Sunday, 17 August 2014

The Moon, Orchards and the River Swat

this short story was written in September 2007 by the author and is exclusive to QK- ed

By Khadim Hussain

The silhouettes in the moon light appears both awful and exotic at the same time. The dim lights of the occasional homes up the in the hills in the bright background of the moonlight, the rustling of tree-branches in the forest mingle with the gushing sound of the River Swat, flowing fast nearby is an enchanting experience. Driving uphill, engulfed by the at times mysteriously silent, thick forests that spreads on both sides of the road and the fragrance of ripe apples riding on the waves of cool breeze brings intoxication from the orchards planted in unending continuous rows on both sides of the half dirt road.

As one drives up, the roar of the River Swat down in the valley fades away as it is overcome and replaced by the hissing sounds of the forest. The moonlight, fragrance of orchards and rustling in the forest, mingling with the sound of the gushing waters is hypnotizing—can one imagine a more artistic world!! Many may spend a lifetime searching for enchantment like this, but it can be found right here and now.

I am on my way to visit Wahid Zaman and his family; it has been a while since I last saw him, probably 10 long years. The small village, where Wahid’s family lives, is surrounded by hill tops. He writes impressive poetry in Pashto-- a language that belongs to Indo-Iranian group of Indo-European languages and is spoken by a majority population of Afghanistan, Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa Province of Pakistan, the province of Baluchistan and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan.
We arrive to find Wahid standing in front of his house, smiling as usual. I can see two kids, a girl and a boy, standing beside him. The girl Spogmay has grown since I last saw her and the boy Atal was not yet born. They are Wahid’s niece and nephew. Wahid leads us to his sprawling Hujra, a meeting place of the Pashtun village folk also used as a guest house. I ask about Wahid’s elder brother Shireen Khan, but Wahid remains silent and I am not sure whether he has not heard me or whether he has chosen to ignore my question. Spogmay looks up at me with anguish and helplessness in her eyes. I can not help but wonder if I have missed something or if something is wrong.

To me, Shireen Khan is a modest and humble human who has always been incomparably hospitable, always smiling. He arranged trips to the high mountain hills every time I came to visit, and would ensure that we were sufficiently provided with would amount to luxury in this place. He would send for items in Mingora if they were not available in Matta, and thus would make us feel welcome and important.

While Wahid has started arranging for our dinner, I can not help but notice Shireen’s absence. Spogmay and Atal help their uncle with their little hands. Spogmay seems to have regained her composure, and now that she has overcome her initial shyness she smiles when she looks at me. I ask her about her school and her friends and she recounts whatever she the events of her day. I on the other hand just can not shake off the feeling that something awful has happened to her father.
After dinner Wahid takes me to pay respects to his 65 years old mother. I am shocked to see that she looks very old, her cheeks are sunk in and her usually healthy physique looks frail and shaky. She leans for support against the main door of the house and I feel her forcing her eyes to open so that she can see clearly. “She has almost lost her sight”, I hear Wahid say. As soon as she sees us she starts crying and says. “My son Shireen Khan……….” She tries to say something but seems to choke on the words. I can see her trembling as she tries to keep her emotions in check. Wahid holds her in his arms and takes her inside the house. I feel a cold dread seep through me as I realize something terrible must have befallen Shireen and I no longer have the courage to ask.

I am tired and retire for the night. In the morning Wahid suggests a visit to the river. We set out. Wahid remains silent all the way. We reach there, and settle down on a grassy patch, I ask the question that has been irking me since the night before. Where is Shireen Khan?

Wahid has an answer for me this time.

Shireen Khan received his early education from a school in the nearby town of Matta. After completing his elementary education he started working on the family lands. Planting a variety of orchards, and growing sufficient amount of corn to feed his extended family, he enabled his father to attend to social obligations. His father suddenly died when Shireen was 18. "Father could have been saved if there were a dispensary in the village", Shireen would tell Wahid, later on.
The demise of his father made Shireen morose, and he chose to remain alone, reticent and reclusive all day long, either working on the farm, or visiting the cleric Maulvi Barkatullah ,who had recently come from Afghanistan to lead prayers in the village mosque. In the meanwhile, Shireen married his 15 years old maternal cousin. The marriage ceremony of Nikah was performed by Maulvi Barkatullah, who was now frequently visited by Shireen.

