house of happy

Life adventures in prose and verse. Explorations of places, people and words. Stories and fun.

Thursday, 25 October 2012

Arieb Azhar

When I say 'Arieb Azhar' do you nod with a knowing smile? Do you go blank? Do you want to know more? Do you go: 'OK, OK, enough with all that rhethoric crap, just get on with it and tell us?' Because you're busy and you'll want to find out and get out of here.

So I'll get straight to the point and tell you that when Arieb Azhar opens his mouth to sing, people freeze, enslaved by a music equal to a force of nature. Puppets suddenly, their arms – then whole bodies - are pulled upwards in a delirious dance. They can do nothing but beat the ground with their heels and lift their eyes to the sky without even seeing the stars but, like good mutants, only their pre-programmed dreams. They are led round and round by their own equal steps while their shoulder blades pulse and pull at the skin of their backs like pretend wings: they try, in short, to remember their angel-selves and fly. And when the flute alone is left to pierce the night, the most lonely and haunting of tunes, none of our feet feel the ground anymore. The sky still remote and untouchable but we have all set off, we're on our way.

I'll say that this is not some new-age funk, but potent chanting of an ancient rhythm. Sufi poets of the land have lent their verse to this minstrel: 'Break up the churches', one says, 'tear down mosques / but don't break my heart because / THAT is where God lives.' It may not sit well with the faithful but the Saturday night youth of Islamabad weeps and I find myself, heart in pieces and looking for that crumbled God for the first time in months.

Then I'll go back a step and contemplate the night itself – full of stars and asking for the first scarves of the year. Autumn is here, in the criss-cross of electric party lights. The music is dedicated to Daniel Pearl, a musician himself – they say. While we live we are such complex creatures, full of detail and history and unpredictable turns. After death, simplified to a few words and a faded photograph. Daniel Pearl, the musician. The crowd roars.

But I won't leave it here: I'll take you even further back, and you will have to guess how we made it to this park outside Islamabad. Ta-dammmm, I'll reveal, motorbike, TWO wheels, our little machine roaring louder and rolling faster than they do in any film I've seen (that always happens when things are for real!); glued helmet to helmet, my hands in Moona's pockets for warmth, his ribcage around my heart for safety: feeling, falling into speed. Stars and city lights twinkled together and I let them paint my face, but didn't close my eyes: instead I tried to glimpse two-minute-futures jump across our path just like deer through a clearing. Dashing away from the wolf of clubs; the hunter of diamonds; the soldier of spades; and the manythieves of hearts.

I won't tell you about the supporting act, there ARE things I'd like to forget.

Will I have run out of steam by now? Will you have left the page already? One final thought, perhaps about the tight security at the gates. Is this – we joked – the safest place in the world right now? But if I wanted to bring a bomb-in-a-bag to a show-in-a-field, then why would I not simply lob it over the hedge? 'Heck, yeh' – Moona said. Then we lapsed into a somber silence – he calculated our chances if the bomb landed in one spot or another ('lands there: we get hit by shrapnel, luck-of-the-draw', 'here, we're history')... I pictured a post-grenade pink haze in which our atoms merged. Strangely I didn't mind too much, didn't mind at all.

Tuesday, 23 October 2012


When you stop for a minute and look around
at some traffic lights, or to tie up your shoelaces
or to wait some minor cramp away
or to breathe and find out what street you're breathing...

That's when they run to you, hands out, eyes rounded in ancestral grief
beggars in frayed shalwaar kameez
matted hair, dusty fingers, bare feet
thin as reeds in the grip of a river that won't feed them, won't hold them, won't
let them go.

That's when the question returns: to give? Not
to give?
(if you give they'll give it to some greasy street lord.)
(if you don't give the greasy street lord shall beat them.)

That's when you see that all of them have something to sell
Slices of coconut or illegible newspapers
Your windscreen washed with a gray sponge
A glimpse of some atrocious disability
or the very opposite: a glimpse of childish dimpled innocence...

That's when you see those
who have nothing.
Like this old woman: teeth? None.
Hair? Thin, grey, tied in a small bun.
Flesh on that dry clavicle? Gone.
She lifts her hand to beg, but no strength either: the arm falls, the gaze follows.
The day too heavy to bear, too alien to be.

