Conservative Pakistan's Transgender Rising
Kami Sid, Pakistan’s first transgender model featured in a photo shoot.
By Sonya Rehman
Pakistani transgender activist and dancer Jannat Ali has felt like an impostor at times, her gender identity repeatedly challenged. It took years of sleepless nights for her to summon the courage to come out to her parents. But at a TEDx event in Lahore last October, she was swamped by men and women seeking autographs and selfies after a performance and address that drew a standing ovation.

“Till you don’t fight for your rights and your truth, you can’t expect a positive change,” Ali said, and the battle has been long. In the 19th century, the region’s British rulers had labeled the Indian subcontinent’s transgender community a “criminal tribe.” And unlike many other social groups that were criminalized for challenging the British, the transgender communities on both sides of the blood-soaked India-Pakistan border have largely remained mocked, loathed and marginalized in the decades since independence in 1947.



But the reception Ali received at the Lahore event is indicative of slowly shifting attitudes toward the transgender community in otherwise conservative Pakistan, marked by growing acceptance of their gender by the government, sections of society and even religious scholars. They are still victims of stereotypes and violence, and the road to parity with the rest of society remains long and hard. Still, the momentum toward change is building like never before. Islamabad’s Allama Iqbal Open University announced free classes — from junior high to college — for the transgender community in October. This past summer, Pakistan’s government issued its first third-gender passport to a transgender activist, Farzana Jan. In 2009, the country’s Supreme Court urged provincial governments to facilitate rights of their transgender communities; in 2012, the country’s National Database and Registration Authority provided an option for the third gender on its ID cards. In 2017, the national census recognized the transgender community for the first time. And a bill to protect the community’s rights is currently before Parliament.

In 2016, activist Kami Sid became the first Pakistani transgender model to be featured in a fashion photo shoot. Transgender activists and performers participate in popular television shows and on national radio, and as panelists and guests at events and festivals. Ali, valedictorian in her MBA program and a trained kathak performer, was invited last year to speak at a prominent college and a private school. And recently, Chairman of the Council of Islamic Ideology Qibla Ayaz labeled transgender discrimination unethical and un-Islamic.

“You can now see how the stereotypes are slowly being broken,” Ali tells me, when I visit the Khawaja Sira Society in Lahore, a community-building organization where she works as a coordinator.

Founded in 2012, the KSS and its work represent a microcosm of both the attitudinal changes in Pakistani society toward the transgender community and the challenges that continue to pothole the path ahead.

Transgender activist and dancer Jannat Ali performing at a TEDx event in Lahore in October 2017. SOURCE SAAD SARFRAZ SHEIKH
Transgender activist and dancer Jannat Ali performing at a TEDx event in Lahore in October 2017. SOURCE SAAD SARFRAZ SHEIKH

Some, like the aptly named Lucky, may appear more fortunate than others — but theirs too is a story of struggle. Slim and petite, with her hair pulled back in a short ponytail, Lucky, a KSS outreach worker, knew she was different by the time she was 5. Her parents, who worked at a Lahore college, knew soon enough too, but ignored the subject. When she turned 13, Lucky left home after a fight with her family. She lived on the streets, barely surviving off money earned from sex work and alms. But a few years later, after her mother took ill, her parents asked her to move in with them again. A passionate singer and occasional actress, Lucky acted in Teesri Dhun: The Third Tune, a 2016 theater production on the lives of Pakistan’s transgender community that was also performed at American graduate schools, including Yale and the University of Texas at Austin. “My mother and my father came to watch my performance along with my boyfriend,” Lucky says. “It was such a perfect moment for me.”

Others struggle to get their loved ones to acknowledge them in public. Nirmal, another outreach worker, says her boyfriendof six years refuses to be seen with her in public. “He says, ‘What if my friends make fun of me?’”

Transgender activists continue to face taunts from the police — and ordinary people, at times — while on outreach programs, accused of promoting sex when they hand out condoms. And the recent policy changes introduced to help the community represent “only a drop in the ocean,” says Neeli Rana, a veteran transgender activist. Although embittered by years of promises to the community that she says have mostly proved hollow, Rana continues to fight “for our next generations” and their right to work wherever they wish to, without any backlash.

Others are seeing signs of compassion, starting with their families. Ashi, another prominent transgender activist, fled her home at the age of 13 to escape a physically abusive father who wouldn’t accept her. Years later, when her father had been bedridden for two years, Ashi returned home — the only one of her siblings to do so — and she now looks after her 86-year-old mother.

On his deathbed, Ashi’s father wept and begged for her forgiveness. “I cried and told him I’d forgiven him a long time ago, and that he was my parent and that it was my duty to care for him,” she recalls. That sense of duty, felt for its transgender community, is something Pakistan may be waking up to.

A village in Punjab suffers as the government dithers

The AIDS Centre at DHQ Chiniot | Photo by Saad Sarfraz Sheikh
The AIDS Centre at DHQ Chiniot | Photo by Saad Sarfraz Sheikh

Javed Iqbal travelled to Faisalabad International Airport 15 years ago to catch a one-way flight to Dubai. Two years later, in 2004, he was sent back to Pakistan after medical tests revealed that he was infected with the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), a precursor to acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS). Then 27, he had no idea how and where he had contracted the disease.

Iqbal then attempted to move to Saudi Arabia for work, but his job application was rejected after he underwent a medical test. Embarrassed and dejected, he resumed his life in his native village, Chak No 127, Bhattiwala in central Punjab’s Chiniot district, without telling anyone about his illness. He also did not seek any treatment. He was scared of being named – and shamed – for suffering from a disease generally perceived to be the result of indulging in sex practices that religion and society abhor and prohibit.

Some time later, Iqbal married a local girl despite his deteriorating condition. He died in February this year, leaving behind his widow who, according to a local health worker, is also infected with HIV.

Bhattiwala lies midway along a 37-kilometre road that connects Chiniot with Faisalabad. Like any other village in this part of the country, it has mud-plastered houses and herds of buffaloes meandering lazily amid its green fields. Most of its inhabitants are small farmers who, like Iqbal, require supplementing their meagre farm income with additional work. The village is a picture of official neglect. It has only one government primary school (set up in 1956-57), its drainage and sewerage systems are primitive and it does not have a single government-run healthcare facility.

It is by no means equipped to tackle the HIV/AIDS scare that, in recent years, seems to have hit a large number of people living in the village, including men, women and children as young as five years of age, says Mazhar Qayyum, who runs a private school near Bhattiwala. He switches between English and Urdu as he explains how the entire village blames Iqbal for the spread of the disease. Whether that blame is entirely justified or not is of no consequence to villagers like Ahmed Yar who have lost almost their entire families reportedly to HIV/AIDS.

Wearing a worn-out shirt and a piece of unstitched cloth wrapped around his legs, Yar is the personification of poverty and resignation. A farmer in his 30s, he has lost nine members of his family (his father, mother, six siblings and his sister-in-law – all in the previous 12 months). They were being treated by a local quack doctor before their condition deteriorated and they were taken to Faisalabad’s Allied Hospital, the largest public sector medical institution in the area. The doctors there found that they were suffering from neurological complications. Other than that, Yar has no test reports or other documents to prove or disprove whether their deaths were linked to an HIV infection. “There is no point in finding out the reason for their deaths. It will not bring the dead back,” he says.

What he is more concerned about is the fact that his teenaged sister has a terrible cough that never seems to go away, and two of his paternal cousins have been found to be infected by HIV through tests recently conducted by the government.

Another local family has lost all its 12 members in the last two years reportedly to HIV/AIDS. Their house is empty and its boundary wall has all but collapsed.

