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Culture and music return to Peshawar

October 24, 2010

“IT is my parents and grandparents who have taught me whatever I know about my culture. Neither the education system nor anything else has helped to nurture me in my culture”, says a teenaged Pakhtun who studies at the Peshawar branch of a well-known national English medium school system. “I speak very good English but cannot read or write in my mother tongue, Pashto,” confesses the teenager. This is the dilemma of every Pakhtun child today.

Many Pakhtuns, thus, welcome the recent decision of the Awami National Party (ANP) government to gradually introduce Pashto as a compulsory subject from Class I to XII in 17 Pashto-majority districts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

The head of the Pashto Academy in the University of Peshawar, Dr Rajwali Khattak, says that the Pashto language is like an unwritten constitution.

It is linked to the ways of life, idioms, literature, songs, dances, folklores and practically everything that comprises the Pakhtun life.

If the Pashto language is revived, it could help revive the culture too, Dr Khattak opines.

But it is going to take much more than promotion of the Pashto language to revive the vibrant culture of the Pakhtuns, a culture which has fallen victim to Talibanization and extremism in recent years.

According to Dr Khattak, Pakhtun cultural growth had ceased a hundred years ago but since this is a powerful and vibrant culture, it has lasted until now. Cultural invasion, however, he adds, has distorted the true picture of the Pakhtun culture.

This, according to Dr Khattak, is due mainly to the decline of the hujra, a social institution which used to play a pivotal role in Pakhtun daily life. For Pakhtun children and youths, the hujra was the major vehicle of socialization into the Pakhtun culture.

But now most Pakhtun children no longer even know what “Pukhtunwali” or the Pakhtun’s code of life is. Living in a society constantly under the threat of terrorism, the only words they hear are ‘Taliban’ and khud-kush (suicide bombings).

Militancy in the region has weakened the basic characteristics of the Pakhtun, viz., putt (honour), khaigarha (social welfare), turra (fight for the right) and nang (bravery).

“Pakhtun culture has been systematically suppressed and destroyed in the post-Afghan war era by Taliban influence. During Gen Zia’s regime, anybody in the Pakhtun region who raised his voice against such suppression was termed a communist. This witch-hunting had forced many nationalist leaders into exile”, explains Aurangzeb Khan, a freelance journalist and regional coordinator of InterMedia, an international research and consulting organisation in media and communications.

Aurangzeb believes that depiction of the Pakhtun culture in this Talibanised way by the media has undermined the basically progressive Pakhtun intelligentsia.

Dr Shah Jehan, chairman of the Journalism and Communications Department in the University of Peshawar, shares the sameview. He accused the media of projecting a distorted image of the Pakhtuns to the world. “The percentage of Taliban or extremist elements is very small in Pakhtun society, yet the media portrays the Pakhtuns in general as such”, criticises Dr Shah Jehan, who blames the media for selling out Pakhtuns as terrorists and extremists for its own vested interests.

“Extremism is not our culture. It was all imposed on us,” insists Dr Shah Jehan.

“The Pakhtun culture is so rich and old that it cannot be forgotten so easily,” says Abasin Yousafzai, a Pashto language poet and teacher at the historic Islamia College in the University of Peshawar.

It is believed the Pakhtun culture can be revived to its previous stature. But if incidents like the blowing up of the shrine of Pashto Sufi poet Rehman Baba continue to take place, how can Pashto singers and artists think of singing folk songs eulogising their culture?

Similarly, Pashto art and culture cannot grow amidst crackdowns on music/movie shops and if literary and music gatherings can only take place clandestinely.

To revive and preserve the Pakhtun culture, the government will need to do much more than make Pashto a compulsory subject in school or change the name of the province from North West Frontier Province to Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, a measure officially introduced last April.

What the government needs to do, Yousafzai suggests, is to spend funds on the revival of cultural activities, especially for the youth, and on the preservation of classical material for the coming generations. “School children should be taught about their ancestral backgrounds, culture, folklores, heroes and literature through plays and other audio-video material so that they would take interest in their culture,” Yousafzai proposes.

The provincial government has recently introduced a number of measures reflecting its intention to revive cultural activities in the province. One of these is the establishment of a cultural directorate in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa which has already proposed a number of recreational events.

These events include the holding of weekly cultural programmes at Nishtar Hall, the main entertainment venue and the symbol of culture in Peshawar since its opening in 1985.

Nishtar Hall closed soon after the previous government led by the MMA came into power in the province in 2002, but re-opened in April 2008 after the ANP government came into power.

Apart from the weekly cultural activities at Nishtar Hall, the provincial culture minister, Syed Aqil Shah, says the government also plans to boost cultural activities by establishing two art galleries and building an auditorium.

The government also plans to set up a cultural centre – akin to Islamabad’s Lok Virsa – at the historic monument of Gor Khuthrree in Peshawar, itself one of the oldest living cities in Asia and the oldest living city in South Asia.

Much is needed to revive culture in this region hit hard by terrorism but experts say if the years of suppression could not abolish this culture, it will thrive so long as there is a single Pakhtun living as every Pakhtun carries this culture inside him.As the saying goes, “De Pukhto Kanrhay pe obo nah rejidi” (the stone of Pakhtu or the Pakhtun character cannot be so easily eroded with the waters of passing time).