Article by Matt Osche
Penn State is a school abounding with diversity. It is a university that is home to thousands of students, a great multitude of whom come from several places around the globe. Each of these international students brings a unique and distinct cultural perspective which we Americans tend to not know much about. Muhammad Saeed, a Pakistani graduate student at Penn State, is one of those students; and I have been lucky enough to be able to sit down with him and hear what the culture is like in his home country.
Muhammad is currently studying English education at Penn State and is a part of the Hubert H. Humphrey Fellowship Program. In conjunction with his education here at Penn State, he is an English teacher at Jahanzeb College in his home of Swat, Pakistan. He has spent almost his entire life growing up in Swat Valley, Pakistan– a place that Queen Elizabeth II has referred to as the “Switzerland of the East” due to its invigorating natural environments and majestic mountain landscapes. Muhammad describes the valley as a place of peace and tranquility, and through our conversation, it is quite evident that he greatly misses the beauty of his far off home.
The culture of Swat is defined by the ancient ethnic group of which Muhammad and many Swat citizens derive their ancestry, the Pashtun Tribe of Eastern Afghanistan and Northern Pakistan. Pashtun culture is one driven by familial unity and community togetherness as evident through Muhammad’s own lifestyle and priorities. In Mingora, the capital of Swat, Muhammad lives in a home with his wife and three children, his mother and father, and four of his younger siblings. For Muhammad, one the most important aspects of his culture is that of taking care of one’s family and simply spending time with them, and it is not uncommon for large households such as his own to exist in Swat.
In addition to family, community is a large component of Pashtun culture. Communal gathering spaces called hujras can be found on nearly every street in Swat and serve as a space to talk with friends and family, play chess, or even play the rubab (a guitar-like instrument that is popular in Pashtun culture). Hujras are not government funded properties and they are often small buildings owned and cared for by wealthy landowners in the community. Moreover, hujras illustrate an interesting political concept of Pashtun culture known as ashar. Ashar is a practice in which a landowner, or simply anyone who requires assistance with a task, will go to the hujra and request the manual labor of any men present at the time. These men might work with the landowner harvesting crops or constructing buildings, and in return for their work, the landowner who asked for their assistance will return the favor to the workers later on. Pashtun life is a culture that gravitates around establishing the strong bonds that are present between human beings, whether it be bonds of family or the bonds of community.
In recent years, Swat Valley has become known as the place where the famed 18 year-old Nobel Prize winner, Malala Yousafzai, was targeted and shot in the head by members of the Taliban. Malala survived the assassination attempt and is now revered throughout the world as a symbol of Taliban opposition. The Taliban began to physically enter Swat during 2008 and 2009, which is when Malala and her father, Ziauddin Yousafzai, began their advocacy campaign denouncing the Taliban’s plan to close all girls’ schools in Pakistan. Prior to the Taliban presence in Swat, Ziauddin was known throughout Northern Pakistan as an activist promoting the value of education, and was elected president of the Private Schools Management Association (PSMA) of Pakistan. Muhammad actually has some communal ties to Malala and her family; his father, the director of multiple schools within the Mingora region, is friends with Ziauddin and Muhammad and has actually seen both Ziauddin and Malala at school meetings in Swat.
Although the Taliban are no longer prevalent in Swat, Muhammad states that their presence was originally quite strong, a presence which began in 2001 and 2002 shortly after the attacks of September 11th. In 2001, a political party known as Muttahida Majlis Amal (MMA) that had never before been in a position of authority won the Swat election. While the MMA themselves were not Taliban, they were a somewhat radical Islamist group and sympathized with Taliban ideals. It was during this time period, under the power of the MMA, that the now infamous Taliban leader Mualana Fazlullah (then only a militant Islamist) began his illegal radio show. The show originally started off as a kind of religious talk-show, but as it expanded through coerced donations from the public by Fazlullah, he began preaching ideas that were strongly aligned with the values of the Taliban. The FM radio station was listened to by nearly all inhabitants of Swat Valley, and Fazlullah’s power and wealth only continued to grow.
