By RAHIM HIRJI
In the months and years to come, the Lisbon Diamond Jubilee Celebration of 2018 will become folklore in the modern history of the Ismailis. This whole Jubilee year has been a full-on celebration – something we haven’t experienced before — and the atmosphere that surrounded this grand finale in Lisbon really is quite difficult to put into words. At the Darbar, Hazar Imam told us we were all Dais. This is my humble attempt of sharing the message of the Lisbon Darbar and the events surrounding it.
For those of us who had just had Darbar in London, we were still riding that wave. That Darbar itself was a magical experience. We all knew that Lisbon would be different, but no-one really knew quite what to expect. Ever since the opportunity to travel to Lisbon was presented, there had been much conjecture about how so many Ismailis could be catered for in one city and at one location. Many were changing summer plans to give themselves the opportunity to go, and many were basing their summer holiday around the Portugal Darbar. Hotels were being sold out within days and planes were being chartered from Canada and the US. When it came to us, it just took my daughter to say – “How can we not go?”— school would be out for summer, and this was an opportunity of a lifetime.
We booked our tickets in March and July arrived in a blink of an eye. Right from the time that we arrived at Heathrow for our flight, we were bumping into Ismailis — Ismailis we knew, and those we didn’t, all on different legs of their journey to witness and experience the changing of the Seat of the Imamat. Some called it Didar tourism. I call it a modern-day pilgrimage.
Even Portuguese Passport Control wished us a “Diamond Jubilee Mubarak” and as we exited customs at Lisbon International Airport we were greeted warmly and somewhat unexpectedly by volunteers at our very own stand in arrivals, diamond jubilee colours to boot! And with that, the week began for us, and for many thousands of Ismailis who had come from all over the world. The majority came from North America, but there were also many from India, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Africa and all over Europe — apparently 45,000 Ismailis from 45 countries. Wherever there are Ismailis, there was representation. This really was #onejamat.
We opted to stay in and amongst the steep narrow roads of the old town, paved with cobbled stones and, most importantly, at a location with close access to the many bakeries selling Pasteis de Nata, Lisbon’s legendary, deliciously sweet, custard tart. Many did spend time between seeing Lisbon and the surrounding area and Feira Internacional de Lisboa (FIL), the location of all of all the festivities, slightly outside of town. Others stayed within walking distance of the venue and took in the odd trip on sightseeing buses and Tuk Tuk motorcycles. And some took the metro to Oriente every day, where there were also volunteers helping to buy tickets and making sure you got on the right train.
The days in the run-up to Darbar are a blur. There were exhibitions and activities for everyone, old and young alike. The entertainment program was world-class from the awesomely produced Jubilee Arts talent shows to concerts with the likes of Cheb Khalid, Salim Sulaiman and Rahat Fateh Ali Khan to Dandia Raas from our very own Khayal. There may have been excitement at these events, but the real conviviality surrounded being in and amongst Ismailis from all around the world, planned family reunions, unplanned meetings with old friends and making new friends. There were also unofficial events like the Young Professionals Boat Cruises in place for 20 to 40-year-olds to meet.
As we got closer to the 11th of July, more Ismailis arrived and more events were in the diary. Ismailis flocked around town to have a guided tour of the Ismaili Centre and also to get a peek at our Ismaili tourist hotspot, Hazar Imam’s new home, the Henrique Mendonça Palace. And I can’t forget the exhibitions that were at the venue, including the updated Ray of Light exhibition, highlighting all the amazing work that Hazar Imam has achieved in his lifetime. I think it’s fair to say that The Ismaili Village was a hive of activity — and I call it a village because it’s as close as I’ll get to understand what it’s like to live amongst so many Ismailis in one place, and perhaps what it might have been like in some of the towns where our parents and grandparents came from.
There were waves of excitement and members of the Noorani family were rumoured to be visiting the venues — and they did — multiple times! Crowds gathered, videos were taken, and roaming charges went through the roof as those videos were shared on every Lisbon Ismaili WhatsApp group going. These were celebrity-esque moments that we hadn’t quite experienced before. Seeing Prince Hussain and Prince Aly Muhammad walking through the main thoroughfare or seeing Prince Rahim and Princess Salwa at a concert you attend was one of many moments that took this week of celebration to another level. Hazar Imam was invited to a banquet by the President of Portugal where he was given state honours. He was also hosted by the Prime Minister where he was presented with commemorative limited edition Diamond Jubilee Stamps. And then there was that very small matter of Hazar Imam being asked to address the Portuguese Parliament that was broadcast and reported on by all the Portuguese channels.
I have a feeling that Lisbon wasn’t quite sure what hit it. The adjacent mall, Vasco de Gama through which many walked through to get to the main venue was bombarded with Ismailis. Of course, the irony is that Vasco de Gama was a Portuguese explorer who discovered India, and, at times, this felt like Indians had discovered Vasco de Gama. The food court was packed at meal times with crowds queueing at the many restaurants. KFC even ran out of chicken at one point. And I’m sure the shops thought that their marketing was finally working. The queue for taxis at the end of evening events was regularly longer than 100 people deep — and Uber was at constant surge pricing. There were Ismailis everywhere: in town, at the best restaurants (Zubir Churrasqueira, anyone?) and nightspots — and at every tourist destination.
