Gulzar Alam, winner of a Pride of Performance award, recently left Peshawar for Kabul from fear of losing his life – along with his children and other family members. The circumstances behind the departure of yet another star of the galaxy of Pashto music make for a tragic discussion.
The dairy farm that Gulzar owned was forcefully invaded by a local religious scholar, who threatened him: demanding that he abandon his business or face the wrath of the locals.
“At first the cleric came and said, ‘Leave the business [dairy farm] or you and your family will be burned’”, says Gulzar Alam, the popular folk Pashto artist who has thousands of cassette recordings to his name. Alam has been entertaining lovers of Pashto music for the last four decades across Pakistan, Afghanistan and abroad in the Middle East and Western countries.
Artists like him face a situation where religious fanatics neither agree to allow singers to perform and entertain the public, or even to permit them to run other, unrelated businesses and earn bread for their children. “What options are we left with, in such a situation?”, asks Gulzar Alam.
“I spent more than 2 million rupees to start this [dairy] business, but the cleric was observing it very closely. When it began to do well, the cleric asked me to leave my family and I would also be deprived of a place to live.” says Gulzar.
And what drove the local cleric to such violent disapproval for Gulzar Alam?
The cleric had blamed him for “making fun of the beard” in the Jummah (Friday) prayer sermon and called upon his students and the faithful gathered there to attack the singer and his family.
Nor was Gulzar Alam the kind of person who fled at the first threat. He has seen some dark and dangerous times already.
Alam remained in Peshawar when fighters of Uzbek origin, loyal to the Tehreek e Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and Al-Qaeda, went on a campaign of death and terror: attacking public places, prayer gatherings and political leaders. This wave of armed terror had resulted in the death of thousands of people. The TTP announced the promulgation of what they termed “Shariah Law” in Swat. Part of this new order was their call for people to burn video CDs and shops selling such items. They ordered drivers not to play much loved Pashto music in public transport, ordered the bombing of Sufi shrines and girls’ educational institutions. For them, all such things were manifestations of ‘Western culture’ and they insisted that only “Islamic” culture should prevail in the land of the believers.
The cleric had blamed him for “making fun of the beard” in the Jummah prayer sermon and called upon his students and the faithful gathered there to attack the singer and his family
Singers Haroon Bacha, Sardar Ali Takkar and Nazia Iqbal had received threats for their leading role in KP’s music scene. They have had to flee, too.
“We’ve seen in the last many years that the militants’ mindset has created so many challenges for our artists. They have been killed, persecuted, attacked and threatened. Some of our best musicians, especially most of the great Pashtun voices, had to flee this country because of security concerns. The list includes people such as Haroon Bacha and Sardar Ali Takkar”, says Gulalai Ismail, a social activist who is working on peace and the uplift of youths in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province.
It’s really sad that Gulzar Alam had to flee Pakistan. It is not a loss for him alone. It is a loss for Pakistan.”
The danger for Gulzar Alam was very real. He recalls that while he was away one day, a mob attacked his children and wife Rukhsana. He thanks God that on that occasion the police were able to arrive in time to rescue his family.
Rukhsana says she was followed by people in the area of Board Bazaar Peshawar. Bearded youths in white caps used abusive language and harassed her in public. “Threats were coming in on a daily basis from these people, who were following me and my children around – even when Gulzar was not in Peshawar”, recalls Rukhsana. “We stopped sending the children to school, and changed our rented homes more than 20 times to escape the threats.”
Meanwhile, Gulzar Alam himself, even on his journeys outside Peshawar, was not safe. On the outskirts of Peshawar, in the Sarhozo area, gunmen fired upon him. The message was not lost upon him. He was, unfortunately, on the radar of some religious clerics. “Even a fake allegation can get you killed!” Alam tells me in a Skype interview from Kabul, Afghanistan.
“I left Peshawar months ago, and came here to Kabul, to survive the religious extremist propaganda against me” he says.
The space for liberal thinkers, artists, musicians, singers and dancers has rapidly been shrinking in KP and FATA over the past few years. Just a few months ago a mob brutally murdered Mashal Khan, a journalism student at the Abdul Wali Khan University Mardan on highly dubious allegations of “blasphemy”. The joint investigation team of security agencies found no evidence for Mashal’s involvement in any kind of “blasphemy”. What they did find, though, was that he was agitating against the University administration. Elements of the administration wanted to stop him by any means, it would appear. Spurious, deadly allegations were certainly not off the table as an option for them.
Even though Gulzar Alam long knew of the deadly consequences of such threats and allegations, he didn’t bow to intimidation during the earlier Mutahida Majlis-e-Amal [MMA] government of the KP province up to 2007. And, he had also stood his ground through the Taliban’s campaign of terror, as described.
But this time, coming from the nearby cleric, the threats were direct and named him specifically for “doing wrong”. Moreover, they came from a cleric who has followers in many villages across Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa.
“I never wanted to leave my home, but when you are in fear for your children, how can you stand your ground?” asks Gulzar Alam. He does have fans across Afghanistan, where he now lives, but he is quick to add: “Peshawar was my birth place and I was never willing to leave it.”
Since the time of the Mutahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA) in 2002, the artists of KP, people like Gulzar Alam, have felt an economic squeeze. Many singers left Pakistan owing to the poor security situation, various bans on music and a decline in musical gatherings even when and where they are permitted.
“Since my life in university, I got involved in music and sang poetry by Sufis, Pakhtun nationalists and peace-loving poets from Pakhtunkhwa and the rest of the country”, recalls Gulzar. “Singers are beyond any divides. Our job is to entertain people and to love humanity.”
“Since we live in what was once the ancient Gandhara region, the Buddhist remains and Zoroastrian motifs are interwoven in our culture and art,” notes Fawad-ur-Rehman, a social activist from Peshawar. “Threats to our music, artists, literary and liberal circles arise because the extremists want us to change completely and deviate violently from our thousands of years of history. Only then can extremist views truly prevail.”
In KP, it would appear that matters have not improved since the days of the MMA administration. Political analyst Khadim Hussain is of the view that “the PTI-led government of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa with Jamaat-e-Islami as an ally does not own up to the cultural and aesthetic richness of the province. The PTI government, in fact, represents the narrative of imposed uniformity and enforced homogeneity, which comes from the dominant forces in the Pakistani state”, opines Khadim Hussain. “It seems to be in alliance with those who would like to dissolve the indigenous and ethno-national identity of the Pashtuns and everything associated with that identity –history, language, culture and aesthetics.”
Meanwhile, what was Pakistan’s loss appears to be Afghanistan’s gain.
Afghan literary figure and owner of the Danish Bookstore, Asad Danish, tells me that they are more than happy to have Gulzar Alam in Kabul. “We would surely support such a person, who has served the people his whole life”, says Asad Danish.