Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s sad south


This is our world, and it will not turn on us and rend us. But it’s the same sun that glitters over trenches on perfect June mornings before the obliteration of thousands in a couple of hours. Men who shave themselves in the morning, and put tissue paper over a shaving cut are blown to rags by noon. (‘Zennor in Darkness’ by Helen Dunmore) PESHAWAR: Evil forces are at work in several places at the same time. They do not appear to have a moment’s rest as one imagines them mumbling ceaselessly ‘We can do what we like to you, and you cannot stop us, for we have the power and you are powerless.’ On June 26, 2013, terrorists attacked a convoy escorting a judge of the Sindh High Court, killing and maiming many who had left their homes for their workplaces on high notes. While this was going on, the long arms of terror were also simultaneously at work in the little bucolic world of Bannu where the target was a former chairman of the local peace committee. Malik Hashim Khan was killed along with his son and nephew in a remote-controlled blast aimed at the car in which they were traveling in the Jani Khel area of Bannu. The slain leader had since long disbanded the peace committee and had occupied himself only with the settlement of petty disputes in his area, but the unforgiving terrorists refused to forgive him. The tragedy that befell the family of Malik Hashim on June 26 was to a large extent overshadowed by the high profile incident in Karachi. But such indeed is the tragedy of the entire southern region of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa that it has literally been left to the machinations of terrorists of all hues. Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s southern region consists of seven districts, four tribal agencies and six semi tribal agencies. The so called Frontier Region of Darra Adam Khel is the gateway to the south as one travels from Peshawar. But for the consistent sound of gunfire echoing in its environs, the small sleepy tribal land of Darra Adam Khel, sandwiched between dark, grassless hills, was where people lived in peace until 2006. It was in Darra where the notorious car lifter ‘Charg’ lived and bargained with his hapless victims from his seat at a rickety string bed on the serene hilltop of ‘Tor Sappar.’ Little did people know what was in store for them when they rejoiced at the killing of ‘Charg’ by the Taliban? In hindsight ‘Charg’ is now remembered as a microscopic evil, and what followed consequently is history chronicled in blood. Passing through Darra these days to reach one of the seven districts of KP or the vastnesses of the tribal land is an exercise that requires an indomitable will. In addition to the ever present danger of the militants reemerging from their holes, there are check posts on either sides of the 1.8-kilometre long tunnel where one has to wait for hours before being allowed to proceed onward. One vividly remembers the construction of the long awaited tunnel at the turn of the millennium, and the excitement that it had generated all around among the travelers weary of crisscrossing the arduous hilly road in hostile climatic conditions. Back then, it must not have crossed anybody’s mind that soon after its opening the cherished tunnel would become the most sought after target of the militants in a seemingly endless conflict. Darra Adam Khel wears a sad look these days. Waiting for one’s meal of sheep meat being prepared on charcoal in the cool shadows of the grey mountains, evenings in Darra used to be inexpressibly refreshing. A cool breeze blowing on Darra’s serene hilltops even in the sweltering summers lend them an aura of veritable hill stations to which even several British soldiers turned writers have also testified in their wistful writings. Tourists, especially travel writers and journalists, would invariably include a visit to the arms factories of Darra in their itineraries. Countless suicide bomb blasts in mosques, hujras, marketplaces and playgrounds seem to have instilled permanent fear in the minds of the people that no amount of soothing official pronouncements appear to be putting to rest. Life beyond Darra in the districts of Hangu, and the tribal agencies of Orakzai and Kurram is even more pathetic. All these areas are blessed with unequalled beauty, particularly the highlands of Orakzai Agency with its limitless meadows, latent sources of water and salubrious climate and the snow covered mountains and orchards of Kurram Agency. Man seems to have done great harm to his being the best of all creations of God by disturbing the status quo in these areas as it prevailed there before the onset of the ongoing restlessness. Sunnis, Shias and Sikhs used to live in exemplary amity in the Orakzai Agency which was known to be so deeply immersed in its self imposed aura of peace and tranquility that unlike the other tribal areas it shied away even from petty disputes. Same was true of Hangu where intermarriages between Sunnis and Shias were common phenomenon. These days when the rest of the world is lolling in some brief moments of reprieve from violence, those looking for bad news can trust Hangu to produce one in little time. Hardly a day passes by when an incident of bomb blast or targeted killing is not reported from Hangu and its adjoining areas. People from all these areas have been forced to evacuate to the relative safety of camps at great discomfort to their well being but here too death, shamelessly clad in the all enveloping traditional Pakhtun burqa, keeps pursuing them. Luckily Karak, known for the best berries-made honey, is the only district in the southern region that has so far been spared by the suicide bombers. Lakki Marwat, bordering Karak, does not share this good fortune of its northern neighbour where not quite long ago nearly a hundred people were moved down by a suicide bomber during a volleyball match in a single incident of unrestrained terror. Since then life in the district is just a shadow of what it used to be when carefree Marwats would enjoy themselves in numerous ways, not the least dancing wildly to the beat of the drum. Bannu to the southwest of Lakki Marwat has borne the brunt of the conflict on account of being bordering the restive tribal agency of North Waziristan. Local and personal enmities resulting in senseless killings have long been the bane of life in the land of Bannuchis. But that aside, the constant beat of the drum echoing through its length and love for flowers would never allow a dull moment in Bannu. Some of that is still there including the miniscule procession on the 10th day of Muharram but by and large life in Bannu has been deeply impacted by terrorism which has petrified people as formidable as even the Bannuchis. Further south with the ubiquitous camps for the internally displaced persons, the insidious suicide bombers lurking in the shadows, targeted killings and kidnappings for ransom, the narrative in the districts of Dera Ismail Khan and Tank and the tribal agency of South Waziristan differs little. Unabated terrorism has forced mass exodus of people from the south to Peshawar increasing pressure on the capital city, which is bursting at the seams. One wonders where all this is taking us to. One cannot begrudge the southerners for their pain is too deep to be confused with trivial questions and observations, but when will it be that one could enjoy again the sight and sounds of the south uninhibited?

