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Shotguns and Munaqababes along the Arabian Sea


The following is an excerpt from chapter six of my book, Heavy Metal Islam: Rock Resistance and the Struggle for the Soul of Islam, just published by Random House's Three Rivers Press imprint. Full information about the book is available at heavymetalislam.net.

Driving into Pakistan's North-West Frontier Province (NWFP), there is a sign on the road that welcomes you to "the land of hospitality." This is not what I expected to find on my way to Peshawar, gateway to the region of the country controlled by the Taliban and al-Qa'eda, where Osama bin Laden is said to be hiding.

In the United States, and even in Pakistan, the NWFP is known almost exclusively as a haven for terrorists, ultratraditionalists, and drug and arms smugglers. No doubt it has many of those, but it also has the ancient valley of Swat, known as the "Switzerland of Pakistan" (at least until the Taliban overran it in the fall of 2007) because of its famous ski resorts. The region is also home to some of the largest and most beautiful Buddhist statues in the world. And until Saudi-style extremism invaded the region -- courtesy of the Pakistani intelligence agency, the ISI, which during the Afghan war turned the NWFP into the staging area for mujahidin activities in neighboring Afghanistan -- the region was popular with adventurous Americans.

When you arrive in Peshawar, road signs point to the "Imaginarium Institute for American Studies." Yet the U.S. Consulate's American Club changed its name for security reasons. The gates leading into the tribal areas warn, no foreigners allowed, yet Peshawar is awash in foreign money and people, its "smugglers' bazaar" awash equally in weapons, drugs, pornography, and cheap Chinese electronics. The U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, USAID, European NGOs, the Taliban -- all have staked a claim to a city that has been at the crossroads of empire since Alexander the Great crossed the nearby Khyber Pass.

So has Sajid & Zeeshan, Pakistan's best rock duo, whose improbably beautiful album One Light Year at Snail Speed, filled with songs driven by acoustic guitars and keyboards, was recorded almost entirely in the home studio of the band's keyboard player, Zeeshan Parwez, using old synthesizers and guitars bought for a song at the smugglers' bazaar. The duo's music, which features lush vocals that flow over techno and house beats, acoustic guitars, and vintage synth sounds, symbolizes the contradictions of living on the frontier of Pakistani society and identity.

The day I arrived, an article about the band appeared on the front page of Dawn, the country's most important English-language newspaper: "Peshawar is not a place known for being very music-savvy, and the idea of a band coming from there was surprising for many music enthusiasts." In fact, as the duo explained to me, Peshawarians are called "walnuts" by other Pakistanis because they are supposedly "hardheaded or stupid. When we tour in other Pakistani cities, people actually ask us if we live in mud huts."

Such ignorance stems from the fact that so few Pakistanis from outside the region go to Peshawar these days, since the city and the surrounding tribal areas have become identified with the Taliban and reckless violence. Yet the rock scene there is almost two decades old. Sajid Ghafoor, the duo's singer and guitarist, was one of its founders, and from the start has been determined to show Pakistanis that Peshawar has a vibrant, creative cultural scene at the forefront of Pakistani society. [...]

Neither Sajid nor Zeeshan would leave Peshawar, which they regard as a refuge from the crass materialism and lack of social solidarity that pervade the country. As Sajid explained, "Peshawar might be light-years behind other cities, yet we don't deviate from our traditions and culture. People still look out for each other. Even if we party, we respect tradition." "One record shop here got the best music before shops in the big cities. And the coolest was metal. We grew up on metal. Megadeth, Metallica, Rush, Rage Against the Machine, and of course Floyd and Zeppelin; the sound just related to our feelings of aggression living in a dictatorship, and helped us get out the anger in a healthy way."

"There used to be so much culture here, especially music," Zeeshan lamented. "Junoon [the pioneers of Pakistani rock, dubbed by the global media the "U2 of Asia"] used to play here. We could play for crowds of thousands. But once Musharraf handed over control of the NWFP to the religious parties, that all changed." Zeeshan explained this as we headed toward the tribal areas surrounding Peshawar, which are normally a no-go for Westerners and most Pakistanis as well. Sajid and Zeeshan also know that this tradition is under threat, and they are despondent about the growing extremism of Pakistani Islam and its intersection with government corruption--a combination that led the duo to record its first Pashto-language song, "Lambay," soon after my visit, for which we collaborated on a heavy-metal version of the song for the compilation album Flowers in the Desert, being released by EMI later this summer.

