By Shaheen Buneri
PESHAWAR: Once proud to be a promoter of rich Pashtu musical tradition through his music shop in Mingora, capital of Pakistan's terror-hit Swat valley, Alyas Khan is a disillusioned man today. The business he launched back in the 1990s by selling his inheritance for half a million Pakistani rupees is on the verge of collapse as followers of Maulana Fazlullah, a firebrand pro-Taliban cleric, regularly bomb music and video shops, leaving him concerned about earning bread for his six-member family.
"Militancy has badly affected our business. The majority of the music shop owners have switched over to other businesses. They have witnessed how some of them were penalized by the militants for violating Fazlullah's orders," he said.
Fazlullah launched an "anti-vice" campaign in 2007 by inciting people through a pirated FM radio station, and warned vendors to stop selling music CDs and cassettes in Swat, previously a popular tourist haven that lies 250 kilometres north-west of Islamabad.
Dozens of shops were blown up in the aftermath.
"The West wants to distract our youth from following the right path. Playing music is against the tenets of Islam and there is nothing bad to discourage it at all costs," Maulana Fazlullah told a reporter in an interview last summer, adding he only liked anthems and songs that arouse passion for Jihad among the youth.
This is exactly what the radical cleric is forcing upon everyone, said Khan, 45.
"He wants me not to listen to my folk songs. I should have no concern with my history and music traditions. Instead I should watch videos full of Taliban violence and listen to Jihadi anthems."
But this will deprive the younger generation in Swat of getting acquainted with their roots and even the meaning of their national existence, he added.
Swat was a main centre of the ancient Gandahara civilization centuries ago, but a penchant for music and a yearning for peace survived as its hallmarks even when it stood as a princely state in the early 1900s.
Locals still recall the good old days when music and other artistic expression were encouraged by the enlightened and moderate rulers, which held the title of Wali.
The last monarch, Mian Gul Abdulhaq Jehanzeb, brought singers, poets and musicians from different parts of the Pashtun belt and encouraged their performances.
He allocated a piece of land to these artistes to build their homes and would specially invite some of them to perform at his palace in front of local and foreign dignitaries.
Shah Dauran, 65, a resident of Mingora Swat, said music was then an integral part of the lives of ethnic Yousafzai Pashtuns, who make up the major portion of the population in Swat.
"Groups of musicians and female dancers were invited to wedding ceremonies in almost every village of Swat, Buner and Shangla, which were three sub-divisions of the Swat state.
"The Wali of Swat himself was a great music lover and he would personally participate in music gatherings. Later on he married a famous female dancer from Mingora," he added.
The princely state merged into Pakistan in 1969 but the love for music and dance was passed on to the coming generations.
Many female artists settled in the famous Music Street in Mangora and entertained visitors, which were plenty until Fazlullah's men bombed the house of an exotic dancer last year.
The street now has a deserted look and Pashtun folk singers, dancers and musicians are migrating to other districts of the North-West Frontier Province of which the Swat valley is a part.
Worried over Fazlullah's activities, the government of President Pervez Musharraf sent more than 25,000 troops into the region to curb militancy in October, triggering months-long clashes that left hundreds dead.
The fighting stopped when the new government offered peace talks to the rebels in March and signed a peace deal with them on May 21. But this has only encouraged Fazlullah and his comrades, who are currently sending fresh threats to the music vendors.
Some believe Fazlullah is pursuing a well-planned strategy under which he is gradually replacing centuries-old Pashtun cultural heritage with Taliban-defined narrow Islamic culture, which prefers guns to songs.
"Violence is replacing peace, hatred is defeating friendship and the sound of gunfire is substituting the lovely and sweet beats of Pashtu music," said Usman Ulasyar, an ardent music lover and president of Swat Arts and Cultural Association.
This is very serious, he added, as our youth will now take suicide bombers as their ideals instead of the heroes of our folk tales like Yousaf Khan Sherbano, Adam Khan Durkhanai and Sher Alam Mimonai, who are the symbols of peace, love and sacrifice in Pashtu folklore.
First published by Deutsche Presse Agentur (DPA) - Germany National news News agency