This figure can be identified as a sufi, on account of his long-sleeved khirqa cloak, and turban wrapped in fabric. His curled-up posture and lowered gaze suggest that he is in a state of deep introspection.
Sufis frequently spent periods of up to forty days in isolation in the wilderness. This practice, called khalwa, facilitated distraction-free meditation and prayer. Young sufis would engage in this habit under the guidance of a shaikh, and more advanced sufis would sustain this practice independently throughout their lives.
Do not regret what you did in the past because you will be wasting time. Do not waste your today for your yesterday. Think about today and tomorrow. Some people always live in the past thinking about the past. That is wrong you are wasting your time. Past is history. You can learn a lesson from the history but you cannot live in history.
The National Theatre has 960 seats and 36 shows. With a director who has previously won an Oscar, Ajoka’s play ‘Dara’ – the very first South Asian play to be shown there – may just create huge waves in London.
Help and collaboration with a British Pakistani platform of ideas, Samosa has pushed the news quite far within community circles. A conversation with ‘Dara’s’ playwright Shahid Nadeem, and Samosa’s Anwar Akhtar shows what they are thinking about this.
“We in the subcontinent are prisoners of history,” says Shahid Nadeem. “In our history, Sufis and moderate Islam are attacked, while the more radical version is glorified.”
Shahid, who is the writer of the Ajoka Theatre plays is referring to his play ‘Dara’ and what its story and plot encompasses.
The play is about the power struggle between Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan’s two sons, the elder Dara Shikoh – a humble prince who is locked in a battle for the throne against his younger brother Aurangzeb – who would later emerge victorious.
But it is not just a play about a struggle for the seat of power or a family feud. As with all of Shahid’s plays, ‘Dara’ looks at much more than that.
This play, so deeply layered, looks at the religious ideologies that have clashed in the subcontinent over centuries, at the disputes between the Salafi and Sufi forms of Islam, and at the extremist mullah ideology that till today overshadows the other more peaceful interpretation of Islam.
The play then also compares how the course of history may have been altered if instead of the radical and rigid Aurangzeb, his liberal and moderate brother Dara Shikoh had ascended to the throne, as Shah Jahan had originally wished.
In the play, directed by Madeeha Gauhar, with Shahid’s sharp and witty script writing and its awe-inspiring musical performances of Amir Khusro’s poetry to choreographed dances, it seems to be a downright winner for Ajoka anytime.
The music is mesmerising; the dances are enthralling. The main characters are captivating and never cease to become mundane or routine.
Shah Jahan’s four offspring – Aurangzaib, Dara Shikoh, and their two sisters are the main characters. Aurangzeb has sent his father to be locked away.
But most of all, there is Hazrat Sarmad, a saint that walks the streets half naked, a close associate of Dara.
But remove the fripperies of the Mughal era and place the same storyline in today’s milieu and one will find that the themes of the story are all too familiar.
And as Shahid says, “The story of Dara still rings true today… it is living history, not just a story.”
Ajoka’s plays may be banned by the government of the time (for example the’Burkavaganza’ incident during Musharraf’s rule), and some sections of society may label them dangerously liberal and outspoken.
But the truth is that these plays are always rotating in Lahore’s Alhamra Arts Council and they receive the same kind of thundering applause that they alway
And from the Alhamra arts council ‘Dara’ has taken a giant leap and strode towards London’s National Theatre.
This is where Anwar Akhtar’s Samosa comes in. (No, not the fried treat). This is the ethnic name chosen for a platform of ideas, originally a blog, now also an organising group for activities for British South Asians, primarily Pakistanis.
Anwar was the one who got the National Theatre to watch a CD of ‘Dara’ being played in Pakistan.
“Samosa is a British Pakistani initiative,” explains Anwar. “Some of us who live in the UK got together with the idea of setting up links for 1.2 million British Pakistanis. We realised that we all have a similar heritage and culture but have no way to link it.
“A lot of people helped us in this initiative and we thank the efforts of Neelum Hussain from Simorgh, also the Citizen’s Foundation, and HRCP among others. We needed a platform to raise awareness of all South Asian activities in the UK.”
Samosa first started as a blog, then it became quite popular, especially the short films that they promoted made by the students of Karachi University, Szabist and Beaconhouse National University.
“Our thematic focus is on human rights and civil society, and social development. We want to change the image of Pakistan as seen in the western world, especially UK,” shares Anwar. “We wanted to highlight the kind of work Karachi Vocational Training Centre and Edhi Foundation are doing, for example, rather the negative aspects of the country.”
The need to form such a platform arose from the view that the Pakistani community, as well as other South Asian communities, were being more or less marginalised in the UK. And then, Anwar saw ‘Dara’ and thought of bringing it to London.
“To me theatre and art is a great way to explain culture, history and identity,” he says.
“Ajoka is one of the most impressive theatres to come out of not just Pakistan but the whole of South Asia,” he adds. “To be honest, in the UK, the British Asian population was being ignored until only some time ago. Ajoka’s plays, especially ‘Dara’, explains a huge amount of South Asian history. It’s a seminal story, and its ramifications are still there for us to see.”
