It was a problem.
Wandering between the tombs of Hyderabad: time and again, tracking through the hot sun, I’d arrive at a tomb, looking forward to the shade and cool it offered, like an oasis in a desert, and find myself disturbing a young Moslem couple who had chosen the tomb as a lover’s rendezvous.
Their reaction on seeing me, a tourist with a camera, was invariably the same: flight.
As far as I was concerned, they didn’t need to fear me and they certainly didn’t need to flee in panic.
I felt like an intruder. I didn’t want that feeling. On the other hand, I was here to see the tombs.
Sitting in the shade of a tomb, the image of a teenage man dressed in a short sleeved shirt and trousers and sports shoes and sunglasses and the woman in a black nylon burka, a scene from earlier in the day came to mind.
The hotel where I was staying in Hyderabad wasn’t luxurious or expensive by western standards – but by Indian standards it was certainly middle class. On the ground floor, opposite the reception counter, was an air-conditioned restaurant with tinted glass windows and lots of heavy wooden tables and chairs. Fixed to one of the walls at the end of the dining room was a large flat screen TV set.
The food was very good and especially around lunch times a lot of people from outside frequented the restaurant. All of them, it spoke for itself, were middle class. There was a mix of Hindus and Moslems. Invariably, in the case of the Moslems, the women were clad in either burkas or niqabs, but the men and the children were dressed in western style clothing.
On the TV was the usual run of Indian soap operas, stock market updates, news and blitz advertising. Waiting for my order, I struck a conversation with a Moslem man on the table next to mine. He was on holiday from Saudi Arabia, where he worked as a doctor in a hospital. His young wife, a pair of eyes staring out from a burka, busied herself with the children.
He talked about the ruling princes of Saudi Arabia in a tone of hostility. There were so many of them; they formed a caste of privileged, wealthy, authoritarian rulers. The rest of the Saudis were lazy and pampered by a welfare system. Foreigners did all the work he said, from the most menial tasks to the advanced technical and professional jobs. At the hospital where he worked, a large one, all of the doctors were foreigners and so were the nurses (many of them Filipinos). We got talking about his job. It was a good job he said, it paid well. But he was counting off the days before he had saved enough money and could leave. There were lots of Indian Moslems working in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States he told me, and especially from Hyderabad. No one wanted to live in the Middle East, just earn money and then come back to India.
Whilst we were talking, ads appeared on the TV featuring beautiful women dressed in western, often revealing, clothes promoting toothpaste, deodorants, washing powder – and apple and mango flavoured condoms. The sexualisation of the Indian media was proceeding at a rapid pace. Scantily clad Bollywood babes could be seen everywhere in every media format, from magazines to TV to billboards.
I wondered about how the Moslems who frequented that restaurant regarded the all too explicit adds. Didn’t they clash with their ideas about women and modesty?
It seemed bizarre to be in a restaurant where women clad in burkas manoeuvred food into their mouths whilst up on the TV screen were images coming from a very different kind of world.
Of course the commodification of women by a commercially driven mass media had many negative sides to it. It was easy to understand that religious people – and not only Moslems – had serious objections to this blatant invasion of our lives by the profit motive. The over sexualisation of life thanks to the advertising industry brought with it some obviously very negative consequences. There was the danger of reducing women to commodities, things, this in a very different way to traditional, patriarchal societies. In the West, one could ask serious questions about the role played by the advertising and porn industries in defining our ideas of gender and women.
I had a feeling that the insistence on women secluding themselves behind a wall of black nylon was a way of avoiding a whole plethora of complex issues, this in the name of resisting modernisation. For how long could women be denied the right to develop their talents and decide their own role in life? And what about gays and transgender?
The doctor from Hyderabad was critical of Saudi Arabia because he saw it as a parasite state inhabited by a lazy population. Yet he was not opposed to the puritanical, better said, reactionary form of Islam practised in Saudi Arabia.
