Editing by Amal Khan

He is an ordinary dispatcher at a boys’ high school in Lahore’s old city, but Thursdays are special days for Kamran Yousaf. At dawn he is already up to practice the kalaam (the lyrical poetry of Sufi poets) alongside his brother who plays the tabla. In the settling winter chill, they make their way to the Hazrat Mian Mir shrine, and Kamran, a government servant every other day of the week, is transformed into a mystic devotee, a qawwal armed with a profound message of peace.

Mian Mir, the revered saint of the Punjab, arrived in Lahore in the 15th century and promptly offended the delicate sensibilities of Mughal Emperor Jehangir by refusing to meet with him and for his deep friendship with the fifth Sikh guru, Arjan Dev Ji. He devoted his life to the teachings of Islam, and the spread of harmony in the land.

“He was the king of kings,” says Kamran, his eyes alight. “And I am a servant of his shrine.” 

For the last seven years, Kamran has performed at the shrine in Garhi Shahu near Lahore’s railway station every Thursday. He contends he will continue performing until the day he dies. 

“To people, perhaps I am strange. But I am doing what my father did for 35 years at this very shrine,” he says. “He was a government servant in Pakistan Railways and sang qawaali. After he died, the torch passed on to me. I now sit on his seat, surrounded by my team, and we sing for the tolerance and diversity Hazrat Mian Mir preached.” 

Inside his residence in Harbanspura, Lahore, Kamran Yousaf sits cross legged on the floor practicing with his harmonium before a heap of laundry. His small son crawls up behind him and sways gently, confused by all the attention. Kamran is melancholy as he sings, eyes closed, hands moving. It is above all, a deeply private moment. 

'Let us walk the road of peace.

We are neither hungry nor replete,

Neither naked nor covered up.

Neither weeping nor laughing,

Neither ruined nor settled,

We are not sinners or pure and virtuous,

What is sin and what is virtue, this I do not know.'

“Instead of making diversity our strength, this society is slaughtering people in the name of faith, caste and colour. We must embrace our diversity, each one of us,” he says, and continues singing. 

Kamran’s voice fills the room. He sings about justice, love, tolerance, the laws of the heart. For those listening, it is difficult to believe that every other day of the week, Kamran Yousaf reports for duty as a dispatcher promptly at 8 a.m at a high school in Mughalpura.

After some practice, Kamran gears up for the shrine. With a frail bone coloured comb, he sets his hair in place and puts on a stiff black waistcoat. Through the meandering alleys outside his home, he rides off to the shrine on an old motorcycle with his brother behind him, clutching his tablas to his heart.

Inside the bubblegum pink walls of the Hazrat Mian Mir shrine, people greet Kamran in hoards as though he is an old friend. In neat rows, men, women and children sit on mats on the white marble beneath old Banyan trees and wait for the performance to begin.

According to Kamran, the qawaali are the sayings of people who devoted their lives to God, those who brought people of different backgrounds together in one place. This, he contends is now his mission. Placing a white skull cap gingerly on his neatly parted hair, he begins to sing.

There is a loud, lyrical magic in the shrine as his audience rises to dance. There are all kinds of people present: burka clad women, women with slithers of chiffon dupattas wrapped around their heads, young boys laughing in groups, children dressed in their best clothes. The echo of the music drifts inside nearby houses, and people hang their heads out of windows to listen. There are 12 people in Kamran’s “qawaal team,” clapping, singing, playing the harmonium and the tablas. They are mechanics, stall-owners, brick layers. They are not paid to sing at the shrine but they do it anyway. They sing for peace, for the remembrance of a sufi heritage long forgotten by a bustling city.

It is well into the night when the performance ends. Packing up their instruments, the qawaals walk out barefoot through the shrine. They will see each other again next Thursday. For now, they must get back to their homes. There is work to get to early in the morning. 

** Photos by Mohsin Raza