Everything went out, the room was black. The music gone, she still had her leg suspended in mid air. An echo subsided. The clock high up on the stone wall fauntky showed 2 pm. A faint smell of gazoline was entering the hall from busy, honkering streets of Lahore. «Arre! The daily power cut. No use carrying on now. Challo! C´mon, let´s go have a cigarette». It was Hadjia the fair Baluchi girl who spoke to her. The other dancers were already seated and quietly talking in those spots where some daylight could reach through the high set windows. «Ok, challo», Najima said.
They were sitting leaning against cool stone walls, the cigarette smoke climbed to the high ceiling creating a mysterious veil. A little to the side others were sitting in half-shadow. Discussing, telling gossip, laughing.
«So how come you found this place?» Hadjia asked.
«I was told one could go to the Gulf countries and dance. Earn much money, is it true?», Najima replied.
«Who told you that?»
She saw his face, the man from her neighbourhood up North in the mountain city. His name was Perez and he worked in the Mingora Civil Service. In his lunch break he used to sit at a nearby café. Najima was serving tea and food there. When business was slow they sometimes started chatting. «Little sister, have you heard about those guys who go to the Middle East and do construction work? They go from Punjab or Baluchistan and work for three years. They come back loaded and buy Pukka wallah houses for their families. It´s a hard life, but what returns! But do you know, there´s also a chance for girls over there, na? Shall I tell you more?». She remembered what thrilling suspense that created. A girl from the slow streaming city of Mingora go to the Middle East like any man. «Dancing», he had said. «Any dance that´s pleasing to men over there. Mujra is very popular. You can earn a lot if you become a good Mujra. Do you know any dancing?». Evidently he had contacts in Lahore and he arranged everything for her. He even talked to her parents. He told her to tell a lie, that she had won a scholarship to study at the Ashrafia Girls College in Lahore. He said «They don´t understand, they think dancing is something shameful. Is anything that can get you a good salary doing shameful? Mujra is an ancient dance, it is very respectful. But they won´t understand. So keep quiet about it. They´ll be happy when you return to buy them whatever they may need, na?» Perez showed some phoney papers he had gotten made. Her mother said, «Mubarak ho! At last something good befalls our house». They were a poor familiy with three girls, Najima was the eldest at seventeen.
«Arre! Are you dreaming or what?», Hadija interjected.
«There are a few girls from this school who went over to the gulf if that´s what you mean. I don´t know what happened to everyone of them. Some went down quite badly, though. One girl called, Samira. They said that one Saudi bought her. No one has ever heard of her since.»
Najima suddenly felt hollow. This was a different story. Could it be the same kind of work she was told about.
«Were they Mujra dancers?» she asked timidly.
«Absolutely. This is´nt such a glamorous business. Only a few pull it off. I don´t think I´ll risk it going over there. You don´t know whom to trust. And besides, I have no agent. I think I´ll stay here in Lahore and work the clubs instead. There´s good money in that too, you know. Why are you so interested in that Gulf going business. First you´ll need to master Mujra and then you´ll need an agent».«But that´s no problem. Lashkar here in Lahore is my agent, I have agreed to practise for six months and then they will arrange for everything. So that I can work in a respectable place. In the Middle East. Everything is legal and ok, I have even signed a contract».
«Arre! Poor friend. I am afraid you never should have done that. May Allah have pity on you! To master the Mujra you´ll need at least two years. You should never sign a contract unless you know what you are doing, na?».
The fans in the ceiling made a start. Suddenly the lights went on one after one. A voice shouted: «Ok girls!». The instructor sauntered over to the sound system.
«Let´s continue where we left off, on four then. One! Two! Three…! ».
Shrill melodic music cut through the air. Najima was a bit faint, yet was standing in line. She felt her body moving along with the others in front of her. Legs up in the air, sensuous hip movements, arms like crawling snakes. «I´ll have to learn fast», she thought.
- Nasrin Abdullah