In another part of the village lives Kaneez Bibi, a housewife in her 30s, who has three young HIV-infected patients in her home. Her four-year-old son and her two teenaged step-children – a 16-year-old boy and a 14-year-old girl – were found to be infected with HIV when a government team took their blood samples for testing a few months ago. None of the three children go to school. The eldest works in the fields despite his failing health.

On a recent October day, Kaneez Bibi’s very agitated little son is suffering from a bloated stomach. His hands are soiled and his skin is ruptured and blistered. His sister walks around the house chewing her red dupatta. She looks much younger than her age. Both the children appear bewildered and scared. The children receive free government-provided antiretroviral drugs that slow HIV/AIDS, but there has been little improvement in their condition. This could be because their parents are not observing the recommended precautions. The tablets they consume daily are kept in the open even when they are required to be stored away from sunlight at a temperature below 30 degrees Celsius. The patients also need to undergo weekly examinations by a doctor to monitor and address any side effects that the drugs may cause.

The medicine has supporting literature that states these recommendations very clearly but it is written in French and English — gibberish for the children’s illiterate parents. The doctors at the Services Hospital in Lahore who prescribed the medicine never said anything about any dangers or precautions, says Kaneez Bibi.

Bhattiwala residents are often unable to read instructions on their medicine bottles | Photo by Saad Sarfraz Sheikh
Bhattiwala residents are often unable to read instructions on their medicine bottles | Photo by Saad Sarfraz Sheikh

Jaffer Ali, an agriculturist in Bhattiwala who practices medicine in his spare time, has been the village’s main source of diagnosis and treatment of all major and minor ailments. An untrained and unregistered medical practitioner, he has only a smattering of information about medicine, but every household in the village deems him their saviour. He does not operate a clinic but visits his patients at their homes to administer some known painkillers, steroids and antibiotics for almost all problems or diseases. At least three other quacks similarly operate in the village, with as little expertise. Whether or not they know how HIV/AIDS is spread is subject to speculation, but they are certainly ill-trained to treat its sufferers.

The quack doctors’ favourite mode of treatment is administering injections — using one needle to give many injections and to many people. The villagers, too, believe injections work more quickly than tablets and syrups. Little do they know that each injection needs to be given with a new needle to avoid transferring one patient’s infections to another. And that could be a major reason why HIV/AIDS has spread so widely in Bhattiwala.

Zafar Sadhu, a local farmer, alleges that the quacks operating in the village have known the dangers of giving injections with used needles all along. But they would never admit that HIV/AIDS is transferred from infected people to uninfected ones through reused injection needles. “They would rather blame it on illicit sex than on their own wrong medical practices,” he says.

Such blame games became public early this year when stories of HIV/AIDS causing multiple deaths in Bhattiwala became too frequent for the local residents to ignore. Some of them wrote letters to Chiniot’s district administration, requesting the authorities to carry out an investigation. They also complained about the activities of illegal healthcare providers and sought the appointment of a qualified doctor for the village, says Sadhu.

A government medical team finally visited Bhattiwala in July this year. Headed by Dr Mushtaq Bashir Akif, then working as Chiniot’s district health officer, it took blood samples of 350 local residents randomly selected out of a total population of approximately 4,500 people, and tested them on the spot with portable kits. The tests found the hepatitis C virus in almost 250 of the samples. Even more worryingly, 45 samples were found to be HIV-infected.

The medical team took additional blood samples of those suspected to be infected with HIV and sent them to a government laboratory in Lahore for polymerase chain reaction (PCR) testing since on-the-spot tests are sometimes inaccurate, say health officials in Chiniot. PCR testing is deemed 100 per cent reliable because it is performed in a controlled laboratory environment with sophisticated equipment. The district administration claims it has not yet received the results of the tests from Lahore.

The electronic media soon got wind of these developments. Many television channels subsequently produced news pieces about those suffering from HIV/AIDS in the village. As news spread, Dr Adnan Zafar Khan, then the director of the Punjab AIDS Control Programme, travelled from his office in Lahore to Chiniot to find out more about the situation first-hand. In August, he appeared on News Wise, a news show on Dawn News TV and acknowledged that PCR results had verified the prevalence of HIV infection in Bhattiwala. However, he denied that there had been any deaths in the village due to the infection.

Soon afterwards, he was transferred out of his post as part of what the government called a routine bureaucratic reshuffle. Sources in the Punjab health department allege that he was punished for revealing the test results.

Dr Mushtaq Bashir Akif denies the prevalence of HIV/AIDS in Bhattiwala altogether. “Calling the sick people in the village as HIV positive is incorrect,” he says during an interview in his office at Chiniot’s District Headquarters Hospital (DHQ). Posted as medical superintendent of the hospital this October, and dressed cheerfully on a recent Saturday in a polo shirt with white and blue horizontal stripes, he suggests that the ailment afflicting the village could be something else. “Nine out of every 10 people living in Bhattiwala are suffering from hepatitis C, just like they are in almost every village in the area,” he says, almost chuckling.

His supervisor and chief executive officer of the district health department, Dr Akhtar Husain, rubbishes reports of large-scale deaths in Bhattiwala and claims to have taken multiple precautionary measures. He closed down many barber shops in the area since they could be a major distribution point for HIV/AIDS infection through blades reused for shaving multiple people. He also sealed clinics run by quack doctors in the village in order to save people from used injection needles.

District authorities have additionally registered a first information report (FIR) against three quack doctors for practising medicine illegally in Bhattiwala. Jaffer Ali’s name is not among them. He has been at large since the government crackdown against quacks.

Ahmed Yar's home | Saad Sarfraz Sheikh
Ahmed Yar’s home | Saad Sarfraz Sheikh

Husain claims to have taken another important step as well: an AIDS centre has been set up at the DHQ hospitals where “a psychologist, a woman medical officer and a laboratory technician” are especially posted to take care of those suffering from HIV/AIDS. “[It] is functional and we are already doing tests here,” he says. Later the same day, situated next to the gynaecology ward, the centre is found locked.

Local residents are not satisfied with the government’s moves. For one, they want the results of the PCR tests revealed. “If HIV/AIDS is not prevalent in the village then why has the government been holding back test results for the last four months,” questions Shahid Yaqoob, general secretary of Chiniot Press Club. “Give the patients their reports and tell them that they do not have AIDS,” he asks of the officials.

When informed about persistent public demands for making the results of the PCR tests public, Husain discloses that the government is not doing so because HIV is a socially sensitive disease.

In Yaqoob’s opinion, there is another reason why the authorities are concealing the results. District administration officials want to ensure that “they are not held responsible” for letting a healthcare crisis develop right under their noses, he says, but insists that people will remain sceptical as long as the government is in denial. “Hiding the problem will not help the villagers.” Openness, on the other hand, will assist the authorities in preventing further spread of the disease, he believes.

Mazhar Qayyum, who runs the school near Bhattiwala, holds similar views. He wants the district administration to acknowledge the prevalence of the disease and send its representatives to public and social gatherings such as weddings and funerals to create awareness. People in general and medical practitioners and barbers in particular need to be educated on how HIV/AIDS and hepatitis C is spread and how their refusal to use a new needle or blade per person is a major reason for the prevalence of these deadly medical problems, he says.

He mentions the elderly people in his village, mostly uneducated, who often ask, “What is this disease? We have never heard about it before.” Convincing them to acknowledge the presence of HIV/AIDS among them, as well as making them understand the urgent need for its treatment, is a task that the government’s routine moves will never accomplish, he says.

Nazir Masih was working in the United Arab Emirates in 1990 when he discovered that he was infected with HIV. He came back to Pakistan, publicly declared himself an HIV-infected person and sought treatment for his illness with antiretroviral medicine. In 1999, he collaborated with four other HIV-infected people and together they set up the New Light AIDS Control Society (NLACS), headquartered in Lahore.

