Recently published in The Friday Times.
Nadir Khan, the cobbler from Bajaur who sits at the corner of my street, carries the kind of iconic baggage usually associated with cobblers from Sufi folklore and mystic literature. His character inspires me, his sensibilities vex me and his paradoxes keep me engaged with mine.
Being well aware of each second he lives, Nadir Khan spends a quarter of the year with his family in village, another quarter busy earning on a footpath in this metropolis, and another in the way of Allah, as he finds it to be. My self proclaimed wisdom and religious pragmatism is forced to zilch in front of his embodied response to time.
Perhaps responding to my amazement on his extraordinary business etiquette, a characteristic display of which is his initial customary refusal to accept money from his clientele, he shared today with me a Prophetic teaching that sins related to tongue will be one of the major charges against hell’s inhabitants. Standing in front of him on road side, I felt ashamed of all the Hadith corpus which I so proudly own but so miserably fail to follow in my everyday ethics.
Nadir Khan believes that there exists a monolithic entity out somewhere, called Amreeka which he hates from the core of his heart and which, according to him, has dragged us into a war that has achieved nothing except killing innocent women and children. He claims knowledge of countless first hand experiences where such innocent lives were lost in US army drone attacks or Pakistan Army’s shelling during Bajaur operation. As he concluded relating one such incident where 8 woman and children were killed while filling water from a village reservoir, he thanked God that his family lives adjacent to an army installation and remained safe during the military offensive; a contradiction that he obviously failed to, or did not want to notice.
Anticipating his hesitation to indulge in things political, I avoided throwing a direct question regarding Talibanization and instead resorted to usual innuendos against extremist elements in society. Contrastingly in his typical straightforward manner, he invoked the scriptural clause of enjoining what is good and forbidding what is evil. “But, Nadir Khan, God does not want us to terrorize people into His religion“, I responded while trying to be equally simplistic. Inadvertently ignoring my rejoinder, he hurriedly differentiated real and pretentious Talibs and contended that former were better for the poor classes of the society than the landlords and tribal chieftains; who are wicked and seasoned enough to get benefit out of confounded realities.
Continuing with a little emotional blabber, he shared how a Malik in his area – who is now helping Pakistan Army in exchange for money – used to throw hefty parties for Taliban when they were in control. Many, he believes, grew long beards and duped the world into believing that they are Talibans. Today in his muddled description of reality, I felt scattered echoes of intellectuals supporting political Islam as well as people like Tariq Ali, Imran Khan and Khalid Hosseini. Yet I felt unable to rebut his simplistic, direct and arguably myopic version of reality by using the same roadside dialectic employed by him.
Nadir Khan’s unflagging self belief and conviction regarding his socio-religious and political ken haunt me daily as I drive past his small roadside stall. Today as he reminded me to keep praying for Pakistan and Islam after our usual five minute schmooze, I wondered whether Nadir Khan can be taken as a representative sample of large part of conventionally wise and politically correct Pakistanis; we who cherish a simplistic Islamic ideal and an almost Utopian historical society.
I wondered whether Nadir Khan would believe it if I tell him that not so long ago, there were other Muslim societies, oceans away from his small shop, who successfully incorporated diversity and stood for primarily humanistic Islamic ideals. Societies, which produced jurists and philosophers, who wrote elegant expositions on such diverse topics as art and practice of love, fictional philosophy, expansion of universe and degeneration of sun. I wondered how Nadir Khan would react to the revelation that an idea is breathing its last as invisible young bombers enjoin good and forbid evil around our streets and we mend boots and bags in an almost surreal equanimity.