Lahore's unofficial tourist guide: The rime of the ancient Qissa Goh

Published: September 8, 2013
Meet Faqir Muhammad Shami, Lahore’s unofficial guide. PHOTO: AURANGZEB HANEEF

Meet Faqir Muhammad Shami, Lahore’s unofficial guide. PHOTO: AURANGZEB HANEEF

Under the greenwood tree,

Who loves to lie with me,

And turn his merry note

Unto the sweet bird’s throat,

Come hither, come hither, come hither:

Here shall he see

No enemy

But winter and rough weather.

— William Shakespeare

In an orphanage in 1947, a 14-year-old boy recited this poem at the parents’ day ceremony. The school was MC Bohri Primary School. The orphanage was Darul Shafqat. The city was Lahore. Faqir Muhammad Shami had just completed his fourth grade and was selected as the class speaker. Today, at 81 years of age, he remembers this poem with fondness.

In a way, this has come to define his life. He calls upon people and shares with them the stories of Lahore’s past and present. He is the unofficial guide to the city’s monuments. You may have seen him. He is small, frail, and invisible, unless he comes up to you and starts speaking in English about a certain corner of the Badshahi mosque. When you get to know him a little, you realise he is much taller than he appears. And like all legends of this country, he too is fading into obscurity.

Born to the fourth wife of his father in about 1932 near Karori in Mansehra district, Shami was perhaps destined to be special — an aalim — according to an astrologer’s prediction. This almost cost him his life as his stepmother tried to poison him out of jealousy. “Woh moozi thi aur main ghaazi.” He lived to tell his story and the story of Lahore through its monuments as a tourist guide.

Shami came to Lahore with his mother in 1944 after his father passed away of asthma. The orphanage was not easy. For a year he couldn’t learn beyond alif, be, pe as he struggled with a mental block. His hands developed blisters from constant beating from his teacher. A passerby took notice and suggested a Quran school to unblock his mind. This worked, and after a short time he returned to the primary school and went on to become a star student.

Shami saheb’s handwritten visiting card.

Before he learnt English, Shami acquired fluency and eloquence in language at a very early age. Indeed this was a prerequisite for an aalim — one who knows. On a summer journey home with his step-brother, they took a detour via Abbotabad. Moved by its sudden beauty, Shami composed this ode at the age of 14:

Qafas-e-qaid mein na shaakh daali, bulbul ko chaman nazar aaya

Parda uthha kar jo jhaanka Abbotabad nikal aaya

Zarra zarra husn-e-jahan tujh mein sama jaaein

Nikhat-e-ambreen yahan tujh mein sama jaaen

Aks-e-firdaus in daaliyon ko jhoomtay dekha

Khuda shahid jahan saara ghoom ke dekha

Khuda ne khudaai kya khoob hai banaai

Darya-o-mauj-o-lehr mein kashti chalaai

Jahan saara jamal-e-ishq-e-husn-e-Abbotabad ban jaaye

Jahan saare say laal-o-gauhar shaami nikal aaen

While Urdu came with relative ease, English was a gift from his mother. At least, this is how he sees it. Back in the village she used to call him ‘angrezaa!’ when she got angry with him. One day he didn’t take this curse particularly well and ran ten miles to his step-sister’s house. “My mother called me angrezaa so I became an angrez,” he says today. But it took motivation and effort. In Lahore, his teacher at the secondary school of the orphanage encouraged him to learn English: “You will remain backward if you don’t study English!” He worked hard and become the undisputed English-speaking tourist guide for Lahore some years later. This happened by chance.

After completing seventh grade in 1951, Shami began living with his step-brother in Lahore. He continued with his education and finished a two-year degree of Adeeb Alim in 1954 from College Al-Sana Sharqiyya outside Delhi gate run by Aqa Bedar Bakht. Forced to leave after a conflict with his brother, Shami found shelter at the canal. One day he strolled into the Shalimar Gardens. Nazir Jira, who used to organise a gambling den at Hotel Zenobia, was an employee of Mehekma Asaar-e-Qadeema and ran the fountains in the gardens. Shami observed that foreign tourists gave Nazir some money when he greeted them in English. This gave him an idea. If the unlettered gambler could earn a few rupees, then Shami could do much better. He dedicated himself to the study of important monuments in Lahore and became an unofficial English-speaking guide for foreigners who came.

