The very presence of two officials from the American Embassy in a Lahore mosque was indicative of how close the governments of Pakistan and the United States had come since 9/11. Clean-shaven, wearing shalwar-kameez, and sitting barefoot amongst us on the floor of the prayer hall, these Americans could pass for average light-skinned Pakistanis. The light from the huge chandelier had lent their faces a bit of the halo effect. Confident, self-assured and smiling, they had come all the way from Islamabad to meet and advise Pakistani Talibans who had been set free by the Americans in Afghanistan.
There were forty Talibans who had been flown from Kabul to Lahore. Seated in the centre of the hall they looked like characters from a National Geographic special on primitives. The stench from their dirty, blackened clothes was defying the air-conditioned cool and rose perfume-sprayed atmosphere of the mosque. Haggard, dirty-faced and hollow-eyed, they seemed not to be blinking at all. Their long, unwieldy beards appeared to be overlaid by dust or even mud. Most of them had their mouths open exposing their yellow teeth. And in that posture they were frozen.
The ceremony began with the octogenarian imam of the mosque giving a welcome speech in Urdu in which he briefly mentioned Islam’s glorious contributions to the development of the West. After that Mehmud Ikhlaq, the representative of the journalists present in the mosque, spoke. He more or less repeated in English what the imam had said. When he finished, Haji Abubakar Ghani, the State Advisor on Religious Affairs and Chief Guest, invited one of the Americans to speak.
The gentleman introduced himself as David Lentz. He addressed the Talibans on the United States’ role in the war on terror, his government’s respect for Islam, and the difference between peace-loving Muslim–There is no dearth of good Muslims in the United States–and those who had brought a bad name to Islam through terrorism: “Your release shows that the American government believes that you were not born terrorists. You can restart your lives and live like good Muslims and you will find the United States firmly behind you.”
Before finishing his speech David Lentz praised Haji Abubakar Ghani’s bravery and “enlightened moderation.” He said that Islam had a great future if the likes of Haji Abubakar Ghani could lead the Islamic world.
The Talibans remained in their frozen posture while David Lentz addressed them. After he finished, the other American, who introduced himself as Willy, took over, and repeated David Lentz’s speech in heavily-accented Urdu. We clapped. The Talibans clapped too without showing any change in their posture.
It was Haji Abubakar Ghani’s turn to speak now. He–known and addressed as Haji Ghani–was a healthy, long-haired, robust man in his mid-thirties, of middle height and light-skinned like the two Americans present. He too was wearing shalwar-kameez. His well-trimmed beard and gold-rimmed glasses had certainly enhanced his personality.
As Haji Ghani took the mike, Willy produced a little tape recorder and placed it on the rostrum. Addressing the Talibans in Urdu, Haji Ghani highlighted the importance of a balanced life. He quoted from the Koran and the hadith on how to live a peaceful life, the significance of international brotherhood, blessings of a moderate life, and the perfect compatibility between Islam and democracy. There was a lot of spirit in his tone, but his face, a white pear, was serene. He criticised Osama and his “goons.” He concluded his speech by saying, “Muslims and the West must live in peaceful coexistence. To be honest, we must learn from the West if we wish to develop…”
Then he turned to David Lentz and Willy, switched to English and thanked the American government for releasing Pakistani Talibans and assured them that the freed Talibans would abjure the life of violence.
Little wonder why Haji Ghani was held in contempt by the traditional Islamic fundamentalist quarters.
After the speeches were over, our, the journalists’, job began. It was my first assignment as a reporter. We took photos, spoke to the Americans, Haji Ghani, and the Talibans. The Talibans were restless but restrained. Soon a typical, sumptuous Lahori dinner was served. The Taliban fell upon the food as if they were getting a piece of their enemy. Later, their bellies filled, they cooled off. David Lentz spoke to them through Willy and Haji Ghani. Haji Ghani injected a good deal of humour in it: “Go home and make love to your wives!” he said to a Taliban at one point, “You must change your Kalashnikovs for a wife!” he said to a very young Taliban. The Americans smiled profusely. “You must spend your honeymoon in Kashmir!” he said to yet another Taliban. Willy meanwhile took notes in a small diary. At one stage Mehmud Ikhlaq requested David Lentz to help the Talibans settle down in their new lives by helping them financially. He promised to look into it, and asked Willy to make a special note of the request.