That's when your child opens up her school bag
and after much rummaging takes out her pencil case
and out of the pencil case her pocket money
and then lifts the woman's hand in hers
for a giving and a receiving
that arch over years
and cultures and colours and continents
to look the same: smile-shaped, serene.

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

The Melon of Kabul

Sounds like a good title for something, don't you think? Could it be the fruit that saved the life of a daring fighter, reunited lovers, brought peace? Could it be a magical chalice of wisdom, lost when the kingdom fell - a hundred years of darkness followed, weeds and brambles grew, people turned sad and sour, but survived - until the chalice was returned to them by a handsome prince? (prince arrived holding chalice, left holding ravishing maiden, great transaction all round). Could it be a promise of hallucinatory travels? Could it be the recipe for ending a war? Could it be what everyone yearns for, wants and seeks before they even know their own longing?

Ahem. Turns out it's only a melon; a slightly soft, yellow melon. The skin is bumpy, ridged, brown-spotted like the hands of old people. 1.5 kg of distilled sunshine, summer meadows and honey.

As I walked to the market, where the Melon of Kabul waited, two small boys in school uniforms were having a fight in a street corner. They pushed into each other, their school bags bobbed on their backs, the eyes tight-shut and a cloud of dust around their ankles. No sound, they gave and received in silence, too proud to stop but instead wincing, waiting for the injury, the adult or the miracle that would put an end to the scuffle.

One stumbled and fell; the other hesitated, looked around, licked his dry lips. The world flowed around them like a slow river, cold and unseeing. And he, this standing hero, he had Questions: "do I kick him? Do I kick dust onto him? Do I throw myself on top of this fool, to tumble in the dirt like kittens? Do I raise my arms in victory?"

He stretched his hand and scowled; looked away when his fallen friend took it, got up, shook himself a little; they left together, sullen and silent, bumping softly into each other every third step or so.

I got to the greengrocer still distracted and bubbling with laughter. Barely noticed when he put the Melon of Kabul onto the scales, heard him vaguely when he mentioned the price (a rip off) and murmured 'This Melon from Kabul, from Kabul this Melon. All the way from Kabul'. I paid up and walked back, spinning stories set in Kabul and featuring a golden melon.

At the street corner I looked up for inspiration and found the reason for the earlier clash-of-titans: a little blue kite, made up of two sticks and a plastic bag, trapped in the branches above.

In the story, once you taste the Melon of Kabul, you grow fearless (or tall), fearless enough to climb a gnarled old tree and disentangle a blue kite (or tall enough to reach into a gnarled old tree and disentangle a blue kite). Or both, why not? Why not?

Why not, I wonder - munching on the Melon of Kabul (sweet and cool and juicy), waiting for my wings to grow.

Thursday, 11 October 2012


Kira started school last week. I sometimes walk to pick her up in the early afternoon, when the sun is high and the city shimmers with heat. I wrap myself up in my longest shalwar kameez and proceed with equal steps that use as little energy as possible. It's a technique mastered to perfection by all dwellers of long scorching summers (remember the Maldives?) - a slow gliding, straight back, no unnecessary movement, not even an eyeball rolling sideways to check the traffic.

I remain in deep awe of these people: the first time I walked to school I wasted way too much time and energy readjusting my scarf, looking around in a effort not to get lost, and getting lost. Yes. Most streets in Islamabad have numbers, not names and I'm no good with numbers. So I forgot the street number, I didn't see the logic in the street layout (is there any?) and I kept going until the streets ended and the hills began. I called Moona.

A Jeep slowed down and the front window rolled down. Inside, a handsome man with long hair and black shalwar kameez signalled and smiled. I looked away and tried to pay attention to Moona's instructions. They were: a) turn around NOW and b) walk back. Some more stuff about turning right at some point. Also a couple of loving observations along the lines of 'how much of a numpty can I be' etc. Beside the point.

I walked back and while crossing an insignificant-looking street, noticed a long line of cars idling, waiting. 'How funny' - I remember thinking - as I walked on. And, five steps later, stopped because didn't Moona say something about 'lots of cars' and 'turning right'?

