Magic bus, p.19

Magic Bus, page 19


Magic Bus

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  Butt was born in Trinidad, a son of one of the island’s oldest European families. At the age of nine, he was sent away to a Jesuit boarding school in England. The experience was so traumatic and dislocating that, when he left Stonyhurst in 1969, he needed to return to his roots.

  ‘But I didn’t think of going back to Trinidad,’ he tells me, ‘even though I’d been torn away from that country which I loved. I felt a greater need. For us in the sixties, our deeper roots were in the East. The hippie trail was my escape route from Western civilization.’

  Butt’s journey was emotional from the outset, not simply a youthful adventure of the self but also a pilgrimage. He had been introduced to the Koran at school, and the holy book’s directness moved him. Yet he never considered converting to Islam. He – like so many others then and now – simply felt a gnawing absence in his life, as well as a sense of being at odds with himself.

  ‘I went down to Morocco, stuck around in Paris for a while, then spent the winter on Crete. There were caves in Matala, and it was like a big hippie commune. Next, I stopped in Rhodes and met a Norwegian girl who I really liked. With my Catholic upbringing, I was a bit shy with girls but she was leaving the following day. We had a sort of one-night stand and I had to smuggle her back to her parents’ hotel.’

  ‘She didn’t entice you to stay in Europe?’

  ‘I wasn’t into the sexual thing. I looked at my journey as a spiritual path. I felt the need to control desire. Uncontrolled self-gratification seemed to be part of what I had to relinquish.’ His sage-coloured eyes soften and his long mouth stirs into a smile. ‘But that Norwegian was a very nice memory.’

  ‘After she left, I spent two weeks in Rhodes just looking at Asia. Just thinking about Asia. It’s quite important, you know, coming to Asia for the first time. Asia meant so much.’

  As well as hedonism, Butt also renounced materialism. He wanted his life to be enriched by greater works than a new car or luxurious house.

  ‘When I was ready, I took a fishing boat to Turkey. What hit me right away was the Muslim hospitality. The Turks brought us this huge fish and no one wanted us to pay. On the train heading east, I said to everyone, with a lot of warmth, “Merhaba”. Greetings! There was so much love. I felt at home.’

  As he speaks, the morning heat ripples up from the twin cities like the wash of a tide, bringing with it the smell of roses and drains.

  ‘I was set on going to Afghanistan and India. I reached Kandahar sitting on top of hay bales in the boot of an Afghan post bus. I liked Kandahar, and not only because of the fabled dope. Everything was so different: shepherd boys playing their flutes, old men smoking hash chillums in the tea shops, bells tinkling in the morning.’

  But, in Kandahar, Butt contracted dysentery. He tried to stick to his macrobiotic diet by eating onion sandwiches – the only yang food he could find – and became seriously ill. He ran out of money. In Kabul, he sold his cassette recorder – on which he had recorded Dylan’s Come Back Isle of Wight concert – and nursed himself back to health. Then he overstayed his visa and was ordered to leave the country. He hitched to the Pakistan border.

  ‘My first night outside Peshawar there was a full moon,’ Butt remembers. ‘I was with two friends in the tribal territory. I wasn’t under the influence of anything so I wasn’t hallucinating. Suddenly, celestial lights started flashing around the sky, landing close to the spot where we were sitting. I was spellbound.’

  The experience was to mark the beginning of Butt’s conversion to Islam. He later learnt of the ‘Night of Power’, when celestial lights fill the skies and sins are forgiven. The phenomenon is described in the surah Laylat’al-Qadar. ‘Verily, We revealed the Koran during the Night of Power. And how can you realize what the Night of Power is? The Night of Power is better than a thousand nights. During it, the angels descend, along with the Spirit, with the permission of their Lord, imparting peace to everything: peace, until the breaking of the dawn (Koran, 97:1–5).’

  Butt travelled deep into northern Pakistan, crossing the Malak- and Pass into a land ‘like something out of Middle Earth: a tapestry of meadows and rolling hills’. He fell in love with the patterns of the fields and the juxtaposition of scooped ravines and jutting mountains in the Swat Valley. He realized he felt at home amongst the people. On a bus a tribal policeman tried to collect from him a foreign-traveller tax. A local man sitting next to Butt took issue with the policeman, saying, ‘He shouldn’t pay. He belongs here.’