But nobody wanted to marry a homeless guide with an unsteady income. So, in 1963 he found employment at the University Law College as a peon and married Irshad bibi in 1965. With support of his supervisor Sheikh Imtiaz Ali (Sitara-e-Imtiaz), whom he remembers fondly, Shami continued working as a guide throughout his employment. Finally, in 1984, after resigning three times, he was allowed to leave the college. Immediately, he joined the Tourism Development Corporation of Punjab (TDCP) as a teaching guide to MA-qualified students, and worked there until his retirement in 1989. During this time he trained about three to four dozen guides.

Ahsan Iqbal Chaudhary, managing director of TDCP from 1988 to 1990, once asked about Shami guide. Asif Zaheer, who was at that time a trainee and who later became a director at Parks and Horticulture Authority Lahore, responded: “Shami is not a guide. He is a great book. I need fifty years to read him.” Shami’s mark on Lahore tourism was well known and respected.

He appears out of nowhere from the unknown crevices of Badshahi mosque only he knows. It starts with a friendly smile. With a few sentences in one of the many languages he is proficient in, laced with a few accented English sentences, he proffers his hand-written visiting card that will always have a message of peace or tolerance or keeping Lahore green.

His average tour of Badshahi mosque lasts 40 minutes. The fee varies. The charitable Shami may charge as little as Rs50 and give a full-fledged tour which is more of a class in historical story-telling. While Badshahi Masjid is his headquarters, he will guide you through the Gurdwara or even Shalimar Gardens, Wazeer Khan Mosque and Jahangir’s tomb.

The highlight of the tour is the famous “echo” routine. Shami knows the exact four spots in the Badshahi where the builders played a unique architectural trick. With no microphone, all you have to do is place your mouth close to the niches in any of these four spots and say a throaty, consistent “aa” or “o” or “aam” or “om” sound. It vibrates such that while someone a few yards away may not hear it, someone standing at a certain point a long distance away in the mosque will hear the haunting echo.

But Shami is not just a guide to Lahore’s Mughal past. He is also a living record of Lahore’s recent past and its passing present. Having lived through the Partition and seen several military and civilian governments, he has his own stories to share.

Just before Partition, he participated in an agitation against the British government. At a particular pahiyya jaam, he lay down in the street leading a crowd in front of the Civil Secretariat, which was held by Malik Khizar Hayat Tiwana. They stayed outside his office for several days. Shami recounts the way the call-and-echo slogans went:

Ringleader: Aao tumhein aik baat bataaen

Crowd: Kya bhai kya, kya bhai kya?

Ringleader: Jail mein jaao gay?

Crowd: Kyun bhai kyun, kyun bhai kyun?

Ringleader: Wahan aik cheez mile gi!

Crowd: Kya bhai kya, kya bhai kya?

Ringleader: Khizar ki beti

Crowd: Wah bhai wah!

Ringleader: Khizar ki beti

Crowd: Wah bhai wah!

Malik escaped and delivered a message: Pakistan bana lo!

Ringleader: Taazah khabar aai hai

Crowd: Khizar hamara bhaai hai!

Pakistan bana liya, but the realities of Partition were painful. Train compartments full of bodies arriving from India had a sobering effect. He and his friends did not retaliate with violence. They provided safe passage to Bhalla and Shital, two prominent Hindus of the area. Hum ne unhein ba-izzat nikaala — we saved them with dignity.

Reflecting upon the tragedy, he says, “We should have remained together — shaanti say — that may have been better. No passport, no visa! Now, we should have peace with India.”

Political activism has been an integral part of Shami’s life. He used to keep a set of letterheads in his name on which he wrote letters to several Pakistani leaders. He had a soft corner for Bhutto. He wrote him a letter warning of a bloated ego and bad advisors, and offered himself as one!

