Oct 16, 2008 - Society    21 Comments

Theatre in times of jihad

Last night I went to see a play titled Hotel Moenjodaro which was presented by Ajoka Theatre. It was based on a story written by Ghulam Abbas, who foresaw in 1959 what has happened in Afghanistan in the late 90s and have started happening in parts of Pakistan. According to the director of the play Shahid Nadeem, Ghulam Abbas first read the story at a literary gathering in Karachi but the reaction was so hostile that he withheld its publication until 1969. Ghulam Abbas foresaw the rise of fundamentalist Islam is Pakistan decades ago but no one paid head to it back then.

The story as translated by Khaled Ahmed goes like this:

The story begins on the 71st floor of Hotel Moenjodaro, where an international assemblage of glitterati is waiting for the first broadcast from the surface of the moon (the first moon landing had yet to take place when the story was written) by Capt. Adam Khan, a Pakistani. The magic moment finally arrives and Adam Khan announces to the world that he, a Pakistani from Jhang, has landed on the moon. As the invited guests burst into applause, the strains of the Pakistani national anthem rise in the night air. It is a moving moment. Adam Khan announces that he has just planted Pakistan’s flag on the moon.
The scene changes. In a small town in Sindh, a mullah tells his morning congregation, “I have just heard on my transistor radio that some Pakistani, may there be a curse on him, has landed on the moon. May God destroy him! My brothers in Islam, it is apostasy to expose to view in the name of science and so-called progress, things across whose face our Master and Sustainer has drawn a veil of mystery and secrecy. Brothers, because of this vile and disgusting act, we have been guilty of a grave sin in the eyes of God and my heart tells me that a most terrible punishment awaits us from the Great Avenger. And let me warn you, it won’t be long in coming.”
The unrest that begins in that remote village, soon sweeps the entire country. In the beginning, the government pays no attention but the agitation grows in ferocity every day with mullahs big and small denouncing Pakistan’s “godless rulers” who have committed a grave sin in the name of progress. They are accused of violating the Shari’a for which they deserve to die. One Mullah declares, “O Muslims, you are surrounded by atheism, shamelessness, dishonour, pornography, lechery, apostasy and wickedness. God’s word has been disregarded and mocked and the True Faith stands rejected. Adultery, drinking and gambling are being promoted openly. Instruments of carnal pleasure abound, and singing and dancing have become a popular pastime. Modesty has disappeared from the female eye and the woman’s soul and body have been divested of the raiment of virtue and decency. Verily, these are signs that the Day of Judgment is at hand.”
The mullahs summon a convention and call for the government’s overthrow and promise to establish the Kingdom of God on earth. Declaring themselves the soldiers of God, they launch a countrywide movement that finally brings down the government. As long as the mullahs were agitating, they were united, but the moment they take power, they become divided into six parties which are known by the colours their followers wear. Elections take place and an Amir is chosen from the Green party who declares himself God’s deputy on earth. He invites the losing parties to join his Majlis-e-Shura. The Jamia Mosque becomes both the Amir’s home and his secretariat.

His first edict says that the body politic should be free of the poison of Westernisation. A new dress code is imposed and the English language is declared illegal. The old administrative structure is dismantled and all old records burnt. Universities and colleges are closed and madrassas with religious syllabi set up. Arabic is declared the national language. Women are banned from leaving their homes unless they are properly covered. Their education now consists of the ability to count, and read and write just enough to maintain household accounts. Courts are reformed and lawyers are declared illegal. Men are obligated to grow beards, pray five times a day and abide by other injunctions. Non-Muslims are declared ‘zimmis’ and made to pay ‘jazia.’ Cinemas and theatres are turned into madrassas and orphanages.
All sports are banned except riding, archery and lancing as they are “Islamic.” Wrestling is revived. Every Muslim adult is told to carry a sword, while women are allowed to be armed with a dagger. Love poetry is abolished, as are novels and stories. Newspapers are forbidden to print pictures. Medicine and surgery are also abolished since the medicines prescribed by doctors are suspected of containing alcohol. Barbers are now the only surgeons. Everyone is told to dress in Arab clothes. China, glassware and home appliances are banned and electric power is declared haram. Radios, TVs and cameras are confiscated and their use forbidden. Foreign embassies are told to pack up as they spread alien ideas and their women go barelegged. Banks are shut down and foreign trade forbidden.
Doctrinal differences now begin to surface between the six parties and there are frequent arguments and fights. The real breakdown occurs when the government tries to write a history of Islam. No two mullahs are found in agreement on anything. One day the Amir is found murdered in his mosque. A fratricidal civil war breaks out. One night Pakistan is invaded by enemy armour and aircraft.
The last scene shows us a party of tourists riding on camels through a vast desert. Their guide stops suddenly, points to some ruins and says, “And that is the spot where, before the enemy struck, stood the Hotel Moenjodaro with its seventy-one storeys. It was there that the first Pakistani astronaut’s voice from the surface of the moon was heard.”