In the days of
the Ottoman Empire, pederasty-like relationships were common between
pre-pubescent boys and bearded older men. Though today it seems
homoerotic, the relationship had a deeper meaning according to the
mystic Sufis and their search for God
“Your airs have turned my head! Say, who has brought you up so impudent?
That stature by no cypress rivaled, who planned its development?
Your tender body in respect of scent and color’s choice and pure,
‘Twould seem ‘twas at the breast of some rare rose that you found nourishment.
You come, O vintner’s lad, a rose in hand, in the other wine;
Which shall I choose? Is it the rose, the wine or you will give content?”
[Nedim, in “The Penguin Book of Turkish Verse”]
Nedim, who lived at the beginning of the 18th century, was one of dozens of
Ottoman poets who openly expressed their interest in persons of their
own sex. But what was this interest? The first interpretation that leaps
to the modern, western mind is homosexuality and sexual activity
But a serious look at Ottoman culture, and before that, Islam provides quite a different picture.
the modern era, there was no word for sodomy in Arabic or Persian. Nor
is there any prohibition of it in the Quran. Some make reference to the
destruction of the town identified as Sodom of the Old Testament (which
is supposed to be the origin of the word sodomy) in the Quran, Surah 15:
73-77 as if it were the source. But it is quite clear that the city was
destroyed because its inhabitants refused to offer hospitality to
strangers. Where does the prohibition against sodomy come from? The
reference is to some hadith, the sayings and acts of the Prophet
Muhammad, which the Sunni interpretation of Islam uses to provide a legal basis for legal matters not covered in the Quran.
recent article by Elyse Semerdjian that dealt with cases brought before
the shariah court in Aleppo over a period of 359 years when it was
under Ottoman control has turned up four, but only one concerning sodomy
against a young man and his mother. The youngster is supposed to have
brought men known to be involved in sodomy to his home to the anger of
the people of his neighborhood. The two were expelled from their
community, a customary punishment for prostitution that had become
noticeable enough to disturb the neighbors. Sodomites, on the other
hand, were not punished.
Leaving aside the issue of sodomy, which
was interpreted as prostitution, but little punished and hardly
respected, throughout Middle Eastern literature, there are many
expressions of male admiration of males and in particular young boys. In
the latter case, it should be noted that boys as young as 7 were
considered in Ottoman society to be old enough to leave the harem to go
to school or be apprenticed or, at least among the poor, work. Those
youngsters who were “beardless, smooth-cheeked, handsome and
sweet-tempered” attracted the attention of older men who had a higher
position, more money, power, etc. The relationship was a close one
including holding hands, arms over each other’s shoulders, even kissing
but would lack an overt sexual component. This attraction would last
until puberty when the boy would start to grow facial hair, in other
words, became a man.
As long as the relationship lasted, the
older man was expected to pine after his young beloved, shower him with
expensive clothing and even buy him a house and other presents. The
beloved, on the other hand, would behave in a capricious manner,
employing various methods of shredding the lover’s emotions and making
him uncertain of the continuity of the relationship and its final
On a spiritual level
At the same time that one can interpret Ottoman poems as referring
to real people, the lines also refer to the sublime. The beloved was God
and the lover was the person who was attempting to achieve unity with
God. “The Ottomans [also like the Europeans] inherit a long tradition of
the spiritualization of love. That is to say … that a line of thought
is broadly recognized that concludes that sexual desires or attractions
are the physical manifestation of the soul’s yearning for return to a
divine unity from which it was separated by birth into this material
world.” [Walter G. Andrews and Mehmet Kalpaklı, “The Age of Beloveds”]
sentiment is related to that expressed by the members of the Sufi or
mystic orders, which included many of the most powerful men in the
Ottoman government and possibly the sultan himself. Some of the Sufis
even organized what were known as “sema” during which ceremonies, they
would sit in a circle and concentrate on the beautiful young boys in the
center, concentrating to such an extent on what they perceived as
beauty that they might fall into a trance. Since these ceremonies often
lasted all night, the people who were opposed to these mystic orders
were quick to accuse the participants of engaging in sodomy. As early as
the 9th century these sema ceremonies were held and two centuries later
they were condemned by orthodox conservatives as showing that the Sufis
were engaged in heresy. A 17th reformist movement in the Ottoman Empire condemned this boy-gazing as heresy and equated it with sodomy even though the physical act itself had not occurred.
has been little studied is the issue of men wearing women’s clothing.
Known as “zenne,” these men were in the public eye but it seems with
little or no criticism. In the miniature depictions of festivals we see
male dancers – it would have been impossible for women to have performed
in public. And in the traditional Karagöz plays, one of the characters
is a zenne.
It wasn’t until the 19th century and increased
exposure to Western European ideas that homosexuality, or rather the
open attraction of an older man with a younger one among the Ottomans,
began to retreat into the shadows. Western ignorance of Ottoman culture
led to many invented tales of what occurred in society; lurid and
fanciful stories were made up to shock and entertain western readers.
Stories such as one about the women in the imperial harem dressing in
male clothing in order to arouse the sultan’s sexual appetite were