  Above all, Butt felt he belonged in the religion. In Kalam, three curious Punjabi men broke into his room, just to have a look at a long-haired, disreputable European. ‘Oh, believers, do not enter homes other than your own,’ Butt snapped at them, quoting the surah An-Nur, ‘until you have asked for permission and invoked peace upon those who live there.’ The wide-eyed intruders apologized and withdrew.

  Finally, Butt took a long bus ride during Ramadan.

  ‘One evening, my bus stopped and everyone broke their fast and ate a date and said a prayer. I felt so bad, so left out. I decided then and there never again to deny myself the experience. To deny that affinity.

  ‘The next morning I got up at the right time. I fasted properly. I started rereading the Holy Koran. There I found the clues for my own journey: from the darkness comes light, from the light comes darkness, the ambience of the opposites. I also learnt that the acceptance of Islam did not mean the renunciation of other faiths but rather the acceptance of them in their true meaning. The Koran teaches that prophets have passed in every nation, and every community has been blessed with a guiding light. The only difference is the Koran has preserved what other scriptures have distorted over the ages.’

  He goes on, ‘You know, for a hippie, Islam was not particularly fashionable. Hippies became Buddhists or Hindus.’

  Most Westerners find it easier to relate to Hinduism and Buddhism. The two older faiths are mystical, flexible and hold out the promise of contentment, whereas Muslims accept lives of struggle, sacrifice and sometimes even suffering in the path of God. Earthly happiness is not the aim of the Islamic life, and praying six times a day sat uneasily with the sixties aversion to discipline.

  ‘My conversion just happened. People said to me, “When will you become Muslim?” I answered, “It says in the Koran that Islam is the submission to almighty Allah. I have already submitted, so I am a Muslim.”’

  His ardent, transforming story lightens my heart. In Islam, he found a way to end his disorientation, to make sense of the pains and mysteries of life, to touch his inner nature. Its rituals linked him with tradition and gave him a sense of belonging. In the shade, even my concrete stomach begins to feel less heavy.

  Butt is silent for a moment, then says, ‘I think, on accepting Islam, I learnt to express myself with the certainties, the doctrines, which Islam teaches – that God is One, the prophets communicate His Word to mankind, Allah will judge men according to the way they acted on earth. It is still one of the great attractions of Islam to me that it seems to deal with everything.’

  ‘Everything?’ I ask, struggling to accept that any religion could rationalize all of life.

  ‘As the Koran says, “We have not left anything out of the Book (Koran, 6:38).”’

  ‘But the sixties were all about seeking self-knowledge. Are you saying that enlightenment can be achieved only through an intimate knowledge of Islam?’

  ‘Enlightenment is an airy-fairy, wishy-washy concept associated more with Buddhism and Hinduism,’ says Butt, lowering his head to look at me under his white eyebrows. ‘Enlightened – “roshanfikr” in Persian – refers to those who are guided more by modern philosophical thought. Islam is about aligning oneself to the forces of nature. The Koran is a formal exposition of man’s place in the natural order of things.’

  To find his place, Butt became a farmer, living by the natural rhythms of the seasons, studying the Koran on both sides of the NWFP tribal border. He moved for a time to Darul Uloom Deoband madrassa in India, A
sia’s greatest Islamic university. But when he returned to Pakistan, he couldn’t find his niche. In his absence, the faith had been politicized, transformed into a vehicle for worldly power instead of eternal salvation, and no foreigner could be recognized as an Islamic scholar. To remain part of the society, Butt joined the BBC, producing – among other programmes – a Pashto version of The Archers, a radio soap designed to offer practical solutions and ideas to people trying to rebuild their lives after the years of conflict. Over the next decade, his voice became one of the best known in the region.

  ‘In Islam, you have the rite of Allah, that He should be worshipped, and you have the rite of human beings, that we should help one another. I feel that those two rites are being fulfilled through my journalism.’

  My stomach rumbles, interrupting our conversation. Butt takes sympathy on me, asking what I’ve eaten, suggesting the local remedy of yoghurt and banana and then, later in the day, yakhni, a light, clear chicken broth. I must be on the mend for the suggestion doesn’t nauseate me.

