“Now there is peace between me and my Creator,” said my Iranian friend Foroud, quoting Hafez, the grand master of Persian poet.

Foroud is a good friend but I avoid him. He makes me sad. He should not have been here, at a shisha bar in Northern Virginia.

“I would have liked to meet you in a tavern in Iran, with Omar Khayyam,” I said to him, “and a bottle of wine, as Khayyam recited his Kuzanameh.”

“You cannot find what you are looking for,” he said.

“What I cannot find is what I am looking for,” I replied.

He laughed. “I know you have read Rumi but do not use him to silence me,” he said.

Perhaps I wanted to show off a little but did not want to silence him. Every time I read these verses from Divan-e-Shams, I wonder how things never changed in our part of the world.

Centuries ago, Rumi came looking for the perfect man and had to leave the world, admitting that such a man does not exist. And we are still waiting for the messiah.

There are people, like Faiz, who tried to make us understand that there’s no messiah but we did not believe them. We still do not understand that “only we have the cure to our pains,” as Faiz said.

“The first step towards this self realisation would be to identify what we want,” I told Foroud. “Then we need to determine how to get it.”

“Yes, then we will sit and sulk, wondering if the find was worth the effort,” said Foroud. “See, what happened in Iran, how our dreams withered away.”

Now you understand why I avoid him?

“One of our poets, Ghalib, says that the search itself is worth the efforts, leave the rewards aside,” I argued. “Pontificator, leave aside the talk of paradise and its comforts,” I quoted Ghalib.

Foroud nodded but did not respond. I too, was lost in thoughts.

Khayyam had to look for “the thing” in the street of the pottery makers and declare: “The clay, the pot, the pot-maker and the buyer are all the same.”

And then he realised what we tend to ignore: “My father’s dust was in the hand of the potter.” Is this what we call reincarnation?

Hafez was wiser. He realised that the force that creates is the same as the force that destroys, and cried out: “Now there is peace between me and Him.”

Foroud dragged me out of my thoughts. “Look at these young men and women dancing inside the bar,” he said and called a young Afghan waitress to bring the shisha.

After a few puffs, he said: “Remember that poem of Faiz you translated for me, “these and there may be other disputes too but those softly parting lips, have you ever seen a better sight?”

“Not an exact translation,” I said, “but make your point.”

“I have not point to make,” said Foroud. “I am in a good mood and do not want you to spoil it, that’s all.”

“I am not in a good mood,” I said.

“Why,” he asked.

I told him about Rimsha Masih, the young Christian girl arrested in Pakistan because a mullah put some torn pages of the Quran in her papers. “She has now been released on bail but is still under police protection because people fear that the fanatics may kill her,” I said.

“Yes, I know the case,” said Foroud, “but what’s your point.”

“Incidents like this make me feel as if we wasted all those years, struggling for an ideal which never existed,” I said. “I guess it is impossible to take the beast out of man.”

“Do you know Ahmade Shamlu?” asked Foroud.

“The 20th century Iranian poet? Yes, I do,” I said.

“He was more disappointed than you are when he returned to Iran after the revolution,” said Foroud.

Shamlu was a major force in the intellectual movement opposed to the former Shah of Iran. In 1976, he left his country in protest against censorship and the suffocation.

But the Islamic government also considered him a traitor because of his liberal views. His popularity prevented them from arresting him, but the clerics didn’t allow publication of his works for many years.

“Remember the poem I recited for you, “They smell my breath to make sure I have not said I love you, Nazneen?” asked Foroud.

I told him I did and asked him why religious groups, whether in the government or in opposition, fear love, beauty and women.

“Above all, they fear women,” said Foroud. “They fear women because women empower men, they cause them to think and resist.”

But I was not listening. I was once again lost in thoughts, wondering why all unfortunate nations end up in the same pit. And how each fortunate nation has its own story to tell, of success, joy, and prosperity.

We, the unfortunate, have the same story of shame and disgrace.

Shamlu complained that lovers in his city had their breath tested to ensure they never say to a woman, “Darling, I love you.”

A lover in our cities is also asked to produce a certificate to prove he is allowed to love the woman he is with, a certificate duly endorsed by a Qazi.

Lovers in Shamlu’s city faced the Qazi’s lashes on their backs. Lovers in our cities were also flogged for the same sin.

They were disgraced in his city and they were disgraced in our cities. We both have rabid souls. We both have been infected by the custodians of our faiths.

These are unfortunate times for poets. These are unfortunate times for lovers.

“Lost in thoughts?” said Zalmay, an Afghan friend, who came late to the bar.

