Culture Kalash in Pakistan
The Kalash tribe is said to descend from Alexander the Great's army, but now it is fighting to preserve its traditions in a Taliban stronghold
By: Oscar Rickett
I am standing on a roof in the mountains of the Kalash valleys. Below me hundreds of men are screaming and shouting as two small wooden balls are hit up the slopes by opposing teams of players. Women in intricately designed, brightly coloured dresses are looking on, talking and laughing. One player draws back his long wooden club and hammers the ball onward. Cries of joy fill the air.
"What just happened?" I ask the player. "We cheated," he laughs. "The ball was lost in the snow so I took a ball from my pocket and hit that one. Don't tell the other team. If they knew, we would lose this point."
The ball flies on up the four-mile-long course, over rivers and up banks. That night, the winning team will sacrifice an ox, paid for by the losers. Everyone will get drunk. It is winter and there is not much to do. The game is chikik gal.
In February this year, the Taliban assassinated Pakistan's Christian minister for minorities, Shahbaz Bhatti. He was the only politician representing the non-Muslim populations of Pakistan. His smallest ward was the Kalash, a 3,000-strong animist tribe living in the mountains of the Hindu Kush, in Pakistan's wild northwest frontier. A persistent myth tells of their descent from members of an errant division of Alexander the Great's army, which ripped through the mountains of northern Pakistan more than 2,000 years ago.
In Rudyard Kipling's time, the Kalash were known as the "black Kafirs" and their land was Kafiristan, the setting for his tale of insanity and idolatry, The Man Who Would be King. The "red Kafirs", their neighbours, the subjects of Kipling's story, were brutally converted at the end of the 19th century. They became Nuristanis, "enlightened ones", and their rugged mountain land is one of the centres of the war against the Taliban.
The Kalash live in three valleys (Bumboret, Birir and Rumbur) by the Afghan border in the province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. In winter, flights to Chitral, the nearest town, are routinely and consistently cancelled without warning. My journey from Islamabad was by road, through Mardan and Dir up to the Lowari tunnel and then down the other side. In the winter, when the Lowari pass is blocked by snow, the tunnel is the only way of travelling to Chitral by road. Its construction began in 2005 and it is now open for a few hours every day. It is less a tunnel and more a 9km-long cave.
But in spite of the constant sense of peril it evokes, the tunnel is changing Chitral and the Kalash valleys. Previously, getting to the nearest city, Peshawar, meant a trip through Afghanistan. Now the tunnel brings supplies from the rest of the country. With access comes fear. "Extremists use the tunnel to come here," says Taj Udeen, a local police commander. "We have to make sure we know who is coming to our district."
They certainly knew we were coming. Tourism has dropped off steeply since 9/11 – in the 1990s thousands of people visited Chitral annually, now that figure is below 100 – and we were among few outsiders to visit the Kalash valleys in the past year. Desperate to make sure nothing happened to our four-strong team, 10 armed policemen accompanied us. We spent a month in the valleys. They never left our side.
For centuries, the Kalash have been fighting to preserve their traditions. People are converted to Islam every year. "Extremist Muslims prey on weak people and create internal divisions," Imran Kabir, a Kalasha polymath (he reveals that he is, variously, a butcher, teacher, writer and junkyard owner) tells me.
A local teacher, Akbal Shah, recounts the story of his father, who worked as a frontier policeman and converted to Islam because he was the only Kalash man in an all-Muslim unit. "He was not educated, so they said to him that if he didn't convert he wouldn't go to heaven. He ended up believing them because he didn't want to stand out. The Muslims are a big majority, they are pressing us everywhere." Deathbed conversions are common and people talk of being offered wives and money if they convert. When I interviewed one of the local imams, Nasir Abdul, at his newly built mosque, he spoke of the love he has for the Kalash people before going on to say that he "hopes they will convert to Islam so that they can go to paradise". He is a friendly man who does not pay people to convert, but his objective is the same: the end of the Kalasha religion.
Not all Muslims in the area feel this way. One convert who everyone calls "Mullah" tells me: "Everyone should be free to believe what they like." And while Muslims are not allowed to convert to the Kalash religion, men like Mullah participate in Kalash festivals and rituals in a way that makes you believe that if they could convert back, they would.
Wali Khan, the Kalash headmaster of a primary school in Bumboret valley and a charismatic and popular figure, has worked tirelessly to improve the standards of schooling in the valleys (until the 1990s, there were no official schools). His family is typical in that two of his three brothers have converted to Islam (the one who hasn't is confusingly nicknamed Mujahideen). He tells me that for "two years my brother was living like an imam. But then he got bored and now he is drinking and smoking and dancing!" Drinking means the local moonshine, tara, which tastes like schnapps, or homemade wine, which tastes like sherry. Kalash dealers routinely and illegally sell both drinks to Muslims.
Another source of tension is the aid that the Kalash receive from NGOs and the government. At the centre of this controversy is the Kalasha Dur – a museum, small hospital, library, hostel and school complex for the Kalash (which Muslims cannot attend), housed within an absurdly Greek-looking palace built by the NGO Greek Volunteers, with help from Greece's government body Hellenic Aid. Greek Volunteers's director, Athanasios Lerounis, a long-time champion of the Kalash and the man who raised the money to build the centre, assures me that though there are "similarities to the Ionic style", the building came from "the local architecture". The attempted olive growing that goes on is, however, more likely to be an ancient tradition of Athens.