Masih visited Bhattiwala recently and claims to have met many HIV-infected patients there. That only less than 10 per cent of the village’s population was ever tested makes it highly likely that there are many more in the village suffering from HIV/AIDS than publicly known, he says. He also claims to know many other villages in Punjab where the prevalence of the virus is as high as it is in Bhattiwala, if not higher.

Masih quotes reports by the National AIDS Control Programme, a federal government entity, stating that Pakistan has around 133,000 people infected with HIV. Of these, only 20,660 are registered with various healthcare facilities. An overwhelming majority of these registered patients consists of adult males.

The reason why most patients do not register themselves for treatment is the social and moral stigma attached to HIV/AIDS. This stigma is so strong that healthcare providers often hesitate to treat those who suffer from the disease, says Masih. He knows of patients who were harassed and beaten up at hospitals in Faisalabad and Lahore after people found about the nature of their illness.

The impacts of the stigma are too obvious in Bhattiwala to miss.

Everyone knows everyone in the village and the identities of the HIV/AIDS patients are no secret, often exposing them to social ridicule and exclusion. Some of them complain that local shopkeepers refuse to sell them anything.

Zafar Sadhu recalls how he once went to a quack doctor in a nearby village to seek medical treatment but was made to feel ashamed for his association with Bhattiwala. “The people of your village are being punished for indulging in illicit relationships,” the quack told him. Such public shaming has forced Javed Iqbal’s family to maintain a low social profile and keep its interaction with others in the village to the minimum.

Sadhu also remembers his meeting with an HIV-infected woman in the village. She was desperately weeping and insisting that she had never slept with anyone except her husband. “It was very difficult to explain to her that she had committed a crime and that sex out of marriage was not the only reason why someone would contract HIV/AIDS,” he says.

Moreover, a local labourer in his late 20s reports being treated as an “untouchable” after he was diagnosed with HIV in July this year. “I still work as much as any other labourer but people shun me when they find out about my illness,” he says.

Most of the HIV/AIDS patients also come from the poorest of the poor families. The labourer, for instance, cannot afford to take time off work to get himself medically examined. He is seeking no treatment.

This article was published in the Herald’s November 2017 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.

The author is a writer and photojournalist with a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Sheffield in England.


 Two hundred years after her death, Jane Austen’s books are remarkably relevant to women in Pakistan today, as Moni Mohsin found when she met the sub-continental Janeites
Women of consequenceLaaleen Sukhera (left), the founder of JASP, with Afshan Shafi

Founded by Laaleen Sukhera, a journalist, JASP is two years old. It has chapters in Islamabad, Lahore and Karachi and a Facebook page with over 1,000 followers. There is just the one dress-up party annually but they meet two or three times a year to discuss all things Austen.

The members of JASP, while perhaps a tad more ardent, are not alone in their passion for Jane Austen. For the truth – universally acknowledged – is that Jane Austen is enduringly popular in Pakistan. Bookshops have whole shelves dedicated to her novels, critiques of her novels and novels inspired by her novels. Visit a DVD rental store and you will find film and tele­vision adaptations of her work. She is taught in schools and read at home. “Pride and Prejudice” has been translated into Urdu, and “Aisha”, the Bollywood adaptation of “Emma”, was watched by millions of Pakistanis. Plans are afoot to publish adaptations of all six novels with contemporary sub-continental settings. Meanwhile, “Austenistan”, a book of short stories written by members of JASP and edited by Laaleen Sukhera, has been acquired for publication.

“Austen resonates with us because Regency England is so much like today’s Pakistan,” says Sukhera, 40, a mother of three girls. “I know her books are 200 years old and set in small English county towns and villages but, really, her themes, her characters, her situations, her plots, they could have been written for us now.”

Just as Regency high society had a social season so, too, does its modern-day Pakistani counterpart. It lasts for about three months, starting in mid- December and ending mid-March, just as the weather warms up. The social activity peaks in the 20 days at the turn of the year when, like homing pigeons, expat Pakistanis flock back for the Christmas and new-year break. Those 20 days and nights are a whirl of back-to-back weddings, parties and charity balls where girls, decked out in brocade and jewels, flit before eligible suitors under the gimlet gaze of both families. It is not unusual to attend three weddings in a day to “show face” at each.

Weddings are particularly fertile hunting grounds for expat men who, having dallied in Dubai or Dallas, are ready to settle down with a “nice girl” from home. “For us, weddings serve the same function as the Bath Assembly Rooms for Catherine Morland in ‘Northanger Abbey’ and the Elliot sisters in ‘Persuasion’,” says Sukhera. “It’s where people go to promenade, to flirt and search for suitable partners.”

A traditional way of showing off wealth and standing in Pakistan, society weddings are huge, 1,000-guest affairs strung out over days, if not weeks. For the determined, they provide fail-safe opportunities to find a match. When a friend’s quiet daughter failed to attract the right proposals in Lahore, her aunt whisked the girl off to Islamabad. Drawing up a list of weddings attended by “our sort of people”, she escorted her niece to each one. Within two weeks, her niece had bagged a prize: a single man in possession of a good fortune who liked her dusky skin and demure manner enough to nudge his family into sending a marriage proposal.

As in the Bath Assembly Rooms of the 18th century, there is a social protocol that governs interaction. It is rare for a man to have the nerve to introduce himself to a pretty girl he has spotted in the crowd. Instead, he might ask a mutual friend to make the introduction, or else he will point her out to his mother or aunt. If they do not know her they will swiftly consult a friend or relation who does. Within minutes they will have the lowdown on the girl: her marital status, family background, wealth, age, education, job and reputation – whether she has been soiled by previous relationships and if so, how publicly. If her profile meets with familial approval, a meeting might be orchestrated.

“Expat guys can go to weddings in Karachi, Islamabad and Lahore, checking out 100 girls in a single two-week trip,” grimaces Sukhera. Only 50 years ago, suitors like these – self-made men with successful careers in banking in London or information technology in San Francisco – did not exist. In that, they are the modern equivalents of Sir Thomas Bertram of “Mansfield Park”, who owes his considerable fortune and exalted place in society to his business interests in Antigua.

For all their apparent tranquillity, Austen’s books were written in a time of social and economic change. The Industrial Revolution, colonial expansion and the Napoleonic wars were transforming English lives. There was unprecedented internal migration from the country to cities, and new fortunes were being made in the colonies and armed forces. Social attitudes had to adapt to keep abreast of economic developments. Brief but telling glimpses of that societal change are found in Austen’s works. When, in “Persuasion”, Captain Wentworth, a junior naval officer, asks for Anne Elliot’s hand in marriage, Sir Walter Elliot, her snooty father, dismisses his suit as being unworthy of a baronet’s daughter. But when he returns from the wars a rich and decorated officer, Sir Walter – who has suffered a decline in his own fortunes – finds him eminently eligible.

“At our tea parties we talk a lot about how similar our circumstances are to the characters in Austen’s books,” says Sukhera. ‘”How old values are eroding, how new people are coming up.”

Pakistan, too, has undergone much change in the last 30 years. While Austen’s England had its Napoleonic wars, Pakistan has suffered the blowback from the conflict in neighbouring Afghanistan. As with most wars, it has proved extremely lucrative for some. Generals own multiple flats in central London, sugar and textile mills, as well as prime real estate and agricultural land in Pakistan. As people move to cities in search of economic opportunity, industrial urban centres like Karachi, Sialkot, Lahore and Faisalabad have doubled in size over the past two decades. Although nowhere near the scale of wealth that was pouring into England from its colonial empire in the 18th century, remittances sent home by workers in the Middle East and the West have transformed Pakistan’s economy, kick-starting a consumerist boom. Where hand-printed chintz and fine Indian muslins were all the rage in Regency England, Swiss voiles and French chiffons are the fabrics of choice for Pakistani ladies-who-lunch. The nouveaux riches, their money generated from consumer goods and construction as well as politics, have displaced the old landed elites.