You kind of knew they were Ismailis — first there was the sheepish look, followed by a smile, a check to see if you were wearing your registration band, followed by a Ya Ali Madad. You see, everyone who had registered was wearing a coloured band (green/yellow/red etc) which contained an electronic chip attached to it — which determined the events that you were booked in and which hall you would be sitting in. So, you had Ismailis wandering around Lisbon with 2018 version of the “Ghat Pat Nu Dhoros” which is worn by many Ismailis as an amulet.
Darbar day came and people planned their strategy to queue the least amount of time. Invariably with more than 40,000 Ismailis (There were rumours that up to 60,000 registered) in one venue (three halls), we all had to queue, and we all eventually got to our spots in relevant halls, grabbed our sustenance bags, and watched a recording of the actual changing the Seat of the Imamat on the screens. The Intezar programme started and zoomed by and before we knew it Hazar Imam had arrived at the venue and was greeting the Leaders.
The Darbar was unprecedented and what happened next was something no one was really anticipating: firstly, Hazar Imam was joined by Prince Amin, Prince Hussain, Prince Aly Muhammad, Princess Zahra, Prince Rahim, Princess Salwa, and Sara and Iliyan Boyden; secondly, we received what totalled three (+1) Darbars with Hazar Imam visiting all three halls; and finally — you will have heard this already — the President of Portugal joined the Darbar Hall with Hazar Imam.
I think I speak for many of us there, but after the first Darbar when we saw Hazar Imam on the screen looking as if he might be leaving, we weren’t quite sure what was happening. And when we were told that Hazar Imam would be receiving a guest, we couldn’t imagine who it might be. I don’t think we could have been more ecstatic that it was the actual President of Portugal.
Bear in mind that we had had a darbar and when we saw the President arrive, and after a few moments, Hazar Iman returned to the same hall, this time with the President. I can’t stress how astonished we all were, that a head of state was joining Hazar Imam in the hall. Both Hazar Imam and the President gave speeches — and I remember Hazar Imam joking, “I’m reading now,” — because it was a speech and not a Firman. I think even Hazar Imam looked surprised that He was giving a speech, because even He said, “This was an unexpected blessing”. Hazar Imam gave his vote of gratitude and then the President stepped up to speak. He gave his short but full speech in broken English and implied that we will never leave Portugal — i.e. that this is a permanent seat of the Imamat. That received loud applause and even Hazar Imam clapped.
You could tell that Hazar Imam was extremely happy, smiling for much of the time. He even said that He was immensely happy at this happy occasion. There were jokes aplenty, more so than I can ever remember in any Didar. We were also blessed to have had the longest Didar in modern times. This really did feel like four (3+1) Darbars in one. We had thought beforehand that he wouldn’t be able to walk the full distance between all of the halls. Boy, were we wrong!
The themes of Mawlana Hazar Imam’s Firmans were as follows:
1. He said “May all your difficulties go away and stay away”
2. He referred to us all as “Dais”, both those in the room and to those who we would spread his message to. (This is my way of passing forward the message)
3. He talked of saving money for future generations, saving “pockets of wealth” so that each generation is better off than the one before it. He said this more than once.
4. He emphasised the importance of English if it is not your first language. He joked that you didn’t need to be Shakespeare — “He’s long gone,” while gesturing – which was an amusing moment for us all.
5. There was Dua ashish (blessings) for the Ruhanis
6. Apply best practice in all that you do in your professional career
7. Work together, come together as a Jamat from different parts of the world, from different spheres. He said that we are stronger if we work together.
The moment that stood out as most amusing and memorable was when He told us that we should dance and be happy because that is what a Darbar is for. He then recounted that he used to partake in the festivities when he was younger and talked of the “stick dance” and that if you were not careful you would hurt yourself. “Beware of the stick dance!” — which had the Jamat in fits of laughter.
The night ended with biriyani, sherbet, and one final Pasteis de Nata, of course, eaten on the steps of the stadium. And we fulfilled Hazar Imam’s wishes by finding one of the many halls to do Raas. We missed the fireworks which looked phenomenal in the videos – but that ended our trip as we returned to London early the next morning. I still feel that I haven’t been able to describe what this celebration was like. It was a mash-up of an Olympic Games where the Closing Ceremony was the main event, with a run-up of A-list music concerts, reality TV talent shows and exhibitions, Disney-like excitement all packaged up with a quasi-coronation. But even that doesn’t do it justice.
For football (and to those who call it soccer) fans from England, we thought that because Darbar clashed with England’s game in the semi-final versus Croatia, that England would make it through to the World Cup Finals. In the end, it wasn’t to be. But that blow was overtaken by the fact that we had just experienced a once in a lifetime experience. For those of you that made it, I hope this brings back fond memories. For those of you that didn’t, I hope this gave a flavour of what it was all about. Just remember one thing, beware of the stick dance!
Date posted: July 28, 2018.
Rahim Hirji works in the ever-changing area surrounding technology, media and education (and sometimes all three). In his spare time, he writes Box of Amazing, (https://boxofamazing.com/) a free newsletter covering the latest emerging technology and disruptive trends. Rahim lives in London with his wife and two daughters.
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