As I took the road with the endless motor-queue, the Jeep containing my admirer reappeared and, once again, he offered me a lift. 'There's a dude in a cool jeep offering me a lift', I duly reported to Moona who was checking on my progress. 'Don't take it', he shouted as if I were Snow White and young Imran Khan here was handing out The Red Apple. Priceless.

By this stage I had guessed something vital: this queue of cars was making very slow progress TO THE SCHOOL GATES! I walked past shiny BMWs, countless Corollas, a few purring Mercedes, Jeeps and OK, some old bangers too (but very few). Inside each car, a driver and a passenger, perhaps a servant or secretary? They hopped out and rushed to the school gates. Stepping on each other's toes, they shouted the names of the child they were collecting. The gate-keeper repeated the name into a microphone. A minute or so later, a pupil was spilled from the belly of the school out onto the pavement, to be accompanied by the butler to the expecting vehicle.

Impressive. And here I was, a white woman - alone and wheel-less - making majestic progress to the school gates (read: shuffling in heat-induced stupor, adjusting scarf rather obsessively, carrying awkward bag, dropping phone and displaying unpainted toenails!) - I whispered Kira's name to the porter only to be handed the mike. What?
'KIRA' I croaked into the thing and sure enough Kira arrived, looking stricken with parentally-induced mortification. 'Aaah' - the porter beamed into the microphone - 'KIRA-FROM-SCOTLAND'! She took sudden interest in a random leaf and started walking.

We walked together past the endless line of cars, and watched by all with fixed incredulity like some memorable moment in a soap-opera.

I SO look forward to doing this on a daily basis.

Monday, 8 October 2012

Tuzla, 8 October 1994

I thought being married would feel different, heavier, more static, more cramped. All that day - 8 October 1994, a sunny Saturday in Northern Bosnia - I waited for it to happen. Instead, it felt like air, like a dance on clouds: rising and swirling, so easy, up, up, up... It was air on its journey to turn into light.

Later, my father-in-law wrote an article about our Bosnian wedding. It was a huge surprise and a wonderful gift (and freaky to see own picture on the cover of something; crooked politicians, small-town actresses, Big Brother nobodies, ice-floes-with-polar-bear: I'm with you there!)

He wrote: "All our impressions of the war in Bosnia are second-hand, heavily edited and invariably distorted. I imagine this journey across the mountains will be dangerous. Stephanie says, 'Let's go in separate cars. Just in case.' I left a note at home before leaving. 'No funeral. Dig a hole on the hill at the back of the house. Take care of the cats.' I expect sniper fire in the forest, Serb checkpoints manned by drunken louts, waving Russian machine pistols, demanding money and whiskey. I have daymares about being tied to a tree and shot. Even if we reach Tuzla, a shell will blow my legs off before the wedding. I'm so brave, I can't believe myself. [...]

Many buildings in the small towns are lagged with tree trunks as protection against shrapnel. Bosnian soldiers in green camouflage wander casually through the streets. There is food in the shops and dark sweet coffee in the bars. Rupert is hauled into a police station for filming a rusty tank in their car park and roughly released with a warning. A few miles further on it almost happens again. [...] I slip my camera under Stephanie's coat (she accuses me of implicating her, imagining instant deportation) and behave silly-foreign. The cop looks severe and asks questions in a guttural tone. I understand everything except the words and pretend he wants to know where we're going. I point into the middle distance, away from the ruins, and [...] retreat to the cars.

The Tuzla road winds through mountains and idyllic valleys. Clean, cropped meadows dotted with hayricks meander to sparkling rivers. In scattered villages old men chop wood, old women take the cow for a walk, stacks of corn cobs are laid out to dry. The skies are clear.

Saturday, Magnus' big day. He and Monica wanted a small, intimate wedding. Once the word spread, Tuzla was having none of it. Celebration is their moment of expression and harmony. Play music within half a mile of these people and they burst into song.

In the end, Magnus and Monica's little wedding is on TV, takes over the whole ground floor of Tuzla hotel and would have sung and danced its way into the early hours if it wasn't for the midnight curfew. In a city not so long ago under siege, there is an abundance of food and wine. Even Magnus' new friends from the Pakistani Battalion [..] provide steaming bowls of succulent curry. Zihno, the white-haired engineer who has been responsible for the organisation, rushes about in a frenzy of excitement.