As Mehr Husain, an ardent JASP member, comments: “There was a time when land-owning families of the Punjab only married among themselves. They knew each other’s family trees intimately and were really particular about caste and bloodlines. Now, as long as you’re loaded, no one asks any questions.”

Faiza Khan, editorial director of Bloomsbury India, a Pakistani and an Austen devotee, agrees that Austen’s appeal lies in her relevance to Pakistani society now. “Social values have moved on in the West. The conventional drivers of an Austen plot – the obstacles to marriage like discrepancies in class and wealth, the disapproval of parents, the compromising behaviour of your ghastly family – disappeared long ago. All those old tropes like the Unmarried Daughter, the Repressive Father, the Poor Relation seem quaint now. Whereas I, an unmarried daughter, have Mrs Bennet sitting in the next room, dropping hints about some acquaintance or other being ‘a nice boy’.”

Pakistan, like Austen’s England, is a place without safety nets. Life for the poor is tough, the welfare state is non-existent and those who slip out of the middle classes have far to fall. Families are therefore of vital importance. And at the heart of every Austen novel, too, is a family – big or small, vulgar or respectable, chaotic or controlling. As Pakistanis often quip: “We have only two institutions left: the family and the military.” The family offers not just economic protection but also identity. Your social standing and financial prospects are gauged not so much by your abilities as by your family’s position.

The same was true in Austen’s time. Harriet Smith, a pleasant girl of unknown parentage in “Emma”, cannot expect to make an advantageous marriage. Without a family to locate her in society, she is a nobody.

“The Pakistani way”, muses Mina Malik Hussain, another JASP member and full-time mother, “is all about family. You are constantly thinking about the edifice of, the honour of, the benefit of. It’s like a company and everyone is supposed to do their bit.”

As General Tilney of “Northanger Abbey” would no doubt agree, marriage is a means of cementing alliances with families of equal if not higher standing. It is therefore too important a decision to be left to the whims of inexperienced youngsters. Arranged marriages – agreements reached between families with little or no consultation with the boy and girl involved – place preservation of bloodlines, status and property over compatibility. Hence the huge popularity of marriage between cousins in Pakistan; more than half the population is married to the offspring of uncles or aunts.

“This whole cousin-marriage thing,” observes Sukhera, “people in the West find it so weird now. But Austen didn’t. Her novels are full of it. Fanny Price and Edmund Bertram are first cousins. Mr Collins and Elizabeth Bennet are also related, as are Mr Darcy and Miss de Bourgh. See what I mean about us and Regency England?”

Parental efforts at matchmaking in Austen’s books chime with the experience of Pakistani readers. They may not warm to the wealthy, superior Lady Catherine de Bourgh – but they certainly understand her desire for a marriage between her daughter, Anne, and her nephew, Mr Darcy. After all, what could be more natural than the marriage of two cousins, equally wealthy, equally high born, and the noble heirs of two great estates, Rosings and Pemberley? And knowing all too well the social opprobrium attached to spinsters, they sympathise with Mrs Bennet’s efforts to find wealthy suitors for her unmarried daughters. “You know,” jokes Sukhera, “I used to identify with Lizzie Bennet but now, with three daughters of my own, I’ll probably morph into Mrs Bennet.”

“I love Austen”, she continues, “because like us, she’s all about reputation, she’s all about face, she’s all about status. We know that everything we do or say reflects on our families.” A constant refrain in Pakistan to remind wayward children of their duty to keep the family name pristine is: “Just think! What will people say?” Despite the huge population, social circles are small and incestuous. Like Austen’s characters, their members are constantly scrutinising and judging each other. As Mr Bennet remarks in “Pride and Prejudice”: “For what do we live but to make sport for our neighbours and laugh at them in our turn?”

As in Austen, there are different rules for different strata of society. “If you are an heiress from a powerful family, you can bend the rules,” says Sukhera. “You can rock up to a party on your own and stagger home at five in the morning, without destroying your reputation or bringing shame to your family but if you’re not, you can’t. People are much more judgmental about those who are not rich.” She pauses for a moment, “A bit like Emma, who can make her own rules because she’s rich. But Fanny Price, because she’s a poor relation, doesn’t have that privilege.”

As everyone knows in Pakistan, a girl must marry while in the full flower of her youth, or else be consigned to “the left behinds”. When I was in my late 20s, my single state was the source of much anxiety for my mother and my aunts. As a family friend told me: “If you don’t hurry up and marry you won’t be on any old shelf, you’ll be on the continental shelf.” Like Anne Elliot, Austen’s left behind in “Persuasion”, I was then 27 – and most of my friends were married with a child or two. I was advised not to be “too choosy” or to leave it too late or I would “get set in my ways” and not be able to mould myself to the wishes of my husband’s family. When, at 32, I announced to my family that I was getting married there was relief all round. But the cherry on my marital cake was that my husband-to-be was (entirely by accident) of the right caste. “It’s a miracle, I tell you, a miracle,” sighed my aunt.

Chai Society JASP members Mina Malik Hussain (left) with Mehr Husain at the annual dress-up tea party in Lahore
Chai Society JASP members Mina Malik Hussain (left) with Mehr Husain at the annual dress-up tea party in Lahore

“The gender inequality portrayed in Jane Austen’s books,” says Mehr Husain, “reminds me so much of our own.” The daughter of a landowner from the Punjab, Husain was educated in London. Now married with two children she lives in Lahore. Her parents are cousins who had an arranged marriage, but Husain is not related to her husband.

According to sharia inheritance law, Husain’s brothers will receive twice her share of their father’s property. Still, Husain is fortunate. Fobbed off with a dowry in the form of jewellery and clothes, or a car and some cash that the husband immediately claims, most women do not receive any of their fathers’ real assets like land or real estate or shares in a family business. And in traditional Sunni families, if a man has no male children, like Mr Bennet in “Pride and Prejudice”, his property will pass on to his nearest male relative – in Mr Bennet’s case to Mr Collins. Even today many daughters of wealthy fathers receive nothing at all.

“It’s a bit like the Dashwood sisters, in ‘Sense and Sensibility’,” says Husain wryly, “who got thrown out of their home after their father died and their half brother inherited the estate. That kind of inequality is so common here.” A writer and stand-up comedian, she has been a mould-breaker in her family. “I’m Catherine Morland from ‘Northanger Abbey’,” she says, “a tomboy with a vivid imagination. My mother told me I had to grow my hair long if I ever wanted to get married. I was also told I had to choose a safe, respectable profession like banking or teaching. But I did my own thing.”

Journalists, academics, bankers, entrepreneurs, the members of JASP could not be more different from the Dashwood sisters who had no options other than marriage. But they are keenly aware that most women in Pakistan are not as privileged. While increasing numbers of women are joining the workforce in larger cities, salaried jobs for women are rare in provincial towns, let alone in rural communities.

“They have no access to money except through marriage or inheritance,” sighs Husain. “Like Austen’s heroines. But, even though they don’t have many choices, Austen’s heroines don’t marry losers like Mr Collins, or cads like Wickham. I like that.”

It is as much a sign of the times as an indication of Austen’s own proclivities that Elizabeth Bennet spurns her mother’s wishes and ignores Lady Catherine de Bourgh’s threats in order to marry the man she loves. Similar changes are afoot in Pakistan. While in villages and small towns old customs prevail, in the cities, particularly for the middle and upper classes, new ideas are being embraced. Increasing numbers of educated, urban people are rejecting arranged matches for what is commonly known as “love marriages”. They meet through work, at parties or even through social media and take it from there. Though living together before marriage is still taboo, most love marriages are preceded by a period of dating, a comparatively recent phenomenon that still shocks conservative circles, as it would no doubt have horrified Lady Catherine.

