break-down of the kickbacks. He was drunk and the monologue soon devolved into a string of four-letter words against the government. Towards the end of the drinking session, Mr. Agha announced that the following day we would be taken to Shelton Hotel in the paradisiacal Neelum Valley. Everyone was flush with excitement at the grand conclusion of the visit.
In Shelton we were given the best rooms on the top floor, doors adorned with flowers in celebration of St. Valentine’s Day. It was late afternoon when we arrived and, still recovering from the night before, I fell asleep as soon I entered my room.
Khalifa Hakeem’s heavy knocking woke me up. He’d already been drinking and invited me to the dining room for an early dinner; no other person from our group was there.
“You are a different person from what you write,” I began as we started on appetizers.
“Come on, not again! Anyway, I will oblige you: We Pakistanis have a tendency to stereotype people. Look at me: I do not even have a beard or a moustache, but I am a defender of Islam and Pakistan and I am proud of it. This is my passion and no one can…” he trailed off. “Anyway…”
I wanted to say that Pakistan was not created in the name of Islam. But he did not let me speak.
”What do you know about Lahore’s Shahi Mosque? Have you been there?”
“It is one of the largest mosques in the world. One hundred thousand persons can pray in it at the same time.”
He looked at me vacantly. The right side of his mouth slowly turned upward. He shook his head. I said I was not sure what he was aiming at.
“Pakistan’s largest red light area is located in the alleys around the Shahi Mosque,” he said in a casual way. There was no expression on his face.
He was right. I had been there a few times.
He continued, “You know what you can find in the alleys around the Jamia Mosque of Delhi, India’s largest mosque?”
I shook my head.
“A red light area! I can narrate you tale after tale about what happens in the neighborhoods of sacred places. Peshawar, for example….”
I became angry. I thought he was trying to say that Islam and whoredom existed side by side. He was stereotyping my religion; his own religion too.
“I am not stereotyping Islam,” he said, as though reading my thoughts. “I would be the last person to do so. You know what I do: I write on certain topics because I stand up for them. I stand up for Islam!”
“But you want to lapidate all prostitutes! You want to shut up all the women inside their homes and you want the Taliban’s barbarian version of Islam to vanquish all the other versions!” I was angry with him and I had trouble controlling myself.
“No, oh no! You get me wrong,” he paused before suggesting we get the buffet.
We returned to our table after getting the food. I was hungry, but as I went to take my first bite, Khalifa Hakeem clutched my hand with immense power. I was startled. I looked at him. He was petrified. I thought he had had a heart attack. Behind his dark glasses, I could see his eyes were shining, riveted on some object behind me. Despite its powerful hold, his hand was shaking. In my panic I turned my neck, but he stopped me.
“Don’t look back! Stand up, pretend to go to the wash room…and behold the table third in the corner left to you.” He spoke monosyllabically, as though hypnotized.
I followed his instructions and found a young couple whose bright clothing was very conspicuous; they must be newly married. The man was rather ugly, but the young woman had very proportionate features. I was struck by her eyebrows that looked like two bows perched over the eyes. But I did not understand why Khalifa Hakeem’s rapture given that the couple was lost in each other’s companionship.
I returned and found him still petrified, his drunken gaze frozen. He had taken off his glasses.
“Did you seeeeeee her?”
“No, the woman.”
“You mean that woman?”
“I have not seen such a beautiful woman in my life!” He sounded utterly despondent. He didn’t take his gaze from the woman.
“But you told me that yours was a different concept of beauty,” I said.
“Forget that! Talk about her… Why does Allah give someone so much beauty and deprive others?”
“Yes, her beauty is unparalleled,” I said, though I think I was trying to please him.
He suddenly rose and went straight to the couple’s table, stared at the woman for a second or two and turned towards the washroom. The man and the woman looked at each other.
By the time Khalifa Hakeem returned, the couple had left and gone towards the ballroom.
“The beauty of that woman reminds me of a Dr. Faustus passage that was written in praise of Helen of Troy,” I said.
