War narratives/ A holy week

It has been somehow a holy week. In Lahore last weekend there was the most famous festival of the spring season, the Mela Chiraghan or Lights Festival, celebrating the death of the Sufi poet and saint Shah Hussain. The festival is held in the sanctuary dedicated to him and in the beautiful Shalimar Gardens.

It is called the Light Festival because people carry lighted candles at the shrine and illuminations are placed in the park and along the canals. The sanctuary is located in the old part of the city, streets clogged with stalls of food vendors, necklaces of flowers and candles. The sanctuary is far from our Christian idea and architecture, it is rather an open space with a closed area where there is the tomb of the saint (not accessible, a grate protects) to which people approach bringing flowers and wearing colored scarves gaudy. A large fire is lit and around it and there are prays and dance, burning essences of jasmine. The main attraction is given by men who I was not able to define clearly and made me explain: followers, particularly devout? They are still the greater show: they have long beards and white hands full of rings and necklaces made of precious stones and corals, anklets with bells: they dance, pray and obviously pose for photographers who are many; they are also under the influence of any drugs, I’m sure.

In any case, the atmosphere is festive, there are children, old wooden carousels, and women imbellite by an important trick.

What I would like to try to explain it is the experience of being the only foreigner present at the party and what impact it had on me, in the physical sense of the closer word. Yes, because last Sunday was also the Palm Sunday, celebrated by the Christian minority in the city. And since just under two weeks ago a man bomb has killed more than fifty in a church in the city, I decided to go to mass. Aware of the risk, I asked a friend in the police if it was risky to go to a sacred place not Muslim: no problem, he said, after the attack on, the churches are guarded and protected. So on Saturday, the same day when I went to the Apple Chiragan, I decided to make an inspection in the Catholic Cathedral of Lahore. It was not easy: the church is in the center but the rickshaw drivers do not know where it is as well as the difference between a Catholic or Protestant church (as I would not be able to recognize a Shiite mosque by a Sunni one). I leave the means of transport precarious and I start walking. The family of the guardians of the Protestant cathedral (imposing constructions built with the typical English colonial red bricks) – living in a house poor, barefoot children, women combing each other outdoors – I finally was indicate where is the church that I was look for. Around the wall there is not even a police car, one man inside from private security lets me in without even looking at what’s in my bag. He tells me that the church is closed and only opens for the function of Sunday, but then where can I pray?, I ask. I was shown a fake small cave in the garden, overlooked by an equally small statue of the Mary and some bowl for candles. I sit down to think (my friend Antonio, to whom I dedicate this post, once told me that also thinking it is a form of prayer). Now I am in a sacred place yet familiar to me, in the afternoon I’ll be in another sacred place, totally alien to me.

And in fact, over the din of the party, the overexposure of sounds, smells and bodies, it was my body to be the center of attention. I had local clothes, the head covered, but it is clear that I am a foreigner: all look at me, too, many people try to touch me, gentlemen with a beard planted on my neck eyes marked by kohl. I’m used in some way to this kind of “attention” but in this case it’s really too much, because I feel the curiosity of others that amplifies the sense of strangeness, seems also to disrupt the work of a  friend photographer who is here to work. I am literally a foreign body, and I wonder about how and what you can live in a more distant experiences of other cultures such as this. When I go on I am raised.

At Mass the next day. There is no police even today, we are about two hundred, a few foreigners, the majority of Pakistani Christians prefer Mass in Urdu; everything happens early in the morning to give less attention. The Liturgy of the Palms is dedicated to the hour of light and darkness: “I am the bread of life … All that the Father gives me will come to me: who comes to me will never drive away … And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that has given me, but raise it up on the last day “(Jn. 6.35 to 39). And it is the day when Jesus enters in Jerusalem as well as the time of Judah and of Salm 21: “A pack of dogs surrounds me, surrounds me a band of criminals; have dug my hands and my feet. I can count all my bones. ” While listening, I think of the lights and the shadows of this life by minority and rather than come to my mind that Christians in Pakistan, I remember when ten years ago in the Roman district of Pigneto (not yet become fashionable) I parked the car and on the edge of road and I saw a long line of shoes: I understood that there was a room used as a mosque, without any claim to greatness, only need to be a community, even if minor.

And I felt like that line of shoes, only that fortunately no one shoots at those who pray there.