After that the Americans decided to leave. Haji Ghani, the journalists, and the imam accompanied them up to their car and the police escort outside the mosque. David Lentz hugged Haji Ghani and thanked him for his efforts.
Returning to the mosque, Haji Ghani said to Mehmud Ikhlaq, “You should not have pleaded for money.” Mehmud Ikhlaq was lost for words. “Begging makes beggars. Better work hard and obtain what you must… Never mind, but be careful next time,” said Haji Ghani patting Mehmud Ikhlaq’s shoulder.
“What will happen now?” a worried Taliban addressed Haji Ghani, “I have no skill other than firing Kalashnikovs, and now that an American infidel has spoken to us and our names and photos will appear in the papers, the Al-Qaeda will not give us any money.” The other Talibans noisily assented.
With his upper lip between his teeth Haji Ghani looked philosophical as he pondered the Taliban’s words.
“The 9/11 attack has enraged the Americans beyond limits… and they are mad…. But, who knows, they will later find out that it was the Jews who were behind 9/11. Since you have loudly and wildly drummed your hatred of the Jews into every ear on this planet, the Americans will come begging you to destroy Israel. Then you will be back to your killing spree! After all, that’s all you can do. Nothing civilised and nothing sensible! I suggest that after going home you grab your fathers by the collar and ask why they sent you to seminaries, and not to schools.”
“Why blame us or our fathers?” howled an angry Taliban. He must have been in his mid-fifties. “It’s the government that supported, trained and financed us. Only months ago we were the soldiers of Islam! We served the cause of Islam under Benazir Bhutto, Nawaz Sharif, and General Musharraf in Afghanistan, Kashmir, and Central Asia. We were called martyrs when we died fighting. We were called jihadis when we destroyed the enemy. Now we are terrorists because the infidel America calls us so!”
There was a tensed silence.
“When will the American send the money for us?” asked another Taliban who was in his late teens. The question brought about a sudden relief in the atmosphere.
“I will speak to you when the money gets through,” said Haji Ghani without showing any emotion.
After that the Talibans were herded into the coaches to be taken home. There was about half an hour until the night prayer, so Haji Ghani asked us to sit in a corner. I knew Haji Ghani well, but it was the very first time that I was in his company. He was an extraordinary phenomenon on the political-religious firmament. Married to a retired general’s daughter, he gained sudden popularity when he started a religious talk show on TV, a few weeks after General Musharraf staged a military coup against an elected but extremely corrupt and authoritarian government. People by and large had applauded the coup, but on the international scene the military government was condemned and shunned. In order to gain international respectability and legitimacy, the military government from its very beginning had projected itself to be liberal and secular. A part of the military government’s strategy was to provoke the fundamentalists’ anti-Western sentiments. Hence, progressively-minded people like Haji Ghani found unexpected opportunity to enunciate their reformist views on Islam. Soon his–and his co-reformists’–non-traditional views on Islam and society brought the fundamentalists out on the streets shouting anti-Musharraf and anti-American slogans. After 9/11 the government completely distanced itself from the fundamentalists, and Haji Ghani was appointed the State Advisor on Religious Affairs in which capacity he openly denounced Osama bin Laden for carrying out terrorism in the name of Islam. He also pleaded for “the human face of Islam.” Despite his provocations, the fundamentalists did not harm him because he was their fellow Wahabi and a general’s son-in-law.
Sitting close to him I realised that Haji Ghani was a man ages apart from the obscurantist fundamentalists. He exchanged jokes and made us laugh heartily. His frankness with the journalists was amusing, refreshing and surprising; even reassuring. It was extraordinary coming from a religious man of his standing when he said: “Enjoy your life and have lots of girlfriends before you get married. You know having a wife is a liability!” Even the imam, though he did not join us, seemed to be amused by the spectacle. I realised that Haji Ghani and the journalists formed a coterie. Interestingly, all of us were in the same age group. Soon I was introduced to him. He heartily shook my hand and said something, but the imam‘s call to the prayer drowned his voice, and we all made to the prayer area.
After the prayer was over we left the mosque. Haji Ghani invited us to his house, an offer that was accepted right away and with enthusiasm. Obviously everyone knew where he lived. On my motorcycle, I followed the mini procession of cars and motorcycles.