My personal favourite part of the play was when after forming their government, Mullahs were deciding what is Halal and what is haram and all the mullahs and their followers break into a dance over a poem that goes something like this;

Khana Halal hai, peena haram hai
Sona halal hai, jagna haram hai
Marna halal hai, jeena haram hai
Husn halal hai, haseena haram hai,
Rubina halal hai, Rozina haram hai
Tangain halal hai, seena haram hai


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  • what is the meaning of rubina, rozina, tangain and seena?

  • come on

    if you can understand the rest, i am sure you know what tangain and seena is.

  • brilliant piece of satire.
    just amazing.
    spot on.
    I wish I could see this play.

  • Amazing!
    BTW, lolz at the poem in the end, specially, the last line. 😛

  • The sad thing is there are people in paki who are exactly like that. Illiteracy and ignorance are a disease.

  • sounds like a great one…I wish I could see stage dramas more often…

  • An absurd example of scare tactics, where one uses actions of few to degrade whole institution.

  • Tez,

    LOL! wow they, the writers, were indeed progressive with satire back then eh? I wonder if there exists such a satirist today?


    Scare tactics? for example?


    I have a sinking feeling that satire is taken a bit too personally by the Islamo-Pakistan psyche… I think I just answered my earlier question… hmmm pretty sad actually.

  • Burf, tangain here means legs and seena means breast.

    I also took a minute to figure it out the meanings of those two. It’s due to Roman style …

    I first thought seena mean sewing and tangain mean those horse carts you see in Lahore 🙁

    Rubina sounds Muslim name and Rozina sounds Hindu name but that is my assumption, I could be wrong here.

    I still can’t figure out the meaning of “Sona halal hai, jagna haram hai”. Any help ?

  • Arrrrggghhhh

    Literally speaking, sona is sleeping and jagna is waking up. In allegorical terms, sona means state of inertia and jagna means independent thought.

    Poor writer, must be turning in his grave

  • LOL forgive them yaar, urdu is probably not their basic language I am thinking.
    I loved Ghulam abbas’s work and this is just as insightful and astute as the rest of his work. I wish I saw the play too 🙁

  • I have never laughed as hard as on reading this poem at the end…

    wah wah wah wah!!! i feel like installing a speaker on tower and broadcasting it the whole day to the throngs passing underneath.

  • ever noticed how anonymous posters always have the most divisive comments?

  • oh shucks

    apologies tazeen

    thanks solo, it really didn’t ring a bell till you explained

  • han?? is the anon comment about me? wat did i say? 🙁

  • its not just sona and jagna, every line has allegorical interpretation. Tangain halal means, you can show your legs up to your knees in maulvi fashioned shalwar but you bust must be covered in chaddor, not wearing chaddor is haram.

    Similarly, marna is halal. Martyrdom is encouraged but living according to your principles is not so jeena is haram

  • Rubina halal hai, Rozina haram hai

    What or who are Rubina and Rozina? Somebody mentioned that Rozina is a Hindu name. I don’t think so. I’ve lived in India, which has a terribly high number of Hindus, for 22 years and have never heard of this name.

    Extremely witty poem, btw.

    And the story seems quite nice. Nice to see stuff like that after what happened to Manto because of Thanda Gosht etc.

  • Thank you for sharing. Sounds like an amazing play! I had no idea Pakistani writers were so progressive in the 50s & 60s!

  • Wow. Its a brilliant story! I wish i could see the play too.

  • Brilliant.

    Reminds me of various happenings of Muslim history…

    They say when one of the Osmani Kaliphs (perhaps suleman?) wanted to introduce the printing press in his country, the local mullahs said ‘are you mad? you want to bring the same machine here on which the Bible was printed? its a great sin!’. And the Kaliph changed his mind. That was 15th century if I could recall correctly.

    And when Baghdad was about to be attacked by Halaku Khan, some mullahs were busy discussing if Allah was Noor or not, while the sufis were in their khanqas instead of helping the Muslim army. The sufis were sure that Halaku won’t be able to reach the city as the buried Sheikh of the sufis has got lots of angels guarding his grave and the city.

  • Bonjour Tazeen,

    The amazing part of the story is the fact that it had been written by a Pakistan Muslim.

    The author must have been inspired to a large part by Mark Twains novel “A Yankee at King Arthur’s Court”.

    It seems, 1500 or 2000 years ago, Afghanistan was highly civilized, the “country of the thousand cities”. And now? Same for Egypt, same for Syria, the list is long.

    We’ll see where we are in Europe in let’s say 500 years from now. Interesting times ahead.


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