Also check out our continuing series, Reckoning with Zarb-e-Azb, examining the military operation and its aftermath.
On May 21st, 2016, two men died when American drones fired on a car travelling through Balochistan. Despite the two deaths, the incident is universally recalled only by the name of only one: it is the drone strike that killed Mullah Mansour. Equally dead, alongside the Mullah, is Muhammad Azam, the driver of the Mullah’s taxi. The life and death of Azam, who did not know whom he was transporting, constitutes no history of the drone strike. In fact, so little did his death matter that US officials reporting after the strike did not even know who in addition to the Mullah had died. You barely die if you barely existed.
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In the American nationalist narrative – particularly its liberal version – the global war on terror is not a struggle against a people; it is a struggle against an ideology. When bullets are fired against ideology, it is hard to remember that they enter people. To ensure this amnesia, words are attentively curated in the war. To call the incident The Missile that Killed Mohammad Azam, Taxi Driver documents a radically different reality than does the headline of the newspaper of record, “Taliban Chief Targeted by Drone Strike in Pakistan”.
To wash away Azam the taxi driver from history, we must erase his complex humanity and replace it with “suspicious looking man.” This is the work performed by the Obama administration’s policy of counting all “military-aged” males killed in a drone strike as militants, a practice also adopted by the Pakistani military, whose press releases testify its tanks and jets to never have harmed a fly that was not a Taliban spy. Who otherwise may be a high-school freshman is now “military-aged,” denying the person any facet of life other than bearing arms. They were no one’s child, the apple of no one’s eye, no one’s beloved, never alive in banal or extraordinary ways; instead they were “military-aged male,” “a militant.” That is what approaching adulthood in Waziristan means. While Americans croon as Boyz2Men and Punjab sings about “hai meri jawani,” boys in Waziristan reach 16 to become military-aged males. “Reports of violence and terrorism, presence of Taliban and Al Qaeda leaders, is all [sic] that’s associated with.
The militants, military and the Predator strikes is the only news we get from the tribesmen,” writes Ghulam Qadir Khan Daur in his urgent and important book, Cheegha. Titled after a cornerstone of Pashtunwali, the call for the tribe to unite against a grave danger, Daur’s book is a plea to recognize the humanity of those in American and Pakistani battlezones, those on the frontiers of the War on Terror. “No, we are not terrorists… We hurt and feel pain as anyone else.”
Daur’s book is raw: one feels his pain at the state of Waziristan through its pages. It is particularly strong since Daur writes from within Waziristan: we, not they. He feels the grief of a generation that has been sacrificed by imperial wars. Sorrow is palpable when Daur, himself a father and an uncle, writes, “The international community in connivance with our leadership converted our innocent children into monsters.”
At a time when Washington Post and Dawn News has been shrill about Pakistani military operations and drone strikes in Waziristan with equal deafness to that there are innocent people upon whom these bombs drop, Daur’s book is an important reminder that today’s war is no accident, and those who live under its pall remember well from where this fire sprung. The opening chapters document Daur’s memory of his father’s interaction as a tribesman with the Pakistani state, the exploitation of the tribe in the name of Pakistani nationalism, and the unfulfilled promises by the Pakistani capital to Waziristan. “Tribal areas were branded as hostile territory pre-partition and dealt with an iron hand… Unfortunately, tribesmen haven’t fared any better post-partition either.” Daur recalls the militarization of the region during the Cold War, the indoctrination of its youth by the very forces that now purport to rid it of the menace they fostered by bombing it further. “They converted anyone who could carry a gun into a mercenary, this was the Afghan Jihad and the whole free world was party to it…
My peaceful village, my Paradise, Darpa Khel and our peaceful lives have been devastated by the War on terror while Taliban, Al-Qaida, Pakistan Army and NATO forces have all contributed to our miseries.”
After this introduction, which gives critical context to the book, the remainder of its pages meander luxuriously between childhood memories and the customs around which life in Waziristan is organized.
Unlike the functional narratives of security briefings and the sterile productions of academia, Cheegha bring us an intimate Waziristan, one that is warm, loving and caring. “I have introduced my beautiful village, our activities as children, the games we played, the festivals and ceremonies we had, the love and goodness we shared, the folk songs and stories and the dance and dhole, so that the the world knows how we live… I have tried to make the tribesmen as loveable and acceptable to the reader as they, in all fairness, should be.”
