Friday, 6 February 2015

Swat Valley Schoolgirl Blues

Now in the news again for all the worst possible reasons since the Taliban killed over 130 schoolchildren, my memory returns to the Peshawar and Swat Valley I visited during a balmy late Spring in 1999. I came here and was moved by its gentle, kind people, finding it a quiet, spiritual outpost after busy, noisy cities

It was quite a relief to leave Rawalpindi unmarried. My year backpacking in Asia had brought me to Pakistan. Although already covered in loose clothes revealing nothing of my shape, and hiding my hair with a long scarf, I wanted traditional Pakistani dress. The search for a shalwar kameez (pyjama suit) from a market stall had led to a friendly conversation with uncle and nephew stallholders. We exchanged the usual pleasantries about country of origin, family etc. and they studied my family snaps with great interest. This apparent intimacy led to two proposals of marriage, one for me from the uncle and one for my daughter from the nephew. Politely, I declined both proposals and any of the ready-made shalwar-kameez suits. The next day, I left for Peshawar in Pakistan’s North West Frontier Province.

Tall, swarthy looking Pashtuns graced this untameable border town. They wore elegant turbans and long cloaks which could be hiding anything from smuggled goods to unspeakable weaponry. The tension was undeniable, the Khyber Pass so close. The sight and aroma of freshly cooking Afghan food in Saddar Bazaar reminded me that I was hungry. It was difficult to choose which of the many options to take. Finally I sat with a buoyant Pakistani girl at an outdoor food stall and talked with her whilst we ate grilled mutton kebabs dipped in minted yogurt with hot Afghani flat bread. She was studying fish-farming at the university and had high hopes of doing something for her country, her town and the people living there. We had a common interest in playing badminton; at home I played mixed doubles, she, here, played with her female friends in a closed hall out of the sight of men. Before leaving, she pointed out a fabric stall through the mass of bartering shoppers as, unable to find anything off the peg I had decided to have a shalwar kameez made. As a mature woman travelling alone and wishing to blend in, I rejected the highly embroidered and sequined materials, and chose a plain pale blue, the colour of the clear Pakistani sky. The 50km bus ride to Madyan involved thrashing recklessly along roads through miles of wheat fields as the view softened with green, rolling hills. Big mountains loomed in the distance. Pakistani music from a cassette player blared joyfully from the driver’s cockpit with bright, jingly devotional trinkets hanging from the rear-view mirror. In Thailand, these salute Buddha, in India a favourite god and in Pakistan, symbols from the Qur’an. In the crowded bus I sat next to a fat lady, all female passengers customarily seated at the front away from the men. As the road became more steep and winding, she cushioned me on the right hand bends but flattened me against the window on the left hand bends with her full weight squashing me. We had as much of a conversation as you can have with just a few photographs and no common language. Something like empathy passed between us and I missed her when we parted at Mangella. I bought juicy, ripe locally grown peaches for the next leg of the journey by minibus. Madyan had a choice of guest-houses having been a favourite place for hippies in previous decades. The dopey, relaxed influence remained despite the Swat River rushing through with melted snow from the surrounding mountains.The tea shops and guest houses had ambiguous names.