  We catch a three-wheel autorickshaw – ‘The Muslim Ricky’ – away from Lotus Lake and down the hill to Aabpara market. In the sun the temperature hovers around 100°F, and the breeze feels like a blast from hell. Above the scream of the two-stroke engine, I ask Butt about his other passions.

  ‘Do you mean Dylan?’ he calls out. ‘Or Man United?’

  ‘Manchester United.’

  ‘Football is life in a pure and vivid format,’ he shouts with a smile. ‘It’s about teamwork, fair play. If you break the rules you’re going to suffer. I took to Man United after the Munich air disaster. I loved Bobby Charlton because he survived. I loved Duncan Edwards because he fought for life. Their strength and talents caught my imagination. They went on to conquer Europe.’

  Much as Islam has captured Butt’s imagination, I think. Faith inspires him, and I admire his attainment of calm, humble selfknowledge.

  ‘As for Dylan, my passion for him began with “The Times They are a-Changin’”,’ Butt goes on. ‘That clear voice and guitar rang out through the corridors of my school. Resonant. Spiritual. True. I can remember listening to that song and thinking, “This is it. This guy is crying out, shouting out, you are not alone.”’

  In the back of the belching ‘ricky’, the Jesuit-educated imam sings to me, ‘Come mothers and fathers throughout the land, and don’t criticize what you can’t understand, your sons and your daughters are beyond your command, your old road is rapidly ageing…’

  In the bright sunlight, the skin on his high forehead seems so sheer, and his sinuous veins so shallow, that I can almost see his blood throbbing below the surface. The years spent out-of-doors have bleached his eyelashes and burnished his cheeks. Yet, for all its life, his body – fine, fragile and diaphanous – seems to exist simply to shelter his soul.

  ‘I sometimes joke that Dylan’s my guide, even though he’s a Jew. You know, wisdom is every man’s domain. We can get a word of wisdom from any source. And from wherever we get it, it belongs to us.’

  At the tea shop, Butt drinks a glass of water. I risk a small bowl of yoghurt. After our noisy ride, his tolerant voice sounds quiet, almost unheard, and I have to lean across the table to catch his words.

  ‘Islam tells us that we should read the Koran and not interpret it according to our individual opinion. Dylan expressed that too. Do you know the song “Gates of Eden”?’ he asks me. I can only just hear him above other conversations and the crash of crockery. ‘“At dawn my lover comes to me and tells me of her dreams, with no attempt to shovel the glimpse into the ditch of what each one means.” He’s saying that things are more beautiful as they are, rather than interpreted.’ Butt lowers his head and looks at me under his eyebrows again. ‘In the sixties I came east with nothing, believing that I had everything to learn. Today, most Westerners, with their money and their technology, come here to teach. Not me. I’m still doing what I was thirty-five years ago; learning from people.’ Butt’s long mouth stirs again into laughter. ‘In all these years, my life hasn’t really changed,’ he says. ‘I’m still a hippie.’

  And I laugh with the imam.

  In the late afternoon heat, I walk back to the house. I slip indoors to lie down, think better of it and start to do my back exercises.

  I kneel down and stretch my arms forward across the floor. At that moment, I hear the evening call to prayer. The voice of an imam rises through the white cotton drapes. Another joins him, then a third, the invocations gathering in number and strength. With my head and eyes cast down, I feel a sudden sense of both intimacy and community, knowing that all around me at that moment millions of other men and women are praying, prostrate and alone like me on the earth, reaching out together.

  But celestial lights don’t fill the skies. No angels descend toward the villa. This is not my moment of revelation. The faithful are reaching out to understand life through what has already been written down. I search for something which isn’t yet put into words. Which I haven’t yet put into words.

  Beyond the white room, banks of stormclouds gather, great grey hammerheads casting wispy tendrils across the indigo sky. The air is heavy with the promise of rain but none falls on the capital that night.

  22. Spirit in the Sky

  I’m on Platform No. 1 at Rawalpindi railway station. There’s an hour to wait before my train. Pigeons coo under the Victorian eaves. A cat’s cradle of power cables sways and crackles above the rails. Outside the broad entrance hall, the old Grand Trunk Road, Kipling’s ‘river of life’, runs on, spanning the subcontinent. A milestone reads, on one side, ‘Kabul 393 km’, and on the other, ‘Delhi 785 km’. It’s not yet six and there are few passengers about, apart from the stranger who’s walking toward me.