Later, in a note to General Zia he complained about misappropriation of income generated from the sale of tickets at Lahore Fort. He says that as a result, that task was privatised for Rs1.3 million that year while the present rate is Rs40 million per annum. A few years later, Shami was prohibited from entering the Fort. During the first PML-N government, he managed to annoy the American ambassador. Shami had written to several newspapers complaining about what he considered ‘interference in Pakistan’s internal matters’. The letter was not published but word reached the embassy. Since then he has been prevented from visiting the Fort’s grounds.

In 1988, his home and all his belongings were washed away in a disastrous flood. Irshad bibi suffered a heart attack the moment she saw her destroyed home. She had just given birth to their sixth child a month earlier. Since his retirement in 1989, each day at sunrise, Faqir Muhammad Shami continues to visit Badshahi mosque to share Lahore’s pride with visitors while earning very little money. On most days he returns empty handed. With the dwindling number of foreign visitors since 9/11, his income has evaporated. Nobody wants an English-speaking guide any more.

At 81 years of age, in soul-crushing heat or the freezing cold, Shami still goes about his daily routine, trying to make ends meet. He continues to beckon:

Come hither, come hither!
My name is Shami jee
Drink hot coffee and hot tea
Burn your rosy lips and think of me
Because of tea served you by Shami jee
Under the greenwood tree

The writer is a faculty member at the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, LUMS, Lahore. You can follow him on Twitter @AurangzebH and contact him at [email protected]

Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, September 8th, 2013.

Facebook Conversations

Reader Comments (12)

  • Parvez
    Sep 8, 2013 - 4:49PM

    That was a beautiful read, you had my attention from the first line.
    Quite some years back on one of my visits to Lahore ( sadly very few and far between ) I did the normal rounds of the sights ( every time they got worse especially the Shalimar gardens ) I remember taking a young guide at the Badshai Mosque who took us to the Fort and also the Wazir Khan mosque and the public bath house and the young man was extremely knowledgable and civil, may be he was trained by Shami Jee.


  • AluChat
    Sep 8, 2013 - 4:54PM

    rime? not rhyme?

    Is that a typo?


  • Ather
    Sep 8, 2013 - 4:59PM

    We have a lot of legends amoung us to be found. A great find is documented.


  • Hasan
    Sep 8, 2013 - 6:40PM

    I met him a year ago and he was brilliant. He has a personality that leaves a mark on you and never forget. He gave me his card, i always carry it in my wallet. On it he has written a quote
    On The Day When We Can Fully Trust Each Other Then There Will Be Peace On Earth
    (Shami Guide At Badshahi Masjid).
    Great man


  • Farahnaz Zahidi
    Sep 8, 2013 - 7:59PM

    These are the stories that need to be told! These are the lives that need to be celebrated. Stries of story-tellers are important.Brilliant portrait of Shami Sahab! A pleasure reading this.


  • Farahnaz Zahidi
    Sep 8, 2013 - 8:08PM

    I think it is a spin on the famous poem “Rime of the ancient mariner” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Rime is the archaic/olden pronunciation of the word rhyme meaning poetry in a way. @AluChat:


  • Farahnaz Zahidi
    Sep 8, 2013 - 8:20PM

    Also great photography @Farahnaz Zahidi:


  • AluChat
    Sep 9, 2013 - 9:08AM

    @Farahnaz Zahidi:
    Thank you for enlightening me :)


  • Maria
    Sep 11, 2013 - 10:20AM

    Touching profile of a fellow Lahori. Great read and glad someone’s attempted to put down his story. Love Shami shb’s visiting card.


  • Aurangzeb
    Sep 12, 2013 - 12:15PM

    Thank you all for appreciating the piece. Shami sahab is an amazing person. I am glad I got to meet him a few times and the chance to document some of his life. He can be found in Badshahi mosque and can be contacted at the number mentioned in his visiting card.


  • Shanu
    Sep 18, 2013 - 2:44AM

    Had the golden opportunity to meet him a few days ago on a trip to the mosque. Never have I seen a more inspiring man. I now have a stronger faith in humanity.
    A beautifully written piece!!!!!


  • Ahsan
    Oct 12, 2013 - 12:52AM

    Inspiring personality…Even at this age he prefers the bread earned by his own hands. May God grant him a long and happy life :)


More in Magazine