Decades of violence: The unbearable lightness of peace

Published: July 14, 2014
War spurns tribal poets to turn their verses against conflict. DESIGN: TALHA AHMED

War spurns tribal poets to turn their verses against conflict. DESIGN: TALHA AHMED


War is notoriously easy to wax lyrical about. It has layers of colour, action, sound, power and pain – it creates a wordscape even before pen is put to paper.

Peace, on the other hand, is a difficult subject matter. A slightly static space, the topic brings forth fewer images unless peace was ushered in by an action or symbolised by a movement. David Lehman, in his essay, Peace and war in American poetry, says:

“As a subject for poetry, war has an immediate advantage over peace, because war entails action, whereas the experience of peace is an absence, not noticed until not there, like the absence of pain.”

For the people of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata), “the experience of peace” is an absence so strongly felt, so painfully endured, that perhaps their longing adds colour and spirit to move with verse.

While poets from the tribal area do still write about bombs, murders, widows, orphans, drones and other macabre subject matter, there are literary societies which try to focus on peace.

Bridging sectarianism

Yousaf Hussain from Parachinar tells The Express Tribune about the Speenghar Adabi Jirga. “It is an old poets’ organisation in Kurram Agency which works for peace and religious harmony in the region.” Hussain shares that the basic principle of this jirga is based on secularism where they work for the welfare of humanity without any affiliations of creed or sect.

“Both Sunni and Shias participate, we organise monthly meetings across Kurram,” says Hussain. Speenghar Adabi Jirga also has a monthly publication called Speen Ghar. The adabi jirga also organised a seminar on peace in Parachinar in March where poets from Fata and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (K-P) participated.

“Being part of society, poets will be affected by their immediate environs; if there is peace, I will write about peace. If there is war, then my reaction will be shaped by war,” says Hussain.

Sectarian violence and militancy have shaped the “environ” of Kurram. The former goes as far back as at least the 80s, when Sunni and Shia families were forced to seek shelter in settled areas of K-P. In 2007, this took a more organised turn when entire villages were destroyed under a conflict in which a local Taliban force was also involved. Nothing was sacred, lives, houses or places of worship.

Over the years, in this setting, other adabi tolanas in Kurram have pulled back. The Zazi Baba Pukhto Tolana, Sadda and Turi Adabi Jirga, Parachinar have not been functional for the last six years. Even outside of Kurram, the agency’s poets do not come forth to participate in other tolanas. The more recent Da Qabayal Pukhto Adabi Tolana in Peshawar saw no representation from Kurram.

In Mohmand, one of the more active organisations is the Mohmand Adabi Ghuncha. This literary group has been organising Da aman mushaira or Poetry for Peace since 2008.

Ghulam Hussain Muhib, who is a part of the literary society, tells The Express Tribune the Mohmand Adabi Ghuncha organised a tribute in honour of fallen poets and other martyrs in 2011 – Da shahedano pa nom. “Zia Wali Shah, the poet, died in a Ghallanai bomb blast, Nazeer Khwazai was killed by a peace committee and Islam Armani was killed by the Taliban,” said Muhib. There were many more, he added.

According to Muhib, the Mohmand Adabi Ghuncha holds recitals every 15 days. The literary society also compiled a book called Da aman ghag or Voice for Peace which contained the works of Mohmand Agency’s poets. However, said Muhib, they were unable to afford publishing costs.

Breaking pens

The ghuncha used to hold an annual urs at the Haji Sahib Turangzai shrine where a local poet who then went by the name of Abdul Wali Raghib would recite his war poetry. Raghib is now better known as Omar Khalid Khorassani, currently leading Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan’s Mohmand chapter.

The shrine was taken over by the Mohmand chapter in 2007, painted and overhauled into a make-shift seminary. The government had to step in and take it back, but the urs never took place at the shrine again.

Now such gatherings are either held at the Jirga Hall in the agency’s headquarters or Mohmand Press Club, shared Hairan Mohmand, a poet who heads the Mohmand Adabi Tolana. His tolana has been holding recitals for the past 14 years, “We never stopped, not even at the peak of militancy.”

Women for peace

Mohmand Agency’s men are not the only ones who can pen a couplet. The women of this tribal area came together on World Peace Day on October 21, 2013 for an impressive peace mushaira, which The Express Tribune attended. Working women, such as teachers, participated, and presented their own kalaam.

The women’s mushaira, held at a government school, came on the back of attacks on girls’ schools in the agency where more than 50 such institutions have been blown up.

W for war

“Most of our work is based on war. There is no work towards peace; the security situation is so tense that we have to work around it,” says Saleem Zahib of North Waziristan, which is currently facing a military operation.

However, there are functional literary societies such as the Wahadat Abadi Tolana (which, some say, has been defunct for a decade), Shawal Adabi Karwan and the Waziristan Pashto Adabi Tolana. These work out of Miranshah and Mirali tehsils, adds Zahib. In Mirali, two poetry books have also been published; Da Tochi guluna and Da Tochi storai.

Zahib says these literary societies do hold meetings in the agency but, “We are not as free as poets in other agencies. Most of our work turns out to be war poems.” Down in South Waziristan, the poets are present but play a quieter role. However several societies, such as Watan Pukhto Adabi Tolana, have been trying to promote peace for at least the last 12 years.

Divided we stand

Bajaur, which has also suffered terribly at the hands of terrorism, has managed to maintain an active literary society culture. Famous poets like Abdul Haq Dard, Bachazada, Hairan and Ashna Bajauri have been members of Bajaur’s adabi tolanas.

Founding member of the agency’s Pukhto Adabi Tolana, Jafar Khan, has formed ties across the tribal belt and has help mushairas on peace in Parachinar and Peshawar.

“At present we need unity in Fata, but unfortunately our intellectual class stands divided,” says Khan. “Our literary circles need to play a more positive role in peace-building but our journalists and poets continue to stray far from each other.”

Khan says the present war is “not about religion or class, but a national one which we all must play a role in.”

Khyber’s famous Shinwaris

Khyber Agency is known for its famous poets – Hamza Shinwari, Nazir Shinwari and Khatir Afridi are from this region, to name a few.

After attacks on Hamza Shinwari’s shrine, it was hard to hold large recitals or mushairas, says Qaim Shinwari of the Hamza Adabi Tolana. There was a three year hiatus in which no such gatherings were held, when in 2013 a peace mushaira was held at the shrine.

“Militancy made it hard, we had to go to Peshawar for Hamza Baba’s death anniversary whereas in the past we observed it annually,” says Shinwari. “Militancy was hard for our poets, however, it kick-started our poetry of resistance.”

Published in The Express Tribune, July 14th, 2014.

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