The Taliban and the Guitar
On a cool, clear November morning in 1982, I woke up in my bedroom in Lahore, filled with anticipation. A little more than a year earlier, my parents, siblings, and I had returned to Pakistan after six years in America. That evening, I would finally break out my long-unused sunburst Les Paul and play before a live audience of my medical school classmates at our college talent show. My plan was to channel the eighties guitar hero Eddie Van Halen and perform “Eruption”—and to blow everybody away as only that classic one-minute, 42-second guitar solo could. Consumed by a musical passion, I threw on my white doctor’s overalls and grabbed my anatomy and physiology books and headed for the door. I was eighteen years old.
The sweet smell of jasmine greeted me as I stepped outside and climbed into my beat-up, rusting yellow Mazda, the consolation prize given to me by my father for having taken me away from the life I loved in Tappan, New York. My parents and siblings had settled in the southern port city of Karachi while I had moved in with my mother’s parents at 54 Lawrence Road for my studies. That hopeful morning, I drove down Mall Road, the main city thoroughfare, and into the cyclone that is Lahori traffic: an anarchic scrum of blue rickshaws, horse-drawn tongas, bicyclists wearing shalwar kameez (long shirt over baggy trousers), and Japanese motorbikes and cars all flouting the cops and running red lights. Navigating the chaotic roads, I motored past the palatial Punjab governor’s mansion and Jinnah’s Garden, the beautiful park known as Lawrence Gardens during the colonial Raj. I gazed for a second at the gymkhana where I often played cricket. Its picturesque ground was encased in pine and eucalyptus trees and its pavilions were lined with red tiles. My eyes were still re-adjusting to the sights of Pakistan, and all of this looked like a scene right out of a dream.
My parents had enrolled me in Lahore’s King Edward Medical College in the hope that I would give up my teenage fantasies of being a rock musician and adopt a respectable profession. They had been patient and even supportive when I joined Eclipse, our high school garage band in Tappan, founded by my Tappan Zee High School buddies Brian O’Connell and Paul Siegel. And they’d been sincerely happy when we won our high school’s battle of the bands in 1980. But as I sat in the lecture hall that day, my old life in America was a world away and I was just another young Pakistani studying anatomy—albeit one who was constantly humming the chorus of “Helter Skelter” and “Revolution.”
About two years earlier, my father’s brother-in-law, Ismat Anwar, had visited us at our home in Tappan. At the behest of my parents, Dr. Anwar, a leading Pakistani surgeon, had a man-to-man talk with me about my career plans. I sat across from the serious-looking Uncle Anwar in my small room, focusing my bored gaze past him on the poster of Jimi Hendrix on my wall. With a shrug of my shoulders, I told my uncle that I didn’t know about the future. But I knew that I wanted to rock.
“Rock? What does that mean, beta (son)?” Dr. Anwar asked in his Punjabi-inflected English.
I tried to explain in my New York accent. “Uncle, I just want to play guitar and be in a band for the rest of my life. That’s my dream. Just like these guys,” I said, pointing to the life-size posters of Led Zeppelin, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Hendrix, and Van Halen covering the walls of my room in our house on Lester Drive. My uncle took a look around at all the color posters in amazement, as Lennon and McCartney, Hendrix, Plant, Page, and Jagger seemed to strike poses of silent support.
Uncle Anwar pointed incredulously to the long-haired musicians playing guitars and exclaimed, “Salman mian [young man], you want to become a mirasi [low-class musician]? Your parents have high expectations of you and you want to waste the rest of your life playing this tuntunna [gizmo]?” He shook his open palms in the direction of my sunburst Les Paul, which rested proudly against the back of my guitar amplifier in the corner of my room.
Before I could answer I was saved by a car honking outside. It was Brian, come to take me to band practice. I ran out of the room carrying my amplifier in one hand and my guitar in the other. Freed from the interrogation, I yelled back, “I have to go, Uncle, our band Eclipse is rehearsing for the Tappan Zee High School battle of the bands!”
