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.
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?