Despite the people of Swat encountering adversity in the years prior, one of the harshest periods of Taliban presence was their 3 month occupation of Mingora in 2009. It was during this time slot that Muhammad said “a reign of terror” washed over the populace. “And now the people said, ‘If the mortar shells come to our house, we will be killed.’ So in the morning, all the people started running out of the city.” Muhammad would have left were it not for his sick cousin, whom he and his uncle stayed back to care for, as his cousin was too ill to transport through the slow-going traffic and savage heat. The three of them were forced to remain in the Taliban occupied city for 3 months–18 days of which he never left his home due to a Taliban imposed curfew. In this short span, he can recall the F-16s of the Pakistani security forces as they dropped bombs from overhead. He says that one bomb was even dropped as close as 3 kilometers from his home. “The F16 came and dropped a bomb, and that bomb was so strong, it felt as if it was an earthquake.” This onslaught of bombing attacks dealt a crushing blow to the morale of those who remained in Swat. “And then later on, just after a few minutes, the F16 came again, and dropped another bomb. And that was actually the moment that the few people that stayed behind lost all their hope.”
Although it was safe at times, Muhammad hardly went outside due to the Taliban’s fierce fighting with the grounded security forces of Pakistan. When he did wander outside the threshold of his home, the streets of the generally bustling city were now completely desolate and devoid of all life. His home was a ghost town. “I have seen it in Hollywood movies, but that was a time I could see it with my own eyes.”
There was an impending sense of fear prevalent in the minds of those who remained in Mingora. If someone openly opposed the Taliban, or simply practiced beliefs contrary to the extreme Islamist values that they were forcing upon the people, he or she was in potential danger of being publicly executed, often by being beheaded. Muhammad remembers one day when he and his cousin were walking to the mosque and a car pulled up beside them. “There was a car that came and there were Taliban in it. And there were two people in the backseat. Their eyes and hands were tied.” The Taliban members asked them where Muhammad and his cousin were going, to which they replied that they were going to the mosque. The members demanded that they go back inside their home and remain there. The next morning, one of the figures from the back of the car was executed on the street, and the other was nowhere to be found.
The memories of the short, but potent occupation of Mingora left its citizens traumatized and angry. Muhammad states that “many people lost hope in the government for allowing such an unthinkable scenario to unfold”, and many point to the lack of government intervention in the events leading up to the Taliban occupation. Muhammad is comforted by the current state of Swat, despite the history of Taliban occupation. After the occupation ended, much of the prior lifestyle of the district was restored. It was once again safe to move around outside of one’s home, and the girls who were forbidden to attend school could now do so comfortably. Despite the positive changes that have swept through Swat since merely all of the Taliban has departed, their presence still lingers in the memory of Muhammad’s community.
Aside from the images of violence ingrained in the minds of the people of Swat, the Taliban are still felt through the small target attacks that occasionally occur. Working through sleeper cells, a group of undercover militants or spies who remain inactive until ordered to initiate an attack, the Taliban primarily perform small, but powerful attacks, such as the incident with Malala in 2012.
Muhammad Saeed misses the culture of his home despite the perils and dangers that may sometimes be present there. Although they have undergone a series of harsh hardships in recent years, the population of Swat Valley continue to persevere and overcome these adversities, a fact that is highlighted by people like Malala and Muhammad. Theirs is a culture that epitomizes community orientation and collectiveness, and hearing Muhammad speak of his foreign lifestyle really opened my eyes to the sheer scope of diversity throughout the world. To think that somewhere on this earth, there exists something like a hujra where communities congregate and unite both surprises and intrigues me. On the other end of the spectrum, it’s also incredible to imagine that human beings have truly undergone the savage rule of the Taliban as they terrorized and killed the innocent people who opposed them. I’ve heard about such cultures and scenarios that Muhammad described, but interacting first hand with one who has truly seen these separate cultures and situations adds a whole new level of reality that was not present before. After speaking with Muhammad, the distress caused by the Taliban seems all the more real. There are people in this world who are suffering at this very moment as a result of Taliban oppression. Somewhere, very far from here, people are being attacked and killed by the Taliban. It’s happening, and it’s real, and my brief time with Muhammad has stressed this fact.
If the atrocities of which Muhammad speaks exist, so also must the promising culture of Swat Valley. Pashtun culture emphasizes the gravity of caring for one’s family and coming together as one unit, especially in times of crisis. Muhammad even exemplifies this ideal in his story about staying behind in a Taliban occupied city in order to tend to his ill relative. It would also seem that this notion of utmost care and “no man left behind” even carries over to the mindset of the community. Listening to Muhammad describe how members of his neighborhood are always willing to aid each other when one of them is faced with a great task, as well as hearing how they prioritize spending time with each other in the hujras, shows that the bonds within Pashtun communities are resilient. If they continue to embrace the roots and elements of their communal culture, I have faith that they can and will overcome the pains inflicted by the Taliban occupation.
Feature Image Credit: junaidrao