I escaped, but Uncle Anwar’s words had unsettled me. It was only a matter of months until the other shoe dropped and my parents told me we were all going back to Pakistan. I was already reeling from two of my heroes’ deaths, and now I had to face a forced march back to the motherland. That winter, I’d been devastated by the tragic killing of John Lennon, and had mourned the loss of drummer John Bonham of Led Zeppelin not long before. Both Zeppelin and the Beatles had been like close friends and teachers to me over the past six years. I had jammed with them with the head phones on, dissecting their guitar riffs. I had tried to mimic their impossibly cool fashions and belted out their tunes in front of my mirror at high decibels. I’d sung along with Robert Plant to Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” or “Kashmir,” and crooned “Day Tripper” or “A Hard Day’s Night” by the Beatles. As a Pakistani kid who’d struggled with integrating into American life, rock and roll fed my soul and steered me toward a personal centeredness. Looking at myself in the mirror, I didn’t see a Pakistani, an American, or a Muslim, or anyone who fit into a single label or category. I just imagined myself standing onstage, playing my guitar and making people happy. And that was all I wanted.
But in the summer of 1981, the clock was ticking. I dodged reality by spending more and more time jamming with my friends in Eclipse. As the August day of departure got closer, I felt more like a visitor to the U.S. from a parallel universe. I was leaving. But I didn’t really know where I was going.
The America I knew was rock concerts at the Nassau Coliseum, Yankees games, and a close-knit group of teenage friends that made up a living mosaic of my adopted country. There was my Irish-American buddy Brian, my Jewish friends Paul Siegel and Michael Langer, and Frank Bianco, the New York Italian kid I perfected my ping-pong game with. And then there was me, a brown-skinned, Pakistani-American Muslim named not Brian or John or Shawn, but Salman. We were one big circle of light brought together by music, sports, and shared experiences. None of us cared about the made-up divides of color, culture, or religion. A month before I was to return to Pakistan, five of us had sped down the Palisades Parkway in Cindy Shaw’s father’s red and white Oldsmobile, singing at the top of our lungs along with David Lee Roth to “Ain’t Talkin’ ’Bout Love.” In that car, with those friends on my way to my final Van Halen concert, I shot footage for a mental movie of what I thought were the last days of my American life.
There was so much to leave behind. All around me, in 1981 in New York, kids had dyed their hair red or purple and identified themselves as punks after the movement spearheaded by Britain’s notorious Johnny Rotten and the Sex Pistols. That year everyone wore dark sunglasses indoors. The musical-film Fame dazzled audiences. Rocky Horror Picture Show fans were doing the time warp. American hostages were finally brought home after 444 days of captivity in Iran, Pakistan’s western neighbor. That spring, President Reagan had been shot in an assassination attempt in Washington. Bruce Springsteen sang about a hungry heart. Girls wore boots in the sun and high, open-toe Candies in the rain.
And then one day in August I was gone, sitting sullenly in the seat of a PIA 747 and jetting with sickening speed away from the New York skyline. I could see the cars zig-zagging on the highways, the tall buildings of Manhattan trying to kiss the sky, and the golden glint of the flame in the hand of the Statue of Liberty. Soon we left New York far behind and climbed higher over the Atlantic Ocean. I was full of resentment, frustration, and anger. But as I fell into dreamland, my journey—from East to West and back again—was really just getting started.
I couldn’t pay attention in anatomy class that November day. I kept sneaking desperate glances at the clock to see when the session would end. Meanwhile, I threw knowing looks at my co-conspirator of the day—Munir, known to everyone as “Clint” due to his obsession with Dirty Harry. Munir was a quiet, bohemian guy whom I had quickly befriended when I learned that like me, he listened to bootleg tapes of Hendrix, the Beatles, and Zeppelin. He also happened to own the only set of drums I could find anywhere in Lahore—making Munir my only candidate for musical backup that night. “Clint” rolled his eyes as the assistant professor droned on about the heart’s inferior and superior vena cavas, sinoatrial valves, and bundle of His. We weren’t slackers, but that day we were ready to get as far away from campus as we could.
