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Page last updated at 23:45 GMT, Wednesday, 10 June 2009 00:45 UK

Unique Pakistan community under threat

By Aijaz Maher
BBC Urdu service, Islamabad

Kalash woman
The Kalash community have their own distinct culture

Pakistan's North West Frontier Province (NWFP) is today arguably one of the most dangerous places in the world.

But while that may be true of regions where the Taliban proliferate, there are still areas of NWFP where life goes on as normal.

The most prominent of these is the Kalash region in the northern-most district of Chitral.

It is named after the Kalash tribe which has been settled here since time immemorial.

The tribe, said to be descendants of Alexander the Great's soldiers, still practise an ancient pagan culture unlike any other in this part of the world.

For centuries, the Kalash have been a people apart.

In modern times, they have become a major tourist attraction, but in so doing have also attracted the ire of Islamic clerics.

This has led to many of them derogatively referring to the Kalash region as Kafiristan, or "land of the unbelievers."

Unique heritage

This ill-will was largely restricted to slogans and sermons - until the coming of the Taliban.

Kalash valley
The valley was at one point conquered by Alexander the Great

But that is not the only challenge facing this dwindling community - many educated young Kalash men have chosen to convert to Islam.

In doing so, they have abandoned the community to seek a life in the cities and a more upscale existence.

All these factors are combining to erase a unique heritage.

Hundreds of years ago about 3,000 Kalash people made their home in the Birir, Rumbur and Bumburet valleys among the Hindu Kush mountains of Chitral.

Generally speaking, the people of Chitral, Muslim or Kalash, are liberal when it comes to religion.

But the Taliban threat has now jeopardised all that, with the neighbouring district of Upper Dir firmly under their control.

"Chitral is one of the most peaceful regions in Pakistan," Abdul Wali, a local lawyer says.

"All communities here have brotherly relations with each other.

"People here believe culture has precedence over religion."

Enthusiastic

The Kalash in Chitral have four festivals to celebrate the seasons.

Security forces in Kalash valley
The area is becoming increasingly squeezed by the Taliban

The summer festival is the most well attended with people coming from all over the country and the world.

This year there are fewer foreign visitors, but they are present. Among them is Glasgow resident Patricia Fort with her son Leon.

"This is the second time I have come here...this time to show it to my son," she said.

Her son Leon is equally enthusiastic.

"I got to know about this place from my mother, heard all the stories about the Kalash, saw pictures and knew I had to come," he said.

"The scenery is incredibly beautiful, and the people are very friendly."

Dangers

But now a shadow lies over the event as the security forces are deployed to fend off the Taliban.

Kalash woman
The Kalash culture is increasingly under threat

Checkpoints litter the road leading to the festival venue and local hospitals have been put on red alert.

"There is a rumour going around that the Taliban will attack the festival," Dr Jahangir Khan, medical officer at a local hospital said.

"There is the situation in Dir, and we are just across the border from Afghanistan.

"We have been put on 24-hour emergency standby for as long as the festival lasts."

The Kalash continued with their festival despite the dangers.

In a region wracked by conflict, their simple ways seem like echoes from another time.

Beautiful women adorned in black robes splattered with bright colours and with necklaces of sparkling stones dance to ancient tunes.

The music is played by the men who occasionally break out in song.

"They are singing of their happiness to God," says Munir, a Kalash man.

"They are thankful that water is plentiful in the rivers and crops are ripening.

"The trees are bearing fruit and prosperity is coming to our homes."

But how much longer the Kalash community can sing of the joys of life is open to doubt. The Taliban are not now that far away.

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