As in Austen’s novels, a satisfactory ending for a girl is still one that results in a wedding but that wedding can wait a little longer than it did when I was of marriageable age. My niece, an actress and writer, is 30 and happily single. Her married female friends didn’t tie the knot until their late 20s, and the younger members of JASP assure me that it’s perfectly okay to be single in your mid-30s with a “kick-ass career”.

And while all of Austen’s novels end with the assumption that the hero and heroine will live happily every after, that is not the case with privileged young Pakistanis today. Just 40 years ago, divorce was unthinkable, so great was the shame. A girl’s mother would often whisper in her daughter’s ear on the eve of her wedding: “Remember, only your corpse can return to this house.” If a girl’s marriage turned out to be an unmitigated disaster, she had, like poor Mrs Price in “Mansfield Park”, to shut up and “cope up” as they say in Lahore.

These days, says Sukhera, “we don’t stay in unhappy marriages all our lives. We compromise a lot, but when it’s time to walk, we do. Even parents, if they see that their daughter is suffering, will say, ‘are you sure you want to continue with this?’ No one judges you any more for quitting a marriage.” Unless a divorced woman is independently wealthy, she will have little option but to return to the family home, with her children, to be supported by her parents. But she will be warmly welcomed. So common is the practice that it has its own terminology. “She’s back home” is shorthand for: she’s divorced and now living in her father’s house once more.

“Persuasion”, Austen’s late, quiet novel about second chances, offers particular hope to second timers. Anne Elliot, an ageing spinster who foolishly turned down Captain Wentworth’s offer of marriage when she was young and pretty, is given the opportunity to rectify her mistake when he returns from sea. As many young Pakistani women discover soon after divorcing, they need not spend the rest of their lives as lonely singles. The field is littered with divorced men. But some, as one JASP member put it, “have baggage, like children and stuff…”

Sukhera finds Jane Austen’s books consoling. “The good get rewarded, the bad get punished. There is great comfort in that.” But surely the same can be said for Dickens, Trollope and the Brontes?

“I cried my eyes out when I read the Brontes,” she says, “but there is too much turmoil in their world for me. What with bomb blasts and killings every other day, I have enough drama in my daily life without getting another dose in my reading.”

Austen is kind to her heroines. They may have flawed judgment or be uppity or self-absorbed or unrestrained in their emotions, but as long as they learn from their mistakes, Austen doesn’t abandon them. “Just because you’ve been naughty and had an affair doesn’t mean you have to be crushed by a train,” sniffs Sukhera. “Silly Lydia shames her family by eloping with Wickham in ‘Pride and Prejudice’ but she doesn’t pay by being killed for honour.”

Outside Pakistan’s more enlightened, urban circles, the consequences for her would have been dire. Polygamy is legal in Pakistan, domestic violence is rife and “honour” killings – whereby women are murdered by their fathers, brothers or uncles for bringing shame to their honour through “transgressive” behaviour, which can be anything from laughing loudly in public to falling in love – are depressingly common. Recently the Punjab government tabled a bill for the protection of women against violence. Around 30 religious groups, including mainstream political parties, threatened to bring down the democratically elected government if the bill was not revoked. Giving women protective legal rights, they thundered, was tantamount to the promotion of obscenity. Pakistan’s Council of Islamic Ideology, made up largely of bearded clerics, released an official statement permitting men to “lightly beat” their wives.

Austen’s heroes would never sink that low. “Darcy, Captain Wentworth, Colonel Brandon, Mr Knightley, they’re romantic and sexy yet they’re also sensitive and kind,” sighs Sukhera. “Just look at Henry Tilney. He even knows how to shop. I mean when did you last meet a straight man who knew what to buy a woman other than perfume? He’s so witty and laid back and playful. As for Mr Darcy – there never was and never will be a hero like him.”

What, in particular, is Mr Darcy’s appeal?

“He’s not afraid to admit he’s made mistakes,” says Sukhera. “And he’s super into her. He goes to all that effort to protect Lydia’s reputation so that Lizzie doesn’t suffer.”

“Pemberley helps,” adds Husain dryly.

“And his parents are dead,” says Sukhera. “So no interfering in-laws.”

For the last dress-up party, Husain had planned a regency gown in sprigged cotton. She explained it all in painstaking detail to her Punjabi tailor: tight, high bodice, long flowing skirt, small puffy sleeves. Accustomed to making shalwar kameezes, he nodded, making detailed notes. When she went to collect the dress she discovered it was knee length; he’d assumed she’d wear it over the voluminous, trouser-like shalwar and so made it kameez length. Afshan Shafi wore a purple gown and her light brown hair in an updo braided with pearls. She was late for the party because she had been stopped en route at a police checkpoint and her car subjected to a prolonged examination. When she put her head out of the window and enquired in fluent Urdu as to why there was a delay, a policeman explained in polite English: “Because, Madam, you are foreigner.”

Getting away from the trials of life in today’s Pakistan is part of the point. “I like coming to these gatherings,” said Mina Malik Hussain, a mother of four very young children. “It gives me a chance to enter the world of Jane Austen and, briefly, to escape the demands of my own. I like the clothes, the conversation, the company.” While there is the undeniable aspect of escape, these tea parties are not gossip sessions; there is an agenda of discussion that is adhered to strictly.

“We discuss any- and everything to do with Jane Austen,” says Laaleen Sukhera. “Our favourite mean girl in her books, our favourite cad, our favourite mother, the role of money, of sex, of families, her choice of locations. Austen celebrates life, there is pursuit of love and laughter and joy in her books and yet she’s thoughtful and wise. And her sassy one liners! They’re the best. For a brief while, she helps us forget our messy divorces, our broken homes, our demanding jobs, our anxieties about our children, our fears for our security. It is not easy being a woman in a patriarchal society like ours.”

Or, as Faiza Khan says, “We love Austen so much because she can deliver a happy ending we can believe in spite of seeing the world just as it is with all its unfairness and pettiness and exploitation and cruelty. She redresses the wrongs of her society on paper because that is all she or any of us can hope to do.”

Sachal Studios Orchestra: The Jazz musicians of Lahore

How the Sachal Studios Orchestra put Pakistan on the jazz map of the world
Article by Sonya Rehman, Pictures by Saad Sarfraz Sheikh
Article by Sonya Rehman, Pictures by Saad Sarfraz Sheikh

The Shrine of Bibi Pak Daman

Bibi Pak Daman (source: Flickr Saad Sarfraz Sheikh) - The Shrine of Bibi Pak Daman

Bibi Pak Daman (source: Flickr Saad Sarfraz Sheikh)Written by: Uzair Ali Khan

There are several myths surrounding the origins of Bibi Pak DamanThe name literally means, a ‘lady of purity.’ Legend claims that the shrine is the last resting place of Hazrat Ruqayyah, a daughter of Imam Ali (A.S), and five other revered women. The women are said to have fled Karbala and reached Lahore, where the Raja of the region summoned them. As women observing purdah (veiling), they could not allow this and prayed for God’s mercy which resulted in the earth opening up and burying them. Others relate that the shrine is so ancient, that Hazrat Data Ganj Bakhsh, known as the patron-saint of Lahore, was himself a devotee here – a board proclaiming this has been installed in the vicinity to give the tale an authoritative touch.

Alternatively, scholars claim that the six graves are of the six daughters of Syed Ahmed Tokhta, who lived in Lahore in the 12th century. His shrine exists to this day in Mohalla Chahaal BibianWalled City of Lahore. In this case the name Bibi Pak Daman, refers to the unmarried sisters.  From here on, the tale adopts a similar vein to the myth, as it is said that to protect themselves from the Afghan invader, Sultan Jalaluddin Khurasani, the women’s prayers to be buried alive were answered.

