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Christmas in Moharram

December 28, 2012


It was a sad Christmas for me this year. I was offended and deeply hurt. I wanted to cry, in fact, weep. That may well be because of my Shia training that helps men break the boys-never-cry jinx and allows them to shed tears when they feel hapless. I was powerless, dejected and frustrated.

The first post on my Facebook page that morning was from an old friend from my college days – a comrade in arms, the student union stuff. We had together cried our throats hoarse so many times, shouting slogans against the obscurantism of the General Zia era. We resisted the one-dimensional identity paradigm that the dictator wanted to force upon us. Drafting charters of demands, banging the doors of corroborating officials, struggling for coverage in the press, organising rallies, and rallying all the 'factions' in the universe of our hostel for a common cause. We had lived together so many moments of anxiety, excitement and joy. Those intense and close moments of camaraderie have a lasting impact on your personality. They are deeply etched on your soul, something comparable to what lovers feel when they engrave their names on tree trunks.

And all that stood shattered by just one post – a share from the Dawa website. My friends profile picture had changed some time back. He now keeps a beard. But somehow I was not ready for the shock. The post advised me, and of course other commoners as well, to abstain from wishing anyone ‘Merry Christmas’ as that constituted a kind of partial apostasy, which is nonetheless no better than full-fledged kufr. That's how the logic goes: Christians believe that Jesus was son of God which in Islam is shirk. Christmas is his birthday so wishing someone on the occasion is condoning of shirk. Simple and plain. But my friend probably wasn't sure. He did not add any endorsing comment that people generally do while sharing such noble posts: must watch, hit like, subhanallah etc. Maybe he was hesitant, apprehending a slew of negative responses from his old friends who still 'haven't seen the light' and I know for sure that he is not the kind who may draw a sawab or two from people's ire. It is also quite possible that old friends may no longer be a conscience point for him and he might actually be asking for the permission of his new friends. Is it OK if I wish others merry Christmas? Will it hurt my religious credentials, spoil my eeman? Does it go with my new identity?

The quest for identity for the Pakistani Muslim middle-class has become a simple one-window operation. All roads lead to one stop. There is one solution to all of your problems. In fact, the solution is in over-supply and many a times it has to search for and even invent problems so that its fix-it-all prowess can be demonstrated.

But for Christians in Punjab, religious identity is a totally different kind of phenomenon. They are afraid of who they are and have to adopt ways to hide their identity. You often know them by their first names only: Tariq, Atif, Rashid, and rarely discover their second names: Solomon, Peter, Jacob. Some have tightened the security further by pushing the Christian parts of their names to third place and inserted commonly known Arabic, Muslim names in the second place as well. The names that raise no eyebrows, set off no alarms and trigger no frantic calls to 911 asking if I shake hands with a Christian will my wazoo remain intact or do I need another dip?

Almost all of my non-Muslim friends frequently and spontaneously use mashallah, inshallah. I once asked a bishop if they found this 'un-Christian'? He told me these are well-meaning Arabic words and that there are so many other such Arabic words in our language, like alwida, shukria, that are not directly associated with Islam. So why object to the usage of some that anyway are harmless. Maybe bishop sahab was being nice to me. The spontaneous usage of such words helps his fellow believers hide their religious identity.

Imagine a fellow passenger in Bus No 61 watching from the window the 'Paris-like' new Lahore, strewn all over with flyovers and underpasses, and gleefully telling you, "Pakistan is making progress with the blessings of Khudawand Yasu Masih (instead of mashallah)."  That expression might fall under the laws dealing with the subjects of hurt public feeling, incitement of trouble if not outright blasphemy. If nothing else, the situation does deserve an emergency call: Hazrat, is it OK to listen to a mushrik phrase like, Khudawand Yasu Masih without putting up any resistance? Or ought I offer something in compensation, 101 beads, two rakat or what?

The caller will not be disappointed. They do entertain such queries. The people who join the ranks of the pious come covered with the filth of their heretic cultural lives that generally do not observe the lines drawn by religions. They sing, they dance, they make merry and indulge in all kinds of regrettable 'Hindu-oriented' customs. They need frequent dousing in the divine detergents. These caustic reagents scrape off all the earthly dirt and remove the stickiest of the stains. The most challenging of these being the guilt that the nuvo riche middle class faces – the guilt of leaving behind in poverty a whole host of people they personally know. The guilt of crossing the class divide and joining the side you once thought is responsible for the woes of the public. Believe me, it is the most stubborn of the stains. It pinches your conscience. It irks and irritates. It gives you sleepless nights and restless days. But it takes the faith laundry one wash, one thorough rinsing to free you of all the cultural dirt, cleanse all guilty stains and put you at peace with the status quo.

So when next time I join a rally against the reactionary force, shouldn't my placard read: Merry Christmas?


The writer works with Punjab Lok Sujag, a research and advocacy group that has a primary interest in understanding governance and democracy.


The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.