Whirling dervishes of destruction

The Friday Times: October 21-28, 2008


Whirling dervishes of destruction

The Ajoka theater group tackles religious extremism in Ghulam Abbas’s Hotel Mohenjodaro


Marna halal hai, jeena haram hai!

(Death is permitted, living is forbidden)


The crowd laughs and claps at this pronouncement, issued by dancing zealots unfurling red, green and black silken flags on-stage at Karachi’s Art’s Council. Also on the chopping block of religious fervor? A ‘hasina’ or ‘beautiful woman’ is forbidden, while ‘husn’ or ‘beauty’ escapes the mullah’s virtual funeral pyre for all things deemed ‘un-Islamic’ or ‘Western’. Welcome to ‘Hotel Mohenjodaro’, part of a three-day programme, ‘Theater in the time of Jihad’, by the Ajoka theater troupe who are back in Karachi after a ten-year hiatus.


Ghulam Abbas wrote the short story, ‘Dhanak’ in the 1950s. It was subsequently published in 1968, and eventually translated as ‘Hotel Mohenjodaro’. Ajoka’s Madeeha Gauhar assured the Art’s Council Auditorium’s packed crowd that the theater group has stayed faithful to Mr. Abbas’s story – the echo of contemporary religious extremism in the story is purely coincidental, a product of the writer’s ‘uncanny and prophetic vision’, she said.


The story opens as a Pakistani, Captain Adam Khan, makes a successful journey to the moon. The party on Hotel Mohenjodaro’s seventy-first floor is befitting – raucous singing, dancing and drinking herald Captain Adam’s address from the moon. On his return to Earth, he is greeted by a bevy of beauties, one of whom asks the dashing astronaut for a kiss. Meanwhile, the mullahs are incensed by the trip to the moon, a human transgression into a world that God intended to be mysterious. And so, as Everyman (Adam, the first man) receives an innocent kiss, the revelers are banished from their Paradise and vaulted into a nightmarish world, ruled by religious edicts and three all-powerful maulvis who manage to whip their devotees into a suitable frenzy. The bearded ones hold sway over the nation – no more drinking, dancing or decadence. Speaking English, wearing suits, reading, cricket, acting, singing, education and poetry are also given the boot. Women can receive education purely in order to keep track of dhobi’s bills.

Soon, however, rude slurs are daubed on mosque walls and children of those from different religious sects are teased and shunned. Each maulvi attempts to address the problems of his devotees, who accuse the other religious sects or groups of having a hand in various offences. The mass, a many-headed Hydra of various sects and religious parties, is now divided and each sect attempts to break away from the body. Things reach a head when they can no longer agree on the correct way to pray. Their ameer is soon murdered, while praying, while another religious leader is killed in a bombing. The people are a swirling mass of anger – ‘saazish,’ they cry, pointing the finger at Russia, Iran, America, and finally, each other. The word was repeated, shouted and whispered, until it took on the cadences of a snake’s slither, the auditorium filled with the sound of a horde of angry, buzzing bees. The Mexican stand-off between the various religious parties ends in violence, each canceling the other out in their hatred.


Years later, a turbaned nomad leads two tourists on a tour of deserted, ravaged lands. They come upon a heap of rubble, which the tour-guide says is all that remains of the famous Hotel Mohenjodaro, where Captain Adam Khan spoke to the people from the moon. Adam makes his final appearance at the end, a lone figure atop the ruins of a pleasure-palace, who forlornly waves ‘good-bye’ to the audience, as the curtains close.


So what exactly is ‘jihad’? Clearly, the performance was meant to highlight the ‘wrong’ kind of jihad, while positioning itself within a dialogue of what the term encompasses. While heavy-handed and didactic at times, it is clear about the ‘don’ts’, while the ‘dos’ remain rather vague. This is a subject that has flooded the market, with a slew of films, books, journal articles, blogs and websites devoted to the issue. In her exhaustive look at the concept of ‘jihad’ in our part of the world in ‘Partisans of Allah: Jihad in South Asia’, Ayesha Jalal explains that the word ‘jahada’ appears ‘forty-one times in eighteen chapters of the Quran – and not always in the sense of sacred war – while prohibitions against warring occur more than seventy times’. Furthermore, ‘apart from verses specifically linking jahada to fighting on behalf of God, all its derivative terms are most often used in relation to striving in the cause of faith’. She explains that ‘jihad fi sabil allah’ or jihad in the way of God is accompanied by ‘exhortations to patience in adversity and leniency in strength’. Jalal discusses two kinds of jihad – the struggle to be human (the greater jihad) and ‘armed struggle against the enemies of Islam’ (the lesser jihad). In Jalal’s view, droves of young, armed men and their leaders are lined up for their mug-shots, proponents of the lesser jihad. She also mentions ‘jihad of the tongue’, of actions – and this is where Ajoka and their work fit in.

Karachi Naib Nazim Nasreen Jalil was present at the performance, and she made an interesting observation – the members of the audience were from that sector of society that can have their views heard and can write. She encouraged the audience to be vocal about their religion and their disagreements with the fundamentalist view of Islam currently holding sway in the world. ‘Theater in the time of jihad’ is a form of jihad, which, as Ayesha Jalal astutely points out, ‘in the aftermath of the attacks on American soil, has come to signify the opposition between the Islamic world and the West’.


Ayesha Jalal also mentions that ‘jihad has done a roaring business in Pakistan because it appeals to the imagination of people whose prospects are severely limited’. Hotel Mohenjodaro served as a mirror onto our society – a brutal, unflinching look at what is present. But it failed to step inside the looking-glass and get to that mercurial core question: ‘why?’ The lemming masses dutifully parrot their leaders, but why? And isn’t it rather simplistic to assume that all ‘jihadis’ are blissfully, unthinkingly indulging in the opiate of the masses, bereft of logic and reasoning, however skewed we may believe it to be? Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist, Dina Temple-Raston’s The Jihad Next Door and Nadeem Aslam’s The Wasted Vigil are some of the many works that attempt to tackle the all-important questions of ‘how?’ and ‘why?’


Ajoka playwright Shahid Nadeem wryly pointed out that Hotel Mohenjodaro’s free performance was like an offering of good, free tea – once you get a taste for it, you’re likely to pay for it the next time. And with performances as good as Hotel Mohenjodaro, that catered not only to adults of all ages but children as well, we look forward to welcoming Ajoka back to Karachi.