x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

On Pakistan's Bandit Mountain, a Muslim convert protects her home

Fending off the Taliban and the army from her strategic vantage point of Swat Valley, Maryam Dale refuses to give up the Islamic study centre she fought so hard to establish.

Maryam Dale feeds her chickens on Bandit Mountain. Muzammil Pasha / The National
Maryam Dale feeds her chickens on Bandit Mountain. Muzammil Pasha / The National

Maryam Dale is looking for her chickens.

"They were just here a minute ago - where are they?" she exclaims, running this way and that as she searches for them. "Don't tell me someone left the gate open and they've escaped!"

As if on cue, her husband, Zahir, stoops to come through the little wooden entrance into her orchard, followed by half a dozen skittish birds, squawking and clustering around her as she tosses them their food pellets.

In a neighbouring garden plot, her rabbits run free, while the orchard she tends is thick with apricot and walnut trees, an allotment bed sprouts mint and other herbs and the promise of a riot of colour from budding cherry blossoms hangs in the air.

As Maryam potters around her herbaceous paradise, one might almost think she was back at the chicken farm where she grew up, in the rustic daffodil-strewn fields of Britain's Yorkshire dales. But the harmonious idyll ends at her four walls, for this is no tranquil place.

Maryam - a Muslim convert who was born Susan Dale - has made her home at the peak of Bandit Mountain, a strategically prized spot in the troubled Swat Valley in Pakistan, which is still recovering from the Taliban invasion of 2009 and the devastating impact of last year's floods.

For months the Taliban swept through the picturesque Swat basin nestled in the midst of the Hindu Kush, blowing up girls' schools and terrorising the local population - those who were brave enough to stay.

The Taliban were not the only ones angling for a foothold on Maryam's turf; the Pakistani army also has an eye on her stronghold because of its unparalleled vantage point, almost 1,100 metres high, to keep lookout for the enemy.

But Maryam, 63, is the queen of all she surveys on Bandit Mountain, fiercely defending her territory and fighting to hold onto the place she now calls home.

"I call this my million-dollar view," she says with a sweeping gesture that takes in the glorious scenery for miles; beauty that hides the terrible troubles that poverty, terrorism and natural disaster have inflicted on the valley.

"Everyone said I was crazy for coming up here but I was not nervous at all," she says. "They call it Bandit Mountain because of all the criminals who lurk in the woods but that's not what worries me. It is staying healthy and not breaking any bones or falling sick. The hospitals here are filthy and there is no ambulance service. But I love it here and I don't want to have to give it up."

Her route from the rural homestead of her parents to a region deemed one of the most dangerous in the world is astonishing. It has taken her via Thailand, Yemen and the royal palaces of Dubai. And thanks to a religious epiphany and a marriage late in life to a Pashtun, it has brought her to a place far from what she envisaged as a teenager in the 1960s, when she favoured ballroom dancing and mini-skirts.

As the second wife of 64-year-old Zahir Shah - his first wife lives with her six children at the foot of the mountain in the village of Balogram - she has made it her mission to run an Islamic study centre and school on the grounds of their home, despite attempts to persuade the couple to give up their fort.

"We are staying here, one way or another," Maryam says defiantly in her Yorkshire burr from behind a niqab. "They want us to run but we are not going anywhere."

The Shahs met and wed in 1993 in Dubai, where Zahir was an engineer for Dubai Electricity and Water Authority and Maryam was teaching English to foreign students. Maryam was gifted the land on Bandit Mountain by her father-in-law after she told him of her desire to build a madrassa.

"I was not planning on a big school," she says. "I just wanted to change a lot of misunderstanding about Islam. We started to build the house on the same plot because we needed to be near Zahir's extended family."

The green mosque went up in 1994 and was joined by the white-painted house and school in 1996. Zahir, part of an extensive Pashtun clan from Balogram, and Maryam would visit once a year for a month at a time to oversee the management.

The Shahs jokingly call their abode, visible for miles around, "the White House". And while the lush meadows and snow-capped peaks of Malakand district, which includes the Swat Valley, have led to it being dubbed the "Switzerland of Pakistan", the nicknames mask a disturbing reputation for lawlessness.

"When we first stayed here, there was building work going on so we slept outside with a Kalashnikov between us," says Maryam. "We used to keep two guns under our pillows in the bedroom."

