DERA ISMAIL KHAN: Ten-year-old Maqsood Rehman always had a beautiful singing voice, and was often called upon to lead students at his primary school in their morning rendition of the national anthem.
One morning in 2005, however, things changed dramatically. Members of the Pakistani Taliban, who were gaining influence in the district at the time, burst into the school, as he was in the middle of singing the anthem.
Everyone else sat down, but Rehman remained standing.
“[The Taliban commander] gave a speech, saying that the army was coming. As they were speaking, explosions began to happen all around us. […] they hit the homes around us, we could hear the screams,” he says talking to Aljazeera.
There was debris everywhere and he was petrified, he says. Rehman ran for hours to reach his home in the town of Sarwakai, about 20km away.
“What is the point of taking up the pen? We are studying and then we’re being attacked like this. Which direction should we turn?” he remembers thinking, at the time, wracked by fear and anger.
“That’s when I started writing poetry and thinking that I need to do something for this country, and for the people of Waziristan.”
Pakistan’s military forces launched an operation to retake South Waziristan, considered the birthplace of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) in 2009, forcing the displacement of more than 600,000 people as they fought pitched battles with fighters from the armed group.
The Pakistani Taliban had ruled South Waziristan and parts of adjoining districts with an iron fist, banning all musical expression and even shutting down barbers who would shave men’s beards, deeming the practices un-Islamic.
Today, however, Rehman is one of a handful of young men who are leading a cultural revolution in conservative South Waziristan, by making music with a social conscience.
“If someone in our area heard that I was a singer, back then people would really look down on me, and I might even have been killed. That’s how difficult it was,” says Rehman, who is now 22 years old.
Currently based in the more developed district of Dera Ismail Khan, about 110km east of Sarwakai, he has been training in music for the last two years, trying to find a way to express his poetry to the world.
Rehman smiles broadly, and often, when he speaks of his work, and it is difficult not to be infected by his contagious energy. His passion for his people, and his music, is evident.
“Our culture was the first thing that was targeted. That is what divided us,” he says.
While South Waziristan is known for its conservative values, music has played a central role in the culture of the Mehsud and Wazir tribes, which dominate the area.
“Our attan [a folk dance] was based on unity, it would bring people together. We would also have the cheegha [a village-wide call], to gather people together in a group to resolve internal disputes. If we ever had disputes with another tribe, they would also be resolved this way, and the attan was a way of unifying people [to cement that resolution],” he says.
“But slowly that culture began to fade, and the dhol [drums] fell silent.”
Today, Rehman wants to change all of that. Singing a combination of traditional folk songs, modern pop songs and self-described “revolutionary” anthems, he wants to bring his people back towards their musical roots.
“My songs are often on these themes: on unity, talking about how our people should once again come together and should become self-aware. I want to deliver a message, of peace, unity and education.”
The young musician has held several large concerts in Dera Ismail Khan, as well as making television appearances on local Pashto-language stations. His audience, he says, is mostly made up of young people.
“Music was banned for 20 years, but now people are coming back towards this. There is a huge demand.”