A Magic Shadow-show

By Sonya Rehman


For in and out, above, about, below,

‘Tis nothing but a Magic Shadow-show,

Play’d in a Box whose Candle is the Sun,

Round which we Phantom Figures comes and go.

The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám


We’d been planning on moving to Islamabad for a year. In early 2019, we sold our family home – a beautiful, crumbling white-washed structure built by my grandmother and step grandfather over forty years ago. The house, inspired by Mediterranean architecture, had two of the loveliest little wrought-iron balconies, “Romeo and Juliet balconies” my grandmother used to say. I digress. I don’t want to conjure up visuals of a home I was practically born in because I’m always gripped by longing and repulsion. Like one outgrows a favourite pair of shoes, we, I, outgrew house #15 in Cantonment. It was a prison just as it was a refuge. That story, dear reader, some other day. Or maybe not.

In early October we had arrived in the capital – let’s not get into the weeks of house-hunting, the string of property dealers, and combing the little town in search for the perfect nest which fit our budget. We eventually found a lovely space at the foothills of the Margallas. After years, we were finally able to start over.

As much as I love Lahore, I could never quite feel at ease. The malaise grew with each passing year, particularly after I completed my postgraduate degree overseas and returned home in 2010. I was emotionally adrift, not because I was glorifying my nail-biting, high stress 10-month Masters program and the wonders of the first world – fuck no.

But let’s not get into the past. It serves no purpose whatsoever. In fact, when I do allow myself to look over my shoulder at the Decade That Was, I cringe. Who was I and what was I thinking to allow the sea dictate which way I steered my rickety boat? Why did I relinquish complete agency of my life? Cowardice. It was easier to pin the blame on external events than take control. The victim narrative was easy. It was lazy.

Islamabad is healing me. Even though my Lahori friends keep joking about what a graveyard the city is compared to rich, bubbling Lahore, there’s something about this strange little place which is allowing me to re-create a self-identity. Either that, or it’s all the free weed growing in the wild. Who knows. But there’s a sense of freedom in anonymity that comes with moving to a new city. There’s an inner expansion — at 37, I can start over. I can breathe in – moderate/healthy on the AQI – air from my diaphragm and not be wracked with anxiety that I’m slowly butchering my lungs.

There’s an unfurling in my inner being too. Also because I’ve been doing The Work. I started the gym in November, dropped 8kgs of regret, and on a friend’s gentle nudge, went to a magical therapist who he swore by. Meeting her was rather surreal. Seated in her living room, her warm aura took me in, listened without judgment and began navigating my thought process, my past, my present, with the dexterity of an ace pilot.

When I told her I was anxious about a man I had feelings for, she told me to “stay in the realness, the present” of my interactions with him. It was thanks to her that I realized I was disconnected from myself – meaning, I had been viewing my life from the outside. Sounds (reads) simplistic, I know, but it was a breakthrough moment for me. It’s interesting how a majority of my sessions with her are primarily based on developing the Self. In one of my early meetings with her, I mentioned how once, in 2009, I passed by my bedroom mirror and was taken aback at my reflection. I was dressed in a deep red winter jacket, jeans and boots. I was making my way to see a friend, and had stopped dead in my tracks. Was this me? Was this really who I looked like? That was the first (not yet known) dawning of the disconnect from the Self.

“We’re all groping in the dark,” she said, “Stop judging yourself so harshly.”

The Self. The Observer. The Elusive Ghost. The Phantom Figure in this Magic Shadow-show, as the poet Omar Khayyám says.

Who am I? Who are you?

The COVID-19 lockdown has brought many of us to our knees. While some cling to their old sense of self, their identities, their nafs, with such extreme neuroticism, others, have let go in complete submission to the Unknown. An abyss bigger than any of us could have imagined, or understood. Hence, the deep dive inward has become essential to find strength, meaning and eventually, deliverance from.


“As above, so below, as within, so without, as the universe, so the soul.”

– Hermes Trismegistus


And while the world grapples with speculation, fear-mongering, mounting deaths, this Otherworldly Virus, the desperate hunt for a cure, we await the New Normal. But let’s not be defeatist yet. Let’s not draw the curtains on this shadow-show yet. Human beings are built to adapt, to evolve. Consciousness, the spirit, are silver threads woven from the handloom of stars. Why do we keep forgetting this?

After a decade, I find myself praying with every ounce of my being. While I can ride out some days in lucid therao, logic gives in to fear. But one has to rise above it. I keep telling myself to be patient.

That if I don’t plant the seeds for an impenetrable foundation now, this time will never come again.


An illustration by Edmund Dulac from the 1909 edition of Edward Fitzgerald’s translation ofThe Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám.




Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s