MINGORA: He ate raw turnips for at least six nights. There was no other food, water or electricity as the military targeted the Taliban in Swat. It was the worst of times, but he survived, and with him, his treasure trove.
Poet, historian and archeology expert Mohammad Pervesh Shaheen stands tall in every respect. He defied the Taliban’s reign of terror in the Swat valley and refused to leave his home to protect his library and museum, which now houses 23,000 books and a Gandhara art collection worth millions of rupees.
“My intellectual journey began by reading Pashto folk tales to the village women,” he said. Later, on the insistence of some acquaintance in Karachi, he started writing in Urdu.
He has authored 50 books, including one on Pashto slang, which he published on the persistence of renowned Pashto poet and scholar Ghani Khan, son of Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan.
By early 2000, his library, which he had started in 7th grade, had extended to six rooms with at least 23,000 books and an institute – the Gandhara Research Institute and Languages Research Project. His house is open to visiting researchers and experts from all over the world.
In this time, Shaheen has had the opportunity to work with German historian Professor Karl Jettmar and Norwegian social anthropologist Professor Fredrik Barth. “It was Professor Karl Jettmar who asked me to research on languages. I learnt a lot from him,” he said.
From the roof of the museum, huge boulders are seen in the distance, on one of which has the Buddha statue thought to date back from the second century BC. The statue in Jehanabad is said to be the second largest in Asia after the Bamiyan Buddha statues in Afghanistan, which were blown up by Taliban in 2001, despite an international outcry.
Referring to the attack on the Buddha statue in Jehanabad, Shaheen said: “They arrived in 13 vehicles in this village, drilled holes in the rock, filled it with explosives and detonated it.” However, the ancient carving was only slightly damaged.
After the 2007 attack, Shaheen buried his archaeological treasures in nearby fields, where they still remain hidden. “Destroying cultural and archaeological heritage is a sure way to finish a nation,” he said. Unfortunately however, some militants entered his house and vandalized his library and broke some archaeological artifacts.
During the peak of militancy, Taliban asked him to hand over his home, but he did not let them take over. “I never feared for my life and perhaps this is why I am alive today,” he said with a chuckle.
However, after the refusal in May 2009, the Taliban ordered him and his two sons to leave their village within three hours. “Only God knows, how I left my village for Mingora and then went to Rawalpindi,” the poet recalled on an emotional note.
But nothing could keep Shaheen from returning to his village, and he was back the next day to protect his treasure trove.
He is at a loss of words when asked about militancy in Swat and says it is a war of geography. “This region has always been at the crossroads of civilizations since time immemorial,” Shaheen said.
“I saw the Taliban beheading a young boy for saying that he will take revenge of his father’s death, who was slaughtered some days before. I literally begged them and threw myself at their feet to ask them to stop, but one of them kicked me to a side and the boy was killed,” he said, adding “His cries still echo in my ears.” “It was the only time in my life when I cried,” Shaheen said.
Talking about the future of his projects, Shaheen said that the coming of the Taliban wasted 10 precious years of his life, adding “One can not get back time, once it passes, it is lost.”
Despite the setback, he is not ready to give up his dream of writing the history of the Gandhara civilization. He explains his passion in a Pashto verse, “Ma ba lewany ki lewneey meena.” (This crazy love will make me mad).
Published in The Express Tribune, February 26th, 2011.