A Return to Culture

Rudyard Kipling’s The Man Who Would be King is a parable about the price of cultural hubris. His two heroes decide that if they bring their innately superior culture to remote and backward people they can become the kings of the title. Looking for the most backward and un-Western culture they can find, they choose Kafiristan, in the mountains between present-day Pakistan and Afghanistan, and before the story ends, they pay a high price, indeed, for their bloated ambition. Kafiristan no longer exists as a country, but the people of Kipling’s story, the Kalash, still live in that remote region, and they are still fighting cultural hubris, harder than ever, thanks to Lakshan Bibi.

Bibi is waging a one-woman campaign to restore the Kalash people’s respect in the wider world and their pride in themselves, all while building their self-sufficiency.
The Kalash have a long and distinctive history, which is both their source of pride and the source of their persecution. They are unlike any of the surrounding peoples. Their physical traits, in some ways, make them appear more European than subcontinental (some Kalash claim ancestry from Alexander the Great’s troops, who practiced their own version of cultural hubris in the area). The Kalashi’s animist religion is based on mountain spirits and a yearly cycle of ceremonies and sacrifices, and it predates Islam by at least 3,000 years. Based in three valleys and numbering between 3,000 and 4,000, the Kalash are farmers and goatherders, with goats having both spiritual and economic importance. Perhaps the most distinctive element of Kalashi culture is the women’s elaborate headdress, which features a long train called a cupas, made of wool and decorated with rows of cowry shells, beads, buttons, and bells. Along with the cupas, women traditionally wear long black dresses with richly decorated shoulders and hems and topped with piles of bead necklaces.

The Kalash are surrounded by Islamic cultures, including some of the most radical followers of that religion, and are seen as less than human by their neighbors. In addition to extreme discrimination, they are dealing with unregulated and invasive tourism, illegal logging in their forests, land encroachment, and severe economic marginalization. And the result of that pressure is all too familiar: many Kalash are abandoning their traditions and their identity, without finding acceptance in the dominant culture.

But if Bibi has anything to say about it, that trend of cultural dissolution is coming to an end. She has launched an initiative called the Kalash Indigenous Survival Program, which aims to promote Kalash culture internally and externally, establish sustainable and culturally appropriate development projects, rebuild and restore traditional buildings and customs, and set up small businesses run by Kalash people. She is a very serious, quietly intense woman who knows exactly what she wants and will not be deterred from getting it. Just as important, she has the experience and global savvy to make it happen.

Given her passion for traditional Kalash culture, you might reasonably assume that she comes from a traditional background, but she was one of those Kalashis who had abandoned her traditions and planned on a career in the wider world. She earned a graduate degree from the University of Peshawar and, improbably, became a commercial airline pilot—the first Kalash woman ever to follow that path (actually, the first girl from her valley to go to graduate school). “I lost my sense of cultural pride once I was in a school,” she says. “I was not feeling part of the Kalash community. I thought why shouldn’t I be an initiator? But after my flying school graduation I went back to the valleys, and I was greeted by my people—my entire community came and greeted me. I could see that these people were destitute; I could see that these people needed me. I saw that I should stand with them, represent them.”

That visit, Bibi says, completely undid her plans and rearranged her priorities. She decided that from that point on she would abandon her career as a pilot and devote herself to fighting for Kalash rights and culture. “I became a pilot because I wanted to show the world what I could do,” she says. “But I realized that my people needed me much more than the airline. I wanted to give them empowerment. I can bring my voice into foreign communities where people can listen, where the people can learn respect, where the people now look down upon us because we are indigenous. These people see the Kalash as filthy, as sickening. I wanted to give the Kalash people a degree of pride, telling them that they should feel proud being the custodians of the world’s oldest civilization. They should not feel degraded or ashamed of being born. I wanted fight to preserve the indigenous way of life, to make them feel proud to say, ‘Yes, I am Kalash.’”

She says she knew that her goal would require convincing both the outside world and the Kalash themselves of the value of their culture: “We are surrounded by people who are not culturally sensitive; we are dominated by another religion. I realized that it required empowerment, to tell them who we are, what we’re asking: We are the people who have lived in that locality for centuries, we were the people who ruled, but now we are the people who are deprived. We were the people who had all the natural resources; now the resources are in danger.”

One of the high points in her campaign came in 2005, when she met with President Musharref and made him aware of the Kalashi’s plight. She gave the president all of the elaborate plans her organization has created for zoning and development, and Musharref gave the work his support.
The Kalash people themselves have embraced Bibi’s ideas and leadership, too. She says that parents who previously had not let their children go to school or learn to read and write are now insisting on a Kalash education. People have begun wearing their traditional clothes again and learning their language. They are rebuilding their temples, ceremonial sites, and public buildings. But her success has not come without a price. At one point she was kidnapped and tortured by people who did not want to see the Kalash having cultural pride or control over their resources and lives. “I was kidnapped from a meeting about my people,” she says. “I was frightened, but even when I was tortured and my life was threatened, even with broken fingers I never felt weak. I know who I am. Nobody has the right to overpower me.”

Mark Cherrington is the editor of Cultural Survival Quarterly

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