Echoing the description by many of my Lebanese friends about their country's increasing religious-secular divide, Sajid said, "When I was in school I had religious friends. We respected them and they respected us. My brother is one of the most famous guitarists and producers in Pakistan, but prays five times a day. What you have to understand is that the Islamists who are against music are against it not because a fatwa has told them it's wrong, but because music opens minds and allows people to express themselves. They use Islam to stop others for political or economic reasons. But that's not Islam." ...

Junaid Jamshed, the founder of Vital Signs, is perhaps the biggest-selling artist in Pakistani history. But these days it's not music that keeps his spirits high. Instead, it's his faith. If Junoon was the Led Zeppelin of Pakistan, Junaid's good looks, charismatic personality, and powerful voice made Vital Signs the country's Beatles. But beneath the fabulous life of a megacelebrity, something wasn't right. As he recounts it, "It was ten years ago, around 1997, and I was at the peak of my career, almost an icon in my country. I had everything at my feet, but I was unhappy and discontented.

Then I met an old school friend, Jhani, who had returned to his faith. He was a very successful businessman, yet he led a peaceful and uncomplicated life, with time for friends, family, and charity. "Jhani never spoke to me about Islam or any ideology; he didn't preach.But as I spent time with him I began to think that maybe this way of life could give me spiritual material for my albums--new directions--as far as music was concerned. Then I realized the music I had been doing up till then was often without substance. Everyone was doing it...

So I started sitting with him and going to the mosque. You know, all the things about gun-running and terrorism, that the West and even many in Pakistan relate to mosques and Islam, they had nothing to do with what I was seeing... [Instead,] for the first time I began to respect Hindus, Christians, Jews, and other religions because I realized that everyone is created by the Almighty. Everyone deserves respect because we're all part of a global family." ...

Junaid's turn toward religion came with a heavy price, however: He came to believe that music was Haram, or forbidden in Islam. This view, expressed by many very religious Muslims, is in fact hotly debated; the reality is that most musicians I know in the Muslim world consider themselves religiously valid Muslims and don't share Jamshed's view. He disagrees: "You can debate it, but that's the way it is. And even with the music, all those great bands, the Doors, the Beatles, and the rest, all wanted to be against the establishment. But they didn't have anywhere to take people once they led them away--there was never really an 'other side' to break into, rather than just out of."

At the same time, however, Junaid's spiritual awakening hasn't led him to turn away from or criticize his old friends in the rock and pop world. "Look, if I just tell society, 'Don't do this!' they will be flabbergasted. 'What the hell is this guy talking about?' 'Who is he, a musician, to tell me music is haram?' etcetera. You must give them a better alternative. If I don't have a better alternative, I shouldn't tell them to stop or leave something."

Junaid has managed to cross the religious-secular divide while keeping his respect for the world he left behind. But the dialogue he advocates is increasingly difficult to have in Pakistan, just as it is in Lebanon and most of the other countries of the MENA. Pakistanis from the country's artistic, religious, and journalistic elites have all complained to me that the lack of communication, and the loss of young people to extremism that it encourages--extreme consumerism as much as extreme religion--"is killing the country." ...

At heart, according to one senior government-appointed religious figure whom I know, the problem is that Pakistan is divided by vested interests that are beyond the reach of any conceivable medicine to heal, no matter how much sugar is added.

At best, if enough money is thrown into the medicine chest, one could hope to produce a strange simulacrum of Islamic and Western society, such as have evolved in Dubai or Doha, where huge amounts of wealth and an invisible foreign underclass allow a few lucky Arabs to live the "liberal" Muslim dream next door to their expatriate Texan and British neighbors. Indeed, if you walk through the airports in Lahore and Karachi, you'll find advertisements for Emaar Pakistan's latest luxury development, Crescent Bay, along Pakistan's Arabian Sea coast. It's a lovely-looking development, with happy looking families living in homes that could easily be in Dubai, or Minnesota for that matter.

But only a few Pakistanis will be lucky enough to live there or even work there as the guards, cooks, gardeners, and drivers that make the lives of Pakistan's elite livable. Leaving the airport, I walked past four munaqqababes--wealthy young women in full niqab (a black frock covering the whole body, with gloves and veils covering the entire face save their eyes), which hide their chic western designer clothing and 80 gigabyte iPods--with tags still on their veils from when they went through security. As I passed them something an up-and-coming singer from Lahore, Ali Roooh, said to me as we drove through one of his city's poor and overcrowded markets rang inside my head: "Mark, Pakistan is doomed unless we can return to our traditions of taking care of each other." With the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, the continual fighting in the Northwest Frontier Province, and the growing power of Taliban-inspired forces, Ali's fears seemed sadly prescient.