Of Swat, SWAT and the Demons of our Minds


What are you looking for here?
Why would anyone come here?
All that’s here is this water, stones, and mountain . . .

An old man in Matiltan, a valley couched between snow-peaked mountains in upper Swat, looked puzzlingly at one of the authors after being asked about eco-tourism in the place he called home. That was when he told us about the water, stones, and mountain. For him, Swat was home and not a place that those who came from outside would bother to visit.

This man; memories of a little girl standing all alone selling peaches on a deserted road in Miandam; family visits that start from one of Pakistan’s cities have defined the multifaceted reality and perception of Swat for us. These memories coexist with the dominant representation of Swat as a land of back-breaking poverty, violence, gender oppression and, yes, Malala Yousafzai and her sagacious family, many gallant and enlightened souls dead and alive, rich histories, beautiful people, and, of course, mountains, rivers and stones.

Pakistanis call Swat the ‘Switzerland of the East.’ We have always wondered whether there could be a bigger affront to the majestic landscape of Swat and its inhabitants. More to the point, Swat has always been associated in the mainstream Pakistani consciousness as a landscape to be consumed and enjoyed, while the lives of its inhabitants are filtered of any complexity, subjectivity, and politics. For these Pakistanis, Swat consists of restaurant waiters, wily shopkeepers and, of course, fat-cat hoteliers. Swat is also one of the beautiful landscapes that the British colonial imaginary has infused with a certain romance. The British Raj filled its imperial monographs with descriptions of cool mountains and fair-skinned people; images of South Asian holy men and stories of the gods of the mountains; and romantic ideas of innocent and fair-skinned girls. Together, these unspoken assumptions and spoken words do not just tell us something about Swat–they have profound meaning for political life in the post-colonial world.

For the old man, Swat is the land of his life and livelihood. It is a tough life—with multi-layered meanings that need to be dealt with empathy and political action. The awe-inspiring physical landscape of Swat and the white (hence pretty) faces of its people seem to mitigate against the  political mode of thinking about them by Pakistanis. More recently Swat the world over is known more for a place where the Taliban took over. It is a place where they beheaded people, whipped women and came within a few kilometers of Pakistan’s capital. Life is multi-faceted in Swat, but our representations of this place are reductive and exclusive. That reductionism takes a turn for the surreal in the international arena and the cultural and academic knowledge-producing enterprises that re-present Swat to a global audience. This turn is an echo of a reductionism that exists in Pakistan, too, and one that we will speak about below.

From Swat to SWAT: The Militarized Mind

Years ago, one of the authors was working on a manuscript on Swat. To her surprise, the editor thought the spelling of Swat would be improved by capitalizing Swat: From Swat, the valley, to SWAT, the acronym for the U.S. paramilitary force, otherwise known as Special Weapons And Tactics–and widely popularized by countless Hollywood movies and TV series.

She made sure the proposed edit did not go through and put the uncomfortable episode aside. Not so long after, however, she stumbled into an academic paper on flood risk published in a high impact factor journal, Environmental Science and Policy, where Swat was spelled as SWAT.

What sounded like an innocent fluke turned out to be a systematic mistake that she kept on running into–most recently when a South Asian Ph.D. capitalized Swat all over again. The entire experience forced us to ask how this consistent transformation of Swat to SWAT was possible, and how otherwise meticulous editors of high-level academic journals repeatedly allowed glaringly obvious mistakes to persist in drafts–sometimes inserting these mistakes in edits all by themselves.

From unconscious linguistic practices to cultural production more broadly, hyper-masculinist and militarized tropes co-exist with romantic images of Swat that compare its mountains to those of Switzerland. This simultaneous romanticization and demonization tell us a deeper story about the representations of Swat–stories that guide and form how those who do not come from Swat interact with this space.

Another place where the elusive politics of constructing Pakistan, Pashtun, and Swat may be sought is in Bollywood. A recent Bollywood movie, Dishoom, show-cased two hyper-muscular Indian cop-avengers who were on a mission to rescue India’s best batsman.  The batsman found himself held up for a few hours before the final match against Pakistan.

The movie is set in an unidentified location in the Persian Gulf. More interestingly, in this unidentified country, there seems to be a (Pakistani) Pashtun enclave, named Ebadin. It goes without saying that this is where all the (fair-skinned) criminals involved in the kidnapping reside. Their den is an exotic mess of lions, women held captives in aquariums, sexy dances, guns, hyper-masculine wrestling competitions and, of course, the ubiquitous Chitrali topi. The westernized sexy masculine cops fight and chase an orientalized sexy masculine Pashtun man until they drive to a mosque. The prayers are on, the cops stop and impatiently look at all those Pashtun on their knees, performing an almost sexualized namaz. The Pashtun villain is shot by a sniper, in a scene that could have featured in the American series Homeland, with the audience appropriately edified about the justice meted out to the followers of the wayward cult, Islam.

The hyper-muscular, righteous, Hollywood-like Indian cops are contrasted with the fair-skinned, criminal, orientalized Pashtuns, echoing the India versus Pakistan match, as well as all the colonial stereotypes that still inhabit the subcontinent. The Pashtun is a beautiful, brave, warrior-like man. Not much seems to have changed since the time when Sir Olaf Caroe, the Governor of the NWFP until 1947, would equate them to Hellenistic statues of gods: “A young Afridi might stand as a model for Apollo,” he writes in his highly eroticized account of the history and customs of “the Pathans.”

The global imaginaire around Pashtuns have been more recently nurtured by their almost automatic and unmediated association with the Taliban. In particular, the beautiful Swat valley has become the epitome of Taliban violence: a place where the Taliban/Pashtun behead their prisoners, whip women for not wearing a burqa–ironically an imported tradition that was never worn by local women–and shoot young girls for wanting an education.

We all know that language is a virus as Laurie Anderson used to sing. We are under the false assumption that we speak the language but most of the time we are actually spoken by language. Seemingly irrelevant changes are symptoms, and little spelling mistakes can hide an entire political and aesthetic universe. What is the (Freudian) disease here? The question is pertinent because perhaps it is a disease that is spoken through language. An affliction of militarist images, colonial aesthetic values and orientalist generalizations seem to spill out in words.

Coming back to the Bollywood movie: Why do SWAT-like cops chase criminals from Swat? The testosterone-driven sexualized (geo)politics of desire and dominance should be taken very seriously. As should be the forlorn reality of the little girl standing on the deserted road to Miandam (Swat). The urban middle-aged Pakistanis in the car offered the girl Rs. 5 for her peaches (she wanted Rs. 15). She silently took Rs. 5 and the car drove off. As one looked back in the rearview mirror, she still seemed to be standing in her spot, alone.

Giovanna Gioli is a woman-dinosaur, philosopher, and a geographer in Kathmandu.

Daanish Mustafa is an ullu geographer who, remarkably, dispenses wisdom to a paying audience.

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