There is an absence of embarrassing speeches. Instead the mayor raises his glass and within minutes is singing. Music never stops. Between the swirling dances, toasts and embraces, it's difficult to remember to eat. There may be 150 people: Muslims, Croats, Serbs, Scots, English, Norwegian, American, Swedish, Danish.

When the lights go out, no one screams. Figures move gently through the dark. Someone finds candles and a match. A cable is run out of the window to a generator outside. Once the keyboard and microphone are working again, the dancing and singing continues. A child of five climbs into my arms, stays there for a moment like a cat, and then climbs down. Nothing is spoken.

Many images remain from this journey - the blackened hulks of houses, uniformed boys training with toy rifles, wood piles everywhere, men chopping chopping chopping, a horse pulling a hay cart with laughing girls on top, a convoy of tankers in a traffic jam on the mountain pass, haystacks and corn stalks, pencil-shaped mosques, horses ploughing, the infinite beauty of the land, the sound of shellfire, the broken bridges of Mostar, the exuberance of the wedding party, Magnus and Monica's joy, dancing as the circle widens, music soaring, little fast steps to the right, little fast steps to the left, round and on and on, never wanting the night, or time, or the emotion to end."

And now, 2012, 18 years of us. Another sunny October, and this is what I remember of our wedding day: "I thought being married would feel different, heavier, more static, more cramped. All that day I waited for it to happen. Instead, it felt like air, like a dance on clouds: rising and swirling, so easy, up, up, up... It was air on its journey to turn into light."

So, are we there yet? Who can tell? All I know is: we're still traveling.

Thursday, 4 October 2012

Vroom Vroom


Two children in the front, sitting astride the fuel tank, filling all the space to the handlebars.

Then the father, doing all the vroom vroom (and wearing the only helmet).

Then the mother, riding side-saddle, elegant and poised like a tropical bird on a branch.

In her lap, another child.

And the baby, quiet under her warm armpit.

Everyone rides without blinking, serious as statues, with great purpose in the deep, brown eyes.

In contrast, our motorbike rides look like this:

Kira can't decide whether to sit in front of Moona, between us or way back. We go sandwich. She squirms and complains incessantly about being squashed. Motorwobble.

There's a constant rattle: not the bike but our helmets banging into each other at every jolt, turn or stop; also, shouted conversations and occasional whoops of joy. This is mostly fun.

Distracted by flying hair, fallen branches, unclear road signs; shopping bags sliding out of our grasp; crossing strong streams of city smells (curry, ripe mango, raw sewage, sawdust, rose); we eventually fall into sunny silence.

Then the journey is over and we have to wake up, disentangle ourselves and hop off without touching the exhaust, showing skin or toppling over our vroom vroom.

Wednesday, 3 October 2012


Falcons on the lace
of the morning sky
silent, free and
one too many: Three.

Careless grace. They fly
(feather, fierce eye and
wing to wing) like chasing
clouds and lightning, sun?

And then one
sweeps down upon another
Sky too small
for all.

It looks like dancing
but one is floating
and one is felling, killing
and one is hurting, falling, crying.

Then only two are flying.


Tuesday, 2 October 2012

Islamabad Club

You stop at the gates of the Islamabad Club and - as the guest of a member - small miracle! they let you in. You drive under glittering palm trees, roll past an army of people opening car doors for the Illustrious and the Important. As they step out, my word, how shiny their shoes are, how remote their eye.

You meet your friend - the Member - in a Lounge of fine carpets, discreet lighting, smooth, low voices. You sit, smile and, before the first greeting is over, you're out in the hallway again, ushered by the most suave of slaves. Children are not allowed in the Lounge. Kira pales a little, in the glare of rejection. 'What did I do' she seems to say.

You all walk to the azure swimming pool of the Islamabad Club - surely, water can't be this blue, this clean, this fresh, tiles couldn't possibly stand so equal in their place. As a guest, you can't possibly swim (but you can look and you can dream...)

