Visiting Bibi Pak Daman

The shrine or tomb of Bibi Pak Daman is one of the major shrines in Lahore. Until yesterday, I’d never visited.

This is especially strange when you consider that the Street of Bibi Pak Daman is located almost exactly across from the gate of the Convent of Jesus & Mary school – which I attended from 1974 to 1983. I didn’t even know there was a thing there that people cared about. A lot of people. (I think it is really interesting that the Sisters of Jesus and Mary founded their school near the shrine.)

So I, my husband, my daughter, and my brother went there yesterday.

The street begins with a lifting roadblock where the attendant will take a look at you before admitting you to the street. Then begins a neighborhood named after the revered women buried in the tomb. It is a humble neighborhood. Everything about the tomb is humble, and is welcoming to the poor. We, with our handbags and our White man, stuck out like sore thumbs. Our presence created a bit of a disruption in the energy, as many people attempted to help us or sell us things for tips. I decided that next time I go to visit a shrine, I’ll bring a bit of money for roses, the shoe rack, and for charity in my hand, and no handbag or anything of value. Of course helping my young daughter navigate the crowd was another source of distraction. But you cannot lose your temper. All of them are guests of the Lady.

Next time we go, it probably won’t be a weekend, too. The shrine was crowded and busy – unlike the quiet Mian Mir shrine the other day. Men were lined on the left side, and women occupied the remainder of the sides, of the main shrine – the resting place of Hz. Ruqayya bint Ali (RA) and the sister and daughters of Hz Muslim bin Aqeel, who, along with other family members and servants, had fled the persecution of the caliphs and settled in this faraway land. This area of Lahore was forested at the time, and edged with the River Ravi. There were no Muslims in India. Muhammad bin Qasim’s army landed (as it is claimed) 32 years later. Hz Ruqayya bint Ali settled here. But, as I read, the Umayyads sent spies and assassins, and the local raja also sent his army. The ladies, fearful of the soldiers’ treatment, prayed to God for protection and it is said that the earth split open to receive them. This tomb marks that spot.

Bibi Pak Daman refers to the Lady of Purity, but sometimes the name used is Bibian (ladies), because Syeda Ruqayya bint Ali was accompanied by five other ladies, Muslim ibn Aqeel’s sister and daughters. Any association with the Prophet’s household is revered here, and while the imagery and practices are often Shia in nature, fervently devoted Shias and Sunnis both attend.

Hz. Ali Hujweiri (whose shrine, Data Darbar, is the central shrine in Lahore and perhaps the most famous one in Pakistan) used to meditate and receive faizan (inspiration) at Bibi Pak Daman’s mazar.

The first time I heard about Bibi Pak Daman was from an anti-shrine Islamist Jamat-Islami family back in 1990. Auntie Shafqat (I’ll call her) confessed, rather shamefacedly, that she visited Bibi Pak Daman some time back. Her teenaged daughters had suddenly become plagued with terrible facial pimples. No remedies helped. Eventually someone told her to go to Bibi Pak Daman and sweep the floors. These are upwardly mobile middle class families; they do not sweep the floors of their own homes. But Auntie Shafqat took her daughters, and they swept the floors. The pimples disappeared with miraculous speed. I was rather intrigued despite my own suspicion of folk religion at that time.

The women attendees of Bibi Pak Daman cling to the walls and sing devotional songs. One of the women there was sobbing uncontrollably. I patted her head and tried to comfort her, but she knew no comfort. “Who knows what troubles she had,” my mother said, when I told her. (My mother couldn’t go because of mobility issues. The place is definitely not handicapped accessible, as the street and entrance are narrow and congested). “Women are all sorrowful.”

What a powerful place, it struck me. Men are somewhat restricted in the shrine, unlike most other public places. My husband was told not to take photos of us because there were women in that area. Any woman – divorced, battered, unloved, childless, raped, orphaned – can come here and pour out her sorrows to the Lady. She belongs here. It is a women’s shrine. A woman, alone, sorrowful, oppressed, can be the devotee of this powerful saint, and know that she has told her troubles to a loving spirit.


Visiting Hazrat Mian Mir’s darbar in Lahore

I went to the tomb of Hazrat Mian Mir yesterday. Despite living in Lahore for years, we have never visited this shrine, and I was determined to make it there this time.

There is a small street with shops for roses and marigolds (for offerings) that suddenly breaks off from a busy not-upscale commercial area into a quiet, down-to-earth little world that leads to the shaikh’s tomb.

The saint’s is a lovely spiritual presence that is tranquil as well as draws one to him and to God.

People sat, prayed, held on to the marble walls of the old tomb. Pigeons flocked on the dome, and drank at the many clay dishes of water set out for them. Old, spreading trees graced the beautiful quiet marble-floored courtyard. The walls are the old, slim Lakhauri bricks that we see in Mughal-era architecture. I saw only people of humble social background here. No one seemed especially interested in our arrival, including the White man among us.

My ammi said I looked different – better – when I got back.

