If you have been fortunate enough to see the postcard-perfect images of the Kalash, you will know what an enigmatic tribe they are. They captivate the imagination, with their ornate beaded dresses, flowing robes and intoxicating customs. But little is know of their plight, which now threatens to rob the Kalash of their very existence.
Historically they were pejoratively called the Kafirs of Kafiristan – the Infidels of the Land of the Infidels. They are a fascinating and colourful tribe living in the foothills of the Hindu Kush. They inhabit the Kalash Valley – comprising the Birir, Bumboorate and Rumbor sub-valleys – in Chitral, Pakistan.
They are animists, following a folklore of mysticism, fairies and spirits far removed from the Islamic culture of the majority Muslim population, but for centuries they have co-existed untouched by the society around them. The tribes-people in the surrounding environs converted to Islam, but this small enclave has remained intact for a millennium or more.
There are many theories about who these Caucasian-looking people are. Legend has it that they are descendants of Alexander the Great and his army, but despite numerous tests there has been no conclusive genetic or historical proof linking the Kalash to Macedonia. Although many in Pakistan’s mountainous regions share their physiognomy with Central Asians, the Greek legend still persists due to the Kalash’s striking appearance and alien cultural practices. Some historians believe the Kalash’s polytheist belief system is an amalgam of Zoroastrianism, Greco-Buddhist and Vedic beliefs, that dominated the region at one time or another.
Ironically, Muslim invaders in the past never tried to convert the Kalash, and they lived peaceably in the time of the British Raj. It has only been in recent years, that a sinister threat to their existence has arisen. Their sister tribe in Nuristan, Afghanistan, was forcibly converted back in the 19th Century, but in Pakistan they remained untouched until the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
Under the rule of General Zia a proselytising brand of Islam took shape funded by Saudi and American dollars. The Tableeghis were an evangelical Muslim sect who were ordered to take their fundamentalism to all corners of the country in order to find converts for the Mujahadeen during the Afghan war, and so non-Muslims like the Kalash were a prime target.The Tableeghis were insensitive to other cultures and faiths, and once settled in the Kalash Valley, were successful in destroying the peaceful habitat of the Bumbor valley. According to Abbas Zaidi’s essay entitled “The Ethnic Cleansing of the Kalash” a staggering 70% of Kalash land was seized during the years 1981 to 1995.
Today, the Tableeghis have morphed into the Taliban and are an ever present threat. As with the many minority groups up and down the country, there is pressure on the Kalash to convert. Many Kalash do so to escape poverty, enticed by cash payments and the promise of equal treatment by the neighbouring Muslim majority. Many convert with irrevocable consequences; never able to return to their former life or family, as such would amount to apostasy. Such is the pressure put on them, that the Kalash population figures are falling sharply, and there are only 3,000 Kalash members left. It is predicted that if nothing is done to protect them they will soon be an extinct peoples.
Until recently, the Greek government funded and built a lot of new amenities in the Kalash Valley, but it came with strings attached. Disney-style Ionic architecture sprang up everywhere to establish the so-far unsubstantiated ties to the “Motherland“. The Greek presence also posed a security threat as it drew the attention of the Taliban who kidnapped the Greek Volunteers’ Director, Athanasios Lerounis, in 2009 (who’s release was successfully negotiated in 2010).
Due to the overbearing pressures on the country since 9/11, Pakistan has not been able to fulfil even the most basic needs of the Kalash people. The Kalash are increasingly living in squalor; they are at risk of malnourishment and women risk death during childbirth. The Kalash are seeking help from the United Nations to turn their Valley into a Protectorate. In this way, the people indigenous to the Valley can preserve their own lives, their ancient culture with no external threat.
Alarmed that the Kalash tribe could disappear this century, since 1980 Mohammed Bugi, an artist and campaigner, has been dedicated in his struggle to help preserve the Kalash. He advocates on their behalf and has set up an urgent petition addressed to the UN General Secretary, requesting that the Kalash are made a protected tribe under the auspices of the United Nations. http://www.change.org/petitions/secretary-general-of-united-nations-help-preserve-kalash-a-tribe-in-pakistan-for-united-nations-protected-site
Please do sign and share the petition to maximise the number of signatories so that we can save the Kalash. Time is running out. The alternative is that we let the Kalash extinguish, allowing yet another minority of a once pluralist country to be tragically lost for ever.