When all Hell broke Loose at the World Performing Arts Festival

By Sonya Rehman

Draping its chilly, vast blanket over the cityscape, Lahore’s crisp winter arrived prematurely – this month in November.

Purchasing our tickets from the large, black, rectangular-shaped ticket-booth which sat just outside the main gate (on the curb) of Alhamra’s Gadaffi Stadium, we shoved our cold hands into our jackets and jean pockets.

It was a Saturday night (the 22nd of November) and it marked the second last day of performances of the Rafi Peer’s annual (and much-loved) World Performing Arts Festival (WPAF) in the city.

In comparison to last year, amidst the declaration of emergency by the previous government and the clampdown on the media which followed in quick succession, WPAF 2007 (which ran from the 22nd of November till the 2nd of December) raked in a bigger crowd in contrast to the WPAF 2008, this year.

From the onset of the WPAF on the 13th of November (set to wrap up by the 23rd of the same month), Alhamra saw families, youngsters and art aficionados arrive in dribs and drabs. Sponsors, for the Rafi Peer Theatre Workshop were difficult to bag this time around, and much of their own funding went into the festival to cover costs. But that did not derail the festivities. They carried on.

Funnily, Gadaffi seemed pretty packed on the 22nd, as we made our way through the steel bars and the metal detector – where security personnel (young men and women) checked our bags and frisked us.

Everything was in full-swing. The life-sized and brightly coloured puppet costumes (worn by men) interacted with little children, giggling babies, young mothers, and middle-aged couples. Pictures were taken. Laughter echoed. Music from a camp a few feet away drifted out, pinching the air and blended in with excited chatter and easy conversation.

Walking towards the food court and passing the small orange-hued stalls (which sold everything from handicrafts, jewelry, Swati furniture, ornaments, and mehndi stamps), I saw people tucking into plates of hot Lahori biryani, and sipping doodh-pati and coffee.

There were lots of families. Young couples, and even younger children. They came and went, attending shows put up at the various camps, grabbing a bite, and capturing memories on their non-digital cameras.

Adjacent to the food court was the Punjabi Complex, a lovely red-brick building with pillars and potted plants. Since there was time to kill before one of the performances was to kick off, my friends and I decided to check out a photo exhibition at the Complex. It was completely empty, save for a young man at the front desk, and a fair-skinned woman – who appeared completely absorbed as she looked at the life-sized sepia-toned images which stood in and around the two floors of the building.

After about thirty minutes we left, and while two of my friends proceeded on to watch a play at a camp situated on the other end of the Stadium, my other friend –clutching onto her toddler’s hand – and myself decided to hang around for a bit.

After an hour, two of my friends who’d gone in to watch a play emerged. We were ready to leave in a few minutes. But something happened. In the midst of conversation we heard a loud, spine-chilling blast.

As clichéd as this may read, we all stood frozen. From thereon everything moved in a blur in just a matter of seconds.

One of my friends tried to pacify us girls by telling us that a light in the amphitheatre had exploded. But his mouth was dry as he spoke…his eyes large with fright.

Instinctively, all of us knew something worse had just transpired. Suddenly one of the women sitting near the stalls let out a blood-curdling scream.

Looking at her in terror, I noticed that her head was snapped up at the sky – her expression absolutely horrified. Smoke was billowing out of the amphitheatre (although much later we found out it was coming from the Punjabi Complex – only a few meters away!).

There was utter pandemonium when everyone caught sight of the smoke. It was like a nightmare. I began running for the exit (which stood a few feet away). While I ran with the rest, everything appeared like one big blur – like an oil painting gone wrong. “Bhago!” someone screamed.

I felt as if my legs had become lead – it was almost as if I was running in slow motion. It was the weirdest and most helpless feeling I’ve ever felt. And call it an overdose of Hollywood flicks, but when I caught sight of the smoke billowing out of the amphitheatre; I truly thought it was going to explode into us. I didn’t think we’d get out alive. I’m certain none of us did.

Making it through the exit gates and into the car parking lot, my ears still rang with the echo of the first blast. The sound of a bomb – no matter how great or small – is incredibly intense, unnerving and shattering. The core sound of it is loud, no doubt, but it is the blast’s sound waves which truly hit you and throw you off balance. It leaves you reeling in utter shock, knocking the wind out of you.

Coming back to the car parking lot, we split up into two groups; some of us decided to hitch a ride in one friend’s car, while my friend, her husband and their toddler went in their own car; which was parked at a further distance, in the opposite parking area.

We had decided to get out of the Stadium as fast as we could and meet at a common spot.

While the young couple ran to their car, the rest of us ran down the road – which was by now chock-a-block full with panic-stricken families in their cars, television channel vans, an ambulance and two jeeps full of cops.

On our way down towards the car – trying to keep our balance, running hand in hand, on the curving pavement, we passed by a group of young boys in hoodies – their eyes glazed. They’d been smoking pot. The stench reeked off their clothes and they were headed to Gadaffi, wanting to witness some of the action. Idiots.

Reaching the car in a matter of minutes, we piled in while my friend pressed on the pedal and got us out of the Stadium’s entrance. Her face was ashen. Taking the road through Liberty Market, we got caught in a traffic jam, but managed to worm our way out quickly. That was when we found out that the second bomb blast (also planted in the basement of the Punjabi Complex – just as the first) went off. It was horrifying. How many more bombs were going to be triggered?

Reaching the common spot that we’d initially decided on, my two friends and I waited in teeth-clenching fear for the rest. Five minutes passed. Then ten. And then a few more. We kept dialing our friend’s number but she never picked up. We didn’t have her husband’s number and sat there in utter anguish. Why wasn’t she picking up her phone? Were they alive? They had to be alive!

The wait was excruciating. We were nearly on the verge of pure hysteria. To top it off, our parents were equally hysterical as they called us incessantly, ordering us back home.

And just then, a car pulled over – and there they were! A wave of relief washed over us. We were alive. Everything was going to be okay.

A few hours later, while watching the news at home, I found out that in total three low-intensity bombs had exploded in the Stadium’s vicinity – two of which blew the doors and window panes (of the Punjabi Complex’s basement) to smithereens. Four additional bombs – the channel had apparently reported – were found in the nick of time and diffused.

Soon after, Usman Peerzada – presiding over a hurried press conference (and seated with his brothers Sadaan and Faizan) stated that they remained undeterred by the act of terrorism, which was pure cowardice, and that the WPAF’s last day (the 23rd of November) would be carried through, and not cancelled.

And it did. All power to the RPTW for sticking to their guns (literally!) and not caving in. It was pretty commendable. GEO TV covered Sunday’s festivities via a live transmission which was fantastic to watch. My heart swelled with pride. It seemed, art and culture in Lahore, was not yet ready to give in.

Pictures by: FADZ and Baroosh Qasim

Instep Today, The News International

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