Behind the scenes of ‘The Girl from the Walled City’

Zareena Begum
Picture of Zareena Begum in the Hera Mandi area of Lahore.

Meet Zareena Begum, a sex worker from Lahore’s walled city. Dancing has been her family’s profession for ages, and she began dancing at the age of nine.

In 2013, Zareena’s daughter, Saba, lost her legs in a bomb blast near the Shahi Mohalla. Zareena and Saba are the subjects of my second poetry film, ‘The Girl from the Walled City.’ They invite me into their one-room apartment that overlooks the Badshahi Masjid and make me feel welcome. Elsewhere, you can hear the strum of tablas and sitars emanating from the streets. We talk about everything from patriarchy to the women’s protection bill to Hira Mandi’s current situation to LGBT rights. 

Halfway through the interview, the electricity goes out. Lahore, at this hour, is sweltering. Zareena Begum suggests we go to the roof. I sit on a stone, and she brews tea. I asked the wheelchair-ridden girl where I might get payals in the area. I immediately regret the question. She smiles and says: “Our payals are famous all over Pakistan. Take mine. Give it to your friend and give her my love. Tell her to dance wearing it.” 

Zareena Begum offers me a cup of tea and says: “Yes. Your friend must dance. Women from all over Pakistan ought to wear payals and dance. My little girl can’t dance anymore, but she can still fly kites.” 

It is a windy evening, and Begum suggests we fly a kite. Her son makes a kite and offers me the spool. I shrug my shoulders and say: “Begum, I don’t know how.” She chuckles and takes the spool from my hands and says: “Why, of course, you are a man. Only a dancer from the walled city knows of the freedom it takes to fly a kite.’ I laughed. 

The truth is, I agree. The wheelchair ridden girl flies a kite, and the expression in her eyes is that of defiance. I am absolutely in awe of these strong women. Their stories are inspiring beyond belief, and each day, I feel my purpose as a writer is to tell these stories, which I will do that as long as I can. More power to you, little Saba and Begum.