After the floods... A North Frontier village makes a comeback

Starting over: a woman plasters the new home she has built.

Iva Zimova / Panos

The narrow alleyways of Pir Sabaq are cluttered with piles of stone and bricks. At every turn the clatter of construction work can be heard. One year on from the floods, this small village in the Khyber Pashtoonkqua region of the Northwest Frontier is on the mend. In late spring it is surrounded by lush green fields of ripening wheat. But the bustle and activity of rural life is a thin veneer. The trauma that overwhelmed this village is not hard to find.

A short walk behind the alleyways of mud and stone houses brings you to the river. At the most elevated point on the river bank, an old shrine is still standing. It’s a 19th century monument to a Sikh commander in the long-departed army of Ranjit Singh. It stands in front of the most imposing building the village has to offer, a three-storey brick edifice. On the side of the building, level with the top of the second floor, a banner proclaims that the Labour Education Foundation is building a new school in the enclosure next door.

Then someone explains that the banner marks the height the flood waters reached.

Pir Sabaq stands at the confluence of the Kabul and Swat rivers. Look upstream from the old shrine, and the elegant bend where the two rivers merge is visible, about half a mile away at the far end of the village. Both rivers run from the mountains, where monsoon rains gave birth to the devastation that swept down the whole course of the Indus Valley to the sea. Pir Sabaq stood in the path of a perfect storm as two walls of water converged.

One year on and almost all the houses are rebuilt. There are only a few remaining reed huts with their distinctive blue plastic roofs, the temporary disaster shelters, left dotted around the edges of the village. But the people of Pir Sabaq will be living with the nightmare and the consequences of the devastation all their lives.

For them, nature and normality can never really be trusted again. The land one lives on is only seemingly solid; clouds are potential threats. One day this world could liquefy again. What comes after floods is all uncertain, fraught with the fear and anxiety that abide as the rebuilding of lives goes on.

The night it rained

The 2010 floods devastated parts of Northwest Frontier.

Adrees Latif / Reuters

Ask any villager what happened and a torrent of words pours out. They cannot help reliving that night when it rained and rained. They tell of the sudden alert and everyone running for the rocky spine of mountains beyond the village. So desperate was the scramble to get to high ground there was no time to take anything with them. ‘We could not even take our holy books with us,’ says Abida, a mother of four. ‘I did not even have a shawl to cover me,’ adds Dilraj, a young widow with a child. This is the ultimate mark of indignity in a village where women traditionally wear the veil as their personal badge of honour and self-worth.

When daylight came they saw that Pir Sabaq had disappeared beneath the waters. It took three days before aid reached them on the barren rocks and 17 days for the waters to subside. Not only their houses, but everything they contained had been washed away.

All the animals were gone too. For a farming village, this is a multiple loss: animals are a source of transport, they pull ploughs and work machines, and are a source of milk and meat. All this had to be replaced or substituted from outside for money, which was in as short supply as the beasts of the fields.

Everyone ends their reminiscences with the same thought: what if it happens again? There are no more savings, no nest eggs to rely on, no family members from whom to borrow, no credit rating, few jobs to be had and everyone in the same boat – or, rather, without a boat to float.

Yet Pir Sabaq had some good fortune. The Labour Education Foundation (LEF), a local affiliate of the International Federation of Workers Education Associations, had for some time been running projects in the village with the local stonecutters union. It is the main source of employment, producing chippings for roadworks and construction. ‘We had workers and volunteers on hand who knew the village and its people. Our presence convinced aid agencies they [too] could work here. They tried to poach our people and we were happy to oblige,’ explains Khalid Mahmood, LEF’s director.

Painted signs on the compound walls that surround the rebuilt houses testify to the variety of agencies which set to work here. Some 1,700 houses in a village with a population of 6,000 were destroyed, the rest were damaged. There was plentiful work for the aid agencies, which also provided seed for planting. ‘It was better quality seed than they had previously. That’s why the fields are so lush,’ says Khalid Mahmood. That and the fact that the floods deposited their own small compensation: the silt they tore from the deforested mountains has replenished the fields.

The next challenge

Rebuilding the houses and replanting the fields was the immediate priority. The next challenge was creating jobs and providing education.

As Khalid Mahmood observes, before the floods the LEF had great difficulty in reaching out to the women of the village. Now, women who previously would have resisted leaving their homes are running classes in embroidery, tailoring and how to tend poultry. The regular sessions at the LEF compound in the village are boisterous, offering companionship and mutual consolation as well as a potential route to better financial times. ‘I will sew for other people and this will be good,’ says Dilraj, mother of a ‘special’ child (as children with disabilities are known in the village). She also cares for her aged mother and her sister’s nine-month-old son. Her classmate, Abida, strikes a note of caution: ‘Everybody lost everything. Sellers need buyers – it won’t be easy.’

The villagers sense that aid agencies have their own agenda, while their government has simply been ineffective. Their answer is to do more for themselves

The villagers are grateful for the aid received but it has not answered all their needs; nor has it been available to everyone. They also sense that aid agencies have their own agenda, while their government has simply been ineffective. Their answer is to do more for themselves. ‘It’ll be my own hard work and it’ll benefit all,’ says Mehnaz, one of the young women in the village.