In fact, we couldn’t get very far. In the Pakistan of the day, there wasn’t much to do but study. In 1982, democracy was dead and a dictator, General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, was running the show. A war was raging in neighboring Afghanistan, and Pakistan, a U.S. ally, was being transformed into a virtual arms bazaar, with Kalashnikovs as common a sight as a squirt gun at a kid’s birthday party. To me it seemed as if the body and soul of Pakistan had been snatched by aliens in Pakistani disguise. I still loved Pakistan for all the happy memories I had of growing up with my family and friends, and it was those childhood memories that kept me from losing my mind after I returned. But so much had changed. I couldn’t, for example, even think about looking over at any of the handful of girls in class. In General Zia’s Pakistan, male and female professors alike would call out and humiliate any amorous young man who took his eyes off the instructor and let them wander toward the pretty young women who sat together in the first couple of rows. The freewheeling country I knew had become dark, suffocated by religious extremism and gender-segregated. It felt like the last place in the world for an aspiring artist.
After three hours of anatomy, and another three agonizing hours of physiology, we were finally dismissed, and I raced back to Anarkali Bazaar to grab my car. It was mid-afternoon and the bazaar was packed. Girls dressed in colorful shalwar kameez walked past the merchants, who were hawking everything from cricket bats and balls, paprika, garlic, curries, lentils, and addictive paan (betel leaves). The shops displayed sparkling bangles, necklaces, and engagement rings. All of this was juxtaposed with a variety of live animals ready for the slaughter. Roadside fortune-tellers with monkeys and parrots offered to tell you the future for only one rupee, while the sky was alive with kites of all shapes and sizes, flown by young and old from the neighboring rooftops. I breathed in the intoxicating smell of the chicken kebabs from sidewalk vendors.
As I approached my car, I passed Mayo Hospital, where I was confronted by the stark suffering of the poor of Pakistan—as well as the collateral damage from the war raging up north in Afghanistan. Walking by, I saw old men and women from the villages of Pakistan pushed by interns on ramshackle wheelchairs. Afghan refugees with amputated legs and arms shuffled nearby. And then there were the little children suffering from terminal diseases, their eyes haunted and already half-dead. It broke my heart to know that many of these impoverished and unlucky patients would die, despite the best efforts of the doctors on staff.
Back at my grandmother’s house, I quickly threw off the medical overalls and changed into black jeans and an AC/DC T-shirt. Around my wrist I wound a string of blue prayer beads favored by adherents of Sufism, the mystical branch of Islam. I dabbed some black paint under my eyes and put on my favorite necklace with a gold “Allah” pendant. I felt like a New Yorker all over again—except there was no mistaking that I was back in Lahore. I played “Eruption” in front of the mirror before I left, just for one last practice run.
While in America I’d lived the life of a suburban teenager—a life that I couldn’t have imagined as a young kid in Lahore. I had arrived as a confused desi (South Asian) with my family in Rockland County, New York, in 1975. From 1975 to 1981 I had gradually transformed from an awkward, ill-at-ease Pakistani immigrant boy into a high school senior with a dream: I wanted to be a rock star. I would only whisper that to myself, afraid of saying it too loud in case someone overheard and burst my bubble. The rock and roll environment that had nurtured my starriest hope was now gone. But tonight was a chance, however small, to get some of that groove back.
As I stepped out of my small room, I saw my grandmother Aziza. She was a remarkable woman, full of love and life. She was one of the few women of her generation to be educated at the famed Aligarh University in India, and was always ahead of her time. Even though Pakistan had fallen under a cloud of military dictatorship and religious fanaticism, she retained her progressive values and vision. And like me, she loved music, TV, and movies. Seeing me dressed up in my makeshift rocker garb, the guitar on my shoulder, she smiled approvingly. I asked her to pray for me, to pray that tonight’s performance would go well. She smiled and promised to do so. But as I walked away, she said something that I didn’t fully grasp at that moment.
