The Aitchisonians, thoroughly versed in American pop culture, chatter at dinner about the relative hotness of J-Lo and Salma Hayek. At the same time, the boys have been shaped by the Islamization of Pakistani society that began in the late 1970s during the military dictatorship of General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq. Both they and their teachers are infused with a strong sense of Muslim identity and, at times, grievance, especially toward the United States. "We all thought you were a spy," one of the teachers told me after I spent time teaching at the school in 2009. "We hate Americans."
Lahoris of an earlier generation pine for the more permissive and worldly era that preceded Zia's rule. Yet Lahore's cultural life lives on. One of the more popular lowbrow diversions is a theater that features live performances by comedians and dancers. The grimy auditorium is always packed with men, some obviously drunk. As burly guards with Kalashnikovs keep order, dancers in satin leotards and filmy tunics shimmy across the stage to the screech of recorded Indian film songs. The dance routines are interspersed with skits full of bawdy humor and double entendres. Men howl vulgarities and at the end of the night shower their favorite dancers with crumpled rupee notes.
One of the dancers is Nida Chaudhry. Waiting backstage between numbers one night, she wears magenta lipstick and purple eye shadow that make her look older than her 20-some years. A recent citation for risqué dancing does not seem to have cramped her style. "What should I do?" she asks. "Should I dance in a burka?"
The wildest dancing I saw in Lahore was not in a theater but in a place of worship. Late on a Thursday night hundreds of mostly young men gathered at the tomb of a 17th-century Sufi spiritual leader, or saint, named Shah Jamal. They formed a tight circle around a trio of drummers and a pair of long-haired dervishes, who whirled at dizzying speeds on a tiled courtyard slick from rain showers and crushed rose petals. Hashish smoke drifted over the crowd, along with chants of "Allah! Allah-u!" and the names of various saints. The dervishes collided, and a shoving match erupted. "It's our version of rave," a Punjabi friend later explained.
Actually there's a bit more to it than that. Sufism has flourished in the subcontinent since its arrival centuries ago in the wake of Turkish armies. It centers on the veneration of saints, often with help from qawwals—singers of devotional songs whose mesmeric rhythms are said to induce spiritual ecstasy. Famous saints such as the 18th-century poet Bulleh Shah were once persecuted for their liberal and iconoclastic views. Today their graves are pilgrimage sites for millions of steadfast followers.