Mastering life after the floods in Pir Sabaq seems to vindicate the old adage ‘what doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger’. ‘We are more aware that we have rights and entitlements now,’ confirms local entrepreneur Behramand. ‘We have to learn how to get what we need and what we should have.’

Coping with disaster has brought new community leaders to the fore. They are focused on the village’s needs and equipped with a new attitude and determination. What the future holds is uncertain. But one thing is clear: the village has brought a spirit of enterprise out of the waters and found its own voice. ‘Before, no-one listened. Now the village demands.’

Merryl Wyn Davies is a writer and anthropologist and the co-author of The No-Nonsense Guide to Islam.

Wilful imaginings

‘How does a nice, sensible Welsh girl like you end up joining a religion of militant fundamentalists who suppress women?’ Interviewers have endlessly asked me this question. The question is predicated on the proposition that nice and sensible people do not become Muslims, and by implication therefore that no Muslim is either nice or sensible. The lack of niceness or reason is proved by the second assertion: Muslims in totality, and presumably by their nature, are militant. Militancy is synonymous with the dread word fundamentalist that clearly needs no definition. The logical consequence of militant fundamentalism is the self-evident observation that all Muslims suppress women. In the perception of the interviewer these terms belong together: because Islam offers no alternative, become a Muslim and that is what you get. Of course, interviewers often play devil’s advocate asking aggressive questions to stimulate robust rebuttal. In which case, they must be aware of the possibility of an alternative view. So why does it never occur to them that devilishly reductive stereotypes actually impede and often preclude sensible discussion of the alternative view. Neither the conventional questions nor the rote answers they are designed to elicit describe or help anyone understand who I am, the world I inhabit, how I know and understand Islam, and the condition of being a Muslim. Why has this question, and variations on its themes, become the essential norm, the set examination to which a Muslim’s existence must be subjected? The answer is Orientalism, the tradition and scholarship by which Western civilization portrays and perceives Islam and Muslims. Right from its inception, Islam was perceived and represented in Europe in a particular way. One can begin with the polemics of John of Damascus c748 AD and move forward to the production of propaganda and popular literature produced to stimulate, explain and justify the centuries long project known as the Crusades. The Crusades were a seminal project for the repossession of the Holy Land by Western Christendom. It required a rationale to explain why the Muslim rulers and population of that region were illegitimate and unfit occupants of the place where Christ had walked on Earth. The basic representation of Muslims that emerged was of militant, barbaric fanatics, corrupt, effete sensualists, people who lived contrary to the natural law — a concept defined by canon laws and philosophy of Christianity. Even when Muslims were portrayed in popular medieval literature as equivalents of knightly Western counterparts, they were completely Other because they were beyond the pale of Christianity, addicted to wrong religion which they persisted in passionately believing. The failings of Muslims stemmed from their beliefs. What medieval Europe made of Islam and Muslims has been described by British historian Norman Daniels as ‘knowledgeable ignorance’, defining a thing as something it could not possibly be, when the means to know it differently were available. The essential features of the medieval representation of Islam and Muslims found a new lease of life with the rise of the Ottoman Empire. After the Fall of Constantinople in 1453 the Ottomans became a new threat on the borders of Europe, a continent increasingly aware that it was hemmed in and cut off from the riches of the world by Muslim territory and power. English philosopher Francis Bacon described the Ottomans as the ‘present terror of the world’. What Europe calls the ‘Age of Discovery’, when it explored and began to establish its colonizing presence around the globe, was an exercise to circumvent its dependence on Muslim lands. It brought Europeans into closer contact with and eventual control of Muslim lands. Medieval ideas about Islam and Muslims got a new lease of life during the colonial period when they were used as justification for ruling and managing the subject people. Such European disciplines as anthropology, political science and development studies, as well as the study of non-Western civilizations such as Islam, India and China, evolved and developed on the tenets of Orientalism. It is the literary convention of much of the fictional and travel literature of Europe. Thus, Orientalism is not simply prejudice, it is also knowledge. The real problem with Orientalism and the authority it gives to Western experts on Islam and Muslim affairs is not that it is knowledge, but that it is knowledge that does not appreciate it is wrong. The authority of Orientalism is that it makes Muslims incomprehensible yet predictable. And its persistence in history and modern times means that Islam and the West have been engaged in a clash of civilizations since Prophet Muhammad began preaching his Message. Is today’s ‘war on terrorism’ the prelude to a clash of civilizations? The question is in every newspaper and magazine. It did not need the right-wing American political scientist Samuel Huntingdon to devise the question; the idea has never actually gone away. There is a sense in which Osama bin Laden is utterly predictable, since he embodies so many of the essential details of the time-honoured image of what the West expects from a Muslim iconoclast in ideas, rhetoric and action.

