Equal as the Teeth of a Comb

by Shadab Zeest Hashmi

Photo credit: Sayed Amjad Hussain

Ami, my mother, does my hair, “Helen-of-Troy-style,” a high pony tail with strands wrapped around it on days there is extra time before school. She remembers the hairdo from an old movie which she talks about often, along with her other favorite The Taming of the Shrew with Liz Taylor. When she combs, she hums, mostly Urdu songs, occasionally Punjabi. Since settling in Peshawar, she has taught herself Pashto not only because it isn’t easy to run a household and her myriad projects without knowing the local language, but because she has a genuine love for connecting with people of all kinds, everywhere. We joke that she can make friends while crossing the road; this is something she and I don’t have in common. I tend to be withdrawn, like my father, content with my books and thoughts.

There are times when I do enjoy going on outings, especially when Ami takes me on an excursion to the old city and shows me how herbs, spices, henna, tealeaves, and grains of every kind are sold box-less, displayed in smooth mounds. I like to walk through the narrow streets with her, taking in the crisp, salty aroma of street food, the colors of sherbets, glass bangles, sparkly trim for dupattas, watching shopkeepers with their paraphernalia— their weighing scales, aluminum scoops and glossy brown paper bags. The joy of walking through a bazar, which will become a subject I’ll explore for years in my writing, begins here. I feel certain that if I were to put my ear to the ground, I’ll hear the tread of Silk Road caravans. My curiosity about how cultures of encounter are formed and revealed in the marketplace— about trade- and work habits, competition and conflict, creative marketing, the ethos of fair-play and equality and the complex dynamics of cosmopolitanism— is born as a result of watching my mother interact. I’m astonished by how she varies the language or dialect, accent or register, “code-switching” naturally as she goes. Read more »

Combing the Silk Road

by Shadab Zeest Hashmi

“Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your hair, so that I may climb the golden stair:” the witch sings to the blonde Rapunzel imprisoned in her tower.

Rudabeh, Persian miniature

In a legend, Rudabeh, the dark-haired princess of Kabul lets her hair down like a rope for prince Zal to climb up to her tower. She has eyes “like the narcissus and lashes that draw their blackness from the raven’s wing.” Her name is Rudabeh, “child of the river.”

Rapunzel is Brothers Grimms’ nineteenth century retelling of Persinette (1689), which is surmised to be an adaptation of the millennia old Persian legend of Rudabeh, famously recast in Shahnameh, the Persian masterpiece written by the poet Ferdowsi in the eleventh century. Ferdowsi’s lofty praise in his poem set a high bar for the artists who painted the legendary beauty Rudabeh: “about her silvern shoulders two musky black tresses curl, encircling them with their ends as though they were links in a chain.”

The links between such stories from the East and the West emerged first through startling common etymologies in everyday language, songs and stories. As a child tuned in to the world of words, I asked for stories when my mother combed my hair, and caught images and contours of sound in fairy tales in English, the text running from the left to the right and stories of the Alif Laila (One Thousand and One Nights) and Qissa Chahaar Darvish (The Story of the Four Dervishes) in Urdu from the right to left. Read more »

Song of the Silk Road: A Photo Essay

by Shadab Zeest Hashmi

In Tian Shan mountains of the legendary snow leopard, errant wisps of mist float with the speed of scurrying ghosts, there is a climbers’ cemetery, Himalayan Griffin vultures and golden eagles are often sighted, though my attention is completely arrested by a Blue whistling thrush alighting on a rock— its plumage, its slender, seemingly weightless frame, and its long drawn, ventriloquist song remind me of the fairies of Alif Laila that were turned to birds by demons inhabiting barren mountains.

Images of the winged creature “Pari” enlivens a delicately stenciled page of this oblong framed Persian Ghazal anthology from the 14th century.

The sense of enchantment is powerful and not entirely unexpected. “Ay Pari” (Oh Fairy!), sung by the Badakhsan Ensemble, I imagine as a song sung in a human language in response to the eloquent whistle of the thrush, really a fairy under a spell. The word “fairy” in English may have been derived from the ancient Zoroastrian Persian “pari:” the first mythic creature I remember from lores and lullabyes and the television show Alif Laila (Arabian Nights) in Urdu. The song, in an eastern Persian dialect, comes from the heart of the Pamir mountains— the range that not only joins the Tian Shan in Kyrgystan to the north, and to the south, borders the Hindukush the mountains of my childhood in Pakistan, but the source of the famed river Oxus or Amu Darya—the drainage area of which was once the space between the empire of Genghis Khan, and over a thousand years earlier, of Alexander the Great. Read more »