The Ghaznavid Dream

At first peek, a queer streak pervades the air of Taxal Street, the innocuous commercial area near Rang Mahal, Lahore. The woman who ventures outdoors is yet to be discovered here. Poorly dressed men inhabit it; meeting, chatting, eating, travelling and doing all else amongst each other.

Many shops operate here. Most of their owners are housed in the vicinity. Some – out of necessity not choice – have had to hoist canopies out the back doors of their houses to earn their incomes. Numerous shops have had their shutters drawn for months. In fact, perhaps the most persistently hardworking of all professionals here are the beggars, people whose creativity has made a profession even out of poverty.

The beggars and shop owners are often at odds with one another, each feeling deprived of good business by the other. But even the people of Taxal street have places where they are at peace with their competitors, where elements normally in conflict act in harmony, where even sworn enemies pretend to be brothers, where hypocrisy is made a virtue. These, of course, are the mosques.

There are many of them in the vicinity, but men flock around one more than any other. A plethora of shops surrounds it. Only one of these is open. It turns out that the owners of this shop are also the caretakers of the mosque. “We are thankful to the Almighty for choosing our shop out of all of those around for His blessings,” says one of the caretakers reverently. When asked to hypothesize why all the other shops are closed, he has a ready answer: “This is a sign of divine providence. These other shop owners, they were cold, calculating businessmen and contributed nothing to the maintenance of the mosque. We aren’t like them. That is why we have the patronage of Allah.”

The mosque does not cover a lot of ground, but what it lacks in breadth it makes up for in height, with its only tower standing proudly erect, surging higher into the sky than any of the surrounding structures.

At the very centre of the mosque is a shrine, a hexagonal room raised on a platform containing a grave marked with the name “Ahmad Ayaz”. Though the walls are cracked, the shrine is clean and well-lit. The tombstone is adorned with vibrant orange garlands and multicoloured rose petals glistening vividly are scattered over the rest of the grave. Their scent hangs outside the entrance door, over which is inscribed an extract from Iqbal’s poetry:

ایک ہی صف میں کھڑے ہیں محمود و ایاز

نہ کوئی بندہ رہا نہ کوئی بندہ نواز

Ek hi saf mein kharay ho gaye Mahmud-o-Ayaz

Na koi bandha raha, na koi banda nawaz

Sultan Mahmud Ghaznavi, genocidal invader, conqueror, looter, pillager, iconoclast, slave-trader and Muslim hero had countless slaves in his service. In 1005 CE, he purchased one hundred and twenty more. Ayaz was one of them. It is said that the Sultan experienced in Ayaz love at first sight (or infatuation), despite the fact Ayaz’s appearance was not particularly pleasing to the eye.

When the Sultan was reproached for being so superficial as to fall in love with someone ugly in appearance, he replied, “My love is for his disposition, not for his stature and good height.”

What part of his disposition revealed itself so tellingly on the Sultan is a matter best left to conjecture. But the fact that Ayaz’s effect on the Sultan was mesmerizing cannot be denied: Ayaz was granted royal patronage at once and given a formal education.

As his protégé ripened, the Sultan heaped him with increasing doses of affection. The increasing affection (as it often does) coincided with a steady rise in rank, which reached its summit when he was made General of the Army. All the while Ayaz and Mahmud spent more and more time in each other’s company. In his old age it is said that the Sultan would sometimes even neglect his duties to the state to be with Ayaz.

Ayaz holds the distinction of being appointed the first Muslim governor of Lahore after the Ghaznavid conquest in 1021 CE. He held the office for twenty-two years. In recognition of this, he was given the title “Malik”. The slave had turned ruler.

As governor, Ayaz had only one real responsibility: raising Lahore from the ashes and repopulating its ruins after the great Sultan had torched and depopulated it.

An instance of Ayaz’s devotion to the Sultan is found when one evening the two were dining together. The Sultan peeled and offered a cucumber to Ayaz, who gulped it down with visible relish. A little later he tasted the cucumber himself. But it was so unsavoury that he could not swallow its contents and had to spit them out. Enraged, he accused Ayaz of tricking him into eating the unpalatable salad by pretending to find it delicious.

Ayaz answered, ‘No, dear Sultan. It really was delicious to me. You’ve given me so many wonderful things that whatever comes from you is sweet to me.’

But Ayaz was not a mere puppet, meekly satiating the overgrown ego of a tyrant. He could pull as many strings to control the Sultan as the Sultan could to control him, and he was distinctly aware of his influence, as can easily be surmised from his famous response when the Sultan asked him if he knew a king greater and more powerful than he. Ayaz answered, “Yes. I am a king greater even than you.” When the king asked Ayaz to substantiate his claim, he replied, “Because even though you are king, its your heart that rules you, and this slave is king of your heart.”