Fear and discomfort

The authority of Orientalism as knowledge has immense practical consequences. It structures the learned books as well as the popular press, it finds its outlets in plasterboard movie villains as well as strategic political thinking. But most of all it inhibits, constrains and provides an edge of fear and discomfort in the relations between ordinary people, the non-Muslim and Muslim populations of Western nations. Racism and discrimination in towns and cities across Europe and North America exist not only in the attitudes and actions of an obnoxious extreme fringe: they can be implicit in the commonplace attitudes and information of well- meaning and well-intentioned nice, sensible people. But in recent years Orientalism has become an even greater problem. It has become the scapegoat, the shield and sword of Muslims themselves. Among Muslims the existence of Orientalism has become the justification for every sense of grievance, a source of encouragement for nostalgic romanticism about the perfections of Muslim civilization in history and hence a recruiting agent for a wide variety of Islamic movements. It has generated a sense of exclusivity, of being apart and different within Muslim communities and societies that has no precedent either in Islam as religion or Muslim history. Because Orientalism, or its latest buzz word Islamophobia, has been demonstrated to exist, then, from the Muslim perspective, by definition that which is offended against must be defended. That which is the subject of discrimination, prejudice, oppression and all manner of wrongs is thereby established as both innocent and good, no matter what its actual imperfections in practice. The most subtle and for Muslims perilous consequence of Orientalism and Islamophobic actions is the silencing of self-criticism and the slide into defending the indefensible. Muslims decline to be openly critical of fellow Muslims, their ideas, activities and rhetoric in mixed company, lest this be seen as giving aid and comfort to the extensive forces of condemnation. Brotherhood, fellow feeling, sisterhood are genuine and authentic reflexes of Islam. But Islam is supremely a critical, reasoning and ethical framework, a system of values applicable first and foremost to Muslims. Islam cannot, or rather ought not to be manipulated into ‘my fellow Muslim right or wrong’. The existence and increasing focus on Orientalism provide the perfect rationale for modern Muslims to become reactive, addicted to a culture of complaint and blame that serves only to increase the powerlessness, impotence and frustration of being a Muslim. Armed with the conviction of being misunderstood, Muslims blithely proceed to misunderstand themselves. The self-description that has become commonplace among Muslim groups, organizations and movements is not a critical agenda for addressing actual problems but a projection of perfections that makes arriving at a contemporary interpretation of how to enact and live by Muslim beliefs and ideas almost impossible. So, what we have is not a clash of civilizations but mutual complicity in proliferating mutual incomprehension. On both sides, wilful, determined, distorted, imaginings and knowledgeable ignorance propels, fuels and then justifies aggression, oppression, dispossession and dehumanization of anyone who is not ‘us’. The consequences are real, appalling human suffering whether in Palestine or Israel, Baghdad or New York or on the streets of Britain.

Shared cultures

With two complicit systems of self-justification and self-fulfilling incomprehension reinforcing the divide, is there any way forward? There is. In the root of antipathy, where difference and distance were manufactured, we can recover the building blocks of a new sense of interrelationship, compatibility and mutual enlightened interests. Orientalism makes Muslim civilization the dark alter ego of European civilization. Muslim Occidentalism makes the West the dark, despoiling nemesis of its contemporary existence. Both leave out an essential detail. There would be no Europe as we know it without Islam, without the constant interconnection with Muslim civilization. And there is no Muslim existence today or in the future that can be conceived without interconnection with the West. We have to go back to history and see how much Europe gained from the knowledge and ideas in science, technology, philosophy, literature and culture of Muslim civilization. There are thousands of words in English — such as algebra, zenith, alcohol — that are route maps of the positive contribution Muslims made to European ways of life. Indeed, Europe acquired its crowning glory, liberal humanism, from Islam. Islam taught Europe the very idea of reason as well as how to reason. Muslim thinkers like ibn Rushd, ibn Sina and al-Haytham, who had their names Latinized, became integral parts of the rise of knowledge and technical progress in European life. This contribution occurred and was possible because both Islam and the West had a common context and legacy from the Greco-Roman world and both, as monotheistic worldviews, had to revise and critically evaluate the ideas of Greek thought. Christianity and Islam share the common legacy of the Abrahamic tradition. There are values, precepts and ideals, as distinct from specific doctrines, that are common to both or markedly similar. There is a retelling of history and ideas to be undertaken. The West has the task of learning to think differently about where it came from. The Muslim world must rethink where it is. It needs to learn how it values: its moral and ethical impulses are not a separate order but integral part of the common concerns of contemporary human dilemmas. Muslims want sustainable improvement, human betterment, are concerned about where science is going, how to save the Earth, how to attain a just, equitable and inclusive social and political order. To these common concerns they bring a particular way of seeing problems, and no simplistic definitive answers. The trouble with hopeful alternative strategies is they begin with a change of mindset. They can operate only if we are prepared to unlearn, become self-critical and conscious of the false constraints we have taken for normality and authoritative knowledge, that deform our potential, divert us from the most constructive use of our insight and abilities. In short we have to admit to errors and remedy what we have got wrong. To do that we have to be able to explain ourselves, make our debates not predictable but comprehensible to each other.

*Merryl Wyn Davies*, writer and cultural critic, is author of _Introducing Anthropology_ and other books.

Merryl Wyn Davies