KARACHI, Pakistan — The imposing 1,400-year-old Abdullah Shah Gazi Mausoleum occupies a prominent spot, built on a hilltop where this bustling city of 21 million meets the Arabian Sea.
On Thursday nights, bearded men and "niqab"-wearing women — always segregated — throng the shrine. After waiting in long lines, they drape garlands and scatter flower pedals over the tomb of the city’s patron saint — laid to rest amid the intricate blue and white tilework, at the top of a long staircase.
Abdullah Shah Gazi, the Sufi mystic interred here, is a direct descendent of the Prophet Muhammad, and is known for his healing powers. His shrine attracts pilgrims from afar, as well as locals who worship regularly. Religious leaders stand beside the marble sarcophagus, reciting prayers from the Quran. Street musicians jam on tablas and accordions; eyes closed, lips pursed, they sway to the beat as singers chant the fervent, soulful hymns of Sufi Islam.
Amid this deeply religious scene, the bittersweet scent of hash smoke wafts through the air.
In the shrine’s recesses, men in flowing "shalwar khameez" robes share joints and pipes, taking long drags and passing them to strangers. Everyone is welcome in this communal smoke-fest. They exhale long grey clouds that dissipate into the humid air, while tapping feet and fingers to the music.
Devotees converge here to feel closer to God — many with the aid of hash. It’s a Karachi ritual that dates back to Abdullah Shah Gazi’s death in 773. And it persists in contemporary culture. In the 1970s, Ahmed Parvez, one of the country’s most revered artists, was a frequent visitor, a lit blunt in hand.
The shrine, a cornerstone of Pakistan’s ancient Sufi tradition, is no libertine outpost. Women are discouraged from entering without a male escort. Most wear "burqas," with only their eyes visible. Men and women aren’t permitted to touch in public. At the first sign of misconduct, policemen wave their wooden batons menacingly.
Even by the standards of the Muslim world, Pakistan is deeply conservative. Alcohol is forbidden. Women generally wear the veil outside of the house. Television networks censor the tamest sexual innuendo before airing foreign movies and sitcoms.
Drugs are illegal too. Technically, selling any drugs in Pakistan can lead to life in prison, though in rare cases tribal leaders have called for drug trafficker’s public execution. In Karachi, however, such sentences are rare.
Though the country’s bumbling police often enforce laws for harder drugs, they typically overlook hash. Cannabis is indigenous to South Asia, and inhabitants of the remote, unruly mountainous regions cultivate it widely; towering green plants with fragrant buds the size of fat cucumbers waft in the autumn breeze.
Pakistan’s government banned drugs in the 1980s, when military ruler Gen. Zia ul Haq allegedly succumbed to Reagan administration pressure. But whether Zia was truly determined to crackdown is uncertain. He and his cronies were said to be taking a giant cut from Pakistan’s drug trade. Local scholars estimate that, prior to Zia’s death in a 1988 plane crash, 70 percent of the poppy crop attributed to Afghanistan was trafficked through Pakistan. Over two decades later, says the United Nations Office of Drug Control, 40 percent of the region’s poppy crop still moves through the country.
With international attention long focused on poppy and heroin, hash has generally avoided scrutiny. There are exceptions, however. In mid-February this year, police seized 10 tons of export-bound hash from a warehouse near Karachi.
“Hash is our wine”
But within the walls of the shrine, a particular brand of tolerance prevails. The stick-wielding police barely appear to blink at the illicit haze. Despite occasional crackdowns, an informal understanding exists between police officers and hash-lovers — with the help of small bribes handed over by users. One police officer tells GlobalPost that he can triple his meager monthly salary in two hours at the shrine on a Thursday night.
Meanwhile, the prevalence of hash at this prominent spiritual site epitomizes the role that the drug occupies in Pakistan.
Beyond the confines of the Abdullah Shah Gazi Mausoleum, Karachi residents remain blasé about the strict laws. A recent survey of drug users in Pakistan found that almost 8.1 million people in Pakistan are addicted to drugs, including heroin, hash and cough syrup.
Many more maintain daily or weekly hash habits, lighting up to enjoy a social buzz. Potent hashish permeates the countryside and floods into cities like Karachi, where it fuels a vast underground economy that helps many otherwise-poor residents get by.
Almost everyone in the city knows a dealer, whether or not they indulge personally. Taxi drivers often keep a stash in their glove compartment. They surreptitiously offer it to young men they pick up, negotiating the price along with the fare.
Among the Pakistani elite, young men and women hide the drug at the bottom of cigarette boxes. At home, they melt it inside their bathrooms, running exhaust fans to get rid of the smell. Then they converge on rooftops, passing blunts back and forth.
“In Western culture, many people come home from work and open a bottle of wine. They sip it while unwinding, as a way to relax,” said Ali, a 23-year-old who works at his father’s logging company; his grandfather is a prominent Pakistani politician.
“We don’t really have access to alcohol here, so we smoke the hash.” Ali keeps a bottle of Visine in his pockets at all time. “Every time I leave the country, I buy this stuff,” he said, explaining that he uses it before interacting with his parents. He’s not sure if they know about his habit, but the country’s culture mandates that he not flaunt it in front of them.
