The Northern Areas

I’m reading another travel book. This one I found in the stately book shelf in the living room of my little house. The shelving unit is solid wood and has two levels, each with three shelves. Each level has a set of glass doors. The collection includes everything from a textbook titled “Personal Trainer” to the paperback version of “Cold Mountain” to an ancient copy of the Koran in English with copious notes. And there are plenty of books about this area, a little text on glaciers, books about religion and history and, of course, travel books like the one I’m reading: “The Golden Peak” by the Scot Kathleen Jamie, copyright 1990 and 1992.

Jamie traveled through this part of the world by herself over a period of two years or so spending a good deal of time in Gilgit. She stayed with a Shia Moslem family. One conversation with the head of the family, Murtaza, she recounts thus:

“’You have visited the Major, my cousin?’

‘Yes, we were speaking of local politics.’

‘Ah, do you understand our problems? Do you know, here in Gilgit we have a Commissioner, for the whole Northern Areas. This one is from Peshawar. He, the heads of the various departments, even headmasters of middle and high school, are from Outside. Subordinates only are local, they can’t speak with us people. We are like sheep, like colony of Pakistan’” (pg. 71).

On Saturday (11-Nov) I was sitting in the office of AKRSP’s manager of Market Development with a local lawyer and his associate. We were conducting a short meeting regarding legal issues surround the company that village is setting up to manage its hydel. We had exhausted the topics set for the meeting and chai was ordered. The lawyer lit a cigarette as did the manager. Together the tobacco smoke and the kerosene fumes from the heater nearly knocked me out. The lawyer started talking about Pakistan. The lawyer (rendered “liar” by the Urdu accent, unfortunately) had been adamant that the company would be formed legitimately, all of its assets disclosed from the outset, etc. The Pakistani bureaucracy, however, is rife with corruption, the lawyer stated (I don’t doubt it). “It is fully accepted that illegal practices are going on the side to make extra money.” He asked me what came to mine when I heard the word “bureaucracy”. I said, “hundreds of desks, piled high with paper.” He guffawed and held out his hand so I could give him “five” (a Pakistani gesture-perhaps part of other cultures as well-made when a point is well and humorously made).

Somehow his monologue shifted from bureaucracy to the political situation in the Northern Areas. He explained to me the deplorable political situation – how people in the NAs are not allowed to vote (on the flip side neither do they pay taxes – but who does in Pakistan?) and are ruled over by “Outsiders” as Murtaza said. He slowly worked himself up until he really got going, his lawyer-speak taking over – “The Westerners – they are worried about our mountains and the snow leopards! They don’t care about basic human rights! On their TVs they show a dead duck on a lake and are outraged – but what about people?!” The Marketing manager, a soft-spoken, diminutive man, kept smoking behind his desk and laughing at the lawyer’s intensity. Then it was time for the lawyer to leave, chai and cigarette finished.

I lived in Pakistan for 14 years but was never really aware of the status of the Northern Areas. It’s still something new to me.

PS. I'm curious to know who's visiting my blog from Hungary.

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