Somewhere near Albanian border, a truck driver screeches his companion to a halt. Completely exhausted, pissed from the experience with last border guards, wanting to pee with all the sun-firefighter Ayran buttermilk in my stomach, I hop in.
I can figure out he is Muslim from the Arabic verses dangling down from the mirror in front of us. Mirrors. Between the jokes behind, and the road ahead. Always, mirrors.
He asks me for my religion. In this part of the world, brutal borders were etched over humanity in the name of religion just 20 years ago. So religion is part of one’s existence and identity, and it’s hard for people to accept how can one be without it. It is like someone saying, he is not human. And if you do not answer from the limited set of options they know, they assume you’re from the other side and are acting out of fear of a confrontation.
I have a physically beautiful but emotionally warped woman waiting for me 2,000 km away in Germany. Damn promises. And after hugging her, I also need to hitch back a few hundred kilometres to my first day of internship. And I have less than 2.5 days to jump these 1.5 webs in my spidered life.
I point to the sky and answer him “Tauheed”. Arabic word expressing the oneness of God. He asks me what I do, I shrug my shoulders, backpack still on them, and answer “Faqir”. Arabic construct of men living on alms and wandering in the quest of truth. He is impressed and humbled. We talk for the next couple of hours in broken Italian, spluttered by Arabic words and ideas, as I break in and out of sleep. I am not Pakistan politician Rehman Malik, so I can properly vocalise several of the verses of the Quran. They help him stay connected and grounded, when my life seems to be at a loss or fly fleeting away from him. Such are religions, I guess.
Sometime. He misunderstands me (should I be surprised?) and when I wake up again, we’re on our way and close to a powerful person of his land. I get invited to a better set of confusions. Nice.
After some tea and sweets and a nap, the more equal of the village come to meet me in person. They have guns. These badlands may well be the Peshawar or Kandahar of Europe. So not the country-made pistols I encountered during days of student politics in India, but proper assault rifles. They see me staring at them blindly. Feel awkward when my silent gaze on AKs lasts longer than a typical round of ammunition. I am trying to read the inscriptions on them, wondering where they came from. From Hungary? Knowledge told me, in the Serb dominated former-Yugoslav army, the first sophisticated guns were smuggled from Hungary, after the Russians had refused the Croats for the same. The ‘brave’ beholders finally get the courage, push their guns behind, and implore what am I looking at. I switch from the world of knowledge to the world of experience and I recite a couple of couplets written by the beautifully mad poet warrior of India, Gobind Singh:
“Ama baksho, bakshindo dastgeer, Khata baksho rozi, deho dil pazeer.” (Thy blesses with bliss, guides holding my hand. Blesses forgiveness, bread, pleasures that only heart understands.)
“Na sazo na bazo na fauzo na fursh Khudabande bakshinde aisho arash.” (Thy doesn’t have possessions, or army, or territory. O see thy is blessed and blesses with true luxury.)
They don’t understand Persian but the words sound beautiful to them. Anyways, that’s how religion is for most people. To be worshipped from a distance, not to be scrubbed and explored in person. They ask for my name. I spontaneously invent “Faqir Punnu Ishqullah”. I immediately get the status of a saint. Funny how names of wisdom guide ignorance in this world. Punnu is the nickname my mother gave me. Another beautiful woman that possesses me often. Damn them, bless ‘em all. Ishqullah literally translates to Love of the Allah/Infinite.
They ask me of my exploits, and I share half of some. Stories challenging their conditionings and prejudices, but just before they’d have pushed their awkwardness to the point of deafness: I’d find or invent support from the Sunnah, the life of prophet of Islam. This made my stories acceptable. I don’t know whether it’s bad or it’s hilarious that I’ve to stoop to people’s toys and tactics to explain myself.
Hours pass and I am bored. Then they invite their beautiful daughters and nieces. About five of them in total. They serve me food and have a hint of pleasant invitation in their eyes. My eyes are fixed on them as they were on the guns before. But guns I can deal with, women I am not too sure.
It’s hard but I try to eat the delicious food, while skipping on the hunger as the prophet of Islam has advised. I then express that I have to leave soon. But they’re adamant that I should stay for at least a week. I look into the eyes of woman most beautiful, and answer the guy who spoke the most. I am a Faqir. My “murshid” (guide) has ordered me to be on the road. I cannot rest at the same rock for more than a night.
Early morning, many from the village come to drop me off. They want to help me find a ride, I calmly yet strongly refuse. A walk of two km and a truck stops. I hop in. While the hands behind may still be waving, the inscription of Allah dangles in front of me yet again, I burst into a hysterical laughter and the rustic Punjabi song:
“Peenia sardara, ve ajj khut peenia, Pee ke leyna nazara, ve ajj khut peenia. Ya tere kol paisa hai ni, ya tere kol dhela hai ni. Apne chache taaye kolon, mung lai note udhara Ke ajj khut peenia..”
“You need to drink champ, o you need to drink today. Drink and have a vision, o you need to drink today. If you got not money, if you ain’t got a penny. Borrow some from your uncle but o you need to drink today Champ needs to drink today!”
As soon as I take a break from laughing and singing, the driver throws me a bottle of home-made Raki. Gezuar to the trysts with death, poetry, women, and the road ahead. Peenia sardara, ve ajj khutt peenia!