You walk again, to the Family Dining Room. There IS Another Dining Room but your best clothes are not good enough to get you there. And your child, well, your child disqualifies you downright. Not that you know this just now, or that you'd care either way. The company's great, the waiters know exactly what to ask and when to smile, the food arrives fast. The fish meuniere swims in oil, the burger reeks of slaughterhouse fear, but the dhaal is good, not too hot, not too dry, the spinach mush much hotter but the yoghurt helps if you will try...

In the glitter of jewelry, in the clink of crystal, you talk about the millions of Pakistanis who - right now - live in sodden tents or worse, under the stormy sky. When it starts raining, your host now tells you as you sip your lassi, they flee their crumbling houses, and sleep under the clouds. Chorus of laughter from the other tables at the Islamabad Club. Kira draws a picture of the waiter as a two-headed Picasso character. One fierce eye rests in the haystack of a half-moustache; the other, closed or very-very small, seems to say 'not now, later, later...'

On the way out, we come across the library of the Islamabad Club, a place of worship almost, like trees or ancient art. A plaque of polished oak, up on the door, says: 'Children under five (5) and maids not allowed.' Oooh, God forbid a child should try to find a pastime in a book, or that a maid should display Curiosity. Children and maids: know your place, no mess, no noise, no play. And should you happen to walk by, pass this door on tiptoe, in utmost silence and leave NO TRACE.

The Islamabad Club is a much-sought-after place. I don't believe I'll join the queue and wait for a member to die.

Monday, 1 October 2012

Chinese Dragon (Hide!)

Day 10 and Islamabad has a few more surprises in store. This one should probably run like one of those old films, black and white little people going about in fast motion:

Friend whisks us to Chinese restaurant ('Best Hidden Secret in Town') for delicious hot pot, i.e. soup with STUFF thrown in. We walk into hilarious chaos:

The restaurant is in fact a private house and guests are ushered into different rooms according to - what? Space availability? Appearance? Sins? The last, possibly, because we get the room with the Chinese Pop Idol.

The Chinese Pop Idol. It blares out all night from a TV perched in prime position. Under the curse of loud Chinese Karaoke, we squirm and our food squirms as well. The four tables in the room are silenced: all clients watch intently, some have turned their chairs to face the TV, soy sauce dripping into their laps. We alone try to chat before trying to turn down the TV before trying to stuff chow mein noodles in our ears before trying to choke on the steamed dumplings and die.

The Hot Pot turns out to be a thin liquid - one half clear, one half rusty-red oil. You know? Heaven and Hell. In this primordial soup float unidentified chopped vegetables that smell of freshly slaughtered pork. The clear liquid has no taste, the red burns. Like I said: Heaven and Hell. The soup simmers on an electric cooker in the centre of our table. There's no getting away now.

And the STUFF arrives. The STUFF that we will throw into the cauldron to make all our gourmet dreams come true. A plate of thinly sliced beef, bright red and smelling of freshly slaughtered pork. They place this in front of the one vegetarian amongst us (Moona) and - instead of Chinese Pop Idol - we watch the colour drain from his face.

We also get: a plate of tofu, deep-frozen (the vegetarian option). It looks like Arctic lichen and smells like freshly slaughtered pork. When thawed in Heaven or Hell, it takes the misleading appearance of an old kitchen sponge and the smell gets stronger still. No one dares to taste it.

And finally: a plate of sea kelp (my order!) - limp translucent ribbons of unearthly matter. It smells of Brighton beach, our friend declares. It smells of freshly slaughtered pork, I reckon. It looks and smells, we conclude, like the skin of a green piglet sacrificed on Brighton beach. We taste. Yes. It tastes like it too, and more.

Because there IS more to it, I'm sure. Who's ever heard of a green piglet: this food, disturbing to see, smell and taste, is magic. And there, in the blare of Chinese Pop Idol, under the golden garlands of the nameless eatery, tossed by waves of nausea and hunger, it strikes me: they are feeding us DRAGON HIDE! The finest skin, best preserved and marinated, harvested in ancient times by the bravest of warriors for the purest of maidens. With great reverence I take another bite and as I swallow I feel scales, spurs, wings, fierce eyes and fire.