A handful of tourists and enthusiastic locals can now be seen visiting the CD shops and markets that are slowly coming back to life. But fear still haunts those in the music industry. Musician Sardar Yousufzai says, “The situation in Swat is still far from perfect. Residents of the valley are still gripped by the fear of militants. But I am trying to combat it through music. I have released seven albums so far including an album ‘Leewanay Intizaar’ (Maddening Wait) released two months ago in which I have sung poems of local Pashto poets on the militancy plagued Swat. I want people to forget about the bygone days and come forward to establish peace in the area.”
Sardar survived an attempt on his life on December 15, 2008 when masked militants sprayed his vehicle with bullets, leaving him with injuries and killing popular harmonium player Anwar Gul. “I don’t know who they were and why they wanted to kill us. We were travelling in two vehicles after moving out of our village Thana in the morning just one and half kilometres away. Six masked armed militants appeared and started firing indiscriminately.”
He recently performed at several live musical concerts in Mingora, Kalam and Marghurzar. “The Swati people are brave and tourists also turn up to enjoy the music and erase the scars of war from their memories,” he says. Karan Khan, another young singer hailing from Mingora, says, “The situation is getting better for singers and artists. I am working on my third album which will be released this Eid. People are slowly coming out of the shock they had suffered.”
The situation in Swat wasn’t always so dire for artists. Miangul Abdul Wadood, a former ruler of Swat, and his son Miangul Abdul Haq Jehanzeb used to patronise and encourage musicians, writers and artisans. They had allocated a street, Barn Street, to traditional singers and dancers in the heart of Mingora city. Swat has produced many prominent actors, singers and stage performers including Pashto movie hero Badar Munir, the queen of Pashto melody Mashooq Sultana and popular pop singers such as Rahim Shah, Nazia Iqbal and Ghazala Javed.
About 20 to 30 families of dancing girls now live in Barn Street and access has improved although it can still be a challenge. “Don’t say you are a journalist; pose as a guest,” warned my friend who took me to the street. A newcomer walking through the street in daylight always draws suspicious looks from the residents. My friend contacted a dancing girl on her cell phone. As I walked through the narrow, dingy street, everybody gave me suspicious looks. A few steps ahead, Shaista waved asking us to come to her house.
“Please don’t take my photograph.” Shaista switched on the fan as we sat down in her well-decorated room.” Serving us black tea, she detailed her hardships “We feel better now but fear still reigns. Most of my regular clients and visitors are yet to turn up; our business has not picked up momentum. I cannot forget the day our close friend Shabana was brutally murdered in the Green Chowk. That night on FM radio there was an announcement telling us to close our business or face the consequences. For days I could neither sleep nor eat properly and then I began taking sleeping pills. Most families left for Peshawar and Lahore.”
Shaista says that the local administration is now helping them out but they are still wracked by fear. Her sister, 16-year-old Musarrat Jabeen, concurs. “I fear attending unknown phone calls and entertaining a guest at home. We wear heavy clothes when leaving the house.”
When the Taliban banned all cultural activities, especially music and dance, and followed through by bombing a large number of CD shops in Swat, local markets soon flooded with CDs containing video clips of Taliban slitting the throats of innocent people. “In Mingora city there were two big CD markets: Malik and Palwasha with more than 100 shops but most of them were blown up by militants, now only 20 to 30 CD shops are left. I have lost two shops which caused me a huge loss of Rs2 million, I took a loan from a local bank and rebuilt this shop. I sell 300 CDs in a day, mostly of Pashto films, to youngsters. The business is going well but the government has not compensated us for our losses,” says Sikandar Khan.
He reveals that the owners of the shops are fearful of renting out their stores to those who want to sell CDs in case the militants return. Raza Khan says, “We supply CDs to the local markets in Behrain, Kalam, Mayan and other places. Every business has lost one or two CD shops and many have turned to other businesses.”
There is only one cinema left in Swat, which was built in 1964 in Mingora, and runs three shows daily. “Locals as well as tourists come without any fear. Out of 163 seats not a single one is empty,” says cinema assistant Ali Akbar. Another cinema, Palwasha, in Mingora was shut down two years ago for financial reasons.
Fatehpure, a village famous for producing Pashto singers, can be found 35km east of Mingora city. A few music groups living in the village entertain locals and tourists at various picnic spots. Musician Warrah Khan says, “There are four music groups living in Fatehpure. We provide a mobile music service so we would go wherever people asked for us along with our simple traditional orchestra — harmonium, tabla and rubab. Our performance lasts a few hours thus we move from party to party at different picnic resorts.”
“Two years ago militants threatened us with dire consequences if we did not quit the music profession; we had no option but to leave our homes and began living in rented houses in Peshawar and Mardan. We could hardly make ends meet,” recalls tabla player Bakhtawar Khan.
Popular folk singer Zawani Gul says things improved after the Taliban was routed. “After the successful military operation we returned to our homes and restarted our work. People like our traditional style.” Rubab player Sultanat Khan agrees. “There is no longer any fear or threats from the Taliban. We earn Rs600 to 1,200 per day, demand is high in summer and we feel much better now.”
Published in The Express Tribune, August 8th, 2010.