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The late Urdu poet, Daniyal Tareer, writes:
چاند چھونے کی طلب گار نہیں ہو سکتی
کیا مری خاک چمک دار نہیں ہو سکتی
Can it not desire to caress the moon
Can the dust of my being too not shine?
How should Daur, or any other Waziri, show that their land is populated by people, not “military aged” militants? How should one prove worthy of the radiance available to the rest of the world? How should Waziristan ask for humanity? As its Foreword pleads, “Please treat us like ordinary human beings…”
Should it tell us that its people love beautifully? But whose love has not been flawed?
Should it show us that is people laugh deeply; that they also have misery? But do we not all have laughter we would take back, and misery which we wish we had avoided?
Should it retell the epic of its history, recall a time before children became military-aged militants, tell us of a people whose story reaches back into a time of dignity? But who does not struggle against one’s own story; who, even among the most conservative, does not seek to rewrite the tale of their people?
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To lay the task of proving a people’s humanity at the feet of one person with some 400 pages as his tool is unfair. To show us that Waziristan is human – such is the desperation of our times – Daur wants to conjure a Waziristan that was once flawlessly idyllic, and whose halcyon future was stolen by imperial wars. “Our Paradise has been destroyed.”
But Daur is distant neither from today’s quagmire, nor from the cauldron of modernity, with its manifestations as enlightenment, liberalism, colonialism, nationalism, and now imperialism, in which Waziristan has been formed. He occupies a certain space within Waziristan, and Waziristan occupies a certain place in his eyes. Daur is an exceptionally well-educated son of an important Muslim family, and it is from the vantage point that he speaks of Waziristan.
As a result, Daur’s account of Waziristan is partial and contested. The idyllic past he recalls was in fact shot through – as is the history of every place in the world – with patriarchy and a myriad other forms of bigotry. Like every place on the globe, Waziristan has, and has had, problems. The patriarchy that exists over the world manifests there too; Cheegha reproduces some if its structures in its pages. In a particularly egregious section, in what is meant to be a story of a bucolic youth, Daur recalls how, when he a passing Kuchi (nomadic) woman refused him a puppy of his fancy, she offered him instead the hand of the prettiest girl of her tribe. Ideas of tribal ownership of women, whose agency is circumscribed by custom – just as the agency of women everywhere is bound by patriarchy – ought to have been reflected upon, but were not.
In a book that seeks to reclaim a people’s humanity by showing their flawless loves and lives, such faux pas are debilitating. They exists, at least party, because Daur pleads his case before an audience the contours of whose prejudice he does not intimately know. Unfortunately, as a result, despite its noble mission, the book may find rocky reception among liberal audiences.
But if Cheegha does not dwell on the bigotry in Waziri history – and here I deeply agree with Daur that far from yaghistan, Waziristan was as Eden-esque as any other place in the world – it is not that Waziristan is bereft of movements towards egalitarianism. For centuries its inhabitants have reinterpreted their traditions in a contested trudge towards a more equitable society. This reality that Waziristan has had histories of progressive struggles that have been snuffed out by unrelenting waves of colonial and imperialist policies is masked by denying Waziristan any voice at all. Instead, it is allowed to exist as only a place of savagery to which the Pakistani and American states will bring enlightenment.
Any work hoping to reclaim Waziristan’s humanity is caught between a rock and a hard place – that to admit that one is flawed fuels imperial civilizing narratives, and to not admit them silences the progressives voices within one’s own community, Daur chooses the second option. I do not fault Daur for this. His narrative of Waziristan is his – there are aspects of it which I do not support – but Daur voice, flawed as it is, is beautiful, raw and necessary.
That Cheegha is among the only books available to English language readers for an indigenous account of Waziristan is testament to how powerful attempts to silence Waziri voices have been. Cheegha is an important book, but the responsibility of reaffirming the humanity of Waziristan does not lie with its inhabitants, it rests with those who have spent centuries denying it.
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Hamzah Saif writes on Pakistan. He has written for the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, and is a frequent contributor to other progressive publications. He has previously researched and advocated for a progressive revision of U.S. policy towards Afghanistan and Pakistan at Muslim Public Affairs Council.