Karachi, the second megalopolis of the world, a monolith of cement and discharges of waste water, a crazy ants nest made of frenzy, fury, misery and money.
Here is the Leviathan laying down on the Arabic Sea, the bay of today’s pirates: common criminals and big traffickers, street vandals and armed terrorists. The most dangerous city in the world unveils itself with it’s taste of sacredness and profanity, with it’s mosques and it’s madrasa, it’s skyscrapers and it’s minarets fighting for the reign of the horizon. And if the stars up in the sky are hostages of clouds and pollution, it is down on the hearth that the big monster fascinates and incorporates you, making you loose yourself.
It is an endless wandering across women with burqas, niqabs or wearing the western fashion, across Salafis with Assyrian beards and eyes like scimitars, and men in suits. The richòs ring wildly, the mules tow the carts, the taxis double back, a man spits in the street, another feeds stray cats, the smell of spices is everywhere and the smell of blood coming from the halal butcheries and from the city suburbs, where drug addicts die with a syringe in their arm and robbers shoot for few rupees, makes it clear: this is Karachi and you are already lost.
Everything is the contrary of everything and is pervaded by an hidden and apostate violence: shadows always seem to observe the steps of those who enter the bowels of this city. But it is only by going down like speleologists through the gut of the former Pakistani capital that you can discover an Islamic world, made of mystics and ascetic exorcists and musicians, dancers and hashish smokers, of culture and poetry, tolerance, art and beauty: the Sufism.
The blood is the fil rouge of life and death, faith and heresy in Karachi. Arriving in Gadap Town, one of the northern suburbs of the city, which has been for years a Pakistani Taliban stronghold, you can immediately see the stands selling the goat meat that the crowd of devotees used to buy it before going to the sanctuary of Mango Pir, a Sufi master, who lived as an Hermit in this area during the XIII century together with some crocodiles. The reptiles today are more than 200 and are worshiped by the devotees, who honor them by throwing the goat offal into the lake where they live. A temple on a cliff, a little bit down the lake housing the crocodiles and up in to the sky the hawks flying: in this Arabian Nights scenario Khalifa Sajjad feeds the animals, blesses them by scattering flowers on them and, in the meantime, he takes care of the devotees’ souls with an ancient ritual that alleviates inner sufferings. He took the heritage of the master and represents the Sufism in Karachi today. The Sufism is the branch of Islam that aspires to realize, yet during the earthly life, the presence of God in humans. It has a centuries long story, starting in the VII century. According to many it is also the mystic branch of the Islamic faith and, in order to reach a true knowledge, that is to say the divine dimension, adepts shall commit to culture, arts, poetry, music and dance. Some of them live as hermits, others in communities, they follow the cult of the masters who preceded them and, above all, they do not believe in divisions, even in the one between Sunnites and Shiites, and they do not build barriers against the “infidels”. That is why the extreme fringes of the Islam consider Sufis as heretics, they persecute them, put bombs in the sanctuaries, and in Pakistan, from 2005 until today, more than 200 Sufis have been killed by fundamentalist Islamic groups.
“These crocodiles are the disciples of the great master, and I am here to take care of them, of the cult of the master Mango Pir and of the devotees wishing to relieve their sufferings. When the Taliban existed in this quarter the sanctuary was not accessible and the crocodiles risked to die. But it did not happen, so today the devotees come here to feed them, and I take care of purifying their souls thanks to the religious knowledge”. Sat inside his prayer room, Khalifa Sajjad receives men and women, he lights the incense, shakes pavilion feathers and, after that he threw flowers in the brazier, lightly touches the forehead of the pilgrims inviting them to go in peace free from any inner suffering.
While the story of Khalifa Sajjad reflects the aspect of the hermitism intrinsic in the Sufi cult, in order to understand the worlds of the ecstasy, of the religious music, of the hypnotic dances, it is necessary to leave Karachi, going toward the cultural capital of Pakistan: Lahore.
It is nighttime and the vehicles in the city of Punjab are enlightened only by the lights of two buses that, as in a labyrinth, cross the streets of the old city, changing their direction at any crossroad. Then, out of the alleyway, the vehicles stop. Two percussionists get off, the brothers Mithu Sain and Gunga Sain, and so do a group of qaawali music players. The musicians head off across a cemetery, where more than 100 people are sat and waiting. The darkness is all around, the graveyard is crowded by the devotees: men, women and transsexuals. The smell of the hashish pervades the air and Mithu Sain, a percussionist since decades and practicing Sufi explains the situation: “Every Thursday evening we Sufi meet to celebrate our cult. We sing, play music and then the devotees dance and in this way they reach the ecstasy. Since the Taliban intensified the attacks against us we need to hide and that is why our meetings take place in dark and in secret places”.
”Alì! Alì, Alì!”, the name of the vicar of Allah followed by that of the Prophet is screamed three times, it is not time for words, explanations and earthly things anymore: this is the moment of the transcendent mysticism, that cannot be explained, but only saw and listened. It is time to be overwhelmed in order to understand. The rhythms are more and more wild, the percussion beat relentlessly, the dervishes start spinning around faster and faster, the participants clap their hands. The earthenware cylooms inflated with Pakistani hashish explode in clouds of blue smoke and everything becomes the expression of that Islamic faith that tries, through the art, to elevate humans toward the divine dimension: any human.
There is no mistrust, difference or intolerance, therefore the foreigner is not an infidel, an observer, a journalist or someone different: he is a brother, someone who converted just for the occasion through a kiss on the picture of Alì, the bless of the master, the performing of the shahadah, the Islamic witnessing and the balsamic discover of another Islam. An Islam saying that Allah Akbar is an invocation for the knowledge necessary in order to reach a God, who do not contemplate black flags or bombs, but only devotees tearing down the barriers everywhere in the world in the name of the indivisibility of God, and searching for communion and harmony among human beings.
Pictures by Marco Gualazzini