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The city within, and Legends of the Indus

March 28, 2010


Samina Quraeshi is an author and an artist. Her previously published works include Legacy of the Indus A discovery of Pakistan, Lahore The city within, and Legends of the Indus. She is currently the Gardner Visiting Artist at Harvard University's Peabody Museum, where her photographs, calligraphic works, and mixed media montages
capturing Sufi culture are currently on display. Here's what she has to say about her latest book, Sacred Spaces.


Why did you choose to write a book about Sufism?

Sufism is in our DNA; it's how Islam came into the subcontinent. In Sacred Spaces, I'm not seeking to show every shrine; I revisited the ones I had visited as a child and that are connected through my memory. This is not a book about shrines; it's a book about a living tradition. It's also important the book be seen as a piece of a lifetime's work on the Indus.


What did you find changed about the shrines since your visits as a child?

I'm sad about the commercialisation of shrines. They're sanctuaries, not a place where you bargain for blessings.


Did you have a particular audience in mind for the book?

My primary audience is here, in Pakistan. We need to make sure we understand our culture and preserve our own heritage. If the West is also interested, that's fine.


How much research did you conduct for the book?


I researched at the Institute of Sindhology, Harvard, the British Library, and in private collections. Once I collected the information, I distilled it through the lens of art and culture. This is not an academic effort; I don't consider myself a scholar. I'm someone who is passionate about our culture and its history. If the goal is to build bridges, we need books that are well written and accessible.


Why, then, did you ask scholars to introduce your project?

I wanted to acknowledge that people have been working on this subject for a lifetime, while I have only been working on it for 10 years. Their essays give my journey a scholarly context.


Who contributed photographs for the book?

Most of the photography is my own, with contributions from National College of the Arts students, professionals, and enthusiasts. I see it as a collaborative effort with a lot of help from truth seekers.

I usually do all the photography for my books alone, but for this project, there was no place I could go without men. So I was there most of the time, art directing and providing a vision [for the other photographers].


Did you feel unsafe at the shrines?

I had just exited from the Bari Imam shrine [in Islamabad] when there was a bomb blast there [in May 2005]. It was terrifying. I really thought these places were sanctuaries, not places of violence.

The experience impacted my freedom of movement; I used to travel with the poor, but I can no longer do that and it upsets me. I also lost a lot of the material I had left for safekeeping at Rahman Baba's shrine [on the outskirts of Peshawar, which was bombed by militants in March 2009].


Do you agree with politicians and think tanks who turn to Sufism as a way to stem extremism?

Politicising belief is wrong. If radical Islam is wrong it's because it uses religion as a political vehicle for power. It's a dangerous game to bring faith into politics as charlatans always come forward when there's power to be had. Even though there is historical precedent for using shrines as a way to extend political influence, as a Muslim woman, I think this is wrong. Religion is a matter of personal faith.


What one aspect of shrine culture resonates personally with you?

All the shrines I visited are a sanctuary for the poor. Those who are poor, mentally ill, handicapped, and upset all seek succour at shrines. I was heartened that they have a place to go, even as I was astonished that they have no other recourse. Shrines are a place for people to sleep and eat, and as such they are civic structures. That's what makes them important places in our society.


If someone is planning a personal journey with the Sufis of the Indus, where would you recommend they start?

Bhit Shah has the most vibrant culture and resonance. The fakirs there play music; the bazaar is local and bustling.