Ahmed, Salman with Robert Schroeder. Rock & Roll Jihad: A Muslim Rock Star’s Revolution (Free Press; First edition, 2010).
An Excerpt: Rock & Roll Jihad: A Muslim Rock Star's Revolution
The Taliban and the Guitar
On a cool, clear November morning in 1982, I woke up in my bedroom in Lahore, filled with anticipation. A little more than a year earlier, my parents, siblings, and I had returned to Pakistan after six years in America. That evening, I would finally break out my long-unused sunburst Les Paul and play before a live audience of my medical school classmates at our college talent show. My plan was to channel the eighties guitar hero Eddie Van Halen and perform “Eruption”—and to blow everybody away as only that classic one-minute, 42-second guitar solo could. Consumed by a musical passion, I threw on my white doctor’s overalls and grabbed my anatomy and physiology books and headed for the door. I was eighteen years old.
The sweet smell of jasmine greeted me as I stepped outside and climbed into my beat-up, rusting yellow Mazda, the consolation prize given to me by my father for having taken me away from the life I loved in Tappan, New York. My parents and siblings had settled in the southern port city of Karachi while I had moved in with my mother’s parents at 54 Lawrence Road for my studies. That hopeful morning, I drove down Mall Road, the main city thoroughfare, and into the cyclone that is Lahori traffic: an anarchic scrum of blue rickshaws, horse-drawn tongas, bicyclists wearing shalwar kameez (long shirt over baggy trousers), and Japanese motorbikes and cars all flouting the cops and running red lights. Navigating the chaotic roads, I motored past the palatial Punjab governor’s mansion and Jinnah’s Garden, the beautiful park known as Lawrence Gardens during the colonial Raj. I gazed for a second at the gymkhana where I often played cricket. Its picturesque ground was encased in pine and eucalyptus trees and its pavilions were lined with red tiles. My eyes were still re-adjusting to the sights of Pakistan, and all of this looked like a scene right out of a dream.
My parents had enrolled me in Lahore’s King Edward Medical College in the hope that I would give up my teenage fantasies of being a rock musician and adopt a respectable profession. They had been patient and even supportive when I joined Eclipse, our high school garage band in Tappan, founded by my Tappan Zee High School buddies Brian O’Connell and Paul Siegel. And they’d been sincerely happy when we won our high school’s battle of the bands in 1980. But as I sat in the lecture hall that day, my old life in America was a world away and I was just another young Pakistani studying anatomy—albeit one who was constantly humming the chorus of “Helter Skelter” and “Revolution.”
About two years earlier, my father’s brother-in-law, Ismat Anwar, had visited us at our home in Tappan. At the behest of my parents, Dr. Anwar, a leading Pakistani surgeon, had a man-to-man talk with me about my career plans. I sat across from the serious-looking Uncle Anwar in my small room, focusing my bored gaze past him on the poster of Jimi Hendrix on my wall. With a shrug of my shoulders, I told my uncle that I didn’t know about the future. But I knew that I wanted to rock.
“Rock? What does that mean, beta (son)?” Dr. Anwar asked in his Punjabi-inflected English.
I tried to explain in my New York accent. “Uncle, I just want to play guitar and be in a band for the rest of my life. That’s my dream. Just like these guys,” I said, pointing to the life-size posters of Led Zeppelin, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Hendrix, and Van Halen covering the walls of my room in our house on Lester Drive. My uncle took a look around at all the color posters in amazement, as Lennon and McCartney, Hendrix, Plant, Page, and Jagger seemed to strike poses of silent support.
Uncle Anwar pointed incredulously to the long-haired musicians playing guitars and exclaimed, “Salman mian [young man], you want to become a mirasi [low-class musician]? Your parents have high expectations of you and you want to waste the rest of your life playing this tuntunna [gizmo]?” He shook his open palms in the direction of my sunburst Les Paul, which rested proudly against the back of my guitar amplifier in the corner of my room.
Before I could answer I was saved by a car honking outside. It was Brian, come to take me to band practice. I ran out of the room carrying my amplifier in one hand and my guitar in the other. Freed from the interrogation, I yelled back, “I have to go, Uncle, our band Eclipse is rehearsing for the Tappan Zee High School battle of the bands!”
