Hot chocolate with a Pakistani rock star

Australia has silenced the beat of a young musician, writes Elliot Brennan.

Just before we began to talk, Jamal’s phone vibrated. With a quick glance he read what had just popped up on his screen. His eyes widened and he promptly said, “I just need a second to check something.” He picked up his phone and left the café in a hurry. By the time he returned our hot chocolate had arrived, I was disappointed that it hadn’t come with a marshmallow. “This is delicious!” I gargled. “Smells good,” he replied wryly. I asked him what the issue had been. There had just been a twin bombing in Islamabad and he needed to check on his family members there. Seven people died in three separate bombings that day. I let my hot chocolate sit for a while.

Pakistan is in the grips of what Jamal calls ‘the crisis.’ While this explains little to someone on the south side of the Indian Ocean, he uses the phrase aptly. Pakistani-born members of the Taliban have near total control of the Western highlands of the country – an area called Waziristan. The Taliban uses the porous border with Afghanistan interchangeably to evade their enemies; when the Pakistani military presses it, it dissolves in to Afghanistan, and when NATO pursues it, it falls out of reach in to Pakistan. It is Taliban bombings, like those that took place shortly before we sat down, that disseminate fear, and it is bombings like these that forced Jamal to Australia after a happy childhood in Pakistan.

“Everything was fine, we weren’t very wealthy, but we were comfortable,” Jamal told me about growing up in Karachi, a city in the country’s south. The youngest of nine siblings, he benefited from the wisdom of all his elders to learn Islam. He considers himself a practicing Muslim, but concedes that “sometimes it’s clear in your mind that you have to follow your religion, and sometimes you have to think by yourself.” He was practicing this liberal approach to Islam at age 12 when he first started to discover the western rock classics of the 80s and 90s that some interpretations of the Qur’an would label as Haram (forbidden).

“Once the news went around that I had started playing guitar, the other guys who were interested in this music in my town wanted to start meeting up. We wanted to make a band, and from that,
a career.”

These early jam sessions spawned a neighbourhood band that performed at local barbeques and covered a mix of Western rock songs and Pakistani classics. Not everyone was accepting of Jamal’s choice though. “A lot of my neighbours and friends asked me, ‘Why are you doing this? It’s not allowed.’ But my picture was clear, so I did it anyway.”

Jamal’s displeased neighbours were concerned for his safety as well as his religion. The Taliban’s attitude to Western songs was strict and they were already acting on it. In the same period that Jamal was meeting with these friends, music stores were being bombed for propagating Western culture.

Despite the concerns, Jamal’s local band stayed a hobby of his, and music a minor passion while he made his way through high school, and eventually in to a medical degree. But about a year and a half in to that degree he got a call from a few of his friends that he had been jamming with who asked to meet with him. “They said ‘you are the vocalist.’” Jamal was taken aback, but decided that music was his calling. “I was very good at medicine; if I didn’t stop I would be a doctor here in front of you. I wouldn’t have a job – but I’d be qualified,” he told me.

His band Sureela Phatichar (‘Melodic Crap’ in the Urdu language) played their first gigs at charity events booked through friends and started picking up followers. But it was a cover the band did of the classic Pakistani pop song Dehka Na Tha (“I Never Saw It”) that turned heads. “When someone is covering a legend, it has to be good. I think we did it really well. We used to get recognised and people would say ‘Ah! The band that covered Dehka Na Tha!’” At this stage in our conversation Jamal was clearly on a nostalgia high, smiling vacantly at a flood of memories, all of which I couldn’t hope to tease out of him. On the other side of the table my mind was filled with comparisons to Alien Ant Farm who came to fame through a rock cover of Smooth Criminal, but I didn’t want to raise this with him.

Sureela Phatichar’s cover resulted in gigs all over the country. When I asked him what it’s like to play in front of over six thousand people, he couldn’t answer me. He fell back in his chair and just sighed, that vacant smile on his face widening. “It’s an addiction. You always want to go back,” he finally managed.

When Jamal arrived in Sydney he had a week set aside to explore Australia before he started his business course, though he admitted with a laugh “I didn’t do it very well, I did more partying than exploring.” After only two weeks he was out of money and needed a job. One of his friends that he had met partying set him up with a job at a 7/11 convenience store. “It never crossed my mind that I had done medicine and I had been a successful musician in Pakistan… but here, I was a shopkeeper.” Before his feet had touched the ground he was fired because of the friend who gave him the job. “My boss said ‘I’m firing him, and he trained you – so you must be like him. You can go too.’”

Another friend recommended Eagle Boys to Jamal. I remember his first shift. I didn’t talk to him that night, but he looked like a rock star and possessed the same swagger. At that stage the owner of the store was having money troubles and was hiring and firing delivery drivers at a staggering rate. I would get to know many of the drivers briefly only to never see them again. I saw Jamal again; he worked every day that week. For free. ‘I worked six or seven hours every day without pay, it was my trial. I was happy that I had a job though, I would get paid the next week,’ he said. That next week Jamal got paid for his work, but only at a rate of $12 an hour. When I started at Eagle Boys, I was 15 years old, doing less work and earning more for it than Jamal was at 22. I went to take a sip from my mug, but it was empty.

Jamal is currently studying hospitality as the means to end this suffering. “My whole focus is to get permanent residence in Australia. Once I get that I’ll be free from all the regulations. I’m not interested in hospitality, once I have it, I’ll study what I want to study,” he said. “And that’s medicine?” I prompted. “No, it’s music” he replied quickly. “I’d love to study sound engineering here. If I can’t do it here, I’ll go somewhere else and do it.”

This dream wasn’t his first preference, the caveat being the crisis. “I hope it gets better in Pakistan and I’ll go back and be a rock star,” he took a deep breath; “I hope that’s what I’ll do.”

I asked Jamal if I could take a photo of him. We left the café in search of somewhere with good light. As I raised the camera he posed without instruction. I was struck by how much he’s aged since I first met him two years ago. His long black hair had retreated in to a conservative and even cut, his iconic navy blue cap was nowhere to be seen, new lines covered his face and he didn’t smile. Two years in Australia had taken something from Jamal that the Taliban was unable to.

The man in front of me wasn’t a rock star; he was a delivery driver.