When a Khattak tells you that he can live without food and water but not Attan and music, you know it is a matter of life and death. Perhaps the Taliban knew this too.
This is why Karak went into collective shock when the militants said it had to stop. “Music and dance is in our blood,” says Samiullah. “It is our pride.” How could they stop?
Samiullah is one of the managers at the Ambiri Kalan mela that is held in Karak in a ground at the well-worn crossroad of Hangu, Bannu, Kohat, North Waziristan and Lakki Marwat. The mela is believed to have been started at this trade route by the Hindus who had dominated the business scene in the region before Partition.
Troubadours, folk singers, young men with young blood, bands and buskers would come to the fair to show off their talents in what is called tamasha here. They would hope to get an appreciative audience, perhaps a gig or two or even make a little money along the way.
“It was the age of music,” says Jumma Khan who plays the harmonium and tabla and sometimes still sings and plays at fairs. “Everyone would visit the fair to become well-known as did I.” He began his career in the mid-90s.
But in 2008 a massive number of militants from neighboring North Waziristan and Bannu attacked the mela with orders to stop tamasha. They threatened anyone selling musical instruments. There would be no Attan or Khattak dance.
People had little choice but to give in. Singers melted away and limited themselves to performing in hujras or the space attached to residences where men usually gather to hang out. The threats and fear of bombings inside the crowded fair meant that people just wrapped up their stalls.
“A couple of times the Taliban threatened us for doing this [music] business and blew up a CD shop at the edge of the fair,” says fabric seller Hazrat Ali. “After the blast at Ajay CD shop we wrapped up our business.”
Maulana Mir Zakeem of the JUI-F political party testifies to the hard times. “We tried to be as resilient as possible,” he says. “And that’s why we were spared some of the brunt of terrorism unlike neighbouring districts.”
The reaction to the clampdown had a background because of something special about Karak. It is one of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s unique districts because it experienced the least terrorism since 9/11. And there was a funny reason for this.
Researcher Prof Dr Zubair explains. The reason there was relative peace in this district was because traditionally roughly 70% of its men have been, in one way or another, doing “belt jobs”. “In every household here since the British Raj you will find a man or two serving in the military or police,” he says. “These people are loyal to the ideology of the state.” And so while Karak is geographically located next to the more hostile areas such as Waziristan, Hangu, Kohat and Bannu it bred little militancy because of the demographics of its population.
The good news is, and few people were willing to speak of it openly, that the music and Attan has slowly returned to the fair. “We get vibrant dancers and listeners with lots of good money,” says one musician, who we have not named. “They are able to make quite a bit in just one day. This is not the same kind of exposure that a performer would get in a hujra.”