“The floor is very hot right now. You’ll burn your feet so stay in the shade.” It is around 11:30am on a scorching summer day in Lahore and standing in front of me at Badshahi Mosque issuing the warning is Shami Khan, a frail old man who has served as a guide at the Lahore Fort and historical mosque since 1956. “I worked as a guide at the fort till 1990 and and since then I’ve been working here at the mosque,” he says.
Until 1988, Khan had a smooth life working as a clerk at Punjab University Law College by day and a tour guide in the evenings. “The department head at the time was very nice to me and understood that my salary from the department was not enough so he allowed me to work as a guide,” he recalls. After a great struggle, Khan purchased a plot for his family but the floods in 1988 destroyed his house, bringing years of Khan’s hard work to nought. “It took me ages to acquire the nine-and-a-half marla plot, but the flood came and took it all away.” Khan received no financial assistance even though the international community pledged help for those affected by the devastating floods, he says. Eventually, he had to sell the property and move to a rented place.
Khan stands out among other guides because of his ability to easily converse in English. “I also taught master’s level courses for six years at the Pakistan Tourism Development Corporation (PTDC),” Khan shares with pride. Over time, he also picked up some phrases in French and German, but English remains his greatest achievement considering he only formally studied the language till grade one. Regardless of the pride he takes in his English skills, Khan says it is his mother’s curse. “One day she called me an ‘Angreza’ as an insult and I angrily ran off to my sister’s house.”
Knowing the language of the West is not Khan’s only claim to fame. He knows the little secrets that make the historic monuments all the more interesting to visit. In every tour, Khan will make a visitor stand at one corner of the veranda at Badshahi Mosque and whisper from the other. “See, you can hear clearly,” he says grinning from ear to ear. Khan will then take you to the next veranda, stop right in the middle, and say in a low, deep tone, “Hello, hello, what day is it today?” His voice echoes back loud and clear.
His in-depth knowledge and charm could only take him so far; Khan was only able to rebuild a home after financial intervention. A few years ago, however, Khan met Aurangzeb Haneef, who started an initiative called ‘Build a home for Shami, guide of Lahore’. “Having your own house is a great source of comfort,” he says, adding that it is impossible to pay rent with the Rs6,000 he receives as pension from Punjab University. Khan says they needed Rs600,000 to buy a two-marla plot and build a basic structure over it. They managed to collect some money through donations and used up the savings of Khan’s youngest son, but still require another Rs100,000 to complete the structure.
As I get up to leave, Khan calls me back and begins to cry. “I’d like to thank the people of Pakistan who came to my aid,” he says earnestly. Khan has made the best of the ordinary circumstances through hard work. But like many others, he has nothing other than the respect of those around him to show for it.
Amel Ghani is a Lahore-based reporter for The Express Tribune.
She tweets @AmelGhanii
Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, July 19th, 2015.