By Rabia Ahmed –
A fascinating research on the remote tribal valley of Harban by Jürgen Wasim Frembgen
I reviewed ‘Wrestlers, Pigeon Fanciers and Kite Flyers’ recently, another book written by Jurgen Wasim Frembgen. That was co-authored by Paul Rollier Frembgenan. ‘The Closed Valley,’ a 2014 publication is also published by the Oxford University Press but is authored by Frembgen alone. The title refers to the remote tribal valley of Harban high in the Himalayas of northern Pakistan in the Gilgit-Baltistan region.
Closed ValIey is an ethnographical work, which is an anthropologist’s research in a cultural context alien to him. The research is conducted by listening, looking, and questioning, and by examining casual conversations conducted in ‘the field.’ It is a pity that this region, so fraught with danger, restricted the scope of the author’s research. Jurgen admits that the text is unsatisfactory as a result, but that it reflects his experiences in literary form.
I did not pick either book for Frembgen’s writing style which although refreshingly simple is not always grammatical. Instead I recommend both books, and definitely this one for the fascinating information it contains. How many of us after all, know anything about Harban or its people, or where Sazin is, to the east of which the Harban valley lies?
Jurgen Wasim Frembgen is an Islamist, anthropologist, writer and Senior Curator of the Islamic Collection at the Munich State Museum of Ethnology, a Professor of History of Religion and Culture of Islam and a visiting Professor in Lahore, and the U.S.
The Harbani’s reputation of being suspicious, unpredictable people, relentlessly cruel in exacting revenge attracted Frembgen to the region. Distrusting the stereotype, and the colonial British description of Harbanis as ‘lawless’ he wished to study the society for himself.
It took almost ten years to research this book, and each visit involved much effort and not a little danger and hardship. Here’s an example: I know the matter weighs more heavily with some people than with others, but to answer the call of nature while staying in Harban Frembgen was faced with the absence of toilets in the home of his host, a member of the district council, no less. He waited until it was dark, then followed a small, slippery path leading to a densely wooded grove of oak trees carrying a roll of toilet paper, and an electric torch, trying to protect himself from thorny leaves as he tripped over stones, and crossed rivulets. It crossed his mind that he may encounter other people also bent on a similar mission as there was ample evidence that the slope was used extensively as a toilet by the entire population of the village. It was a dilemma he could not resolve how to behave if he did meet someone at such a time. In fact Frembgen was luckier than he realised at the time that this never happened, because men in Harban answer the call of nature only once the sun is up. The darkness before is reserved for women to ensure their privacy. In Harban (as elsewhere in Pakistan) a man’s honour is defined by the honour of the women of his family. For a woman to be caught in the buff would probably fall well into the category of staining the family honour, leading to a feud.
Such feuds, blood feuds conducted to avenge a perceived insult to honour are an ever present threat in this region. They are often conducted over an entire lifetime and are handed down to subsequent generations.
Religion, brought to the region by sufis suffered the inevitable interference. The Tablighi Movement forbade music, and women from assembling in the town centre where once women met to discuss community issues. The local Maulvi looked reproachfully at the author when he wished him ‘Khuda Hafiz,’ and changed the phrase to an emphatic ‘Allah Hafiz,’ ‘the distinct mark of new religious correctness.’
At Harban among many others Frembgen met Niamat Gul, a carpenter and weaver. Gul was normally paid in quantities of clarified butter. Everything in his house was a product of domestic craftsmanship, the material used almost all of it natural. A carved board used for praying, smooth with use, shone honey-yellow in the sun. The tobacco came from his own garden. Nowhere did the author see an object made of plastic.
This un-spoilt environment has its ups and downs. The fact that Niamat Gul is paid in clarified butter is deliciously quaint. Yet clarified butter does not buy education. Frembgen’s host expressed the hope that education, economic development of the valley and accessibility to the outside world would end the tradition of blood feuds plaguing his society, although presumably indoor toilets would also help. Either way the first step is to discover the region, which is where this book can make a difference.