Just outside the entrance to the ‘Madina Guest House’ (where I was staying in Gilgit Northern Pakistan), about 20 yards to the right on the main road, is a little gulley. If you walk pass this gulley in the evening light you’ll notice a queue of men. The gulley is not particularly big so the queues frequently spill onto the pavement and sometimes flood the road itself. So one day, I asked Mr Lal Mohammed, the redoubtable and affable proprietor of the Madina Guest House, what the queues were about.
“Is it for a cinema?” I asked. “Or a show? Coquettish dancing girl’s perhaps? Or even for the pleasures of prostitutes?”
This is not unlikely, for though Pakistan is a Muslim country, there are not many women about in the Northern Areas (contact with men being strictly forbidden), so prostitution is common. In fact it becomes a ‘social necessity’; a channel or ‘narlee’ draining away the stresses and problems of the masses and the mob – less they should explode in revolutionary fervour.
“Actually” Mr Lal Mohammed said (with something of a mischievous glint in his eye), “the queues are for a theatre play. A play in which all the actors are male and they are all dressed as women”. So the next evening I paid the Rs100 entrance fee and paid a visit to this establishment to see what all the fuss was about.
Now, for those of you familiar with London’s Theatre Land, please leave your experiences and expectations at home. This is as far away from Theatre Land as it is possible to get – and I don’t just mean geographically. London Theatre Land is proudly middle class, polite, reserved, ‘yes please’ and ‘thank you very much’ the order of the day. Not so here. The ‘theatre’ here is (for want of a better description) like a medieval cattle market. After obtaining my ticket from the disinterested morose booth attendant I walked up to my allotted seat and much to my humour (because I expected nothing less) found someone already sitting in it. I made a fine show of affected surprise; looking repeatedly at my ticket stub and then at my seat all for the benefit of the man sitting in my seat hoping he would get the message. In response, the man rather impishly yanked out his ticket stub and showed me his seat number, pointing at it with his stubby finger – it was the same as mine. Thus satisfied he settled back smugly into his seat and promptly ignored me.
It’s very simple. In Pakistan for every seat, they sell two tickets. It’s a ‘first come first served’ system. If you’re not ‘first’ you stand at the back or sit on the aisles. I refused to do either and sat on another empty seat. If I had known better I would have purchased the ‘VIP Tickets’ (for Rs200), for then you are guaranteed a seat – though you pay double for it. Theatre Seating is a very complex business here in Pakistan and one can quite easily write a thesis or book on the subject. Anyway, I am getting ahead of myself. So having secured ‘a’ seat – alas one with a different seat number to the one on my ticket, I made myself comfortable, but not too much. For I knew that someone (with the correct ticket) was bound to turn up any minute now and throw me off. Unluckily someone did show up, but luckily finding me in the seat, they left me alone. Obviously they’d assumed that I had the correct ticket and had simply got there first. Smart move on my part – Wasim Uno Point! – ‘when in Rome do as the Roman’s do’
Now, one of the first things’ you notice in Pakistan when you’re in an enclosed space with people in it (like a theatre hall for example) is the stink: a heady mixture of week-old sweat mingling with noxious cigarette fumes jostling with hair oil and cheapo after-shave. Fart and burp fumes are also prevalent in the miasma enveloping you but they prefer to lurk in the background and never come centre stage – unless you’re sitting next to someone with gastro-enteritis – which luckily I wasn’t. Anyway, looking around the hall it was clearly evident that this was not a ‘family show’. The men (and it was all men) were all pretty seedy looking creatures; haggard, un-shaved, half-baked complexions and wearing dirty salwar kameez’s (aren’t you supposed to make an effort for the theatre?!)
The show began in earnest to a chorus of much whistling and jeering…which never really ceased. The troop of male actors walked on-stage sporting tight women’s dress, outrageous wigs, and exceptionally large breasts. At these the man sitting to my right was getting seriously excited (more on this creature later). It is truly amazing what a wig, fake breasts and staccato female voice can do to the Neanderthal male brain. The troop of male actors then began flouncing about; exaggeratedly playing with their curls, tossing their hips and wriggling and even touching their fake breasts – all to a fury of wolf whistles from the audience. Yes, my early description of cattle market was apt. Now, I have absolutely no idea what the play was about, but it never really mattered and I don’t think anybody really cared. There was a scene when one of the actors smacked the other on the back-side and the entire theatre erupted. I began to wonder who these people were.
Then there was a scene of infatuated whispers where the protagonist actor professes his (or her) love for another actor (also female) – this had more then just a hint of lesbianism to it and it was the only time the theatre was relatively quiet. I don’t know what words were exchanged in that heartfelt lament of love; but it seemed to work and ended with the two actors cavorting on stage in a pseudo lezbian romp. It was at that moment that I began to pay more attention to the man seated to my right. I hadn’t really noticed him before because it was dark, but something had caught my attention. As my eyes adjusted to him I could see what he was doing and I had to do a double-take to confirm my suspicions. To put it bluntly it seems that the pseudo-lesbian love scene had got him rather agitated and he was erm (how can I put it politely? well you can’t actually!), he was wanking. Yes, the man sitting to my right, in a theatre hall full of dirty, sweaty, seedy, lecherous men, was unabashedly masturbating to a lesbian scene involving two men dressed as women.
Was I shocked? Of course! I mean, they weren’t even real women! If it had been a real lesbian scene involving real women I could (just about) have understood – but this was make-believe of the highest order and in all honesty they weren’t particularly pretty looking men dressed as women either! One of them even had stubble. Ugh Yuk!
Alarmed at the horror I had just witnessed I looked around to see if anyone else was also as outraged as I was. But no. Nobody seemed perturbed. All I could see were the whites of their eyes fixed firmly on the stage. No one even glanced at me.
You know if I didn’t know any better I’d say at least half the theatre audience was at that moment engaged in some sort of lewd act of personnel gratification. Like zombies. Then the realisation hit me: I was in a theatre full of serial wankers. This is what this was! I had stumbled upon a veritable wank show.
I suddenly found myself getting up and leaving. Taking particular care not to brush against the man to my right less I disturb his rhythm. I left him and the others fidgeting with themselves and walked into the fresh blackness of the night, refusing to look back. It was a relief to be outside in fresh air. My emotions were a brew of shock, puzzlement and humour. Yes it was funny in a way but also disturbing. As I walked further on and gathered my thoughts together, they congealed into anger. Anger that man has created a society where this is tolerated. But more crucially, that man has created a society that creates the conditions for this (call it what you will) this ‘serial wanking club’ to flourish!
But perhaps I’m being a tad culturally insensitive here? Where’s my cultural relativism gone? Perhaps I need to leave my Western cultural norms behind and take a look at the events with fresh, unbiased eyes? What do I see?
I see. Well I see a theatre full of dirty, sweaty, lewd men wanking to male actors dressed as women pretending to be lesbians. That’s what I see! Man in microcosm. Man captured on Kodak film. Man caught doing what he is – a wanker!