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Pakistan's Pashtu artists flee Taliban repression

When his captors released famous Pashtu comedian Alamzeb Mujahid after a week of horror and humiliation in Peshawar, the capital of Pakistan's conflict ridden North West Frontier Province.

world Updated: Jan 28, 2009 11:35 IST

When his captors released famous Pashtu comedian Alamzeb Mujahid after a week of horror and humiliation in Peshawar, the capital of Pakistan's conflict ridden North West Frontier Province, they gave him the lone choice of abandoning showbiz.

The 40 year old artist, who has performed in more than 300 dramas on television and in theatre during his long career, is now planning to join a Muslim missionary group called Tablighi Jamaat.

"They said I should take the path of truth and righteousness. God Almighty will ensure a better source of income for me than the one I previously had," he said, refusing to identify who kidnapped him earlier this month.

Mujahid ensured his safety by adopting the new lifestyle, but many other artists are defiant and prefer to move to other parts of the country or even abroad, waiting for tolerance to return to the region.

"Around a dozen singers have moved to Canada, Dubai, Germany, Norway and other countries. The number of other actors and artists leaving the country are even higher," said local composer Sahab Gul.

"Many others, who do not have means to leave the country, are living a life plagued with starvation since the production of music albums, Pashtu films and dramas has come to almost a halt due to threats from Taliban," he added.

The onslaught on traditional art and culture started when an alliance of Islamist parties swept to power in North West Frontier Province, a region dominated by ethnic Pashtun tribes, in 2002, riding the wave of outrage over the US invasion of Afghanistan.

The new government banned music in buses and public areas, shut down Peshawar's only theatre, Nishtar Hall, and removed all billboards carrying pictures of women. Dabgari Bazaar, a famous music street, was closed and the whole area commercialised.

It gave almost a free hand to the Taliban to spread their influence in the province, bomb hundreds of shops selling Pashtu and Urdu music and movies on CDs, and bring the once-flourishing Pashtu film industry to ruins.

Frustrated by the swift Talibanisation of the society, Pashtun voters brought the secular Awami National Party (ANP) into power in provincial elections held in February 2008. Yet it changed nothing.

The ANP government re-opened Nishtar Hall, but few were interested in using it. Music and movie CDs remain off shelves and shopkeepers are only allowed to sell jihad propaganda CDs released by Taliban production houses.

Previously, the artists in Peshawar and the districts of Kohat, Bannu, Mardan and Mingora would produce between 100 and 150 video albums and dramas a year, but the industry has now collapsed, leaving some 4,000 vendors and hundreds of artists jobless.

In December, rising singer Sardar Yousafzai survived an assassination attempt with injuries but his colleague Anwar Khan died. A month later Taliban in the troubled Swat valley executed female dancer Shabana and dumped her body on a street together with CDs containing her performances.

"Our leaders seem helpless. Traditional Pashtu art and culture is dying out and they are doing nothing to save it," said one popular singer, Gulzar Alam, who ended his refuge in safer parts of the country and returned to Peshawar when the ANP was elected.

"Nothing has changed. I was forced to grow beard and sell kebabs instead of singing under the Islamist regime, but I don't feel safe under the new government which claims to be secular and nationalist," added Alam, who survived an assassination attempt in December and is now planning to seek asylum in Europe or America.

But the ANP leadership can do little as the Taliban have grown powerful over the years. Their thousands of armed fighters control large areas in the province and nearly the entire tribal region bordering Afghanistan. They have also carried out dozens of suicide attacks against security forces and politicians across Pakistan.

"We have full realization of the threats to the Pashtu art and artists but the situation today is such that the lives of our government ministers are not safe," said provincial Minister for Culture Syed Aqil Shah.

"The artists should show courage and patience instead of resorting to exile. They should understand we are in a state of war with the forces of darkness and enemies of culture, art and education."

First Published: Jan 28, 2009 11:32 IST