“Remember that everything which happens is a sign from God,” she said. “We are all His instruments.” She kissed me and said “Khuda Hafiz”—“May God’s protection be with you.” I didn’t think much about her words at that moment, but they would take on profound meaning in a few short hours.
I threw my Les Paul in the back seat of the Mazda, along with my MXR distortion box and Crybaby wahwah pedal. In the Pakistan of the 1980s, where Western rock and pop music was considered as sinful, this guitar gear was as foreign as a Star Trek communicator from the future. I managed to emerge from the Lahore traffic in one piece and arrived at the site of our little talent show—The International Hotel. That regal-sounding place was actually pretty down at the heels, but I didn’t mind. We had rented out a small ballroom for the show, and for a bunch of broke college kids it might as well have been New York’s famed rock club CBGB.
At 6 p.m., the students started pouring in. About sixty kids from the freshman class showed up. We were excited about the turnout. If things went well, my friends on the organizing committee—mostly fellow “Overseas Pakistanis”—planned to do three more shows that year.
The night’s performances began after a student named Timoo recited a verse from the Holy Quran in a beautiful voice. In the verse, God tells mankind that He created us as men and women from different nations and tribes so that we could get to know each other. It was a message that meant a lot to the students, who came from all over the world—the United States, England, Saudi Arabia, and Afghanistan—as well as a variety of cities and villages all over Pakistan.
Maybe Pakistan wasn’t so bad, I thought as I watched the acts. A guy in glasses named Ali read Urdu poetry by the famous poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz, including a piece called “Speak.” A series of Punjabi comedians had us in stitches, although they watered down some of their bawdy jokes out of respect for the girls in the room. Others performed skits mocking the stern professors and their idiosyncrasies. Then there was a juggling act and then it was my turn.
Fifteen months before that evening, I’d sat, rapt, inside the Nassau Coliseum in Uniondale, New York, watching my atomic punk hero Eddie Van Halen open his band’s concert with a powerful performance of “On Fire.” Eddie seemed to be playing just for me as he ran all over that Long Island stage, shirtless in Converse sneakers and white cargo pants and grinning like an impish captain of a guitar Olympics team. He never lost a beat even as he skidded on his knees, wrenching the notes out of his red-and-white striped guitar as he finger-tapped the finale to “Eruption.” Thousands of breathless teenagers including me pumped their fists, stomped their feet, and paid loud homage to this axe legend. Looking at Eddie on that stage, I didn’t just see him. I saw who I wanted to be.
And so in that Lahore hotel that November night, I summoned up the spirit of Eddie Van Halen and ripped into “Eruption.” With Clint backing me up and the amp turned up to 11, I vented every ounce of pent-up frustration I had through my Les Paul and stunned the crowd with this blaze of heavy metal riffs. They’d never heard anything like it before. I closed my eyes and let my fingers do a dance of bliss on my instrument. All of a sudden, I heard cries and screams. Gratified by the response, I felt vindicated and energized, and I knew I was getting somewhere. I was, I hoped, on my way to being a rock star after all.
But when I opened my eyes, I realized that the cries were not of excitement coming from my audience of classmates. They were screams of rage. And they were coming from the angry mob of students—in Urdu, taliban—belonging to the college wing of religous parties who had broken into the hotel ballroom. They were outraged at what they protested was a den of sin.
“Fahashi! Harami!” they cried. Vulgarity! Bastard!
Somehow these bearded youths had learned about our little talent show. I stared, totally stunned, as these fanatics rushed inside, throwing burqas and chadors on the women and pushing them away from the men they had had the audacity to sit next to in the audience.
