NEWS

Reaching out to Alexander’s sons

ISLAMABAD – At an age when most people are settling down for retirement, British-born Maureen Lines is in a mountain valley in northern Pakistan, helping to protect the Islamic country’s only surviving pagans. For 21 years, diminutive Lines has lived among the pixie-worshipping Kalash community in remote Chitral, near the rugged Afghan border, earning herself not only a fond nickname – Bibi Doe (Little Deer) – but also Pakistani citizenship. The 67-year-old’s work is now more vital than ever, as modern challenges such as tourism, overdevelopment, disease and, according to some experts, Muslim conversions, threaten to wipe out the tribe’s unique culture. «I have had people come up to me and ask why I gave up my country and my comfortable life to come here,» Lines told AFP during a rare trip to the capital Islamabad. «But I feel one hundredfold blessed. I only have an itty-bitty mudbrick house for an office in Chitral and I live with my adopted Kalash family. «I live the same way they do, but I don’t want for anything. I have food, dogs, people, an office.» Legend has it the Kalash were descended from deserters who stayed behind after Greek Emperor Alexander the Great’s army passed through the area more than 2,000 years ago, and for centuries they lived in splendid isolation. Until 100 years ago they roamed from Pakistan’s northern Chitral district across the Hindu Kush mountains and into next-door Afghanistan. They carved out a spartan existence in seven valleys fed by sparkling streams and boasting groves of mulberry, apricot, and walnut trees. But Afghanistan’s entire Kalash population was forced to convert to Islam at the end of the 19th century. Pakistan’s Kalash population held out as pagans, though some have converted to Islam. But in recent years better roads have brought missionaries, timber cutters and hotel entrepreneurs to the three remaining Kalash valleys in Pakistan – Bumboret, Rumbur and Birir. A daunting list of problems now faces the 4,000 surviving Kalash, who still sacrifice goats to please their gods and speak a language with no written form. The delicate ecosystem of the valleys has been disrupted by development linked to tourism – although, ironically, the number of expected tourists has dwindled post 9/11. The superstitious people, mainly subsistence farmers, are only just starting to get a formal education to help them tackle their own plight. They also face health problems including tuberculosis. Then there is the controversial issue of Muslim conversions. Estimates of the conversion rate vary between 2 and 15 percent. Some experts say it’s a major threat to the future of the Kalash while others, like Lines, say economic problems are the main problem. A further 6,000 or more Muslims inhabit the three Kalash valleys; some are Kalash converts while others are Muslims from outlying areas. For Lines, it is all a far cry from her old life. She was brought up in Britain, an only child whose best friends, she says, were her books and her dog. During her early 20s she left her homeland and went to New York, where she set up an all-female decorating business in the 1960s. A keen writer and photographer, she also loved to travel and it was this wandering urge that brought her to Chitral in 1980. «It was an accident. I was just traveling but I fell in love with the Kalash valleys,» she said. The following year Lines made another trip and in 1986 she returned for good. But this time she vowed to help the Kalash. Lines, who has since set up a non-governmental organization and a British charity, leads one of two foreign groups trying to make a difference in the region. The other is led by a Greek volunteer who was alarmed by the lack of schools there. It has not all been plain sailing for Lines. She has had threats over the years and the police once told her she should leave as they could not guarantee her safety. But she dismisses reports she was pressured by fundamentalist Islamic groups who thought she stood in the way of their conversion program, saying the only threats she got were from «interested parties.» «There are many different threats coming in from all angles, one of them being the 21st century. What threatens the Kalash also threatens the Muslims,» she said. Lines, who has written three books about Pakistan and Afghanistan, says she has been taken into the hearts of the Kalash and was touched when she was «adopted» by her local family. In 1981, a 15-year-old Kalash girl called Sainisar invited her into her family’s home, where her mother Tak-Dira adopted Lines. «Everyone in the valleys called her my Kalash ‘Aya’ (mother). She died some 10 years ago,» said Lines. Some time, later, Sainisar’s husband built Lines a house alongside theirs and the houses of his two brothers. The Kalash also nicknamed her «Bibi Doe.» It was originally the name of her dog but the villagers ended up transposing it to her. Her work is far from done, she says, before the fragile culture of the Kalash is safe. «There are something like 5,000 of these small ethnic groups worldwide under threat. I feel that every time one of them disappears off the face of the earth, away goes part of the human race,» she said. In the future she wants to set up an HIV/AIDS awareness project, for although the disease has not cropped up in the valley it would spread like wildfire among the simple Kalash. She is pressing UNESCO, the UN heritage body, to declare the valleys a World Heritage Site. And she has plans to turn the valleys into an organic zone, making money by producing luxury, pesticide-free fruit and vegetables. But she says that things have «gotten better,» with child mortality dropping, a supply of good drinking water and more children in school. More than two decades on, Lines maintains she has no regrets about giving up the comforts of the Western world. «If I were in England now I would be on a bus with some plastic bags going to the shops. I am not missing anything.»