Pashtun poets struggle to hold on to craft

July 28, 2014 - 12:05:45 am

BANNU: For more than five centuries, poets in remote northwestern Pakistan have recited verses about the area’s mountainous scenery, their tribal culture and love.

That all changed as Islamist militants tightened their hold on Pakistan’s tribal regions after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The Taliban and its allies quickly crushed the poets’ words and spirits. They were warned not to write phrases that referred to women or serenity and instead ordered to compose jihadist messages of war, brutality and conformity.

Now about 50 poets are part of a mass migration of more than 700,000 Pakistanis who have been displaced from the North Waziristan region as the military seeks to dislodge Islamist militants there. And amid the chaos of refugee life, they are restoring tradition to their verses.

“It was so horrible for me, like a nightmare, when they approached me for the first time to make words about slaughtering innocent people part of my poetry,” said poet Saleem Khan, 38, who fled North Waziristan for the northwestern city of Bannu. “How could a poet who has very soft feelings for his land and people become a tool to spread terror?”

Many of the refugees in this northwestern city were abruptly forced to leave their homes and now must endure rationed food, overcrowded housing and uncertainty about the fate of their livestock. Yet despite those hardships, the refugees are also rediscovering a life free from the sway of radical Islamists who effectively ruled North Waziristan for the past decade.

Under the control of the Pakistani Taliban and other insurgent groups, tribal elders had to shed their colorful turbans and instead don the black ones worn by the militants. Traditionally expensive Pashtun weddings were reduced to just a few guests, because the Taliban didn’t allow music and dancing. Residents who once would swap gossip outside under the stars were encouraged to remain indoors after sunset.

“The Taliban’s order was final and no one dared to oppose that,” said Muhammad, a 36-year-old shopkeeper, who like many Pashtuns uses only one name. “You would have been kidnapped or killed to terrorise the others.”

For the poets, many of whom are now living with relatives here in the dusty city of Bannu, the Taliban rules meant many long years of grief. Initially, the refugee poets said, they resisted their new rulers’ orders to abandon poetry by gathering in small groups inside darkened shops and homes to recite their words.

“It was a revolution of thought, related to peace,” said Shafiuddin, 28. Eventually, however, all but a handful gave into the pressure to use their skills to try to advance the cause of Islamist militancy, Shafiuddin and other poets said.