MINGORA, PAKISTAN // In the narrow alleys of Banr, more popularly known as music street in this once tranquil corner of northwest Pakistan, there is only silence. The dancing girls who famously performed at parties, weddings and even in front of dignitaries, including the Prince of Swat, have gone into hiding following threats by the Taliban.
Up until three years ago, Swat was a popular tourist site, drawing visitors throughout the summer to its pine-covered mountains and clear running rivers. But since the Pakistani Taliban, many of whose leaders are locals of Swat, began exerting their strict version of Islamic law, the valley is now deserted, and for those who earned a living from music and dance, life is now a struggle. "Business was good before militancy came to Swat," said one 24-year-old dancer who asked that her name not be used for fear of retribution.
"The Taliban has terrorised people. They don't hold parties and gatherings any more. People are afraid to visit us as if we are the terrorists." Where once the strains of music could be heard out on the street until long into the night, now, the few girls who do dare to put on shows do so in the afternoon, deep within their homes, with taped music rather than live instrumental. Banr's reputation as a place for music and dance grew under the patronage of the Prince of Swat, Wali-I-Swat Mian Gul Abdul Haq Jehanzeb, who ruled the sultanate until 1969 when the valley became part of Pakistan.
During festivals and fairs, especially during Eid at the end of Ramadan, the public gathered along the river bank to watch open-air performances. "It was a common practice that those fond of dancing and singing would visit the dancing girls at Banr," said Kifayatullah Khan, a local and a guest watching a clandestine performance at one house in the neighbourhood. According to tradition in Banr, as long as a girl is young and unmarried, she can sing and dance; performing at weddings, parties and other events where the guests shower the performers with cash.
"Dancing is all I know," said the 24-year-old dancer, whose mother and grandmother were also dancers before her. "My family depends on my income, but business these days is not good." Her 16-year-old sister has just taken up singing and dancing to help support the family of eight. But patrons are far and few between. Since the "Talibanisation" of Swat started in 2005, when several militant leaders relocated to the valley, music and CD shops have been targeted and blown up, TVs and videocassette recorders burnt, and schools for girls bombed and closed down, all of which the Taliban had said were against Islam. The popular skiing resort in the hills of Malam Jabba was set ablaze by the militants and the markets famous for imported goods closed down.
Instead of tourists, the valley is now full of militants running training camps. Over the past year, the situation has worsened as the army launched an operation to flush out the militants. A peace deal signed by the government and militants in May broke down, and clashes have renewed. The interior ministry said this week more than 550 militants out of about 3,000, including foreigners, had been killed in the offensive. Some of the girls have tried to continue their dancing by travelling to villages or cities where the Taliban are not so entrenched. But a night-time curfew has made even that difficult now.