Matters turned more serious when after 18 months of fierce fighting with the Taliban in the valley - which resulted in up to 500,000 people fleeing and 1,200 killed - Pakistani officials conceded a controversial ceasefire in February 2009. They agreed to reinstate Sharia in exchange for peace. The Taliban responded by sweeping through North-West Frontier Province - renamed Khyber Pakhtunkhwa - to turn Mingora, the main town in Swat that lies 4km from Balogram, into a stronghold for their rule of terror. They then stormed as far as Buner, 100 kilometres from the Pakistani capital Islamabad, ransacking and torching buildings, overrunning villages and forcing police to retreat. It took another three months and the displacement of more than one million people before stability was restored to the region.

Zahir meanwhile had retired and, unable to stay on in Dubai, was keen to return permanently to his homeland with his wife. When it was safe enough to revisit his Swat home in July 2009, he found the army had taken over the house and mosque. After repeated pleas, officers relocated to the servant quarters. Maryam joined her husband in September 2009, but the intruders remained an unsettling presence.

"I cannot think of a word to describe how they behaved or what state our home was in," says Zahir. "One night we even woke to find the house full of soldiers with guns. They stayed in the servants' quarters for another three months and would come sometimes to ask for mint from the garden. Maryam was brave and refused many a time."

It was a far cry from their life of comfort. But perhaps considering Maryam's penchant for adventure, it should come as no surprise.

At the age of 18, she left England for Bangkok after falling in love with a Thai man at ballroom dancing sessions. They married but divorced seven years later and she returned to the UK, heartbroken at leaving behind her six-year-old son.

After a string of unsatisfying factory jobs, she went to Yemen with her sister Mikila, who had married a Yemeni Muslim, to help look after her children. The nine months she spent there were a revelation.

"That was when I converted," she says. "I had never thought about Islam before and I never saw much of it at my sister's house, as her husband is fairly liberal. I just felt I needed a change and something different in my life. My life was sad as it was and nothing was working out. Once I converted, everything felt more peaceful."

Maryam returned to the UK to live with her sister and her family when they moved to just outside Birmingham, but the two clashed over their differing religious beliefs. Maryam began teaching English to the children of Arab families and was reunited with her now adult son, who had moved to the UK to study when he was 17. After a difficult patch, they bonded again and she still visits the 43-year-old father of one regularly whenever she is back in Britain.

In 1990 though, she relocated to Dubai after a friend, who taught at the royal palace, promised she could find her work.

"I had been in Dubai for three months and was told the royal family wanted an English teacher for Sheikh Ahmed, the son of the Ruler Sheikh Mohammed, to get him ready for school," Maryam says. "The next thing I knew, there was a long chauffeur-driven Lexus coming to pick me up from my tiny flat in Satwa. I was shown to this big classroom with six chairs and tables and in came little Ahmed and his five friends. They had hours of lessons, not just in English but in French and Italian, too.

"I loved my time in Dubai. I felt at home there. It was free; I could go shopping, go out with my friends or swim in the sea at the ladies' club. I would love to go back."

After spending years fending for herself, however, she decided it was time to remarry: "I did not want to die alone. Women in Islam are supposed to be married. Zahir heard about me through the mosque in Satwa. Friends warned me not to marry a Pathan [Urdu for Pashtun] as they have a reputation for being hot-headed and tough, but he was polite and handsome with a black beard."

They wed and moved to Deira. Eighteen months ago, they made Pakistan their permanent home. Zahir's first wife, Jehan, 60 - who married him when she was 12 and he was 16 - and their children were at first apprehensive about welcoming the stranger.

His daughter Zahra, who calls Maryam "my other mother", says: "I was angry with him when he got married again and thought he would forget about us. But he told me his love for us would be even stronger than before and that is exactly what happened."

But the paths of the two wives rarely cross. It takes an hour to climb the mountain to get to the house and school, which has 317 pupils from surrounding villages, including 35 girls. Maryam ventures down just once a month.

"I do not go clothes shopping thankfully and just give Zahir a list instead," she says, shivering in the freezing tiny kitchen of her home, where the shelves are lined with Maggi ketchup and golden syrup and the only warmth comes from portable gas heaters and burning firewood. "I miss my home comforts. The last time I went back to the UK, I took two empty suitcases and filled them with Weetabix and Ryvita.

"It is becoming harder to get up and down, especially with my bad hip. I have to use a walking stick. It does worry me as we get older."

Matters took a worrying turn in January when Zahir suffered three heart attacks and was hospitalised, leaving Maryam on top of the mountain alone and without electricity after their power supply blew up.

But with the school project close to her heart, she will not give up easily. Ultimately, she says the isolation suits her.

"I can be my own person here," she says. "I love the serenity here. I have lived most of my life the way I want and that is not about to change."