I was tempted, but resisted the temptation, the raise this issue.
There was nothing in the Koran about women having to wear the burka or even, long black nylon dresses. There was nothing about women being subservient to their men.
This was purely a cultural interpretation and one vigorously promoted all over the world by Saudi Arabia.
The Saudis role in financing its feudal version of Islam called ´Wahhabism´ (or sometimes, ´Salaafism´) was well documented. It was a problem in Europe, as well as Asia and Africa. In one nation after the other, reactionary versions of Islam had emerged as a direct result of Saudi interference – a recent example being the world’s most populous Islamic nation, Indonesia. Once home to a tolerant version of Islam, in recent years it had fallen prey to fundamentalism. Attacks on minority groups such as the Christians, Hindus and Buddhists had escalated; gays were caned in public and women encouraged to practice ‘modesty’.
When people criticised Saudi Arabia for its disgraceful human rights record, it protested loudly about foreign interference in its affairs. Yet it saw no problem in interfering in the affairs of other nations by funding fundamentalist mosques, imams, schools, universities and media.
In the past, empires rose and fell on the basis of the armies they could field. Today, money and media were the means of power. In this respect, Saudi Arabia was exceedingly powerful. Home to the two most holy sites in Islam, Medina and Mecca, and sitting on the world’s major source of high grade oil, Saudi Arabia formed a major obstacle to any attempt by the world’s Moslems to modernise.
The only western nations which had ever dared criticise Saudi Arabia were Canada and Norway.
For the other western nations, oil spoke more loudly than human rights. In the problems of fundamentalism and terrorism they were complicit.
Late in the afternoon, after walking around and studying each tomb – hot work to be sure – all I wanted to do was to find a quiet spot and sit down.
I walked behind one of the biggest tombs, where there was a corridor of land between the columns and archways at the base of the tomb on my right, and a belt of dense forest on my left.
Rounding a corner, I came upon yet another canoodling couple. Before I could retreat, they jumped up and fled. They had been sitting against the wall of the tomb, behind the columns and arches and right next to each other, their bodies touching. They had been holding hands.
In her free hand, the girl held a purple flower which the boy had plucked from a nearby bush.
There wasn’t much I could do. I couldn’t invite them back and offer to leave – it all happened so quickly.
Within seconds, they were gone. I felt sorry for them.
How nervous they must have been.
Because secrecy was a part of the magic of a lover’s tryst?
Or because I was a foreigner?
Questions appeared in my mind like the ants foraging around on the ancient floor of the tomb in search of food.
Perhaps this young couple – and the others I had seen around the tombs – were taking some rather large risks.
I couldn’t imagine that their parents and family would be very happy about the idea that they were pursuing this kind of clandestine love affair. In India, marriages were arranged. Seen from our western perspective, there was something naive, almost puerile about a couple of teenagers furtively arranging a tryst at the tombs of Hyderabad. Put into their terms however it might be an act of rebellion, one fraught with danger. Perhaps these young people were the pioneers of a new kind of love. Perhaps there was a break with tradition here.
Which was why they were so scared of intruders.
Questions and more questions, hanging in the warm air, silent yet inescapable.
Ah! Time to put it all aside. To resign for the day.
I sat down at the spot where they’d been sitting.
The tomb was on a low hill. In front of me was a view of an area of forest and a larger dome rising above it. The air was filled with bird song. On the right side, at the end of a gallery of columns and arches was a view of another dome in the distance.
As the sun hovered near the horizon, a big, orange red ball, I quit for the day and luxuriated in being a tourist, alone at the feet of an ancient tomb.
That young couple had chosen the spot where I was now sitting for a reason. It was secluded and directly in front there was a fine view of a large dome, rising from above a blanket of green.
The scene before me was to be savoured. The sun began to set, lighting up the ancient dome in a flaring orange.
From a mosque somewhere in the outskirts of Hyderabad he call to prayer went up, a haunting musical lament which echoed in the distance.