It is a curious thing that of the plethora of the Sultan’s achievements, the great poets of the eastern tradition, such as Sheikh Saadi and Allama Iqbal, should find time only for his love for a slave boy. They see in this love the Sultan’s greatest conquest, the conquest of prejudice.

Yet the only knowledge the caretakers of the shrine have regarding the object around which their lives centre is the story inscribed on the walls of the mosque. The rest they leave to their imaginations.

Shame and Sexual Knowledge

It’s not like mom and dad are conservative, I thought. After spending our entire lives abroad, a solo academic career in the US and all this liberation, why the heck hasn’t Amma ever talked about this? Why did I have to learn this from Joyeta rather than mom? What if it’s not licoria and I really have cervical cancer? Frantic questions chased each other, before the inevitable conclusion. The best way – the only way – is to ask Mom about it.

“Mom….umm… Do you know… did you know that every girl above 18 years of age is supposed to have a regular cervical cancer test?”

And I saw my mother’s face bleach out.


Aahung’s life skills education manager, Sheena Hadi, says it’s a very common scenario – most girls discover facts related to sexual health through friends.

“Puberty is an introductory point, the prime time for information regarding basic hygiene, physical changes, our bodies, etc. But because parents are so uncomfortable discussing the subject of our bodies, I’ve noticed that less than 30% girls know what menstruation is – although it’s a biological phenomenon, not sexual.”

Talking to Hadi made me realize that I, too, had grown up with myths. Myths like showers during the menstruation cycle “swell up the lower tummy”. Elder women, aunts, and cousins, share minimal sexual information, guarding them like Pentagon secrets. Friends are the best, non-judgmental relations where shame is covered by giggles and questions are answered. Hadi says a lot of myths are born right here. “As parents and adults, we define who are the right and wrong friends to hang out with. It’s really a matter of what our expectations are and what steps we are taking to help our children live up to them.”


In an era driven by unlimited mediums of disseminating information, a vast majority of young Pakistani women resort to gossip to answer their queries about their own sexual health. Commonly, mothers squeeze the “women’s problem” between deciding what to cook for lunch and the hit soap opera. Fathers, as Hadi says, never have a chat about the “birds and bees” with their sons.

“Girls will resort to cousins for information but in this particular instance, boys are at a greater risk. Boys are less likely to question these things because they are “wrong.” “Dirty” is a frequent term they use to describe their thoughts and even visit quacks to control normal bodily functions.”

At a recent conference regarding sexual rights, Pramada Menon, director of a sexuality institute CREA , demanded a second look at how we define our bodies. “I don’t understand… why do we use the words ‘chi chi’ and ‘shame shame’ for our private parts? Since childhood, because they are shameful and oh-so-taboo, our children never discuss them.”

Hadi reaffirms that this “shame” is internalized and associated with our private parts. She says when cases of sexual abuse come to her, most children suffer with guilt because someone touched their “shameful” parts and so they don’t want to talk about the experience, as an extension of that guilt.

But the problem doesn’t stop at guilt only. Neha Sood, training coordinator of IRAD (Institute of Research, Activism & Development, CREA) says denying this basic information might mean the difference between acquittal or prosecution in sexual abuse. “In a famous child abuse case in Delhi, the offender was almost declared ‘not guilty’ because the child could not define the body part that was used to sodomize him. Eventually he likened it to an ‘oozing glue stick’. A phrase that saved the lives of a potential score of children that the pedophile might have abused.”

Yesterday, riding high on my “right to information” as a journalist, I visited a very prestigious hospital in Islamabad to interview a “top-notch” gynecologist. Minutes later I was blushing furiously and squirming in my seat because the gynecologist reprovingly enquired, “You are not married… but you need to know about the symptoms of pregnancy?”

Hadi comforted me that I’m one of many victims of the “information provider/moral judge” syndrome. “More often than not doctors frame their questions to make a patient rethink their moral values. Aahung trains information providers to address the problem because a marital status, for example, does not validate sexual activity or lack of it. Similarly, issues of confidentiality are important because a girl cannot discuss her sexual history before her mother-in-law.”


The problem, of course, is multifold. It’s not only a lack of information – basic information that pertains to survival, but a stark denial as well. Take the time to get close to any teenager above 15 (or even younger – 15 is not necessarily the starting age) and you can discern symptoms of sexual activity in the conversation and behaviour. Researchers in Rozan, an Islamabad-based NGO working on child sexual abuse, say that no concrete data is available but young people in the higher economic classes have a greater rate of engaging in sexual activity.

As Sheena Hadi returns to designing school curriculum, I slip out of the room, thinking my mother has spent an entire lifetime believing that showers during menses cause a bloated stomach. I hope finding out that it’s not true will bring some color back to her face.