Fragments: a researcher recalls her travel to Swat valley in 2010

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Swat, Pakistan, year 2007.

The Taliban partly deface the Jahanabad Buddha, a colossal sculpture (ca. 7th century CE), which corroborates a past of mosaic intertwined by empires, religions, and peoples.

Meanwhile, not far away, some other day, some other time, the Taliban desecrate the shrine of Miāṇ Abdul Tirmizi.

* * *

Swat, Pakistan, end of the month of August, year 2010.

I am travelling alone from Lahore to Peshawar in a Daewoo bus. Everyone inside the bus filmed before departing. Daewoo bus. I have always enjoyed the fact that I can have a mini meal free of cost. I like their sandwiches. Plastic food packed in plastic. No, this is not an advertisement. This time, I am deprived of these delicacies of the modern world.  But it is all included in the price of your ticket. Plus, the headphones. Few radio stations. The television on the top. Few soap dramas, or the recitation of the Qur’ān. We are beings of the antipodes. The mountains of rock salt tinged of red, and dotted with living green, burst apart by the glass window on my left side, like veins carrying blood in nature’s body—the scenario of the motorway.

It was the month of Ramaḍān, so we stop in a restaurant near the road, some time after leaving Peshawar, to break the fast, and before starting the most difficult part of the journey that was to come. The journey was lengthy and tenuous, not only because of the improvised bridges made of wood, which were now temporarily substituting the bridges that once stayed there, before being ravaged by the floods; but also because of the small interruptions by numerous military checkpoints, in which, at each time, the identities of the driver and of the few men inside the van, were verified. Doing part of this journey after dawn was also not probably a good idea.

Checkpoints. Checkpoints.

This is an omen of the weeks to come. And somehow of the years to come. But at this point I know nothing about that. Checkpoints. Checkpoints. Every time we go out of the village. Every time we come in. Every time. Everywhere. The burden of this ceremonial rite with plastic cards waved as extension of human beings. The army is also present in the white walls where the green and white colours of the Pakistani flag stand out. Vestiges of battles involving the Pakistani Army and Taliban-led forces. “Dil, Dil, Pakistan.” “Pak, Army, Zindabad.” Even when we walk along the dirt tracks around the house, I am told about the Pakistani soldiers standing in the surrounding hills: invisible to my eyes, yet an everlasting presence. Everywhere there is the smell of death with its invisible trail of blood now inhabiting only figments of memory: “Here it was where x was killed by the Taliban.” “This school was destroyed.” Landscapes of destruction. Landscapes of death.

The floods came to complicate all this. There is an open-air junkyard of stone gravel and cinder block. And water where once there was no water. Everything is out of place. The children show me the mutilated wall of their home, rutted by artillery. A young male of my host family disappears for some days. A neighbour, an influential khan, intervenes in the matter. The army finally releases the young male. Sitting in cornfields is no longer a safe hobby these days. Checked!

* * *

“Dil, Dil, Pakistan. Pak, Army, Zindabad.” During the offensive against the Taliban, the presence of Pakistani Army in the Swat valley was interpreted as a period of making Swatis, Pakistanis. Swat valley, Pakistan © Ana Tomás 2010

All these military checkpoints intersect the mountainous landscape. I know nothing about these beings. If I mention them, it is only because they have remained as a symbol of an ominous presence that represent a shift in my consciousness of this part of the world, ripped away from my romanticized views of Swat, frozen in time.

Nothing of the above bothers me. That, I think. But it does. I will only understand much later. These are the footprints of a path—my fieldwork. And I cannot stop wondering how do people coexist with all this. A life interrupted—my life interrupted. Increased security. Increased bureaucracy to conduct research in Swat. Restriction of movements for “foreigners” to certain areas of the country.

* * *

Destruction created by the floods, Kabal Tehsil, Swat valley, Pakistan © Ana Tomás 2010

Pekhwari bus. Curtains. Plastic and colorful flowers; lights; mirrors; objects in motion. Plus the loud music echoing through the stereo speakers. The male gazes that I try to avoid. The Dīwān of Rahman Bābā with a red hardcover. Dozens of improvised bookmarks fill the book. Not so much my favorite poems, but those I find by chance: an improvised bibliomancy of small omens—each a mirror of my fluid different states of being. I look through the window, or I look down avoiding people, emulating modesty. I pay my fare of rupees that always amount to two digits, and never more than twenty. Which means, zilch. The man comes to collect the fare from me. We stop at the usual military checkpoint, when entering the Cantonment Area (“military or police headquarters”). Just before that, the bus driver lowers the volume of the music.

* * *

Those curtains. Those plastic and colorful flowers; lights; mirrors; objects in motion; are also soon to disappear.

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Destruction created by the floods, Kabal Tehsil, Swat valley, Pakistan © Ana Tomás 2010

If I mention all this, it is because it bothers me. Yes, it bothers me.

