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The shrine of the Sufi saint, Abdullah Shah Ghazi (720 – 773AD) is a major presence in the physical and spiritual landscapes of Karachi. Every day, thousands of devotees both rich and poor come by way of luxurious cars, buses, bicycles, rickshaws, taxis, donkey carts, or on foot and even crutches, to pay their respect to the Saint.
They pray for everything. From good health, better financial fortunes, winning a legal dispute, to the recovery of a lost goat or the birth of a boy after seven daughters. In a country where life is often harsh, the shrine provides some hope and succour to the needy, the abandoned and the suffering.
The shrine is popular with the pickpockets syndicate and a cautionary notice is prominently displayed.
Shahbaz Lahori, a malang, is a long term resident of the mazaar. Here he is dancing away to his own rendition of Shahbaz Qallandar.
O’ you beautiful maidens, what more could you have wished for from the Saint?
Gate to the free food haven.
Potful of palao awaits the afternoon rush.
Great free food and rapid service. The line will melt away in minutes.
Along with the intangible benefits of prayers for worldly problems there are some tangible benefits of visiting the shrine. High on the list are the food stalls (langar) where food that is paid for by the well heeled and cooked in huge cauldrons is available, free to all those who seek a savoury and filling meal. Plastic bags are available free of cost to the diners. I noticed that no one was breaking the queue or getting impatient. Normally, you can even come back for seconds. The service is fast and you don’t need to show your National Identity Card to qualify!
The custodian of the food court obviously eats well.
A small man with a big heart mans the door.
Other pleasures of life like papadum, orange juice, sugarcane juice, tea, pakoras, fried fish and entertainment drugs are also available freely, but are not free.
No visit to a Sufi shrine is complete without crispy paappers.
Young understudy working under the watchful eye of the sugar cane juice master.
Fill up on vitamin C here.
A potential customer eying the hip juice seller with suspicion.
In addition to the free food, there are service providers sitting on the footpath ready to cater to your more metaphysical needs. Palmists armed with complex diagrams and tables will tell your fortune for a humble sum of Rs. 20.
For those customers who are either too poor or tight fisted, there is the option of having their fortune picked up by an Islamic parrot from a pile of “pre-written” fortunes (this is perfectly logical since our fortunes are written on the day we are born. It then becomes a matter of finding a skilled fortune finding parrot!).
The owner can relax as the parrot does all the work!
After encountering the hard working palmists and parrots, you come across entrepreneurs who seek to micro-finance themselves with some of your money in return for prayers for your health and wealth. This activity is incorrectly called “begging” by people with a narrow view of the business world.
This young cripple had arrived from Punjab the day before. A well-dressed man approached him and offered to ship him off to Iraq if he was willing to share half his earnings with him.
Finally, there are the most exalted of the footpath dwellers, the elite in the realm of other worldliness and spirituality. They have crossed to the other side. They live on air laced with some special substances. Their food comes from the langar, the pavement is their bed and the gentle sea breeze their lullaby.
Those that have crossed over to the dark side riding on a puff of smoke.
The land, the sky and the sea breeze belong to him.
Life in balance – man sleeping on the road divider across from the shrine while traffic roars by.
A satisfied man with a few needs.
Most denizens of the shrine have a philosophical bent of mind. The sweeper who was blowing a dust storm on the sidewalk with his broom was also aggressively advising a newly arrived cripple that he should never reveal his heart’s deepest secrets to anyone. The sweeper/philosopher was also very critical of the newbie for sitting in the shade. “You want to earn some money? Then be a man and sit out in the sun”.
The shrine footpath sweeper and resident philosopher advising a crippled beggar never to reveal the heart’s deepest secrets to anyone.
The shrine is a place where people of all faiths and social status’ come and go, work and pray, and live in peace. Here, tolerance is the operative word. Among the denizens of the footpath there is the full spectrum of human strengths and fallibilities. Faith, hope, and entrepreneurship co-exist with despair and failure.
If the spirit at Abdullah Shah Ghazi shrine prevails across Pakistan, we will all be living in a much more humane place. Maybe, the sea breeze will carry the goodness of the shrine from Karachi to Khyber.
Photographs by Vaqar Ahmed.
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