Pakistan: Voiceless singers of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa cry for security

2 March 2014

Black curtains have fallen on Pashto cinema in KP as militants have speeded up their attacks. Musicians are receiving death threats, being kidnapped and forced to leave their homes. Local government hopes a new cultural policy can change the desperate situation for artists in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

By Sher Alam Shinwari, reporting for Freemuse from Peshawar

Haji Gul practising at his office in Kabari Bazar Music Street. Photo by the author
Haji Gul

Haji Gul practising at his office in Kabari Bazar Music Street. Photo by the author

The condition of artists and singers in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Fata is getting from bad to worst with every passing day. In the month of February 2014, two cinema houses in Peshawar city were attacked with hand grenades, killing sore of innocent cinegoers and leaving many other seriously injured by Bara based militant’s group. The attack brought curtains down on city 11 cine-theatres and also badly affected the already dwindling cinema business to stand still.

The cinema owners have closed their businesses and demanded fool-security from the authorities.

“Artists and singers’ families literally starve as they have no job and no security. Some have laid their hands on other jobs. We have walked up to so called high ups responsible for promoting cultural activities but no avail,” Tariq Jamal, a senior tv actor and president of the artists’ organisation Awaz (‘Sound’), told Freemuse.

“We have decided to close down our business till complete security is ensured to us. About 11 cinema houses in the city shall observe curtain fall. Even in the normal situation, only 30 to 50 cinegoers turn up at shows because of its dwindling business. Owing to current spate of terrorism, about 2,000 employees affiliated with cinema business will lose their job,” Sayyad Jamil, a senior cine-worker, told.

Shama Cine-theatre in Peshawar after the attack
Shama Cine-theatre in Peshawar right after the hand grenades attack

Jan Wali, a cinema buff, said that the PTI-led government in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa was least bothering art and artists’ miserable plight, adding that 95 percent of artists and singers are living in rented abodes. Families of most artists and stage performers literally starve as the so-called KP culture directorate has not arranged even a single show or cultural event in the city’s lone theatre ‘Nishtar hall’ since PTI came into power. “It shows the apathy of high–ups towards artist’s community,” he regretted.

Only three production houses out of hundreds have been left in the field. The royalty of a CD/telefilm was reduced from Rs 300,000 only to Rs 30,000 during just a few months. In Fata, there is no CD market, and no local singer can run an office in the tribal agency, revealed Zarmat Khan Afridi, who previously was dealing in the CD business in Jamrud subdivision of Khyber Agency.

Virtually, there is not a single CD shop or music centre left in the whole Fata. About 100 singers and music composers have been forced to settle down in Peshawar and other KP cities. Also, more than 400 artists and singers have been confined to Kabari Bazar – a music street in Peshawar – as they cannot perform in even the settled districts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

Singer and rabab player Wazir Khan Afridi has about 40 albums to his credit. Photo by the author
Wazir Khan Afridi

Singer and rabab player Wazir Khan Afridi has about 40 albums to his credit. Photo by the author

Noted Pashto singer Wazir Khan Afridi, hailing from Bara subdivision of Khyber Agency while narrating his woeful tale, said that he was kidnapped three times from his residence by militants and each time he was released on the condition that he would quit singing.

“But I shall continue singing because I have to carry on this precious legacy as most popular singers like Khial Mohammad, Sarfaraz, Rafiq Shinwari and many others belonged to Khyber agency.”

“Recently local media spread false news that I should have been killed by militants but I am still alive. I have received hundreds of telephone calls from my Pashtun fans around the globe. Pashtuns cannot live without rabab (popular traditional string instrument) and tapa (folk song),” Wazir Khan Afridi said proudly.

Death threat
Haji Gul, another local Pashto singer, said that two months ago he went along with his music orchestra to the district Karak where he was supposed to perform in open air during a wedding ceremony.

“As we started our programme, a bearded militant came out from a nearby field and threated us with death if we failed to wind up the concert. People of the village stunned as the militant was carrying hand grenades and other explosives. The participants ran for lives and the militant bundled us into a cab and took us to the local bazar which drove us back to Peshawar,” Mr Gul recalled with misty eyes.

Ashee, a dancer cum singer (name changed for identity protection), told that she could not go out of Peshawar city:

“Even in the city, I don’t dare go with every person because of militant’s attack. You know, when they don’t spare mosques and cinemas, how can militants spare me. Similar is the case with my other female colleagues, whether in Swat and Peshawar,” Ms Ashee observed.

She said, “We have no organisation and no voice. We live a dog’s life,” she complained.

About 400 artists and singers are living in rented dingy rooms in Kabari Bazar Music Street and fear is writ large on their faces.

“Whenever we come to know of a militant’s attack or bomb blast, we artists and singers are filled with fear and insecurity. For several days we decline offers for stage performance especially out of town,” Aleem Jan Afridi, a young singer, told.

Stage performance not allowed
Sahil Wazir, a drummer who has fled from North Waziristan to Peshawar along with his family members for fear of looming military operation against the militants, informed:

“People cannot perform attanr – a popular traditional dance in Fata on wedding ceremonies, and instead they arrange a milad (religious function). Even in and around Peshawar, villagers don’t allow stage performance because of militant’s attacks,” Mr Wazir told.

Requesting anonymity, an official in the KP Police department told Freemuse:

“Our hands are full with providing security to sensitive installations, high officials and other citizens. We had earlier informed the cinema owners of the impending threats of attack and also had asked them to improve their internal security. Police have detained a teenage Hasan belonging to Bara based militant’s group who has confessed to his involvement in the cinema bomb attacks in a recent local court.”

Cultural policy
Nasser Yousaf, acting secretary culture Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, responded that a well-articulated cultural policy document is already there, the KP government is thinking over to seek stakeholders’ final advice on its implementation which will address all issues related to art and artists.

“I hope if its gets implemented, will prove beneficial for both the artists’ community and boosting of cultural activities in the militancy-hit province,” Mr Yousaf said.

Sher Alam Shinwari is a Peshawar-based freelance journalist affiliated with the Pakistani newspaper Dawn. He is also an active member of the Culture Journalists Forum and coordinator for Fata contributing articles on Pashto literary, cultural and artistic activities.

Note: The Culture Journalists Forum (CJF) and Peshawar and Takhleeq Development Foundation (TDF) have decided to jointly celebrate Music Freedom Day on 3 March 2014 in Peshawar Club where artists and singers are invited to express their views and also perform traditional live music on the event.

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