Ali and his friends, who hesitated to disclose their names out of fear their parents would learn of their habits, said they probably smoke a dime of hash between the four of them every day. The amount is enough for one joint, and gives them a high that can last for about three hours. If there’s a party, and someone has access to illegally imported alcohol, they’re likely to smoke more. They estimate that they each spend about $33 a month on hash.
The garbage collector-dealer
Ali gets his hash from the "jamadar," a garbage collector who comes to empty his family’s trash every week. The quality of the drug isn’t always the same, but the jamadar lets him know the price every time. When the drug isn’t as potent, Ali pays less.
The jamadar, Mohammad Bilal, lives in an area of Karachi made up of Pashto-speaking people. He says that in his neighborhood, men sit on plastic chairs, around cheap plastic tables, drinking chai, smoking hookahs, and passing joints of hashish. The activity takes place almost every evening, and most of the men in his neighborhood sit together discussing the day.
Though his job pays about $2 a day, the hash sales supplement his income. Bilal only takes a small cut, giving most of the proceeds to his neighbor’s son, Ahsan, who works for a trucker who supplies the hash.
When Ahsan was a young boy, he enjoyed running his hands through the female cannabis plant. Born in Chitral — a ruggedly-beautiful district bordering Afghanistan, near the 25,000-foot Hindu Kush peak of Tirich Mir — he often stood in the cannabis fields, sucking the sticky resin off his fingers. He says he was probably high every single day of his life until he turned 11 and moved to Karachi with his father. He says the feeling is incredible, and that it opens up his mind to possibilities he would never be able to see otherwise.
Chitral is known for its hash, which is a distinct, purple-gray in color. The drug is said to be incredibly potent, but growers must harvest it under precise circumstances to obtain the maximum strength.
Immediately after the harvest, local goat farmers extract the sticky resin from the plant, roll it into a ball and wrap it in goat skin, letting the oils of the skin mature the drug. The result is a type of hash known as "gardaa." It’s Pakistan’s most commonly used form of hashish.
Chitral is also Taliban country. Recently, the military has been raiding the area, burning cannabis fields. That has boosted the street price of hash. Ahsan says many of his relatives who still live there hid their gardaa in the goat skin, allowing it to continue maturing even after the raids. Now, their stash is worth much more than ever before.
While Ashan’s primary job is helping to unload goods from the trucks he rides up north, he earns the bulk of his money by transporting gardaa into Karachi. He can make about $500 for one kilogram. Though he occasionally sells to individuals who enjoy the drug recreationally, his primary trade is supplying people like Mohammad Bilal.
Neither Ahsan nor Mohammad Bilal worry about the potential consequences their drug trading could have.
“The truth is that before hash became illegal in Pakistan, it was an accepted part of the culture,” Ahsan said, explaining why most people look the other way when it comes to hash use in Pakistan. “We also have a major heroin problem here, because of Afghanistan, but no one is as accepting of that.”
The men in his family, as well as in Mohammad Bilal’s family, smoked hash for centuries. The drug was not socially prohibited, or even illegal when their fathers were growing up.
Both have been apprehended by police officers in the past. Instead of being arrested, they simply paid bribes. Mohamad Bilal said that a lot of the police officers he knows expect him to provide hash to them for a discounted price.
“All the men you know in Pakistan smoke hash,” said Mohammad Bilal, explaining that if he were arrested, he could start listing the influential people he supplies drugs to. The threat of angering the elite is usually more than efficient to get cops off his back.
Moreover, Mohammad Bilal doesn’t believe that the drug is against the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad, after whom he was named.
“This isn’t like alcohol,” he said. “That makes you behave in inappropriate ways, making you do thing that you wouldn’t normally do.”
Hash, he said, allows him to be more relaxed.
“After I started smoking, I stopped fighting as much, my blood didn’t boil quite so easily.” That wasn’t the only hidden lining. “Now, if I’m high, and I decide to say my prayers, I feel as though I can feel Allah’s blessing on me. It’s hard to explain, but the words of my prayer take on a completely different meaning.”
That’s the same reason the Sufis at Abdullah Shah Gazi’s Mausoleum smoke hash. They insist that Muhammad himself was tolerant of hashish. The Sufis believe the drug’s powers enable them to reach a level of spirituality that they can’t attain without it.
Nonetheless, there’s a live-and-let-live ethic here at the tomb, whereby worshippers choose whether or not to get high.
A young Sufi scholar named Abdul waves his hand as the man next to him passes him the blunt.
“At least when I am here, I can pray, and I don’t have to worry about all of this,” Abdul says, indicating to the men readying their hash for inhalation.
Abdul explains that when he first began studying Sufism, he’d occasionally light up a joint. He didn’t think it added anything to his experience learning the texts, or relating to the greater mystics.
Now, he said, he comes to the shrine simply to pray. “I think that my relationship with Allah can be amazing without the drug.”