“Yes, he is,” said Foroud, pointing his fingers towards me, “I am enjoying the music and the dance.”

Inside the shisha bar, a group of young Afghan, Iranian, Pakistani, Indian and Arab women were dancing on the bhangra beat. It was fast. It was enchanting.

So I also abandoned my thoughts and started watching the young crowd.

But this upbeat mood did not last long. This time it was Zalmay who forced us back into our gloomy thoughts.

“Nobody is committing a sin here. There is no alcohol, no pork,” he said, “and yet, for something as simple as this, we can get beheaded in Afghanistan.”

He then repeated the story of a party in Afghanistan last month where the hosts and their guests were beheaded for listening to music and for dancing.

“Stop, Zalmay, stop,” said Foroud, “enough of gloom. Come out of your past and enjoy your lives in America. Look at these young people, they also are from out part of the world and yet they have no gloom.”

“True, but they have not experienced what we did,” said Zalmay.

As we were talking, a young Afghan girl went to the owner of the shisha bar and asked him to stop music. She was holding the hand of an old waiter, Mohammed Bhai, a Bangladeshi.

“I just discovered that today was Mohammed Bhai’s birthday,” she said, “and the poor man spent the entire evening making pizzas and sandwiches for us.”

“Let’s celebrate,” the crowd shouted.

They also pushed us in the middle and started singing, “Happy Birthday to You.”

A young Pakistani brought a cake from a nearby bakery.

We went back to our seats, immersed in the happiness of the youth.

When Mohammed Bhai brought the cake for us, we asked him how old he was. “Sixty-five,” he said.

“You are still young,” Zalmay said.

“No, it is very old in Bangladesh,” said Mohammed Bhai.

“But you are in America,” said Foroud.

Then we poured soda in our glasses and said to Mohammed Bhai: “At every stage of your life, you are dear to us. We like you for the golden heart you were born with and it never got old.”

“Besides, we are young at heart, even if we look old,” Foroud said to him. Then turning to me he said: “What does your favourite poet Ghalib say about it?”

“My hands shake but eyes are still keen, leave the wine and the goblet with me,” I quoted Ghalib.

“There, there you go. That’s the spirit,” shouted Foroud.

“Thanks to these young souls,” said I, pointing to the dancers.


The author is a correspondent for Dawn, based in Washington, DC

Anwar Iqbal is a correspondent for Dawn, based in Washington, DC.

More From This Section

Forced conversion, real terror

Do abductors believe that the forceful conversion and marriage of a minority woman may win him rewards in the afterlife?

Reinventing art

The loss of family in an earthquake led Kausar to channel his grief into painting a powerful series on elephants.

The “Global” Malala

Would Malala Yousafzai be as loved, as embraced by white feminists, if she had insisted on telling her story herself?

If it's not the TTP... ?

Could dialogue have saved the lives of the 21 people killed in the Islamabad blast today?

Comments are closed.

Comments (30)