Hazrat Mian Mir (no relation, to my knowledge) was a Qadiri Sufi saint born about 1550. The Mughal emperors Akbar, Jahangir, Shah Jahan, and Aurangzeb ruled during his time, and begged him for his favor. Hz. Mian Mir disliked kings and opposed their persecution of – among others – the Sikh. It is said that Guru Arjan Dev, fifth of the Sikh gurus, was a great friend of his, and asked Hz Mian Mir to lay the foundation stone of the Harmandir Sahib, or the Golden Temple – which he did.

One day, the Emperor Jahangir arrived to pay his respects to Hz. Mian Mir – and to request his prayers on behalf of his Deccan military campaign. But the shaikh’s followers blocked the emperor at the gate and asked him to wait. Jahangir’s pride was hurt, and when he eventually received permission to enter, he remarked: “Ba dare-darvish darban nalbayd.” (There should be no guard or doorman at the gate of a dervish). Hz Mian Mir replied, “Babayd keh sag-e dunia na ayad” (There is one so that a dog of the world i.e. a materialistic, grasping selfish man – may not enter). Sufi zing.

Ashamed, the emperor begged pardon. A poor man arrived and offered a rupee to the shaikh. Mian Mir told him to give it to someone in the audience. But though the man went from person to person, no one among the shaikh’s followers accepted the rupee.

Hz Mian Mir said, “Give this rupee to him,” pointing to the emperor Jahangir. “He is the most needy of all. He has a great kingdom, but he is greedy for more, and wants the Deccan.”


Struggling to make it: an uber driver/accountant who just wants to work

I spoke at Forman Christian College in Lahore yesterday. On the uber ride back, the driver – I’ll call him Waseem – told me how he came to start driving his little car.

Waseem is young (he says I look too young to be 50. “You look like you’re in your 30s,” he says, and we tease him because Svend thinks he just wants ratings). For an uber driver, he is immaculately dressed and groomed, clean shaven, with a clean car. He drives from 9am to 3am. Once he’s done, he goes to a small rented room in a “development” near the Punjab Assembly on the Mall Road. The room has just enough space for him to sleep. His family does not live in Lahore. He is from Sargodha. He seems to miss his life there. There are orange orchards, and the city is small and sparsely populated. Pollution is low and the open fields make for a cold winter. Lahore is so congested and polluted that the cold barely makes a dent, he says. The cost of living for his family is low. There are no transportation costs. His daughter crosses the house over to her school, and they drop her lunch off behind the house. He doesn’t have the money to keep them in Lahore. That would break him.

People are healthier in Sargodha, he says. His grandmother was 105 and she wandered all over the village, active and healthy till her death. Lahore kills us too soon, he says, as we pass LACAS and the political mansion on Zahoor Elahi Road.

Glancing at me, as we cross through Mini Market into Main Boulevard, he says, “The ones who left the country have made it.”

Not necessarily, I hasten to correct him. I want to say, But I don’t have tenure and I don’t have a house. But when he means making it, he’s not talking about that kind of stability. He just wants to live with his family and be able to pay his expenses. He’s worked with a garment company for two years, then a publishing company for three years, and now a construction company. Every new job means a learning curve, and eventually he loses the job and has to get back on the market for dozens of interviews, and a slim chance of landing a decent job.

He’s an accountant, working at a construction company now. The company failed to get the government funds it needed, so production is dead. Dozens were laid off. Employees were paid for some time by the sale of scrap metal. Eventually salaries stopped, and Waseem hasn’t been paid in months.

So he started driving uber, because he has to eat.

Every day he drives until he has to stop and sleep in his tiny room for a few hours. Then he starts driving again. There’s no time for relaxation or recreation, I think to myself, no sitting at coffee shops, no shopping, no picnics, no sitting with a book. “My entertainment is when I go back to Sargodha to see my family every two weeks or so.” His face shines with sincerity, and a total lack of need for my compassion. He is immersed too deep in the struggle for him to care much what I think. He is just thinking aloud as we plough through traffic.

“I will work from job to job, from day to the next day, and then my life will be over.”

صبح ہوتی ہے شام ہوتی ہے
عمر یونہی تمام ہوتی ہے
– Iqbal

Morning breaks, evening descends,
and in this manner, life concludes

I am filled with desperation for his tiny life, as he flutters in a jar, beating his valiant wings, struggling to lift his children up with education and a livelihood. I will go to Dubai, he says. It’s not so far as America, I eagerly agree. Yes, a three-hour flight, and I can come back to see my parents, he says, as if in a daydream.

“Allah grant that you get a zabardast job, in a miraculous way, and your life improves,” I say. I am not being condescending, and he doesn’t mind me saying that, because it’s only facts. Ameen, he says. “Or the Middle East.” Yes, he nods. “But it is so hot there.” Oh yes, he agrees.

He is calm, collected, dignified, working without end, speaking with equanimity of the new government. “Imran has sincere intention,” he says, “and maybe something will change.” He just wants to be able to make it by working hard, but it is too hard to do even that. He is pedalling hard but getting nowhere. People shouldn’t have to fight so hard just to eat and live, I say. Basic needs should be covered, he says simply; he doesn’t need to read Marx to know this.

I am furious for him as I try to access my first world leftist discourse, and it is hard to reach it, in the depths of this endless tunnel, as we cross over into Lahore Cantonment past the military check for driver IDs. and I want badly to see him happy, filled with joy, satisfaction, and accomplishment, rather than in a dream, slogging away without end in sight.