Last of the Kalash?

June 12, 2019

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A PHOTOGRAPH of Kalash women captured in their distinct, traditional attire was printed in yesterday’s newspaper — smiling as they took a selfie. Naturally, the colourful image stood out. In the 21st century, however, it seems as if the camera has both immortalised the Kalash and presented the latter with their greatest survival challenge. There are only 3,500 to 4,000 members of the tribe remaining in the northern parts of the country. And yet, in nearly every travel book on Pakistan, in the various music videos and advertisements flashing on television screens, images of the Kalash are used disproportionately to highlight the country’s cultural beauty and diversity. While the intention may be well meaning, these images have frozen the Kalash in time, as they are reduced to two-dimensional, inanimate objects, untarnished by modernity, and viewed as an aesthetic, to be seen and rarely heard; in fact, an ancient, indigenous people perceived as foreigners in their own land. There have been several reports of intimidation and threats to the tribe by religiously motivated militants in recent years. But less reported is how local tourists have harmed the Kalash way of life and threatened the tribe’s basic human need for privacy.

Stirred by the images they see in popular culture, full of curiosity and wonder — and lust, in many instances — local tourists make their way to these remote parts of the country, in the hope of capturing the few remaining Kalash on their cameras and film. Intentionally or not, however, many end up behaving in ways that are deemed intrusive and disrespectful by the local population, since they are not sensitised to their customs, or are misinformed due to harmful rumours. Some Kalash women have taken to wearing veils to protect themselves from the prying eyes of male tourists, while others have mentioned not wanting to celebrate their festivals any more. It would be a great tragedy of our generation if we lose this unique tribe due to the ignorance of some.

Published in Dawn, June 12th, 2019