by Mina Malik-Hussain
When we were small, there was a month and it used to be called Ramzan. It was Ramzan on television, it was Ramzan in the newspaper with the sehr-o-iftar timings and while nobody had a cell phone or Facebook to wish anyone, it would have been Ramzan Mubarik nonetheless. Sometimes if one was being quite linguistically adventurous it would be Ramazan, but nobody seemed to mind.
And then, insidiously, The Arabs crept up on us. It wasn’t like the return of Muhammad Bin Qasim, but somehow Ramzan became Ramadan. Nobody knew exactly how it happened, but almost overnight our crisp z’uad sound became a lisping Arab burr, and we—a nation of language speakers with no apparent consonant pronunciation difficulties—were flung into the downward spiral of an affectation obsession. Now it was cool to sound Arab, and soon enough it began to be increasingly desirable to look it. Cue Al Huda, cue our streets being lined with gangly palm trees that do nothing, either in terms of beauty or shade, cue the availability of the most bling Islamic cover-up gear you’ll see this side of Dubai.
Still, as a nation we were still fairly open-minded about this, so we fasted year after year and didn’t really pay attention to the semantics of it. We were busy trying to live our lives and be regular Pakistanis, but The Arabs kept making inroads onto our cultural minds. One year ‘khuda-hafiz’, that old and comfortable way of saying goodbye and Godspeed, became ‘Allah hafiz’ with the dubious reason of having to specify which deity to whose protection one was recommending you. Because here in multi-religious, multi-cultural and secular Pakistan there was actual leeway where one would wonder who exactly Khuda is, and perhaps not want to be entrusted to a pagan god. Some people resisted, and continue to resist Allah hafiz and keep saying khuda-hafiz with the logic and hope that whatever His name, He will still protect and love them. Also if it was good enough for one’s grandfather and great-grandfather, it was just fine for them too.
Allah-hafiz then progressed, as the average virus does, and soon many misguided drivers were seen on roads with license plates that read ‘Al Bakistan’. The only language problem we used to face as Urdu speaking people was the difficulties of saying ray and rray properly, and the difference between a gol qaaf and danday wala kaaf. Suddenly our proud and inherent ability to say ‘pay’ was expected to evaporate, and the land of the Pak became the land of the Bak. Allah (or Khuda) alone knows what Bak means. Maybe a variant of buk-buk, or maybe the sound a sheep makes as it blindly follows its herd on the way to the qasai. By this time evidently the people who sport these number plates have been so thoroughly infected by The Saudi Virus they didn’t even notice the Bakistan, probably because their keffiyeh got into their eyes while they were busy searching for cans of imported Bebsi and singing a camel herding song.
The last straw—a camel-less one still, thankfully—was this year’s Ramzan, bringing with it suhoor. As a friend quipped, who is this suhoor and where did she come from? Suhoor is trying to boot our beloved sehri out the window to join the words and lifestyles that have already been inched out, and really enough is enough. This is Pakistan, formerly of the Indian Subcontinent. This is still the place where people knew Farsi and had read the Baburnama in the original. This the land of kings and warriors, a civilization as old as the Indus. Where does Saudi Arabia, that land of the crazed Bedouins so uncivilized and jangli that they needed the best of our Prophets to come save them, get off on telling us how to be Muslims? Saudi Arabia, the place where the royal family is as debauched and louche as they come, the country that treats you like a criminal when you’re a pilgrim, the place where random strangers scream and slap your hands down for wanting to say a Fatiha at your beloved Prophet’s grave. This is the country that is razing the landmarks of Muslim history and building toilets in their stead. How dare they come and tell us how to worship? It is the greatest pity of our time that the people to whom we entrust our government are the biggest panderers to the Saudi agenda, so we have little control over the palm trees and whatever authority it is that lets Al-Bakistan license plates even exist. But we can, as a people, take our culture back.
Historically we have enjoyed a cultured, ethnically and religiously diverse past. We speak a whole spectrum of beautiful languages, but Arabic is not one of them. Like many other Muslim countries, that doesn’t make us any less Muslim, and the beauty of religion is that there is no one way to practice it as long as one’s intention is good and knowledge of the basic ways and means is intact. Least important is the semantics of it all—waking up to have sehri or sehr or sargi (in Punjabi) is all the same; the long and short of it is that you are awake and eating because you’re fasting, and will be for the next twelve to twenty hours.
Calling it suhoor won’t earn you any brownie points with God, but it will make you sound pretentious. Lacking a centrally defining Pakistani culture doesn’t mean that we have to go looking to others for one. The Quran and Sunnat (see, a T, not an H) exist to guide us, and Allah is there to be prayed to for all other concerns and queries. The rest is dross; no need to be sheep.