(Cara Anna for The Boston Globe)
 PAKISTAN: If you go: Pakistan

High in the Punjab

Relish Lahore hospitality, sample Pakistani culture

Email|Print| Text size + By Cara Anna
Globe Correspondent / November 13, 2005

LAHORE, Pakistan -- The Japanese tourists need something flammable. ''Kerosene?" one young man asks, as the rest climb the concrete wall and drop onto the next roof. Someone finds a well-used bottle, and it's sniffed and approved. The man nods politely through the smokers sitting on the platform, hands the bottle over the wall, then slips over himself.

In a moment, he pokes his head up. ''Lighter?" he asks.

There's a pause behind the wall, then excited murmurs. The smokers smoke. Mosquitoes nip in the shadows. Finally, a Pakistani man stands and asks, ''What are they doing?" He balances on a footstool and watches the Japanese swing flaming balls on strings in loops around themselves on the open rooftop. A backpackers' hobby from the beaches of Thailand has found its way to the bazaars of Lahore. A few floors below, at ground level, a watchman has left his wooden bench to stare, perplexed, at the sky.

The Pakistani settles back among the smokers and smiles. Sometimes, he knows, Lahore is best enjoyed off the streets.

The city's rooftops are famous for the spring Basant Festival, when residents come up to party and fly thousands of kites, shooing away the occasional protest that the fest is un-Islamic. The rest of the year, visitors come to this downtown rooftop in ones and twos, many toting backpacks, asking ''Regale Internet Inn?"

Until recently, the guesthouse was known only by word of mouth, passed among the few post-9/11 travelers to this country. Visitors are increasing, though, and if the Regale was once a secret, it's out now. When Lonely Planet updated its Pakistan guidebook last fall after six years, it dedicated a box to the Regale and the inn's owner, Malik Faseeh Shams.

Malik, as he is known, has a special understanding of what travelers want to see, or ought to see, and how clueless they can be in finding it. He has taken his guests to Lollywood back lots, local wrestling matches, Sufi concerts, and village fairs -- the pockets of Pakistan's most culture-rich city that often require a native's help to find. As for the everyday sights -- the Lahore Museum, the mosques, the Pizzeria Uno Chicago Grill -- his guests can find those themselves.

Between Malik's excursions, for which he usually asks no fee, admirers float up to the rooftop. The city of an estimated 7 million people stretches away on every side, reddish from pollution and dust. Below, women walk the streets more freely than in the rest of Pakistan, and music spills from bicycle-mounted radios. Lahore is about 15 miles from the border with India and is perhaps the Pakistani city most familiar to, and welcoming of, visiting Indians.

On the rooftop, five times a day, the warm air breaks with the layered wails of prayer heard in the distance. Bells from the nearby cathedral mark a Sunday. And always, in the background, there's a shuffle on the stairs.

A French journalist drops by for a warm handshake and news about the road to Iran. A local reporter arrives with notes for an upcoming broadcast and a buzzing cellphone.

''Oh yes," the local says. ''We are free to write about anything. We just cannot criticize the high courts or the army."

He's here to see Malik, like everyone else.

He scans the rooftop. Two girls, one Colombian, one South African, sit outside the cramped, do-it-yourself kitchen. They're living on packaged foods from the grocery around the corner, sliced meat from a stand at the end of the alley, and ice cream from a cluster of popular shops a five-minute walk away. They want to travel overland to Beijing, a trip of several days that starts with Pakistan's mountainous Karakoram Highway, but they have only about $180 left between them.

''Let's ask Malik," they finally decide.

On a chair beside them, a newspaper announces that Pakistan's Supreme Court is cracking down on weddings. A wedding, especially here in the heart of the Punjab, means days of exuberant meals, dancing, and a dowry paid to the groom. It's a burden, the court says, for the one-third of Pakistanis who live below the poverty line. The newspaper gets lost among books, plates, and laundry fresh from the lines strung nearby.

''Where is my guidebook?" ''Where's the hot water?" Hey, Malik might know.

Malik, as usual, is in quiet conversation on the smoking platform out back. A local folk singer sits with him, standing out from the guests with his kohl-lined eyes and fingers laden with polished stone rings. He holds a sitar-like instrument. Bright yarn tassels hang from its strap. The plastic cap from a Fanta bottle is wedged between its base and two strings. The man plays a while, a relaxed, free concert that on the busy streets would be almost impossible to find.

Then he pulls a crisp business card from his pocket. It seems he has performed in Europe. ''And China," he says.

On special nights, groups of ''qawwali," or devotional, musicians take over the rooftop to clap and sing praises to Allah. The amplifiers and harmonium are checked and the microphone is passed to a local woman, who shyly leads the singing and is applauded at the end. Guests gather around them or hide in a room off the rooftop and watch ''The Apprentice" on satellite TV. Over the chanting that starts to rise outside, Donald Trump squints and says, ''You're fired."

On Thursdays, Malik likes to take his guests downstairs.

With the women's heads properly covered with scarves, they ride rickshas to the vast basement of a local mosque. A jam session of sorts has begun, with qawwali groups taking turns so quickly that the music stops for less than a minute. Men with hennaed dread-locks spin in front of the small stage, and an elderly man with a long gold earring sweeps his hands delicately around him and winks at the guests.

Suddenly, the crowd stands and shouts as an older man walks in.

''He helped build this performance space," a man in the crowd explains. The older man is immediately encircled nose-deep in rose garlands. He greets the musicians, turns, and tosses a handful of 100-rupee notes over his shoulder, a burst of clean red bills worth $1.68 apiece. The musicians' friends drop to their knees and wad the money into their tunics.

''Wah!" the crowd shouts in approval. The music builds, climaxes, and suddenly ends, and Malik urges his guests to hurry for their shoes. They emerge from the mosque and he walks ahead, the foreigners trailing like ducklings.

The field trip continues to a local Sufi shrine, Baba Shah Jamal. Two young drummers stand in a crowded courtyard hung with hashish smoke, playing to the more mystical side of Islam. They play for two hours, butting their barrel-sized drums into the first rows of listeners to make an open space for dancing. The larger of the two drummers starts to spin, faster and faster, the tassels on his drum standing straight out, his eyes closed, the crowd leaning back out of the way.

The next day, the drummer comes to the rooftop. Malik talks with him in gestures.

''This man is deaf," Malik says. His father taught him to drum by playing rhythms on his back. The drummer, like the folk singer, also has played abroad. He has kind eyes in the daylight, and humongous hands.

Later, when the platform is quiet again, the question finally comes: ''Malik, who are you?" He gives a few details. Many years ago, he was a student leader at Punjab University. He became friends with Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who later became Pakistan's prime minister, and Bhutto's daughter Benazir, for whom Malik wrote speeches during her own political career. Then powers changed, and Malik became an investigative reporter for the English-language newspaper The News. He opened the Internet cafe downstairs first, then expanded to a guesthouse about five years ago when a foreign friend making a documentary needed a place to stay.

This is the short version of the story, because more people have come with questions. Another local journalist wants Malik's help with a radio interview. A new guest asks, ''Can you take us to the Old City to see the dancing girls?" It's possible, Malik says, though he would rather visit his newest interest, Lahore's gypsy population.

He curls up and smokes and answers questions. The journalist leaves, the new guest leaves, even the Norwegian has drifted away.

''Malik, how do you seem to know everyone?" He inhales, pauses, exhales slowly, and says, ''I sleep less than others."

Again, this is the short answer. He smiles and shifts slightly on his rooftop platform, just out of reach of the hot Lahore sun.

Cara Anna is a freelance writer based in Lowville, N.Y.

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