“Tell me,” he said, his head hung, his tone lugubrious.
Was this the face that launched a thousand ships
And burnt the topless towers of Ilium?
Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss.
Her lips sucked forth my soul—see where it flies!
Come, Helen, come, give me my soul again.
Here I will dwell, for heaven is in these lips
And all is dross that is not Helena.
“O, God! What a beautiful compliment! It can as well be said about that lovely woman, our own Helen! My Helen! Where in the name of Allah did you learn this hymn? You are a genius! I have not seen anyone like you!” He’d come back to life again. “Let’s go to the ballroom!”
In the packed ballroom everyone was dancing, and as Khalifa Hakeem disappeared, I slipped out to my room.
I awoke the next morning to a nasty knock. It was Khalifa Hakeem once again. He said that everyone was waiting for me in the lounge. “You missed everything last night! The dancing turned into a free-for-all orgy! You know Pakistan’s high society is so hopelessly corrupt and so blessedly promiscuous!”
“How about our Helen of Shelton?” I asked.
“I will tell you about her in Lahore. Plus a few other things!” he said.
On the flight back to Lahore, Khalifa Hakeem kept telling me to get in touch with him soon.
“Yes, I am a novice in journalism and want to learn a lot from you,” I respectfully said.
“To hell with learning!” he roared, buoyed by my flattery. “No one learns anything from anyone! We shall be together. We will meet nice people, drink Scotch and together we shall do lots of great things! We will be good friends! And listen, I want you to switch over to a better newspaper where you can get a sizeable readership. I want you to become an opinion writer. I will see what I can do for you. I’ll speak to my friends.”
Back in Lahore, deadlines awaited as haj time sent media into overdrive. I saw Khalifa Hakeem’s columns as usual. In one he claimed that the haj was not an act of worship, but a political gathering where Muslims of the world were supposed to come together and discuss the problems they were facing, oilfields in the Middle East and the impossibility that the United States would ever allow Muslims to become politically independent.
After the haj issue went to the press, I had a free moment. Feeling light and secure, I thought about wine and women in the company of Khalifa Hakeem. I pressed his number. A lady, who said she was his secretary, answered the phone. So he has a female secretary! I introduced myself as an old friend.
“Really?” There was sarcasm in her tone, “Well, the day before yesterday he took his family to Mukkah.”
“Sorry?” I thought I had misheard her.
“Well, the prime minister insisted that he accompany him on his VIP haj flight.”
“When will he return?”
“No idea; after performing the haj he is taking his family to New York to attend his daughter’s graduation ceremony,” she said.
I resisted a strong urge to ask if Khalifa Hakeem’s daughter was graduating in developmental studies.
After hanging up the phone I went up to the window. My office was on the tenth floor. I had a good view of the sea of people and traffic below. The sky was overcast and the wind strong. I decided to go home before getting stuck in the notorious Lahori post-rain traffic jams, but at that very moment, the first drops began falling from the sky.
A Saudi Airlines’ haj airbus flew past above, carrying the faithful away to Masjid al Haram, the Sacred Mosque, also known as the Ka’aba, the House of Allah. It is in this mosque where the haj is performed. I looked out of the window at the confused Lahore skyline where somewhere was located my little flat. Below and in front of me the chaotic life of Lahore was going on as usual. On that rainy evening, the four minarets of the Shahi Mosque were standing tall in the distance surrounded by the dimly-lit alleys where the ladies of the night, their pimps, and customers were getting ready for business. I wondered what tales Khalifa Hakeem would bring back about the alleys around the Sacred Mosque.
This story will be included in Zaidi’s forthcoming collection of short stories to be published by GOWANUS Books.
Abbas Zaidi is a Pakistani journalist, writer and teacher. His fiction and nonfiction have appeared in New York Press, Exquisite Corpse, Best of GOWANUS, New Partisan, Salt River Review, Eclectica, The Salisbury Review, and Southern Oceanic Review. He is GOWANUS’s Asian Editor and teaches English in Brunei Darussalam. He can be reached here.