Visiting the Sufis in Sehwan Sharif

Defying the extremists

It is over a year since an IS suicide bomber blew himself up at the shrine of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar, claiming the lives of at least 88 people. Followers of the Sufi order, however, remain stubbornly defiant. Philipp Breu reports from Sehwan Sharif

As hundreds of pilgrims mill around, a sudden and loud intonation pierces the air: "Nara-e Haideri!" The mirror-work that decorates the ceiling of the great hall amplifies every sound in the sanctum of the shrine. Only a few dozen respond. But they react to the invitation to call Imam Ali by his name with a resounding "Ya Ali!", "Oh Ali!"

It is almost as if nothing had ever happened at the shrine of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar, the ruby-clad Sufi of Sehwan Sharif in Pakistan, who died here in 1356. Yet on the evening of Friday, 16 February 2017, just as the pilgrims were in the middle of their ritual dance, an Islamic State mercenary entered the shrine and set off his deadly package of explosives in the midst of the pilgrims. At least 88 people were killed and hundreds were injured. This place, which for centuries has been famous for its tolerance and peaceful atmosphere, became a death trap. "I was just few minutes away from the shrine and ran over there as soon as I heard the explosion," says Roshan Ali, who works at a guest house for pilgrims in Sehwan Sharif.

Up to one million pilgrims visit the small city every year. The slender man with the neatly trimmed moustache chooses his words very carefully, but doesn't quite manage to conceal his anger. "We looked after the injured, and when the police came, we thought that they would help us. But our hopes were dashed when we saw that they were only taking wallets and watches off the dead and looting surrounding jewellery shops that had been abandoned in the panic."

Peace and tolerance

The attack had been possible for the simple reason that in 660 years, the shrine of the Shia Sufi saint had never before been targeted. The very next day, the Sufis were back, once again engaging in the rhythmic dances and chants that bring them closer to their desired unity with God. No one wanted to give Islamic State the feeling that it had won.

"As a sign of defiance and in order to preserve the reputation of Sehwan as a place of joy and peace, we immediately carried on," says Roshan Ali. Many of the pilgrims I met during my visit see things in a very similar light.

´Sufis gather on the marble floor of the Lal Shahbaz Qalandar shrine (photo: Philipp Breu)
Determined to show the IS jihadists that they havenʹt won: the only visible traces of last yearʹs suicide attack are black pockmarks in the white marble floor. The rest of the damage was quickly repaired

Mumtaz and Siddra are two elderly ladies from the province of Sindh, who have spent a full day travelling to Sehwan Sharif. It is their very first visit. I ask them whether they are in any way nervous about visiting the shrine one year after the attack. "Why should we be afraid? This place has always been known for its tolerance and love. We are not going to be intimidated by one incident. We thought: now, more than ever, is the right time to come."

"Hostages to the flutes"

Every evening, after sunset, several hundred people in the inner courtyard of the shrine are entranced by the drumbeats and become "hostages to the flutes". If you didn't know any better, you might think you were in a night club somewhere in Europe.

Legs are in constant motion; arms are thrust to the left, to the right, up and down. Very soon, beads of perspiration appear on the men's foreheads and their traditional Pakistani clothes are stained with sweat. The dances are punctuated with loud calls to their venerated imams: "Ya Ali!" shouts out one man, "Ya Hussain!" another.

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