LAHORE: A play, Lawrence in Lahore: the Lost Years, has taken up the subject of the life of the spy that the British called military strategist Col T.E. Lawrence and his years spent in colonial Lahore.

Written by Fawzia Afzal-Khan and Shahid Nadeem, a staged reading-cum-performance of the play was held at the Lawrence Hall of the Quaid-i-Azam Library at the Lawrence Gardens on Wednesday.

The three-act play begins with the Paris Peace Conference attended by the heads of states of England, France, Italy and the US at Versailles, France, in 1919 after the fall of the Ottoman Empire and then moves to the RAF base at Drigh Road, Karachi, where Lawrence was posted as a clerk despite having a higher rank in the army. The subsequent action happens in Lahore with the arrival of Lawrence in the city.

Dubbed as ‘the decolonial spy thriller of our times’ by the writers and production, the play portrays Lawrence as a character poles apart from his portrayal in the movie, Lawrence of Arabia, that won seven Academy Awards. While the film presents him as a hero, the play gives another perspective, an attempt of the ‘empire writing back’.

While the canvas of the story is huge, the writers have done well by squeezing it in three acts while maintaining the unity of the plot that can be divided in two parts – the conspiracies of a cunning British spy who disguises himself at will to cheat the leaders and people in India and Afghanistan and his love life and marriage with Akbar Jehan, the daughter of the owner of the famous Nedous Hotel in Lahore.

Lahore of yore

While the conspiracies of Lawrence are presented with skill, the history of Lahore was also shown through audio-visual effects, especially its two famous hotels, the Arab Hotel and Nedous Hotel, where the action happens.

About the Arab Hotel, KK Aziz in his book, the Coffee House of Lahore, writes, “for those orientalists of the 1920s the Mall was too westernised, distant and costly. By chance, they started patronsing a small, unclean restaurant on Railway Road, opposite the gate of Islamia College. A clean-shaved but dirty Arab from Kuwait, known as Bhai Aboud, ran the shop and was happy to serve kebabs and tea to his intelligentsia even on doubtful credit”.

A Hameed in his book, Lahore Ki Yadain, mentions Hasrat, Noon Meem Rashed, Akhtar Shirani, Krishn Chander as regulars of the hotel.

“It was Hasrat who was the life of the party. Arab Hotel was the hub of Lahore’s intellectual activity. News reached Arab Hotel before it hit newspaper offices,” he writes.

About the Nedous Hotel, US-based scholar Dr Nyla Ali Khan, writes, “my grandmother Akbar Jehan’s paternal grandfather, Michael Adam Nedou started out as a photographer and architect, but destiny had willed otherwise. The decisions that he took shaped that destiny as though with the finesse of a calligrapher’s brush. His first venture in hoteliering was the acquisition of the Sind Punjab Hotel in the port city of Karachi. He built the imposing and courtly Nedous Hotel in Lahore, characterized by charm and grace, in the 1870s.”

In an article, she mentioned that her grandmother Akbar Jehan’s father’s family, the ‘Nedous’, had emigrated from Dubrovnik, Croatian city on the Dalmatian coast of the Adriatic Sea, to Lahore in the 1800s. At the time of his nutralisation, Michael Adam Nedou explained that he was born in Ragusa, Austria (Ragusa is the Italian and Latin name for Dubrovnik on the Dalmatian Coast).

During his time in Lahore and north India, Lawrence has been shown in the play as a cunning man who changes his name to T.E. Shaw and Pir Karam Shah (as he could speak Arabic) at ease, especially when he instigated the Afghan tribes against anti-British King Amanullah of Afghanistan. He gets into a relationship with 17-year-old Akbar Jehan, the daughter of Nedou’s owner.

Talking about the play, Fawzia says issues of Middle East and Palestine started in the times of Lawrence were open and out now. She said the colonial forces led to the long standing issue of India and Pakistan also, including that of Kashmir. “All these topics have been touched in the play.”

The play ends with the end of marriage of Lawrence with Jehan with the divorce forcibly taken by her father by involving Gama Pehlwan. Besides the legendary wrester, Bhagat Singh’s character had also been included in the plot, perhaps an attempt to bring in more familiarity for the audiences.

Writer and actor Navid Shahzad said the play related the contemporary world with the times of Lawrence when the US, Israel, France, Germany and Jordan were on the scene. “Divide and rule has always been a policy of the empires and it’s still in play.”

She also talked about Akbar Jehan and her family and how her father fell for a Kashmiri milkmaid and married her. Jehan was studying at the Convent of Murree and came to Lahore on vacations. It was time when Lawrence, after his conspiracies in Afghanistan, had come to Lahore, and fell in love with Jehan.

Comparing the character of Lawrence with Ali (played by Omar Sharif) in the movie, Lawrence of Arabia, she said “that’s how the west always looked at the Arabs, the Semite and us—always a black and white situation. The English had a kind of arrogance towards our culture, our languages and way of life which was called pure savagery and they considered themselves as carrying out a god’s mission to correct and heal us.”

Shahzad said the play left the audience offended at times but this was accepted as our chequered history.

The issue of language

Prof Shaista Sonnu Sirajjuddin spoke in Punjabi, saying that a lot had been said about what the British did to us and what’s happening in Palestine now but our biggest trouble (maar) was the English language itself. “The process of the language-induced troubles continues till date. But we are persistent with it very stubbornly and include it in our plays.” Using the Punjabi word dheet for the Pakistani people, she used a pun, translating dheet as ‘resilience’ and ‘tenaciousness’. She congratulated the actors and ended her comments, saying she won’t prolong the punishment for the audience by speaking more Punjabi.

Earlier, to the question of the language of the play being in English and not in any local language, Shahid Nadeem said “we always had this idea that it’s the content, story and desired audiences that determine the language and venue of the play”. He said the story was such and it had international interest. He said the Urdu translation of the play would be staged at the end of this year.

The actors included Dr Sameer Ahmad, Yusra Irfan, Dara Hashmi, Sameer Afzal, Ehssn Kareem, Sohaib Nasir, Fatima Abbas, Uswa Amjad, Hassan Atif, Jazib, Ahmad Tajy, Hammad, Hassan, and Waqas. The play was a collaboration among GCU, Kinnaird College and Ajoka.

Published in Dawn, April 20th, 2024

Opinion

Editorial

IMF’s unease
Updated 24 May, 2024

IMF’s unease

It is clear that the next phase of economic stabilisation will be very tough for most of the population.
Belated recognition
24 May, 2024

Belated recognition

WITH Wednesday’s announcement by three European states that they intend to recognise Palestine as a state later...
App for GBV survivors
24 May, 2024

App for GBV survivors

GENDER-based violence is caught between two worlds: one sees it as a crime, the other as ‘convention’. The ...
Energy inflation
Updated 23 May, 2024

Energy inflation

The widening gap between the haves and have-nots is already tearing apart Pakistan’s social fabric.
Culture of violence
23 May, 2024

Culture of violence

WHILE political differences are part of the democratic process, there can be no justification for such disagreements...
Flooding threats
23 May, 2024

Flooding threats

WITH temperatures in GB and KP forecasted to be four to six degrees higher than normal this week, the threat of...