‘Ours’ are the old ways’

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  • Someone throw the ‘good old days’ a lifejacket

There was a time when Gilgit-Baltistan celebrated the harvest season.

Boys and girls of the community would gather in separate groups for “Ch’aap w’yukii” (to perform/obtain Ch’aap which means “treats”). Two people would be selected per group, masquerading as an aging bride and groom, complete with “T’koro” — humped backs. Beating drums, each group set off, singing for their supper — literally — in front of each house in the community (the “Ch’aap” to be distributed there and then or collected and sold in the bazaar come morning).

One house, however, would be left for the very end. That was where the older women of the community had gathered to go through the collected and preserved harvest (the result of several days of hard work). Zakat would be distributed from this haul, ensuring the responsibility was dealt with — effectively and transparently — as these women gathered, sang and knitted. After the community had gathered there, all the children born since the previous harvest were presented for “Dil d’yukii”. This: gathering all the grain collected in the season and letting these infants side and roll around in the hard-earned harvest, was practiced to formally welcome each of these new members to the community.

In an equally relevant example: another celebration that’s no longer prominent (if practiced) — the sons of two families exchanging caps, forming alliances. “As I take your burdens and enemies,” it meant, “you take mine.”

If these accounts reminded you of All Hallow’s Eve/Halloween, or the Native American “sharing of the pipe”, you’re not alone.

And if you’re wondering why you’ve never heard about them: according to locals I spoke to, the last time such celebrations were held were a generation ago.

Every story about GB’s people prizes their community-building. Locals credit successful marriages binding the communities closer together, but these disappearing traditions had a lot to do with it as well. So what happened?

“Nothing happened,” interviewees insist. “People just stopped thinking it was worthwhile. They thought these practices were now useless.”

There’s a joke I’ve often heard when Gilgitis gather to talk about the good old days: “We were perfectly fine! I always tell the southerners” (anyone from outside Gilgit is a southerner), “… until your Shaan Masaalas came along and spoiled us!”

“Kill the Indian in him, and save the man” was the US mindset forcing Native American children into boarding schools in the 19th century.

It’s not useless to invest time and energy in the community-building these people pride themselves on. Politicians are quick to bemoan the loss of culture

It’s called cultural assimilation. And while nowhere near the enforced assimilation of Native American culture as first proposed by the likes of Henry Knox, that is what happened: not an end to agricultural practices revolving around the harvest season, but the marginalisation of one culture by a louder, larger, dominant one. The gradual decline of Gilgit customs and community-building traditions is a reality.

Discussing his book “The Intellectual and Cultural Property Rights of Indigenous and Tribal Peoples in Asia”, Dr Bengwayan points out that Asian indigenous communities are practically endangered, facing threats to their lands, resources, and appropriation of their knowledge. GB’s people aren’t dissimilar. A travesty — since indigenous people have much to contribute to the societies around them, bring valuable advice to contemporary issues, and shouldn’t need to assimilate in order to feel a part of the larger community. They’re real, present, valid.

Conversations unveil rising xenophobia as locals fear absolute submersion at the hands of a progress-minded government — and China.

Would CPEC increase economic opportunities? Of course, they agreed, but for whom?

Would the Diamer-Basha Dam result in water conservation and electricity generation? Most assuredly, but in 2014 concerned parties claimed over 30,000 petroglyphs (some dating back to Paleolithic times) would be submerged or destroyed in the process. Demands for responsible policymaking in this regard are thus hardly uncalled for.

Noting the Chinese owned restaurants popping up in Gilgit-city on my last visit spurred a conversation where locals expressed concern about what this would mean for the safety and security of their community — one local politician was convinced GB’s values would be swallowed up in the development-race.

This, from a people best known for its hospitality, whose urban residents — until recently — laughed when asked why they didn’t lock their doors at night. When faced with a new and changing world, every community latches to fear.

The political, economic, cultural and linguistic alienation that has persisted is a notable failure of previous governments.

It doesn’t help that, as do their counterparts elsewhere, GB’s politically ambitious use this fear and resulting misinformation to keep the rumor mill churning and dissent bubbling near the surface.

GB’s people are also at fault.

Infighting, as property previously considered barren and inhospitable gains value with CPEC and related projects, is keeping people from utilising rare economic opportunities. Again, the savvy few unite to avail them and leave the rest squabbling too late, until interested parties can force sales at a pittance, contributing to the aforementioned skepticism about CPEC’s worthwhileness.

There’s also little to no linguistic preservation or written histories — in what’s not dissimilar to indigenous people around the world. As Jon Reyhner writes, SIL International reported that of 2m people around the world who call themselves “Native American”, only 361,978 speak one of the 154 known indigenous languages — often, spoken only by the very old.

While there have been some texts attempting to draw attention to the history, it is uncommon they’ll gain attention outside GB. Poets like Baba Chilasi are revered in GB ranks but haven’t been popularized elsewhere, at least in Pakistan (while it’s rumored his work is taught in Iran, I haven’t verified this). Again, promotion is either lacking or considered beyond one’s means, with people seemingly willingly trapped by ignorance.

In fact, GB generally does remain bemused about outsider fascination, and resulting economic and preservation opportunities.

Case in point: when interviewed for this article, my own family — Giligitis born and bred — kept asking me to stop recording personal accounts of old customs. And while traveling abroad, I was reduced to splutters when a grown man asked “You’re from Gilgit?” and then, hushed: “Is it true they talk to fairies up there?” For him, this was a momentous occasion. For me, generations of GB blood notwithstanding, this was — sadly — news (still unverified, BTW).

A key factor in the survival of these traditions, cultures, and languages was an isolation GB can no longer afford. It’s easy to blame the internet, mobile phones and the adaptation of “western” thinking in schools for this, even when this isn’t necessarily true.

After all, areas like Kailash and Hunza celebrate their customs. Though many in GB credit these peoples’ “inherently sharp minds”, truthfully, business savvy is in the mix — marketing fuelled tourism, finances and hence the relevance of regional celebrations. Like the inhabitants of Old Lahore — caught by surprise as even their fellow Lahoris flock to photograph “old, decrepit structures” — and the Winnebago’s Angel DeCaro — who taught her students to value indigenous artforms by exhibiting white people’s esteem for them — these particular GB communities learned the worth of promoting what surrounding communities consider mundane.

But GB, despite popular opinion, isn’t just costumed dances. It’s a people: multi-faceted, unique and growing disenfranchised with each new government that holds basic rights like voting in the national elections (local body elections are on the table) and official recognition as a Pakistani province out of sight, the “non-province” seemingly hostage.

Globally, indigenous people are reclaiming their heritage and identity. With recent developments including the new visa-policy facilitating tourism, GB should be doing the same — with the government and the civil society’s support

It’s not useless to invest time and energy in the community-building these people pride themselves on. Politicians are quick to bemoan the loss of culture — in the opposition and in office. If there was ever a time to put their money where their mouth is and end GB’s alienation — it is now.

Because as recently-televised statements from local politicians imply, left too long, it won’t be pretty when this particular powder-keg blows.