I know that I am lucky enough to thread easily around in KP—short for Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (the name of the province where Swat is also located). In Peshawar, the capital of the province, I roam around the city, feeling completely at ease. Yes, checkpoints before entering “Cant. area” (short for Cantonment Area), if you need to cross from University Town to the Archives, near the Khyber Bazaar, in the “old city.” I go often alone to eat kaā gosht (gosht, “goat or lamb” prepared in the kaā, “a type of cooking pot”), in Namak Mandi. Or to buy books at the University Book Bank Agency. But this is in Peshawar. In Swat, things are different. Urban. Rural.

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Shrine of Bābā Ji in Kabal Tahsil, Swat valley, Pakistan © Ana Tomás 2010

2020: All remains the same. The chaotic traffic. The labyrinth of alleys in the old city. All remains the same. Just the kaā gosht is now 1,000 PKR per kg. I am not sure about the current price of my beloved Pekhawari fried kaleji (fry liver). I know all of this, because I have become a virtual being enacting computing synapsis. And you have to emphasize the “kha” in Pekhawar. If you don’t, it is not from Pekhawar, ka na?

* **

2014: But the security increases. Each year, seems to get worse. Surprised to witness our Daewoo bus being stopped, and the Pakistani army asking all the passengers to momentarily put everything containing liquids in the front of the bus. The sequence of this story belongs to (my) science fiction imaginary: a strange and big machine operates outside and inspects this equally big bus. There are even comic-tragic moments in this increased web of security. Sometimes I am not that lucky, and I have to negotiate the usual complexities inherent to conduct fieldwork in this part of the world.

* *

2010 I am a mere visitor. This time, I won’t stay long. So how can I pretend to grasp this broken landscape? I only address pieces of memory—MY memories. I only revive through words, glimpses of my first impressions of Swat. All of that, amounts to nothing. I stay always outside this horror, and never opening the door to this house full of ghosts.

* * *

I have recently read an article in a Pakistani newspaper: it alerted to the problematic of romanticized portraits of Pakistan by some “foreigner” travel bloggers, many of them women who have recently travelled “solo” (please visualize the ironic tone of the quotation marks) to Pakistan, and had just marvelous things to say about the country. Different companies sponsored some of these travels. One of those women even travelled throughout the country on a motorcycle. Imagine Pakistani women doing the same without creating a fuss! Again, I have never had a problem with the local authorities, apart the occasional mise-en-scène in which copies of documents are given away to shady figures; but this only when staying at the local guest-houses. I feel, “at home.” Translation: completely comfortable.

* * *

Back to that my very first morning in Swat. Month of Ramadhan, year 2010. Kabal Tehsil. I am not far from Mingorah. When I wake up, I have a bunch of women and children waiting to see me in the porch of the house. They all are sitting in chārpāyīs. They are curious about the mysterious female guest, and I am the center of attention. It will be always like this. The first days. And sometimes even after. I think it is only fair: This reciprocal game of curiosity. And the importance of being a guest. A guest soon to be stripped off her condition as such, and become (almost) part of the family—as the Pashto proverb says, “guests are only guests for three days.”

The early lavishing hospitality gives way to different behavioral patterns. Soon I will eat after men, as it is customary here (though at times I am fortunate enough to eat at the same time, sharing the plate with the youngest male members of the family). At times, I miss having eggs for breakfast, now a luxury of past times. And I dread the economy in the disposal of the chicken’s pieces. I am sorry: I do not want to sound like a “spoiled brat.” It is only my organism adjusting to this new diet. A simple breakfast made only of corn or wheat bread, and chai. Then lunch. Then dinner. Again. And again. Our meals are essentially composed of spinaches, okra, red beans, and by that freshly baked rounded bread prepared in the tanoor (ps. “traditional oven”). Occasionally, or perhaps less often than I would like to mention, rice is also cooked (wrijī) with mung beans (mahé). It is served in a big metal plate accompanied of small bowls containing curd (ps. masté), homemade tomato sauce, and chicken broth. I learn to love this dish.

The above paragraph is an excellent illustration of chauvinism and neuroses during fieldwork. Malinowski had them too. We all have them. In a way, or another. Sometimes, it is the cold water. Sometimes, the electricity blackouts. Myself, taking time to talk about food, and my struggles adjusting to this new diet. Here, I also don’t drink bottled water like in Peshawar. I drink the running water. It tastes heavy. Is there anything as heavy water? There is a communal well nearby, build with the help of a non-governmental organization, where people go and pump water for house consumption.

* * *

The traditional houses of Swat: With its inner gardens, flowers, and even trees. And rooftops. This small piece of nature helps me surpass the restrictions which as a woman I have to face more times than I really wanted, or expected to. It is the universe of women. The universe of the family. Away from the space of the ḥujra—the space of men. The ḥujra, a room (or dwelling), separated from the main residence, is used to receive male guests. Due to the strict practices of purdah (lit. “curtain”, here referred to as “reclusion of women from public observation”), unknown men don’t enter inside the house. It is in the ḥujra that they are received, staying here overnight, if necessary. Consequently, women are also barred from entering this space.

