The Moon, Orchards, and the River Swat

By: Khadim Hussain

The silhouettes in the moon light appear awful and exotic at the same time. We can see dim lights up there in the hills in the bright background of the moonlight. The rustling sounds of tree-branches coming from the forest mingle with the gushing sound of the River Swat, flowing fast nearby. Driving on an uphill road, one is engulfed by the mysteriously silent, thick forests spread on both sides of the road. 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-pukka road. As one drives up, one can feel that the gushing sound of the fast flowing River Swat down the valley is getting dim and is overcome by the hissing sounds of the forest. The moonlight, fragrance of orchards and hissing sounds of the forest mingled with the sound of the gushing waters near by—could I imagine a more artistic world!! One might spend a large part of his life to find something like that and it was there.

I am seeing Wahid Zaman and his family after a long time. Probably after 10 long years. The small village, where Wahid’s family lives, is surrounded by hill tops. He writes impressive poetry in Pushto--the language belongs to Indo-Iranian group of Indo-European languages and is spoken by a majority population of Afghanistan, North West Frontier Province of Pakistan, the province of Baluchistan of Pakistan and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan.

Wahid is standing there in front of his house, smiling as usual. I can see two kids, a girl and a boy, standing beside him. Well, the girl was too young when I saw her and the boy was not yet born. They are Wahid’s niece and nephew. Wahid leads us to his sprawling Hujra, a meeting place of the Pushtoon village folk also used as a guest house. I ask about Wahid’s elder brother but Wahid remains silent. Spogmai looks at me with feelings of anguish and helplessness in her eyes. I think, what is the matter? I feel restless and become more curious. What is it regarding his elder brother that my friend wants to hide from me?

As far as I recall, Wahid’s brother Shireen Khan was a modest and humble human. He used to give us a kind of hospitality I cannot find comparison for. Always smiling, he would arrange for our trip to the high mountain hills. He would make it sure that I have sufficient amount of the brand of Gold Leaf I take. Gold Leaf, as far as I remember, was not available at that time in the nearby town of Matta. So he would go to the provincial town, Mingawara,to bring Gold Leaf for me.

Where is Shireen Khan? I keep on thinking. Wahid has started arranging for our dinner. Spogmai and Atal are helping him with their little hands. Spogmai has regained her composure now. She seems to have forgotten my question about the whereabouts of her father. She has started overcoming the initial shyness of meeting with old acquaintances. I gather she may have a blurring memory of our first meeting with her. She smiles when she looks at me. I ask her about her school and her friends and she is telling whatever she recalls from the events of her school today. But I keep on thinking why she is not talking about her father? Where is her father?

After dinner Wahid tells us that his mother wishes to see us. Wahid’s 65 years old mother looks eighty. The bones in her cheek are seen as if without flesh. Her healthy physique looks frail and shaky. She leans to the main door of the house to hold herself standing. She is forcing her eyes to open so that we are visible to her properly “She has almost lost her sight”, I hear Wahid saying. She starts shedding tears as soon as we are visible to her. “My son Shireen Khan……….” She tries to say something but probably she does not find words to tell us whatever she wants us to know. After a few minutes, I can see her shaking hard. Wahid holds her in his hands and takes her inside the house. And I get depressed to death thinking where Shireen Khan is?

Wahid plans to go to the river side the next morning, and we all agree with him. Wahid remains silent all the way down to the river bank. As soon as we reach there, and settle down on a grassy patch, I ask the same question that has been irking me since last night. Where is Shireen Khan? Wahid is now prepared to tell me the story of his elder brother.

Shireen Khan had got his early education in a school situated in the nearby town of Matta. Soon after completing his elementary education, Shireen Khan started working on his farm. He used to work with amazing resilience the whole day long. He had planted a variety of orchards, and would grow sufficient amount of corn to feed his extended family. His father, who was a simple village fellow, was free from work, and would attend to social obligations only. Shireen's father died when Shireen was only 18. "Father could have been saved if there were a dispensary in the village", Shireen would tell his younger brother, Wahid, later on.

The demise of his father made Shireen morose, and he would remain lonely, reticent and reclusive all the day long, either working on the farm, or visiting the cleric who had recently come from Afghnistan to lead prayers in the village mosque. In the meanwhile, Shireen married his 15 years old maternal cousin. Obligations of the marriage were performed by Maulvi Barkatullah, the newly arrived cleric, who was now frequently visited by Shireen Khan over all these months after the death of his father.

Shireen Khan seemed to have developed very cordial relations with Malvi Barkutullah. He started coming home late in the night because he had started taking lessons of the Quran from the Maulvi. "Our Malvi Sahib remained a great Mujahid (a divine fighter) during the Jihad (a war waged for divine supremacy) of Afghanistan in 1980s against the soviet infidels", he once told Wahid.

Shireen Khan seemed to have forgotten everything except frequent visits to the house of Maulvi Barkatullah, which was situated near the village mosque. Shireen had even arranged a regular session for the Maulvi to interpret the Holy Quran on loud speaker. The session used to be held in the night after Esha prayers. Shireen had 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 audio and video tapes, and forced everybody 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 younger brother to stop bringing newspaper to home because Shireen thought the newspapers print 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 elder 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 remembered the night quite clearly 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 had to remain silent. The next day, most of the village folks brought their TVs and cassette players out of their houses, and burnt them down in an open space outside the village. Wahid, despite being against the Maulvi and his edicts, could not do anything, and remained in his house, boiling in anger and frustration. Wahid left his home early next morning, and went to the provincial town, Mingāora. He started living 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 Mingāora off and on, and would get more frustrated with the news of the spreading circle of influence of Maulvi Barkatullah. Wahid would miss 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. He would sometimes cry bitterly in the night out of helplessness, while living in Mingāora.

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. Wahid went out from his house to inquire from Shireen Khan’s friends about the whereabouts of Shireen Khan. His heart started sinking with grief when he learnt that his brother had gone to get military training for Jihad. Wahid remained in the village till his brother returned from the training after forty days. This was the first and the last time when Wahid exchanged hot words with his elder brother, Shireen. Shireen had dubbed Wahid a coward who was afraid of the infidels. Shireen even went as far as calling his younger brother an infidel because Shireen thought that Wahid was shirking martyrdom. In the coming few days, Wahid witnessed Maulvi Barkutullah and his disciples, including Shireen Khan, preparing to celebrate the fall of Pentagon and World Trade Centre in the US. It seemed to be a great occasion of rejoice for the Maulvi, and his disciples. Wahid left his house again early next morning, and went to Mingawara. He never knew that that would be the last time he saw his elder brother.

Once Wahid was reading an English newspaper, and his eyes stuck to a headline, ‘The US fighter planes strike at the Taliban stronghold’. He instantly rang up his home, and found out that Maulvi Barkatullah had issued an edict that Jihad had then become obligation to be fulfilled by every adult Muslim. He also came to know that his elder brother had started arranging for weapons and ammunition, and had started preparing a battalion of Jihadis from the young people of the village. Wahid was helpless. He couldn’t do anything.

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

Wahid takes a long sigh after finishing the story. “My mother, Spogmai, and my sister-in-law, who gave birth to a male baby after Shireen Khan left for Afghanistan, have kept their ears to the doorsteps 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. He seems to have vaporized”.