September 8, 2012 1:22 pm
Very moving... And eerie! Our Jewish tradition has a very moving prayer we will recite in a few days' time for the New Year, in the seventh month called Tishrei... It refers to humans as clay in the potters' hands. And our tradition too is having its troubles with extremists wanting to control love, banish personal freedoms and erase women's presence from almost every aspect of life. We are not so different across cultures after all!
September 8, 2012 1:44 pm
dr vimal raina
September 8, 2012 1:20 pm
Before I can swallow my death, can I just have that last sip to gulp it down?
September 8, 2012 11:55 am
amazing!!! loved it! yes there is gloom to be found everywhere but so is happiness! :)
September 9, 2012 5:35 am
Great. You have pointed out all ailments. Suggest some solutions too.
Samir Gupta
September 9, 2012 1:49 pm
"They fear women because women empower men, they cause them to think and resist" Subhanallah!!!, what depth of thought, awareness and understanding? I bow to the man who uttered those words.
Mian Zain
September 9, 2012 11:25 am
Always a pleasure reading your work Anwar Iqbal sahib. you are an inspiration for u.s young immigrants in N.America. I wish some day, you and i could have coffee. haha. Respect!
Farhan Feroz Malik
September 9, 2012 7:41 am
a thought [rovoking conversation .. enjoyed :)
September 8, 2012 4:47 pm
“They smell my breath to make sure I have not said I love you, Nazneen?” - what a line!! I wonder how it is said in Farsi. Even though I am from Boston, I want to go to this shisha bar in Northern Va, that I have been reading about in this posts...even though I do not smoke but it looks like an interesting place with Afghan, Iranian, Pakistani, Indian and Arab women mingling around. That sure is a sight to see per se...Khaayyam and Rumi notwithstanding. By the way, I thought of a song reading this gloomy yet uplifting story - I forget the lyricist (shame on me) but Jagjit Singh immortalized the wistful lines : " Dene wale mujhe maujo ki rabani de de; Fir se ek baar mujhe, meri jawani de de!"
September 11, 2012 5:12 am
Your articles always give me hope that there are still intellectuals alive today. Thank you for this wonderful piece. I really wanna visit that shisha bar
Hammad Haseeb
September 12, 2012 7:53 am
one cannot express such thoughts openly in pakistan . right or wrong but society should allow thoughts to be expressed.
September 8, 2012 2:38 pm
The religion has been hijacked by the illiterate literalists -- the poetry of the soul of Islam is dead. Great blog!
September 8, 2012 2:42 pm
“I was once again lost in thoughts, wondering why all unfortunate nations end up in the same pit.” Because all these nations share a common trait.
El Cid
September 12, 2012 2:05 am
@Orna:Our Jewish tradition has a very moving prayer "humans as clay in the potters’ hands". IN Judaism the phrase "CHOMER BIYAD HAYOTZAIR - clay in the hand of the potter" always refers to God as the potter and the Jewish people as the clay. Somewhat similar in Islam: [Qur'an15:026] Walaqad Khalaqna al-insana min salsalin min hama in masnoonin; “Verily We created man of potter's clay of black mud molded,” Refers to ALL OF MANKIND as made of wet clay by Almighty Creator.
September 9, 2012 2:07 pm
Cyrus Howell
September 9, 2012 1:38 am
Vaccinated against love.
The Other, Syed
September 9, 2012 9:06 pm
In current environment, I don't think we can debate faith anymore.it's a waste of time, brain cells and emotions. "umeed-e-bahaar rakh", then we will talk about it.
September 8, 2012 8:43 pm
After reading it I wonder if the author is talking about the lust or love. Love is lovable but lust is destructive. Taverns where men chase women after getting intoxicated falls into category of lust.Obviously you cannot get peace from such engagements.
Cyrus Howell
September 9, 2012 1:58 am
They want to impose one voice on all voices.
September 9, 2012 2:08 pm
Please name that trait sir.........why hesitate!!!!! I know you hate that trait...........say out loud in the open!!!!
September 9, 2012 12:08 pm
An amazing article with a very good flow. Sir, is this shisha bar similar to some of the coffee bars in Amsterdam ?
September 9, 2012 5:09 pm
If the man and women are mutually comfortable and the dance does not hurt the sensibilities of the local people, then we should let them be and mind our own business. Jab miya biwi raazi to kaziyon ka kya kaam???
September 8, 2012 6:58 pm
Why can't. The men and women say I love you to their spouse's.why liberals always go for animalistic urges. Where there are no curbs only hormones dominate their bodies.Only mohammad showed by example how to love and respect in the forms of spouse's,sisters,daughters and mother and elevate them to a point where nobody has reached yet.so become civilized and start loving your spouses and control your hormones. And dirty passions.
September 9, 2012 7:17 am
beautifully written.... thoroughly enjoyed it....
September 9, 2012 7:09 am
The case of Rimsha was another thing .What happened to her is condemnable and should not have happened BUT what do you all who sympathize with this article think about a man who SIMPLY dances with your or the author's sister ? would the sight be enchanting and fast then ? do you think they should continue or be beheaded , I don't think he should be beheaded , do you ?
September 9, 2012 9:20 pm
Wonderful article. This would rate as all time classic.
brighton rodeo
September 8, 2012 5:57 pm
Amazing grace ,amazing grace come in my heart from the lips of these people who have the thoughts of being free from wonderful country USA.
September 8, 2012 11:37 am
Knowing what you want is the key before one writes an article as well. If one is raising a child to get something in future in return and making a hue and cry over it one has surely never noticed ones child'sl laughter,smiles and the vibrancy it brought to his/her life. Same i believe goes for everything in life. If one is unable to see the trees, flowers, birds on the way to destination how will one see the destination.
September 9, 2012 6:16 am
What a great post. For a second I felt as if i I was in the shisha bar. reminds me of the type of conversations I have with my Iranian friend.
September 10, 2012 3:58 am
From Rumi to Ghalib... from heart and mind.. what a great read!
Explore: Indian elections 2014
Explore: Indian elections 2014
How much do you know about Indian Elections?
How much do you know about Indian Elections?