The meaning of mountains

October 28, 2018

Only the mountains, that have stood and looked down at the valleys that make up Chitral for centuries, know in the wisdom that comes with age what the future will be for the people. Views from a recent visit to Chitral and Kalash

The meaning of mountains

I have always loved mountains. I grew up among them in the Nathiagali area, and in so many ways the best parts of my childhood are associated with mountains in various parts of Pakistan. But in Chitral, which I visited recently, the mountains have many different meanings. Depending on who I spoke to, and how I looked at them from the complex situation of the largest district in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, there were many divergent ideas flowing side by side, like the cerulean streams that criss-cross the landscape.

The women in Chitral differ in their opinions about them, with those of the older generation often valuing the steep, barren slopes for protecting them from the outside world, while others shun them for precisely the same reason, regarding them as an impediment to communication.

The lives of these women are freer than might be expected, particularly compared to their counterparts in the rest of KP. The literacy rate for them is 63 per cent, far higher than the average of 53 per cent for the rest of KP and also above the average literacy for women in the rest of the country. Enrolment rates at schools for girls grow each year with girls receiving high quality education at least at some schools. At one school, the Chitrali girls spoke in fluent English.

According to Farhan Bashir, a political and social activist in Chitral, the women of his home district enjoy more freedoms than any others in KP. Education for them is accepted, said a girl I met while in Chitral.  She said it was her father who most actively encouraged her to seek learning. Unlike their counterparts across most of the country, Chitrali girls and their families do not bear the burden of paying dowry. Instead, it is the family of the boy who must pay a bride price and bear all the expenses of a wedding.

But despite this, I felt life was not idyllic for the girls who live amidst these remote mountains. In the first place, they have limited opportunities of ever leaving them, since families discourage marriage to non-Chitralis. "I feel almost trapped by these mountains in some ways," said Qurtulain, who felt they suffocated her and held her back. In some ways, what she said made sense even though other girls stated they loved their picturesque home.

In Chitral, where 14 languages are spoken, there are no female singers. It is socially taboo for females to pursue a career in music, and for almost all female school students fortunate enough to reach high school the only options in terms of career are engineering and medicine. This was a change brought about after Partition, and the annexation of Chitral along with Gilgit Baltistan in 1947. Before that, there were female singers and dancers who performed across the valley, with concerts organised mainly for all-female audiences. All that changed when Chitral, an autonomous princely state, was made an administrative district of Pakistan in 1969.

I could sense that today, people were caught between two worlds between those mountains. The victory of the MMA, an alliance of religious parties, raised questions for them. Some like Bashir and a hotel waiter, Iftikhar, felt the rising influence of the MMA would further restrict the traditional peace that existed in Chitral between the large Ismaili community there, the Sunni population and the Kalash, who live in three valleys an hour and a half’s hair-raising jeep ride away from Chitral Town -- but the narrow roads are more than worth bearing to reach the beauty that awaits there.

I immediately felt a sense of the mystique of the Kalash as I thought about the legends involving this group of people whose origins are still unknown. But at the same time, while the traditional headdresses and clothing were still worn by the 3,000 to 4,000, about half of whom still retain their traditional religion, a growing number of the others have converted to Islam, sometimes as a result of coercion from the outside world.

There are many reasons why I felt a sense of loss when I visited the Kalash valleys: Because diversity is being taken away from us by the failure of the state to protect a unique culture and school of belief. Luke Rehmat, a journalist and activist for Kalash rights, said "because textbooks taught in schools include Islamiyat, and Kalasha children are told from an early age that Muslims are good and others are kaafir, this naturally has an influence on them."

But it is not just belief which changed the Kalash. Simply because they are unique with their distinctive dress, colourful seasonal festivals and the pretty cottages such as that to which women are expected to remain during their menstrual cycle and pregnancy, they are virtually hunted by tourists. Money is paid, sometimes on the encouragement of the tourist companies who bring people to the area to visit their homes, to take pictures or to watch a dance. In some ways, this is almost like the prostitution of a culture.

I was uncomfortable with this exploitation of the warm, friendly people, and the approach to them almost as zoo animals who could perform small tricks for the camera or be gazed upon by those who came from the outside as if they were not really human. Of course, stories also abounded of tourists who treated Kalash girls as prostitutes in the ugliest sense of the word.

Chitral then, for me, left behind many ideas and in some ways a sense of confusion. The region has managed to retain a peaceful coexistence between the various groups of culturally and religiously diverse people who live there. But it stands today at the crossroads. Perhaps only the mountains, that have stood and looked down at the valleys that make up Chitral for centuries, know in the wisdom that comes with age, quite what the future will be for the people of Chitral and for the generations to follow.

This is an edited version of what appeared in print.

The meaning of mountains