Haji Ghani lived in his father-in-law’s palatial house in the posh Defence Housing Scheme. We were led to a spacious drawing room by a handful of able-bodied servants. It was air-conditioned, and we felt such a relief from the sultriness and stuffiness that had dogged us since we left the mosque. It was a large, impressive room with spectacular chandeliers. Our feet were sinking into the soft, red Persian carpet. The furniture was old-styled Victorian and faintly smelled of sandalwood. There were bookshelves all around: Great Books of the Western World, The New Encyclopaedia Britannica, and Webster’s Third New International Dictionary were very conspicuous. On one wall was a huge portrait of Saladin sitting on a white horse and gazing into the distance, holding a shining sword. The glint in Saladin’s eyes was uncanny and awe-inspiring. On the opposite wall were life-size portraits of Abraham Lincoln, Napoleon Bonaparte, and General Rommel. A bemedalled portrait of his father-in-law and that of Sultan Tipu (the South Indian ruler who fought legendary wars with the British in the 18th century) were fitted side by side. A rug was spread on another wall which showed a cobra wrapping a mongoose; the glassy-eyed cobra’s head was between the mongoose’s teeth; the snake’s mouth was wide open and showing two hooks of the fangs.
We heard happy-birth-day-to-you clapping, followed by noise and rock-and-roll music. After half an hour Haji Ghani appeared in Bermudas and a T-shirt. He apologised for being late, saying that he had to join his daughter’s birthday party. He asked a servant to prepare something to eat and bring drinks.
“Do you think you should give those Talibans the American money?” a journalist asked.
“It’s our money. Muslim money! After all America has stolen it from the Arabs!” Mehmud Ikhlaq said nervously.
“I do not know,” Haji Ghani replied ignoring Mehmud Ikhlaq’s anti-American burst with a sour face. “But sooner or later these Talibans will return to Afghanistan and will be killed like dogs. Violence has gone into their veins. They must kill to live a life of peace and fulfillment! Anyway, I will buy computers for some village schools.”
“Did you see those Talibans? They were so untidy and looked so wild!” I said.
“Outright despicable and hideous! Looked like chimpanzees with long beards! What do you think?” Haji Ghani asked around. Everyone agreed with him.
“Haji Ghani, that American David looked as if he was your brother,” said Mehmud Ikhlaq. I thought there was a streak of flattery in his voice.
“Do you know who David Lentz is?” Haji Ghani said.
We shook our heads, not sure what he wanted us to know.
“He is no ordinary diplomat: He is a Jew! He is the one actually running the American Embassy. The matchless Jewish power in the entire world speaks for itself. But I think we should make friends with them. We have a lot to gain from the West, but our diabolical fundamentalists are a great obstacle! It’s true that many powerful quarters in the West are anti-Islam, but we cannot force them to behave as we would want them to,” Haji Ghani’s face was changing into a red pear.
“Every son of a bitch can bark against Islam! Look what is happening in the Satanic Holland these days! The Dutch government is planning to stop Muslim immigration and expel practising Muslims!” said Mehmud Ikhlaq.
“No problem, a sol . . . soldier of Islam killed Van Gogh for. . . for insulting Isla. . .” said another reporter who could not go on for surfeit of emotions.
“Bring on. Quick!” blurted Haji Ghani standing up and ignoring Mehmud Ikhlaq and the emotional reporter. His face was a white pear again. Three servants entered pushing trolleys. Everyone jumped at the trolleys. Obviously they knew what was on them. On a closer examination, I saw bottles of Johnny Walker and Chivas Regal, cans of beer, buckets of ice, roasted chickens, and salted peanuts, almonds, cashew nuts, pistachios and crackers.
“Hold on!” Haji Ghani demanded. “We begin with our new friend,” he pointed towards me, “Red Label for you,” he poured me half a glass. Then he gave a can of Heineken to Mehmud Ikhlaq and said giggling, “Made in your own Holland. Drink it and forget Holland’s practising Muslims for a while!” After that he addressed the rest of us in a mock serious tone, “Eat something before you swig. Last time you emptied bottle after bottle without eating anything, and some of you vomited. But this time I will simply kick you out and call the police to arrest you if you vomit!”
