In February this year, the Taliban assassinated Pakistan’s Christian minister for minorities, Shahbaz Bhatti. He was the only politician representing the non-Muslim populations of Pakistan. His smallest ward was the Kalash, a 3,000-strong animist tribe living in the mountains of the Hindu Kush, in Pakistan’s wild northwest frontier. A persistent myth tells of their descent from members of an errant division of Alexander the Great’s army, which ripped through the mountains of northern Pakistan more than 2,000 years ago.
In Rudyard Kipling’s time, the Kalash were known as the “black Kafirs” and their land was Kafiristan, the setting for his tale of insanity and idolatry, The Man Who Would be King. The “red Kafirs”, their neighbours, the subjects of Kipling’s story, were brutally converted at the end of the 19th century. They became Nuristanis, “enlightened ones”, and their rugged mountain land is one of the centres of the war against the Taliban.
The Kalash live in three valleys (Bumboret, Birir and Rumbur) by the Afghan border in the province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. In winter, flights to Chitral, the nearest town, are routinely and consistently cancelled without warning. My journey from Islamabad was by road, through Mardan and Dir up to the Lowari tunnel and then down the other side. In the winter, when the Lowari pass is blocked by snow, the tunnel is the only way of travelling to Chitral by road. Its construction began in 2005 and it is now open for a few hours every day. It is less a tunnel and more a 9km-long cave.
But in spite of the constant sense of peril it evokes, the tunnel is changing Chitral and the Kalash valleys. Previously, getting to the nearest city, Peshawar, meant a trip through Afghanistan. Now the tunnel brings supplies from the rest of the country. With access comes fear. “Extremists use the tunnel to come here,” says Taj Udeen, a local police commander. “We have to make sure we know who is coming to our district.”
They certainly knew we were coming. Tourism has dropped off steeply since 9/11 – in the 1990s thousands of people visited Chitral annually, now that figure is below 100 – and we were among few outsiders to visit the Kalash valleys in the past year. Desperate to make sure nothing happened to our four-strong team, 10 armed policemen accompanied us. We spent a month in the valleys. They never left our side.
For centuries, the Kalash have been fighting to preserve their traditions. People are converted to Islam every year. “Extremist Muslims prey on weak people and create internal divisions,” Imran Kabir, a Kalasha polymath (he reveals that he is, variously, a butcher, teacher, writer and junkyard owner) tells me.
A local teacher, Akbal Shah, recounts the story of his father, who worked as a frontier policeman and converted to Islam because he was the only Kalash man in an all-Muslim unit. “He was not educated, so they said to him that if he didn’t convert he wouldn’t go to heaven. He ended up believing them because he didn’t want to stand out. The Muslims are a big majority, they are pressing us everywhere.” Deathbed conversions are common and people talk of being offered wives and money if they convert. When I interviewed one of the local imams, Nasir Abdul, at his newly built mosque, he spoke of the love he has for the Kalash people before going on to say that he “hopes they will convert to Islam so that they can go to paradise”. He is a friendly man who does not pay people to convert, but his objective is the same: the end of the Kalasha religion.
Not all Muslims in the area feel this way. One convert who everyone calls “Mullah” tells me: “Everyone should be free to believe what they like.” And while Muslims are not allowed to convert to the Kalash religion, men like Mullah participate in Kalash festivals and rituals in a way that makes you believe that if they could convert back, they would.