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Growing Up 'America' In Pakistan's Tribal Areas

Sixty-five-year-old America Bibi says her name honors the dream of her father.
Sixty-five-year-old America Bibi says her name honors the dream of her father.
ISLAMABAD -- In the remote village of Tedi Bazaar, in Pakistan's volatile northwestern tribal areas, one woman's unusual name makes her stand out from the crowd: America Bibi.

The 65-year-old Pashtun grandmother says her name honors the unfulfilled American dream of her father, Akhtar Munir.

Shortly after World War II, Munir left his village in pursuit of a better life in the United States. The journey, however, didn't go as planned.

"My father was a young man, eager to go to America," Bibi explains. "He went to India and boarded a ship there to sail to America. He was a handsome man with blue eyes, but he was illiterate. While sitting inside the ship, he was holding a newspaper upside-down and this led to his arrest. He was sent to Mumbai, and spent three years in prison there."

After serving his jail term, Munir returned to his village and married. A year later, the couple's firstborn child was named "America" after Munir's failed dream.

While growing up, Bibi was proud to have been named after her father's favorite country, although her name sometimes raised eyebrows.

Tedi Bazaar and the rest of Khyber Agency are a world apart from the quiet, stable, and peaceful mountainous area where Bibi grew up in the relatively affluent household of a local tribal chief.

Islamic militants today have a strong presence in Khyber Agency, part of Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), and frequently stage attacks on security forces, schools, and polio workers.

Locals' perceptions of the United States have changed dramatically over the years, too.

Some villagers express outrage about apparent U.S. drone strikes that take place in the agency, although they say such attacks are not as frequent as in neighboring tribal regions.

Bibi says sometimes her grandchildren come home from school and argue with her about her name.

"Sometimes they ask me why I was given this name of all names, and sometimes they tease me about it," she says.

Bibi doesn't know much about the country she was named after. For her, "America is a very powerful country" -- somewhere far away.

"People tell me, 'You are as strong as America,' because I always strive to do something for my community," Bibi says, adding her favorite pastime is listening to the radio.

Like her father, Bibi is illiterate. But she doesn't let that keep her down.

Outspoken, energetic, and vocal, Bibi is "one of the most influential local activists in her village," according to Khyber-based journalist Fazl Rabi. "She was among organizers of several strikes by villagers, over development issues, such as roads and electricity."

"She also takes part in villagers' meeting with officials when they discuss rural development," Rabi adds.

Bibi says one of the greatest regrets of her life is that she wasn't able to receive an education because there were no girls' schools in the area when she grew up.

"Now I want to see all the girls in my village and all over Pakistan go to school and get an education, something I was deprived of myself" she says.

"I got my knowledge from my father, who was a very wise man. He would take part in councils to resolve disputes in the community. He was a source of wisdom and information for me. My brother also helped a lot in shaping my personality."

Bibi says she has achieved everything any woman her age in Tedi Bazaar could dream of. She has three grown sons, three daughters, and a houseful of grandchildren.

She has a house of her own, where she lives with her husband and the family of her eldest son, schoolteacher Yar Muhammad.

"I would like to go to America one day to see the place where my father dreamed of living," Bibi says. "But I don't think I would be able to travel there because I'm poor and illiterate."

The grandmother hopes one of her grandchildren might be able to see America "someday in the future."

Written by Farangis Najibullah based on reporting by RFE/RL Radio Mashaal correspondent Rabia Akram in Islamabad