Shireen seemed to have developed very cordial relations with Malvi Barkutullah. He started coming home late at night after he started taking lessons of the Quran from the Maulvi. "Our Maulvi Sahib is a great Mujahid (a holy warrior) during the Soviet Jihad", he once proudly told Wahid.
Shireen seemed to have forgotten all his duties and responsibilities to his family; instead he paid frequent visits to the house of Maulvi Barkatullah in the village mosque. He even arranged a regular session for the Maulvi to interpret and recite the Holy Quran on loud speaker to the village. The session would be held at the night after Isha prayers. In the meantime Shireen started imposing a number of restrictions on the women of his extended family. He had started exhorting girls of the family to stop going to the nearby elementary school. Wahid initially resisted him, but later on, when parents of the girls acquiesced into the argument of Shireen, and prevented their daughters from going to school, Wahid also gave up.

Shireen had brought a lot of fundamental religious audio and video tapes, and forced everyone at home to listen to the fiery hate speeches of the firebrand Jihadis. TV and cassette player at his house were now only used for the purpose of watching, and listening to those speeches. Wahid was in the habit of reading newspaper. He would go to the nearby town, Matta, to buy an Urdu, and an English newspaper every day early in the morning. Shireen compelled his brother to stop bringing newspapers home on the grounds that the newspapers carried pictures of men and women in an obscene manner, which was likely to spread profanity in the house, and in the neighborhood. Wahid had to accept this argument because Shireen was his older brother, and nobody in the village had ever gone against a family elder. Shireen even banned coca cola and Pepsi cola, as he thought they were prepared in the factories established by Jews, and the money, they earned through these cold drinks, went to strengthen Israel against the Muslims.

Wahid recalls the night with great clarity when the Maulvi issued an edict in his session in the night that watching TV and listening to music were Haram (forbidden) in Islam. Wahid tried to argue with the Maulvi, but the whole village, including his elder brother, rose in favour of the Maulvi, and so, Wahid was forced into silence. The next day, most of the village folks brought their TVs and cassette players out of their houses, and burnt them in an open space outside the village. Wahid, despite being against the Maulvi and his edicts, could do nothing, and remained at home with his boiling anger and frustration.

Wahid left home early next morning, and went to live the provincial town, Mingora, with one of his close friends, despite pleadings by his mother, sister-in-law, and his cute little niece, Spogmai. He would call his mother and Spogmai from Mingora off and on, and would get more frustrated with the news of the spreading circle of influence of Maulvi Barkatullah. Wahid missed his orchards, the scene of the full moon in the background of green hills of his village, and the banks of the River Swat extremely. At night he would sometimes cry bitterly out of helplessness and loliness.
After a few months Wahid went to his village to see his mother, Spogmai, and his sister-in-law. He found out that his elder brother, Shireen Khan, was away from home for the last three days. His mother and his sister-in-law knew nothing as to where Shireen had gone and were worried sick for him. Wahid went out to inquire from Shireen’s friends about his whereabouts. His heart sank with grief when he learnt that his brother had gone for military training to fight Jihad.
Wahid remained in the village for forty days till his brother returned. This was the first and the last time that Wahid exchanged angry words with his brother. Shireen called Wahid a coward who was afraid of the infidels and even went as far as calling his brother an infidel because he thought that Wahid was shirking martyrdom. In the coming few days, Wahid witnessed Maulvi Barkutullah and his disciples, including Shireen Khan, celebrated the fall of the Pentagon and World Trade Centre in the US. It seemed to be a great occasion of rejoicing for the Maulvi, and his disciples. Wahid left home once again, never knowing that it would be the last time he saw his brother.

One day Wahid was reading an English newspaper, and his eyes fell on a headline, ‘US fighter planes strike at the Taliban stronghold’. He felt his heart fill with dread and he instantly rang home, only to find the bitter news that Maulvi Barkatullah had issued an edict calling every adult male to come and fulfill the obligation of Jihad, claiming that it was the duty of every Muslim to do so. Even more heart breaking was the knowledge that his brother had started arranging for weapons and ammunition, and had started preparing a battalion of Jihadis from the young people of the village. Wahid had never felt so helpless and frightened.

Wahid hurried to his village only to find out that the battalion of the village folks had left for Afghanistan under the leadership of Maulvi Barkutullah.

Wahid sighed heavily, “My mother, Spogmai, and my sister-in-law, who gave birth to Atal shortly after Shireen Khan left for Afghanistan, keep listening for footsteps and their eyes on the door ever since my brother left. Everyday, my mother comes out of the house, sits outside the door of our house, and starts crying. I can’t see my young niece, Spogmai, crying for her father every day. Nobody knows about the whereabouts of my brother, Shireen Khan”.

-The writer tweets at @Khadimhussain4 and can be e mailed on is the Managing Director of Baacha Khan Trust Educational Foundation (BKTEF)

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