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Peshawar, End Destination For Displaced, Has Rocky Cultural History

Peshawar's "Zeek" Afridi has found himself face-to-face with the Taliban threat.

Peshawar's "Zeek" Afridi has found himself face-to-face with the Taliban threat.

"Zeek" Afridi, an up-and-coming singer from Pakistan's embattled city of Peshawar, just wants the Taliban to stop texting him.

A beep from his mobile used to be a friendly sound. Now, it's terrifying. The Taliban has been sending Zeek threatening SMSs.

"It's impossible," the 29-year-old says about the oppression artists face in Peshawar, long a home to Pakistan's artists and intellectuals. Now, many like Zeek, as he is known, find themselves face-to-face with the Taliban threat.

Zeek's massive hit song "Khyber Zalmi," or "The Youth of Khyber Pass," features 70-year-old lyrics that invoke "brave youth" who love their country despite those with "bad intentions." Pakistan's youth are "strong arms," the refrain goes, for whom "country" is "life."

By grafting edgier rock melodies onto older, traditional lyrics, Zeek has plugged into a style of music increasingly popular among a booming new generation of twenty- to thirtysomethings.

This is a problem for the Taliban. Nationalism-infused rock music like Zeek's is a potent release for the anger, poverty, and desperation the militia group uses to push young people toward extremism. It has banned musical instruments and public performance.

Destination For The Displaced

Many artists live, like Zeek's family does, in Peshawar. The city is the darling of the Pashtuns, the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan and Pakistan's largest ethnic minority.

As a result of weeks of fighting between government troops and Taliban in northwestern Pakistan, Peshawar has become a destination for displaced persons and international aid organizations.

Rumors of Taliban insurgents infiltrating the city under cover of displaced persons have heightened paranoia in the city. Schools have been attacked, its main bazaar bombed, and a hotel frequented by foreigners and aid workers recently suffered a deadly truck bombing.

Everyday life has been disrupted, and the city's once-vibrant cultural celebrations have lost their color.

Given the Taliban's disapproval of musical instruments and public performance, Peshawar musicians were not allowed to perform at their own awards ceremony recently because organizers feared the event would be bombed.

Even the city's fabled, music-filled Storyteller's Bazaar has deteriorated into a swamp of aid organizations. People are too scared to come out and drop a few rupees on some hot street food.

"I am making good food, but people aren't coming," Muhammed Fahim, one of the few vendors left along the once-populated bazaar streets, tells RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan.

Taking It By Fear

While few think Peshawar will be taken by force, residents say they are already taking it by fear. Mubeen, an elderly cobbler, witnessed the violence first-hand.

"I was there when the bomb went off [in the bazaar]. I saw bodies. I saw people hurt," he says. "But because I have a family to feed, I come back here to work. But these kinds of actions are against religion, against humanity. I saw two innocent women killed by that bomb."

Salman Ahmed, frontman for the band Junoon, known as "Pakistan's U2"
The Taliban justifies their crackdown on artists by quoting an obscure line from the Koran, but British ethnomusicologist John Baily thinks the ban on musical instruments and public performance points to "a competition between different kinds of music."

"In the year 2000, eight years ago when I was in Peshawar, then a very large number of professional musicians from Kabul were all in exile in Peshawar," he tells RFE/RL. "Now, I know, from having talked to somebody quite recently in Peshawar, all those musicians have gone back to Afghanistan. And I hadn't realized, really, how severe the prohibition against music in Peshawar is today."

As the Taliban's influence began to rise in Peshawar, Zeek became concerned for his life and left the country. But after a friend told him some weeks ago that the Taliban were listening to his albums and may target his family, he took the first flight back to Pakistan.

Zeek grew up listening to a band called Junoon, which became a sensation in the South Asian music scene in the early '90s, earning the name "Pakistan's U2." Their blockbuster "Sayonee" sold millions of albums.

Zeek probably never expected to share the problems of Junoon's guitarist and vocalist, Salman Ahmed, who has been targeted by extremists for decades.

'Have To Be United'

Today, Ahmed is a goodwill ambassador for the United Nations, spending his time between Karachi and Manhattan, and is optimistic about Pakistan's future.

If artists formed a coalition in Pakistan, Ahmed tells RFE/RL, they "will outnumber the extremists," but they "have to be united, just like the extremists are united in their goals of destruction."

Junoon peforms "Lal Meri Pat" at Central Park in New York
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"We musicians and poets must not be afraid of them because [the Taliban] neither act nor talk like Muslims," Ahmed says. "Our modern and traditional culture are both against Taliban and their world view."

But Zeek says that his "colleagues, including musicians, singers, and other art performers, are in panic. We are all at risk."

It's a risk worth taking, Ahmed said after a trip to Peshawar in late May, because arts and culture are "a far more lethal force against extremism."

"Nowadays, musicians are going through hardships. I was there for few months, and returned just 10 days ago. I could not see that people are really terrified, but I think that majority in Afghanistan and Pakistan are against the Taliban and they want they Taliban to be defeated."

"Guitars and amps," he says, "can drown out the bullets."

RFE/RL correspondents Murad Rezwan and Abubakar Siddique contributed to this report