In 2009, a Taliban unit stole into the valleys at night and kidnapped Lerounis. They had been tipped off by locals sympathetic to their cause and came to the Kalasha Dur during a night when only two security guards were posted. One guard fled while the other stood his ground and was killed. Lerounis was taken swiftly across the Afghan border to Nuristan. The Greek teacher's ransom, thought to be up to £1m, was paid and he returned to Greece. The security services will not let him return to Pakistan because they believe his presence in the country is dangerous. Lerounis, who wants to come back to the valleys, tells me he does not want to talk about the kidnapping because doing so would endanger the Kalash people. Whatever they think of the Taliban's policies, the Kalash stress their neutrality: they are too vulnerable to court trouble.
The kidnapping highlights the security risk presented by the lavish Greek building: in a small, rural community, it sticks out. Locals say that there is a Taliban plot to blow up the Kalasha Dur. The building's detractors say that the exclusion of Muslims from the school only adds to the resentment felt by those who feel that the Kalash get too much money from outsiders.
Wali Khan used to work with Lerounis compiling a Kalasha alphabet, but left because he didn't like the division the Kalasha Dur had created. "The Kalash and the Muslims have to get along; they have to live side by side," he says. "So why make a school in which only one kind of person can be taught?" Lerounis argues that the school was built in response to a need highlighted by the Kalash community: "I asked them what they wanted and they told me they needed a school… There are many Muslim schools and many madrasas. The Kalash need this. There is a division because of their tradition, not because of our building."
The Kalasha Dur's first-aid centre treats Muslims, and Greek Volunteers have also built Muslim schools and secured a clean-water supply that is used by everyone. Yet the suspicion remains that they do as much harm as good. Imran Kabir believes that Lerounis created a culture of dependence so that in the end people "treated him like a God". Instead of praying to their maker, Kabir told me, they would pray to Lerounis. Since he has been gone, the Kalash have started helping themselves again, something Lerounis would probably approve of.
Nabaig (like Prince, he has no second name) is the first Kalash lawyer. He works in Chitral and, when he is in court, wears a suit and tie that makes you think of Reservoir Dogs. Back in the valleys, in his traditional clothes, he tells me that the United Nations Development Programme money that comes to the valleys "goes in the pockets of the politicians and higher personalities". The same is said of the international money that came to the country to help relieve flooding in 2010.
"None of the money came to us," says Nabaig, who points out that food is now twice the price as a result.
Almost all accounts of the Kalash fixate on the tribe's mythological descent from Alexander the Great. The romance of Alexander's tribe is a key part of Kalash tourism, although "they did a DNA test and they found no connection" is a familiar refrain here. Lerounis calls the area an "open museum"; the valleys' reputation as a Garden of Eden, a lost land of innocent people, meant that a summer stop to see the Kalash used to be an adventurous part of the hippie trail. But another form of tourism has developed: young Muslim men from the south, deprived of contact with women their own age, come here to chat up Kalash girls and watch them dance.
The government has a confused relationship with the Kalash. Wali Khan says it "protects the Kalash people very well now because we are a unique culture". But there is also worry that this kind of cultural tourism can be exploitative. Abdul Sattar, a village elder who has converted to Islam, tells me that "before, when I was Kalash, I was very happy. But the government and people from the rest of Pakistan were coming here and making us dance and perform. I became a Muslim because I couldn't enjoy performing for outsiders."
The government's press office in Islamabad sent out a string of mixed messages, telling me the trip was "very dangerous" yet repeatedly talking about how wonderful the Kalash were and how thrilled the government was to see journalists coming to the country to cover something other than the war with the Taliban. The constitution protects minorities and the law safeguards the customs of the Kalash. This is how Nabaig wins most of his cases, which involve Kalash alcohol and drug traffickers and disputes between Islamic and Kalash property laws. Still, the lawyer remains unconvinced by the authorities. "I am worried about what is happening because we are isolated. We are in the minority. We are worried that our traditions won't survive."
This survival is being safeguarded in interesting ways. There has been a concerted effort in recent years to reproduce as much as possible in order to bolster numbers. That way, if a couple of the children end up being converted, the pain will be less sharp. And, in the end, it is this spirit that will see the Kalash through. Free-minded and intensely aware of their "unique culture" they appear to be getting stronger rather than weaker. New roads and new technology often kill cultures such as theirs but the opposite seems to be true.
That they have had problems moving from a barter economy to a monetary one cannot be denied and that their traditional dependence on goats is becoming less valuable is also true, but the Kalash are using their increased contact with the outside world to educate others. Their language has, for the first time, been put into a written form (they use the English alphabet). Nabaig, who is 29, says that his generation is "very keen to be Kalash, to preserve our culture. With trade we are gaining facilities. We are feeding our families". One Kalash teenager told me his culture "was over". Almost all his friends contradicted him. Those who go to the big cities to work want to return to the valleys. One of the villagekasis ("guardians of knowledge") told me that now "education is very good. When I was younger there were no schools, no roads and no Jeeps. We had no clothes. We had no shoes. Now it is better." The Kalash are learning about their culture in order to preserve it. As we look out over the valley and up to Afghanistan, Imran Kabir looks up and says: "The future is bright. The dark ages are gone."
The Observer, Sunday 17 April 2011