I escaped, but Uncle Anwar’s words had unsettled me. It was only a matter of months until the other shoe dropped and my parents told me we were all going back to Pakistan. I was already reeling from two of my heroes’ deaths, and now I had to face a forced march back to the motherland. That winter, I’d been devastated by the tragic killing of John Lennon, and had mourned the loss of drummer John Bonham of Led Zeppelin not long before. Both Zeppelin and the Beatles had been like close friends and teachers to me over the past six years. I had jammed with them with the head phones on, dissecting their guitar riffs. I had tried to mimic their impossibly cool fashions and belted out their tunes in front of my mirror at high decibels. I’d sung along with Robert Plant to Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” or “Kashmir,” and crooned “Day Tripper” or “A Hard Day’s Night” by the Beatles. As a Pakistani kid who’d struggled with integrating into American life, rock and roll fed my soul and steered me toward a personal centeredness. Looking at myself in the mirror, I didn’t see a Pakistani, an American, or a Muslim, or anyone who fit into a single label or category. I just imagined myself standing onstage, playing my guitar and making people happy. And that was all I wanted.
But in the summer of 1981, the clock was ticking. I dodged reality by spending more and more time jamming with my friends in Eclipse. As the August day of departure got closer, I felt more like a visitor to the U.S. from a parallel universe. I was leaving. But I didn’t really know where I was going.
The America I knew was rock concerts at the Nassau Coliseum, Yankees games, and a close-knit group of teenage friends that made up a living mosaic of my adopted country. There was my Irish-American buddy Brian, my Jewish friends Paul Siegel and Michael Langer, and Frank Bianco, the New York Italian kid I perfected my ping-pong game with. And then there was me, a brown-skinned, Pakistani-American Muslim named not Brian or John or Shawn, but Salman. We were one big circle of light brought together by music, sports, and shared experiences. None of us cared about the made-up divides of color, culture, or religion. A month before I was to return to Pakistan, five of us had sped down the Palisades Parkway in Cindy Shaw’s father’s red and white Oldsmobile, singing at the top of our lungs along with David Lee Roth to “Ain’t Talkin’ ’Bout Love.” In that car, with those friends on my way to my final Van Halen concert, I shot footage for a mental movie of what I thought were the last days of my American life.
There was so much to leave behind. All around me, in 1981 in New York, kids had dyed their hair red or purple and identified themselves as punks after the movement spearheaded by Britain’s notorious Johnny Rotten and the Sex Pistols. That year everyone wore dark sunglasses indoors. The musical-film Fame dazzled audiences. Rocky Horror Picture Show fans were doing the time warp. American hostages were finally brought home after 444 days of captivity in Iran, Pakistan’s western neighbor. That spring, President Reagan had been shot in an assassination attempt in Washington. Bruce Springsteen sang about a hungry heart. Girls wore boots in the sun and high, open-toe Candies in the rain.
And then one day in August I was gone, sitting sullenly in the seat of a PIA 747 and jetting with sickening speed away from the New York skyline. I could see the cars zig-zagging on the highways, the tall buildings of Manhattan trying to kiss the sky, and the golden glint of the flame in the hand of the Statue of Liberty. Soon we left New York far behind and climbed higher over the Atlantic Ocean. I was full of resentment, frustration, and anger. But as I fell into dreamland, my journey—from East to West and back again—was really just getting started.
I couldn’t pay attention in anatomy class that November day. I kept sneaking desperate glances at the clock to see when the session would end. Meanwhile, I threw knowing looks at my co-conspirator of the day—Munir, known to everyone as “Clint” due to his obsession with Dirty Harry. Munir was a quiet, bohemian guy whom I had quickly befriended when I learned that like me, he listened to bootleg tapes of Hendrix, the Beatles, and Zeppelin. He also happened to own the only set of drums I could find anywhere in Lahore—making Munir my only candidate for musical backup that night. “Clint” rolled his eyes as the assistant professor droned on about the heart’s inferior and superior vena cavas, sinoatrial valves, and bundle of His. We weren’t slackers, but that day we were ready to get as far away from campus as we could.
In fact, we couldn’t get very far. In the Pakistan of the day, there wasn’t much to do but study. In 1982, democracy was dead and a dictator, General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, was running the show. A war was raging in neighboring Afghanistan, and Pakistan, a U.S. ally, was being transformed into a virtual arms bazaar, with Kalashnikovs as common a sight as a squirt gun at a kid’s birthday party. To me it seemed as if the body and soul of Pakistan had been snatched by aliens in Pakistani disguise.