KARACHI, Pakistan The imposing 1,400-year-old Abdullah Shah Gazi Mausoleum occupies a prominent spot, built on a hilltop where this bustling city of 21 million meets the Arabian Sea.
On Thursday nights, bearded men and niqab-wearing women -- always segregated -- throng the shrine. After waiting in long lines, they drape garlands and scatter flower pedals over the tomb of the city's patron saint -- laid to rest amid the intricate blue and white tilework, at the top of a long staircase.
Abdullah Shah Gazi, the Sufi mystic interred here, is a direct descendent of the Prophet Muhammad, and is known for his healing powers. His shrine attracts pilgrims from afar, as well as locals who worship regularly. Religious leaders stand beside the marble sarcophagus, reciting prayers from the Quran. Street musicians jam on tablas and accordions; eyes closed, lips pursed, they sway to the beat as singers chant the fervent, soulful hymns of Sufi Islam.
Amid this deeply religious scene, the bittersweet scent of hash smoke wafts through the air.
In the shrine's recesses, men in flowing shalwar khameez robes share joints and pipes, taking long drags and passing them to strangers. Everyone is welcome in this communal smoke-fest. They exhale long grey clouds that dissipate into the humid air, while tapping feet and fingers to the music.
Devotees converge here to feel closer to God -- many with the aid of hash. It's a Karachi ritual that dates back to Abdullah Shah Gazi's death in 773. And it persists in contemporary culture. In the 1970s, Ahmed Parvez, one of the country's most revered artists, was a frequent visitor, a lit blunt in hand.
The shrine, a cornerstone of Pakistan's ancient Sufi tradition, is no libertine outpost. Women are discouraged from entering without a male escort. Most wear "burqas," with only their eyes visible. Men and women aren't permitted to touch in public. At the first sign of misconduct, policemen wave their wooden batons menacingly.
Even by the standards of the Muslim world, Pakistan is deeply conservative. Alcohol is forbidden. Women generally wear the veil outside of the house. Television networks censor the tamest sexual innuendo before airing foreign movies and sitcoms.
Drugs are illegal too. Technically, selling any drugs in Pakistan can lead to life in prison, though in rare cases tribal leaders have called for drug trafficker's public execution. In Karachi, however, such sentences are rare.
Though the country's bumbling police often enforce laws for harder drugs, they typically overlook hash. Cannabis is indigenous to South Asia, and inhabitants of the remote, unruly mountainous regions cultivate it widely; towering green plants with fragrant buds the size of fat cucumbers waft in the autumn breeze.
Pakistan's government banned drugs in the 1980s, when military ruler Gen. Zia ul Haq allegedly succumbed to Reagan administration pressure. But whether Zia was truly determined to crackdown is uncertain. He and his cronies were said to be taking a giant cut from Pakistan's drug trade. Local scholars estimate that, prior to Zia's death in a 1988 plane crash, 70 percent of the poppy crop attributed to Afghanistan was trafficked through Pakistan. Over two decades later, says the United Nations Office of Drug Control, 40 percent of the region's poppy crop still moves through the country.
With international attention long focused on poppy and heroin, hash has generally avoided scrutiny. There are exceptions, however. In mid-February this year, police seized 10 tons of export-bound hash from a warehouse near Karachi.