Special Projects

Hafiz has had the opportunity to travel to some of the world's most exotic/remote locations to stage special events/"court entertainments" for His Highness the Aga Khan, spiritual leader of the Ismaili Muslims. These projects included staging Azaan - A Call to Prayer (1994) with performers from Tajikistan; helping to organize state visits to Tajikistan (1995) and the river bank of Badakhshan, Afghanistan (1998); a presentation of buzkashi (Kyrgyz style Polo Match) on the plains of Murghab; Legend of the Baltit Fort in Gilgit, Northern Areas of Pakistan with folk artists from Hunza and Shimshal (near Xinjiang, Western China). Closer to home, Mr. Karmali directed the entertainment for the inauguration of the Ismaili Centre in Lisbon (1998) and staged the recitation of devotional odes at the homage ceremony for the Aga Khan's Golden Jubilee (Aiglemont, 2007).

Hafiz Karmali in Pakistan

Commissioned in 1992 by the Institute of Ismaili Studies in London to conduct research into traditions of performing arts in the Islamic world and to develop long-term strategies by which cross-cultural performances might serve as a means for diplomacy, Hafiz held workshops throughout the Hunza region of Northern Pakistan, culminating in an outdoor evening performance of Rumi's Tales from the Masnavi. His account of that adventure follows below.


While there is a rich cultural heritage and a tradition of dance, theatre and music in Pakistan, the government today [1992] maintains that it is improper for women to perform. I particularly remember observing a rehearsal of folk dance in Lahore where somewhat effeminate, portly Punjabi men dressed in drag took on roles previously held by voluptuous women.


Language was one of the more fascinating aspects of working in Pakistan. While most actors with whom I worked spoke English, the show had to be performed in Burshaski, a local dialect in the Northern Areas. This led to a series of absurdities: working originally in Farsi, I acquired an Urdu rendering (ironically Urdu is derived from Farsi) which then in turn in rehearsal had to be transposed into Burshaski.

After describing the scenarios and choreographing the lazzi, actors were encouraged to improvise in their own dialect. This meant that even with my rudimentary Urdu and basic Burshashki (having learned the key phrases necessary for fine directing: stop, go, softer, louder, slower, faster) inspired ad libs left me at the mercy of a translator falling over sideways, wondering, "What was so funny?"


While it may seem obvious, a key lesson I learned: When in a foreign culture, one must neither expect nor impose one's own way of doing things. It will not be readily apparent, but in the end the others will change your mind-set rather than you theirs. This does not imply surrendering your will or demeaning your values, merely a sensitive approach which ultimately yields better results.


The Hunzakot loves to sit among friends or invite new acquaintances to share a pot of tea. Hours are whiled away in the most hospitable company. Whenever a new member joins the group, a round of polite welcoming handshakes follow, only to be repeated later when the next guest arrives. Greetings and farewells are choreographed to perfection. No wonder the actors were late for rehearsal! Nor did they quite appreciate the subtleties of a rehearsal call: not everyone is expected all the time; check the board at your friendly neighbourhood tea room and voilà.

Instead, the actors put in an appearance as and when the mood struck or irrigation of their apricot orchards would allow. Highly trained by a daily dose of Calvin and Hobbes, I learned very quickly to stage scenes with invisible friends.


Every director dreads the retort "we're working on it" which in American theatre parlance roughly translates to mean we have no idea how to fix the problem, we're hours behind schedule, but soon, the muse will descend and we will find an inspired solution. Rest assured, this phrase exists in Hunza: "Fikr mat karo" (not to worry).

Little did I know, we were promised the only P.A. system in town – the one still in use at the local mosque only minutes before show time. Any notion of sound check, let alone tech, was removed my mind faster than you could say "sound cue."

Channeling electricity from the town's light poles, the lighting designer, now proud as ever, and eager to prove that he has delivered after all, inevitably at once turns on ALL of the painstakingly and meticulously crafted cooking oil can/lighting instruments and POOF! – what do you know – overload / BLACK OUT.

We ended up performing with a single, perfunctory flood. Silly me, I should have gone for the The Holy Brook Look: candles and lanterns instead of trying to show off the latest in laser precise Wilson sidelight.



The transition into scene one held a special surprise: headsets and other cueing mechanisms rendered irrelevant, the opening sequence was choreographed on a visual: as Thief leaps over fence into garden (onstage), cue sound to then cue actors carrying tree (a multi-purpose ladder). Unbeknownst to all, during the preshow, as the amphitheatre was now filled to capacity, some enterprising young boys tried to perch upon a roof for what was no doubt the best seat in the house. Well, need I say they innocently used the ladder and promptly misplaced it. Meanwhile Actor/Thief onstage awaits tree, improvises, fakes climbing up into thin air, music, music, music, ladder magically appears, the show goes on. Phew! "Fikr mat karo."

Staging fables by Rumi, the Persian Sufi (mystic) in the style of post-modern circus/vaudeville with a company of local actors, improvising and performing in an all together foreign language (Burshaski — more like Russian than Urdu), set amidst the breathtaking Karakaroum mountain range bordering China, I felt as if I were living Andre Gregory's story from the film My Dinner with Andre.