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Page last updated at 03:30 GMT, Saturday, 24 October 2009 04:30 UK

Culture makes a comeback in Swat

At the Swat Cinema on 23 Sept 2009
Swat's cinema re-opened in September

Before the arrival of the Taliban, the north-western Pakistani valley of Swat was a centre of Pashtun music and culture. But under the militants a ban was imposed on all forms of artistic expression. Now that the Taliban are no longer a force in Swat, things are changing, says the BBC Pashto's Shaheen Buneri.

With the end of the war, a gradual transformation is taking place in the Swat valley.

Cinemas have re-opened and newly-built music shops full of CDs and romantic Pashto and Indian movies have become favourite spots for young people.

"They come here to enjoy, to interact and to feel freedom," says Usman Khyali, 38, owner of a music CD store in Mingora.

Mr Khyali has rebuilt his shop which was blown up by the militants.

He suffered huge financial losses when the music business came to a standstill and Jihadi CDs made by Taliban production houses flooded markets in different parts of the valley.

'A nightmare'

Mr Khyali is also a poet and in his opinion, the Jihadi productions played a major role in spreading extremism.

"It was a nightmare. But thank God it's over now.

"This time when I opened my shop I did roaring business, earning 300,000 rupees ($3,617) over three days of Eid [the Islamic festival in September that marks the end of Ramadan]," he said with pride.

In this market, other shopkeepers were similarly busy selling music cassettes and DVDs to eager customers.

"I am a music lover and even during Taliban times I listened to music in my room with all the doors closed," said Amjad Khan, 32, busy selecting his favourite CDs.

A Pakistani girl stands next to her painting during a painting contest at her school in Mingora on 19 Sept 2009
Swat has always been the centre of art and culture

"However, now it is really satisfying that I can purchase my favourite songs and enjoy them with my friends while driving in my car."

Pakistan's military offensive against the Taliban is still in progress and search operations are carried out in the rural areas. Fear and uncertainty hang in the air.

But it seems that in the urban centres people want to see life back on track.

"We also reserve the right to sing, laugh and express ourselves," says Fazli Ghani, 60, manager of Swat Cinema.

The cinema, with 800 seats, opened its doors this Eid.

It is screening a new romantic Pashto movie.

On the first day, 126 people watched the film, but the numbers are growing every day.

"I am not disappointed, though it's a financial loss for me. At least I am playing some role to relieve the people of the trauma inflicted upon them by the conflict," Mr Ghani says.

Swat cinema was built in 1964 and it was inaugurated by Miangul Abdul Haq Jehanzeb, former Wali (ruler) of Swat.

'Love, not weapons'

"Swat has always been the centre of cultural activities. We were the people who blessed the Pashto film industry with its first hero, Badar Munir," says 58-year-old Akbar Ali, while waiting to buy a ticket.

The tall bearded resident of a nearby village says he has loved watching movies since his youth.

He says that "love and not weapons" is his culture.

Muslim Khan, a young boy from Kabal, said it was not easy to cross the security checkpoints to reach Mingora.

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"If the curfew is relaxed in the rural areas, hundreds of youths would love to come and watch the movie on the big screen," he said.

When the Taliban established their writ in Swat valley, women were asked to remain in their homes. Hundreds of skilled women employed by the handicrafts industry lost their jobs.

"When [the Taliban's leader in Swat valley] Maulana Fazlullah imposed [the house] ban on women, it was as if they were hanged," says Musarat Ahmadzeb, a local social worker and member of the family of the former Wali of Swat.

She runs a centre for women skilled in traditional embroidery at the Saidu Sharif area of the city. To show me the artistic skills of the area's women, she took me to the centre.

About 300 women work there. They weave traditional and colourful shawls, shirts and a variety of other products to earn food for their families.

Recalling the glory days of the former princely state, Ms Ahmadzeb said that during the Wali's reign women could move around unencumbered everywhere.

'Common sense'

They were provided with health and educational facilities.

"It was a government run by common sense and the rights of all citizens were equally protected," she said.

For thousands of years, people with different religious beliefs have been residing here.

At the Swat Cinema on 23 Sept 2009
Swat Cinema was built in 1964

They have always been free to practise their customs and religion.

But the Taliban's rule forced many Hindus, Sikhs and Buddhists to migrate.

They are now returning home.

Amarjeet Malhotra, 38, is a Hindu cloth merchant in Mingora.

A few days before Eid, he returned to his home town and re-started his business in Mingora's bazaar.

Mr Malhotra says: "My community has been living in Swat for hundreds of years.

"Before the Taliban we did not realise that we were aliens. The locals always treated us as their own and shared our joys and sorrows."

But this Eid, he got the opportunity to meet his Muslim friends and share the joys of the festival.

"If we are really serious in winning this war, we have to create cultural spaces for the youth," argues Shaukat Sharar, a local sociologist and development expert.

"People want their lives back, their arts, culture and literary activities."



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