Pakistan’s Afghanistan

“Your eyes aren’t eyes, they’re bees I find no cure for their sting”
The above is a “landay,” or a folk couplet, common among the Pashtuns living on the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. This particular one was written by one of the twenty million women. The creators and listeners of landay, which are meant to be sung aloud, do not have to be literate, and in Pashtu the landays rarely rhyme. The only formal property of a landay is that it consists of 22 syllables, nine in the first line and 13 in the second. The poem ends with the sound “ma” or “na.” The story of the landay, the above selection, and many others written by predominantly Afghan women, were compiled, collected, translated, and then published by Poetry Magazine in the United States. The author of the volume, Eliza Griswold, traveled across Afghanistan collecting them. The result is an evocative collection that allows a glimpse into the private world of Pashtun women, one largely unavailable for public consumption. There are landays about lost loves, landays about drones, landays about emotional misgivings, and personal ones. As Griswold narrates, collecting them was difficult; the women were often afraid. In one instance, when she tried to take a picture of the gathering with her iPhone, they took it from her and hid it. In Pakistan, everyone would know why; we bury women for transgressions caught on cell phones all the time. There is something sorrowful about reading the account in an American magazine, much like learning of a neighbor’s illness from the mouth of a distant, faraway acquaintance. But such is the reality of our estranged proximities. In the decade of fighting the Taliban, from the days when they were a mysterious faraway force marauding Kabul, to the present when their names, faces, and ravages are well known, Pakistanis have never really learned much about either Pashtun or Afghan culture. As the Tehreek-e-Taliban have usurped the rhetoric of religion – appointing themselves the arbiters of authenticity, of righteousness, and of faith – there has been protest. Many mourn and question this; Islam must not be lost to the Taliban. Fewer have mourned the loss of Pashtun culture, of poetic forms such as the landay, of traditional music, of storytelling. The politicisation of Pashtun identity has meant that the loss has been constructed in entirely political terms, cultural appreciation thus neatly equaling ethnic segregation. Pakistan’s aging but persisting ethnic enmities have dictated that any appreciation of cultural tropes associated with ethnic identity must be celebrated only by those who either ascribe to that identity or who have forgotten it completely. Add to this that the loudest, brashest, and most violent claimants of culture usually win, and you have a rout in which the Tehreek-e-Taliban own Pashtun culture. The dynamics above, the language of geopolitical maneuvering, and strategic balancing has dominated Pakistan’s understanding of its next door neighbor. Any remaining space has been filled by images of an encroaching refugee horde, in the 80’s and the 90’s and recently as a result of the Nato invasion. The dark grays and blues and beards and burqas of the men and women that live on the outskirts of our cities add to this stark and dehumanised palette. There is no room for culture here, no room for understanding. Humanising the Pashtun and the Afghan is thought to impose costs far too dear for us to bear. After all, our bloody cities, our bombed schools have given us enough to mourn and little left; looking to the pain in another’s poetry may impose still more costs, and we are all emotionally bankrupt. So it is left to others to celebrate the landay. In the Pakistani imagination, Afghanistan remains a black hole of mystery populated only by worn images of fighters perched on mountain promontories and nameless, faceless women in blue burkas. What we have in common, the Pashtuns that live here and there, has been understood only in terms of the political liabilities they impose or, on good days, the strategic gifts they can bestow. The state is dismal and it can best be captured by the landay that begins the essay published in Poetry magazine. Written by a teenage poet who goes by the name Rahila Muska, from Helmand in Afghanistan, it simply says:
“I call, You’re a stone,One day you will look,and I am gone