A month before Benazir Bhutto decided to return from exile in 1986 to challenge the Ziaul Haq dictatorship, I was an 18-year-old student at a local college in Karachi. Studying economics and commerce, I had also joined the Pakistan Peoples Party’s student-wing, the Peoples Students Federation (PSF).
A group of PSF activists from my college were planning to travel by train to Lahore, where Benazir’s first public rally after her return was to be held. I journeyed to Lahore with this group and stayed at a rundown apartment of a friend’s cousin in a congested area of Lahore where our group gathered to plan its bit in making Benazir’s rally a success.
Right behind the apartment building was a mosque with a really shrill loudspeaker. I was in Lahore for about three weeks, and every Friday, the mullah of the mosque would deliver a thunderous sermon in which he urged believing mothers to send their believing sons to indulge in jihad against the unbelieving Soviets and their equally unbelieving ‘puppet government’ in Kabul.
Most of us would be sleeping at the time of the sermon, thanks to the long nights we used to spend discussing politics. But some parts of the sermon almost always yanked everyone up, before we (unsuccessfully) tried going back to sleep.
One such Friday, Nasir, a college colleague of mine, got up grumbling and abusing like a cranky old man, suddenly announcing he was going to the mosque. Most of us in the apartment were surprised by this dramatic declaration because this young man was considered to be the most surkha (Urdu slang for communist) of us urban wayward Cold War ‘Marxists’. He asked a colleague and me to accompany him.
“What for?” I protested. “Tuj pey kab sey Islam nazil hogayah?” (Since when did Islam descend on you?)
“Abay iss mullay sey milna hai (I just have to meet this mullah),” he said, washing his face in the tiny bathroom.
The other colleague he had asked to go with him kept his eyes shut and pretended he was fast asleep. So I softly kicked his backside: “Oye, kafir, uth!” (Wake up, infidel!)
Mindful of the many sympathisers and activists of the Islami Jamiat Taleba (IJT) – the student-wing of the Jamaat-i-Islami – who lived in that area, and also due to the two plainclothes policemen who were always shadowing us (on a bike), our group carried two pistols. Nasir strapped one of the pistols (with a tape) around his right shin, underneath his jeans.
“Yeh kya kar raha hai?” (What are you doing?), I asked, concerned. “Abay wahaan soh jamati hoga, marwanah hai kya?” (There will be dozens of Jamatis there; do you want to get us killed?)
“Just come,” he said.
So I did. When we reached the mosque, the mullah was done with his loud ‘let’s go for jihad in Afghanistan’ sermon and was in the process of leading the Friday prayers. We waited, even though I still had no idea what Nasir had in mind. I thought he wanted to confront some IJT guy here.
Once the prayers were over, we moved in. Nasir went straight for the mullah. Speaking in Urdu, he asked the mullah why it was important for us to go to Afghanistan and wage jihad.
The mullah gave him a smug smile.
Nasir continued: “The thing is, maulvi sahib, these sermons have really inspired me to go to Afghanistan and fight alongside our Muslim brothers against the infidels and communists!”
“Jazzakallah!” The mullah replied, a sturdy and stern man, maybe in his early thirties, and (as we later learned) a passionate sympathiser of one of the many puritanical Islamic groups that had begun to sprout during the Zia dictatorship. “I have sent many brave young Muslims like you to Afghanistan. May Allah be with you,” said the mullah.
“Jazzakallah!” said Nasir, echoing the mullah. “So be it! My friend here and I shall leave tomorrow for the Afghan border.” The mullah’s smug smile rapidly turned into a mouthy droop, when Nasir added: “ … and you are coming with us!”
Looking at the mullah’s expression, I got into the act as well: “That’s true, maulvi sahib. We have heeded the call of Islam, jihad, you, and our great Muslim general. Accompany us as our mentor and leader.”
The mullah’s smug smile had by now turned into a nervous grin: “Sons, my health is weak, and I have a job here at the mosque. You go, I will join you later.”
“Maulvi sahib,” Nasir replied, “your body is like steel. Your strength is equal to the strength of both of us. Your booming sermons and voice have such power; they will instill fear in the hearts of the infidel. All those young boys you have sent to Afghanistan would be so inspired and thankful when they see you fighting alongside them. So it is decided then. We leave tomorrow morning after fajar prayers. We’ll pick you up.”
The mullah just tamely shook his head and hastily bid farewell.
The next day, just before the morning prayers, we went to a nearby PPP office and managed to borrow a jeep from the office in-charge whose brother was attending college in Karachi with us. We then drove towards the mosque. After much convincing and another emotional spiel from Nasir, we finally got the maulvi to accompany us.
“Now what?” I whispered to Nasir. “Afghanistan?”
“Just see,” he whispered back, smiling.
We got into the jeep and started driving towards Islamabad. As Nasir and I sang praises of jihad, Ziaul Haq, and (especially) martyrdom, the mullah remained conspicuously quiet. However, after about 20 minutes, he broke his numb silence and asked us to stop.
“Kyoon, kya hua maulvi sahib?” (Why, what’s the matter?), Nasir asked.
“Woh, son, I need to go to the bathroom,” said the mullah.
“We are jihadis, maulvi sahib,” I said. “We can face death and torture with a smile, so what is facing going to the bathroom to us. We can hold it far longer than an infidel, can’t we?”
“Bilkul, bilkul!” Nasir added.
“Son, I have a kidney condition, that’s why I am asking you to stop,” said the mullah. “I’ll just take a minute.”
So we stopped the jeep near a few bushes of weeds. The mullah got off and disappeared behind the weeds. Nasir followed him. “Abay, yeh kya kar raha hai?” (Hey, what are you doing?), I asked, laughing.
“Come, come,” said Nasir, hurrying after the mullah. “There’s a road behind these bushes.”
And lo and behold. There sure was a road there, and on it was our passionate jihad chanter sprinting away, chasing first a rickshaw, and then a bus. In a matter of minutes he had scrammed a good hundred yards away from us. We exploded into mad laughter.
Nasir took out the pistol and before firing two shots in the air, he shouted, “Maulvi sahib. Par jihad ka kya hoga?” (But what about the jihad?)
Then looking at me he smiled: “Alas, we won’t be hearing his sermons for while.”
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