A narrow street lined with shops selling flowers, religious books, chadars (sheets) with religious inscriptions and souvenirs, leads to the shrine itself. It is not the wares on offer in this street, but rather the expressions of the people, full of hope and sincerity, which make a mark on us. In present times, the shrine is popularly known as a rare unification point not only for Muslims of different sects, be they Shia or Sunni, but also for people of different religions, such as Hindus, Christians and Sikhs. The public gathers here in droves every day, and especially on the days of the Urs.

In order to reach the main building, we pass through two metal detectors, before being frisked rather carelessly by an elderly gentleman. Spread over a small area of 1000 sq. yards, Bibi Pak Daman comes across as quite crowded, with devotees on every inch of space. As I later found out, the Punjab government plans to expand it as they recognize its great popularity among people. Devotees immediately take off their shoes on entering the main compound, and we followed suit. Some devotees seem to have been living here, for they have their carpets spread out underneath. We then perform ablution at the taps, barely registering the icy cold water, as we are enamored by the shrine’s aura.

Inside, the aroma of roses is overpowering as every grave is covered with them. Having been to Data Darbar, I am surprised that devotees are not being separated based on gender. One area seems specifically for Shias, as it has an Alam – a customary silver emblem in the shape of a hand, symbolizing Hazrat Ghazi Abbas’s (R.A.) flag in the battle of Karbala – and oil lamps, but otherwise there are no designated areas for different sects. Some trees located in the courtyard attract my attention and a woman relates that these were the camels of the buried women, which changed shape to shelter their graves.

Luckily, we also come across a manqabat-khwaan, a man who recites Sufi poetry praising Ali (R.A.). The verses are powerful beyond measure and we listen entranced. After a while, we observe people rushing towards langar (free food from the shrine’s kitchen) being distributed through a small window. One individual sweeping the white marble floor tells us that naat recitals (poems praising Muhammad (p.b.u.h.)) also take place here, and majalis (congregations) are the norm.

After offering prayers, I make my way through throngs of people to the wall of the central shrine. Here, devotees cling to the gate, tie pieces of cloth and locks to the spaces in the walls, and all the while speak of their worries and desires to Allah. Some pray for health, others for progeny, and then there are some lost souls brought here by destiny. These bearded men with their matted hair and long strings of beads, walk around handing niyaz (sweets) to anyone who will take it.

It’s getting quite late and as we decide to take our leave, I glance one more time at the grandiose mausoleum. Devoid of marvelous domes, the kind which most shrines have, Bibi Pak Daman still has an imposing aura. Its ability to bring together such diverse people is a testament to its power. Perhaps, entry to such a place requires not just ablution of the body, but of the soul as well. 

RIP Om Puri Sb…

When the world disposed their 2016 calendars, everyone looked towards a hopeful 2017, free of celebrity deaths and airline tragedies. But for the angel of death, the digits of a year certainly do not matter. The second day of the new year took away critic and artist John Berger, and the 6th, our beloved Om Puri.

With a career than spanned 4 decades, Om Puri acted in films large and small with amazing honesty and mastery.

We met last year in December during a shoot for Forbes LifeStyle in a cold and damp room at the Al Hamra in Lahore. Puri’s warmth melted me and my friend Sonya, as he narrated his inspirational journey.

He was no Amitabh Bachan. He clearly did not have the face, nor could he dance like the stars of the 70s and 80s. I’m sure this would have made things difficult for him. But in a world of sexy Kapoors and Kumars, Puri’s acting and struggle, were both intense and beautiful. And we shall remember him for that…Always…

The ‘Samyang 12 mm f/2.8 ED AS NCS Fish-eye’


So I recently acquired the Samyang 12/2.8 fisheye, which I believe is the widest full-frame lens (in addition to the optically average Sigma 12-24)  possible on a Nikon DSLR. (I believe Canon now makes an 11-24)

This offers lens offers a 180° angle-of-view (diagonally) and fills the frame on the respective bodies. Bought to complete the Nikon 14-24 that I’ve been happily using since 2013, this lens, as expected, is wide as hell! Great value for value, which goes for all Samyang lenses! And if you’re someone who isn’t comfy with manual focus, you don’t have to worry about focussing with this lens, as pretty much everything is in focus! 😉

You have to realise one thing that this is a special purpose lens, which means you won’t always be using it! So think and invest wisely. I was asked that why did I buy this, when I already have a 14-24/2.8. Well, lenses are never wide enough, and the 2mm difference is massive. Also, when shooting architecture, and old buildings across Lahore, the 12mm is able to bring everything into the picture. I believe this lens true quality would be astro-photography and night-scapes.

Here’s a sample, shot with a Nikon D4S, right into the sun!

Rail Fail... At these crossroads lie a condemned railway bogey, and a tree marked for cutting...
Rail Fail…
At these crossroads lie a condemned railway bogey, and a tree marked for cutting…

I’ve gotten my hands on this, just a few days before my trip to the US. Hopefully shall be reviewing it on a Nikon D4S and D600 this week! I sure wish I had this lens when I had the Nikon D810, as that is the camera which calculates the quality of an optical device!

The Classic Car Collectors of Pakistan

By Sonya Rehman | Photos by Saad Sarfraz

Although you’ve probably never seen a news report where a procession of classic motor glide through the streets of Lahore, there is in fact a thriving community of vintage petrol heads in Pakistan. Here are three of the men at the heart of that group.

With a cigarette dangling from his mouth, a rugged-looking Roger Beckermann, played by Italian actor, Rossano Brazzi, drives a blazing orange Lamborghini Miura neatly through the Italian Alps. “On Days Like These”, the Quincy Jones composition, softly plays throughout the stunning, dreamlike introductory scenes of the 1969 film classic, The Italian Job.

It was this scene that last year inspired 13 vintage car aficionados from Lahore, Pakistan, to recreate Beckermann’s romantic solo drive through Europe. They booked tickets, made arrangements to rent nine classic cars and then traced their route on Google maps. The plan was to arrive in Rome, drive up to Florence, then make the 400km drive north to Lake Como, before climbing up through the mountains in a north easterly direction to Stelvio Pass – a route voted by Top Gear as ‘the greatest driving road in the world.’ For these middle-aged car enthusiasts, it was a dream come true.

That group included Mushahid Shah, Kamran Hussain and Haydar Kirmani. A year on from that trip, the three of them are seated in Shah’s cozy living room in a posh neighbourhood in Lahore. It’s a quiet, clean residential area with lots of trees and Shah is able to live here thanks to a chicken feed mill that he owns. (Hussain works as a neurosurgeon in the city while Kirmani, who is distantly related to Shah, runs his own software development company and also has a workshop that restores classic cars). “We would watch The Italian Job clip again and again,” Kirmani says of his passion for cars. “At some point one of us asked, ‘Why aren’twe doing this?’”

Haydar Kirmani - Photo: Saad Sarfraz Sheikh
Haydar Kirmani – Photo: Saad Sarfraz Sheikh

The men are part of a popular Facebook group, the Vintage & Classic Car Club of Pakistan (VCCCP) a forum for hobbyists to engage with one another about their shared interest in exclusive automobiles from the golden era of motoring. The page currently boasts over 10,000 followers and also operates as an association where classic car enthusiasts organise and advertise motoring events for the public at large, such as the annual VCCCP rally. This runs all the way from Karachi over 1,300km to Lahore in the north, a further 400km up to the capital, Islamabad, and then east to Peshawar, the rally’s final destination. The event functions as a moving museum where the flotilla of vintage vehicles showcases a part of the country’s national heritage that is otherwise barely visible.

