THERE is a difference between a traveller and a tourist. Any ordinary passenger can be a traveller, but a tourist, despite being a traveller, has a different purpose and, hence, sees the world through a different pair of eyes.
Yet another kind of travellers are the ones who embark upon a journey to the holy lands. With a different pair of eyes, they have a different heart, too. They are pilgrims, first and foremost. Haj, the fifth pillar of Islam, is one of the five duties incumbent upon the Muslims. So those who write a travel account of Haj are thoroughly soaked in spiritual feelings and it is writ on every page of their travelogues. The same is true for Mahmood Sham’s Haj travelogue Rahman Ke Mahman, or Allah’s guests. Though Haj travelogues in Urdu are not something new, Mahmood Sham’s Haj travel account has many distinctive traits that make it different.
Haj travelogues in Urdu have a long history and quite a good number of them have been published. Till 1997, at least over 200 such travelogues in Urdu had been published, as shows the list of Urdu travelogues that are housed in Gujranwala’s Abdul Majeed Khokhar Yaadgaar Library. The earliest Urdu Haj travelogues are in fact translations from Arabic, Persian and even English. As for the first Haj travelogue written originally in Urdu, Dr Anwer Sadeed in his book Safarnama Urdu Adab Mein names two different books as the first Haj travelogue of Urdu: Muhammad Mansab Ali Khan’s Maah-i-Maghrib (alias ‘Ka’aba Numa’) and Nawab Siddique Hasan Khan’s Rahlat-us-Siddique Ila Bait-ul-Ateeq. Mansab Ali Khan’s book was published from Meruth in 1287 Hijri (1871-72 AD), whereas Siddiq Hasan Khan’s travelogue was published from Lucknow, but the year of publication of the first edition is not known. A latter edition published form Lucknow bears the year 1370 Hijri (1950-51 AD). It seems unlikely that it was published before Maah-i-Maghrib.
But Dr Qudsiya Qureshi in her book Urdu Safarname Unnisveen Sadi Mein says that first travel account of Haj written in Urdu was Tareekh-i-Vaqa’ae Haj written by Nawab Sikander Begum, the woman ruler of Bhopal. But it remained unpublished and one of its two handwritten copies is preserved at Rampur’s Raza Library. Qudsiya Qureshi, too, lists Maah-i-Maghrib as Urdu’s first-ever published Haj travelogue. After that we see a steady flow of Haj travelogues in Urdu.
So we have a long tradition of Haj travelogues in Urdu before Rahman Ke Mahman, but what makes it different is the aura it creates. Unlike the early Urdu travelogues, it does not only narrate the events or describes places, but also captures the innermost and delicate religious feelings beautifully expressed in a language that at times gets poetic. But Sham, ever so careful as not to let the reality skip, remains deeply grounded in the facts. A historical perspective, based on scholarly sources, makes it authentic too.
And Mahmood Sham’s unique prose style enhances the feeling of the peculiar aura as it has a charm of its own. He writes usually in simple present or present progressive tense, whether it is a reportage, travelogue or political analysis. This gives his prose a sense of ‘presentness’ and the readers feel that they are in a close proximity as if events are occurring in their presence. Here Mahmood Sham is a pilgrim, but a bit of tourist too, though he is a pilgrim first and last. He seems to be inquisitive yet respectful, questioning but reverent as a devoted pilgrim, looking at things wide-eyed like a tourist yet never forgetting the real purpose of the journey, drenched in history of the holiest places of Islam, but soaked in spiritual feelings at the same time — never letting his faith waver, quite contrary to Mumtaz Mufti.
Mahmood Sham is a veteran journalist, poet, columnist and prose writer. Born on Feb 5, 1940, in Rajpura, Patiala, he along with his parents migrated to Pakistan in 1947 and settled in Jhang, Punjab. In those days Jhang was brimming with writers, poets and intellectuals who were experimenting with all kinds of literary expressions, themes and forms. Sham’s father too was a poet. Born with a poetic streak, Sham began composing poetry at quite an early age and when he took admission to MA Philosophy at Lahore’s Government College (now a university), he had become known enough to be admitted by the principal Dr Nazeer Ahmed personally, though Sham did not seek admission in the first place neither did he have any money to pay fees and had just accompanied a friend who was seeking an admission.
Working with big Pakistani newspapers such as Nawa-i-Waqt and Jang gave him opportunities to meet world famous personalities and watch political developments from a close distance as they took place. He was one of the media persons who covered Shimla Agreement (1972), Agra Summit (2001) and NATO conferences.
Published by Atraaf Matbooa’at, Karachi, Rahman Ke Mahman is a valuable addition to the literature in this genre.
Published in Dawn, May 13th, 2019