And then one of these youths, his eyes filled with a madness that has nothing to do with God, jumped onto the tiny stage. He tore out the amplifier, and then kicked over poor Munir’s dusty old drum set.
A mighty anger welled up inside me and I found my voice. “What the hell is your problem?!” I yelled at the guy.
He looked at me and my guitar with contempt.
“Give that to me,” he barked.
I stood frozen, unable to process what was happening.
He tore the Les Paul from my hands, and with a fury unlike any I had ever seen, proceeded to bash it on the green marble floor, wrecking it beyond repair.
I could not believe what I was seeing. Shocking as this act of wanton violence was, my first thought was that if anybody was going to smash my guitar it should’ve been me. Not these show-stealing thugs!
That guitar was my only link to a world I had loved and lost. I had bought it for $235 at Sam Ash Music in Paramus, New Jersey, in 1978, having diligently saved money from months of delivering newspapers and busing tables at Blauvelt Coach Diner on Route 303 in New York. It was the guitar that I had learned to play by jamming with Brian and Paul in Eclipse. It was an instrument of peace that had seen me through good times and bad.
I stood there, numb, watching the events that followed with a strange detachment. The music police threatened the medical students, warning them that the next time they tried to organize such an indecent display, the guns would come out and deadly tribal justice would be meted out in the defense of Islam.
I was a long, long way from suburban New York. Looking at my mangled guitar, I realized that I was now caught squarely in the middle of a cultural conflict the likes of which I’d never experienced.
I made a decision on the spot that November day. I silently vowed to fight the forces that could tear apart someone’s dream with such casual cruelty. General Zia and his extremist sidekicks had distorted my beloved religion of Islam and were slowly asphyxiating Pakistani culture. Their target was music, poetry, and dance. They wanted to crush our spirits and destroy the creativity that I believe links mortals to God. I knew that Pakistan had a long, rich history, with ancient civilizations and the most beautiful love poetry and music. So nobody was going to tell me that there wasn’t a place for rock and roll here.
Over the next several years, as I stayed in Pakistan and stuck with my musical junoon (my obsessive passion), the country would be ruled by a succession of leaders, some of whom were friendly to artists like me and some who weren’t. Inspired by the incident at our talent show, in a few years’ time, I began to wage a rock and roll jihad, or struggle, and began forming clandestine rock bands. They soon won fans among the youth of Pakistan, and a counterculture movement grew. The music eventually emerged from the shadows to confront the power of the mullahs in the streets. The angry, bearded young man’s action had backfired. He inspired me to take my love of classic rock and the blues and mix it with the mystical music and poetry of Sufism, creating a new kind of “Sufi rock.” He had his vision of Pakistan—no, of life—and I had mine. It was a vision that actually wasn’t far from the spirit of harmony and happiness that I’d experienced back in New York with my high school friends. It is a cosmic oneness that sees no cultural boundaries.
Over the next two decades, I would be part of two of Pakistan and South Asia’s most successful groups: Vital Signs, which I joined, and Junoon, which I founded. My music would be banned by hostile and repressive governments. I’d play in front of hundreds of thousands of fans in packed sports stadiums, concert halls, and colleges in South Asia, the Middle East, China, Japan, and the West. I would perform at the famed Royal Albert Hall in London and, one day, at the United Nations General Assembly hall in New York. In 2008, the kid who used to stand in front of the bedroom mirror jamming to Led Zeppelin would defy death threats from militants and play the first-ever rock concert in the war-torn state of Kashmir. I would also become the first Pakistani artist to perform at a Nobel Peace Prize ceremony, in December of 2007.
Picking up my bent, broken guitar that day in the auditorium, I was seething with anger. But amid the din of the departing students’ voices, I heard a beckoning sound.
“Do you know what the music is saying?” asked the Sufi poet Rumi in the thirteenth century. “Come follow me and you will find the way.”
© 2010 Salman Ahmad