The three men are open and engaging when explaining how they developed their shared passion for classic cars. Shah and Hussain have known each other since childhood and they recount how, growing up, they’d visit old bookshops near their school in Lahore to buy dated copies of motor magazines. “We dreamed about owning the cars we’d see in the pictures,” says Hussain, who finally decided to seriously pursue his childhood passion when he returned to Pakistan after completing medical degree in the UK. “One day I was sitting around and feeling rather depressed about the state of affairs in the country and thought; I’m working and living here, but I’m not really following any of my interests.”

Kamran Hussain - Photo: Saad Sarfraz Sheikh
Kamran Hussain – Photo: Saad Sarfraz Sheikh

The 56-year-old neurosurgeon bought his first classic car, a Fiat 124 Sports Coupe in 1998. In the years since he has added a 1977 Porsche 911 SC Targa, a 1969 Mini Cooper, a 1963 Mini Cooper, a 1966 Porsche 912 SWB, a 1970 Mercedes 250S W108, a 1975 Alfa Romeo Alfetta GTV, a 1975 Toyota Celica GT, a 1963 Ford Cortina, a 1966 Mercedes 190 and a Caterham 7 replica.

The provenance of each vehicle tells its own story. For example, Hussain mentions that his Mini Cooper once belonged to a Brigadier in the Pakistan Army, Syed Akram. “He had the distinction of capturing Ramkot, Rajasthan, during the 1971 war with India. He loved cars and had five Mini Coopers. The car is a preservation of history,” Hussain says proudly.

Both Hussain and Shah come from respectable middle class families who were relatively successful. While Hussain studied hard to become a neurosurgeon, Shah was busy studying for his MBBS degree. “We both had very strict parents,” says Shah, speaking candidly about himself and Hussain. But that discipline brought with it financial benefits. “I was lucky enough to start collecting cars at the age of 20,” he admits.

Shah started out with a 1964 Mercedes-Benz 220SE Coupe, and then quickly added a 1966 Ford Mustang Convertible, a 1964 Jaguar Mark 2 and a 1964 Ford Thunderbird. This impressive start to his collecting career ended just as rapidly when he was ordered to sell off all his cars at the age of twenty-two as his parents wanted him to focus on his studies instead.

But three years ago, with Shah having now firmly established himself in business, the forty-eight-year-old decided to give his hobby another go. Today, he’s the proud owner of a number of original vintage beauties. “I have a 1972 MGB GT, a 1976 Mercedes-Benz 280 S, a 1959 Austin-Healey 3000 Mark 1 and a 1980 Mini Cooper; this one’s special,” he says, speaking of the latter model. “It has an automatic gear box and factory-fitted air-conditioning.” Rounding off the collection is a 1969 1750 GTV Alfa Romeo, which he boasts is “one of the most desirable Alfa Romeos at the moment”.

Mushahid Shah - Photo: Saad Sarfraz Sheikh
Mushahid Shah – Photo: Saad Sarfraz Sheikh

Unlike Shah and Hussain, Kirmani’s appreciation for vintage cars developed much later. Having spent the majority of his life in London, UK, the 46-year-old moved back to Pakistan roughly 10 years ago to set-up the off-shore office of his UK-based IT company in Lahore. He’d long been around classic cars as his father was a collector. Growing up, the family would often travel across Europe in one of his father’s classic cars on holidays. “Initially I hated them,” he admits. “I used to ask him, ‘What’s this load of junk?!’ Perhaps it’s a sign of old age, but you start to appreciate things in a different way as you get older.”

At present, Kirmani owns a 1981 Jaguar XJS, a 1973 Mercedes-Benz 450 SL (purchased by Kirmani after being inspired by Bobby Ewing in the TV series, Dallas, that he’d watch back in the day), a 1972 E-Type Jaguar and a 1974 Ford Cortina. “It has a personal value for me,” Kirmani smiles, speaking about his Ford, “Because when I was very young my father bought a car like that and made a road trip from the UK to Pakistan.”

Explaining why the hobby has kept them interested all these years is a little more complicated. Hussain compares the preservation of cars to the way people preserve art or houses, or anything else of historical and cultural value. He bemoans the obsession for all things new in Pakistan. “There’s less emphasis on history and culture in Pakistan nowadays. Everything is considered transitory, to be done away with. The culture is becoming too materialistic. People want the newest, the flashiest, the most expensive things. I wouldn’t call it crass modernism, but people aren’t willing to spend so much money on older vehicles.”

As a result, Hussain mentions that he knows of numerous valuable cars that were eventually junked, cut up and melted down – especially since Pakistan’s economic troubles of recent times. “People have lost the appreciation for the finer things in life,” he sighs.

When asked why people would choose a costly, weathered, classic car when one can ride in style and convenience in the latest, swiftest model of vehicle, the men are, unsurprisingly, quick to respond. “Modern cars have become so good that they’ve isolated the driver as much as possible,” Kirmani says leaning forward, “The steering, the suspension, even the atmosphere in the car, isolates you from the mechanics. It’s just a toy — you jump in, drive 200 miles and jump out. Classic cars aren’t like that, they’ve got personalities, and the reason they have personalities is because they’re imperfect. They’ll be loud, noisy, some may have a hard steering, but something about that endears you to it.”

Hussain nods in agreement. “Just the other day ago a friend called me up and said; ‘Doc, let’s go for a drive’. He’d bought one of the latest Aston Martins and wanted to take it for a spin. So we drove and I was doing about 185 mph, but it felt like a 100. Since it was unsafe I slowed down. You can have the same level of excitement in a classic car at a much slower speed.”

“…At 50 miles per hour!” Shah pipes in with a chuckle.

“It’s not that the car is unsafe at that speed,” agrees Hussain. “But it is giving you more sensation. That’s the key to the enjoyment.”

“You have a connection with a classic car and it makes you feel good,” Kirmani adds.

Out of the group, Kirmani is alone in having taken his passion a step further. After re-locating to home turf, he recounts how he was appalled at the level of car service in Lahore. “I used to send my Mercedes to a dealer here but they never got it right. In the UK if you go to a Mercedes showroom, they throw out the red carpet for you,” he says with a twinge of exasperation. This led Kirmani to start a car workshop, INH Motor Company, eight years ago with the help of two relatives. It functions as a workshop for everyday car repairs but also serves as a classic car restoration hub in Lahore. “The truth was this: we thought it was a big laugh. We thought this was something we could mess about with and tell our wives that we’re busy on the weekends!” he laughs.

But an idea that started out as a shot in the dark soon became a roaring success. “We thought one person per week would stumble in and we’d tinker with his car,” Kirmani says. “What shocked us was the fact that in the first month alone we had 99 cars.” Having started out with only three mechanics, INH now employs over 100 staff. They even have another branch located in Sharjah, UAE.

Haydar Kirmani - Photo: Saad Sarfraz Sheikh
Haydar Kirmani – Photo: Saad Sarfraz Sheikh

“Look, there’s no real money in restoring cars,” Kirmani replies, when asked about the thoroughly niche market that his workshop caters to, “Let’s say a bashed-in modern car comes in for a paint job – you can have it fixed up within a week, tops. If a classic car comes in for restoration, it would take a good five months just to get the denting and painting done. Plus, you’d need to have three or four mechanics working solely on that one car.”

Kirmani maintains he’s in it for the pleasure, nothing more. To be able to not only purchase a piece of history, but also utilise it, is a high in itself he says.

But surely there has to be a downside to the hobby, apart from the cost, what with the arduous hunt for spare parts for decades-old cars…

“Oh dear, oh dear,” Hussain exclaims dramatically, leaning back in his chair.

“That’s half the fun!” Shah chuckles.

