As someone with a deep-founded fascination with alternative cultures within Pakistan, I was pleased to meet Shakira, an artist from Kalash currently residing in Islamabad. Whilst I had many questions, I was concerned about drawing her out but was pleasantly surprised by how enthusiastic and confident she turned out to be. I eventually had to cap the interview to half an hour in interests of word limits, regretting the fact since my interviewee was bursting with stories.
Shakira is a 24-year-old girl from Kalash who, since moving to Islamabad in 2013, has modeled on the ramp and in photo shoots and has also performed as a part of dance troupe, displaying traditional Kalashi dances. She also frequently arranges for fellow village-folk to come to the Capital, from where they have travelled to all corners of the country, displaying their culture throughout. Her ambition does not end there. She is currently setting up her own company to organize dance troupes and sell handicrafts, through which she aims to display her culture all over the world.
Shakira is confident and bold and takes incredible pride in her culture. When I ask her what it is that she loves most about Kalash, she attributes all success to the identity it has given her. She gushes about the beauty of the valley and describes her fellow village-folk as warm people with big hearts and a lot of love to offer. She praises their hospitality, which is also a reason why Kalash now has such a booming tourism industry.
She explains that they host four festivals. A spring festival in May; another festival is held in August when wheat is ready to be harvested; yet another in October when grapes are ready to be plucked; and a major festival which is held in December – a sacrificial festival in the name of God, similar to the Islamic tradition of Eid-ul-Azha.
She tells me that whilst their main source of living is agriculture, tourism sustains them from May to September. After that, due to lack of infrastructure, Kalash is no longer accessible. I ask how her valley-folk feel about the tourists and she diplomatically responds that there are good and bad people everywhere and that they come across both types. She maintains that there are mostly good experiences and that people truly do appreciate her culture, and notes that there has been a significant influx of foreign tourists in the recent years as well.
She does, however, mention that tourists tend to pollute the area. A more worrying trend, however, is of older men coming from the rest of the country and romancing young girls, then whisking them away to their hometowns and mistreating them. “We encourage love marriages here”, she explains. “Parents are supportive of children selecting their own life partners and believe that choice is necessary for harmonious matrimony”. She notes, however, that men from the rest of the country usually come with the intention of converting their young brides. She cited the example of a 35-year-old man having similarly married a 15-year-old from Kalash and criticized him for taking advantage of her naivete.
When asked if there are any misconceptions about her culture, after a deliberated pause she notes that the rumours people indulge in regarding Kalashi women are hurtful, but she explains no further.
“We believe that we’re the descendants of Alexander”, she tells me. “Our religious beliefs also descend from him. I do sometimes come across people who call us ‘kaafirs’ and who tell us that we’ll go to hell and that we should become Muslims. However, I believe our actions will determine our fate and we should respect each other’s beliefs.”
I ask her about the general standard of living in the area and it’s clear the government has a lot of work to do. “Education was hard to attain initially”, she explains. “The first woman to be educated in Kalash was my khala. She ran an NGO, but has now moved to the US. Education rate has improved, but lack of infrastructure is our main concern. Our roads are dilapidated, especially since the floods of 2010 and 2015. If you don’t have roads, it compromises your accessibility to education and health. If we get proper roads, we’ll be able to get access to everything else. We have to go to Chitral city to get higher education, our own valley only has schools till matriculation or F.A. Affordability is an issue though so far, college and university education is very rare”.
I ask her if government’s efforts are visible but she paints a grim picture. “The population of Kalash is a little less than 4000, we’re not too many people”, she informs me. “few help us out, we see UNESCO etc. making efforts, but the government has not done much so far to help out. The Chief Justice came to Chitral recently and even he observed that the roads are unusable. I think this is the first time in history that a CJ even visited the area. It’s really hard to live there because of the roads especially because of the snow in the winters. We have no accessibility in case of emergencies. In the summers we get flooding which erodes the roads further.”
Healthcare clearly also has a long way to go. “We have small dispensaries but no proper government hospitals or specialist doctors. A German organization set up a small hospital a few years ago which has made things slightly better but we still require better facilities. Similarly communication is also a major issue”, she further tells me. As far as infrastructure and living standards are concerned, Kalash appears to be a picture of neglect and struggle. Government help is the need of the hour for this community to empower itself.
However, Shakira’s talk was not all grim about lack of various facilities, rather it was charming to know the people of resilience, determination and of kind spirits. Kalash people not only live in the most beautiful valley of Pakistan, their beautiful hearts are also filled with love of Pakistan. Shakira says proudly that love of Pakistan runs in the veins of every Kalash. They are proud citizens of this country and wish to bring good name to the country through promotion of their rich culture and distinct history. They are remnant of a distinct old civilization of the world, and have a great heritage value. Kalash people are waiting for the opportunity that empowers them to serve Pakistan in all fields. Their culture is rich, their spirits are free, and their love of the land is matchless. Kalash is a land and people with so much mystic beauty and generous-hearted hospitality that merits to be explored, but also to be empowered.