The anguish of death and devastation seen by the regions inhabited by Pashtuns over the last four decades and the way it has influenced the psychology of people has found various forms of expression. That expression, however, has not reached much further beyond its place of origin, being mostly presented only in Pashto.
The spate of violence in KP and erstwhile FATA after the War on Terror reached this region post 9/11 changed the meaning of what constitutes a normal life for locals. Violent groups, allowed by the state to set up base in the region, used the area as their practice ground in the service of extreme ideologies.
Tens of thousands of people lost their lives, many more lost their homes and all possessions. The practice of going abroad in search of livelihood opportunities had long been common among Pashtuns, but now many were compelled to migrate to find safety from war.
Trouble, however, chased them wherever they went. The state’s response for many years was to look away while the problem aggravated. When it eventually decided to act, those who bore the brunt of its action included more innocent civilians than miscreants. The internally-displaced people were left to fend for themselves.
The unrest of recent past introduced themes of suffering to Pashto poetry that the region faced due to violence and eviction of its inhabitants. Homesickness experienced by migrants was already a prevalent theme. A song that caught my attention blends the two themes to produce a very poignant account.
It reads as a letter from a friend to another who lives abroad and is contemplating a return to his village. The letter urges the friend abroad to give up the idea of returning – by warning him about the grief that visited his homeland while he was away.
The vocals of Shah Farooq have beautifully brought out the forlorn emotion contained in the lyrics of Sabir Kaki. It regrets how their former carefree way of life has given way to a pall of fear spread over all the towns of the region. (Link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L0ZdrIheK10)
Leaving home in the morning, in the evening one is unsure to return Tears come easy; but on the faces it seems hard for the smiles to return
They used to gather every evening, all the friends of the village
Neither those pleasures now exist, nor those trends of the village
The heart quivers with fear, when one goes out to bazaar
Lest some trouble-making felons have fitted a bomb in the car
Longing and nostalgia peak at the time of traditional festivals that bring together friends and family and a sense of community love is in the air. The wave of unrest, however, affected the rituals associated with such festivals too.
Not anymore, unlike in the past, do we pay each other’s homes a visit
On the day of Eid, the trend now is to pay the graveyard a visit
Streets are deserted, in tatters lies the way of life of the town
The elderly are around, under the soil lie buried the youth of the town
On Eids, the designs of henna used to bring colour to girls’ palms Instead the strikes of lament on their chests now redden those palms
Looking further for poetry on these themes, I came across a dirge for the city of Peshawar expressed in the verses of the prominent Pashto poet, Rahmat Shah Sail. He talks of the times when the city was known for its beauty and mystery, and of the bustle in its bazaars. Addressing the city as his beloved, he says: (Link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GEmoNgJcnH0)
I have always called you the city of flowers How can I bear seeing you getting ripped apart by bombs?
H goes on to paint a sorrowful picture of the helplessness of Peshawar’s residents, who could not prevent wave of terror that engulfed their city under their watch. Neither their voices nor their physical strength could stop the killings and destruction.
Now that severed pieces of your lovers’ bodies fly off like autumn leaves I quietly watch on as a spectator when it happens, for I am powerless
The blood of your lovers spills and sprinkles over the city like rain I participate in their funerals with my silent tears, for I am powerless
It is a tyranny of history and the perpetrators of that tyranny are no strangers but our own countrymen, the poem adds. Linked to the theme of a country destroyed by its own people, I was reminded of a song by the famous Afghan singer, Nashenas. It is a heartfelt appeal to a youthful militant to lay down his arms. (Link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4-gE5dHXYpI)
Young man! who are you? Yes, you, who is shooting away bullets! Do you know you’re firing bullets at your forefathers’ village?
This graveyard, that you see, houses your own kith and kin Some of them killed recently, some more than a while ago
He goes on to urge the young man to stop being a party to the destruction of his own people. Instead, he pleads with him to consider his own budding youth – it is his time to court the damsels of the town. Those damsels’ youth shouldn’t be tainted with mourning for the untimely deaths of their menfolk.
For the love of God, young man, rain no more fire Don’t burn the house of your forefathers with red flames
Let your nephew sleep in peace in his mother’s lap And dream his warm and sweet infant dreams
Let these scorched deserts once more bloom with flowers That you can pluck and bring for maidens to pin in their hair
These grief weary streets and alleys of this land Should come alive again with the sound of drums and dance
Here’s to hope that the circumstances will make such themes inapplicable to the Pashto poetry of future, where the suffering that Pashtuns endured during these troubled times will only be honoured as a dark period from the past.
Shueyb Gandapur is a freelance contributor based in London. He travels the world and shares his impressions about the people and places he comes across on his Instagram handle: @shueyb1