Mehmud Ikhlaq consumed the entire can in one breath. We began to eat, munch, drink, and banter. Initially we gossiped about Lahore’s the latest high society sex scandals, sodomy in seminaries, and the forthcoming cricket series between India and Pakistan. A few drinks and the frivolity of our conversation began to assume seriousness. Someone said that the political situation in Pakistan was getting worse and the government’s post 9/11 pro-American policies were dividing people. Haji Ghani defended the government saying that by acting pragmatically the government had actually saved Pakistan from being bombed into the dark ages by the Americans. Almost everyone endorsed his view with nods or yeses, but at the same time it was observed that in its obsequiousness, the government had gone overboard in pleasing the Americans. During this argument Haji Ghani’s wife came in with cake. She was wearing a red sari and exquisite jewelry. She was pretty, too. Haji Ghani blew a kiss at her. She left the cake on a trolley saying the cake, being sweet, did not go well with alcohol. “Be moderate,” she hummed and returned.
The birthday party noise tapered off. Soon the house seemed to be empty except for the drawing room we were in. The night slowly wore off. We drank on. As our spirits were lifted and inhibitions dissipated under the influence of alcohol, the focus of our attention shifted to Islam, terrorism, 9/11, and the Islamic world from Morocco to Indonesia.
“Osama bin Laden is a son of a bitch!” Haji Ghani semi-shouted absent-mindedly; he seemed to be gazing into the distance just like the Saladin on the wall.
“Why?” I asked, “Isn’t he carrying out a jihad against the Americans?”
Haji Ghani did not answer. He remained in the Saladin attitude.
“He is a Wahabi and he is doing what the Wahabis must do,” I said. I felt like roiling him.
He slowly turned his face towards me, studied me for a second or two, and said, “You don’t need a loudspeaker to wage a jihad. You carry out your mission wisely. Wasn’t it Sun Tzu who said ‘Know your enemy and you will not be defeated in a thousand battles’? But Osama has alerted the West and it has become impossible to strike at its vital interests. Now the House of Saud and the other Arab oligarchies–or should I say oiligarchies–will stay on and perpetuate American interests. Now Zionism will defeat Islam in the Middle East, the Greater Israel will be founded on Muslim corpses, and we will live like slaves forever!”
The pear had turned red.
“But there must be a way to destroy America,” an unsteady, heavy voice flew past.
“If I had a plane loaded with nuclear bombs I would crash in Washington!” a journalist almost shouted as he stood up shaking with anger and trying to balance himself with a glass of whiskey in his one hand and a roasted drumstick in the other.
“Crash! You will be lucky to save the nuclear bombs that you have. Sooner or later Pakistan’s nuclear facilities will be destroyed,” said Haji Ghani, suddenly calmed down as if in resignation. The pear returned to white.
“They have destroyed Afghanistan and Iraq and… and…” the same emotional reporter could not continue. He grabbed a beer with a trembling hand and slid from sofa to floor.
“Afghanistan and Iraq deserved to be destroyed because these countries were no more than monumental stupidities that challenged America and then crumbled like a wall of sand. It will not be too long when America occupies all the oil-producing Islamic countries, directly or indirectly. The infidel Iran will once again become an American slave once America throws enough bones to those ayatollah bastards!” said Haji Ghani. “What I want,” he continued, moving his hand up and down clutching a Budweiser, “I want them to invade the House of Allah in Mukkah and then Allah will destroy them just like He destroyed Abraha and his army. We Muslims have proven to be perfect wimps. Only Allah can help us!” Whatever his emotion, his voice never lost its steadiness.
“But America’s destruction should come at our own hands!” I almost shouted, hugely emboldened by alcohol.
Haji Ghani gazed at the ceiling for a while as if trying to read a message. Drawing his gaze back, he put the Budweiser on the floor, craned his neck and said with his right hand’s index finger pointing, “The only way to defeat the infidels is to master their technology. Yes, technology! Master their technology and then get even with them! But that’s not going to happen post 9/11. Now we will not be able to obtain Western technology. Well, at least not in our life time. Remember: the only key to our success is Western technology!” The pear remained serene.
We continued to speculate on how to get hold of Western technology sooner than later until it was pre-dawn and the last drop of alcohol had been consumed and the loudspeakers began to relay the call to the faithful to wake up and pray to God before sunrise. It was time to go home, to mosque, or doze off in the cool of Haji Ghani’s drawing room.
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.