The Decree

By on Sep 12, 2011 in Fiction

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The Decree graphic

He was the devil, plain and simple.

This was true for our community, for our generation. As I sat in my aunt’s good living room in the suburbs of Toronto, my attention focused on Ammar Rizvi, it was the farthest thing from my mind. Us “kidz” were just lounging. The musicians had not yet arrived, and when they did, it would take them some time to tune their instruments and begin the qawwali.

Our parents were already in the large finished basement; men on one side, women on the other. They would sit on plush carpet and pillows; laughter and traces of Urdu conversation making its way upstairs. Guests trickled into the lobby, their ornate outfits sparkling beneath the large chandelier.  My cousin answered the doorbell and took their coats into the den, where already there was a mountain of jackets lying across the day bed.  People came with their families, and guests let their children go free. Chubby toddlers ran unhindered from the kitchen to the family room, often getting passed from the arms of one child to another. The house buzzed with people and activity, thus ensuring the propriety of teenagers with the proverbial ranging hormones, giddy to be in the same room as each other; or at least that’s how I felt. Occasionally, an aunt would pop her head inside and make a polite gesture, or send one of us on an errand. 

Our gatherings were rare, but after a month of fasting, we were hungry for music and color and merriment. Qawwali was the concert of choice for our parents and our parents’ parents and generations before. There was no other music like it, played with traditional instruments like the tabla or the harmonium. The artist, or qawwal, would recite a ghazal, a love song infused with mystical poetry and sung in Farsi, Hindi and Urdu; its purpose to inspire mystical love and divine ecstasy. A ghazal’s deeper meaning was not always apparent, but ghazals often had two common themes: intoxication and unrequited love.

Outwardly, a ghazal may be about the joy of drinking, yet inwardly, the “wine” represented “knowledge of the Divine”; the “cupbearer” was God or a spiritual guide; the “tavern,” the metaphorical place where the soul may be fortunate enough to attain spiritual enlightenment. Likewise, a ghazal may recount the pain of unrequited love and the agony of being separated from the beloved. Yet in essence, human love was merely a reflection of divine love.

The subtleties of the ghazals escaped my teenage sensibilities, and I could not get past the abrasiveness of the instruments to decipher the verse beneath.  In another couple years, this music would take its place in the international arena, but this was before artists such as Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan had received global recognition. I, finding my parent’s music dusty and old fashioned, opted to stay upstairs for as long as possible, vying for Ammar’s attention; my shyness preventing me from making inroads into the vision of this handsome boy.

Nighat auntie had once been quite a beauty, with skin the color of cream, and hair and eyes like rich maple syrup. She made the raging Indian actress of her time pale in comparison. It was my father who told me this, for he remembered her from his hometown in Hyderabad, India. Ammar had inherited much of his mother’s good looks, and although he possessed his mother’s eye color, his hair was a shimmery blonde.  As a teenager, he bore an uncanny resemblance to the lead singer of The Monkees, with hair down to his shoulders and an old pair of ripped jeans… hippie chic. How could he not stand out, in a sea of brown faces that ranged from as milky as café-au-lait, to as deep as chocolate?  I laughed when I heard the others had christened him with names like “Goldilocks” and “Snow White” (my favorite).

I, on the other hand, had been born with more traditional features; skin the color of toasted almonds and dark, uncontrollable hair. I felt a little unnerved in the presence of my prettier cousins, and so I sat and listened and hoped that Ammar would notice me.  He spoke with all the authority of a precocious eighteen-year-old when he told us about the events of Juma (or Friday) prayers. I listened more in awe of the speaker than what was being said.

The imam had directed his sermon towards a book that had been a point of contention in our community. It was the first time an author, a writer of fiction, had been described as the devil, both literally and figuratively. Visually, he had been likened to the various caricatures of Satan you might find in historical and mythological texts; or so Ammar told us.

The author had been accused of blasphemy, and the punishment for blasphemy, according to Islamic law, was death. It was the late eighties, and the Iranian clergy had entered the forefront of literary and political controversy when they issued a death sentence — a fatwa, or decree — over a work of fiction.

Forever this author, this instigator of the fatwa, would remain a controversial figure in our community and in the political realm. Singlehandedly he had initiated a divide between the Muslim and the Western world that would define my generation.  At Juma (Friday) prayers, the imam in Toronto had asked the congregation if anyone agreed with the fatwa. Every man had raised his hand. At the time, we all agreed with the death sentence, believing the fatwa was necessary. Who were we to disagree with an Ayatollah?


It was the last time my life had seemed so clear. Yet it was the clarity that comes with lines drawn in the sand on a windy day. I came back to look for those lines once more and found I had lost my way, their boundaries blurring before my eyes.  Fifteen years later, no longer a child, I sat opposite Semena, sipping a beverage that was more dessert than coffee, in one of those horribly clichéd cafes that I know I shouldn’t like but do. Yet, I was still a blind person groping for solid ground. I found myself easily losing my footing, stumbling over my words.

I was talking to a foreigner. Anyone else would have understood my point of view intuitively.  Yet, Semena, whom I had befriended quite by accident, was like no other Pakistani I knew. When she spoke, the lilt of her voice carried a hint of exoticism. Her accent was slightly Pakistani, slightly British, slightly American, all rolled into one. It made whatever she said seem richer — like adding caramel to coffee. 

She sat before me, wearing a frilly black tank top, designer jeans, and a piece of trendy jewelry roped around her throat.  I, with my traditional upbringing, would have thought twice about exposing so much skin, bare arms and bare shoulders… a hint of cleavage, but she wore it as naturally as she had been bred on New York’s Upper East Side rather than the subcontinent.

And why wouldn’t she? Hadn’t she spent her summers in Europe? Breezed through an Ivy League education? My friend was a different species than the Pakistanis I had grown up with in high school.

High school had its own social strata, and those of us who were born in the West considered ourselves in a different league than those that were fresh off the boat. I remembered these immigrants well, with their thick accents and mismatched clothes. Some of them even wore a traditional salwar kameez to class, their long hair greased with oil and pulled back into a braid. We avoided them in the hallways, called them FOBs behind their backs. What we failed to realize was that we had been exposed to only one layer of the onion that is Pakistani society. Only recently had I stumbled upon a segment of the population that I barely knew existed: the elite.

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Farha Hasan is a writer living and working in Boston. She has come back to writing fiction after a brief stint in advertising, where she was involved in copywriting, casting and strategic planning. Her short stories have been published in various e-zines and small circulation presses such as, The Binnacle, Toasted Cheese, and Wild Violet, Skyline Magazine, Asia Writes Blogspot, and is scheduled to come out in the South Asian Review. She has recently completed her first novel. You can read more about Farha on her Web site: