Being Pashtun does not have to mean being Taliban, a writer finds in faraway Karachi
Have you read Rehman Baba’s poetry?” Dr Ibrahim Yusufzai asks us in perfect English, referring to the Sufi poet beloved by the Pashtun. “It is all about peace and love.” It is dusk on a Sunday in late February and we are at a hujra, a traditional Pashtun guesthouse where the community’s men gather in the evenings to discuss everything from politics to poetry. This particular one is in Karachi in Shirin Jinnah Colony, named after Pakistan’s founding father’s sister, whose home, Mohatta Palace, now a museum, is a few kilometres away. My companion, Nick, and I are awaiting tea after a candid chat with a group of Pashtun transporters and truck drivers. We are on a donor-funded mission to ascertain the communication infrastructure and media-consumption patterns of Karachi’s Pashtun communities. The donor wants to know how Pakistan’s Pashtun are being radicalised by Afghanistan’s Taliban, and how media can be used to ‘prevent’ this from happening.
The situation is ironic, even amusing. A woman (albeit modestly wrapped in a dupatta that covers her hair) and a white man (although not an American) are sitting at an all-male Pashtun gathering, as the vanguard to roll back the influence of radical Islam. Nick has read some translations of Rehman Baba’s poetry and this pleases the good doctor, a surgeon and physician who runs a private clinic in this colony of Pashtun, whose occupational speciality is running the oil tankers that deliver fuel across the length and breadth of the land.
One by one, the members of the gathering leave for the mosque to offer their sunset prayers, and Nick is telling the diminished team about his plans to visit Peshawar in a few days. (Here, among members of the Shinwari, Afridi and Mohmand tribes, the call of azaan is obviously strong. Earlier that evening, among businessmen in Shershah, another Pashtun-dominated locality of the city, the call for the afternoon asr prayer had gone unheeded, as our hosts had given precedence to their guests.) “Then you must visit Rehman Baba’s shrine,” says Dr Yusufzai, handing Nick a cup of steaming kava, the sugary green tea that hydrates hujra conversations among the Pashtun everywhere. An interesting ritual takes place before the drinking commences. A few sips of tea are poured into one cup and transferred from cup to cup, till all the teacups have been thus ‘anointed’.
In all our conversations, there is not a trace of radicalism, just the tremendous hospitality for which the Pashtun are known. There are signs of modernity, however. These are Pashtun who watch Khyber TV, a 24-hour Pashto-only private channel, to keep the Karachi-born and -bred offspring speaking the mother tongue. The Taliban’s ban on television obviously has not a chance here. To make sense of the world, they get news through the proliferating FM radio; but when it comes to the BBC, they prefer to listen to the ‘original’ broadcast on AM, and read the anti-establishment Urdu-language Ummat newspaper to get the ‘real’ news. Like other Pakistani parents, they worry about the impact of Western media on their children. Their children have access to the Internet and mobile phones, their daughters go to school, and their wives are addicted to Indian soaps on Star TV.
A few days later, I am still on mission. I head to the home of my driver, Tahir Afridi, in the Moinabad colony of Karachi’s Landhi industrial area. There, his feisty 18-year-old daughter Shandana has asked her cousins, friends and neighbours over in order that I might talk to them about what they like to listen to, watch and read. The group is shy, save for Shandana. She complains about not having access to cable channels thanks to a radical local maulvi, who has forced the area’s largely illiterate and poor Pashtun factory workers to choose between him and cable TV. But in this area, characterised by deras – shared accommodation where Pashtun labourers who have left their families in villages in NWFP reside together – Western films (Shrek, Mr Bean) and Bollywood’s Govinda films are all readily available, dubbed into Pashto. There is also a DVD store decorated with posters of Pashto and Bollywood films, obviously willing to risk the maulvi’s wrath.
In fact, Pashto cinema itself is enjoying a resurgence in Pakistan. The industry, which had become infamous for what was practically pornography, has cleaned up its act. It is now so prolific that last year there were as many Pashto films produced in Pakistan as the Urdu and Punjabi ones combined. The audience of these films of made up of Pashtun youth – mostly daily construction workers, long-haul truck drivers and factory labourers. Indeed, this is the same age group and profile that is perceived to have come under Taliban influence, and thus being driven back to the NWFP by the mohajir-dominated government in Karachi.
Shandana and her cousins are also keen on FM radio. They listen to the programmes till late at night, on their brothers’ mobile phones. Music is a passion among the boys, and FM is the most popular source. Among Pakistan’s new FM channels, 103 MH is particularly popular “because it plays the best music,” Shandana tells me. Pashto music is also popular, and Karachi’s FM channels defer to the city’s sizeable Pashto-speaking population (estimated at four million) by playing Pashto music. While the boys prefer Pakistani pop, the girls are partial to Bollywood film soundtracks. But everyone listens to Pashto pop diva Nazia Iqbal.
Later in the day, at his modest two-bedroom flat in a middle-class neighbourhood in Karachi’s coastal township of Keamari, Dr Yusufzai has assembled his sons and nephews – Pashtun youth aged 14 to 20. Over glasses of Coca-Cola, they talk about their use of the Internet. Dr Yusufzai’s son, 18-year-old Haris, a student of pharmacology, writes a blog. A computer occupies pride of place in a well-lit corner of the lilac-painted sitting room. Haris’s younger brother, 17-year-old Bilal, uses the Internet to download music and access sports news. His father expresses anxiety that Bilal loves cricket and chatting on the Internet more than the chemistry that should be his focus.
Building others’ homes
While the Pashtun built high-rises, factories and houses across vast swathes in the oil-rich Arabian Gulf states over the 1970s and 1980s, their own society back home in NWFP was being systematically de-constructed. The patriarchal tribal culture that had existed for centuries, defying invaders from the West, had lost its battle with poverty. By the thousands every year, the menfolk left their wives and families to work at construction sites from Dubai to Doha. After building the roads, they began to drive the taxis, ferrying around tourists, businessmen and the urban population.
Many who were unable to make it to the Gulf found work in Karachi, a city of 17 million that likewise owes its infrastructural development to Pashtun labour. “Our contribution to building this city has been forgotten,” laments Ayaz Khan, whose business is based in Shershah. Sporting a traditionally embroidered Swati cap and unmistakable Pashtun pride, he vents his anger at the distortion of the Pashtun identity. “We are not Taliban,” he declares emphatically. “What they are practicing is not our Islam.” In a bid to rescue this deteriorating image of the Pashtun and to re-establish their individual identity, the secular Awami National Party (headed by the iconic Pashtun politician Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan’s grandson, Asfandyar Wali Khan) has issued a calendar for 2009. Under a picture of a white dove, it carries the legend, “We are peace loving Pukhtun.”
On 5 March, days after our visit to the hujra, a bomb explodes at Rehman Baba’s shrine in Peshawar (see box). Khyber Watch, a Pashtun website, has put up an elegiac requiem to the revered poet and mystic of five centuries ago. Indeed, even till today, hujra gatherings conclude with a recitation of Rehman Baba’s poetry set to the music of the rubab, a stringed instrument from Afghanistan. Yet as the hujra tradition has gradually declined, the Pashtun have become less exposed to Rehman Baba’s mystic poetry. The Sufi saying that “Rehman Baba is not an apostle but has a book revealed to him” would perhaps qualify as blasphemy to some. Those who prefer rigid definitions amidst the so-called battle for the soul of Islam are warning Muslims off the Sufi interpretations of their faith. Dr Yusufzai, however, still has hope. “Rehman Baba’s poetry is in the heart of every Pashtun,” he says. “These other people are not human, not Muslims, and certainly not Pashtun.”