  ‘Going far?’ he asks in English.

  ‘Lahore,’ I say. And the Indian border.

  ‘I’m heading the other way.’

  His dress is Pakistani and his accent is Midlands. He’s about twenty-five, talkative and good-humoured with a broad smile and neatly parted hair.

  ‘My name is Ahmed,’ he says, offering me his hand. ‘At least that’s what it says on my pilot’s licence.’


  ‘Did you hear about the Osama bin Laden musical in Amman? In the opening scene, bin Laden tells the audience that he’s ready to travel to America and give himself up. On one condition. “You come with me and I fly the plane!”’ Ahmed laughs, satisfied with his effect on me. ‘I can’t help it,’ he says, snapping his fingers. ‘Allah made me funny.’

  Ahmed is a British comedian, visiting Pakistan for I don’t know what reason… other than to wind me up.

  ‘Travel has become so difficult for Muslims these days,’ he says, slipping into a slick routine and on to the bench beside me. ‘When I checked in at Heathrow, the lady behind the counter asked me if I’d packed my bags myself. I said yes, so they arrested me.’

  He smiles, stringing one joke after another, going on, ‘Last night in Islamabad, I played at the American Club. At the end of my gig, a belly-dancer swept me off the stage. She had a halo-like glow around her head. I thought, “My show’s so wicked this is the fire of Shaytan.” The devil. “Khalaqtani min’narin wa khalaqtahu min teen.” Then I saw that she really was in flames. As I’d swung her around the room, her lacquered hair had touched a candle. A parachute was hanging from the ceiling and I thought, if that ignites too, then the whole place will go up and I’ll be on a C-15 with a one-way ticket for Guantanamo Bay.’

  He laughs again and adds, ‘Comedy is about our fears. You don’t have to make it up because the edge, the truth, is inside you.’

  Ahmed speaks in the same deadpan manner as he delivers his lines, making it impossible to distinguish his jokes from anger, leaving me feeling uneasy. For a moment, I wonder if our conversation will turn up on America’s Funniest Videos. Especially after he lists the pleasures of Fundamentalist Islamist Paradise (seventy-two dark-eyed maidens, eternal erections, daily Shoot-the-Buddha

  I could back off. Instead, I force myself to stay. To engage with him. To ask, ‘Why are you here?’

  ‘Two reasons: first because Islam sustains and advances my identity. Second, because, like all good Muslims, I have terrible halitosis.’

  Ahmed tells me that his father emigrated to the UK in the sixties, worked as a night-shift spinner at a textile mill, brought up his children along the ‘straight path’ – and marched them to cultural schizophrenia. While his sister read the Koran, Ahmed watched The Young Ones. As Ahmed attended Eid prayers, his school friends bragged about their first blow-jobs. Ahmed submitted to his parents’ wishes, enrolled in biochemistry at Manchester University, then dropped out feeling alienated both from ‘stuffy’ customs of the old country and fragmented suburban values. His uncertain identity and sexual frustration fermented into resentment, which he channelled into drink, then humour. After 9/11, Ahmed – like many others – became troubled by the portrayal of Muslims in the press and on television. To try to defuse the stereotypes, he enrolled in a stand-up-comedy-writing course at the City Lit. He played the Edinburgh fringe. He wanted to ‘put the fun into fundamentalism’.

  ‘I killed them at the Assembly Rooms. No pun intended. “I don’t look at you as an audience,” I told them. “I consider you potential hostages.”’ He goes on, ‘I’m not willing to be a second-class citizen like my old man. I’m fed up with the abuse.’

  ‘What abuse?’ I ask.

  ‘Do you know how often a brick or stone is thrown through our mosque windows? About once a week. Hey,’ he adds with a smile, ‘why do so many Muslims students study chemistry? Because we’ve got to make the bombs.’

  I put down my notebook. I look at the station clock. My train hasn’t yet arrived at the platform. In the ticket hall, a barber straight-shaves his first customer, lifting his chin, exposing the throat, flicking lather on to his wrist. A railway superintendent in topi and tie saunters on to the platform, sipping sugary tea from a chipped Father Christmas cup. I say to Ahmed, ‘As a British Muslim, you can bridge the gap with humour.’

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