The eloquent neurosurgeon emphasises his point by recounting how complicated it was to  search for classic car parts in Pakistan two decades ago hwen he first got started, primarily because, pre-internet, no one had ready access to solid information. Back then, enthusiasts would have to resort to cold-calling car companies to track down who their suppliers were. Looking for a certain spare part was like sifting out a needle in a haystack. But eBay and the rise of the internet changed the game, thankfully.

These days, perhaps one of the biggest roadblocks for vintage car collectors in Pakistan are the convoluted customs’ regulations, vis-à-vis the import of car spare parts. “It’s obvious that if a car’s been out of production for 30 or 40 years, you’d be unlikely to find a brand new spare part of that very car, in fact you’d be lucky to find a used one,” Kirmani says. “Imagine, in Pakistan it’s illegal to import a used car spare part! Also, you cannot import cars that are more than three years old.”

So what does one do?

“We break the law,” Kirmani says. He’s grinning, but his tone is bitter.

“These are people who’d be shocked at running a traffic light,” Hussain exclaims comically, pointing at Shah and Kirmani.

“We would not run a traffic light, but this country has made criminals out of all of us,” Kirmani laughs.

“…But smuggling a car part,” Hussain interrupts, “absolutely!”

“We walk through customs in big overcoats with parts hidden in our pockets, hoping we don’t get stopped!” Kirmani jokes.

“Bribing people left, right and centre,” Hussain continues, “Using connections!”

“We’re reluctant criminals,” says Kirmani.

The three crack up.

Kirmani recounts how he once imported a set of rims for a classic Mercedes that had been out of production for over three decades. However, a customs official told Kirmani that it was illegal to import them and that he couldn’t allow it to pass through customs. The rims, the official had stated, would have to be auctioned off in a few months by the authorities.

“It was only through a concerted effort that I ended up convincing them – and you know what I mean by convincing,” Kirmani says knowingly. “And I paid a huge fine on top of that. We’ve all had bad experiences.”

“It’s interesting, you know,” Hussain says. “The government passed a law stating that if you went abroad, came back, and, for example, had a car and its registration papers, you could import used car parts, but in a reasonable quantity. The only thing is that customs don’t actually follow their own rules.”

Kamran Hussain - Photo: Saad Sarfraz Sheikh
Kamran Hussain – Photo: Saad Sarfraz Sheikh

Corruption and bribery within the government machinery is rampant in Pakistan. According to a 2011 survey, the not-for-profit, Transparency International, listed Pakistan’s judiciary and the police as the most corrupt institutions in the country. In practice this means that if a law exists, a loophole to exploit it will usually be found; and if you can’t find a loophole then paperwork can be fobbed or deals made… there’s always a way. But you cannot get around the system without being a part of it – not in the simplest or the most elaborate of endeavours – be it entrepreneurial, hobby-related or indeed, just day-to-day living.

Given the limitations of the way Pakistan’s bureaucracy functions, Kirmani maintains an unflinching confidence in his workshop. “I would be willing to put a car restored by us against a car restored by anyone else in the world. We have that level of quality here in the country.”

When they’ve done with their stories about the search for car parts, the conversation swings towards to one the central arguments among collectors. Some vintage car enthusiasts are purists, striving to restore a vehicle to its original form, from the engine to the paint. The other school of thought is to not be tooconcerned with originality. Hussain explains how the modern take on vintage car restoration is to preserve the exterior and interior as much as possible, yet with modern mechanics.

“I’m not a purist,” he admits. “People the world over are junking old engines and putting in a modern set-up; so you have this beautiful vintage car that drives like a modern vehicle.” Hussain recounts how he wound up plugging a Mazda engine into his Ford Cortina, but only because the original engine proved extremely hard to find.

Shah, on the other hand, prides himself as a purist and, unsurprisingly, uses a medical analogy to explain his reasoning. “I would transplant the heart of a man with the heart of a man, not acow,” he responds acerbically. The trio bursts out laughing.

“I think it’s important to add we call him Mr. Frankenstein,” Kirmani quips, looking over at Hussain and chuckling.

“The monster is not Dr. Frankenstein; he’s the one who creates the monster,” Hussain retorts in mock indignation.

“So we’ve got it right!” Kirmani says. The room again erupts in laughter.

Thanks to public activities arranged by the likes of VCCCP and others, and the enthusiasm of men like Mushahid Shah, Kamran Hussain and Haydar Kirmani, the appreciation and awareness for the art of vintage cars is more popular than ever before in Pakistan. The events and activities in public spaces have created the possibility of a new hobby and a new interest, to inspire and evoke a sense of wonder within youngsters, just as Shah, Hussain and Kirmani were moved when they were children.

Citing an example, Kirmani mentions a public car show that was held in Lahore a few years ago. “We took along three classic cars and allowed the public to get their pictures taken in them. It was incredible; there were queues of up to two hundred people against each car, waiting to see the vehicles!”

One of Mushahid Shah'd beauties - Photo: Saad Sarfraz Sheikh
One of Mushahid Shah’s beauties – Photo: Saad Sarfraz Sheikh

He speculates about how much he could grow his business if the rules and mindset were different. “I could employ 1,000 people if the government allowed people like me to import, refurbish and sell classic cars; it’s a multi-billion-dollar industry,” Kirmani says enthusiastically, “We as a nation have incredible skill and talent. I have an old man working for me, who, with a hammer and press can make you any fender out of any metal. We have a Pagoda Mercedes in the workshop and half of that car was made by him. Doing that abroad would have cost you at least $150,000 to restore it to the level we did. We did it at a fraction of that amount.”

Unfortunately, in Pakistan, thanks to the corruption and a lack of vision, the government hasn’t taken any interest in the immense potential that classic car restoration has to offer on home turf; even with rich skills, acumen and technology at hand.

“If you look at classic cars from the point of view of investment, they are making more money over stocks and shares, real estate, paintings…,” says Hussain. “The value of vintage cars is rising more than anything else. This is something we as a country need to latch onto.”

Pakistan’s growth potential is tremendous, thanks to its strategic geographical location, a large working-age populous, and rich natural resources. What holds the country back is a lack of mature governance, and little accountability or transparency with each successive regime. Provincial rivalry, lack of education, job opportunities, rising national debt and the unequal distribution of wealth have also continued to hinder economic growth. All this has kept the country in a socio-economic chokehold for the past few years.

Ultimately, however, for these three men, car collecting is not about business or economics or politics. It is simply a passion that all three have shared since boyhood. Which begs the obvious question of whether any of them are looking at acquiring more cars for their personal collection?

“Let me tell you a closely guarded secret,” Kirmani says, lowering his voice in a mock conspiratorial manner. “A classic car enthusiastnever stops buying cars!”

“It’s a sickness,” Hussain nods in agreement.

While the search and eventual procurement of a particular model always remains on the horizon for a classic car enthusiast, Shah, Hussain and Kirmani declare that a true hobbyist continues to rotate his or her cars for the benefit of others. “Unfortunately some people are hoarders,” Hussain says.

“Vintage car collectors don’t appreciate hoarders taking the cars away from the public eye,” agrees Kirmani. “You own a car for a while, enjoy the experience and then sell it off to let someone else enjoy it. Yet we have some owners here who have 70 or 80 cars and that’s just criminal, especially when you can’t import more classic cars into the country. But imagine, 70 cars could be looked after by 70 enthusiasts and enjoyed by the public too.”

Given that the trio is strongly affiliated with the classic car community in the city, perhaps they could use their influence to discourage the hoarders?

Shah, who has remained quiet for a long time, chortles. “They’re our friends!”

And in a country battling extremism and socio-political instability, finding solace and a sense of relief in a shared passion is a very useful thing to have.

Published in Esquire [Middle East] April 2016

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