A poet with a lantern

June 18, 2017

Not many people know about Sharif Khan Ustad, a Pashto poet from North Waziristan, who died recently and how he used to carry a lantern in daytime to ward off the Taliban era’s darkness

A poet with a lantern

How would one react to an old man walking on foot and all the time carrying a lighted lantern in his hand?

Most would consider him mentally ill. Others would dismiss him as a deewana because only an insane person would carry a lighted lantern in daytime.

It wasn’t easy to define Sharif Khan Ustad, a Pashto poet from North Waziristan who died recently at the age of 81. People added Ustad to his name, Sharif Khan, as a mark of respect because he was a senior and seasoned Pashto poet.

Sharif Ustad was laid to rest in his village, Hassokhel in Mir Ali sub-division. Hassokhel was among several villages close to Mir Ali town where the local militants had made their presence felt and also harboured foreign fighters belonging to a host of militant groups before the launching of the military’s Zarb-e-Azb operation in June 2014. The whole village was displaced while the militants mostly fled across the border to Afghanistan.

A few months ago most of the villagers repatriated to Hassokhel. Sharif Ustad’s family too returned home after spending several months in tough conditions in Bannu in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

Sharif Ustad was already known as a poet who composed verses spontaneously and recited his poetry loudly. More people came to know about him in 2008 when he started carrying a lighted lantern wherever he went. It intrigued the people and became the subject of discussion. Many laughed at him, but his admirers said it showed high levels of his philosophical mind.

As local journalist and analyst Ihsan Dawar put it "he wanted to convey the message that we are facing darkness so we need to carry light in daytime."

It is said he considered the militants then ruling North Waziristan as the forces of darkness that needed to be tackled with light. Ihsan Dawar is a witness to all this as he was then based in Mir Ali and was close to Sharif Ustad.

Sharif Ustad wasn’t an ordinary man. He wasn’t educated, but had learnt to speak Urdu, Arabic and Persian and quote Shaikh Saadi, Maulana Rum and other literary luminaries and spiritual figures.

Sharif Ustad believed in non-violence and was a follower of the late freedom fighter Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, commonly known as Bacha Khan. Despite belonging to the tribal region where the heavily armed Pakhtun tribes took pride in their war history, he was a man of peace. He also struggled for development of his under-developed tribal area.

According to the local people, he played a role in establishment of an elementary college in Mir Ali because he said it would spread light through education.

In practice, Sharif Ustad was a malang (mendicant) who composed interesting poetry and talked sense. He was a simple man and had few needs in life. He never resorted to begging and sold ice and food items such as "pakoras" to make a living. As Ihsan Dawar pointed out, Sharif Ustad dressed and looked like a malang but in reality he was a keen observer of the situation and commentator. In his view, Sharif Ustad wasn’t an ordinary man. He wasn’t educated, but had learnt to speak Urdu, Arabic and Persian and quote Shaikh Saadi, Maulana Rum and other literary luminaries and spiritual figures.

As so often happens in our society, Sharif Ustad is being praised after his death but there was almost no recognition for him and his poetry as long as he was alive. One has heard tribal elders and educated tribesmen conveying an image that shows him as an enlightened man with a philosophical bent of mind. They recall his meaningful words and actions that looked odd at the time.

At times, one gets the feeling that Sharif Ustad is being reinvented as someone who deserved better recognition and appreciation in his life-time.

He had two sons, including Mohibullah, who used to drive a pick-up in North Waziristan and was killed by the militants in 2010 on spying charges. Whenever Sharif Ustad visited his son’s grave, he would remark "you died a useless death because you neither brought money home nor anyone’s head". In a way, he meant that how could his son be a spy when he didn’t make money or got someone killed.

It is believed that Sharif Khan knew his son’s killers, but kept quiet as he was helpless to do anything. This was the time when the militants had set up a parallel administration in North Waziristan with their own prison cells and courts. The bodies of men killed or beheaded were found by the roadside or in town squares with a note identifying them as spies and warning that anyone else caught spying would meet the same fate. The note often warned that the body ought not to be removed for burial until a specific time.

Nobody could question the militants and it was well nigh impossible for someone labelled as a spy to clear his name. Most were blamed for spying for the US or the Pakistan military. In overwhelming number of cases, the charge was that the spy in question provided intelligence to the US military authorities for carrying out drone strikes.

The sympathies of the local people with Sharif Ustad increased after the killing of his son. On his part, he took all this in his stride as he wasn’t a worldly man.

There are stories and anecdotes galore regarding Sharif Ustad. These are being told and retold as people belatedly realise that he said and did meaningful things. One such story needs to be told.

Once when wheat flour was in short supply and the people were suffering because their staple food wasn’t easily available, Sharif Ustad put grass in his mouth and came to the Mir Ali bazaar with two Afghan refugee boys leading him by a rope. He went to the office of the assistant political agent to complain that there was no atta (flour) in the bazaar. The officer sanctioned 50 bags of flour for Sharif Ustad, who promptly tore the permit and told the assistant political agent that he didn’t want anything for himself but was pleading the case of the people.

A poet with a lantern