LAHORE, PAKISTAN — Ancient neighborhoods in Pakistan’s bustling city Lahore are disappearing under the urban pressures of population growth and new construction. Painter and restaurant owner Iqbal Hussein, the son of a local prostitute, is struggling to preserve the art of a bygone era.
House of treasures
Tucked away in Iqbal Hussein’s house are treasures of Lahore's history: doors big enough for an elephant to walk through, hand-carved balconies, Hindu statues.
Many art pieces are from the now torn-down homes of prostitutes in Lahore’s old red-light district, a once-colorful community that is disappearing.
“It is almost lost now. There used to be, early morning, used to be so lovely voices, practicing going on, musicians used to come over, classical, the echo of a voice, training till 12 the training started, it was so elegant," he recalled. "There used to be beautiful voices, it was so elegant. So all finished now, very sad.”
In the streets where he grew up, the ornate brothels are gone. The area is still known as a red-light district, but Hussein says as prostitution went underground, it became more dangerous, run by criminals and infested with drugs.
Hussein kept the house where he was raised -- at the foot of the city's most famous mosque. He says despite pressure from religious groups, he plans to stay, run the popular restaurant he has built on the roof of his home, and continue painting the women of the local community.
Painting for dignity
Hussein says painting sex workers safeguards the dignity of their lives, much like his art collection protects the city’s history. “It’s very painful, as a sensitive person, as a painter, only I can bring them into my paintings to show them, these are human being also, they want to breathe also, they want to lead a respectable life,” he said.
He is aware that his views and activities pose serious risks from religiously inspired militants in today’s Pakistan. His own death is a subject of one painting.
“I’m a little concerned. Everyone has to leave this world, and it should be preserved," Hussein stated. "Dignity should be given to this.”
But although he worries that society is becoming more intolerant, he says he hopes that with time people will come to appreciate the history and art he has spent his life preserving.