Thursday, January 01, 2009

Inside Northern Areas of Pakistan

FOOTLOOSE: FATA and Northern Areas — Salman Rashid
Daily Times, January 2, 2008

Back in 1990 when I wrote for (and also read) The Frontier Post, a reporter did a little piece on a shoeshine boy in Lahore. This piece was ill-informed tripe and ended, ‘After all, he is a Pathan from Gilgit.’ This was probably meant to indicate the young man’s ghairat, something that most ignorant people attribute only to the Pathans.

But then, I suppose, we could not blame a common journalist who read nothing and only watched Zee TV in the press club lobby for not knowing better. Domestic tourism to Peshawar and Swat is dead, but in its heyday I have seen yahoos from Lahore and sundry other places addressing every male they met north of Jhelum as ‘Khan sahib’. In Peshawar and Swat they just went over board with the Khan sahib without knowing that a red-blooded Khan does not approve of this mode of address — even for himself.

It was and still is commonly believed that everybody who lives in a mountainous area is an ethnic Pathan, a Khan sahib. This belief is widespread because we as a nation neither travel in the country nor read and we do not know that there are Khirthar in Sindh or the Suleman Mountains in Punjab that are populated by Sindhi, Brahui or Baloch peoples. Last year a friend seeking advice on where he should holiday with his family was told to go to Soon Valley in the heart of Punjab. He was horrified about being sent off to the land of the Pathans.

Besides not having read anything, the Average Joe is also not acquainted with the map. I am certain nine out of ten people cannot point to the general area of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) on a map of Pakistan. Similarly, they do not know where the Northern Areas lie. No surprise then that most news reports in every single English newspaper refers to the troubled FATA as the Northern Areas. I do not read Urdu papers, but I am certain they have the war going on in the shumali ilaqajat.

Now NWFP (which should actually be Pukhtunkhwa) is, as the name suggests, in the northwest part of Pakistan. And the Northern Areas, again according to the title, are in the north. While the former is peopled by Pukhtuns (or, as we wrongly call them, the Pathans), the Northern Areas are home to different ethnic groups. If there are Pathans in the Northern Areas, they are not natives but immigrant.

The Pathans may claim to be one of the lost tribes of Israel, but that is fiction. They speak a pure Indo-European tongue akin to archaic Persian and are therefore of Aryan stock. That having been said, the Pathans may contain a sprinkling of Semitic blood the same way as they have Greek blood. The other gene they possess is Mongol. Whatever they may say about themselves, when Chengez Khan rode rough-shod across Pathan lands, he and his soldiers raped. The next Mongol to run havoc through this country was Taimur the Lame. The capital of North Waziristan, Miran Shah, is not named after Taimur’s son without reason.

On this subject, bring to mind the face of the terrorist Abdullah Mehsud. Two years ago he blew himself up in Zhob to avoid arrest and we have lost his Mongol visage forever.

The Northern Areas are another story. Chitral being a part of NWFP, we can leave that out although Chitralis are also not Pathans, but beginning with Yasin and running through Ishkoman, Ghizer, Gilgit, up north to Hunza and Gojal and east to Baltistan we have one kind of country. But of this later.

As one goes up the Karakoram Highway, one passes through Besham, Pattan and Dassu, which are all part of Indus Kohistan. The people may look like Pathans, but they are of a different ethnicity. Their Kohistani language is closer to Punjabi than to Pushto. These people, whether they live in Tangir valley or in Palas, are given to a lawless life. They carry arms, life means little for them, women among them have no status and they lay no merit by education. It may be because of these characteristics that they are lumped together with the Pathans.

As an aside, it must be recorded here that the only, the only, Indus Kohistani to have done us prouder than the whole lot of the rest of us is that remarkable, uncanny superman called Razwal Kohistani. Hailing from Palas and with no formal education, this incredible person is a linguist respected across Europe as the leading expert in his field from Pakistan. He speaks over a dozen Pakistani languages besides his native Kohistani and English. We who do not know him or of him and who have not availed of his knowledge are the losers.

Driving up the KKH, you enter the Northern Areas between the villages Sazin and Harban, the latter lying about twenty kilometres west of Chilas. Now, as part of the Northern Areas, Chilas is really the odd man out because of its violence-prone population. Many years ago, it was in a tea shop in this town that I got talking to a young man who was very proud of an uncle of his for murdering five people. Generalisations are bad, but one that is true is that Chilasis are inveterate thieves and murderers.

Gilgit lies just below the 36th parallel of latitude. West, north and east of it sit the Northern Areas proper of Pakistan. This land is miles from FATA and even farther away from the violence. Kind, generous and hospitable (traits that other Pakistani ethnic groups including Pathans can also be admired for), these people are civilised to boot. Education features high on their list of ‘must-haves’, women are proper human beings and you never see a blusterer strutting about with an AK-47.

From Yasin in the west through Ishkoman and up into Hunza they speak Brushaski, a language with no known connection with any other language of the world. In Gojal (Chapursan and Shimshal), the major language is Wakhi, an ancient offshoot of Avestan. Gilgit is home to Shina akin to Kashmiri and Punjabi, while Baltistan has its Balti deriving from Tibetan. In Astore, south of Gilgit they speak either Shina or Balti.

The Shins of Gilgit and Astore are of Aryan stock and the Baltis a curious mix of Tibetan and Aryan blood that goes back to an historic event of the early 8th century. Hunza people, clearly a mix of Central Asiatic and Aryan blood, claim to be Alexander’s progeny. But then who doesn’t in Pakistan? The Wakhis of Shimshal say they are Kirghiz to which group the Chapursan population also very likely belongs.

Speak with the youngest child on the street and his manners and civility will bring tears to your eyes. The usage of the Urdu language among the educated, even children, in, say, Chapursan or Shimshal, leave alone cosmopolitan Hunza, is so delightfully quaint one would think one is on the streets of Lucknow a hundred years ago. And these places I mention are as remote as you can get in Pakistan.

So the next time you read that you can buy (actually buy) a suicide bomber from the Northern Areas, tar and feather the journalist. This happens in FATA and Swat and even in South Punjab. The gentle folks of the Northern Areas have better things to do with their lives.

Salman Rashid is a travel writer and knows Pakistan like the back of his hand. He can be reached at

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