By Nicholas Schmidle
… I stopped taking notes, closed my eyes and began nodding my head. As the drummer built toward a feverish peak, I drifted unconsciously closer to him. Before long, I found myself standing in the middle of the circle, dancing beside the man with the exuberant earlobes.
“Mast Qalandar!” someone called out. The voice came from right behind me, but it sounded distant. Anything but the drumbeat and the effervescence surging through my body seemed remote. From the corner of my eye, I noticed photographer Aaron Huey high-stepping his way into the circle. He passed his camera to Kristin. In moments, his head was swirling as he whipped his long hair around in circles.
“Mast Qalandar!” another voice screamed.
If only for a few minutes, it didn’t matter whether I was a Christian, Muslim, Hindu or atheist. I had entered another realm. I couldn’t deny the ecstasy of Qalandar. And in that moment, I understood why pilgrims braved great distances and the heat and the crowds just to come to the shrine. While spun into a trance, I even forgot about the danger, the phone calls, the reports of my disappearance and the police escort.
Later, one of the men who had been dancing in the circle approached me. He gave his name as Hamid and said he had traveled more than 500 miles by train from northern Punjab. He and a friend were traversing the country, hopping from one shrine to another, in search of the wildest festival. “Qalandar is the best,” he said. I asked why.
“He could communicate directly with Allah,” Hamid said. “And he performs miracles.”
“Miracles?” I asked, with a wry smile, having reverted to my normal cynicism. “What kind of miracles?”
He laughed. “What kind of miracles?” he said. “Take a look around!” Sweat sprayed from his mustache. “Can’t you see how many people have come to be with Lal Shahbaz Qalandar?”
I looked over both of my shoulders at the drumming, the dhamaal and the sea of red. I stared back at Hamid and tilted my head slightly to acknowledge his point.
“Mast Qalandar!” we said.
Nicholas Schmidle is a fellow at the New America Foundation in Washington, D.C. His book, To Live or To Perish Forever: Two Years Inside Pakistan, will be published May 2009 by Henry Holt.
Aaron Huey is based in Seattle. He has been photographing Sufi life in Pakistan since 2006.
, December 2008