However, as a hybrid character, at times I am allowed to permeate this world. Hujras become meeting and working places for me. On one rainy afternoon of August, during my fieldwork in Tīrāth (upper Swat), I spent some hours at the ḥujra (“guest room”) of one of the most affluent members of families of fakīrs living in the immediacies of the shrine of Miāṇ Abdul Karīm Dād. I sat in the ḥujra‘s tūshak (mattress), amidst the seas of cushions, waiting for the arrival of the tāwīzgar (ps. “who does tāwīz or amulets”), sipping tea, and enjoying some delicacies. I had agreed to interview one fakīr regarding the practice of magic and preparation of tāwīz (amulets, spells). This is a theme that interests me: practices and beliefs regarding the invisible world, reflected in the construction of an imaginary of landscapes, of myths and nature.

Here, there are few spaces where women can navigate: the rooftop, the cham. The cham, an unit of space composed by a group of houses, where women can sit without fear of being seen, as outsiders usually don’t pass this area. It allows for some privacy to the families living in this area. The cham of this house was also the rooftop of a house, to which it was possible to descend through a small wooden stair. There are also the occasional visits to family’s members in other villages of the Tīrāth Union Council; weddings; engagements.

* * *

A photo of daily life in Bahrain Swat. Photo by

Back to 2010. Some days after my arrival in Swat, I tell the girls that I cannot fast because I have my period (and by the way, I am only using it as an excuse to not fast). I want to take a shower. I am told not to do so: “if you take shower with your period, you will get a headache.” I insist. I take my shower. Nevertheless. I learn like this, the sacred language of female bodies and intimacy—women’s world(s). Of the hot and cold. Of the pure and impure. Birth and creation.

A young woman, my friend’s youngest sister, has recently given birth to a girl. She stays here, at her parent’s house, temporarily leaving her husband’s house. During forty-days she will not take a shower. She will not pray. And she will eat different food. Chicken broth. For myself, I end up getting a massive headache some days later. And it is hot. Hence my headache. I try to rationalize. An old woman makes me dam. The processes of healing using verses from the Qur’ān are quite common here. In the dam (ps. “when people blow on the sick”), for example, one blows on someone (or the affected part of the body), reciting some of the verses of the Qur’ān. Some days later, my friend’s sister takes bath and prays for the first time. This is also part of the ethnographic experience. Being a woman, I have to spend most of the time inside the house. I witness the slaughtering of chickens, clothes being washed and put to dry by women. Vegetables being sliced. Bread being prepared. The bread in the tanoor. Every morning. Every late afternoon. And the long afternoons spent on the rooftop. In spite of everything, the roof is still this limbo between two distinct worlds: the zanānā (lit. “belonging to women”), and the outer universe in which men move with dexterity.

I become their confident. I become their sister. I become their pair. Just like them—I am a woman. Just like these women, my body adjusts to this space. There are secluded paths across the village that women use to walk unnoticed when going to other villages, or when visiting the shrine of Miāṇ Abdul Karīm Dād.

In my exploits of this small piece of paradise, I am driven around. I visit other members of my host family, or taken to clothing shops protected by mud walls. I also attend an engagement somewhere. I watch sweets being deep-fried for Eid-al-Fitr by women wearing golden bangles. The status of these women hangs on their wrists. And I am dressed with these multiple masks: I am a woman, a foreigner, and also a researcher. And many other things I can’t recall now. Again, I become this hybrid character.

A pedestrian bridge in Bahrain, one of many in the Swat valley-Photo by

Somewhere, some time, in a different era, Fredrik Barth visited these mountains. I have devoured “Political Leadership among Swat Pathans” during my college years. And I have devoured the work of Barth’s followers and critics. It is this unrealistic desire of resuming Fredrik Barth’s work that fuels my imagination. I am interested in the surrounding landscape. Graves of saints and martyrs. Sacred spaces. Some are well-known. Others have been forgotten. And I want to carve landscapes and draw sacred spaces in my notebooks. But, at the same time, I am interested in categories such as land and conflict. And, in my complete idiocy, I almost forgot how these two words put together are so important.

* * *

September 3rd, 2010. Visit to Sham Bābā in Kānjū, Swat. Here is buried the son of Maḥmūd of Ghazni (d. 1030). Another martyr. Another memory. Coincidence or not, an omen to be only later understood: It is also here in Kānjū, that the remnants of Miāṇ Abdul Karīm Dād’s corpse, are claimed to be buried in. Miāṇ Abdul Karīm Dād (c. 1562-1661), the eldest son of Akhūnd Darwezah (d. 1638-39), is the main character of my doctoral research in Tīrāth, further north from Kānjū. It was there that he died fighting the Kāfirs (infidels), in 1661.

And it is here in Kānjū, without knowing it, that I start building the plot of my research.

* * *

September 4th, 2010. Visit to the shrine of Bābā Ji. I do not recall much of this visit. Except the entry in my red small notebook: the date and the name of visited places. And there are some surviving photos. I recall someone mentioning a recently constructed madrasah near this shrine.

These are the pieces of a complex puzzle.

I will be back to Peshawar and to an almost failed master dissertation on land and conflict, in the village of Hazar Khwani, Peshawar. But at this point, I know nothing about that.

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