The Masha Allah CafĂ© welcomed the international visitor to ‘Take your meal and have a climax’; harmless innuendo for the amusement of foreigners.I booked in at a guest house where five young European travellers were enjoying smoking some of the local produce and were therefore not interested in exploring as I was! I found a tailor, gave him my fabric and asked him to make a shalwar-kameez for me. He looked perplexed. Blushing as he measured me, he said he couldn’t understand why a woman of my years had bought the material used for making girls’ school uniforms, my schoolgirl days being more than a few decades behind me. Then I remembered that I had seen school-aged girls wearing this colour since arriving in Pakistan and realised my blunder. Deciding it didn’t matter as long as I was discreetly dressed, I asked him to make it anyway and we shared the humour. It would be finished by the evening. Tempted by a mountain track alongside a stream, I climbed for hours, meeting local people on the way. I could have been in the Scottish hills had it not been for the different trees, the blistering heat and the men and women dressed in shalwar-kameez working together in the wheat fields. A tall, handsome man kindly invited me into his cottage for tea. He introduced me to his blind mother for whom he cared. She was unable to stand or walk. He gave me directions and some strawberries from his garden and waved farewell over his garden wall. Climbing the steep path, I stopped for a rest and drink of water at the side of the little stream at the invitation of a woman who was doing her washing there, a little settlement being nearby. Before long five other women had arrived with their laundry. Out came my photographs again which were passed round and discussed by the women who felt relaxed enough in all-female company to forget about their head-scarves which dropped to their shoulders. They smiled and chatted amongst themselves in their local language, appraising me, curious as to why I was walking up the mountain alone. By this time I was used to being asked, “Where is your husband/brother/father?” Pastoral views of the surrounding mountains got better with each step. The path petered out, firstly to a sheep track and then to nibbled grass. Schoolgirl uniform blue sky changed to grey and towards the west, a dark purple. Rain was neither far away nor likely to be a light shower. A man in a brown shalwar-kameez walked towards me and pointing to the sky beckoned me to follow him. I’d been travelling long enough to know to trust him. Far away thunder from somewhere indefinable bounced off the mountains like the silver marble in a pin-ball machine. A few heavy drops of rain fell as he opened the door of his mountain home, a wooden hut with fenced garden and sheep pens alongside.

Shy girl and boy relatives came to have a peep at me as I drank a cup of chai. The storm passed and all came skipping along as the farmer pointed out the path that would take me back down to Madyan which I could see far below, a very steep decline. The storm restarted violently as I ran down but I carelessly laughed with joy feeling invincible and totally content. Close thunder cracked, and then deepened to a roar. Drenched but exhilarated, I arrived back at the town at dusk. I collected my perfectly fitting garments from the tailor and walked along the road to the guest house. The other residents had been smoking dope all day but were not as high as I was after my day out.

Shortly after leaving this green valley I stayed at Besham, a nearby town. The hotel manager and his friend got into conversation with me, surprised I was travelling alone. They exchanged disapproving glances and made a comment about the Taliban. I made the naiive assumption that nobody would willingly agree with their ideals so was aghast at hearing they were very much in favour of them and asked why. They said that we are misinformed in the West about the Taliban who are only interested in stopping the corruption that keeps Pakistan poor. It is not in the West’s favour to have a united Asia. That would be too dangerous. So India and Pakistan are kept at loggerheads with the Kashmir issue so that the defence budget of each prevents economic strength and unity. They said that Pakistan spends 75% of its income on defence but that most of the remaining funds go to corrupt government officials, leaving little for the people. Pakistan is reportedly ruled by a few rich and powerful family clans and that non-corrupt, honest candidates do not stand a chance. The hotel manager’s friend worked for the government, measuring the output from rivers for hydro-electricity purposes but he explained with sadness that the government chose coal-fired stations as they would get richer that way, through commissions and grants. These men were trying to educate the local people to be more politically aware and foresaw that in a couple of years there would be an uprising. They were confident that the Taliban would stop all corruption in Pakistan. Too beautiful to suffer the fate that has befallen it, the tranquil tourist-venue haven that was the Swat Valley in 1999 became a battleground between Taliban fighters and the Pakistani military. The birthplace of Vajrayana Buddhism lost its peace. Healthcare and education broke down. People fled their homes and businesses and schools were bombed in retaliation if they did not close their doors to girls. The Taliban had demanded the imposition of strict Sharia Law in the Swat district. This included a complete ban on female education. Over 400 schools, involving 40,000 enrolled schoolgirls were shut down. Many schools defying the ban were blown up; a very different type of thunderous sound now heard among the mountains. The army had almost restored the area and former residents were feeling safe to return whenTaliban gunmen boarded a school bus in Mingora and shot innocent girl pupils who were on their way home. Malala Yousafzai survived the attack and has recently jointly won a Nobel Peace Prize for her calm stance and determination to fight peacefully for education for all children. I wonder if the Taliban supporters I met still feel the Taliban will stop corruption. Will tourists return? If they have their way there will be no jolly music on the buses as music is banned by the Taliban. Although the devastated school has now reopened, I wonder if other young women like my delightfully vivacious lunch companion in Peshawar will be allowed to play badminton or study for the benefit of Pakistan and will there ever again be a use for the gentle, sky blue fabric for sale on market stalls in the North West Frontier Province?

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